Everything I knew about love I wrote down in a college-lined spiral notebook when I was nineteen. This was my first book, a college assignment, for an advanced composition class.
It started as 50 pages of journal entries, mostly about love and heartbreak, all the things that college students obsess over on a dateless Saturday night. We took our journals, separated the stories with “potential” (that were only somewhat terrible) from the ones that really were terrible, and used that as our jumping off point for our book.
As I worked on my book that covered “everything I knew about love” (which, ironically, wasn’t much), I had a realization: I was short on pages and worst of all, the deadline was the next day. I needed to write one more story. But what would I write about? There is nothing worse than a big deadline to bring on writer’s block.
I had already written everything I learned about dating, relationships, and heartbreak, and could not think of one more thing to say. Then I remembered: I had a whole childhood I barely mentioned. What formed in my mind was an image, a memory of my father, who had died three years earlier. This memory burned hard, like a candle flame against black night sky.
I remembered sitting on my father’s shoulders, bouncing up and down as he ran through the grass, my head so close to the trees, my body flying across the sky like a bird. The grass was far away from me now, the clouds above my fingertips, but the way we ran together, the way he held me up, was burned in my memory, imprinted like hot tongs to skin.
My dad had died three years before my sophomore year in college, the year I wrote that book about love.
I scribbled it all down, the way it felt on his shoulders, the way that moment carried me now, through the pain of grief, and healing, and learning to live without him.
I turned the book in the next day and suddenly felt panic. In the haze of 2:00 AM exhaustion, the story I added seemed like a good idea. Now after a few hours of sleep, my idea, at best, was ludicrous. Surely my professor would mark it up with red ink, thinking it juvenile and overly sentimental.
In college we were all trying to be sophisticated. This is how we spend most of our twenties, trying to prove to the rest of the world that we are smart and talented. We have so much to learn; namely, that many smart and talented people regularly act like morons and the people who love Jesus and treat others with kindness are the real deal.
But I hadn’t learned this yet, and was still trying to act sophisticated, and my story felt anything but that.
Our stories are much like our hearts, we don’t share them easily with others. When we do, the last thing we want is someone’s criticism. I figured when the professor graded it, I could hide mine under a stack of books and sneak away to a library corner to lick my wounds.
Weeks later, the professor came up to me and said, “I want you to read one of your stories out of your book to the rest of the class today.”
I stared at him not understanding. Was this a joke?
He went on, “I want you to read the story about your father.”
I didn’t have to ask him which one. There was only one. It was the story I had been afraid to write. The one I thought he wouldn’t like. This story, he added, was the the best one in the book.
Sometimes we write a story that feels very raw to us, one we don’t want to share, so we keep it to ourselves, cupped between our hands, like a small baby bird we find in the yard. We keep the dog away and put it in a box outside, hoping she will know what to do. We peer out the window anxiously making sure a hawk hasn’t eaten it. We wait for it to go away.
These are our vulnerable stories, and like the baby bird, we try to protect it. We keep them to ourselves. We forget that our stories help others heal, inspire us to change, show us at our strongest and our weakest.
Our stories are one way to share Jesus, but not in a preachy, know-it all-way, but in a way that says, Look at my life—it was so ugly, and then Grace came in and changed everything.
They show others that we don’t have all the answers, we never did, and we pretty much messed up everything. We got angry and yelled, we cut people off, we held a grudge and ate too much sugar.
But we also learn how to hold the door, say I love you, and invite the neighbors over for hamburgers. We learn how to say I’m sorry, and Will you forgive me? and Thank you, thank you, thank you.
Vulnerable storytelling shows how when we encounter grace, it never leaves us like we were.
Because if we don’t share our stories, then we will never share the story of grace that changed everything. The story of His love turns all the messed up fools, like me, into someone who never stops sharing hope.