Paying for School

My ongoing adventures in life and the pursuit of more...

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

An Inadequate Appeal to Listen to our Brothers & Sisters

Sunday morning I talked about generosity. I won’t preach the whole sermon to you but the big idea was this: the people of God are called to live extravagantly generous lives. 

I suggested there were many ways in which we have opportunity to express that generosity.

I talked briefly about listening.

And then we all went home and watched Sunday afternoon football and we saw athletes, coaches and even owners express themselves by taking a knee or standing arm in arm or staying in the tunnel to their locker room during the National Anthem.

I should have preached longer about listening.

By Sunday afternoon “the Facebook” was blowing up with comments, criticism, accusations, judgments, hurt, applause, condemnation and sympathy. By Monday afternoon we needed Nigel Tufnel’s amp because the noise went way past 10. By Tuesday afternoon the conversation shifted so far away from the original intent of the new patron saint of kneeling that we weren’t talking with each other only at each other, past each other and about each other.

I was amazed to see friends who have questioned some of my posts to “the Facebook” jumping in to the fray. Friends who have complained to me about another friend’s “inflammatory posts” were updating and commenting like it gave them a chance to win the lottery every time they hit “post.” Families divided, friends calling names, brothers and sisters in Jesus questioning each other’s faith. There was a great deal of generosity going on but it was not the generosity I had in mind on Sunday morning. And my suggestion that we listen generously, well, we seem to be in a listening desert.

It’s all reminded me of a phone call I overheard between my Dad and a customer service agent. I overheard both ends of the conversation because Dad hits speaker phone and then holds it up to his ear and talks like you would on a normal call.  So I’m listening to Dad and this very nice lady at MediaWorld Inc talking about his cable bill.  It was messed up during their move from the home I grew up in to their new home in a community for 50+ who have no kids living with them. Anyway, the service agent was explaining things to my Dad and using the language from the script in front of her. She was polite and very helpful. But she was using terminology different from my Dad even though they were talking about the same thing. Both were speaking English and Dad could hear her but he couldn’t understand what she was saying and so he got a little agitated thinking he wasn’t being heard. But listening in, as a third party, I could tell she did understand and was fixing the very problem he was calling about but she couldn’t shift over to “dadspeak,” she just heard an older man getting very angry with her for doing exactly what he was asking her to do.

I’m not the great translator, I’m not going to even try to untangle or ‘splain how badly we aren’t hearing each other. Frankly, I don’t understand our “failure to communicate” other than to say that the story I’m in involved an enemy who is masterful at confusing conversations and provoking misunderstandings that drive men to war.

There was a lot of symbolism going on during the football games on Sunday. Symbols are so challenging because they can be charged with such meaning for some and not as much or just differently for others. Symbolic actions, from flowers stuck in the barrels of rifles to raising a fist on the Olympic platform to sitting at a lunch counter can also be misunderstood.

When I graduated from Bible College in 1980something, I had a beard. The problem was that beards were banned at my school. They had just started allowing men, with some amount of concern, to grow moustaches (as long as they didn’t grow below the corners of the mouth). Another student who was graduating with me saw me and my contrabeard and ran off to find the Dean of Students who he dragged in to the waiting area and stood in front of me, pointing at my face. It wasn’t a beard-phobia that was the issue (well, maybe for my fellow graduate, I’ll never understand him) but for the school I attended it, the beard, was a symbol of the radical, rebellious, free-love hippie liberal theology days. First a beard, then textual criticism, then atheism.  I went to one of those schools where professors, back in the day, referred to seminary as cemetery because students lost their faith there.

As Freud might say, sometimes a beard is just a beard – but sometimes a beard is a potent symbol of anarchy to an older administration or a symbolic act of a young graduate trying to say, “your rule about beards is wrong and it’s time to change.”

I’m not comparing my beard protest to those who took a knee on Sunday to protest the systemic racism that appears to have led (and continues to lead) to the untimely deaths of unarmed Black American men. I’m not saying that my beard protest occupies the same moral ground as those who knelt to say that all American’s are not being treated fairly, equally or with the same rights afforded to their White American counterparts.

What I am trying to say is we need to listen. We need to make space for the other and embrace them, not exclude them. We need to hear each other’s voices, each other’s pain, each other’s fear and each other’s heart. We need to listen to a generation for whom flag and country have come to mean something that they do not mean to another generation. We need to listen to our brothers and sisters who feel unsafe and unequal – so tired of the deaths and so tired of being stopped and detained just because they were born Black – that they would risk our rebuke and retribution in order to take a stand on the only platform they have by kneeling when they’ve always stood before.

We need to be quick to listen and slow to speak and even slower to become angry.

We need to be generous in our listening. In our mercy. In our forgiveness.

We all need to understand that our symbols don’t all mean the same thing to everyone. We all need to take into account that some symbols are more potent than other symbols and be mindful that we may not be sending the message we think we are sending and risk losing the very people who would rush to stand against systemic evil with us. We need to embrace those who stand up by kneeling when their own President calls them “sons of bitches” because they are not, they are our brothers.

To my friends who feel offended and hurt and disrespected by the taking a knee, I apologize. I hear you. It hurts to feel like people don’t appreciate you or the sacrifices you and others have made. It hurts to feel judged and misunderstood and it hurts to feel that same disrespect for a country that you love. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for the feelings of disrespect you’ve been made to feel. I’m sorry for the way this moment in time has made you feel unloved. Will you please forgive all of us who take a knee?

To my friends who feel betrayed by a country that claims justice and liberty for all, I apologize. To my brothers and sisters, black and brown, treated as guilty until proven innocent, I apologize. I hear you. I see the pain we have systemically and personally inflicted on you that provokes you, like generations before you, to be moved to peaceful protests that we have interpreted as aggression. I’m sorry for your pain. I’m sorry for the feelings of disrespect from a country that you love. I’m sorry for the way you are continually being made to feel less than, unsafe, unwelcome, and hated just because of the color of your skin. It ought not be this way. I’m sorry for the way this moment in time, and the many decades that have come before it, have made you feel unloved. Will you please forgive all of us who stand? Will you even forgive those of us who criticize you for taking a knee?

I have no answers, no remedies, no $3 solution. I only know that mercy triumphs over judgment, so that’s the path I choose to take. I only know that I am my brother’s keeper, all of them. I only know that listening and choosing love creates a better life than condemning and choosing offense.

And I suppose I offer this reflection as an opportunity for everyone to agree you dislike me and what I have to say so we can all get a respite, even for a second, from hating each other.

Teach me to listen, O God, to those nearest me, my family, my friends, my co-workers.
Help me to be aware that no matter what words I hear, the message is, “Accept the person I am. Listen to me.”
Teach me to listen, my caring God, to those far from me– the whisper of the hopeless, the plea of the forgotten, the cry of the anguished.
Teach me to listen, O God my Mother, to myself. Help me to be less afraid to trust the voice inside — in the deepest part of me.
Teach me to listen, Holy Spirit, for your voice — in busyness and in boredom, in certainty and doubt, in noise and in silence.
Teach me, Lord, to listen.  Amen.
by John Veltri, S.J.