If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tom Ehrich, you’re in for a treat. An Episcopal priest and church wellness consultant, Tom writes prolifically about the meaning of Jesus, the state of the church, and the nature of spirituality in the 21st century. His daily writings, available through www.onajourney.org, often stop me in my tracks with their insights.
This past week, he published the following essay, which speaks volumes about the need to understand the whole story. In dialogue, this means gently probing well beyond the other person’s initial opinions to get to the whys. When we do that, we can at least start to appreciate her perspective, whether or not we agree. That appreciation fosters trust, opens the dialogue to deeper levels, and enables us to build bridges across whatever divide confronts us.
Tom makes the point about “understanding the story” particularly well, so allow me to share his essay with you. I’ve reprinted it here with his permission.
Understanding the Story
Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)
At a Perkins restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, the hostess was struggling to keep pace with Sunday business. Incoming patrons and outgoing bill-payers were grumbling. Wait staff let her flounder.
Later, on board a flight to Newark, our flight attendant was having an equally bad day. She stormed down the aisle, gave sarcastic answers to the usual questions, and seemed to enjoy bumping elbows.
I was dealing with my own fatigue and transition, of course, and wanted only to push on toward home. I turned away from the attendant and kept my grumbling to myself.
I’m sure there was a story behind these bad days, just as there was a story behind my fatigue and wanting to retain a retreat’s warm glow. If we could know each other’s stories, we would be less likely to bristle and fire back.
Luke described a common situation. One group felt offended by another. In this case, it was the pious resenting sinners. But it could have been anything: new neighbors, new boss, immigrants, young people behaving differently, the pedestrian who glowers at you and seems ready for a brawl.
The Pharisees and scribes weren’t motivated to understand the tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus. In the same way, early Christians condemned the Jewish establishment without understanding their resentment.
Jesus told a parable, because he did understand both groups. He understood the resentment of the elder brother—descendants of Abraham, much oppressed and yet faithful to their God—who obeyed the rules and now saw the father’s grace fall on a disobedient son. He understood the prodigal—sinners who should have known better—whose headstrong ways landed him in trouble and sent him home in shame.
I believe God understands our stories. God knew why a hostess at Perkins couldn’t perform her job this day, and why a flight attendant chose this day to snap at a Hindu passenger for requesting a snack without meat.
God knew I was making a difficult transition: leaving behind a wonderful retreat and deep connecting with men of Nebraska, and returning to worries and duties.
In telling this now-famous parable, I think Jesus was saying to us, Take the time to know each other’s stories. See the other’s point of view, even if it strikes you as hateful. Know why the whiner is whining, the aggressor is attacking, and the child is crying.
As others reach for weapons to fight back, take a moment for the ambiguity of parables. Don’t just bristle—as I am wont to do—but imagine the story. Better yet, ask to hear it.