This winter I finished a draft of a book I hope to publish. Much of the book recounts the lives of my family members, some who have died or whom I’ve never met. Their stories of migration and new life in America all happened before and without me. But they are my stories, too. Without them, I wouldn’t be here. When I was young, I needed to hear these stories again and again. I loved the drama and suspense of how my grandmother and mother escaped to Hong Kong by boat, or how their departure was foretold by a blind fortuneteller only months before they fled.
Looking back, I think a deeper hunger was calling for those stories. In The Storytelling Animal: How Stories Make Us Human, Jonathan Gottschall writes that stories fulfill an “ancient function of binding society by reinforcing a set of common values and strengthening the ties of common culture.” Stories, he continues, are “perhaps the main cohering force in human life.” Through my family’s stories, I came to know myself, where I came from, and to whom I was bound. The stories also helped me understand those who survived so that I could be here: what they endured and lost, and why their love sometimes felt sharp or fearful. Later, I filled in a lot of gaps with history books, which helped me see myself and my family as part of many larger stories—Mao’s disastrous Great Leap Forward, the worst famine in human history, and a generation of desperate migrants whose assimilation cost them a sense of belonging.
The Gospel reading for today, the fourth Sunday of Lent, is about a story that won’t let its hearers go. Jesus restores a blind man’s sight, but his neighbors, unable to believe their own eyes, demand the story of how he was healed. The once-blind man tells them, “The man called Jesus made clay and anointed my eyes and told me, ‘Go to Siloam and wash.’ So I went there and washed and was able to see.” Still unsettled, the neighbors take the man before the Pharisees, who also press him for the story, and then even go question the man’s parents. Though they respond with incredulity, anger, and discord over whether the one who healed him is sinful or a prophet, they all continue to ask for the story. They seem desperate to hear, to understand, and perhaps to believe. For although the story causes them alarm and confusion, it has captured them and will not leave them unchanged. When they return yet again and ask him, “How did he open your eyes?” the man is almost bemused. Are they all asking, he wonders, because they want to become disciples too?
Our hunger for stories reveals everything about us. What we want to hear is what we want to be. A story calls to a part of us, even if that part is hidden, rejected, or unknown. I wonder if the people who heard the story of Jesus healing their neighbor realized that both he and they belonged now to something entirely new—a kingdom where physical affliction was not a punishment for sin, where whether one is blind and another has sight is not what separates them from each other.
My family’s stories sat with me for a long time before I began to write them. And then, suddenly, I was overcome with an urgency I’d never experienced before. I even took half a year of unpaid leave to finish the book, writing as if my life depended on it. Stories are alive in this way, needing to be heard, to connect with us. Like me, everything for these neighbors hinged on the actions of someone they have never met. "This is what is so amazing,” the once-blind man tells them. “That you do not know where he is from, yet he opened my eyes.”
Being shown a new kingdom is one thing, but what to do next seems infinitely harder. How do the neighbors, the man, his parents, and the Pharisees all move forward into a new kind of belonging, a new set of common values, ties, and culture that this story demands? How disorienting and terrifying that work must have seemed. Eventually, they say to the man, “You were born totally in sin, and are you trying to teach us?” Then, “they threw him out.” But the story doesn’t end there. Jesus seeks the man out in his exile and, in speaking to him, we discover that some of the Pharisees are with Jesus, listening. They have followed him. They are still asking questions.
During Lent, we work to move with more determination and less distraction toward our place of ultimate belonging. We have heard stories of that kingdom that cannot be un-heard. Despite our many fears and rejections, these stories continue to draw us in, draw us together, and draw us toward the shared ending that God desires for us.