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Posts Tagged ‘Bible’

Why We Must Listen, and Listen, and Listen Again

This isn’t about aural listening per se, but I think the lesson still applies.

Today my church’s lectionary (a fixed order of sacred texts for each day of the year) prescribed the reading of Matthew 19:1-12, in which Jesus speaks out on divorce. In keeping with the monastic tradition that I’m associated with, Igive these lectionary passages a slow, contemplative reading, listening to how the passage speaks to my heart more than my head.

The first time through, the liturgy from weddings past echoed in my mind: “That which God hath joined together, let no man put asunder.” The second time through, I heard what I’ve always heard in this passage: Jesus holds marriage as sacred, regards divorce as a necessary evil, and has some tough words about remarrying—the sort of thing that does not go down well when your country’s divorce rate hovers around 40 percent.

Something, though, made me linger.

As I wandered through a third time, another insight emerged. Nearly every reference has to do with a man divorcing his wife—not the other way around. As noted in Breakthrough: The Bible for Young Catholics, “Women in Jesus’ culture had very few rights and were basically considered the property of their husbands.” A divorced woman would have been extremely vulnerable economically and socially.

Maybe this passage isn’t about divorce in general, then. Maybe it’s about men and the imperative for them to treat their partners with reverence—along with the implicit message that the women they thought were their property really are much more.

So which interpretation is correct? Both? Neither? I can’t tell you for sure—even the notes in my Bibles don’t agree. The point here, though, is this:

There’s a risk in thinking we’ve listened enough. Just when we think we “get it”—whether “it” is the meaning of a familiar sacred text, the situation of a friend in crisis, or the experience of historically oppressed groups—we may suddenly stumble upon a deeper perspective, or a whole new level of nuance, or a different side to the issue that has completely escaped us. Which calls us to listen first, last, and always.

In any isolated instance, of course, we may have to wrap up our listening for reasons of time or schedule. But we’re on thin ice in thinking we’ve “arrived” at enlightenment on any given issue and therefore need listen no more.

***

As you’ve probably noticed, I’ve been away from this page for a couple of months. One reason for that involves a difficult experience that I’m starting to think—and write—my way through; you’ll see more on that in cyberspace over the next weeks and months. Another reason has to do with the strategic planning I’ve been doing with regard to The Dialogue Venture. As a result of that planning, you will probably see more of me in places like HuffPost Religion and, I hope, the Christian Century blog (my first post for them—yay!—is here) and the Doing Dialogue blog for the Public Conversations Project and various other places. Because I’m only one person, though, that means I’ll be blogging here on an occasional basis rather than the weekly or biweekly articles I’ve posted till now. Please feel welcome to stay in touch, watch this page, and check my screed elsewhere on the web too.

Dialogue, Wisdom, and “Pondering How to Answer”

The mind of the righteous ponders how to answer, but the mouth of the wicked pours out evil. —Proverbs 15:28

One marvelous aspect of lectio divina (the slow, reflective, contemplative reading of sacred texts) is that it allows “weak signals” to come to the surface—connections between words, ideas, and glimpses of wisdom we might otherwise miss. I’m currently wading through the Book of Proverbs in lectio-like fashion, and it brought me to the verse above.

What emerged for me was the contrast between pour and ponder.

Pour, at least in this sentence, has an urgency, a volume, even a violence to it. Think of the Gatorade that gets dumped on the head of a winning football coach: it comes out fast, it drenches everything in its wake, one pour and it’s over.

Now think of ponder. It is slow, quiet. When pondering, we turn over ideas leisurely and examine them thoughtfully. The movement is precisely opposite that of pour. The outcome of ponder emerges more slowly, but it may make a deeper impact.

As I reflected on this verse, I couldn’t help but go back to my earlier post on the aftermath of the Newtown shootings. Think of the pouring that took place soon after the tragedy: certainly an outpouring of shock and grief, but then a veritable tidal wave of opinion on every issue that could possibly relate.

