“Be kinder than necessary, for everyone you meet is fighting some kind of battle.”
— James M. Barrie
When our four kids were growing up, I used to always remind them that everyone has a story. I would tell them that no matter how grumpy someone may have been, how annoying their behaviors or how unkempt they were, there was ALWAYS a story behind it. I reminded them to give people the benefit of the doubt, because we had no idea what their “stories” were. Perhaps they had 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 saw them as valuable or worth listening to.
When 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 ran into 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. He never dreamed, when he was a little boy, 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, whether it is 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 have 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 why I have a hard time being patient with people complaining about their children being late or choosing the wrong college, just as there are reasons why 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 to 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. True simply because it is YOUR STORY.
The past few weeks Rob and I have been truly humbled and privileged to read hundreds and hundreds of stories – all true, many heart-breaking 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. 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.
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, that resonated from comment after comment, perfectly mirror the words of Jesus Christ when He was asked what the first and greatest commandment was:
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 of the laws and ALL of 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 this little blogsite. You will read story after story of teenagers and adult children who long for God’s love and who 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 it 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 most cruel 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 deeply 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 Huffington Post (thank you to my friends who warned me not to read those), would realize 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 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 of 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 of your favorite, usually really nice grocery store (they are probably just begging for money to buy drugs, right?), remember…EVERYONE HAS A STORY.
Next time…maybe just ask…”What’s your story?” And pull up a chair and start listening.
22 responses to “Everyone Has a Story…”
I wish that every minister, rabbi, imam, religious, secular, or athiest leader would read your words to their followers. Even if we all didn’t agree on the specifics of our faith, if everyone would think about the world this same way, this planet would be a different place. Your message cuts across so many divides. Some of us as gay people have had our faith horrendously damaged. Your eloquently written message of unconditional love continues to inspire. Thank you.
I totally agree with you Brad. I have been treated very badly by the Southern Baptist churches that I attended years ago. That was my last involvement with any organized church,, and I have missed the fellowship, but not the condemnation. My fiance has been even more damaged by his upbringing in the peticostal churches of the south. The message MUST get out to these churches.
That is all!
God is doing extraordinary things through your story!
Be blessed, for you are a tremendous blessing! Keep that light shinning!
In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven. (Matthew 5:16 ESV)
In His love,
Lord Jesus, may it be so!
Thanks for the this wonderful reminder. I think of you often and wonder how you hold up under the weight of your own story and the weight of people’s judgement. This is a powerful exhortation for all of us to remember that everyone has a story…
You had me at “Everyone Has a Story”..I learned this too late in life, from a very wise priest I was privileged to know for a few years. He was not condemning of anyone. He believes in the innate goodness of people, and of God’s unconditional love in building them up. He sees everyone as having an invisible scaffold around them, put there by God, as he diligently works on each person that he is turning into a saint. That priests words, combined with my own experiences with gay people, are what have led to my more open ears. Plus, my struggles with my own son have filed off some rough edges on me personally. I still don’t know the answers to some of my questions, but I find myself willing to listen to other voices now. Thanks for continuing to put your own story out there. For me it was like walking into a brick wall when I thought the path I was walking on was clear. Your words are necessary and oh so true.
Sheila…I am so with you…I love it when you said, “I still don’t know the answers to some of my questions, but I find myself willing to listen to other voices now.” That’s exactly what God is teaching me…May He keep our ears open…and especially attuned to HIS voice!
I agree with Brad C’s comment completely. Your story is SO powerful and should be heard by as many churches and groups as possible. It will make a huge difference.
Tears came to my eyes as I read your post here, so simple, yet so very true,,, love our God and love each other.
As a father, AND as a gay man of 56 years old, I have experienced many changes in the way that gay people are treated and accepted. While things are far from perfect, life in the US has become better for us.
From my point of view as a parent, I cannot imagine the pain that you have endured while watching the difficulties that your Son went through, and his ultimate passing. From my point of view as a gay person, I can understand the pain that your son felt, and what drove him to do anything to dull his pain. As a person of faith, I understand how and why you acted as you did in response to your young son’s proclamation that he was gay, and I understand how damaging the views of many “Christian” churches can be.
“Thank you” cannot begin to express my feelings for what you are doing now. Your story WILL make a huge difference.
Ron, thank you for hearing my story through the lens of a parent, a gay man, a gay son AND a person of faith. Your grace blesses me!
