Both my parents have passed away. So have my aunts and uncles. Occasionally, a question about my extended family or something that happened when I was a boy pops into my head and I instinctively think I need to ask my mother about that before realising within a split second that she’s no longer here. My family stories – or the parts of them I don’t know or can’t recall – are lost. Gone for good.
The poet Jim Harrison once wrote, “Death steals everything except our stories.” But if you don’t take care, death can steal those, too.
Recently, I came across James Hagerty’s book, Yours Truly: An Obituary Writer’s Guide to Telling Your Story. Haggarty writes obituaries for The Wall Street Journal, so he knows a thing or two about the importance of preserving life stories. He writes, “When it comes to money and real estate, most of us make careful arrangements for what will happen after we die. Why not take equal care of our stories, which can’t be retrieved once lost?”
Haggarty thinks we all ought to write our memoirs. Not necessarily for publication or praise, but as an inventory of stories that can be passed on to future generations. He continues,
“Preserve your stories now, while the memories are vivid. Think of the stories you’ve heard your partner or parents tell a thousand times. They are precious. When someone dies, we need those stories—not in a vague, half-remembered, second-hand form but in the original version, with all the plot twists, nuances, and personal storytelling quirks. Your own words and insights are more illuminating than others’ eulogies and tributes.”
As Steven Moffatt (of Dr Who fame) says, “We’re all stories in the end. Just make it a good one.”
Haggarty’s book is a guide to exactly that. It’s about how to tell your own story well. At first you might think we don’t need a guidebook for such a thing. Surely, we can all tell our own anecdotes better than anyone. Right? Wrong. My experience is that many people really struggle to tell their own life story. We might be well practiced in reciting that funny story about getting lost in Venice or that interesting anecdote about your rock-climbing accident. But sharing the contours of the great sweep of your life story, that’s a challenge.
This is important to me because I think that one of the primary ways Christians will share their faith will be through the sharing of their spiritual autobiography. This has been a long-held practice by Christians. Our theology — grand and lofty though it might be — is refracted through our experience and shared as story. In the book of Acts, Luke emphasizes the story of Paul’s conversion on the road to Damascus by repeating it three times, first in narrative form (9:1-9), and later in two speeches (22:3-11; 26:4-20). New Testament scholar Craig Keener says it is, “the longest substory within Acts’ longer plot.” Paul’s personal testimony reveals in miniature the themes Luke explores more broadly in the whole book. So Luke tells it three times!
It’s his way of saying that forgiveness, sanctification, and faith in Jesus aren’t just abstract ideas. They can blind a man and throw him off his horse.
How have these ideas affected you? How have they directed the trajectory of your life? Let’s get better at telling those stories. Not just what we used to call your “testimony” about how and when you became a Christian, but how God has turned up in your life, leading, guiding, shaping, pruning you into the person you’ve become. I think being able to tell your spiritual memoirs is an essential skill for all Christians. But many Christians really aren’t that good at it.
According to writer, Jeff Goins, most people aren’t good at it. He writes, “You don’t know your story as well as you think. Telling your story helps you make sense of your life — why certain events happened the way they did. You begin to examine what has happened to and through you. You begin to make sense of who you are. Most people don’t take the time to do this. They take their stories for granted; they don’t steward them.”
I think we all need to take the time to (re)learn our own story. But if the thought of writing your whole life story feels daunting, consider grouping your memories under a series of headings. You could write about the following things:
SIGNIFICANT PERSONS: Your life has been shaped by parents, teachers, siblings, clergy, friends, characters in books or movies, etc. Which of these were most important? Who taught you something meaningful? What did they teach you? How did they teach you? Did they teach you by their example or by their words? Who really loved you, and who missed out on doing so? Who led you to Christ? Who mentored/discipled you? When and where did these relationships form? Who taught you to understand both yourself and God in Christ? How did they do it? What were their motives?
SPIRITUAL EXPERIENCES: Spiritual life is always earthy and contextual, but often mysterious. Has something ever happened that you can’t quite explain, but that you know almost instinctively was God working in your life? You might not have been knocked off your horse on the road to Damascus, but God might have invaded your dreams or given you visions. You might have had prophecies spoken over you that shaped your outlook on life. Maybe you’ve experienced miracles or healings. Maybe you’ve been healed. And even if you haven’t had any particularly dramatic spiritual experiences, what about that sense of intuition about something that you believe came from God, or sensing God’s presence in worship, or speaking in tongues.
CAUSES: Are you interested in certain causes because of your faith in Christ? Have you volunteered with certain community service organizations or with particular charities? What motivated you to choose the fields of service you’ve worked in? Have you lobbied the public or elected officials on behalf of voiceless or disadvantaged people? Why were you so motivated to change the things you’ve been trying to change? How has your understanding of God and the good news of Jesus affected these choices?
RECREATION: How do you have fun? What games/sports/pastimes do you enjoy? Don’t discount their shaping influence on you. Do the lines between work and play ever get blurred for you? Have your interests or passions changed as you’ve gotten older? What do they show you about the way God made you? Olympic runner and missionary Eric Liddell said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” Do your hobbies or pasttimes shed any light on what God has given you as charismata, your spiritual gifts?
CHURCH: What churches have you belonged with and how have they shaped you? Did you attend a church-school? Have you had damaging or nurturing experiences of church? How have those experiences affected you? Do you still belong to a faith community? Have you shifted from a previous denomination/tradition? How important is your denomination/tradition to you right now? What role has baptism and communion played in showing you the presence of Jesus?
VOCATION: How has your work history influenced your faith? Are you a teacher because God gave you a gift of teaching? Or an accountant with a gift of administration? Or is your work just the career you happened to fall into? How do you think about your work through the lens of the gospel? Is it particularly easy or difficult to be a Christian in your current field? What unique opportunities do you have at work to love God and your fellow workers? How does your work contribute to God’s greater good for humankind? Have you had a sense of calling from God for a particular future path?
James Haggarty, the Wall Street Journal obituary writer, makes a few suggestions on how to get started:
- Bite the bullet and just write your memoirs. It might not be Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes or Michelle Obama’s Becoming, but just do it.
- Try writing your own obituary. But make it sound like a story not a resume.
- Write a rough draft of your best stories or record them into your phone.
- Write a letter or an email to a friend and save a copy.
- Annotate your favorite photos with the stories behind them.
- Use software such as Storyworth or MemLife which provide a template with questions and the option to create a book.
- For those who hate to write, voice recording works. Be sure to make a transcript, though, and add notes explaining anything that might be unclear to readers decades from now.
One of the reasons for doing this, as Haggarty points out, is for future generations and family members. But a more important reason is because your stories can help people to see God and understand something of the good news about Jesus. Less and less people want to listen to religious lectures or church sermons. Many people are less interested in reading Christian literature these days. But they’ll listen to stories from your spiritual autobiography if you can tell them in a compelling way.
People will listen to your story of how God touched you through painful growth experiences of loss and grief, or through moments of creative and athletic excellence, or through moments of victory over our problems and through the tenderness of relationships. These moments when we touch something eternal and noble and good are God’s fingerprints in our lives and we can share these moments with others.
Even the shame, doubt and despair of not being the person you know you could be, can be the indication of the Spirit’s presence, giving a sensitivity to sin in your life. A moment where you connect with a deep truth through the work of an author or an artist can also be the Spirit’s work. A virtuoso performance full of human excellence can leave you feeling you need somewhere to put your wonder and gratitude. All these things can be seen as the Spirit at work urging the heart toward worship of God.
You must steward these small moments, and the more momentous ones in your life, preserving them for those you love, and sharing them to help others see God just a bit more clearly.