Everybody's got a story

Earlier this week I went with a few friends to a story slam put on by “The Moth.”

Basically, The Moth is a non-profit “dedicated to the art of story-telling.”  At this story slam, audience members put their name in a hat, 10 names are drawn, and those 10 people are given the chance to share a story.  5 minutes, no holds barred, honest, true stories…  And it was phenomenal.

As we sat (or stood) in the crowded room, listening to strangers tell funny, intimate, moving, hilarious, ridiculous, awkward stories, I was struck by the fact that all too often I forget that everyone has their story.  Every person I sit in class with, bump into in the supermarket, dodge on the street as we’re out for our afternoon runs, or crush next to on the El has their own story of beauty, tragedy, laughter, joy, and life.  So many stories, so much beauty, and all too often we miss it.  We don’t make space for it.  I don’t ask people to hear their stories.  I don’t tell my stories.  But I want to.

So, maybe that’s what Thursday nights will be: story nights.  …open invitation for Thursday night dinner and stories at my place.  Come on over, listen, and share.  I want to hear your story…




on stories

I’ve been wrestling lately with the idea of stories…  There is something about a story that resonates, that sweeps us up into it and captures our imagination – the narrative, the surprising twist, the moment of truth – and this is no less true in the fictional stories that we see on the screen or read off the page as it is in the stories that make up our daily lives – the beauty and joy, the tragedy and heartbreak, the ecstasy and pathos that fill each of our lives.  

I love stories – I love to hear them, to tell them, to read them, to dream them.  I see the power that stories have in changing our imagination, in planting seeds of newness in our thought, of opening up possibilities and flashes of hope.  I love to write stories as well: the crackles of joy, the shocks of unexpected grace, the elation that comes from seeing something old and tired in a new, fresh, resplendent light.  

There is power in stories.  And this is where I hesitate.  After all, the true stories of my life don’t happen in a vacuum.  I live in relationship with others – my friends, my family, those I love and have loved, those who love me and those who no longer love me – and the web of those relationships is inextricably intertwined.  My stories aren’t just my stories – they are OUR stories, for good or for ill.

Anne Lamott said “You own everything that happened to you. Tell your stories. If people wanted you to write warmly about them, they should’ve behaved better…”  I’m not sure how much I agree with that.  Parts of me want to – to be honest, to be truthful (as I see it), to tell my story in a way that sheds light and truth and gives hope and paints a picture of beauty and grace in the midst of scars and trouble.  And maybe that’s all I can do.  But part of me is hesitant – hesitant to share something that is not just MY story with whoever (all 7 people that read this…)  And that part is exacerbated by concerns for those whose stories intertwine with mine: from the street kids of Rio to the kids I work with every day here in Chicago, from my classmates in school to the foibles and failures of my relationships.  These are my stories, and I want to write them; share them; offer them up as an offering and a delight, as a way of remembering and being thankful, as a means of prayer and a means of grace…  

Maybe I can write those stories…  and maybe after writing them, I can then share them?  Not everything.  But some things…  Not perfection.  But simply grace, and beauty, and the delightful mess that is life…


In just over a month, my friend Josh is getting married. He’s a favorite person of mine – thoughtful and deliberate, curious, intelligent, full of life, and always up for an adventure… So we met up at a state park in central Wisconsin – a bunch of guys who were drawn together for one reason – to celebrate Josh, his friendship, his upcoming wedding, and take some time to have an adventure.

The entire week before I was overwhelmed and feeling swamped with papers and projects that were due – my perfectionism loves to rear its ugly head at times like these – and nothing was quite good enough until I absolutely had to turn it in. (It’s worse when it’s stuff I really care about, which is pretty much all my classes… sigh…) But, I promised myself, if I could get through the week, this camping trip/adventure/celebration would be my reward. Of course, a couple days before, Josh emailed us all and in passing mentioned it was going to be in the low 30’s and raining. But hey, who ever let a little cold and rain stop a bachelor party from being celebrated?

Dan and I pulled into the campsite a little after noon on Saturday, to find most of the rest of the guys already there, huddled in a semi-circle, rain jackets on and hoods pulled high. Gray. Foggy. Drizzling. Humid. Everything was damp in minutes. Windy. And cold. It felt cold.

