In 1946 a young Episcopal priest was just beginning his ministry in Flossmoor, Illinois. As I heard this once young man tell the story this week he spoke of a tremendous advantage he had as a new priest in town in being able to attract other young men like himself to join the parish. That advantage was the fact that these young men, including himself, all in their mid to late twenties at the time, had a bond like no other that instantly connected them all. They were all veterans of a war that had just ended, World War II.
James Montgomery went on to become a bishop in the Episcopal Church and served as the Bishop of the Diocese of Chicago from 1971 to 1987. Bishop Montgomery, now 93 years old, was honored at a Veteran’s Day celebration held at the Diocese of Chicago center this past Tuesday and I was honored to attend and to hear him speak. During this celebration I was privileged to hear him tell the story of serving courageously in the Navy during World War II and participating in the invasion at Omaha Beach on D-Day. Upon returning from the war he decided to spend the rest of his life serving the church so he was ordained and began his long faithful ministry in Flossmoor, a southern suburb of Chicago.
Bishop Montgomery’s story was just one of the veteran’s story I heard this past week. Last Sunday I visited St. Paul’s Church in Peoria, Illinois and had the chance to meet quite a few veterans. At coffee hour I was honored to hear the stories of how serving in various wars affected the trajectories of their lives. Throughout the remainder of this week I continued to hear moving stories of love and sacrifice and was honored to be shown photographs of people’s loved ones who also served in the armed forces. I was also privileged to be able tell of my own father’s experience of how he was in the first wave of soldiers to liberate France at Utah beach on D-Day, and how much his life too was forever changed by serving our country during World War II.
I simply love to listen to people’s stories. Perhaps that is why I have loved being a priest and psychotherapist for the last three decades–because I love having the sacred honor of being invited into the stories of people’s lives. Someone once asked me several years ago if I ever got tired of listening to people’s problems. My response was quick and from the heart, “No, I don’t, because I don’t listen to people’s problems; I listen to their stories.” Our stories profoundly shape our identities. While it is we who tell our stories, it is equally true that our stories “tell us.” Our stories tell of how our character, values, faith, and how our very identities have been formed.
Of course, it is not just veterans who have important stories to be told and to be honored. Every person, no matter who they are, has fought tough battles and experienced his or her share of triumph and loss. Every person has both regrets and blessings to share and pass on, life lessons that they have learned and can share with others through the telling of his or her story.
Part of the power of personal stories is that they never become old. They continue to contain wisdom and can teach us important lessons. In fact they become deeper and more meaningful as we grow older, a fact that was evident this week when Bishop Montgomery shared his stories from the war and from sixty-eight years ago when he was a newly ordained priest. When he shared those powerful stories with those who were gathered to honor him it was as if they had just happened yesterday because the power of the experience is still very much alive in him.
So while Veteran’s Day may have passed for this year, may it serve as a reminder to all of us of regarding just how important it is to take the time to both tell and listen to the stories of each other’s lives. Is there someone special whose story you would like to hear? Is there someone to whom you would like to tell your story? Sharing our stories enriches our understanding of each other, creates deeper bonds and helps us appreciate each other in new and more authentic ways.