After I would preach an innovative or daring message, an elderly women with no formal education and low economic status might come up to me and attempt to critique-criticize the message. That was not the problem.
The critique was often just repeating the old way of interpreting that night’s passage as if that, in itself, was a corrective.
I wanted to shout “I KNOW THAT ALREADY!” It was, after all, what I was suggesting that we move away from.
I would stop planning my response and try to just be in that moment with her – to hear what she was saying and listen for the heart behind it.
- What is her real concern?
- Is she afraid of something?
- Did I move too fast on this one?
- Was I too dismissive of the former way?
- Did I skip a step in my explanation that would have allowed her to connect the dots?
- Was I disrespectful in my presentation?
- Was something valuable left behind when I discarded the former approach?
It was a challenging discipline I had volunteered for. It was also one of the best decisions that I made as a young minister. Learning by listening became a treasure chest for me.
Not only did I learn a ton of things I would have never known, but I also earned great credibility in my congregation and community.
There is nothing worse than a young guy with all the answers.
This discipline of listening was never more challenging than when the criticism was of me personally. No one likes to be criticized. It is especially difficult when you have the disposition/personality that I do. I am tender person, with a sensitive heart. This is complicated by that fact that I have a large physical presence and an even louder voice. (if you have ever been in room with me you will know that volume that I speak and laugh in).
So listening to criticism/concern is a magnified challenge because I had the tools at my disposal to a) make it stop b) take it in a different direction c) go on the offensive myself. I am judgmental person with a quick mind so I usually had material of my own that I wanted to counter with.
That was just the beginning. In seminary I was mentored by Randy Woodley, a Native American theologian. Randy is big on honoring your communities’ elders. I tried to push back on Randy’s instructions to me by pointing out that many of that generation are racist or legalistic-fundamentalists who would not like or accept him or his ‘hybrid’ spirituality.
He responded “do you think I haven’t encountered this in my own family?”
I would stare at him as if to say “then why continue to honor them?” I would make my eyes big and shrug my shoulders as if to say “…and…”
He explained that I needed it. It was not so much about the quality of their convictions but about the role I played and the character I needed to develop.
I’m still not sure I agree with him all the way. If I am honest, their brand of christianity did real damage and continues to have elements to it that are detrimental to the very gospel I learned about from Randy talking about Jesus.
In the end, I know that there is something bigger going on. I know that I need to break the enlightenment view of individualism I have inherited. I am aware that you can not re-invent yourself from scratch every decade or as needed. We come from a place, a group and have been socialized into a system. None of us are self made.
The challenge then is finding what you can learn from every person you cross paths with – even if it is simply how to present your innovative insight better the next time. Along the way, we might learn something really valuable as well.
Does everyone find this as challenging as I do?
Did you resonate with Tony’s challenge in this chapter?
Do you have tricks that could be helpful?