As the seventh graders started lining up to exit the classroom, the teacher said, “Not you, Sam Owensby. You sit back down. You’re staying right here. You’ll just ruin the whole assembly.”
As I recall my dad’s telling of it, the whole school was gathering for a Christmas pageant in the auditorium. Children in various grades would perform skits, sing solos, and read holiday-themed poems along with Scripture passages. This was meant to be a sweet, tender moment to remember. In other words, this pageant provided hoodlums like Sam Owensby an irresistible opportunity for mayhem.
By the time he was in Middle School, my father had established a reputation in the mill village of Gaffney, South Carolina. His given name was James. People in town gave him the nickname Sam. There had been a notorious outlaw by the same name. That’s why they started calling the young James Owensby “Sam.” He liked it so much that he kept it for the rest of his life.
The seventh graders filed out the door. My father watched them go from his desk. His teacher brought up the rear, cast a condescending look at Sam, and locked the door as she left. She was confident that there would be no escape from a locked third-floor classroom.
When the sound of footsteps faded away, Sam rose from his desk. He raised a window and climbed out. Taking hold of a cast iron drain pipe, he shinnied to a lower floor. He climbed into a window that gave him access to the attic above the auditorium’s stage. Along the way, he saw a broom and grabbed it.
Sam perched on a beam above the stage for a while. The sounds drifting up to the attic were muffled. He couldn’t quite make out what was going on. And then a clear angelic voice singing a song about sweet baby Jesus rose to the rafters.
My dad stood up and started banging the floor with the broom handle. What was for him the floor was, for the audience, the ceiling of the stage. The sound echoed through the hall.
What my father hadn’t realized was that this ceiling—what he took for a solid floor—was never designed to bear weight. The plaster beneath his right leg gave way with a crash. His leg poked through the ceiling up to his knee.
An audible gasp went through the audience. A tense silence followed. That’s when my father heard it. His teacher’s piercing voice. “Sam Owensby, I know that’s you!”
That was certainly the Sam Owensby that his teacher knew. A tough kid from a tough part of town. A lint head. That’s what upper management and the owner class called the textile mill workers they employed. At the end of each shift, lint covered their clothes and littered their hair. They could be a rough bunch.
She would tell the story of a disruptive student with lousy grades. That was one story.
Over the years, I would tell different stories.
As a child, I idolized my father and scrambled for his approval. He parceled out his affection and praise capriciously, usually as a reward for manliness. He was for me the mischievous rebel and the hero of the war in the Pacific. He was a born storyteller. I listened with rapt attention to the tales he told about himself. I simply retold those stories.
As a young adult I came to resent him. He was the negligent father and the abusive husband. The bigot, the habitual liar, and the womanizer. I began telling a story drawn from my own woundedness and fear and sadness.
More recently, I have heard the stories that his grandchildren—the children of my half-brother and half-sister—tell about him. He was a doting, generous, kind, and even wise grandpa.
Their perspectives on my father reminded me that there are many stories about each of us. We tell our own stories. Others have stories to tell about us. And somehow, each of our personal stories becomes our shared story. The story of us all. I cannot tell my story without including you and the stories you have to tell about us.
Our temptation is to reduce people to one story. People are considerably more complex than a single story could ever convey. And yet, I believe that a single divine theme is gradually weaving all of these stories into one. What is sometimes called Jesus’ Priestly Prayer reminds us what that unifying theme is. (John 17)
For an entire chapter, John records a conversation between Jesus and God the Father. For much of that prayer, Jesus is telling his story about us.
This is what he says: “All mine are yours, and yours are mine; and I have been glorified in them.” (John 17:10) Our lives are forever interwoven with everyone else’s. Jesus’ life is inextricably bound up with ours. And our shared story is transformed by his participation in it.
The story that he tells about himself includes every story that can be told about you and me. About everyone who ever was and everyone who ever will be. And in Jesus—in his persistent, unflinching love—our stories are becoming, eventually, a love story. The love story. The story of the imperfect, perfectly loved and loving children of God.
This story is still being written. At times its ending seems implausible. Our hearts will still be rent by stories of school shootings and bombings at concerts and indifference toward the poor and the handicapped.
But every time we forgive, make peace, and speak up for the powerless, we write the story of life as it is meant to be heard. As a love story. We are God’s beloved. By God’s grace, that’s the story we will write no matter the cost.