A quick round of introductions, handshakes and smiles and a few bearhugs, and we were off. Originally, the plan was to go climbing, but the rain made the rocks a little treacherous in places – and no matter what anyone tells you, moss does not turn sticky when it gets wet… Kinda the opposite, actually. So we left the climbing gear in the cars, and instead we just hiked around the lake – through the woods and up the bluff, stopping to play whenever we felt the urge. Some trees just scream out to be climbed (especially when they are growing out of the side of a cliff 200 feet above the valley floor.) And sometimes we just stopped and stared off the cliff edge as the rain fell and the cloids boiled and swirled around us, and we fell silent at the strange beauty… And sometimes, we laughed and told stories and pretended we were hiking through the forests of Lorien, and orcs were about to come streaming over the hill… And sometimes we stopped to skip rocks in the lake and see who could throw them the farthest and who could balance for the longest time on the railroad tracks without falling off… But the whole time was sweet, and full of laughter and that deep sense of joy – of all being right with the world. And the whole time, the rain fell. Sometimes sprinkling. Sometimes drizzling. But always falling.

We got back to the campsite around dusk, and the rain stopped. It’s always easier to set up camp when it’s not raining. It’s also usually easier to set up camp when the ground’s not churned into a muddy froth. But you can’t have everything. Me and a couple other guys set up tents while Dan built the fire, and Josh and Zach and Terry got the venison stew heating up on the camp stove, and we gathered around the fire. Of course, it being December, by 5:00 it was pitch black – by 6:00 it felt like midnight…

The rest of the night was just a bunch of guys around a campfire – telling stories, laughing, eating food, cooking things in the fire… When you put it into words, it loses some of the magic that was there: the smell of wood-smoke, the crackling of the fire, the chill of December air, the glimmering stars peeking through the clouds, the taste of warm stew heating you up from the inside, the pitter-patter of rain falling through the bare branches onto the bed of leaves in the forest around us, sizzling in the fire, slowly drenching through our multiple layers of clothing… And it’s even more than that. You lose some of the magic of a few men who have taken a night to sleep outside in the mud and rain because we love our friend, and want to celebrate him. You lose the magic of hearing Josh talk about the woman he can’t wait to spend the rest of his life with, and laughing about the predicaments he has gotten himself into (and out of again.) You lose the magic of a bunch of strangers gathering and becoming brothers because they are all friends with Josh. There’s so much you miss out on. But that’s ok – ’cause after all, it was just a bunch of us huddled around the campfire, kicking at the darkness, telling stories of hope, and love, and joy, and life. It was life-giving – and just what I needed. I hope it was what Josh needed…

By this point, it was raining pretty hard, so we decided to call it a night. Dan and I went and threw sleeping bags and pads into the tent, only to discover that due to a combination of inferior tent (probably mostly this, if you ask me) and shoddy tent pitching (maybe more of this, if you ask Dan), the tarp that was supposed to keep the bottom of the tent dry had instead captured the water, turning our tent into a miniature indoor swimming pool. Spare clothes were soaked. Sleeping bags were dampened. Sleeping pads were drifting along, crewed by tiny woodland creatures on fantastic journeys of discovery. Thankfully, Dan had an extra tarp that we spread inside the tent in the vain hope that it would prove water-proof enough to let us make it through the night. And it did a pretty good job keeping what was not already soaked mostly dry. Except for our sleeping bags… You know, the things that are supposed to keep you warm when the temp drops below freezing… The synthetic material acted like a sponge, and slowly throughout the night the water wicked its way up the sleeping bags until by morning the bottom third of the bags were sopping wet. Let’s just say it was a long, cold night with not much sleep – and sleep, when it came, was fleeting. Every few minutes I’d wake and hear the rain beating down on the rain-fly, dripping into puddles that surrounded our tent, or rushing in rivulets down the hillside into the lake.

By the next morning, Dan and I were both curled up into balls in the top half of our sleeping bags, trying to keep toes from drifting into the icy depths of wet sleeping bag. And to finally give up all pretence of trying to sleep, and peel the damp wet sleeping bag off your legs and step out of the tent into a dry down coat felt heavenly. It had stopped raining at some point near dawn, and even though the sensation of not having freezing water drop down the back of your neck feels really good (especially after a day of it drip, drip, dripping), I found myself missing the rain.

