A Lenten Pause to Give Up and Question
Last November, a Presbyterian elder and I were talking after our Presbytery’s vote on the constitutional amendment that would open ordination to gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgender candidates in the PCUSA.
“I’m dismayed by the outcome,” I said to her. Having known each other for a long time, I knew she wouldn’t be surprised at my reaction to the ‘no’ vote. I also knew that she wouldn’t agree with me. I wasn’t prepared for what she said to me next though.
“You are not listening. You have not been listening for thirty years.”
Wow. I continue to feel uncomfortable when I recall this exchange. This cut deep. One thing I take pride in is being able to listen well to another. If I am good at listening then I need to listen to her.
Lent offers me the opportunity to make that effort at good listening. Lent is the season where Christians prepare for the intensity of Good Friday and Easter most often by giving up something that we hold dear. I am giving up two things for Lent in response to this elder’s comment. I am giving up my pride in being a good listener. And, in order to listen to this elder and those who agree with her on important church concerns like ordination and marriage, I need to give up my assumptions about the meaning of Scripture, Reformed tradition, and the essential elements of the Body of Christ. By this I mean both the meaning I find in these aspects of our faith and my assumptions about the meaning others give to them.
What I’ve done over the years when I listen to those who disagree with me in the church is to test my reading of the Bible and my confession of faith in Christ by what the other person is saying. I ask myself, “Have this person’s words successfully undermined my point of view or persuaded me to change my mind?” I have often learned something I value from the other person but my mind on these important matters has not been changed. I then have sought to respond with a comment or question that will keep our conversation going.
What do you think — is that listening?
This elder and I were not in a place where we could have an extended conversation, so I was not able to ask her for clarification on her comment. I expect that she would have said I was not listening because I had not come to agree with her and her position on lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people in the church. For her, if I had been listening, I would agree with her. Then again, that is an assumption. And in order to truly listen and understand the place this elder is coming from, those are the kind of assumptions I must put aside.
But I may be over thinking here. Christ’s Lenten lesson for us may simply be this: our listening to one another has not, and may never, bring us to agreement on things that are important to us, but it does bring us together to have an honest, heartfelt conversation.
Whether it be for Lent or beyond, I encourage us all to consider dropping our assumptions when we listen to others who do not agree with us. For me, our being one in Christ does not arise from finding agreement but rather from the fact that God put us together. Being together, we need to listen to one another. I make the commitment now to work at listening to her and to the Presbyterians who agree with her. That will continue long past this Lenten season. From the little I do know of this elder, I expect we can agree on that.