Then the high priest asked him, “Are these things so?” And Stephen replied: “Brothers and fathers, listen to me. The God of glory appeared to our ancestor Abraham when he was in Mesopotamia…” – Acts 7:1-2 (NRSV)
It’s amazing how fast old family stories can turn sometimes. Take a story that’s been told at a thousand Thanksgivings or reunions: this person’s temper or that person’s mood swings, this person’s clownishness or that person’s seriousness, this person’s wild success or that person’s relentless screwups. Listen to the exact same story after you’ve had several years of quality therapy, or after you learn words like “addiction” or “bipolar disorder,” “trauma” or “emotional fusion.” Suddenly it doesn’t seem quite as funny or charming. Suddenly it’s about something else entirely.
This is how it is for Stephen. He knows the stories of God’s relationship with Israel as well as anybody; he proves it by reciting basically all of them from memory. He tells them the same way they’ve always been told—except that Stephen has learned the name “Jesus” now. For Stephen, the old stories have layer upon layer of new meaning. Now he finally understands, or at least he thinks he does.
His listeners disagree, of course. They have their own ideas about what the stories mean. This works out for Stephen about as well as it usually works out when one member of the family decides they know better than everybody else how to interpret the family history.
Before long, the family members are taking sides. The people gathered in the living room at the reunion congratulate one another on understanding better than the ones gathered in the kitchen. The ones gathered in the kitchen do the reverse.
This side of heaven, who’s to say who’s right and who’s wrong?
For the stories, for all the ways we tell them and understand them, thank you. Amen.
Quinn G. Caldwell is Chaplain of the Protestant Cooperative Ministry at Cornell University. His most recent book is a series of daily reflections for Advent and Christmas called All I Really Want: Readings for a Modern Christmas. Learn more about it and find him on Facebook at Quinn G. Caldwell.