How does a church that is rooted largely in a tradition of proclamation shift to a position that is largely rooted in the practice of holy listening?
Recently, I was at a small gathering where the facilitator was encouraging us to listen for our truth. Then she added as a guide to our process, “Speak only when you can improve on the silence.” Ooooh, did that ever resonate in my soul! What I loved about it was the acknowledgment that sometimes our words actually violate the wisdom of silence. What I loved about it was this unspoken assumption that listening was as important, if not more so, than speaking. Don’t speak, she implied, until your truth is more meaty than the delicious silence!
Before I took this position as the Presbyter for Vision and Mission I had served the church completely as a solo pastor—meaning that I was called upon to have something pithy and inspiring to say every Sunday at 10:00 a.m.! I remember a few years ago that a nagging voice started to pester me before Sunday mornings that said, “I don’t want to HAVE to say anything. I just want to listen. I am so tired of words, words, words!”
Of course, I never stopped preaching, but I did notice that my preaching prep shifted toward many hours of silent contemplation. In the past I would have read books, done research, pulled out the commentaries and searched the web for the perfect story. Today my preaching prep includes very little research but hours of holy listening and contemplation.
I would rather be silent than to preach and have nothing to say!
I do hope that every time I blog I have something important to say, something that gives the reader a nugget or two to reflect on, something that tweaks your usual way of seeing the world and life and faith and God. But this week I believe that what I have to say is not just important, but is central and paramount to this winding journey of faith we find ourselves on.
I am convinced that the future of the church will be dependent on our ability to listen to the Other and our willingness to engage with people who do not think like us, look like us, or believe like us.
Last week Paul and I were in Chicago for the national meeting of mid-council staff. The first day we were led by a dynamic duo, the Rev. Dr. Greg Ellison and Ms. Georgette Ledgister, in a retreat-like process following Greg’s book Fearless Dialogues: A New Movement for Justice. How they took a room of 300 executives and stated clerks and created an intimate environment for holy listening, I’ll never know. But they did it!
Our first exercise was to look at individual pictures that were placed in the middle of our group of five chairs. Most, if not all, of the pictures represented people and activities and cultures that were not typical of a Sunday morning worship service in the PCUSA. In other words, we were looking at the Other. Then we were asked to reflect on three questions:
- Who do you see?
- Who do you not hear?
- Where is the hope?
What struck me about the process was that there outside of our normal church setting we tended to listen to the unwritten stories of these people pictured rather than seeing them as objects of our church outreach and membership needs. They were not potential church members, but people with their own stories, own strengths and fears, own hopes and concerns. In other words, they were not objects of our needs and wants, but subjects with their own needs and wants.
This exercise really hit home for me. I am convinced that the future of our church is going to be based on our willingness to listen to and engage with people who do not think like us, look like us, and believe like us.
In that vein, I am trying to model for the presbytery this willingness to listen to and get to know the Other. What I need from you is to take advantage of this opportunity. In recent months I have gotten to know Corinna Nicolaou, the author of A None’s Story: Searching for Meaning Inside Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism and Islam. Corinna is a “none,” that is a person who checks the none box on the census form with regard to religious affiliation (like 37% of the people in the Pacific Northwest). But Corinna is also a spiritual pilgrim who set out on a journey of discovery in response to a yearning, “I wished to know what the faithful knew,” as she put it in the introduction to her wonderfully revealing book.
Corinna has agreed to write a six-month column for the Omnibus in an Ann Landers’ Q and A style. We have a need to listen to the people around us and Corinna has a desire to share her spiritual journey and discoveries as we wrestle with the place and purpose of our Christian worshiping communities in this time and in this particularly beautiful slice of God’s creation, the Pacific Northwest.
If you would like to hear the story, the spiritual journey or even the advice of one who has taken the time to get to know us please fill out the following form with your question for Corinna using this link (https://docs.google.com/forms/d/e/1FAIpQLSdQJfgWxYTMRgH267x4cuMgANvTnxIdEEbvi_YcrWt7bN916Q/viewform). Corinna’s column “None Sense” will run from January through June, 2019.
We are a church rooted in a tradition of proclamation.
Today I proclaim, “It is time to listen!”
Thanks Brian for the wisdom. Good thinking. Will work on being silent (in our family we talk too much). Elaine
Excellent thought. Silence if it won’t improve the situation. Going to keep that close at heart.
Just finished reading Mark Batterson’s book Whisper, How to Hear the Voice of God. Much easier to do if you are not talking!