A few weeks ago, I was sitting on my bench on Locust Walk at the University of Pennsylvania holding my “tell me your story sign”. It turns our it was parent’s weekend and I got two stories from proud Penn parents. One man, D, came up to me and said, “Ok, you’ve piqued my interest. I’m not going to tell you my story but I would like to know why you want my story.”
I answered, “I want to meet people and I think that telling stories is good for us.” He probed further addressing the Circle of Hope logo I had drawn on my sign, “This ‘circle of hope’ looks rather sinister doesn’t it, with this menacing black circle.” I got a little defensive, but backed down from the direct conflict, “Well, I didn’t design it.”
“But you did make this sign and you couldn’t change it? See that’s the sort of thing that religion is always doing. Obedience is demanded and you’re either in or you’re out depending on whether or not you obey,” D responded.
“Now hold up a minute!” My dander was up, “That’s putting something on me that I did not say. I want to use this logo because I am Circle of Hope. This symbol has value to me because it has a history and a cache that I have been a part of and I don’t want to lose.”
D appreciated my push back and we proceeded to have a very interesting discussion about the language of commercialism and the concessions one makes to participate in the system of marketing, logos, etc. D’s claim was that a logo at it’s essence is manipulative. It may be, but I said I have to speak the language of the culture. I have to do something to make a relationship, and if that means I have to get my hands dirty in some imperfect communication, so be it–because I must communicate my hope.
D seemed to appreciate my passion and he actually went on to tell me his story of life in the church as a boy and his teenage disillusionment. He said, “Well look at that, you did get me to tell you my story!” I got to share with him my desire for the promises of Jesus to be true and my experience of living out of that desire as a sort of loop that fueled the desire and my trust in the promise more and more as time goes on. He liked that and seemed genuinely pensive about the whole conversation which contrasted with his initial aggressive posture.
Why am I holding a sign that says tell me your story? Because me asking you creates a space in which we can be real with each other. I’m not responsible for what happens next. I have hopes. I am looking for friends, and I am finding them. I want to share my hope in Jesus with anyone who wants to have it with me, but I also think that the storytelling has its own value whether not I make a friend or Jesus’ story makes its way into the conversation explicitly.
To close I give one other story. I met a woman, R, who was walking up the walk. She looked at my sign. I said, “hi” and “how ya’ doing?”
“Not so good,” she replied.
She then tearfully explained to me a difficult conversation she had just had with a dear friend. This friend had believed a lie about her that a third person had told her. She thought that their friendship was primary enough to trump any other person’s influence. She had invested a lot in building that sort of intimacy and trust and based on her friends reaction it seemed that that sense of connection and investment was not mutual. She was heartbroken.
After telling her story and shedding her tears with me right there in public, she walked away thanking me for listening. I was so awed, I didn’t even give her my card.
There are many reasons to hold my sign. I’m grateful for what God is doing with it.