In my favorite seminary class, Theology, Narrative, and the Well Written Life, we read several memoirs to see how authors used their stories to convey theological truths. In addition to reading, the course also required the disciplined practice of personal narrative writing. Through writing, reading, listening, and response, we learned to do our own redemptive truth-telling. Sometimes, that redemptive truth-telling shows up in the form of raw stories and authentic narrative. Even in the best of contexts, truth-telling is hard work.
Confessional memoirs grew out of a strong Christian tradition, as those who’ve read Augustine’s Confessions can attest. A memoir can be described as a window into a life – not a chronological history, but a collection of scenes that paint a picture of the author’s soul. It is the space between fact and feeling. The overlap between memoir and testimony and preaching became clear as we read our first book Preaching as Testimony. In it, Anna Carter Florence encouraged us to recognize preaching as “waking up” – to be willing to fully embody the crisis of preaching and to be aware of what God is doing in your life. She says “there may be narrative without testimony, but there should never be testimony without narrative. Testimony is empty without the life through which it speaks.” This idea of waking up and owning who we are is the only path to finding our authentic voice.
Through this class, I came to realize how much our environments shape our spiritual walk. Our families, our communities, our culture, and our geography all influence who we become. These realities construct our view of God and of ourselves. I grew up as a preacher’s kid, I was a middle child and only daughter, I had a large extended family that celebrated holidays together, I lived in small towns and suburbs; all these realities formed me in various ways. Sometimes we have control over those environments; more often we do not. When we appreciate their unique contributions and stay awake to their potential to teach us, we can make connections between what was, what is, and what we believe about those environments as we remember and write.
I also learned the value of reflecting on the past. The more stories we tell, the more we can connect the dots to see the arc of narrative that God is working on throughout. The psalmist reminds us One generation commends [God’s] works to another; they tell of [God’s] mighty acts. They celebrate [God’s] abundant goodness and joyfully sing of [God’s] righteousness. Sometimes God’s “big picture” is not clear until nearer the end of your life. But the smaller portions of the picture are just as important. When we reflect on our past, we are able to better understand our present. We recognize that our time on earth is short, and we have a responsibility to love and serve those around us. When we live fully into this present, we are also able to envision a preferred future – a future which becomes a legacy for others that will follow. We remember because we want to be remembered. We remember God’s faithfulness because we want God to be both remembered and worshiped.
Because our stories intersect with the stories of others, I learned the importance of listening to those around me. Everyone has an untold story, layers of a past that filter their present. They, too, need to find their own “authentic voice.” When we listen to the stories of people who are different than us, we learn to let go of the habit of privileging one set of experiences over another. We learn to respect diversity and open ourselves to differences. As we’ve especially seen during this contentious election season, the ability to talk honestly and genuinely with others requires grace and acceptance. Robert Frost wrote “the best way out is through” and sometimes that means communicating through tears, anger, and conflict. Each of our stories is difficult and beautiful in unique ways. I am learning that the only way to navigate through obstacles and prejudice is to speak truth, take responsibility, and acknowledge that everyone has an important story to tell. Our dialogue can be redemptive work that opens windows into others’ lives for a fresh perspective on their personalities and their passions.
Writing requires discipline and intention. Writing, like anything that has value, deserves a block of time on my calendar. Writing, like ministry itself, always takes more time than I expect but never returns to me empty. My best testimony grows out of personal experience and life narrative. My particularity, my uniqueness is what makes my voice authentic. Who I am does and should influence what I believe and what I say about life, about God, and about God’s word.
My story matters.
Your story matters.
Our stories matter.
In her book, How the Light Gets In, Pat Schneider asks “What is saved or redeemed or ransomed in the act of writing?” She believes writing saved her life. By writing memoir, she ransomed her life from silence and found her voice. Schneider continues “Something in me that was broken, cracked, becomes whole. The cracks, if I write them with utter honesty, are where the light gets in. The present meets the past, and healing begins.” At the end of her book, she shares a blessing for writers, and I’ll close with this excerpt of her benediction:
May you hear in your own stories the moan of wind around the corners of half-forgotten houses
and the silence in rooms you remember.
May you, too, pull darkness out of light and light out of darkness.
May you hear in your own voice the laughter of water falling over stones.
May you hear in your own writing the strangeness, the surprise of mystery,
the presence of ancestors, spirits, voices buried in the cells of your body.
May you have the courage to honor your own first language,
the music of those whose lives inhabit your own.
May you tell the truth and do no harm.
May you dare in your own words to touch the broken heart of the world.
May your passion for peace and justice be wise;
remember, no one can argue with story.
May you study your craft as you would study a new friend, or a long time, much loved lover.
And all the while, lost though you may be in the forest, drop your own words on the path like pebbles and write your way home.
Let the one who has ears, listen.
Let the one who has story, speak.
Let the one who has life, write.