Listening to Each Other

Acts 5:27-32; Psalm 150; Revelation 1:4-8; John 20:19-31

We’ve all had those moments.  Our spouse waxes on passionately about a topic he or she is closely following.  The receiving spouse smiles and nods at the appropriate moment and then there is this big thud in the monologue.  The talker stops and says to the listener, “Are you hearing what I am saying? … Are you even listening to me? … Hello in there.”  It’s like when you drive through one of those cell phone blackout zones and you keep talking when the line is dead.

But a faith community listens to each other in love and trust.  Real listening is hard work because it requires that for a moment we set aside who we are with our bias, prejudice, background, social location and emotional baggage.  Real listening requires that we willingly step into the other person’s shoes for a minute and walk in those shoes.  Real listening is never about interpreting what you hear based upon your own situation in life; instead it is about understanding, literally standing under, the other person.

Real listening demands that we hang in there.  Sometimes we are going to hear things that are uncomfortable or challenging.  Before slavery was abolished first in England and later in the United States, Anglican and Episcopal priests taught and preached pro-slavery sermons to their churches for over a century.  Their interpretation of the Bible was all based upon a slave-owning, slavery-is-ok point of view so of course they used the Bible to justify everything about slavery.  When slavery was abolished, the priests, preachers and their congregations on the slave-owning side were forced into some very difficult dialogues.  All of a sudden, everything they had been taught based upon the Bible, was wrong.

Real listening only takes place in real communities.  It is very easy to create a collection of like-minded people.  Set up the single authority as being the pastor.  Establish the pastor’s interpretation of the Bible as the only valid interpretation and then see to it that anyone who disagrees with that interpretation is uninvited.  That is not a community in Christ.  It is a group of people who all like to agree with each other.  There will never be any real listening or difficult dialogues in such a place because that has all been eliminated by the authoritative pastor.

Take a look at our own culture for a minute.  We have subjugated the rights of women since ancient Greece where women were excluded from full citizenship.  Ancient Rome was similar in that women had no public voice or public role although they had some legal protection that did not extend to slaves or foreigners.  By the time we get to the Middle Ages, the Church of England and English culture regarded women as weak, irrational and vulnerable to temptation.  The medieval church promoted the Virgin Mary as a role model for women to emulate by being innocent in sexuality, married to a husband and eventually bearing children.  Women were referred to in conversation as “his daughter” or “his wife.”

By the 17th century in Europe and the American colonies, who can ignore the famous witch trials where at Salem Massachusetts over XX women were crushed or burned to death?  By 1869 an English philosopher commented that “We are continually told that civilization and Christianity have restored to the woman her just rights.”  He goes on to say that in practice the wife is the “bondservant of her husband” no less than that of slaves.

In the United States, women earned the right to vote in 1920, fifty years after many European nations.  Today women in all professional categories still earn less than men performing the same job by 20% or more.

So what does this cultural tour of the history of women’s right mean?  If we were to have a difficult dialogue about the role of women in our society, in combat, in professional work or in the home, I would FIRST need to acknowledge that I am biased by 2500 years of cultural history.  I need to work hard and examine my own cultural baggage before I could even listen to a woman talk about her situation.

The strength of real dialogue and listening in community is that more wisdom and faith emerges from such work than any individual in the group could imagine.  The strength of the whole community is greater than the sum of its parts.  That is why Jesus constantly referred to us as sheep.  A flock of sheep has hundreds of eyes scanning for danger in all directions.  A flock of sheep is far stronger and more resilient than one individual sheep.  A faith community is like that too.  We have hundreds of hearts open not only to the possibility of danger but also to the possibility of opportunity.

Thomas was not just a doubting Thomas, he violated the trust of the community.  He did not listen to his colleagues but instead listened to his own inner voice.  “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands, and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.”  Whenever we think we have all the answers and whenever we refuse to really understand others in our community with opposing or difficult positions, we become like Thomas depending only on ourselves; listening only to our own voice.

But when we are willing to admit that maybe we don’t know all the facts and we don’t have all the answers and we can sit down to really listen to our community then we are like the other disciples.  We don’t need the physical evidence.  We only need the testimony of our community.  “We have seen the Lord!”