“Every exam has a story.” Those may not have been the exact words said on Tuesday morning, but they were pretty close. I spent the early part of the week
grading evaluating the Worship and Sacrament Ordination exams for the PC(USA). These are the exams taken by candidates, usually in their senior year of seminary, or by those wishing to transfer into the PC(USA) from other denominations. It’s a big, huge deal. I had never evaluated exams before, and it was a fascinating experience to be sequestered in a hotel for 3 days reading the answers written to the questions. By Tuesday morning, (day 2 of 3), my brain had started to hurt. Not in a bad way, just in that way muscles that have not been used for a while hurt when you use them too much.
It was a good reminder that behind every paper was a story. A person who feels called by God to the Ministry of Word and Sacrament. Someone who may or may not have prepared, someone who is anxiously awaiting the news of what happened in Atlanta and Chicago (the other grading site) this week. As I was grading, I was sitting in a lobby area outside of the big room where everyone else was. I needed to be someplace where I could wiggle around and stretch and wander if I needed to and not disrupt people. I made some new friends and we had a grand time. We learned each other’s stories as we spent days together trying to sort out what was “satisfactory” and what was not. In our lobby area, we saw the comings and goings of the other conferences happening in our corner of the world too. There was the large group from IBM, who we learned were there for some kind of final crash course followed by an exam (they had an open bar at night!) During their breaks they were in the halls on their phones calling back to home offices and homes. We overheard stories about projects falling apart and kids with the flu. I was sad it was more calls about the former. The group from International Paper kept to themselves. I shared the couch with a woman waiting for her sister the third day. Her sister was at an Air Force meeting of some kind, and the sister was a triage nurse who wants a career change.
I saw hundreds of faces while I was away. And just as each exam has a story, each of their faces has a story. The man whose phone call we overheard, talking to his wife about what the Tooth Fairy was to leave, and wondering if the Tooth Fairy could wait until he came home the next night to see it. We were in the elevator later, and I asked him how old his daughter was. “She’s six. Lost her first 2 teeth and I want to be there to see her face when she looks under her pillow.” I don’t know if he made it or not.
So many faces, so many people, so many stories. Each month we see faces come into our office looking for help. Some we refer to the Community Resource office, some we can help. I don’t always ask for their story. Being away was a good reminder that each person created by God has a story, and many want to tell it, or want someone to ask them about it. But when we do hear the stories, thy are usually heartbreaking. In this day and time, they are stories of jobs lost, individuals and families trying to make ends meet and not being able to do so. In their stories, I hear echoes of the stories I hear from people in our church. Sometimes, when we write a check or pay a bill we solve a problem. Sometimes when we take the time to listen, really listen, to a story, we do so much more. We say, without using words, “you have something important to say. Your life and work matter. I have time for you.” The cashier at the grocery store may want to hear someone ask “how are you today” and listen to their answer. You waiter may be bursting with pride that his son scored his first soccer goal last week. A co-worker may be in crisis. Every exam has a story. Every face has a story. What stories are you hearing?