How Deciding to Listen Changed My Path and Opened My Mind
At the start of this year 2014, I made two resolutions — one public, and one private. The former was to make a regular discipline of writing. I have largely failed at this, but there is always next year. The latter was deeper and harder to define: I wanted to learn to listen better.
That private phrasing was really more of a shorthand. What I really wanted to do was stop living life as though I was the center of all that was wise and astute in the world.
Leading up to that New Year’s, I had long been a person who would happily give you advice and counsel, on any of your life’s problems … even if you didn’t know you had problems that needed advising. But, being wired to easily express my own will and think critically through the power of words, I had had plenty of “success” in this habit of mine. A lot of my peers had long expressed their appreciation for my thoughts, even if sometimes I admittedly had talked at them, rather than with them.
Over time though, I slowly gained an awareness of my own hubris in all this. To go through life believing that you are smarter than all your counterparts is no proper way to live, as a follower of Jesus or otherwise. Seeing my own arrogance accumulate over time, I knew I had to make a change.
The change I decided to make was this: I was going to carve space in my head for the reality that I am surrounded by brilliant people everyday, and that these other bright lights are in fact just as good at thinking and feeling as I am — and some quite a bit better. If this was true (and it is true) then it ought to be worth my time to hear them better, to empathize more proactively, and to listen deeply to their attitudes, stories, and hurts. Duh.
I decided that in 2014 I would make a serious practice of trying to move my brain, gently, into the headspaces of other people, in order to understand more deeply what the world looked like from behind their eyes. Instead of my own. I wanted to transcend barriers and cultivate a deeper communion with and respect for my peers … and moreover with people who were different than me. I wanted to do all that, instead of just waiting my conversational turn to share my own preconceived insights.
Thus began the Year of Listening. I would quickly find it would be full of lessons, and not without significant bumps.
Right off the bat in January, I made a risky move that paid out harsh consequences. I lost two dear friends in an instant, when I spoke up too harshly about their decision to get married. My missive was motivated by a real desire to see the best in their lives. But, my timing was terrible, and my choice of the written medium was downright catastrophic.
As for the message itself, well … an analogy to illustrate the gist: I was reading up recently on the early-2000s Bush administration, and their consideration of the choice to go to war in Iraq. Eventually they played a kind of charade — internally in the administration, they (A) debated intensively on the uncertainties and catastrophic risks of the move, and yet outwardly they (B) seemed to present a united front to the public that said We Must Go To War as though it were a clear and monolithic certainty.
My speaking up, perhaps, was a bit like that. It all should have been a conversation, and a deep listening. Instead, it was a clarion trumpet blast of my own pre-formed verdict — a one-way export of opinion. And this was to all of our detriment, not least of which my own.
I was excommunicated after that, and in the weeks and months that followed, I processed intensively about what had gone wrong. I have a lot of friends that are basically mainstream evangelical believers, who worship and practice in Reformed, Baptist, or Bible churches, and are basically conservative in their theology. When I spoke with all of these about the fallout, they were each tender and encouraging, supportive that I had made the right decision. After all, if you believe your friend(s) is about to make a deep mistake, it is right to sound an alarm, out of love — is it not?
Despite this affirmation, I faced an unresolved inner turmoil about it all. And my hangup went deeper than the simple guilt and regret of causing pain to people that I love. That alone was tough, but I managed to deal with it. But I was torn with a persistent curiosity: even if my intentions had been basically benign, how had I settled on an execution that was so unwieldy and destructive?
This hangup stuck around for months, and applied a deep pressure on my soul that eventually required some sort of relief valve. I found that relief by branching out in my reading material. I started to discover that there are whole worlds of Christian believers who (A) are not satisfied with traditional conservative methodology and practice, and (B) still align with traditional creedal faith and submission to the ultimacy and lordship of Jesus in their lives. Huh, wow. So this is where Listening was going to take me.
The spring months were filled with exploration along those lines. I discovered new voices like Frank Viola, Greg Boyd, NT Wright, Shane Blackshear; I found fellowship among new communities like BioLogos and Red Letter Christians. And while all this was happening, the “orthodox” camp that I had left behind seemed to be producing yet another impressive clusterfuck: the World Vision gay rights snafu. Or Albert Mohler’s championship of the death penalty. God.
By early summer, I had bookmarked and halfway digested a whirlwind of articles, opinions, podcasts, and created a pile of pulsating discontentment for myself. At this rate, I had to slow down. So I removed myself from Feedly and Pocket and the blogosphere for a little while, and tried to return to an inward place of calm reflection, self-honesty. I tried to make space for the wise, slow counsel of the Spirit to do its work in me.
On one hand, I had clearly wandered into theological territory that heretofore had been verboten to me. I was now wading into the Christian Left, you see. And if you’re a conservative evangelical, there be dragons there. Supposedly the Left is where people go when they stop taking the authority of God and the Bible seriously, and decide that they would rather be in closer communion with the World and its relativistic evils, than with the sometimes-confusing and always-challenging Gospel of Christ. Huh. Yep, that’s where I had ended up. I never expected to get there, having always thought of myself as zealous, and “serious” about the faith I had proclaimed 7 years prior.
