* The following text is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on March 7, 2016. Please note that the below manuscript was written with the intention for it to be heard, not read, thus the various grammatical choices were made with an emphasis on the ear, not the eye.
Conflict is an inescapable reality of being human.
One cannot be human without being in conflict, which means that every human community is – by definition – inescapably caught within a cyclical network of battles, struggles, wars, and disagreements. For us, conflict is life, and life is conflict.
But of course, many in our “Minnesota nice” cultural context did not get this memo. Or, perhaps got it but chose not to read it! Whatever the case, far too many among us seek to somehow escape the inevitable corollaries of conflict, and in doing so, we too often endure the precious moments of our lives trying to avoid the unavoidable and escape the inescapable.
Like trying to run away from the wind, it simply cannot be done.
Which means, instead of trying to run away from the powerful winds of conflict, the task of any community is to see its conflict not as some sort of shameful social stain, but as a collective opportunity, in order to harness conflict and use its renewable energy for the sake of creating something more just than that which existed before.
Despite what many Midwestern cultural proclivities may promise, conflict in and of itself is neither positive or negative, but every conflcit is indeed an opportunity to directly create something new – and yes, even create something better. Which means, instead of trying to run away from the winds of conflict, we are called to faithfully walk through them, and in service to the common good, even learn to journey with them.
Whether it is the psychological and spiritual struggles that sit deep in our own minds and souls… Whether it is the friend, sibling, or parent that you no longer speak with… Whether it is the poison of partisan politics, the cowardly combustibility of social media, questions surrounding whose lives really matter, or any amount of confusion surrounding the details of collegiate policy… Time does not heal all wounds.
I disagree with Hallmark! Time does not heal all wounds. Which means, every community conflcit presents an opportunity to either weaken or strengthen a community, and thus, offers an important set of choices for the community. And while there are multitude of multi-faceted steps involved in transforming conflict, an important point to make is from our short yet substantial reading for this day, Isaiah 55:3, which explains, “…listen, that you may live”.
Listen, that you may live.
The Book of Isaiah is, in many ways, a narrative about the realities of conflict, as it accounts for a number of complex confrontations, such as, the defeat of King Uzziah’s coalition, the Syro-Ephraimite skirmish, the struggle between Assyria and Judah, as well as Hezekiah’s rebellion against Senacherib. The prophet Isaiah, while living through this period of extended dispute, served as a minister to the Judean court, and in doing so communicated an important message that rings true to this day: “Listen, that you may live.”
Listen, that you may live.
How simple, and yet how timeless, profound, important, and yes, incredibly difficult.
Listen, that you may live.
Thousands of years after the book of Isaiah was first written, we now live in the so-called “Age of Communication”. With mobile phones, texts, tweets, snap chats, and a whole host of other emerging technological methods, there is a great deal of mass communication taking place in our midst. However, while there is a great quantity of communication, one is forced to consider what is the quality of such communication? Because, the question is: How much listening can there actually be when there is so much chatter that clouds our collective consciousness? As Henry David Thoreau once remarked, “It takes two to speak the truth, one to speak and another to hear”.
Like the old philosophical question of whether or not a fallen tree makes a sound if no one is around the forest to hear it, in our day and age, we must wonder: If everyone is speaking, yet no one is actually listening, is anyone actually saying anything? If everyone wishes to exercise their freedom of speech yet no one wants to embrace the equally important responsibility to listen, then what do we have? Is there any space to actually speak the truth? What are we left with?
I suppose it is like a (very bad!) joke that was told to me a few hours before my wedding, when a friend said to me: Well…
During the first year of marriage, you will speak and she will listen.
During the second year, she will speak and you will listen.
During the third year, you both with speak and the neighbors will listen.
(Who doesn’t love wedding humor!)
In the midst of our so-called age of mass communication, the 55th Chapter of Isaiah reminds us that, to live, we must be able to listen. And this is especially important during situations of heightened conflict, as listening allows us to understand diverse views, listening allows us to connect with others, and ultimatley, listening allows us to release our minds and journey through the all-important process of conflict transformation. Because ultimatley, listening is the golden key that opens the door to authentic human relationships, which is why genuine listening needs to be practiced each and every day, so we can not only hear each other, but we can listen to what is being said, and even notice what is not being said.
But of course, the fact of the matter is that we are – quite frankly – terrible listeners! We are! We are, for the most part, terrible listeners, and it is not too difficult to see why, because we simply do not value listening! And because we do not value listening, we do not teach the art of listening! It’s true!
The fact of the matter is that, while countless courses and workshops - and yes, numerous college classes – are offered in order to develop the skills associated with speech, very few people intentionally learn how to listen, and the results are absolutely staggering.
For example, according to “The Listening Center”:
About 75 percent [of the time we are supposed to be listening] we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention…
75% of the time! Which means:
Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what they have said. And just a few hours later, we remember only about 10 to 20 percent.
And why is this? For starters, according to a recent study, the average attention span for North Americans in this so-called age of communication is now about eight seconds. Eight seconds! This basically puts us just a bit lower than goldfish! Goldfish! Isn’t this amazing! In the so-called age of communication our attention spans are lower than goldfish. And in times if conflcit, when anger, resentment, and distrust gets added into the mix, it makes matters even worse – and our communities end up looking like a fishbowl filled with angry and distracted goldfish!
(Now imagine that for a moment)!
You and I are both well aware that, in times of conflict, many of us do not listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply. And so, as we consider the various conflicts taking place in our community, perhaps we should recognize that communication is not simply about letting your voice be heard, but it is also about having the confidence, strength, and amazing grace to actually receive the voices of others. And in doing so, see the face of God in others, assume the best of others, and embody the Good News alongside others.
In this chapel, as people who seek to listen to God and believe that God actually listens to us, we recognize that there is no greater gift than to give someone your full, undivided, and genuine attention. This is the gift God gives to us. This is the gift we are called to offer each other. As Paul Tillich once said, “The first duty of love is to listen”. And so, for us to love our neighbors as Jesus’ proclaimed, and in order to transform the conflicts in our midst, perhaps we start not with preaching or professing, but with listening and understanding. As the world renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, once said “music happens between the notes”, which leads us to believe that communication is actually what happens between the words.
And so, as we seek the life in its fullness that God so graciously offers, we affirm that to listen is to live, and to live is to listen. As the grand song of life is still being written and played, and not a single one of us knows exactly what the next note may hold.
So the time is upon us to place less value of mass communication and more value upon real communication, and in doing so, practice the freedom of speech, but also cherish the responsibility to listen. For in such ways we will stop trying to run away from the wind, but instead see the Spirit of God within it, to welcome it, embrace it, and journey alongside it.
People of God. People of Life.
Listen, so you may live. Listen, so you may live. Thanks be to God. Amen.