“Can we talk?”
Depending on such factors as who is asking this question, their tone of voice, body language, etc., “Can we talk?” can produce in us emotions like joy, apprehension, fear, annoyance, and so on. If you are married, “unionized,” or otherwise in a committed relationship with another person(s), you probably know exactly what I mean. If you are a pastor, I am almost certain you know what I mean.
This question assumes someone desires to enter into dialogue with us about a certain issue, hopefully to obtain closure, understanding, consensus or some other goal. If there is one thing I have learned in my 10 years of pastoring, however, this assumption is not always the case.
In the past month I have had two such experiences. The first involved an e-mail from someone who wanted to know if, as a pastor, I “believed in homosexuality.” Apparently a friend of her’s from our church was attempting to dialogue with her about the subject, and had given her some of our information on homosexuality and the bible.
I have to admit I thought it was a little strange someone would ask an openly gay pastor if he “believed” in homosexuality. As with most e-mails on this subject, however, I sensed there were some underlying issues at work. So I replied to her it was best we talked on the phone–or met at her convenience–to discuss these questions, and gave her my contact information. She replied via e-mail that “it really doesn’t matter what you say, anyway, because I’m a Christian and don’t believe in homosexuality. Not that I don’t care, it just doesn’t matter. I’ll think about calling you.”
Still waiting for the call…
The second experience involved a representative from a local senior center. The center was promoting a health club program at their facility focusing on the 50+ crowd. I liked the concept: older folks usually feel intimidated at most health clubs that focus on the young, buff, and beautiful. So why not provide a place where that intimidation is removed, and people receive the individual attention they deserve? The representative asked to come speak with our congregants about the program. I gave him our service times, and suggested he speak to people at social hour between services, as that time would be the best for getting the most exposure to our congregation as a whole.
I then asked if his facility’s non-discrimination clause included sexual orientation and gender identity. Very long pause and then, “Well, it is the 21st century, after all,” came the reply.
“I understand that,’ I replied, ‘still, about 75% of my congregation identifies as lgbt. So, just as you want seniors to feel comfortable at your facility, I want to make sure all our seniors feel comfortable at your facility. I’m sure you can understand my desire to recommend safe and welcoming facilities and programs for my congregants.”
“Well, I’ll talk to my supervisor and get back to you.”
That was almost a month ago.
In both cases, people contacted me with the desire to talk about an issue. When I didn’t immediately give them the answer they sought, but rather attempted to deepen the conversation a bit by asking for more information, the conversations ended. Can we talk? Apparently, not always.
These and other experiences have caused me to consider the question of why we have such a hard time talking to one another sometimes. Whether we are liberal or conservative, Christian, Jewish, Buddhist, Atheist, or people of other faiths or who claim no particular faith, sometimes we just can’t talk. And to be honest, I don’t think the subject matter makes much difference, either. Soemtimes I even wonder if we really want to talk at all.
Or perhaps that’s the real issue; that is, we talk too much without really listening. Perhaps we hear, but don’t really listen. All of us have our strongly-held beliefs about any number of subjects, and it isn’t too difficult to feel threatened when people strongly disagree with our equally strongly-held beliefs. And since we’re so sure we’re right–especially when it comes to politics and religion–why bother?
Perhaps new and different thoughts are just too frightening for some people to consider–especially when it comes to faith and religion. To me it’s sad to think there are some folks who are so afraid God might strike them dead for using the minds and free will they believe God gave them. What does it say about the character of a God who would do such a thing? That is not any god I am interested in at all.
When it comes to the issue of dialogue, maybe we can take a lesson from Aristotle, who is quoted as saying, “It is the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” I have also heard this quote adapted to read, “It is the mark of an open mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” In other words, it never hurts to listen to different viewpoints, to reflect on those viewpoints, and to offer our own in response–all without either a pathological need to “convert” others to our way of thinking, or an irrational fear of offending God and losing our sweet seats in the afterlife.
Who knows? We might even learn something in the process…