All day as we hiked through the woods, leapt from rock to rock, swung from branches and sat in silence and awe, I was aware of the rain, and it was God’s love song. All evening as we sat around the fire, and the rain fell on my shoulders and then evaporated into a swirl of steam from the heat of the campfire, I was conscious of the rain falling, and it was God’s whisper. All night as I lay on the cold ground, and heard the rain pounding on the rain-fly, and felt the drips sneak through the sides and soak into my bag, I thought about the rain, and wonder threatened to overwhelm my heart with beauty. All day, all evening, all night, I was thinking of this:


“Water is always an invitation to imersion [for me], an immersion with a quality of totality, since it would accept all of me, as I am…
No rain falls that I do not at once hear in the sound of the falling water an invitation to come to the wedding. It is rare that I do not answer. A walk in an evening rain in any setting is to walk in the midst of God’s loving attention to his earth, and, like a baptism, is no simple washing, but a communication of life. When you hurry in out of the rain, I hurry out into it, for it is a sign that all is well, that God loves, that good is to follow. If suffering a doubt, I find myself looking to rain as a good omen. And in rain, I always hear singing, wordless chant rising and falling.
When rain turns to ice and snow I declare a holiday. I could as easily resist as stay at a desk with a parade going by in the street below. I cannot hide the delight that then possesses my heart. Only God could have surprised rain with such a change of dress as ice and snow…
Most people love rain, water. Snow charms all young hearts. Only when you get older and bones begin to feel dampness, when snow becomes a traffic problem and a burden in the driveway, when wet means dirt – then the poetry takes flight and God’s love play is not noted.
But I am still a child and have no desire to take on the ways of death. I shall continue to heed water’s invitation, the call of the rain. We are in love and lovers are a little mad.”

~ Matthew Kelty, Flute Solo,
Reflections of a Trappist Hermit, pp. 117-19


We broke down camp, loaded up the cars, and drove into town for breakfast and coffee (and dry warmth) at a local greasy-spoon diner – a great end to a time that was just too short. And in spite of my complaints about the cold, and the rain, and how my tent turned into a boat, I’m thankful it was raining. It fits Josh and DJ – who they are, and who they will be. And my prayer for them – my hope for us – is that they continue to take the time to go out and sit in the rain… to notice the poetry of God’s love play, to hear the call of the rain, the call to be in love, and just a little bit mad.

Birthdaes and life

I was 20 when I saw American History X.  We watched it and spent the next few hours processing what we had just seen – a story of hope and tragedy – but what I didn’t tell anyone was the premonition that came over me as we watched the film.  And from the moment, I knew – KNEW – that I was going to die (probably violently) before I turned 30.  I didn’t really know what to do with that feeling, and I felt a little weird telling others about it, so I just put it on a shelf to come back to at a later date.  Over the next 10 years or so, the memory of that feeling would haunt me every now and then.  My mind knew there was nothing to it – but my heart wasn’t really sure.

Fast forward 11 years later – I am turning 31 today, and I am still here – and oh so thankful for the gift of life.

A friend posted 32 near-death experiences for his 32nd birthday…  Sadly, I don’t have that many – but the ones I do have remind me once again what a gift it is to be alive, and how I cannot take it for granted.

The first time I almost died I wasn’t even two years old.  My parents were travelling cross-country, and as they stopped on the median to check a map, I was pulled out of my car seat to spend some time on my mom’s lap.  Minutes after they placed me back in my car seat, as they prepared to get back on the road, they were rear-ended by a pick-up truck.  Their car was totalled.  My mom’s glasses, which were resting on her lap (the exact same place I had been minutes before), were ejected from the car and never found.  I didn’t even realize it.

Fast forward a few months later – Peru, a hotel, a room on the 8th floor.  My parents leave me in the custody of a the daughter of another missionary couple.  When they come back, they find me playing on the balcony, head between the bars, seeing if I can fit through.  I can, but they get to me in time to stop me from trying to climb down.

When I was about 9, we lived in a red zone (declared a no-go area by the US embassy) because of the Sendero Luminoso guerrilla movement.  The judge down the street had a car bomb explode outside his home.  Every week bombings would take out electrical towers and power plants.  We got to be able to distinguish between the big fireworks and the bombs by sound alone.  Probably the most frightening thing were the extortion letters my parents got, threatening to kidnap and kill their children if they didn’t pay a ransom.

16 year old me was riding to the movies in a taxi in Lima with some friends of mine when a car swerved in front of us, slammed on the brakes, and out got 2 men with machine guns and two others holding pistols.  This was in the heydey of the MRTA (a different guerrilla movement that, just a few months before, had succeeded in storming the Japanese embassy, taking hundreds of people hostage, and holding them for months).  As they walked toward our car, we were sure we were going to die, but the armed men (we later found out they were police – not necessarily a good thing when the government killed as many people as the terrorists) pulled the driver out of the car next to us and waved us on.

There was the night we spent sleeping on the streets of Rome (a bad idea – even though the steps of the Pantheon will provide a dry place to sleep during a rain storm).

