Thursday, August 2, 2012

Humble Listening

SCRIPTURE: James 1:19-21
Written by: Dr Conrade Yap
Date: 2 August 2012
"My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you." (James 1:19-21)
MAIN POINT: The debate on homosexual unions or marriages continue to create huge reactions from many parties. In this article, I reflect on why people are so easily heated in their discussions.

(Credit: Baptist Press)
This is the third week of the Chik-Fil-A controversy. All over the Internet, there has been a uproar over the words of the President of a fast food restaurant, Chik-fil-A. On July 16th, 2012, in an interview with the Baptist Press, Dan Cathy is reported to have said:

"We are very much supportive of the family -- the biblical definition of the family unit. We are a family-owned business, a family-led business, and we are married to our first wives. We give God thanks for that. 
"We operate as a family business ... our restaurants are typically led by families; some are single. We want to do anything we possibly can to strengthen families. We are very much committed to that," Cathy emphasized.

"We intend to stay the course," he said. "We know that it might not be popular with everyone, but thank the Lord, we live in a country where we can share our values and operate on biblical principles."

The article has also been given a provocative title, "Guilty as Charged." The big subject is marriage, increasingly connected to gay marriage as well. Any mention of this subject will immediately cause individuals to draw the line. People are up in arms, with views both for and against Dan Cathy and Chik-Fil-A. For some, it means loading their verbal cannons or intellectual armoury to aim at anyone opposed to their personal views. When tempers are charged up, any reason is good enough to be used as bullets or attacks on the opposition. Besides stoking controversy, anything about "gay marriage" is poised to be divisive. Politicians have weighed in with their opinions, even suggesting that the restaurant be denied permits to open restaurants. Such a move is a blatant discrimination against the freedom of speech and religion. Yet, I notice that the arguments for/against the stand of Dan Cathy arise mostly out of emotional outbursts. Just take a look at any side, you will see passionate display of support for/against their viewpoints. This is not simply about Christians vs non-Christians. Even among Christians, the issue has split churches. In every single denomination, this one single issue of homosexuality has led to painful separations of the people of God. Both sides claim they have biblical support. Both sides claim their rights to free speech and the right to exist as they are. Of course, in many cases, both sides will claim to one another that no one has a right to preach to them, or to tell them how and how not to live. Even theological seminaries are divided, or at least faculties among them having diverse opinions about the homosexual issue.

I want to take this opportunity to do some humble listening. I use the following questions to guide the discussion. Why are the reactions to a personal statement of faith so sensitive to public ears? What makes a simple statement of biblical faith so repugnant in the eyes of many in the public?

A) No Longer Just Personal or Private

The culture has shifted. Just a few decades ago, it is completely normal for Cathy to say what he said, and people just accepted his words as his personal opinion. After all, Chik-Fil-A is a privately held company. Moreover, he expresses his opinions not on some major national news network like ABC, CNN, or FOXNews, but on a Christian news press. Yet, the naysayers are plenty. Why is that so?

It used to be the case where if anyone wants a copy of a publication, a subscription is needed. Then there is a wait time for the printed material to arrive in the mail. All of these can take weeks. By then, the main views and opinions will be from experienced reporters or readers who have early releases of these publications. The time gap gives people a chance to slowly read and think through the implications of the reports.

The Internet has changed all that. Whatever that has been reported are no longer just private to a local concern. It has become public on a global scale. News are no longer limited to printed paper on slow mail. It travels at electronic speed, and is quickly available on many modern electronic readers like iPads, smartphones, and computers.

B) Why the Intense Response from Both Sides?

When I read about the rather ridiculous calls for boycott or support for the restaurant, and the way that politicians have tried to garner majority support for themselves, I cannot help but ask why the heightened passions. Why is this issue so controversial? In a thoughtful article, the extremely popular blogger, Rachel Held Evans has made a strong case for both sides, with her words, "I get it. I really do."

Why are groups so ready to boycott Chik-Fil-A over Dan Cathy's words? Similarly, why are some Christians so pumped up to rally their faithfuls to eat more chicken from Chik-Fil-A? Why the intense responses from both sides? This again points to a case of a divided Christian public. I know of many Christians who are ready to disagree in public with their fellow brothers and sisters in Christ, over this single issue. I am on some closed discussion groups that talk passionately in terms both pros and cons for BOTH sides. Mind you, they can get ugly, even among well meaning Christians.

The problem balloons with some people who make statements like, "There is no such thing as right or wrong." If that is true, then how do we explain the intensity? Surely, these people, whatever the camp, firmly believe that they are right. Otherwise, why are they using words and emotions with such high levels of passion?

