January 19, 2011

You Had to Have Been There

It happens to us all. You tell one of your favorite personal experiences to a crowd of listeners, and when you reach the end, you’re met with nothing but blank stares. Somewhere in the midst of the narrative you must have lost them; they just don’t “get it.” With an embarrassed shuffle of the feet, you cast your eyes downward and mumble, “Well, I guess you had to have been there.”

Or perhaps you’ve been on the receiving end of the dilemma. A whole crowd of people who are longtime friends begin telling inside jokes that leave you entirely in the dark. Someone excitedly asks, “Remember the time when . . . ?” and everyone laughs and nods their heads in unison. Everyone, that is, except you. From somewhere within the knot of compatriots, a considerate individual notices you lingering on the outskirts wearing a confused expression. He pats you pityingly on the back and says, “Don’t worry. You had to have been there.”

Some of us have experienced this situation more often than others. Being a highly mobile missionary kid, I spent most of my younger years drifting from preestablished circle to preestablished circle. I hung about the outskirts at many a gathering, waiting for people to explain to me what was so funny about the stories being told. Any tale that I myself ventured to tell was full of so many explanations that most people lost the point of it before the end, and preferred to interrupt with a story that—to them—was more relevant for the occasion.

My one reliable audience, though, was always my family. Mom and Dad and Little Sister had been through everything with me; they never needed qualifying explanations in order to get the gist of my narrative. I could always ask them, “Remember the time when . . . ?” and they would happily nod in unison! They had been there too.

2011 1502 page26I’ll never forget the first major journey I took by myself. As a treat—in honor of my graduation from high school—my parents sent me on a summer trip to Denmark to visit our many distant relations and friends living in that country. Despite the historical ties between our families, I wasn’t very well acquainted with any of them. Most of my time was spent introducing myself as I traveled from house to house. Not having any prior knowledge of me except that I was my parents’ daughter, each new acquaintance demanded a full explanation of who I was and what I stood for. The experience was quite educational and resulted in my making several good friends. But at the time I felt very much alone.

The solitude of the situation hit me most forcefully following an evening telephone call to my family back home. Throughout the entire conversation I had been explaining to them what I’d been doing, with whom I’d been visiting, and what I’d been learning. The realization dawned upon me that they wouldn’t fully grasp my experience because they hadn’t been there themselves! For the first time that I could remember, I had to use the phrase “You had to have been there” with my parents! An overwhelming feeling of isolation swept over me. I threw myself on my bed and began sobbing. Was there no one who shared everything with me? Would I have to spend my whole life explaining everything to everyone? Didn’t anyone know what it was like?

As soon as I calmed down and took time to blow my nose, I was met by a comforting reassurance: Jesus was there! He was with me during my travels. He’d shared in every experience that I’d gone through, and He knew what each one was like. I didn’t have to explain anything to Him. He already knew. He’d “been there.”

The implications of this comforting revelation carried me much further than my brief trip to Denmark. I soon began to see the corollary between my life experiences and Christ’s life. Not only could He relate to my Danish travel experiences—He could understand my point of view as a missionary kid. I would often bite my lip in frustration at the information gaps between my various circles of friends. Because of my close ties to the continent of Africa my exasperation would mount whenever I would realize my American friends would never understand what it was like to feel part of a developing country’s society. As an American citizen, I would get impatient when my African friends didn’t understand what it was like living in the United States.

Reflecting upon these sentiments in the light of Jesus’ life, I wondered whether He ever had similar feelings. What was it like to have experienced both earthly life and heavenly life? While Jesus was on earth, His human friends were never able to grasp fully what it was like to be supernatural. Now that He is in heaven, the angels cannot fully fathom what it’s like to walk and talk as a human. Nobody but Christ has experienced both realms to their full extent. He, too, knows what it’s like to be the only one who’s “been there.”

Jesus, in fact, shares experiences with each one of us. A recent e-mail reminded me of the various ways in which Jesus relates to us: He grew up getting picked on and cuffed about by bullies in tough Galilee, so He can say to those who were abused, “I’ve been there.” He grew up with parents who loved Him and cared for Him; He can say to those from sheltered homes, “I’ve been there.” He grew up in a lonely fishing village; He can say to those from one-town childhoods, “I’ve been there.” He spent significant time working in Jerusalem; He can say to those from large cities, “I’ve been there.” He knows what it’s like. He’s been around our block, and through His Holy Spirit He continues to share in our daily experiences.

We, however, have shared in only half of His experiences. We’ve tasted the earthly side of His existence, but the heavenly side is still waiting for us in eternity. I only can imagine His outstretched arms of welcome when we enter those celestial gates. At last we can begin sharing in everything that Christ has for us. No more “You had to have been there.” At long last, we all will have been there.


Petra Houmann Howe and her husband, Paul, are currently serving at Gimbie Seventh-day Adventist Hospital in Ethiopia. They are committed to spreading the good news of God’s love around the world. This article was published January 20, 2011.