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.


Reverend Janet

7 Responses
  • pennyjane hanson on April 5, 2011

    hi janet.

    i’m so sorry that this happened to you. i’ve resisted commenting on this because, not being much of a wordsmith, i can’t think of a nice way to say “presumptuous and condescending.”

    isn’t that the genesis of bigotry, not taking others seriously? “you’re not listening, you haven’t been listening for 30 years.”…the best i can do is ” presumptious and condescending.”

    i’m reminded of a sermon our former pastor preached one sunday not long after i came to my present church. he ended his sermon, as he often did, with a question. on this sunday he asked, “is the real struggle in the world between good and evil, or could it be between good and indifference?

    it sounds as if your friend the elder might have just been indifferent to your views of God’s will simply because she has a different vision. rather than seek union she just dismissed yours as uneducated, coming from one who doesn’t “listen.”

    i hope, as you intimated in an earlier post, that when the new majority takes it’s place in government, that they resist the temptation to marginalize differences. i hope they listen to the sounds that difference makes.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Mary Grant on April 6, 2011

    this is my first post on your blog, but I have been thinking of you and your work (listening!) many times over the years. Your thoughts always provoke my thinking in good ways.

    I have no idea what this person thought “listening” meant, but I join you in suspecting that she equates listening to agreeing.

    But maybe hers is also a word of the Spirit. Maybe the take-away is this: “Listen to ALL the things people had to say. Were there some words of hope in the debate? Are there new allies? Additional churches where the thinking has become more tolerant?” Maybe she did not mean to say this, but perhaps hers was a message to the effect, “Don’t be discouraged. Listen carefully to all things and don’t miss the places of hope.” (And I suspect you do this anyway.)

    May the rest of your Lent be blessed. Mary

  • Janet Edwards on April 6, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Thanks for your sharing of our experience, pj!

    My expectation is that my friend who called me on the carpet for not listening is not indifferent to my views or to me as a person. But I confess that is a presumption on my part. I don’t really know, to my shame. If there is any lesson in this for me, it is the responsibility to get to know this elder better.

    I look for the day we all rejoice in the sound that difference makes.

    Stay strong. Peace, Janet

  • Jean Thomas on April 8, 2011

    I found this post particularly provocative in the best sense. It also made me reflect on the way we listen to words spoken on the air, to reports of speeches we did not hear. How obligated should we feel to be attentive to what we consider “rants?” Listening takes a lot of energy

  • Janet Edwards on April 8, 2011

    Dear Mary and Jean,

    Deepest thanks to both of you for adding your thoughts on listening to mine. They are a lovely gift to us.

    Jean, I expect that you answer your question about rants as I do: We are very obligated to attend to every word spoken to us. Scripture tells us to watch for God’s Word all the time–God will speak to us from the most unlikely mouths, even a rant. Listening is a hard spiritual discipline.

    Mary, how helpful you are to give us good guidance on what to listen for: hope. I am pretty certain that few at that presbytery meeting found much said or done that was hopeful. But it could very well be that I was not listening carefully enough. I will do better another time because of your encouragement.

    May Christ speak clearly to you in all you meet.


  • pennyjane hanson on April 8, 2011

    hi janet…and ms thomas. this is indeed provocative. we’re working so hard at listening to the “other side” and being wary of treating them as we feel we have been treated, i hope we don’t lose sound of the greater message….listening doesn’t mean agreeing.

    i am an older person, running the last laps of what paul calls the great race, i have heard it all and have developed some pretty thick skin…i learned a long time ago the transsexualism and thin skin are a toxic mix…but, it took me quite some time to figure that out.

    in “listening” to those who believe that lgbt people are abominations, less than worthy of the service of God, i hope we don’t allow our younger “listeners” to think that we older folks think there is any substance to their words. i hope we don’t get so wrapped up in “listening” that we forget what we are hearing…not, i guess, so much what we are hearing…but what those in the more formative years of life are hearing.

    i hope that we remain steadfast in our objection to what we are hearing from that paradigm. these children are not throw-aways…they must not be counted as collateral damage as we wait patiently for the “other side” to hear God’s Words of love and compassion.

    each child…each and every one…is an imperitive. if feelings get hurt in the process of saving that child’s life, then…so be it.

    God loves these chilren and they need to hear from us who believe that as firmly, or even more firmly, as those who insinuate or state catagorically otherwise….anything from “God hates fags” to “love the sinner hate the sin”’s up to us to point out to these kids how wrong that kind of talk is.

    be kind, be civil….but we must never be ashamed or afraid, and we must never allow children to percieve us as ashamed or afraid….that would be a sin.

    much love and hope. pj

  • Janet Edwards on April 9, 2011

    Dear pj,

    Amen and amen to all you say here.

    I have learned from Gandhi’s insight that the root of prejudice is ignorance. To the extent that I harbor prejudice against those who cling to an understanding of Christ that excludes some people from Grace, it is my work to listen to them to overcome my ignorance.

    Perhaps that is what this conservative Presbyterian was trying to say to me. And this can be true along with all you say here–thanks for chiming in.

    Peace, Janet

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