Theologian Jürgen Moltmann calls the church a story-telling fellowship, as Tom Long notes in The Witness of Preaching. The church does not tell just any old story. The church tells “the story of Christ, and its own story with that story, because its own existence, fellowship and activity spring from that story of liberation.” This “story-telling fellowship…continually wins its own freedom from the stories and myths of the society in which it lives, from the present realization of this story of Christ.”
Moltmann’s words have me wondering whether one true litmus test for freedom is our capacity to share our own story- not just any old story, but the story about where we in our lives have personally encountered God’s grace and acceptance. All of us have stories, after all. How we share them, and whether we do, is the question.
Maybe it really is in the sharing of our stories that we “win our freedom,” to borrow Moltmann’s expression.
One story that recently moved me comes from the memoir of Mary Ann Bird. In The Whisper Test, Bird tells the story of how she met Jesus in the kindness of a teacher. Bird’s story, below, is reproduced verbatim from Leonard Sweet’s Strong in the Broken Places: A Theological Reverie on the Ministry of George Everett Ross, and I’m grateful to Tom Long for introducing me to Sweet’s work and Bird’s story:
[Mary Ann]…was born with multiple birth defects: deaf in one ear, a cleft palate, a disfigured face, crooked nose, lopsided feet. As a child, Mary Ann suffered not only the physical impairments but also the emotional damage inflicted by other children. “Oh Mary Ann,” her classmates would say, “What happened to your lip?”
“I cut it on a piece of glass,” she would lie.
One of the worst experiences at school, she reported, was the day of the annual hearing test. The teacher would call each child to her desk, and the child would cover first one ear, and then the other. The teacher would whisper something to the child like “the sky is blue” or “you have new shoes.” This was “the whisper test.” If the teacher’s phrase was heard and repeated, the child passed the test. To avoid the humiliation of failure, Mary Ann would always cheat on the test, secretly cupping her hand over her one good ear so that she could still hear what the teacher said.
One year Mary Ann was in the class of Miss Leonard, one of the most beloved teachers in the school. Every student, including Mary Ann, wanted to be noticed by her, wanted to be her pet. Then came the day of the dreaded hearing test. When her turn came, Mary Ann was called to the teacher’s desk. As Mary Ann cupped her hand over her good ear, Miss Leonard leaned forward to whisper. “I waited for those words,” Mary Ann wrote, “which God must have put into her mouth, those seven words which changed my life.” Miss Leonard did not say, “The sky is blue” or “You have new shoes.” What she whispered was “I wish you were my little girl.” Mary Ann went on to become a teacher herself, a person of inner beauty and great kindness.
Can you think of a time in your life when God metaphorically leaned into your ear and whispered God’s words of acceptance? How did it change you? You can send your stories to me at firstname.lastname@example.org, and I’ll republish them with your permission. Or, leave one below in the comments section.