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Sunday, August 30, 2015

Know Their Story

“Friends, we have to know their story.”

“Their story impacts the way they learn.”

“Their story impacts their behavior.”

Three words can define the two years I spent working under a principal who cared deeply about the kids in her school: “Know their story.”

Whenever we had an issue with a student, we were reminded that what happened to them before they got to us mattered. What happened in their homes mattered. And not only did it matter, it influenced their performance and behavior in our classrooms.

At least once during every faculty meeting, we were reminded to take our students’ stories into account when dealing with behavior or learning difficulties.

There were some horrible stories in my classrooms. One of my students had been through more in their sweet seven year old life than I can ever expect to endure in my privileged, sheltered world. There were other stories that would break your heart if you thought about them long enough. But to know the children and teach them appropriately, I had to know their stories. Even if knowing was painful or uncomfortable.

That year, knowing stories taught me why I needed to comfort the little one who stole granola bars, because he knew what real hunger was. Or why the children in foster care needed a few more hugs, and an occasional kiss on the top of the head. I needed to know whose parents were deployed, so I could identify the kids who would be extra sad until the family adjusted to their new normal.

When I look at children, especially ones with behavior I don’t necessarily enjoy, I recognize the importance of knowing a person’s story. Because children don’t know any better, and most of the time they have no idea that what happens at home has an impact at school.

But today, I realized I could take that knowledge and apply it to my friends. And my not-so-friends.

This morning, while discussing relationships with my small group at church, I was gently reminded of the idea that knowing someone’s story might help us understand people we don’t necessarily get along with. That, by knowing a little more background, we might be able to identify with someone in a new way—or at least get a better understanding of the way someone ticks.

When we know someone’s story, our hearts change: Someone who rubs us the wrong way becomes a person who is wounded and in need of a little grace. Someone who fails to parent correctly becomes a person who is trying to avoid repeating the mistakes of the people who raised them. Someone who is quick to put others down is most critical of themselves.

Knowing their story makes even the most intimidating person approachable.

So, how do we go about knowing the stories of others?

I think the best way is to share our own story. Everyone has a little bit of ugly that has influenced their lives. Eventually, God will present a time when He’ll use your ugly to help others. If you ask me, that’s one of the reasons he gives us some junk. It refines us, and it gives us a way to relate to other people. It makes us real. And once someone knows our story, they’ll be willing to share their story with us. When we’ve made this connection, we build healthy relationships and communities. The darkness we’ve kept inside is exposed, and we’re freed from the shame of that part of our story.

 (I like to think that when this happens—when we share our dark stuff with one another— Jesus does a touchdown dance in the end zone and yells “In yo FACE!” at Satan.) (Okay, I’m pretty sure Jesus hasn’t ever done that.)

“Know their story” sort of led me to a famous Bible lady (which is a technical term, by the way). We don’t know her name, but we call her The Woman at the Well.  This woman was a Samaritan, who by all accounts, Jesus shouldn’t have even acknowledged. Instead, He approached her and had a conversation with her. Before Jesus ever spoke to the woman, He knew her story. He knew all of her ugly. I believe knowing the woman’s story impacted the way he dealt with her, and the gentle way he pointed out her sin changed her heart.

When we take the time to consider someone’s story, we have the opportunity to relate to them, as well as encourage and offer advice (when it’s requested). We also show them a little bit of Jesus.

When we don’t rush to judgement, and listen instead, we show people Jesus.

When we hear someone’s truth and seek to empathize, we show people Jesus.

When we establish a story-based relationship with someone, and gently discuss their sin with them, we show them Jesus.

We’ll never do any of this perfectly. There will always be people who work our nerves, or seem to be difficult just for the sake of it. We have to understand that even they have a story. And their story matters just as much as those who make our lives a delight. 

It’s important to remember, that like The Woman at the Well, Jesus knows your story too. Whether your story is dark and sad, or rainbow-filled, Jesus sees it, knows it, and loves you just the same. Even if you don’t want to share your garbage with another person, you have a listening ear. You are never alone with the chapters you wish you could tear out and burn. Jesus is here, and He already knows.

Here’s a challenge: The next time someone says or does something hurtful to you, remember they have a story, too. Instead of retaliating or responding, extend grace, and pray for them instead. It’s hard to be angry with someone you’re praying for.  And remember—everyone has a story.

** How has someone sharing their story helped you share yours? I’d love to read all about it in the comments below!

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