Just the other day I was sitting in a room with a notebook and two sons, and I was listening to them tell stories. They were telling stories about their almost 90-year-old mother, who had just died after a short illness. I had known their mother for years, but the stories they were telling me were new to me.
It is often the case that no matter how well I think I know someone, I find out something new when we are planning a funeral. I wonder: is it just that I don't ask the right questions, or listen for the right things, when I visit someone, or in all those years of shaking their hand after worship, or serving meals or being in Bible study or serving on committees? I sometimes feel like I have gotten to know someone a lot better after they died.
Perhaps it's hearing stories from somone else's perspective: a husband or wife or a son or a granddaughter's perpsective on what's important can be so different than our own. So last week I heard a story from two sons about the one time their mother was fired from a job.
It seems that she was working, for a time, at a Variety Store. Her boss gave her instructions that she was to follow "certain types of people" around when they were in the store; those "types of people" would steal things, if they got the chance. But, she wouldn't do it. She claimed that she couldn't tell who "those types of people" were, and would not follow anyone around the store. So, she got fired.
On her membership card, someone had written, simply, "Housewife." But it turns out that, in the late thirties, this woman had gone to business college and had worked as a copywriter for an advertising agency. At one point she had just jumped on a train and come to Minneapolis. She ended up editing the first Pillsbury cookbooks.
I thought she was an ordinary person.
I remember visiting an old woman in a nursing home for several years. She had been an invalid since contracting the flu in the epidemic in 1918. After she died, a relative presented me with a book of poetry that she had written over the years.
And there was the unassuming man in my community who had been secretly giving money to several people in town when they were having hard times. I found out about it after he died.
Sometimes the truth can only be revealed after a person has died, like the secret generosity of the man from my church. But more often it's simply a matter of perspective, of hearing a different perspective, the same story in a different voice. It's like a person is held up to the light, and I hear a different perspective and see something sparkle.
Of course, sometimes the perspective I hear is a different one altogether. Sometimes the person I know as upstanding and an earnest Christian, has caused their loved ones pain that I never knew about.
As a preacher I often think of myself as a story-teller. I tell stories from life and I tell the stories of faith. I try to be a witness of what I hear and what I see. l I hold people's lives up to the light and try to show another perspective. Turn the story another way, and the dull begins to shine. Turn the story again, and the Pharisee is revealed as broken. And turn the story yet again, and the broken is redeemed, redeemed by grace and in the Light of another story.
As a preacher I often think of myself of a story-teller. But first of all I am really a story-hearer. I hear the stories of saints and the sinners, the stories of the Pharisees and the publicans, the stories of the wise and the foolish. And then I hold them up in the Light.