Unlike the verse from Proverbs, I’m not thinking in terms of righteous or wicked here. In fact, not all the pouring was unhelpful; some of it, on the contrary, is required reading for the dialogue we must have in the wake of tragedies like this. (I’m thinking particularly of the haunting and honest “I Am Adam Lanza’s Mother.”) But I could not avoid the notion that all this pouring crowded out any space for pondering.

So it is with U.S. culture. We are “always on,” with advertising in every conceivable space, 24/7 news, instant access to the chatter of social media on demand. So many public places (doctor’s waiting rooms, bank branches) now come equipped with TVs, which are inevitably on. Everything seems to require background music.

In other words, we are an always-pour culture. We could use more pondering. Many of our personal and social ills can only come to resolution through pondering. Issues from climate change to the fiscal cliff to raising a difficult teenager cannot be solved when the pouring absorbs all our time and attention. They are simply too complex for that.

How can we make space for pondering? The only way I know is on an individual basis. Facebook and CNN aren’t going away just because we need a little space. That calls on us to listen carefully to our inner compass—to sense when we need to enter the fray and when we need to “come away and refresh ourselves.”

What do you think?

What Good Friday Says About Dialogue

It’s hard for me to compose a blog post on Good Friday and not write about Jesus. He is, after all, the central figure of the Christian faith, and his execution on a Roman cross is a key part of the central event. In Christian theology, the Crucifixion speaks volumes—innumerable volumes—about the love of God.

Does it have anything to do with dialogue? I think it does speak to dialogue, and the message is strikingly nuanced.

On the one hand, the Jesus of the Gospels waxes eloquent about the ideals behind dialogue. He blesses the peacemakers, commands us to love our enemies, calls for unity among believers, and identifies all these imperatives as a reflection of God’s very heart.  We cannot love people most effectively without knowing them, and we cannot know them without listening: deeply, extensively, in the spirit of dialogue.

Then there is the example of Jesus himself.  His mission, of course, involved delivering a message, so in the Gospels he does a great deal of talking. But he also listens and, I would submit, is changed by the listening. He listens in amazement to a Roman centurion and says, “Not even in Israel have I found such faith” (Luke 7:1-9). He listens to a Gentile woman who deftly argues that she too is worthy of his attention (Mark 7:23b-30). He asks his disciples who they think he is (Mark 8:27-30)—and I don’t believe it’s a rhetorical question.

That is the one hand.

The other hand brings us much closer to Good Friday itself. It is the end of a life lived not in dialogue with the religious authorities, but in conflict with them. His penetrating and sometimes caustic remarks offend them deeply. They see him as a troublemaker in a time and place where troublemaking could lead to Roman crackdown. And then, one Passover season—with thousands of pilgrims turning Jerusalem into a security tinderbox—this Jesus goes into the temple and creates havoc, overthrowing tables and chasing out moneylenders.

Here is what I take from all this. Dialogue is a good, to be sure. More specifically, it is a good to be used when it makes sense—and in service to something else. In Jesus’ case, that “something else” involved two higher goods that he practiced throughout his ministry: truth regardless of consequences and love that crosses taboos.

You would think that “speaking the truth in love,” as St. Paul puts it (Ephesians 4:15), would be uncontroversial. Not everyone, however, wants the truth to be proclaimed. At times, none of us want the truth to be proclaimed. Similarly, not everyone wants the unlovable to be loved (and we all have our own “unlovables”). The simple action of upholding truth and compassion, then, can get you in trouble.

Perhaps that is one good message among many to take from Good Friday. Pursue truth relentlessly. Spread compassion extravagantly. Use dialogue where appropriate to pursue these higher goods and others. Together with the other gifts that the Jesus of the Gospels has given us, this legacy deserves our commitment and our praise.