C) We Are Not Listening Enough

The words from Paul says it clearly. "Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry." Instead, some of the Youtube videos and social media postings seem to suggest the reverse. Many are quick to become angry, fast in their speaking and immediate rebuttals, and painfully slow in listening. In fact, many of us are guilty of only listening to what we WANT to listen. This stance puts us dangerously in a position of putting words in the mouths of others. By stating our own views too quickly, are we loving another person when we fail to listen, to paraphrase, or to clarify why they say what they said?

I feel sad. We have failed to be slow to speak. We are guilty of being too ready to cast the first stone. We are not listening enough.

D) We Are Not Humble Enough

It is no secret that all of us have a right to our own opinions. It is also public knowledge that we are not to impose our views on others. Sadly, errors have been committed on both sides not only with regards to a pathetic lack of listening, we have judged one another and misjudged the others far more readily and irresponsibly. For all our "right words" or "right arguments," there is no excuse for a "wronged brother/sister in Christ." We can feel as if we have all the right arguments, and yet be utterly wrong in our approach. We can claim to be speaking out in truth and in love, but the fact is, our passionate responses only reveal how bigoted we ourselves are. When we are too quick to shoot off the hip, we similarly shut down others unwittingly. We give ourselves an authority certificate, issued personally, to be used as legitimate weaponry against others. How foolish we are to do that.

We are not humble enough. If if doubt, try this quick test. When you find your tempers inside you rise, just ask: "Why are you so quick to become angry?" Perhaps, that is a good test of pride and how humble you are. "Guilty as charged" is not just Dan Cathy's confession. It is ours too.

E)  We Need More Humble Listening

For all the naysayers, we can still be humble enough to listen not to the angry words at the surface, but the hurting person under the surface. Let me suggest learning to listen in the following way. Behind every word and every sentence, there is a person that God loves. The position they hold is secondary. The person they are, is primary. Listen not only to what they say, but be sensitive to what they are not saying. Behind each angry word, they can very well be a hurt past, or a painful experience. Behind each point made from either side, there is a reason we need to appreciate, and to understand. If we fail to understand why the person has said what he has said, we have no right to let our emotions rise to the next level.

Here is my tip on humble listening.

  1. H - Hearing.
    When we listen, do not just listen to the words, but sense the underlying emotions and circumstances the person is in. It has been said that "Everyone hears what you say. Friends listen to what you say. Best friends listen to what you don't say." We need to hear people out carefully, even if it means at the cost of our views not getting heard.
  2. U - Understand
    Have we practised trying to understand others more, before we speak? Carl Jung has said, "Everything that irritates us about others can lead us to an understanding of ourselves." Perhaps, we all need to learn to understand better, including understanding ourselves first.
  3. M - Mull
    Take time to mull over the words you hear. Do not be too quick to judge what you hear or what people say. Take time. Give people space to express themselves. Perhaps, after mulling, we will be less emotional about ourselves, but more open to understand and to constructively engage one another.
  4. B - Breathe
    Breathe in slowly and intentionally. When we take quick breaths, we pent up emotions and allow angry emotions to accumulate. Manage your breathing. Smell the flowers. Take a short walk.
  5. L - Learn
    One common reaction is that people are more ready to "teach others" instead of "learning from others." What if we all tell ourselves not to assume we already know, but put ourselves in a position to learn from what we hear?
  6. E - Empathize
    Behind every opinion is a person. Learn to empathize with the person you are hearing, especially the one you seem to be "strongly against." 
Let me close with two stories from the desert fathers tradition. In the first story, the early century monk, Abba Isidore was once asked about why demons are so afraid of him. He replied: "Ever since I became a monk I have tried never to let anger rise as far as my mouth." 

The second story is about a conversation between two desert monks, Abba Joseph and Abba Nisteros. Abba Joseph asked Abba Nisteros, "What should I do about my tongue, for I cannot control it?" Abba Nisteros then replied, "When you speak, do you find peace?. . . If you do not find peace, why do you speak? Be silent, and when a conversation takes place, prefer to listen rather to talk."

Let not anger rise too quickly. Instead be quick to give listening a VIP seat. Then let "slow to speak"occupy the front seats. Finally, tell "anger" that you have no more tickets for your personal theatre.

THOUGHT: Being humble is not simply thinking more of others and less of ourselves. It is thinking lovingly about others, and appropriately about ourselves. This we do with being mindful of Christ, always.


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