By Conference Minister Diane Weible
There is an image that has stayed in my mind for a while now and I return to it so often that I thought I would share it with you this week.
I often speak about how important it is that we listen to another person’s story—not from our own perspective but deeply and carefully listen to another person’s story and seek to hear the way they experience reality. That’s really hard to do. I am relational by nature so when someone tells me their story, I want to connect with them and share a similar story that shows them I am listening and that we have something in common. The problem is, I am in danger of conflating our stories to the point that I misunderstand what they really were trying to say to me.
For example, a friend was sharing with me about how she worries about her young adult son when he goes out at night. Having a young adult son of my own, I immediately jumped in and said, “I know what you mean. I worry about my son too. I worry that he will get in a car accident.” She was patient and kind but also clear. She said, “Yes, and I also worry that he is going to get shot.”
As a white mother, I can honestly say that this thought had never gone through my mind. When I stepped aside and got out of my own story, I could understand her experience as a mother from a perspective I had never thought of.
My mental image of what it looks like to engage in this kind of listening is to capture a picture of who God is that goes beyond the single image I have. If I can honestly say my experience and reality of who God is not the same as another person’s and I can say that the way I see the world and God is not the same for me as it is for someone else, then the natural conclusion is that if I want to learn about who God is, I need all these snapshot pictures of who God is to other people in order to understand the totality of God.
There is a well-known story about three sightless individuals who are asked to touch an elephant and from what they could feel, describe what an elephant looks like. The elephant is so big, that they can only touch one part of it. One person touches the ear and then describes an elephant based on the shape of the ear that she explores. Another person touches the trunk and from that describes the elephant as long, skinny and curvy. The third person touches the tail and based on what he feels, describes a beautiful picture of an elephant that looks exactly like its tail.
No one is wrong. That is what they felt and it was very real to them. But each person carried one piece of the total picture of what we call an elephant.
This is the same with God. Each person carries one image of who God is and what God looks like. They carry their own experiences about how they see the world and life around them and that also influences their faith and the way that they see God working in their lives. Again, every person’s image or experience is a true statement about who God is. It is their experience and that experience and that image is real and honest and authentic.
And, it is but one piece of a much bigger picture. In order for us to see and understand the complete picture of who God is, we need to listen and learn from one another. Every story we receive is a gift that adds another piece to the complete picture of who God is. Enough stories collected allow us to understand God in a wide, beautiful and comprehensive way that makes all the difference.