As I was thinking about today’s worship service–a prelude to today’s congregational conversations–I read the text assigned for August 29th: “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” A perfect intro to conversations on how better to communicate with each other, right? And much better than today’s assigned text where John the Baptist gets beheaded!
“Remember sisters and brothers,” James writes, “be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger, for God’s justice is never served by our anger.”
How is that statement sitting with you today? Does it feel right on target…for someone else? Oh, yes! I know exactly who needs to hear this! Or maybe it feels a little preachy. So, Pastor, what are you trying to say? Or maybe it’s just confusing. Aren’t we supposed to speak truth to power? Aren’t we called to raise our voices against injustice?
When I came to Asheville, I was relieved, at last, to be living in a place that was so committed to the work of social justice–LGBTQ justice, racial justice, economic justice, immigration justice, climate justice. After 16 years in the Atlanta suburbs, I was glad to live in a city where my vote mattered and where people worked hard at creating a just community.
Don’t get me wrong. The work Asheville has done and is doing for social justice– the work for marriage equality, racial justice, reparations, peace, and the environment, as well as the bold initiatives on behalf of our unsheltered neighbors and those who are hungry…The work for social justice that is happening in our city is strong and inspiring. Moving to Asheville confirmed for me that I’m really not a suburbanite. I was happy to serve there for a season, but Asheville feels much more like home to me.
I’m grateful to live in a community that acts out its commitment to justice, but I’ve also experienced some disappointment. Hearing the way people talk to each other…I wasn’t prepared for all the violent communication. Maybe you’ve experienced it, too: cutting people off, interrupting, rolling eyes, scolding, talking in condescending tones, yelling. One of the most violent communications I’ve received since becoming your pastor (from someone outside the church) came from someone who advocates for peace. It just didn’t compute for me.
I was naive. I thought only people on the other side of the political and theological spectrum used violent forms of communication. It didn’t take long to realize that violent communication is used by everybody everywhere. Has the use of violent communication increased in the last five years? Yes. Has the pandemic facilitated the use of violent language? Absolutely. Yelling at a face in a box on your computer screen is much easier than yelling at a person in front of you. We’ve also become more adept at another form of violent communication — the silent treatment. And another– gossip. Let me just say: If we can’t say to someone’s face what we say behind their backs, authentic community isn’t possible. Period.
There’s a part of me, right now, that wants to bang the pulpit and say, “Y’all talk nicer to each other!” But that, too, would be a violent form of communication, right?
The truth is, we’ve been under TREMENDOUS during the pandemic. It’s been frightening. Terrifying. And, in these terrifying times, we haven’t had access to the things that help us when we’re scared, like our togetherness. The last year and a half has been hell. Psychologists tell us that when we’re under stress, we regress to behaviors used in previous developmental stages. I’ve experienced that as I’ve cared for Allen during his recovery from knee surgery. At particularly stressful moments in the past few weeks, I’ve said things I NEVER would have intended to say, especially to Allen. But I have said them. And I’ve had to ask forgiveness–many times. Allen, gracious person that he is, has granted it.
I suspect some of the difficulty we’ve had communicating with each other here at First Congregational has grown out of the stress we’ve been experiencing since the pandemic started. Yes, the congregation has experienced some trauma in the past. Those of us who’ve had to work through our own personal traumas know that healing trauma is necessary to helping us live more authentically. So, yes. We have some healing work to do. But I also think we need to give ourselves and each other a break. In stressful times, we do and say things we’d never do or say in less stressful times. I suspect we’ve all done and said things we aren’t proud of recently. It’s my strong hope that we can extend grace–to each other and to ourselves. And then begin again.
But how do we begin again? How do we learn to communicate with each other in less violent ways? We hear James’ advice to “be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger”…. but HOW do we do that?
