The air was filled with laughter and chatter, as more than 4000 women took their seats in the auditorium. Everywhere I looked I saw women hugging one another ‘hello’, squealing with delight as they located a friend, beckoning her over, ‘I saved you a seat, come sit with me’. We were all there for a women’s conference. A celebration of friendship, purpose and love and yet I felt utterly alone. No one had saved me a seat; there were no smiles of recognition as my gaze connected with other women in the crowd. I was there on my own. New to this city, it was a last minute decision to attend the event and it seemed like everyone had a friend except me.
After 10 years of living overseas, our family had returned to Australia, in part because our seven-year old son was being treated for an aggressive form of leukemia at the nearby children’s hospital. Jacob had been given a rare and precious break from chemotherapy and was at home being cared for by his dad. This provided me with the opportunity for a bit of ‘me time’. I thought coming to the conference would be an opportunity to have my faith invigorated and my spirit refreshed, yet the first session hadn’t even begun and I was already regretting my decision. I was overwhelmed and feeling very sorry for myself.
The session began with a time of incredible worship but even that did not succeed in lifting my dark mood. When the host of the conference took to the stage to welcome us, she finished with this dreaded request, ‘Before you sit down, turn to your neighbour and give her a kiss’. My stomach was churning. I didn’t want to make small talk with a stranger and I certainly didn’t want to kiss her. But I dutifully and reluctantly turned to my right and met Jean.
Jean’s eyes were red, her cheeks tear stained and, as she clasped my hand with her own, I felt her tremble. She was at least 70 and told me that she too was here on her own. She had almost not come. She was still fragile after the death of her husband of 50 years, only six weeks ago. And then this sweet, grieving woman asked me, ‘How are you doing, dear’? In the few precious minutes that followed, I shared just a little of my story with her. And so, a grieving widow and an anxious mother of a desperately sick child reminded each other that no matter how alone we might have felt, we were actually not alone after all.
I gladly hugged and kissed Jean as we sat down ready to hear from the guest speaker. It was then that I sensed the Holy Spirit nudge me ever so gently, ‘You’re never the only one’ he said. ‘This auditorium is filled with women just like you and Jean, and they all have their own story to share, if someone will take the time to listen.’
As those words penetrated my heart, I began to look at the auditorium differently. Instead of seeing a crowd of confident, connected, ‘got it all together’ women who intimidated me, I began to see them for who they really were; uniquely beautiful, nervously expectant and extremely precious individuals who were probably a lot more like me than I realised. God gave me a glimpse of what I think He sees when He looks at us. Not a label or stereotype in sight but rather a powerful gathering of living, breathing stories of grace.
That moment marked the beginning of a journey for me. Many years after my conversation with Jean at the conference I was praying about my future when I clearly heard God say, ‘I want you to bear witness to what I am doing. Share my stories of grace’. So I began to ask and listen. I’ll be honest; neither of those things come naturally to me. But the more I have inclined my ear to listen to other people’s stories, rather than looking for an audience for my own, the more I have discovered how compelling and inspiring these stories are.
With every story, I am reminded of how creative and relentless God is, in pursuing His children. How passionately He desires us to experience His grace and freedom. How much wisdom, courage and strength there is to be found in the lives of everyday women. The more I hear other people’s stories the less fixated I become on my own. Not that it isn’t important – it is, but when I see it in the context of the greater story that God is authoring, my perspective is clearer and healthier.
Our stories are powerful - they build bridges instead of walls, they challenge labels and stereotypes, they invite intimacy and establish community and they reveal grace that conquers shame. Our stories matter.
‘The Lord announces the word,
And the women who proclaim it are a mighty host.’
Psalm 68:11 (NIV)
Linda Pesavento is the heart and voice behind The She is Project - an online community for women dedicated to ‘honouring your story, revealing God’s grace and releasing hope'. A pastor, speaker and author, Linda loves Jesus, adventure, and making new friends! She has been married to Gary for more than 25 years and together they are raising two delightfully intelligent, funny, kind and quirky teenagers and an overindulged labradoodle.