There were countless run-ins with the police, drug-dealers, gang members, boys and girls who lived on the street and could get high and violent.  There were the fights we broke up before they could really escalate – the times standing up to corrupt cops who were looking for ways to abuse their power.  There were the times of running from tear gas and the armored cars, ducking into cover with the neighbors as shots rang out, and deciding that maybe today wasn’t the best day to go to the beach.  There were multiple times being searched at gunpoint.  There was the time I was stuck outside the community I lived in, and my neighbors and I waited for a lull in the shooting so we could get home quickly before they started fighting again.  We made it.  All part and parcel of living in the favelas of Rio de Janeiro.

Even in February, I had my accident where I flipped my car, rolled it across the median, slid through three lanes of oncoming traffic, and came to a rest on the far median without a bruise or a scratch on me or anyone else.

And I know I am not unique.  Each person has 5, 10, 20 stories like this.  We have stories of how our lives could have ended, how fragile they are, and what a gift life truly is.  So today, on my birthdae, I’m going to rejoice.  I’m going to go sit outside on the porch, open up my Magnum ice cream bar, watch the moon float overhead, and celebrate life, for as long as I draw breath.  It’s worth celebrating.

Easter dreams and "the rest of the story…"

I’ve been reluctant to move on from Easter this year – wanting to slow down, to savor ever moment, to linger over the hope that is freely offered to all. And as I ponder what it means to be Easter people, to be captives of hope in a hopeless world, I am struck again and again by our vantage point in the middle of the story. No matter where we are in the story of our life, we are still a work in progress. Our dreams are growing, changing, coming to fruition in fits and starts, stalling and dying and being reborn in unexpected and unforeseen ways. We are unfinished, and cannot see where we will go, what we will become, or whose lives we will touch. And we never will, until we live out the rest of the story…

The disciples are a prime example of this. From our vantage point, the story unfolds with a certain inevitability and it’s easy to forget the roller-coaster of emotions that must have been present for those actually living it. From the ecstasy of vindication as they rode into Jerusalem with their Master on Palm Sunday to the cheer and acclaim of the crowds: “Surely,” they must have thought to themselves, “We are about to be rewarded for our service. Now is the day that the King has come to Jerusalem, and all things will be put to right – the Romans destroyed, the oppressors of their people cast down, and the restoration of David’s glorious kingdom.” Their dreams were coming true. They didn’t know the rest of the story.

Fast forward a few days – tension is rising in the temple courts as the teachers of the law and Temple establishment try to trap Jesus, tricking him into alienating either the people or the Roman authorities. Jesus manages to outmaneuver them time and time again. Fractures appear in the group of disciples, with Judas approaching the priests to betray Jesus and turn him over to them in the next few days, while the others stick close to him. This was the moment when things would fall one way or the other, and I’m sure the stress was incredible. Where was the story headed?

And I can hardly imagine the cycles the of the disciple’s emotions on Thursday night – the sacred tradition of the Passover meal, the washing of feet, the embarrassment and intimacy, the delight and the doubt… The last teaching of Jesus to the disciples as they hung on his every word, at some level grasping the momentousness of this occasion… Prayer in the garden, falling asleep while they waited, and finally terror and anguish as a crowd of thugs melted out of the darkness around them cutting off escape… One last surge of expectation that maybe NOW was when Jesus would act… That expectation evaporating as Jesus was swept off to a hasty trial and public lynching… And over the next day, the devastation of watching their hope be dismantled, degraded, dehumanized, destroyed… Deeper and deeper and deeper into despair as they ran, abandoned their Master, denied they knew him, and committed suicide… The story was crumbling around them.

Then the burial, and the dark of night, and a long, quiet Saturday – disciples staring wide-eyed into space, some in numb shock, others beginning to feel the faint stirrings of anger and disappointment at Jesus, this man they had given up everything for, followed for years, who had abandoned them and betrayed them. Maybe some began to make plans for what their life would look like “post-Jesus.” Peter and Andrew mumbling together in a corner, wondering if their father would let them back into the family fishing business… Simon the Zealot ready to resume the rebellion against the empire that he had given up because JESUS had asked him to do so… Matthew wondering where he would go, what he would do – he couldn’t go back to tax collecting… Not after what he’d seen. But the money was so good. And if everyone was just going to die anyway, and the hope Jesus offered was a lie, then why not make the most of it while he could? John – asked to care for his dead friend’s mother – yet every time he saw her the pain of loss bubbled up anew…

Stories aren’t supposed to end like this – surrounded by blackness and consumed by the void. We know it deep in the core of our being, and we fight for it over and over in our lives despite all evidence to the contrary. Even in this world of death and destruction, of broken promises and disappointment, we fight for happy endings because we know, deep down, that we were made for fairy tales. Frederick Buechner explores this in my favorite book of his, “Telling the Truth: the Gospel as Tragedy, Comedy, and Fairy Tale.” Our lives – our stories – are the stuff of tragedy. Brokenness and failure haunt our every decision, and even the most glorious moments of transcendence come to an end all too quickly. Yet in the midst of that tragedy is the ridiculous comedy that reaches in and declares that God loves us anyway – in spite of our lies, our failures, the way we hurt and betray and wound those we love the most. This fusion of tragedy and comedy declares that ultimately, life IS a fairy tale – that redemption is possible, that all hurts will be healed and every tear wiped away – that all things will be reconciled one day, and we will have life abundant and eternal, quenching our parched souls. This is the promise of the gospel.  This is the promise of the story we have been invited into.

