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.

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