Bev Reddick tells me that during her time working with Quakers, she experienced the hard way that her written language could be violent, or “non-Quakerly”. When writing a letter, newsletter article, or letter to the editor about a concern or social issue, she learned to first write a draft letting out her strong emotions, discard it, and then write a piece that respected and didn’t demonize or make an “enemy” of others. The process of nonviolent writing was hard and took time, but Bev discovered it to be the best way to communicate… a way of peace and love. Since Bev told me that story, I’ve tried to be more mindful of what I’ve been writing. It’s so easy–especially in emails–to use violent language, isn’t it?
I’m not trained in methods of nonviolent communication, but from Jewish philosopher Martin Buber, I have learned this: it begins by encountering the other as a whole human being. In his book, I and Thou, Buber distinguishes between encountering others as objects and encountering them as whole human beings. When we encounter others as objects, we only see them in parts–their gender, ethnicity, or political affiliation, for example. Buber referred to that kind of engagement as I-It.
I-It describes a lot of the communication we’ve been experiencing–and maybe participating in–the last five years in our country. We often fail to see each other as whole human beings. When we objectify the other, it’s much easier to yell at them, to cut them off at the knees, roll our eyes, and talk about them behind their backs. I think that’s what’s been so bewildering for me in observing some of the folks who are advocating for justice here in Asheville…this tendency to dehumanize–and demonize–others. How can we call for those in power to act more humanely when we’re not treating them humanely?
Buber describes another way of relating to others as I-Thou. When we encounter another as Thou, we see them, not as a collection of parts, but as a whole, fully-alive human being.
A surprising turn for me in reading I and Thou was learning that when we objectify others, we objectify ourselves. Buber writes: “The basic word I-Thou can only be spoken with one’s whole being. The basic word I-It can never be spoken with one’s whole being.” Or, stated more positively: “When we encounter another individual truly as a person, not as an object for use, we become fully human.”
I don’t know. I might be naive. But I believe that if we could see and treat each other as human beings, if we engaged every person with our own full humanity seeking their full humanity… If we did that, I think our community would be transformed…
Here’s an example of what I’m talking about. Last week after worship, Spence Duin came up and said he’d like to drop by and chat later in the week. I’d been watching Spence’s body language during the sermon and suspected we weren’t on the same page. In truth, there are many things about which Spence and I don’t agree. Many things.
Wednesday morning, Spence arrived. He was bearing coffee, so I let him in. He started out with words of appreciation and a recognition of what I was trying to say in last week’s sermon. It was only after he’d named our connection and appreciation for what I was trying to say that Spence expressed his frustration and concern.
As Spence laid out his concerns about my sermon, I realized that he was right. I had been heavy-handed in one part of it. We both agreed that the end of the sermon brought it together… but he was exactly right. I do need to take care with ALL the illustrations I use in sermons.
Anticipating the conversation with Spence, I hadn’t imagined I would feel grateful for his feedback. But in the end, I was grateful. Spence showed me something I could not see on my own. And he did it with great respect.
Spence and I talk a lot about how conservatives and liberals relate to each other. The thing I usually say to him is “the truth lies somewhere between us.” Which means that the only way to get at the truth is to talk with each other. And the only way to talk authentically with each other is to come to the encounter in our own full humanity ready to encounter others in their full humanity. I am grateful to Spence for modeling that way of communicating.
Here’s something I’ve decided in recent weeks: If I have to choose between being around people who are right or people who are kind, I choose to be around people who are kind. Buber says something similar: “When I was young, I admired people who were clever. Now that I am old, I admire people who are kind.”
The ideal, of course, is to be both right–as in on the right side of justice–AND kind. As your pastor, that is my hope, that is my prayer, that is what would bring me deep joy–if we could be on the right side of justice AND at the same time, kind.
Radio personality Bernard Meltzer summed up today’s Scripture as well as anyone. He said: “Before you speak, ask yourself if what you are going to say is true, is kind, is necessary, is helpful. If the answer is no, maybe what you are about to say should be left unsaid.” Is it true? Is it necessary? Is it helpful? Is it kind? May these questions guide us, not only in today’s congregational conversations, but in all our lives every day.
In the name of our God, who creates us, redeems us, sustains us, and hopes for our wholeness. Amen.