"What Is This Love? Listening."
Rev. Paul Mitchell
Vashon United Methodist Church
Vashon United Methodist Church
May 26, 2019 -- Sixth Sunday in Eastertide
First Kings 19:1-16; Acts 16:9-15
I believe we all have had this experience – many of us more than once, some of us often, maybe recently: a friend, or loved one, or even a mere acquaintance, or even a stranger, is grieving. They may be grieving a literal death – the conclusion of a person’s earthly, bodily life. Or they may be grieving a more metaphorical death – the loss of a relationship, a job, their health, a significant asset, their sense of innocence or hope or faith or love. We often feel stuck in this situation – not sure what to do, how to help, what to say. Most of us have also been in the position of the one who mourns. Often that means we are not processing the world around us very well – we are not listening to what people are saying, or we may have a diminished capacity to appreciate the concerns of others. We may not know what to say when someone says, “How can I help?”
Here are few things not to say to the grieving as suggested by a very helpful article I wish I’d been shown when I was in seminary.
“‘I know how you feel.’ No, actually, you don’t know how I feel. Even if you’ve lost your dad, you didn’t lose my dad.
“‘God is in control.’ [It’s been said] that you should never utter something about God that you can’t say while standing before the gates of Auschwitz. [Let’s take] that even further, never utter something about God that you can’t say to parents who have lost a child. Can God bring good out of evil? Yes. Absolutely. But that is a very different thing than saying that God is controlling evil and causing it to happen. It’s a very different thing than saying that God has a reason [to take] kids from their parents.
“‘He’s in a better place.’ First of all, [we] don’t know this. The eternal condition of any human being is not for [us] to know with any kind of [certainty]. … even if we have a lot of confidence that someone is in eternal bliss, the fact is, God created us to be earth dwellers. Made from the dust of the ground, humanity is an earth-bound, earth-loving creature. Our best place, the place for which we were created is right here. What we mean by “a better place” is that these people are in the presence of God and are no longer suffering. … But …, in biblical theology, heaven and earth are together and God is here in this place.
“‘God just wanted another angel.’ Not only is this statement theologically wrong (people don’t turn into angels when they die; [we are permanently human, angels are a separate, and perhaps temporary, creation]), but the more dangerous theological assumption in this comment is that God is somehow involved in the taking of a child from parents.
“‘You have to be strong for X….’ This gets said too much to grieving people. It places the burden of “bucking up” and pretending everything’s okay on a person precisely at the time when nothing is okay.
“‘God never gives us more than we can handle.’ How do [we] know God never gives us more than we can handle? Did [we] read that in Scripture somewhere? Or did [we] see it on a bumper sticker? God does not “give” tragedy to people. God does not cause evil. A god who causes evil (for testing or because another angel [is needed]) is an evil god. … God is always allowing people to find themselves in situations that are bigger than they can handle. That’s the nature of learning to trust God and understand God’s loving care for us – it’s all bound up in the idea that when we are out of control, God is still sovereign and still [crafting] the waves and the darkness and death into something, not that we can control, but something that can be redeemed.
“‘Is there anything I can do for you?’ This question often comes from a good place. Unlike many of the comments and clichés above, this question at least focuses on the needs of the grieving person instead of the discomfort of the person voicing the trite comments. Nevertheless, … this question … isn't specific enough. In the end, most of the silly things we say to grieving people could be avoided if we simply keep our mouths shut. Silence is better than stupidity…. In some of these sayings, we mean well, but the sayings don’t effectively communicate our concern. In others of these, we’re not really concerned about the grieving person, we’re concerned with our own discomfort. The grieving person doesn’t need you to solve anything. A hug will do just fine. If Jesus is right and God blesses those who mourn, then the last thing we need to do is be a curse to them by saying things that are more hurtful than helpful.” [i]
In a word, what can you do when someone is grieving?
Listening is one of the most profound forms of love.
There must have been a lot of listening in Philippi when Paul and his entourage found themselves there on the Sabbath, seeking a place to worship. We know from the text that Lydia was willing to simply listen. She is described as σεβομένη τὸν θεόν – a worshipper or reverer of God – the root word means to cower. The implication is that she believed in the one God, perhaps as understood by the Jews, but without being a part of a synagogue. She had gathered with other women by the river to worship – a place of beauty, perhaps, and calm – but not a synagogue. Perhaps she knew someone from the diaspora of the Hebrew people, but she was not welcome in their time or place of worship. Remember, this became Paul’s great innovation – to proclaim the good news of God’s unconditional love and expectation of shalom for gentiles as well as Jews. And so, for whatever reason, Lydia was listening. But Paul and his cohort must have been listening, too, in order to discern the place where they also might worship – not being a part of a local synagogue. Beginning with this episode, Paul often sought out the places where the locals gathered. The relationship began with deep listening, required deep listening, and resulted in deep listening to the power and presence of the Holy Spirit in the lives of these new followers of the way of Jesus – already believers in the singular goodness and power of God.
There are many ways this resurrection love of listening flows in and through creation. On Tuesday, Carol Ellis, and Mary and I attended a screening of the film “Paper Tigers” co-sponsored by VYFS and VARSA. These organizations seek to introduce a new perspective and set of tools to organizations on Vashon reflecting a better understanding of how adversely humans are affected by trauma. “Paper Tigers documents the lives of students at Walla Walla’s Lincoln High School, an alternative school that specializes in educating traumatized youth. It examines the inspiring promise of ‘Trauma Informed Communities’ – a movement that is showing great promise in healing youth who struggle with the dark legacy of Adverse Childhood Experiences. Exposure to chronic and adverse stress (and the altered brain function that results) leaves a child in a fruitless search for comfort and escape from a brain and body that is permanently stuck in flight or fight. That comfort comes in the form of drugs, cigarettes, alcohol, sex, food, and more.
“Every year, millions of unloved and traumatized youth enter adulthood with damaged brains and hearts. They are highly predisposed to die from self-destructive behaviors, and highly likely to continue the cycle of abuse. Even those who do not engage in self destructive behaviors are highly predisposed to develop cancer, high blood pressure, diabetes, and immune disorders. The impact of unloved and traumatized children on society is profound and widespread. 85% of prison inmates were traumatized as youth. 27% of hospital visits can be traced to causes linked to childhood trauma. Hurt kids grow up to hurt people. The generational cycles of trauma and abuse are as stubborn as they are tragic. But there is hope.” [ii]
The film informs us that the single biggest factor in overcoming the trauma of adverse childhood experiences is a caring, stable adult. And that care is expressed not by fixing, but by listening. Beloved, as resurrection people, who believe that God is actively seeking to restore creation to its fullest thriving and goodness, perhaps the most faithful thing we can do – that we are all fully capable of doing – is to love by listening. In the coming months we will have the opportunity to be trained in an approach to community organizing based primarily in engaged listening. It entails seeking out relationships with new people simply for the purpose of listening. One of my good friends and colleagues, Shalom Agtarap, will come to help us learn this thoughtful tool. Perhaps the most loving thing we can do as followers of Jesus is to listen. Some new understanding and direction may come from the listening. Maybe not. The purpose of this listening is humility and respect rather than some kind of gain. Listening is a gift of love. So, what if we became known in our community as the church who listens? That would be resurrection love – a love that trusts in hope – a love built on a foundation of relationship – a resurrection love of listening.
[i] Tom Fuerst, “10 Things You Should Never Say to a Grieving Person” [https://www.ministrymatters.com/all/entry/5552/10-things-you-should-never-say-to-a-grieving-person], May 17, 2019.
[ii] VARSA [https://varsanetwork.org/paper-tigers/], May 17, 2019.