Sunday, June 28, 2020 “Change Comes with Listening”
Join us Sunday morning for Holy Trinity’s Video Worship Service with Pastor Erik, “Change Comes with Listening.”
Here’s the YouTube link for Sunday Worship.
“Change Comes with Listening”
MARK 9:2-8 • EXODUS 19:1-9 • June 28, 2020
“For the first part of this gathering we ask the white people not to speak.” When I first read that line in the announcement, it was a little jarring. The invitation was for church leaders to join in a video conference with pastors and lay leaders from our local Los Angeles Lutheran churches which are in pre-dominantly African American communities. It was a week after the George Floyd killing and the subsequent protests. We were being gathered to have an opportunity to support our African American siblings in Christ by listening.
So, while being told not to speak because I was white was jarring at first, I understood why it was said, and I actually appreciated that the facilitators were really clarifying what this event was about. It wasn’t about grilling the panelists with questions. It wasn’t about defending ourselves as white people, or talking about the things we have done that would prove we were not racist. Rather, it was meant to be about listening. The purpose was to encourage people to really try and hear the speakers—to hear their pain and their perspective and in so doing, reach a greater understanding. The purpose was to listen first, because by listening and learning, there was a greater likelihood we might be open to change.
I think God was trying to bring about change in the disciples on the high mountain where they find themselves in today’s Gospel story. There are theories about exactly which mountain this could have been, but the Bible does not say for sure. In Christian tradition it has come to be known as the Mount of Transfiguration because the Scripture says that Jesus was transfigured in front of Peter, James and John on the mountain. His appearance was changed into a dazzling, bright light. Like people sometimes do, Peter felt the need to say something as he blurts out his plan to build three booths for Jesus and for Moses and Elijah who have appeared next to Jesus. But God doesn’t want Peter to build yet. God doesn’t want Peter to keep speaking. Instead, the voice from the cloud says, “This is my beloved son. Listen to him!”
When God declares Jesus to be the beloved one and tells the disciples to listen to him, I think God is revealing that this experience on the mountain is not just about Jesus being transfigured. It is not just about Jesus being changed. It is about the disciples being transformed as well, and that transformation process begins by listening. Peter is going to need to stop talking for a while if he is to really hear Jesus. The disciples are going to need to set aside only seeing things through their own perspective if they are going to see the new thing that God is doing through Jesus.
This is true for us as well. We also need to be open to hearing the perspective of God coming through Jesus if we are to be transformed in the direction that God is leading us. We also need to be open to the perspective of people who might be different from us, in order for a change inside of us to occur. So how do we listen in a way that might allow change to happen? Here is a brief list of some approaches that we might take or listening skills we can develop.
1) Acknowledgment… by acknowledging that we have heard what someone is saying, we demonstrate that an issue matters to them and we take them seriously.
2) Clarifying questions… When we ask clarifying questions we show people that we are not questioning their perspective, but that we are seeking to better understand their perspective. We show that we are not asking questions to try and prove them wrong, but that we are interested in hearing where they are coming from on a topic.
3) Use active listening skills…. Repeating back to people what we have heard them tell us demonstrates that we are paying attention and engaged. Utilizing phrases like, “So I hear you saying”… or “It sounds like you are telling me…” gives people an opportunity to confirm that what we think we have heard from them is really accurate. It reveals that we are actually seeking to understand what they are saying.
4) Genuine curiosity and wonder… So often when another person is talking we can start from a place of judgment, especially when it might be a controversial topic or a topic we have a strong opinion about. We can tend to quickly judge their perspective and instead of really listening to what they are saying, we can immediately begin to think of what we are going to say next to refute whatever they are saying. Approaching a conversation with curiosity and wonder allows us to step back for a moment. It allows us to show a genuine interest in someone else and listen before we judge.
I like to think of myself as someone who is naturally a good listener, but there have been many times in my life where I wished I would have listened a little better. There have been times when I wished I would have known about these listening skills earlier and applied them on a more regular basis.
One of those times was in my senior year of seminary. One night, a friend of mine asked if I wanted to join him at one of our favorite local places to eat. It sounded fun to get off campus and go hang out so I said sure, I would join him. About halfway through our meal he told me he had something important to tell me. I said ok, then he just came out and said it, “I’m gay.” I know I was a little surprised by this news. I certainly hadn’t had any warning that he would share that. He had actually talked about having a girlfriend before coming to seminary. I was surprised, but I tried not to be shocked. I didn’t want him to think he couldn’t talk to me about it.
I’m not sure exactly what I said in response. I think it was something like, “Really? Are you sure?” I then listened as he told me something about his journey and how he had come to the realization that he was gay. I know I asked a few questions and we talked for a while. But I don’t think we talked as long as you might think, given the enormity of the topic and the way he had just been completely vulnerable with me. Looking back, it feels like I actually remember moving on sort of quickly from the topic by saying something like, “Well, it doesn’t matter to me if you are gay, you’re still my friend.”
On the surface that might have sounded okay. But looking back, I wonder if part of my response was wanting to move on more quickly from a place where I was uncomfortable. I wonder if in my hurry to show my acceptance on the surface, I dismissed the deeper struggle my friend had gone through to accept himself. To him, I’m sure it mattered a lot that he had come to the realization that he was gay.
You see, this was a time when just a year or before, a young man named Matthew Shephard was beaten, and left to die hung up on a fence in the middle of a Wyoming field, simply because he was gay. This was a time when there was no gay marriage. It was a time when a gay person could not have a partner and serve as a pastor in a Lutheran church. My friend’s coming out was going to mean a big change for him. It might change his relationship with his friends and family. It would change society’s perception of him. It could change the church’s perception of him and affect his future. It could also have meant in a more positive direction, that his perspective of himself and God had changed. It could have meant that he now realized that God still loved him for who he was which could have caused him to love himself more than before.
But I didn’t learn if any of that was true for him because I didn’t listen long enough or deeply enough. The center for Non-Violent communication says that to say an individual has been heard is not necessarily saying that they have just been verbally heard, but rather, it means their core needs are actually recognized and accepted by another person. In essence, this recognition and acceptance means that they have felt that they have been known, seen, and understood. I believe my friend knew I cared about him, but I’m afraid that he might not have felt as if I had truly heard him.
Over the last twenty years I have had the opportunity to do more listening around the concerns and perspectives of our LGBTQ siblings in Christ. This listening has changed my personal and theological perspectives more deeply than before. Things have changed in parts of church and society as well. This change has come from many members from the LGBTQ community speaking up and many of their friends and family members being willing to listen them and show them that they have been heard.
I feel incredibly blessed to be a part of a congregation that has been willing to do this kind of listening. Over the years, this congregation has listened to testimonies, adult forums, learning nights, sermons, and people who have joined Holy Trinity from the LGBTQ community or who have family members from that community. This last year we did some intentional listening on exploring if we might become a Reconciled in Christ congregation. After doing a church wide survey the council concluded there was overwhelming support to go in this direction. This means that we have approved a public statement so that people from the LGBTQ community know that we want to try and welcome them to our church.
When Peter, James and John came down off the Mount of Transfiguration, their perspective of Jesus had changed. They had heard the voice from heaven tell them that Jesus was the beloved one of God. Because of this, they came to more deeply listen to Jesus. As they more deeply listened to Jesus, they came to realize that that too were beloved of God and so were the people Jesus was leading them to be with. When we listen to Jesus we discover this is our mission as well. We are to let others know that they are beloved children of God and one way we can do this is by listening to each other.
-Pastor Erik Goehner