"Story: Learning God's story and finding ourselves in it"
By Judy Niemi Johnson
Many years ago Dan and I were part of a church that highly valued bible studies and age-based small study groups. This was very helpful to become familiar with scripture, build relationships with people our own age and understand the theological basis for our faith community. But one day we were invited to join a group of mixed ages, people from age 20-70. This particular group of people was hungry to learn from each other how God “showed up” in actual life. We would look at scripture, but rather than a fill-in-the-blank type of discussion, we shared stories from our lives. It was a new way to approach learning and it took some time to develop trust with each other.
One Sunday, the scripture talked about fear. I remember distinctly Clara, a tiny gentle woman in her late 60’s, told the story of the night she and her sister crossed enemy lines during WWII. They had to travel on foot across an open field, one at a time, while the search lights moved over the burnt grass. She described the deep fear as she ran, stumbling at one point, picking herself up and reaching the tree line and safety. But she was terrified as she waited in the dark for her sister, straining to hear her small steps, watching the lights flash back and forth, until she finally caught sight of her cresting the hill and falling into Clara’s arms. As Clara spoke she pulled her sleeve down, over the tattooed numbers on her wrist, a constant unconscious motion she developed over the years.
Then Clara’s husband, Gerhardt, talked about being afraid, a strange concept coming from a man well over 6’ tall. He was riding a crowded trolley car in occupied Paris. His crisp German uniform was a sharp contrast from the civilians that pressed around him. He was hanging on the side, barely on the edge, when he saw a stone archway ahead. All one person had to do was just give him a small push and he would be smashed against the stone as they passed underneath. He was so afraid that he recalled shaking, the sweat running down his face and unto his uniform. He closed his eyes and waited.
As Gerhardt finished his story the room was silent. Had I heard clear examples of fear? Yes. But in sharing their stories, making themselves vulnerable in the telling, I noticed how God had worked in their lives in a completely different way. I noticed and understood forgiveness, unlike any theological lesson I had encountered before. A Russian prison camp survivor and a German soldier met, fell in love, and created a life with God and each other.
This is the power of story. It does not replace theology, it enhances – it reveals. Dan and I have learned over the years the essential need for us to share our stories with each other, large and small, positive and negative, understood and filled with questions. When we share with honesty, when we listen with respect and openness, God reveals how He is working in our lives. We are drawn closer together as a community. We laugh, cry, question, encourage and learn. We don’t have to go searching for God. Jesus will tell His story to us and through us.