Listening in Love

Dr. Jan Love is the dean and professor of Christianity and World Politics for the Candler School of Theology at Emory University in Atlanta, GA.

Psalm 133 is a pithy, powerful tribute to the possibilities of genuine human community, even in the midst of differences, difficulties and conflict. It is one of a number of Songs of Ascent associated with worship in ancient Israel, probably during pilgrimages to Jerusalem. Travelers singing on the road knew first hand deep divisions among themselves and between their people and others. Yet together in worship they sang about a vision of unity. "How very good and pleasant it is when kindred live together in unity!"

We Christians similarly sing hymns that proclaim our common bond as members of the body of Christ. Yet we, too, know the reality of deep divisions among us and across our societies. For example, we can tell by the attack ads that we are in an election year, can't we? Do you come from a red county or a blue county; a red household or a blue household? Have you observed that substantive, reasoned discussion and debate often give way to strident, heated exchanges? Have you experienced any road rage lately, yelled impatiently at your family members, or stormed out of a church meeting angry at the idiots who disagreed with you? At times our homes, communities and even our churches feel like a war zone.

The polarization we are experiencing is real. Ironically, so is our longing to live in community with one another, just as Psalm 133 proclaims. Most of us yearn to redeem the brokenness we experience as individuals, families, communities, nations and as churches. Most of us long for the fulfillment of the biblical vision of shalom where all women and men, all children and youth will have their fullness of humanity restored.

Conflict, disagreement and differences are normal in life, thank God! Most of us learn a lot and even experience great growth and revelation about our faith when we encounter conflict. Conflict can be profoundly productive and can be engaged constructively. For example, Acts 15 tells of substantial conflict on a crucial matter among members of the early church. The text characterizes the conflict as "no small dissension and debate." Church leaders called a meeting to consider the issue at hand, listened carefully to each other and to God, and found a powerful, productive way forward.

But the reverse can also happen. Conflict can be horrifically destructive, too often tearing individuals, communities, nations and churches apart. The key is to engage conflict well, to make it productive and to use it for building up the body of Christ and the well-being of humanity.

The story of the Canaanite woman's faith in Matthew 15 is a story of conflict that involves Jesus. In the verses just prior to verse 21, the text for today, Jesus has been deeply engaged in debates with the Pharisees and in teaching the disciples. He left that scene to go to another region of the country. The version of the same story in Mark 7 says that he entered a house and did not want anyone to know that he was there. I imagine that he was tired and wanted to rest for a while, away from the crowds that so frequently pressed upon him.

A persistent, distressed woman, however, wouldn't let him escape. Her daughter was tormented by a demon, and she knew Jesus could heal her. Parents desperate to find help for a sick child often ignore protocol and polite manners; and in this case, the mother shouted at Jesus to have mercy on her. At first Jesus seems to ignore her. In any case, he didn't answer her. And she very clearly annoyed the disciples. Send her away, they said, she just keeps on shouting and shouting.

When Jesus finally answered her, he began a very interesting conversation, a series of fascinating exchanges. He listens carefully to her, just as she listens carefully to him, even though at points the tension between them seems pretty thick. The conversation begins with Jesus saying that he was "sent only to the lost sheep. . .of Israel." In other words, as a Canaanite woman, she is not a member of the chosen people of Israel. She is ethnically different, an outsider, not someone on whom Jesus is supposed to focus his ministry.

Still, the woman dares to remain stubbornly persistent on behalf of her sick child. Please help me, she says.

Jesus' reply is pointed, perhaps even irritated and tense. "It is not fair to take the children's food and throw it to the dogs," he said. This is the second reference Jesus makes to her status as an outsider, someone not privileged to have full access to all the benefits of being a member of the household of Israel.

Yet this mother continues obstinately to plead her case. She just won't go away! She acknowledges her position as an outsider, a "dog" compared to the house of Israel, but says that "even the dogs are allowed to eat the crumbs that fall from their masters' table."

Having listened closely and carefully, Jesus seems to be impressed. He responds by saying, "'Woman, great is your faith! Let it be done for you as you wish.' And her daughter was healed instantly."

This story provides insight into engaging conflict well. Jesus and the woman stay locked in a conversation listening deeply to one another, even when what the other has to say is not pretty and not at all easy. One of the reasons that the conversation continues as long as it does is that the woman is just so remarkably stubborn. She won't go away. She's desperate to find help for her daughter, and although the exchange becomes tense, Jesus hangs in there with her. He recognizes and rewards her extraordinary faith.

How well do we as Christians listen to each other when we disagree with one another? How well do we listen to members of our family when we have a dispute with them? How well do we listen to our neighbors, or our friends, or even our enemies?

Listening deeply to those who have tough, unpleasant things-or new and different or old and hackneyed things to say to us can be a strange, awkward, but good exercise and a giant leap of faith for those willing to try it. Genuine, careful, heartfelt listening often is. Winston Churchill, once said that "Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak. Courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen." A Cuban proverb states that "Listening looks easy, but it's not simple. Every head is a world." David Augsburger, a renowned Mennonite teacher, says that "Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference."

The kind of unity described in Psalm 133-a community of faithful followers on a journey with God to a beloved home-never obliterates differences, disagreement, and conflicts. Unity among believers does not require uniformity, which would not only be boring but also a denial of the rich variety of God's good creation among humans and their communities.

The kind of unity described in Psalm 133 does require, however, that we engage each other and our conflicts over differences to make them productive rather than destructive. Such unity requires that we see conflict as an opportunity to deepen our faith rather than destroy our adversaries, whether they be across the world or across the table in a local church meeting.

When we within the body of Christ choose to listen deeply, we will discover new ways of hearing about each other's encounter of and witness to Christ. Moreover, we will likely learn more about the wonders and mysteries of our own faith when we listen, really listen to others, even those with whom we will never fully agree. Then we will know more fully the unity to which God calls us-a unity so large, a love so expansive, and a mutual encounter so riveting, just like that of Jesus and the Canaanite woman, that we find new ways of healing ourselves and our communities.

Will you pray with me?

God, help us listen deeply. Help us listen in love to those whom we encounter in our families, among our friends, among our adversaries, and all those who seek to teach us, whether we know it or not, how to engage conflict productively. In Christ's name we pray. Amen.