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Posts Tagged ‘Jesus’

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.

Moses and Where Change Comes From

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.”                           —Exodus 3:11-12a

 

Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:

  1. God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
  2. We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.

If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.

So what do we do?

I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”

The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”

For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.

Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.

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.

Dialogue and Christmas—the Holidays—Whatever

We’ve talked a lot about the need for precise language, in dialogue and out. Our dialogues could be so much more productive if we avoided sidetracking them with inflammatory or inaccurate words. Conversely, precise language gives us the best chance of conveying our ideas more clearly to people who might not share or be familiar with them. It is in the spirit of precision that I now wish you:

Happy Holidays.

Every year around this time, there’s a certain level of fuss about that phrase. “It’s the Christmas season, dammit!” goes the line of thought. “Jesus is the reason for the season! Why can’t we just say Merry Christmas?” Happy Holidays, to people who argue this way, is too vapid, too “politically correct,” to describe what December is really about.

I’ll admit that Happy Holidays is kind of vapid. Because of my faith tradition, Christmas is a treasured holy day for me. At church on Christmas Eve, I will be delighted to wish my fellow parishioners Merry Christmas.

Outside of church, though, it’s a different story. The U.S., where I live, is not predominantly Christian as it once was—not by a long shot. Millions of people here are Jews, Muslims, Buddhists, Hindus, followers of no faith tradition, you name it. And often (as with Hanukkah) their holidays and festivals take place in December as well.

So when I encounter people at the store, or on the street, and I don’t know their faith orientation, Happy Holidays seems the best way to greet them with good cheer while respecting their beliefs about life. If I’m addressing a group—either physically present or virtually, as on Facebook—it’s usually a safe bet that someone in the group doesn’t celebrate Christmas. Happy Holidays is a way of showing respect to those people too.

This is a basic principle for dialogue. Without a perception of respect from their dialogue partner, few people would willingly share their convictions in dialogue. That showing of respect creates a welcoming place in which people feel free to express themselves without fear of recrimination.

So…to my Jewish friends, Happy Hanukkah. To my Christian friends, Merry Christmas. To all my friends, Happy Holidays.

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.

 

Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?

How do we know when our language needs a makeover?

One great thing about writing for the web is that it starts conversations with extraordinary people. Two months ago, Kathleen Turcic commented on an article I wrote for Huffpost Religion, and from there we had a most pleasant and stimulating email exchange.  In the process, she introduced me to her own venture, QuintessentialYou Design.

In a nutshell, Kathleen helps people live out their essential selves into their external circumstances, thus creating a life full of energy, passion, and purpose. While touring through her website, I was struck by how essentially spiritual and postmodern her language is. It’s not exactly light reading, but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it expresses essential truths in words we’re all familiar with.

That got me thinking about the language of faith in general. How do we know when to keep using the time-honored words and phrases of millennia past, and when to update our language?

For instance: You may have noticed that I rarely use the word religion. Quite simply, it carries negative connotations for so many people that it can, I think, detract from my ability to connect with them. (The hordes of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” serve as evidence to this point.) So I talk about faith, faith traditions, and spirituality, but I try to avoid the “R-word.”

Here’s why this matters. Most faith traditions have “good news” that cries out to be shared in, I would submit, respectful dialogue. Christianity, in particular, urges its followers to share the good news of Jesus. Yet these faith traditions, and their language, are at least two millennia old. Are we authentically sharing the good news in our postmodern world if postmodern people can’t understand our ancient language?

Wickedly controversial case in point: “God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die as a sacrifice for our sins.” To the ancient Jews, with their system of temple sacrifices and offerings, this faith statement probably made some sense; they at least had a point of reference from which to grapple with it. We postmoderns have no such point of reference. That’s why, to many people who are not Christians (and some who are), the statement makes God sound barbaric. What kind of God needs a sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own offspring, to appease his anger?

Now, whether you take this statement literally or metaphorically, it does speak to the wild extravagance of God’s all-consuming love for humanity. But many people in our age can’t get past the seeming cruelty of the act itself. Do we need entirely new language, or perhaps a tweak of the old language, to make the same point? Can we change the language without changing the message?

I don’t know the answer, but I think this deserves discussion—not just on the “died for our sins” point, but on many others in many faith traditions. What do you think?

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.

From the Desk of Tom Ehrich…

If you haven’t had the pleasure of reading Tom Ehrich, you’re in for a treat. An Episcopal priest and church wellness consultant, Tom writes prolifically about the meaning of Jesus, the state of the church, and the nature of spirituality in the 21st century. His daily writings, available through www.onajourney.org, often stop me in my tracks with their insights.

This past week, he published the following essay, which speaks volumes about the need to understand the whole story. In dialogue, this means gently probing well beyond the other person’s initial opinions to get to the whys. When we do that, we can at least start to appreciate her perspective, whether or not we agree. That appreciation fosters trust, opens the dialogue to deeper levels, and enables us to build bridges across whatever divide confronts us.

Tom makes the point about “understanding the story” particularly well, so allow me to share his essay with you. I’ve reprinted it here with his permission.

 

Understanding the Story

Now all the tax collectors and sinners were coming near to listen to Jesus. And the Pharisees and the scribes were grumbling and saying, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (Luke 15:1-2)

At a Perkins restaurant in Lincoln, Nebraska, the hostess was struggling to keep pace with Sunday business. Incoming patrons and outgoing bill-payers were grumbling. Wait staff let her flounder.

Later, on board a flight to Newark, our flight attendant was having an equally bad day. She stormed down the aisle, gave sarcastic answers to the usual questions, and seemed to enjoy bumping elbows.

I was dealing with my own fatigue and transition, of course, and wanted only to push on toward home. I turned away from the attendant and kept my grumbling to myself.

I’m sure there was a story behind these bad days, just as there was a story behind my fatigue and wanting to retain a retreat’s warm glow. If we could know each other’s stories, we would be less likely to bristle and fire back.

Luke described a common situation. One group felt offended by another. In this case, it was the pious resenting sinners. But it could have been anything: new neighbors, new boss, immigrants, young people behaving differently, the pedestrian who glowers at you and seems ready for a brawl.

The Pharisees and scribes weren’t motivated to understand the tax collectors and sinners coming to Jesus. In the same way, early Christians condemned the Jewish establishment without understanding their resentment.

Jesus told a parable, because he did understand both groups. He understood the resentment of the elder brother—descendants of Abraham, much oppressed and yet faithful to their God—who obeyed the rules and now saw the father’s grace fall on a disobedient son. He understood the prodigal—sinners who should have known better—whose headstrong ways landed him in trouble and sent him home in shame.

I believe God understands our stories. God knew why a hostess at Perkins couldn’t perform her job this day, and why a flight attendant chose this day to snap at a Hindu passenger for requesting a snack without meat.

God knew I was making a difficult transition: leaving behind a wonderful retreat and deep connecting with men of Nebraska, and returning to worries and duties.

In telling this now-famous parable, I think Jesus was saying to us, Take the time to know each other’s stories. See the other’s point of view, even if it strikes you as hateful. Know why the whiner is whining, the aggressor is attacking, and the child is crying.

As others reach for weapons to fight back, take a moment for the ambiguity of parables. Don’t just bristle—as I am wont to do—but imagine the story. Better yet, ask to hear it.