The other day I overheard a conversation in the coffee shop and then a few hours later I heard another very similar conversation in the grocery store; they were talking about the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami. It took me a moment to realize what day it was and that the anniversary of that disaster was almost here.
For those of us that were living in Japan at that time, it was a formative experience. I mean that in all the nuance of the word. I think in some fashion or another we were all formed, changed, by that day. My family noticed it first when Jo and I came back to the US afterwards. My mom said we looked like two scared cats. At every shake in the house or loud noise we both looked up, around the room, and to the exits. Our nervousness may have faded, but admittedly before I decided on the apartment we are in now I checked the distance to the ocean, the shape of the coastline, and the elevation first.
Now for what will seem like a sharp change in subject: I love stories. I think one of the most effective forms of communication is narrative. I could tell you that I felt nervous on my first date with Jo and you might understand it but it would be in your context for the word. But if I told you the ups and downs of that night you would understand it in my context.
When I have the opportunity to preach I always try to tell a story. Sometimes that’s easier than other times. The last time I spoke at Mustard Seed I preached on Isaiah 9:6, but not the whole verse, just two small words. It was enough for a sermon though. The names of Jesus: everlasting father. You might have been hard pressed to find the narrative in that sermon but as I spoke you went with me on the journey that I went on as I read the passage then researched and prayed over it, and hopefully you ended up in the same place as me with a similar understanding of the verse.
I love to read stories too. I have been diving into a couple works of fiction lately and I love a story with exciting world building. There is a sadness that is hard to describe when you finish a series and must leave the rich world the author has built. There are times I wish an author would just keep writing but that doesn’t always end well; I’m looking at you Dune.
I love to tell stories. I love to share an experience or a realization with those around me. There are tiny moments in my life where I am just full of wonder at the world around me. When I tell a story, I am often trying to share that small moment of wonder. I want you to see what I saw and feel what I felt. Sometimes it works, sometimes it doesn’t. But I’ll keep trying.
Sometimes though a story doesn’t have a happy ending, or the journey that you go on isn’t a pleasant one. We tell these stories for a lot of reasons, and hardly are they ever the same. There are times that we tell them to warn people. Other times we tell them so that people will understand our own hurt. I have more than once told my own sad stories to break the hearts of those listening; to bring you to the same realization of need that I am living in.
When we tell a story, we share something intensely personal. When I tell the story of my first date with my wife I always tell it the same way, with a moment of suspense that leaves people waiting. It’s fun, and that story belongs to Jo and me (and that cop I suppose) and no one else. We were the only ones there and it’s something we choose to share. And we can choose how we share it and with what tone. But what happens when a story, an important story, is both intensely personal but incredibly shared?
Millions of people were affected by the 2011 Tohoku earthquake and tsunami, hundreds of thousands lost these homes, tens of thousands died. It was a disaster shared to some extent or another by everyone in this country and it changed us all on an extremely personal level. But when I tell that story only part of it belongs to me. Much of it belongs to all of us who were affected on that tragic day.
We all share different parts of the same story. What you saw and felt wasn’t the same as what I saw and felt. What happened in the weeks and months that followed may share some of the same themes as what I experienced but it isn’t the same. When we tell these stories, we tell them from our own limited perspective. When we hear these stories, we hear them from our own perspectives as well.
I often find that I have to stop myself when I hear someone else telling their story of those days. I want to interject my point of view, I want to push my story into theirs. But that isn’t right. They aren’t telling my story, and what they felt and experienced doesn’t belong to me even though we share so much of it. I need to remind myself that while this story belongs to me, and it has shaped who I am today, it belongs to them as well.
I want to leave you with a thought: As you go about the coming days and you share your story I want you to remember that this story belongs to all of us. The people listening to your story were shaped by the same events; some more drastically than others. When you make declarations about that time remember that while it may have been an eye-opening experience for you it may have been the worst day of someone else’s life. Remember those who aren’t here to share this story with the us. This story belongs to all of us.