On the other hand … things sure looked and felt interesting from that new side of the fence, as it were. In this new coming-to-the-dark-side, I had discovered a vibrant criticism of violence, empire, and civic religion. I had found a community that was serious about embracing everyone, even if they were gay, transgendered, homeless and stinky, uncouth, or otherwise unfit for polite company. I found a theological dialogue that felt less stagnant and rigid, more intellectually honest. I found thinkers who had appropriate awareness of, and deep respect for, the well trod paths (and mistakes) of history, and the historical church. Most importantly, on this new Dark Side, I found a Jesus that looked like Jesus again. In my old camps, sometimes Jesus was surprisingly hard to find.
But this was still a conundrum. Because this was my Year of Listening, and because I have played the pendulum-swing game before, I knew I couldn’t just shift to the Left (where things felt better) and call it good and done. I had to look a little more closely at this. Because surely the Right (as it were) has hundreds and millions of people who are not just sincere in their belief, but careful, nuanced, compassionate, reflective; surely these people had wrestled with the same struggles with which I now grappled. In fact, surely many of my “orthodox” friends were these precise people — which is why I love them so much.
Moreover, surely history had plenty of lessons to teach about people who had swung to the Christian Left, and swung too far, only to wander off the “slippery slope” into pure relativism, universalism, eventual disillusionment, and so on. This is what people say about Rob Bell, after all. I think that’s a joke, but I’m not sure for whose benefit.
I didn’t know what to do about this. But then came my Vision Quest at the end of the summer … and the stark lessons of the wilderness.
On that trip, I am sure that I met God out on the lonely mountain. He pointed simply to my inmost heart, and noted calmly that I was trying to become immortal, to live as a god among men, for my own glory, without ultimate fault. And he said gently: you can stop this. I will be your redemption, and I will be your everlasting life. You can’t give those things to yourself anyway. Let me do it.
Ya. You betcha.
I’ve been sorting out that word for the last two months, and I’m not done. But a couple of things have grown more clear. One for me is that the assiduous sin-avoidance of the old evangelical camp leads a person like me (and many) into a dangerous paternalism — and this is the kind of thing that befouls the name of Jesus and pushes outsiders further outside the social and ideological bounds of the church. Be it a fault of evangelicalism, or a fault of my own heart, I knew that what had taken place in January was a “bad fruit” which Jesus might say had sprung from a bad tree.
Another clear step of which I’m growing sure is this: in seeking my own path, I cannot worry too deeply about the confusion, displeasure, or offense of those who may be my spectators, even if those people are more disciplined and “serious” about their pursuit of Jesus and his news. If Jesus will be my redemption as well as theirs, then I need to allow myself the freedom to chase after the footsteps that I feel he alone has laid before me. And, earning the admiration of many and the criticism of few is no route to immortality. 😀
I had to face this hardship already, when I became a Christian in 2007. Some around me then were confused and skeptical, and not without justification. It seems that now again seven years later, I am going through a second round: as I shift away from the evangelical sphere that “raised me” as a young believer, I will likely draw the same concern of many of my friends. I am moving into theological waters that are traditionally regarded as hazardous.
The fact that this should be my “Year of Jubilee” is not lost on me, by the way. The time when debts are forgiven. We’ll see what that means.
As I’ve digested this last bit, I’ve come back around to the Year of Listening, and its origins. What motivated me to try this thing at all? Many people seem able to spend their whole lives with a basic satisfaction in their own beliefs and opinions; to them, ignorance (or arrogance?) is bliss. Is my path to be judged as better, for becoming more confused and less certain about everything?
That might be the wrong question entirely.
Instead, my current view is that the Year of Listening is an outgrowth of my heritage and inherent wiring. Perhaps it’s because I am a Jew, and will always be — I’m not sure — but I will forever be more interested in asking questions than in receiving (and enforcing) resolute answers. And as a communicator at heart, a linguist in training, and a man motivated by the Story of other people’s lives … the yoke of evangelical paternalism is a poor and heavy fit for me. Like the Bush administration, too often I have found myself trying to sell a truth with certainty that inwardly I am still working out and investigating. So for me, it seems, life will be better lived, and Jesus will be more meaningful, if I can spend my life in dialogue with those who are different from me, with an exchange of ideas and stories that is critically two-way. Indeed, in this deep listening, I see echoes of Jesus and his camaraderie with lepers, thieves, prostitutes, and tax collectors. There is indeed a precedent here.
I don’t intend to say that no mainstream evangelicals can ever uphold the same values. But, these are not the values that I see proclaimed from the mighty bastions of Reformed and Baptist thought — at least, not that I’ve seen.
And perhaps this is fitting. Some observers in Judaism, for instance, have noted in the last century that if it weren’t for the Jewish Chassidim, the ghetto-dwellers, and the ultra-orthodox Torah followers, there would be no modern Jewish identity today. Without their steadfast, even draconian protection of tradition and Biblical rigor, Jewishness itself would have long faded away against the gray backdrop of history.
Perhaps something is true about that within the Christian church as well. There will always be reformers and question-askers, people innovating and daring and pushing the envelope into quote “unsafe” territory. Balancing them will always be the steadfast, the cautious, the protectors of tradition, and those who look to communal assent and to passed-down Biblical interpretation as the trustworthy measurements of what is right. Both of these halves will make mistakes and cause harm. Both will ultimately be redeemed by Jesus, and He alone is the image of perfect truth.
It seems this Year of Listening has led me to a simple understanding of myself. I know now, perhaps more than ever before, what kinds of mistakes I find the most acceptable to make. If I have to err, then I will err toward innovation, toward dangerous questions, and toward grace. At least, that’s where I am now. Ask me again in another seven years, and we’ll see.