Recently after I had cataract surgery, my friend brought me home and sat with me for a while. Without any prompting, except perhaps lingering sedation, I began to tell him about the farmhouse I grew up in. I remembered it as very small for our family of eight. I told him about the outhouse and the day we got a functioning indoor toilet. A particularly vivid memory of the house was its siding made of lumber salvaged from a wooden railroad box car. It had been painted bright green, but the railroad symbols were still visible. Growing up, I thought the “box car look” was both special and embarrassing.
In sharing those recollections with Keith, I entrusted him with a few details of who I was. The details themselves were not particularly significant, but sharing them deepened, in some incremental way, our experience of what it means to be brothers in Christ.
Sharing our stories and listening to the stories of others is a simple, yet often undervalued and underutilized, way of growing into what it means to be one in Christ. The stories do not need to be confessional or dramatic. They can be about the ordinary things of life that had some role in shaping us. They can be about anything that makes us less like strangers to one another.
It was my privilege as a pastor to hear people tell bits and pieces of their life story. I often heard about the ordinary shaping things of life—jobs, courtships, weddings, family, losses, school, church, and so much more. Sharing those stories, in some incremental way, deepened our experience of being one in Christ. A few stories left me awed by their power. One of those stories was from Walter.
I regularly visited Walter in his assisted living facility. He often and repeatedly told me stories of his life. One day he told me that his caregiver had taken him to Costco to do something about his glasses. She parked his wheelchair at the optical center while she did some other shopping. As he waited his turn, his attention was drawn to a large collection of eyeglass frames displayed on a nearby wall. “Suddenly,” he said, “it all came back to me.”
Each of these eyeglasses bore silent and unsettling witness to someone’s parent, child, friend, or loved one.
During World War II, Walter had served in the 104th Infantry Division. His unit fought in the fierce and bitterly cold Battle of the Bulge. Every day Walter lived with painful reminders of that desperate fight. He still had shrapnel lodged in his body, and his feet had been permanently and painfully damaged by frostbite.
Although the veterans of the 104th had been through the full inventory of war’s brutality, nothing prepared them for what they saw on April 11, 1945. That morning the 104th came across the Mittelbau-Dora concentration camp near Nordhausen, Germany.
Among the horrors Walter saw, he found himself transfixed by a large pile of eyeglasses. Each of those eyeglasses bore silent and unsettling witness to someone’s parent, child, friend, grandparent, or loved one. The image of those piled eyeglasses permanently etched itself into Walter’s memory.
Now, decades later, on an ordinary shopping trip to Costco, those memories suddenly and unavoidably came back to him—the stench of rotting flesh, the piles of corpses, the walking skeletons, the overwhelming sorrow and rage, and the pile of eyeglasses.
After Walter told me his story, he closed his eyes and said, “You drag those things with you. You can’t leave them behind.” He went on to describe the anger he felt whenever he heard anyone suggest the Holocaust had not happened. “Don’t give me that crap! I was there, I saw it.”
My story about my childhood home does not begin to match the raw power of Walter’s account. But my story is as powerful as Walter’s in one important sense. Both stories deepened, in some incremental way, the experience of being one in Christ.
I believe the mere act of telling and hearing of our stories is at least as important as their content. Sharing our stories in itself opens us to the possibility of embodying, in some incremental way, our reality of oneness in Christ.
The Apostle Paul wrote, “We are determined to share with you not only the gospel of God but also our own selves.” May it be so.