"Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle."
When our four kids were growing up, I often reminded them that everyone has a story. I would tell them that no matter how grumpy, annoying or unkempt someone may be, there is always a story behind it. I reminded them to give people the benefit of the doubt, because we have no idea what their stories are. Perhaps they have just been given a diagnosis of cancer, or maybe the love of their life just broke up with them, or maybe nobody in their world ever sees them as valuable or worth listening to.
When our son Ryan was living on the streets of Seattle, using drugs and doing all kinds of awful things to afford them, I prayed that the people he encountered would remember that he had a story. I prayed that the police officers, the nurses, the pedestrians he bumped into and the people he stole from might have the insight to know that he never chose to become an addict. He never wanted to be miserable. When he was a little boy, he never dreamed of growing up to become imprisoned by addiction. I begged God to bring people into his life who would trust that Ryan had a story, who would see the image of God in Ryan and who would reflect that image right back to him.
Now I pray each day that God will allow me to see His image in every person I meet, be that person the homeless guy on the corner, the man in the truck who flipped me off for forgetting to signal before my lane change or the angry, entitled woman screaming at the checkout guy in the Costco line. I want to remember that I don't know their stories and to extend to them the same mercy and grace I wanted people to give my son.
I come to believe the importance of this even more deeply the older I get. We all have long backstories, journeys that explain why we react harshly to some situations and break out in sobs in others. There are reasons that I have a hard time being patient with people complain about their children being late or choosing the wrong college, just as there are reasons that I cry when people use scripture to accuse me of doing damage to the cause of Christ.
Several important things I like to remember about stories:
1. Jesus used stories for a reason. They are a powerful tool for teaching and reaching our hearts and souls.
2. God has used the stories of others to teach me, to change me and to make me more like Him. Nothing has affected me more powerfully than people's genuine, vulnerable stories.
3. When I know, or admit that I don't know, someone's story, it becomes nearly impossible to judge or dismiss them. In other words, it is very hard to "hate up close."
4. Often the kindest, most loving thing I can do for someone else (as well as the most edifying thing I can do for myself) is simply to ask questions and sit back and listen to their story.
5. Lastly, as several very wise men in my life have reminded me lately, nobody can argue with your story. It is just yours. It's true simply because it is your story.
The past few weeks I have been truly humbled and privileged to read hundreds and hundreds of stories -- all true, many heartbreaking and some victorious. Many of them have been from parents with gay "children," parents who want desperately to love their children more fully. More of them have been from gay "children" with parents, children who want desperately to be loved more fully by their parents, whatever their age may be. They are all sacred, holy stories. I have been overwhelmed by the weight of them, but also completely astounded by the enormous grace that leaks out all over them. Grace and love that have the power to break down any walls that divide us. Grace and love that our world sorely needs. Grace and love from people who have every reason not to be graceful or loving.
There are two themes that ring out clearly from the hundreds -- actually thousands -- of stories I have read this month: first, that we all deeply desire to be known and loved by our Creator God, and second, that we all desperately need to know that the people we are closest to, our families and friends, love us just because we breathe. Pretty simple, right?
And it strikes me now, as I read that back, how those two things, those themes that came through email after email and resonated from comment after comment, perfectly mirror the words of Jesus Christ when He was asked what the first and greatest commandment is. Jesus replied, "'Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments."
Hmmm. Could it be that Jesus knew exactly what we, as humans, need most in this life: to be connected to the God of the Universe, the One who created us in His image, and to be bonded to and loved by those on Earth who walk with us? Perhaps we tend to make everything a lot more complicated than it needs to be, especially if we take Jesus at His word when He said that all the laws and all the things the prophets said in the Old Testament hang on those two things: loving God and loving people.
But back to stories. Less than a month ago, I didn't think anyone needed to hear our unique story; I didn't think anyone would want to hear about the regrets and sorrows of a mom who had lost her son. I thought that, by 2013, surely most people had learned the lessons we did a long time ago.
But I was wrong. If you doubt me, spend some time reading the comment sections on my blog. You will read story after story of teenagers and adult children who long for God's love and yearn for their parents' love. Some are still bound by the toxic shame that our society (and churches, to be sure) inflict on those who are gay. Others have been able to hear God's voice of love whispering to them, even though the chorus of hate was louder.
I've also received countless messages from parents, so many of them, all wanting to love their children just as they are, be they gay, mentally ill, learning-disabled or with some other difference. They have had to watch their child battle against the critical voices of their peers. Some parents want desperately to be able to love their child unconditionally but live in fear because of the communities who would be quick to judge them and their children if they were found to be straying from what is "acceptable" and "normal."
We've also received some of the cruelest condemnations I could ever imagine. I had no idea that words written by a stranger could hurt so badly, even when I know on a rational level that the words are not true. I can only remind myself that each of these writers has their own story, though none of them has offered to share them. They must have scars that run so deep that even reading a few words of our story triggers a torrent of pain and rage.
I wish that those who have judged us, especially all those who left particularly hateful comments on The Huffington Post (I thank my friends who warned me not to read those), would realize that they only know a very small slice of our story, that we haven't shared all the joyful, funny, poignant and unforgettably precious moments we had with Ryan -- many during his adolescence. And we certainly didn't share any of the good things we did as parents, as our three surviving adult children have been quick -- and kind -- to point out. I wish they would have given me just a little bit of consideration, a pinch of the benefit of the doubt, before accusing me of torturing and murdering my own child.
I continually ask God to help me remember that I probably don't have the whole story before I judge others, even people who spread hatred in the name of Jesus, which is especially horrifying and offensive to me. But the people who hate in the name of Jesus have stories too; I just don't know them, and I can't begin to imagine what kind of horrendously painful stories would result in such hypocrisy and cruelty. So instead of voting them off the island (even though I would like to), I will pray that the grace and mercy of God will touch their wounded and infected places so that they will be newly able to give grace and mercy to others.
In coming weeks, I'd like to share excerpts from some of the stories I've heard, in order to remind all of us (particularly those of us who are in the straight majority) of the urgent need in this country to make changes -- real changes -- to protect the emotional, mental, spiritual and physical safety of all our children.
Perhaps we can all spend a little bit more time asking questions and listening rather than talking and telling, because if you're like me, you already know what you think. And what you don't know actually can hurt you -- and others. So let's keep our ears wide open to the stories that other people have to tell us.
So the next time you are tempted to write somebody off for being an insensitive, clueless jerk, or to thank God that you are not as arrogant or ignorant as that person pontificating endlessly on Facebook, or to just walk right by the disheveled man outside your favorite, usually really nice grocery store (they are probably just begging for money to buy drugs, right?), remember that everyone has a story.
Next time, maybe just ask, "What's your story?" And pull up a chair and start listening.