Christians and the Call to Dialogue

We Christians are notorious for fighting. We fight among ourselves over subtleties of doctrine. We fight with other faith traditions over what constitutes Truth. The Crusades, an extreme example of fighting if there ever was one, are a horrible stain on our history.

Fortunately, some Christians have made good progress in dialogue over the past few decades, especially in the field of interfaith dialogue. That is a very good thing indeed. It puts us in line with a Savior who, I think, would heartily approve.

It is true that the biblical accounts of Jesus’ life make no mention of dialogue. But Jesus in these accounts waxes eloquent about the ideals and objectives behind dialogue. In the Sermon on the Mount—perhaps his most sweeping single statement of his approach to faith—he says, “Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (Matthew 5:9). A bit later in the same sermon, he exhorts his followers to “love your enemies…that you may be children of your Father in heaven” (5:44-45).

This label, “children of God,” fascinates me. It speaks, I think, not of mere familial relations but rather of affinity: people who, out of their deep connection with the Divine, reflect God’s orientation toward the world. People who reflect God are peacemakers. People who reflect God are committed to love.

What does this have to do with dialogue? Well, how can I love you most effectively—how can I act in your best interests, for your greatest good—unless I know you? And how can I know you unless I listen to you?

Listening also reflects what we read about Jesus. Among the numerous accounts of him preaching, challenging, probing, and delivering his message, several stories show him listening as well. He heard—and was amazed by—the faith of the centurion who asked for his servant’s healing (Matthew 6:5-13). He listened to the woman who cleverly parried his understanding of Jewish-Gentile relations (15:21-28). One might argue that he posed his famous question—“who do people say that I am?”—not as some test of his disciples’ understanding but honestly to seek their insight.

This same Jesus also prayed for another fruit of dialogue: unity. “I ask not only on behalf of [my disciples], but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, that they may all be one” (John 17:20-21).

That’s what I hear when I read the Bible. What does your faith—Christian or from another faith tradition—tell you about the need for dialogue? I would love to hear your thoughts.

 

St. James on Dialogue

How do you engage in dialogue when your tongue is “set on fire by hell”?

The biblical letter of James says quite a bit about the power of speech, none of it good. With the tongue we bless and curse. In our speech is “a world of iniquity.” The tongue is “a restless evil, full of deadly poison.” Worst of all, according to the passage, no one can tame it.

Hyperbole? To an extent—though anyone who has suffered from the destructive power of gossip, slander, or insult can attest to the truth of these words. The question is, once we know how destructive our speech can be, what do we do about it?

After 35 years of studying the Bible, I thought I had the answer nailed. Our job as people of faith was to vet our speech carefully, think before we speak, remain silent when in doubt. It’s hard to argue with that advice: we do want to be precise in our language, so that we communicate our insights clearly and accurately and discuss sensitive issues with care.

But this solution, if it is the only solution, has serious flaws. Most notably, it is too easy to slide from careful speech to an attitude of fear. Aware of the issues our speech can raise, we begin to fear that we can’t get our words right, or that people will misinterpret them, or that they will inflame sensitivities on certain issues. As we distrust our tongue, we distrust ourselves. We might choose to hide ourselves within the bounds of “nice speech,” the kind that doesn’t bring up “politics and religion.”

That may get us through difficult situations without taking flak. But it prevents us from sharing our uniqueness—that one-of-a-kind perspective that just might change someone’s mind or shed new light on a problem.

I think the author of James had something else in mind. Early in the passage, he or she asserts that “anyone who makes no mistakes in speaking is perfect” while freely admitting that “all of us make many mistakes.” In other words, it would be lovely if we could conquer our tongues—but it ain’t going to happen.

So what will work? The author waits till the end to offer this hint: “Can a fig tree…yield olives, or a grapevine figs?” Translated: “out of the mouth the heart speaks.”  We can only say what we are.

The challenge, then, is to change who we are.

