Within the past few weeks, I have witnessed too many cases of misunderstanding and hurt feelings over language and the unreadiness to listen beyond language.
Overtly, the struggles are framed as being between “non-Christians” and “Christians,” between “secular” and “religious,” between “liberal” and “orthodox.”
They are framed as being over who has been hurtful, disrespectful, hostile or even exclusionary toward whom.
The sad irony is that all of these people are passionate about lifting up loving kinship as the highest principle for human behavior—whether it is framed in terms of humanistic ethics or of divinely established covenants.
We each have our own private languages for naming to ourselves what we believe.
We gather, when we can, with others who seem to share that same language.
We attempt to extend our kinship boundaries to still others, who share our passion for loving kinship, though they seem to speak a different language.
We stumble again.
Our differing languages get in the way. They get in the way because they are not about the present. They are about where we came from, what we believe blessed us, what we believe hurt us.
We react to languages and labels and categories, instead of to individuals.
Then, even in our attempts to make peace or to confront unthinking hurtfulness, we find that our languages, our labels and our categories interpose themselves between us.
Here are two “spoken ministries” for listening beyond language.
The first is from Hystery, posted recently on her Plainly Pagan blog:
Here are some questions for Christian Friends
1. Is this person a non-Christian? If so, do they have a Christian background or do they come to us from an entirely different spiritual or philosophical background? Do I truly know enough about their background to make judgments about their intentions?
2. If this person is a former Christian, do I know why they now no longer call themselves Christian? Which Christian perspective (out of the multitudes) is in their past and how does that affect their relationship to christ-centered language? Was their experience with their version of Christianity predominantly positive or negative? What care and sensitivity does this individual require to encourage their best gift of love?
Here are some questions for non-Christian Friends
1. When you hear Christian language, are you overlaying your own frustrations with judgmental Christians onto your interpretation of the current speaker’s words? Can you take the time to hear this speaker as a precious individual ? Are you remembering that there are many Christian perspectives or are you making stereotyping judgments?
2. How familiar are you with scriptural language as it is often used by Friends? Can you make better interpretations of their meaning if you delve more deeply into this poetic language as a foundational aspect of historical Friends’ witness or are you confusing this language with the usage of Christian language from other historical traditions?
For all Friends encountering someone whose background differs from your own
1. Can you, like the Native American man who was moved by John Woolman’s ministry, hear where their words come from? Can you discern kindness and good intention in this speaker even when their words offend or confuse? ( William Penn said, “Men are to be judged by their likeness to Christ, rather than their notions of Christ.”)
2. Do you really want to injure or reject this person before you who wants to belong in your society and who has exposed their difference to you in trust?
The second “spoken ministry” is from Wendiferous, who does not blog but sends marvelous, loving emails to practically everyone on the planet:
I confess, I enjoy experimenting with loving my enemies. I plumb my heart for enemies to love.
And, I don’t say (when asked) whether or not I’m Christian. I say: “That’s for you to figure out.”
And so it is.
3 comments On Listening
Thanks so much for this Michael. In my experience listening is the key – listening with the heart, beyond language. However we each need to put our spiritual journey into words sometimes and that is when we need to be listened to with respect and without predjudice.
You may enjoy Gretta Vosper’s book With or Without God: Why the Way We Live Is More Important Than What We Believe. She is a pastor who addresses this issue and others central to progressive Christianity in a loving and honest manner. As far as I know, it’s not being sold in Jacksonville, but you can get it on Amazon. Hope all is well. Love, Virginia Martin
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