Everyone has a story. Some are dramatic. Some less so. But each of us is the proud owner of a personal story, a story that is unique, a story that has God’s fingerprints all over it.

Sadly, many of us don’t get to tell our stories. We don’t have the opportunity. We don’t take the time. But, mostly, we don’t have an audience. Everyone is busy. Everyone is going in ten different directions. No one seems willing to sit still, look us in the eye, and give us the gift of listening.

At Mission Resource Network’s “Missionary Renewal Retreat,” a significant portion of our time has been devoted to telling (and hearing!) stories. Tales from far-flung mission points. Accounts of spiritual highs and lows. Reports of teams that pulled together and tore apart. Memories of people who influenced and modeled and inspired. Laments of people who have discouraged and disappointed and disillusioned.

It is amazing how powerful these stories can be, the emotions they dredge up, the cleansing they afford. The simple act of telling, the simple gift of listening, is enormously cathartic, affording the story-teller a chance to unburden and release … allowing the listener to bestow empathy and understanding.

“Telling my story” permits us to share our personal history, to process that history as we narrate, and to discover the emotional residue that the past has left on the present. Telling uncovers old debts of gratitude, stagnant pools of anger and pain. Telling encourages us to “connect the dots,” to see relationships between influences and decisions, the people who have marked us and the paths we have traveled. Telling allows us to confront old wounds in a safe place. Telling encourages us to trust others with the most personal treasure we have to share—the story of ourselves.

“Hearing” allows us to walk in someone else’s shoes, to go places we’ve never been, and to vicariously experience lives we have never lived. My “hearing” this week has taken me to Australia, Albania, Russia, Greece, New York, New Zealand, Brazil, the Netherlands, Peru, Uganda, West Africa, Mozambique, Swaziland, Portugal, and Honduras. I have seen people throw oranges at scorpions. I’ve cringed at the gunshot that took a fellow missionary’s life. I’ve hidden from mobs and doled out the last of my food and embraced my family after long absences. “Hearing” has enabled me to experience a dozen lives in a single week.

Mostly, though, I have blessed people with simple respect … by sitting silently, watching intently, permitting stories—with all their good and bad, confession and boasting, pain and joy—to wash over me and fill me up and flow back again. Somehow, it is respect that makes the difference. Not my wise words in response to stories. Not my good advice and careful insights. The listening itself. The act of pausing my own living long enough to acknowledge and affirm the life of another.

We could do this—telling and listening—all the time, if we wanted. We don’t really require a lake-side retreat with an agenda and catered food. It could happen at Starbucks. Around our kitchen tables. In the car on a road trip. Anywhere there is a little privacy and a bit of quiet, we could say those words so many are hungry to hear: “We’ve got a little time. Why don’t you tell me your story? Start at the beginning. Take it slow. I really want to hear what God has done in your life.”

Then sit back and listen. Give yourself to the listening. Lose yourself in the listening. Let the words of the story take you far, far away and long, long ago. On the journey, you are likely to meet the bearer of this tale in ways you’ve never experienced before. And, if you listen hard enough, you’ll encounter the hand of God moving in the life of another in mysterious and wondrous ways.