This is why I believe our preparation for dialogue must start long before we get to the dialogue table. We need time to change from the inside out: to reorient our heart to openness and compassion, our mindsets toward curiosity, our awareness to the fact that we don’t have all the answers. If we do that, we can approach others with an orientation toward dialogue—with a clear mind and an open heart.

Best of all, we don’t have to keep such a close watch on our speech. When we speak from a good heart, good words tend to come out.

Changing from the inside out is a long process, of course, and taking care with our language is a virtue. But inner transformation can liberate us to share freely, speak boldly, and listen intensely—to participate fully in dialogue and the potential it can bring our world. A powerful message from an ancient sage.

The Human Tempest in Episcopal Miniature

This morning, to prepare for the upcoming annual convention of our Episcopal Diocese, I am pondering two resolutions on which we will vote. Because I have to suffer through this, so do you. (N.B.: There’s an important point at the end, and it goes way beyond The Episcopal Church. Still, if you’re short on time, skip to the boldface paragraph below.)

The two resolutions deal with the church’s trial courts, which come into play whenever a complaint is lodged against a priest or bishop. Our national convention has instituted a new structure for the court process; some people think it runs against the Church’s constitution. So, I’ve been doing some research to figure out what’s happening here.

Stop me if the following sounds oddly familiar.

One key issue is whether the power to make this change resides with the national authorities or the local authorities. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the Church’s constitution. Look through the constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.

Sound familiar yet? If not, here’s a clue: Think U.S. Constitution. And the Bible.

U.S. Constitution first. One key issue is whether the power to make changes resides with the national authorities or the local authorities (i.e., the states). It is perhaps the fundamental difference between Democrat and Republican. Much has been written to interpret the (possibly) relevant clauses of the U.S. Constitution. Look through the Constitution itself, however, and the language is not only vague, but written in a specific time and place. It (perhaps deliberately) left the task of interpretation to later generations when they faced issues not covered by the language therein.

That’s why we have these fierce debates over the separation of church and state, say, or the right to privacy. You won’t find these words in the Constitution itself. Instead, the Constitution left the interpretation up to us.

The Bible, I would submit, is the same way. We have a text that, mediated by the Spirit of God, guides us in the way we live our lives, individually and collectively. It too was written in specific times and places. The authors could not have foreseen, for instance, the scientific findings of the past half millennium, which provide new data to inform the debate over when life begins or whether being GLBT is genetic.

In a nutshell, then: In critical parts of our common life, we have a guiding text before us. It does not answer everything, so our charge is to interpret the text—as well as the interpretations that have come before us—to arrive as close to the truth as we can.

If we can at least agree on this, it could be huge. Why?

Because this perspective cuts us loose from certainty: in particular, the certainty that drives us to point to one clause and divisively proclaim that “the Constitution clearly says.” Our resulting lack of certainty—as well as its corollary, the fact that we need one another to sort out the truth in light of the text—drives us to work together, to listen to one another, in the humility that no one has a corner on The Truth. Out of such collaboration come better dialogue, better ideas, better decisions, and greater unity.

If this is true, my earnest hope is that we can adopt this perspective more fully: in our diocese, in the United States, and in our faith traditions.

 

Mindshift Part 2: Dialogue and “the Poor”

A friend of mine is looking for a job. She has a wonderfully diverse background but, for various reasons, has spent years living around the poverty line. Recently she was asked to interview for a job in line with some of her prior education (law school). To me, it had all the earmarks of a calling.

I find vocation fascinating, because it’s such a wondrous process. Elements of your background fit together in a way no one could have predicted. Something triggers a yearning you never knew you had. A passing remark illumines a pathway for the next stage of your life. I think I see that happening with my friend, and I told her so.

She was having none of it.

In no uncertain terms, she expressed her impatience with talk of vocation. When you know poverty, she said, you’re not focused on some ethereal call; you’re looking for a job. Something that puts bread on the table and keeps body and soul together till the next paycheck. This friend of mine consistently seeks God’s will for her life, so the notion of calling is not foreign to her. But her concern here was more immediate.

