Listening, Loving, and…Criticizing?

I want to remember my citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven. Lent Week 2, Day 12

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I love my alma mater. It is a great university. I made lifelong friends there. I learned how to stretch my thinking theologically. The faculty and staff truly love people and work to nurture them.

But there are some faults with university, as well. They have made some business decisions that seem to conflict with their spiritual mission. They have fired people who were doing tremendous work to help the bottom line. They have embarked on building projects funded, in part, from shady business practices.

Yet at the heart of the university is truly a desire to develop students who will go out and change the world. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my church. It is a place where leadership and membership are working together to bring about restoration. So many amazing things have happened in the years we have attended. Ministries have been started to help students attain their GED and help homeless people find a home. Houses have been repainted and minor repairs have been performed. Worship has become a freer exercise of pouring out our hearts to God. More and more people are being included in important decisions.

But there are some faults with my church, as well. It is a large church and while that brings about greater resources and opportunities, it also brings about slowness in movement. There is often a tendency to plateau—once some change has been made, people will feel that it is “good enough,” and it will take time to move further forward (often way too much time).

Yet at the heart of my church is truly a desire to restore all things. We want people restored to God. We want people restored to one another. Everything that is done or not done is out of a desire to do God’s will. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I love my country. It is a place where people are free to make decisions about their lives. It is a place where dreams can come true. It is one of the most generous countries in the world giving so much money and time to volunteer efforts to try and improve communities. It is a place where people truly can move from the bottom to the top.

But there are some faults with my country, as well. Its founding documents were not written with “all people” in mind; they were written with landowners in mind. Black people were only considered 3/5 human when our Constitution was written. It has only been a generation that all people are allowed to vote. Well, unless you are a felon. Economic structures that have been passed down from the days of slavery have created slums and perpetuated the struggles for many people. Our country does not like to admit its wrongs. Slavery and racism have plagued this country since its inception but if anyone brings that up they are called a race baiter. Many people feel that we should say things are better now so we should just all be happy. When relationships between communities and police officers are brought up people struggle with listening to both sides to truly hear what can be done to improve those relationships. Decisions about immigrants, transgender people, and people of different religions are based on fear and not facts. Political leaders lie, are caught on video lying, and lie about telling the lies. We are all now looking at our microwaves wondering if they are secretly recording our conversations.

Yet at the heart of my country is a desire to be the land of the free. Improvements have been made. We still have a long way to go, but I do think the majority of people want to go there. They do not get it right 100% of the time. I still love them and I still criticize them. In fact, my criticism grows out of the fact that I love.

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I could go on and talk about my job, my family, my friends. These are all groups that I love and respect deeply. But they all get things wrong.

Let’s face it: I could talk about myself the same way. There are things I do that are good, yet I also know there are many areas that need improvement.

Why do we struggle to talk about the areas of growth in the people that we love?

I want to focus my citizenship first in the Kingdom of God. If I am going to do that, I need to apply Kingdom principles to my country; not apply my country’s dream to the Kingdom. How many of us get this backwards?

God’s Kingdom began and thrived long before there was any democratic nation. Our way of governing is not ultimately special. It is just one of a number of ways people have governed. Yet since we are people of the Kingdom, let us ask how those principles can impact our democracy.

Let us criticize what needs to be fixed. There is too much fear, too much anger, too much yelling, too much hatred, too much division in our nation. And we are not making it worse when we acknowledge it. In fact, we will never move to improving it if we continue avoiding. Our nation has a problem with racism. Our nation has a problem with economic structures continually stretching the divide between rich and poor. Our nation has a problem with reality TV stars having more influence on our policies than people who actually know what they are talking about.

And I have a problem with loving people who disagree with me. And I think I am justified. But how am I applying Kingdom principles to myself?

I think people are suffering. I need to reach out to them and help them. And I need to advocate for them and work for long-lasting change that will improve their lives.

And those people I disagree with? Those people who are making me angry? I pray. I pray for me to listen and seek relationship. I pray for them. I seek conversation (real conversation; not social media conversation). And I apply Kingdom principles to that relationship. If we truly love one another, we will listen and we will learn and we will grow.

After all, neither of us will get it right 100% of the time. But we can love and criticize one another. In fact, it will be because of that love that we do criticize.

When Someone’s World Falls Apart

I still remember the stares.

Sitting on the back pew in church as people would walk by, I would make eye contact. Eye contact with faces that seemed to convey pity (“It is so sad what happened.”) or doubt (“Is he even sober now?”).

To be fair, I cannot say with absolute certainty that those questions were in the minds of people as they walked by. But it sure did feel like they were. Every glance. Every whispered conversation. Every head shake. It was all so overwhelming.

And let’s be honest: I was in the wrong. I had lied. I had tried to cover up what I was doing. I got caught. It wasn’t as if I had an epiphany and confessed all my wrongdoings. I was confronted as a result of my own actions and finally ran out of escape routes.

So it was time for me to endure—not only the natural consequences for my actions, but also the fallout in all my relationships. I had hurt many people close to me. I had created a situation that also affected, in indirect ways, many other people. There were a lot of questions. In places I once was present I now was absent. In places I once had a leadership role I now had little purpose.

People wondered. People questioned. People assumed.

When my world fell apart, that was only the beginning. I had a lot left to endure.

