Talk to me

An insightful guest post by Wes Willison! 

Oh I talk too loose
Again I talk too open and free
I pay a high price for my open talking
Like you do for your silent mystery

 [Joni Mitchell]

Why not monologues?

Is there anything wrong with hearing from one voice during Sunday meetings? Not really, no. Our pastors are great! They say good things. It’s helpful to hear their insights into faith, life, community, and the way of Jesus.

However, how many of us have been in churches where it was exasperating and exhausting to only hear one person’s opinion all the time? If you’re like me, it’s common to visit another church and get turned off by not just the content of someone else’s words, but also in the format of their delivery: one voice, raised above everyone else (often physically, in a pulpit) handing the listeners words to agree with and absorb. It’s not that I disagree with everything (or even most things) I hear in sermons; instead, it’s the lack of encounter or relationship that this format posits.

Without even trying to analyze the content of specific sermons, I am told by this format that:

  • my voice is less important than the person who is speaking
  • I know less about God than the person speaking
  • the means of encountering God are to listen to someone else’s knowledge

Is this all necessarily bad all the time? No, of course not. There’s a time and place for hearing the words of one person who knows more than me.

However, no single one of us humans — especially men, especially white men, especially American white men — can know the full breadth and depth of God’s revelation. As much as Jesus has revealed to us the nature and dimensions of God’s activity on earth, no one of us is privileged to have a complete view on that knowledge. Each of us have different experiences and perspectives of that revelation, and it’s helpful to hear each others’ stories to get glimpses of what God is up to.

Why stories? Why dialogue?

What does this mean for us practically? That telling stories is important. In fact, it might be more important than any other way we use our words. It also means that talking to each other — in dialogue — is important. That’s a major reason why we have talkback every week. When someone speaks, everyone has an opportunity to respond with a anecdote, insight, or question.

Story-telling is a recognition of our own subjectivity, our own limited perspective when it comes to the broad and wild love God has for us. None of us can know the pain and joy of someone else’s experience of God until they share their story. To use a biblical word, testimony matters. Stories are not about theology, they are about God’s action in our lives. They are not reflections of our intelligence or ability, but instead reflect our gratitude and struggle. They do not make others more or less than human, but instead they help us recognize the image of God in ourselves.

Dialogue is a recognition of our own relationality, our location in a social fabric. We aren’t alone in our relationship with God: God is loving all of us, and God is loving our community. Pressure and encouragement from someone else helps us recognize and give thanks for the ways God loves us. When someone asks us for clarification on our story, we can recognize the places in which our story is incomplete, either to ourselves or to others. Asking someone else to tell their story — and then honoring it — is an antidote to proselytizing. It is not colonial, it is familial. It is not towards coercion, it is towards mutual joy.

Story time

Two Sundays ago, I talked with Pearl Quick about her story at the 7PM Sunday meeting. We met in a Lutheran church around the corner from Circle of Hope 2007 Frankford Ave. Dimly lit, on rickety folding chairs, with about as many pews in the room as there were people. I’ll admit: it wasn’t a comfortable space for such an intimate conversation. But frankly, even the Frankford Ave space would have felt incongruous. Our conversation felt like it deserved a few drinks in someone’s living room after a good meal.

To have such a small-scale, personal conversation in a church setting was new for me. I’ve always experienced Sunday church meetings to be formal, intensely planned, and generally uncomfortable. Talking with Pearl was not that way, and not only because I happen to be friends with Pearl. I was able to ask real questions of Pearl in addition to the ones I’d planned, and responding to everyone else’s questions during Talkback felt less discontinuous with how the rest of the conversation had unfolded: it was all the same, all one conversation. I’m still trying to figure out what I learned from the experience, but I’m pretty sure it was less about the content of what Pearl said and more about the way in which story was shared and embraced.

I would have also enjoyed hearing Pearl give a whole 30 minute speech about her experiences, no doubt. She’s a dynamic speaker, powerful storyteller, and has plenty of charisma. In fact, I think my clumsy questions were probably more of a hindrance than if she had polished a speech and delivered it without interruption. But even so, I’m happy for the opportunity to be a part of unfolding Pearl’s story. It was a slightly forced environment — not quite the natural, improvised, unplanned dialogue that I imagine the 30 minutes could have been — but our planning and preparation helped ensure that the most significant parts of Pearl’s story were shared, and powerfully so. Furthermore, there’s an implied second half to the conversation that we haven’t reached yet: Pearl talking to me about my own story. I’m looking forward to the time for that story too.

Next week, Kristen will be chatting with Phoebe Bachman, a collaborator at Philadelphia Assembled. I’m looking forward to the story, I’m looking forward to the dialogue. I invite you to come along and hear for yourself. Even more, I invite you to come along and ask a question for yourself. Unless you ask that question, Phoebe’s story will be that much incomplete.

Soft-hearted dialogue during Ferguson & KXL

Ferguson-Protesters-SignsThe Michael Brown story and grand jury convening on whether to charge Officer Darren Wilson could come to a head tomorrow. For many people, this is just another day and another story that will dominate headlines for a few days. For others – especially African Americans – this case means much more. Is Ferguson is a microcosm of race relations in the US? Could it be white supremacy that’s actually on trial? Could this case mean that it is OK to shoot black men as long as you have some sort of reason?

This case gets at some important questions for those with faith in Jesus. Where is Christ in the situation? How do those who hunger and thirst for righteousness & justice speak and stand? Are we in danger of getting swept up by a media machine that causes unhelpful distrust for authorities and takes us into an ignorant and emotional mob mentality?

kkk leaderI wonder why both riot cops and the National Guard were deployed to Ferguson during protests. I wonder why the KKK threatens protesters (they call them terrorists in their “warning”). I wonder why Missouri Gov. Jay Nixon declared a state of emergency. There is something bigger than just this case going on right now. The trend of questionable police killings of young people of color continues – here are some snippets about 13 in the month after Michael Brown.

As a Christian I don’t expect the criminal justice system, courts, or laws to bring justice. True justice comes through the Kingdom of God. In this moment of such great outcry by our black sisters and brothers, how can we not listen? I think God hears them and cares. I think the more of us that care and speak up and act out, the more incremental steps we can make toward the protection of the next generation.

While this grand jury decision is a watershed moment – don’t sleep on Obama’s immigration speech KXL nativestonight (could grant legal status to 5 million undocumented folks) or the significant defeat/postponement of the Keystone XL pipeline. The majority of people affected by these decisions are poor as well as Latino or Native, so many white Americans see the economic ramifications and possibilities before family or land issues. Let’s change our hearts.

After a surprisingly spirited discussion on my Facebook wall this week that included Christian Anarchists, Black Women, a Catholic Policeman, atheists, conservative Anabaptists, and others, I’m inspired but a little discouraged. I’m inspired because I think there is work to be done and I have relationships with people beyond the “choir” that I might prefer to “preach” to over social media. I’m discouraged because I think for every friend I argue with, there are at least ten who agree with them but don’t engage directly.

Having dialogue when the fabric of society comes under question (is the US founded on Christian values or on white supremacy?) is important to have, especially with people who don’t agree with you. When we get stuck not listening or merely defending our fixed position on an issue, I think we all lose. Sometimes I’m not sure I have enough out-of-the-box stuff to get people listening to those suffering and marginalized. Some white folks listen because it’s en vogue or duty. If Jesus doesn’t touch us and change our hearts, will enough people will make the intellectual leap in time enough to stop atrocities that are being waged? When I’m praying for these situations, I’m praying for Jesus to touch hearts – including my own – to make us soft enough to feel the pain and move with the Spirit to keep restoring what’s broken.