See the key words in the previous paragraph? When you know poverty.

I don’t. I never really have. My one brush with poverty lasted only a year or two, and even then I always knew where my next meal was coming from. By bringing me up short, my friend shed light on an entire frame of mind that I had never even considered.

I need a mindshift. A big one, as I mentioned in our previous post.

This particular mindshift is essential for people of faith in general, and middle-class (and up) Christians in particular. The Bible is rife with evidence of God’s concern for the poor; some theologians call it the single most important message therein. The Magnificat, Mary’s glorious prayer in the Gospel of Luke, expresses this elegantly:

(God) has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

Churches can serve poor people without knowing them intimately—through financial support, for example. But if we stop there, I think we fall short of God’s call to stand in solidarity with the poor. That requires something deeper: face-to-face encounters, together with the mindshift in which we set aside our preconceptions, our experiences, our whole ways of thinking, and listen intently to the experience of the other.

If we do that, our eyes will be opened and our perspective expanded. We will stop thinking of “the poor” as a monolithic group and see the diverse humanity therein. Our approach to social issues surrounding poor people will change. So, in essence, will we—toward a more open heart, hand, and mind. All due to a mindshift that prepares the soil of our soul for authentic dialogue.

God’s Dialogue Command

If you pray the Daily Office, you may have run across this passage earlier in the week: 

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18, RSV) 

This comes from part of the Torah known to many scholars as the Holiness Code. According to the text, God has called the people of Israel to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), and now he’s telling them how to do it. The list of commandments is an inspiration to anyone with high ethical standards: do not oppress your neighbor, do not be partial to the rich (or the poor) in judgment, leave produce in your field for the poor. 

And reason with your neighbor. 

It’s hard to reason without dialogue. Can we say, then, that God called the people of Israel—and, by extension, is calling us—into dialogue? 

Maybe. Speaking for God with certainty is risky business, of course. But it is interesting to find this command ensconced amid so many others that lay out the basics of just, fair, merciful behavior. 

Even more interesting is how close this passage ties “reasoning with your neighbor” to matters of love and hate. You shall not hate, so you must reason. You shall not hate, so you must love your neighbor as yourself. 

That says two things to me. First, dialogue is an alternative to hate—even a way through hate. It’s difficult to hate someone when she’s talking with you. 

The second thing keeps us talking: a commitment to love. When, in our hearts, we can commit ourselves to seek the other person’s good, for better or worse, we don’t give up. We might take a break from dialogue to clear our heads or let the emotion dissipate. But love keeps us coming back to the table—if not to agree, then to learn how to respect each other within our differences. 

Imagine what would happen if, say, the warring factions within the Christian Church acted this out. Might they actually find a way to live together, conflicts and all?

The More Things Change…

Nicodemus, who had gone to Jesus before—and who was one of the Pharisees—asked, “Our law does not judge people without first giving them a hearing to find out what they are doing, does it?” The Pharisees replied, “Surely you are not also from Galilee, are you? Search and you will see that no prophet is to arise from Galilee.” (John 7:50-52)

If you think the state of civil discourse has reached an all-time low, this story may surprise you.

Allow me to introduce the cast. Jesus was from Galilee (hence the reference in the passage above). The Pharisees, a Jewish sect, emphasized rigorous adherence to the law that God had given to Moses, as well as to the traditions that sprang from it. Nicodemus, a Pharisee himself, had visited Jesus early in the gospel of John to hear what he had to say.

Previously, the Pharisees—who were offended by Jesus and worried about civil unrest among his followers—had sent guards to arrest him. It backfired: the guards came back awestruck, saying, “Never has anyone spoken like this!”

From here the story could go one of two ways. Hearing the guards’ new perspective could inspire curiosity. Maybe, the Pharisees could think, it’s worthwhile to talk with Jesus. They could see if his ideas shed a new light on their beliefs. Perhaps, through dialogue, an exchange of views might draw them both closer to God.

