There’s a bit of folk wisdom I learned from a Mexican-American colleague. If you hear a message three times, pay attention. It’s meant for you.
Well, three times in the space of a week recently this was the message I heard. It matters how we tell our story. How we tell our stories is important. Sister, tell us your story.
The first time I heard my message was on the radio about Veterans Administration hospitals and a project using storytelling to help doctors and nurses learn more about the person, not just the patient.
Back in 2012, a medical resident at the Madison, Wisconsin VA hospital wanted to address the chronic health care complaint: “I don’t get to see anybody for very long, and nobody knows who I am.” At first, the resident tried getting patients to write their life-stories themselves, but not many people wanted to. Then he had them fill out surveys and that worked OK. But finally, a poet in town, who also happened to be a therapist, was hired to listen to people tell their own life story, write it up as a thousand-word biography, and attach it to the patient’s medical record so any hospital staff member could read it. And so, the “My Life, My Story” project was launched.
Now more than 2,000 patients at the Madison VA have their stories included in their charts. 40 other hospitals around the country are giving storytelling a try. Most doctors report reading these stories to be a good use of their clinical time. Research suggests health outcomes improve when caregivers know their patients better: from more controlled blood sugar levels to common colds shortened by a full day. Radiologists increase the accuracy of their readings and file more detailed reports. Above all, knowing a patient’s life story makes it easier for doctors to have difficult, life and death conversations, like how aggressive to be, or not, if complications occur.
It matters how we tell our story.
In our scripture readings for this Feast of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, we hear not one, but two apostles tell their stories. Often, it’s their two-ness, the differences between Peter and Paul, that frame the stories. Peter the backwater fisherman. Paul the cosmopolitan rabbi. A mission to the Jews and a mission to the Gentiles. Paul’s words, his teaching. Peter’s works, his example.
But our collect prays that the lives of Peter and Paul, along with our lives,be “knit together in unity by [God’s] Spirit”; that we all may “stand firm upon one foundation,” which is neither Peter nor Paul, you or me, but “Jesus Christ our Lord” (BCP 241). One Jesus re-names both apostles. Saul becomes Paul. Simon, Peter. And some one thing was so threatening to Rome in their common witness to the Lord Jesus that both Peter and Paul, despite all their differences, were martyred under Emperor Nero between the years 64 and 68.
Paul tells his own story directly in our reading from 2 Timothy (4:1-8). These are some of his last words at the end of his final letter. Paul’s is a story of holding on tenaciously. Be persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable, he writes. Convince. Rebuke. Encourage. All with the utmost patience. I am already being poured out as a libation, and the time of my departure has come. I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.
Peter’s story gets passed along by John the evangelist in a kind of epilogue to his gospel. Jesus’ appearance to Peter at the Sea of Tiberius, where he had gone back to fishing, marks Peter’s rehabilitation as disciple and commissioning as apostle (John 21:15-19). Three times – three times (pay attention, it’s meant for you!) – Jesus asks, Simon, son of John, do you love me? Twice Peter answers, Yes, Lord; you know that I love you. Then with deeper passion, a third time: Lord, you know everything; you know that I love you. Jesus lays out Peter’s threefold apostolic mission: Feed my lambs. Tend my sheep. Feed my sheep. And foreshadowing the last of Peter’s works: Very truly I tell you, Jesus says, when you were younger you used to fasten your own belt and to go wherever you wished. But when you grow old, you will stretch out your hands and someone else will fasten a belt around you and take you where you do not wish to go.
Peter’s final work involves letting go gracefully, when age and change and circumstance re-make the one who was always in control, looking out and caring for others; re-make Peter such that he can no longer dress himself and choose where to go and what to do.
Jesus calls both of today’s apostles to “Follow.” Paul responds by holding on. Peter by letting go.
How we tell our stories is important.
But stories don’t have to be told using spoken or written language like those of the Apostles Peter and Paul or the patients at that Wisconsin VA hospital. A person can tell their story by marching in a parade. The Pride Parade – as members of this parish are doing right now. Because I’m a straight man, Pride is not directly my personal story. And I wouldn’t presume to try and tell someone else’s story for them. But I am so proud that St. Paul’s has for many years marched openly in the Seattle Pride Parade and that our diocese now joins in. That is part of my own story and I’m proud to tell it.
A couple in this parish with two young children have made the yearly ritual of tying rainbow ribbons to our fence out there on Roy Street part of their family story. There are ribbons back in the entryway if you want to join them in “tying one on” for St. Paul’s Pride after Mass.
And this year, for the first time, our new parish banner will be carried proudly in the parade, helping tell our communal story.
Sister, tell us your story.
But still, I wonder – on the 50th anniversary of Stonewall – how we might share today’s Pride Parade in the spirit of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, Apostles?
What do we have to learn from Paul’s teaching about holding on tenaciously? Being persistent whether the time is favorable or unfavorable? Fighting the good fight, finishing the race, keeping the faith?
And how does Peter’s example instruct us in that most delicate balance of loving, of feeding and tending others, while still being able to let go gracefully when changes in life demand it of us, when we are taken where we do not wish to go?
Both holding on and letting go in response to Jesus’ call: “Follow me.”
Resources: Bram Sable-Smith, “Storytelling Helps Hospital Staff Learn About the Person, Not Just the Patient.” Heard on National Public Radio, Morning Edition, June 3, 2019. (https://www.npr.org/2019/06/03/729191879/patient-biographies-may-help-health-care-providers-relate; accessed 06/27/2019.)
Judy Yeakel, Sister, Tell Us Your Story: A Collection of Short Stories Featuring Women from the Bible (self-published, 2005).