Thanks for your reply Linda. I am sure that you have many to reply to, so I am very blessed that you felt lead to reply to me. Your message is SO strong,, and MUST be heard by as many churches as will listen. The time has come for all of God’s children to reconcile our differences, and to come together as one body of believers, whatever our other differences might be. I STILL consider myself to be a Christian, no matter that the church decided that I was not worthy to serve in their church. I go where I am needed, or wanted. So,,, I have not been a member of a church for many years,, and I miss it very much, even today. For me, it comes down to this. I am a Christian. I have been shunned by the Southern Baptist church, where I grew up. The church was much like a “parent” to me as my physical parents gave me no direction in my faith in God. I found this on my own as a teen. Now,, I am seperated from my church,,, however my faith is STRONGER than the church! God knows my spirit, my soul, and he created me just as I am. He loves me,,, of this I have no doubt.
THANK YOU for spreading your message, PLEASE keep up the good work that you are doing, so that perhaps younger gay people will not have to go through what I went through.
Bless you, Ron…the timing of your message tonight could not have been more perfect…just as I am feeling scared to death about a new opportunity that has been presented. BLESS you, my friend and my brother in Christ!
I have been tremendously moved by your story. In raising my own children in our current culture & society, I have often asked myself “what if….”. I feel God leading me to love like His Son without conditions, or as you have said, “just because they breathe”. God Bless.
On Saturday, Carlos Vigil, age 17, left a note that said in part: “The kids in school are right, I am a loser, a freak, and a fag and in no way is that acceptable for people to deal with. I’m sorry for not being a person that would make someone proud.” Then he killed himself.
Yes, everyone has a story. This is the story of a lot of gay kids.
Oh my gosh…Catherine…that is HORRIFIC. Yes, that is the story of WAY too many gay kids. We MUST speak out to help make the world a safe place for them! My heart is breaking for Carlos and his family.
We have to be so careful in what we say and how we treat our children. This is especially true if they are picked on at school or are treated as outsiders. Home has to be a safe and secure zone where they know they can absolutely trust their families to support them, love them, uphold them. This is sooo tragic.
There’s a blog post by Chez Pazienza on Huffington Post about the suicide of Carlos Vigil (7/19/2013). It’s well worth reading, but the comments are even more so.
One was from a young man who heard his parents, as well as his church, condemn homosexuals all his life. When he realized he was gay, he ‘knew’ that if his parents found out, they would hate him. Then he said:
“I never trusted my parents and I think in order to stop the pain of feeling unloved, I stopped loving them. That spread exponentially until I stopped loving anyone… What if my parents had said god loves everyone?”
I hope straight people, especially straight christians, can begin to listen to the witness of gay children in religious families and realize that silence is consent.
I am reminded, again, that you love so well… ALWAYS willing to listen, wanting to listen and learn and love others. It is a beautiful and rare gift.
I’m so glad to see you writing! So glad to call you my friend. So glad to be a part of your life and love. I love you, your gang of four’s mom and Rob’s amazing wife.
Thank you for sharing… For listening, for loving.
Love YOU, Dana! SO glad we are friends!!
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.”
I have been reminded of the above time and again lately as I sort through my feelings about aspects of my life. Worlds collide and I find I must find empathy and compassion even for those who have done great harm to me, no longer able to ignore they also have a story.
Thank you for the stark clarity of this reminder. As for those who are cruel in their accusations and condemnation, it is sometimes impossible for some to see past their own pain. Compassion is a commodity in short supply in our world today.
Valentine…so true. I am ALWAYS asking God for more compassion.
Linda, Rob and family…Thank you SO much for sharing your story. I had the honor of hearing you speak last week in Chicago at the GCN conference. I had not really read up on you and your story until AFTER I heard y’all speak. I felt even more honored with how much you shared with us…with how authentic and vulnerable you allowed yourselves to be throughout the entire weekend. I wish I had been able to visit with you, but I did get an opportunity to speak with Rob and briefly with your daughter. (I’m sorry, I’m horrible with names and can’t remember it now.) What touched me most was that after I shared my comments with Rob, he then asked me what MY story was.
I totally agree that EVERYONE has a story. And we wont’ know unless we ask.
Keep sharing your story. There are many who still need to hear it.
On a side note, thank you for your work with the HIV/AIDS community. I had a dear straight friend die of AIDS, so I appreciate those who care for them.
Criselda – Wow…what a gift your words are! Rob will be so encouraged, as will Lindsey! Next conference, I want the honor of meeting YOU!!