Messages are powerful. Life stories are powerful. But how they are told is key. My CPE supervisor once told me that the words we use to tell our stories have the power to either magnify or mute them altogether, to either open the ears of our listeners or deafen them. As people in the 21st century, we have tremendous access to many more people through social media of all sorts – blogs, Facebook, Twitter and the like. Emotions of all sorts can be conveyed in 140 characters more or less, and people can be hurt in just as many. Relationships can be ended with the click of a button, and friendships can be ended by simply “unfriending” someone as though it is just that easy. Grades and GPAs are bragged and boasted about in Facebook statuses, lives are celebrated, victories are announced, and passive-aggressive natures are praised and celebrated, if not made the social norm.
Something I have realized in the final few weeks of my seminary life, although in reality, it has been perhaps mulling around in speech bubbles over my head for much longer, are the words we use, not the grades we gain. As grades and cumulative GPAs are released over the coming days and weeks, it is expected that the desire to post whether we got an A or B, a 4.0 or a 3.9 and so on in a certain class for the world to see, to collect bragging rights, to one up someone, to show people who may have doubted us and our potential. But what does this really and truly gain in the end? Perhaps it does make us feel better, and it should. Doing well academically is to be celebrated – but grades are not the be-all, end-all of ministry, nor do they assess how we are doing in relation to the body of Christ. Yes, seminary life does depend heavily upon grades, as grades determine whether one can stay on for another year, but they certainly DO NOT determine how respected someone is, nor do they evaluate one’s call or fitness for ministry. The ability to regurgitate academic information does not equate an ability to relate to people in a healthy or proper way.
In the last few months of seminary, many of my favorite and closest administrators asked me to tell my story – to other administrators, to people who write for the website and other publications, and even to other students. While I have struggled at times to see the beauty of the seminary at times – sometimes professors have given me a hard time with extensions or missing a class or two for my EP clinic (which only is on Wednesdays), or having to schedule my procedures during the academic year – having to prayerfully discern how to tell my story, and which parts of my story to tell to certain people gave me a unique opportunity. Yes, I could have pointed fingers at certain people and said, “You never said I would graduate, you told me to withdraw…” all messages I heard at more than one point, especially within the last 15 months of seminary from professors, administrators, deans and even a few students, who insensitively or awkwardly couldn’t understand that when you are genuinely sick, you can’t imagine being anywhere else than where you have chosen to be – you don’t skip class just for any old reason, like cutting to be with friends. Before CPE, I told my story in different ways, enthusiastically, angrily, and mostly, with an attitude of, “YOU DON’T UNDERSTAND ME.” And that’s definitely true. No one could possibly understand what I have been through – how could they? But rather than pointing a finger, or shutting people off entirely thinking they are being selfish in their feelings, I realized that people are just plain awkward, and don’t entirely know how to react at times. But how my story is told can reduce the awkward, the anger, the frustration – both for me, and for those around me.
My story has the ability to empower, to change, to help, to work in, and do all things in between. My words can hurt, they can wound, they can scar, and they can truly do damage to others. My grades in the grand scheme of things can’t do any of those things. Yes, they can be really cool, and look awesome and be a bragging right, but are they really anything to be proud of when others don’t think much of me? No, I don’t think so…
Telling a story is a learnt skill for some, if not many. It must be done in a certain way, and sometimes, some aspects of the story must be omitted for the sake of brevity, audience, or sensitivity – either your own emotional, or that of your audience. Hostility, for example, is never a good way to advance and deliver a message, and often causes others to shut down and run away. Anger and confrontation as well have the same type of receptivity, or lack thereof. This doesn’t mean that the message or story is being changed in and of itself – the core of the story remains the same, but the delivery changes.
So, think about it. What kind of impact do you want to leave? Do you want to be the kind of person who accuses and points a finger, but is brilliant? Or do you want to tell your story, and be a positive influence, leading by example? If you have a story, tell it. Each and every one of us have a story and a message to tell – God has given us both a path to walk, a message to tell, and therefore, a voice to tell it with. But He certainly never intended us as His children to accuse others, alienate one another, and point fingers in the process.
How does your story impact others? Are your words the source of inspiration? Does the path of your life inspire others or does it cause others to run in the opposite direction?
Be someone that you would want to look up to, not the person that you think you ought to be for the sake of a social media page, or some stupid fake bragging rights. Life is far too short for that kind of stuff, and in the end, no one will gather round to help when you are in need.
Gauge the need of the listener – what do they need to hear? Are you telling the story because YOU need to rant? Or are you telling the story because they are in need of its message? If its the former, back away, and consider your motivations; self-centered story-telling is not genuine, and can actually harm your story and the listener. If its the later, consider what you are telling them, and how you are framing the message, tell them only what they need to hear, and consider how they might be hearing the story. Be available emotionally for them, not for you, listen to their story, encourage them to share, and don’t try to compare stories – this is not a chance to “one up” one another.
Storytelling is precious, generous sharing. It is pastoral care, the exchange of the Spirit, and definitely sacred and Holy. To share this moment is Holy, and to break the bond of storytelling is sacrosanct, a bond that perhaps cannot be rebuilt. Honor the boundaries, protect them, guard them and love them. But it can only do those things if the teller is open and receptive, non-confrontational and ready.
Be a storyteller. Use the words God has given you, not to wound, not to point fingers and not to “one up” another or to make a point, but to help others, to give another a hand up out of the pit, just as someone else has done the same for you. Because to make the claim that you have never been there is false. Be that person who is reliable, pastoral, not the person who escapes, skips, undercuts, points a finger and mooches. But most of all, be a truth-teller.