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It is difficult to witness. It arouses feelings of despair, hurt, betrayal, shock, confusion. It leads to many questions. It is something we are rarely prepared for.

And the announcement can come in a number of ways: a social media post, an overheard conversation, from the church pulpit, in a newsletter. When we learn the news, our first response is often stunned silence.

Then, the questions start popping in our head: “What did they do?” “What happened?” “Was this a mutual decision?” “I had no idea anything like this was going on; how long has this been an issue?” “How is the person going to fare now?”

These questions are legitimate. They are part of the human experience of curiosity.

And we must resist the urge to ask them.

I have spent a lot of time with people in recovery. There is an interesting dynamic at play with many of them: they are learning to share their stories—their experience, strength, and hope—with others. They learn to love sharing those stories.

But they almost always hate answering questions.

The content is the same. The details are the same. The story is the same. So what is the difference?

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I am a big fan of stories. I am a big fan of vulnerability. I am a big fan of confession and accountability partners/groups. I think if more of us could learn how to share more openly and more frequently it would greatly increase our community in numerous ways.

But still, we need to stop asking those questions.

When someone’s world falls apart, asking those questions often serves to satisfy our need to have questions answered, but it rarely serves to provide hope and healing for the person who is hurting.

On the other hand, making yourself available for people to come to you makes a world of difference. You can be the person that others will come to when you show that your primary purpose is to walk alongside those who are hurting. And you can do that with an infinitesimally small amount of information.

All you need for walking alongside somebody is compassion. In fact, the fewer words you speak the better. Just be present. Just listen. Offer some words: words of comfort; words of hope; words of accountability to help prevent something similar from happening again.

I do still remember the stares (whether they were real or imagined doesn’t make much of a difference). But I also remember the people who were present. I remember the people who listened.

Can we all be people who listen?

When Listening Is Tough

Story is powerful.

Your story is powerful. Your experiences, your wisdom, your knowledge, your interpretation, your worldview, your perspective. All of it is important. And all of if it is what makes you who you are.

I love hearing stories. I love when people are vulnerable enough to open up and share what they have been through. There is no experience you can share with me that is too dark. And there is no experience that is so boring it is unworthy of being told.

We need to tell our stories. I am grateful for the opportunity to share mine. I am hopeful you will have opportunity to share yours.

There is a problem with story-telling, though.

Actually, it is not even really a problem with the telling. The problem is: we don’t listen enough.

There are times when we are so completely wrapped up in and moved by others’ stories. We will pay good money and devote plenty of time to go hear some of the best motivational speakers tell us how they overcame tremendous odds to get to where they are. While it is sometimes difficult to listen to preachers on a Sunday, if someone comes to share their testimony they have the attention of the entire crowd. We love to go to movies, especially based on true story movies, that detail the account of an underdog rising up to become a champion.

But too often, we believe some people’s stories are not worthy of being heard.

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I went and saw the play Nickel and Dimed this past weekend (based on the book of the same name). At the end of the production, the characters come out and give short monologues on their experiences with working low wage jobs in America. They are honest. They are raw. They are at the same time filled with hope yet laced with despair.

Stories of poor people are often disregarded. People will say some hurtful things:

“They need to work harder!”

“Why are they taking my money?”

“Jobs are plentiful; just go flip burgers.”

“I’ve always worked. Why can’t they?”

“They are such leeches.”

But when was the last time you sat down and listened the story of a poor person? When was the last opportunity you had to listen to a family in generational poverty? Have you ever even realized the difference between generational and situational poverty?

When was the last time you just listened?

The stories are not pleasant. They are hard to listen to. They are hard to accept. It is hard to acknowledge that some people do not have the same opportunities or access to resources that you have had. It can be hard to understand the reasons behind the decisions some people make.

But you will never be able to learn if you first do not listen and hear their stories.

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I went and saw a play written by an African-American student at a local university. It detailed the stories of people in an urban setting and what might lead them to gangs or drugs or violence. It is hard to acknowledge that people who participate in illegal activities may have really ended up believing they had no choice.

As I watched this story, I was moved by the portrayal of people who truly wanted what was best for themselves and the people they loved. But no one was around to teach them. No one was around to pay any attention to them. Although a portrayal, it was just as powerful as the play that was based on real life stories.

Because so many black people have been disregarded and cast aside. They have been called thugs, or uneducated, or drains on society. They have been called disrespectful and told they should just suck it up. They have been told that our society is equal now, so quit dwelling on the past.

But when was the last time you sat down and listened to the experience of person of color in this country? When was the last time you asked how people felt when presidential nominees spewed racist tropes and then saw their poll numbers increase?

It may be hard to acknowledge that Blacks, and Latinos, and Native Americans, and others truly experience discrimination and prejudice. It may be difficult to acknowledge that things are not as good as we hope they are.

But you will never be able to learn if you first do not listen and hear their stories.

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Everyone’s story needs to be heard. And you cannot correct someone else’s story. It is their story. Just like your story is yours. And that needs to be shared and heard, as well.

There is a lot of noise in our world today. And an election year only makes it worse.

Please stop the noise. Don’t talk over other people. Don’t disregard stories. Listen. Better yet: invite people to your house, have a meal, sit, and listen to their experiences. Truly listen to what they are saying. Then share your experience.

Everyone’s story must be heard. But in order to hear, we must listen.

Especially to the ones that make us uncomfortable.