Thankfully, the story of Easter didn’t end on Saturday. Looking back on it from a distance of 2000 years, we know what happens next. We can imagine the fear and bewilderment of the women who approached the tomb and found the stone rolled away. We crinkle with anticipation as we watch them run back to tell the disciples that SOMETHING has happened. We know a surprise is waiting – more glorious than any Christmas surprise, more life-changing than any long awaited birth. And we see the slow dawning realization begin to spread among the disciples – ever so slowly, from one to another…

“What’s happened?”

“Have you heard?”

“I don’t believe it…”

“Do you really think…”



“What if?”

And then the appearance of Jesus in their midst. The one who was dead and now lives forever. The one they watched crucified. The one they had loved. The one they had abandoned. The one they had buried. The one they had mourned. This one was in their midst, and he laughed with them, and reassured them and said, “Do not be afraid… Mmm, that fish smells good. I think I’ll have some…”

He was alive. He defeated sin, and hell, and death. Sin could not conquer him. Hell could not hold him. Death could not contain him. He was back – and he was himself – gloriously, surprisingly, unbelievably present and alive!

He is alive!  And those who saw him, accepted him, believed in him – they were never the same.

2000 years later, the story goes on…

This is my challenge, and yours: How do we remember that the story is unfinished? How do we realize that we are living in the tension of the now, of the tragedy and comedy of life, with questions and uncertainties and incredulity much more common than answers, certainty, and understanding? Because we don’t see the end. Not yet. Not fully. We are living on Saturday. But Sunday is coming. Hope is real. God is good. And the end of the story will be more glorious and poetic and full of grace than we can imagine now. I know this is true. And on my best days, I sometimes can begin to live as if I actually believe it…

…until, one day, we can clearly see the rest of the story, and all shall be well, and all shall be well, and all manner of things shall be well…

The Story

I wish I could blame the sun, or a drifting cloud of teargas (even though they seem to be much harder to run into in rural Wisconsin than in Rio de Janeiro) for the water in my eyes and and the sobs that began wracking my shoulders.  After all, why should I be so affected?  It was just a story I was listening to…

On the drive home from Milwaukee yesterday afternoon, I was listening to NPR’s “The Story.”  And in honor of the beginning of the Passover feast, they were retelling the story of Steve Barry and Carrol Walsh.  65 years ago, in the closing months of World War 2, Steve Barry boarded a train at the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp along with 2500 other (mostly Jewish) prisoners.  After several days of transit, they were abandoned by their SS guards.  Shortly thereafter, an American scouting party came across the train, still full to bursting with prisoners.

Steve Barry recounts how he found an SS coat (it still being quite chilly in April of that year, especially for his emaciated, 90-pound frame) and draped it over his shoulders, huddled on the embankment in the shadow of the train, next to a small fire he and his friends had managed to start.  As he sat there, weak and traumatized, he saw an American soldier, one of the first scouts, scramble down the embankment and gingerly approach the fire.  The soldier looked down, saw Barry and gently sat down next to him.  The nameless soldier slowly pulled out a pocket knife from his bag, opened the blade, and leaned over to cut off the SS death’s head insigna on the coat, and threw it in the fire.  Barry and the soldier watched it burn in the flames.

As Barry told this story, his voice cracked, and I began to sob – driving in my car down the interstate through rural Wisconsin, sun shining on my face.  I think it was a combination of things – of the sadness and tragedy that took place, of the blindness and unwillingness of people to act to stop it (many because they “couldn’t believe things like that could happen,”) the tragedy of saying “never again” and seeing it happen again and again and again…  Yet also there was a beauty – of seeing that rescue and redemption and liberation are possible, that occasionally there are happy endings, that small act of humanity redeemed the SS coat and the once-prisoner but no longer, allowing him to reclaim a small piece of his dignity and personhood…

It’s a beautiful tale – and even more so because it’s true.


*For more info (including pictures), check out NPR’s “The Story.”