That’s one way. The other, alas, is all too familiar to us: dig in, protect our position by insulting the other side, reduce thoughtful positions to bromides that obscure more than they clarify. This is what happens, for instance, when pro-life adherents call their adversaries “baby killers,” or when pro-choice advocates incessantly trumpet “a woman’s right to choose.”

That’s the way the Pharisees go in the gospel account. To the guards, they say, “Surely you have not been deceived too, have you?…the crowd [of believers in Jesus], who do not know the law—they are accursed.” When Nicodemus tries to put the idea of a fair hearing before them, they insult him too, dismissing him with a one-liner.

As always, let me offer a caveat. Any of these positions may hold truth. “A woman’s right to choose” is a factor worth considering in the abortion debate. Maybe the fetus is a baby. Perhaps there is no mention of a Galilean prophet in the Hebrew scriptures.

The problem is that the advocates of these positions assert their position and stop there. That cuts off the possibility of exploring for a deeper truth. If the fetus is a baby, does it too have a right to choose? If we can’t determine when babyhood begins, what then? If the scriptures are silent about a prophet from Galilee, does that mean it can’t happen?

Questions like these—when we ask them of each other—help us probe deeper, uncover more truth, and become more empathic with those who disagree. Insults and repetition block our way.

Even two millennia ago, the dynamics of dialogue and polarization were at work. Ultimately, I think, this is encouraging news. It means our divides never go away—but neither does our desire to reach across them.

The Priest and I

This past Wednesday, our interim priest said his last Mass before retiring to Maine. In honor of the occasion, allow me to tell our dialogue story.

He would have been at home in the Middle Ages; I fall into a fuzzy moderate-to-liberal spot on the spectrum. He lamented the decline of proper authority in the Church. He summarily dismissed many perspectives I found worthy of exploration. Some of his comments were withering. Yet when I objected to a point in his sermon one Sunday, I could not manage to keep my mouth shut.

That led to nearly a year’s worth of email discussion on all manner of things spiritual. We exchanged views on evangelism. We wrestled over the Jesus Seminar and the literal truth (or lack thereof) of the Bible. We discussed the state of our own local congregation. 

An academic exercise? Not even close. This priest came to our church when I was in a pivotal but delicate phase of reevaluating my beliefs. My inner wrestling kindled a desire to talk with clergy, because we think about the same things and they’re more educated than I am. Into this situation walks a conservative, combative old priest.

And the dialogue changed my thinking in some unexpected ways.

For one thing, it gave me a place to articulate the vague theological cross-currents in my head. I realized, for instance, that it was possible to hold the Bible as divinely inspired and still accept it as what Marcus Borg calls it: a book written by humans about God. I decided that my progressive friends were right in their embrace of gays and lesbians but maybe not in their denial of the Resurrection. The dialogue allowed me not so much to adopt the priest’s ideas but to test my own.

In short, I learned more about myself, more about what I could believe, and perhaps even a tiny bit more about the Divine.  

Not that the discussion was not all peaches and cream. His emails could be strident; I got exhausted at times. Moreover, I couldn’t see that the dialogue was giving the priest anything new to think about. Is dialogue even worth the effort when one party gets nothing out of it?

Every time I worried about this, I came back to one email. 

Early on, I expressed a desire not to let our discussions get in the way of his church work, and his response stunned me: “If only you knew how deeply many clergy, myself included, long for discussions of this kind.”

We’ve talked here about dialogue’s role in resolving issues and promoting mutual understanding. But maybe there’s more to it than that. Maybe dialogue can be a tonic for the gnawing loneliness that is part and parcel of the human condition. Even if we solve nothing, even if we learn nothing, we have talked. We have listened to others share the things that matter to them. Sometimes that simple connection is all we can ask—and more than we could ever hope.