I’ve had stones thrown at me, and it changed my life.
It is a part of my history that I’ll never shake.
Lately, I’ve been thinking about history. In its simplest definition, history is the story of our lives. But history isn’t just a static record of events; the impact of it lives on in us and informs the kind of people we become, for better or worse. We do not need to be defined by our histories, of course, but we certainly are changed by them.
When I say of a friend, “We have history,” it means we have known each other long enough and deeply enough to know the stories that have shaped our lives. It means we have joint experiences, but also that we know each other’s pivotal stories. Such history gives us a depth of understanding for one another.
Jesus has history with each one of us. He knows intimately the story of our lives—both the exhilarating and devastating moments—and He knows how those moments have made us who we are. Further, He has grace for the ways that our history has wounded us, and He works with us to help us heal. Our shared history with Him, the moments of encounter in His presence, will lead us into wholeness. This is what Jesus’ friendship looks like.
And it is what human friendship can look like—if we are willing to listen to one another’s stories.
I have found, when I hear a person’s story, I can respond to it in one of three ways: I can ignore it; I can discount it; or I can believe it. When I choose to believe a person’s story, even if it makes me feel uncomfortable, it changes the way I see that person, and it changes me.
For example, if my husband says, “Amy, when you said that, it hurt my feelings,” he is telling me his story. If I say something like, “Oh, you’re being too sensitive,” or, “I didn’t mean it that way,” or even, “I didn’t say that,” I am discounting his experience of me. And I miss out on the opportunity to go deeper in our relationship, because I am more concerned with protecting myself (my pride).
This is the question we must ask ourselves when we hear the stories of others, especially stories that seem to call into question our beliefs about ourselves or a situation: Will I allow myself to consider the implications of this person’s story—let it test my own beliefs to see if they may be lacking in some way?
This is hard for us to do. It is so much easier to listen only to stories that confirm what we already believe. It feels secure, gives us a sense of control. And that is exactly why we must chose to listen to the stories of those who have different experiences and different opinions than we do.
For me, as a white person, that includes intentionally listening to black stories. February is Black History Month, a celebration of black accomplishments and the impact of the black community upon American history. We must not forget our history—both the ways black people have shaped our nation, as well as the scar of slavery and racism they have suffered.
Remember how I said I’ve had stones thrown at me? It happened when I was 12, walking home from school with my black foster sister. I remember she was wearing hot pink jeans (it was the 90s, after all), and I had on my florescent crossing guard belt. We were only a few blocks from home, walking through an intersection, when small stones began crashing around our feet. I looked up to see, standing at the top of the hill to our right, a white boy, throwing stones and yelling racial slurs and obscenities.
For a second I froze. We looked at each other. I grabbed her hand and pulled her into a run. Our feet pounded the sidewalk, our bookbags slamming against our backs. When we reached home, we told my parents what had happened. I don’t remember their response or any follow up conversations. I just remember thinking about the book Uncle Tom’s Cabin, which I had just read, and feeling overwhelmed that something like that could happen in 1994.
Now, as an adult, I realize that single experience was a small glimpse into a much bigger reality that so many black people face. I also acknowledge that the issues surrounding racism are nuanced and complex. I do not claim to have the answers—other than Jesus, who is the answer for every problem—but I do have hope that when we listen, we can create change.
I don’t know what it is like to be black in America. But I can learn about it through listening to my black friends and reading books by black authors. Their histories help me understand them better and bring greater nuance to my perspectives. Christian unity is not similarity or agreement. It is the intentional choice to fight for loyalty and connection while making room for our differences.
As a Christian, I want to be the first to listen. I want to seek to understand before asking to be understood. And I don’t ever want to throw stones (literal or verbal). The apostle James wrote, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires” (James 1:19-20 NIV).
It is not anger, but the grace to listen, that leads us toward righteousness. Let’s make listening a priority. Let’s be brave enough to listen to the stories that challenge our comfort. Like Jesus let’s listen to understand and to grow in love.