Listening at Babel

This past Monday we were setting the sanctuary for World Communion Sunday.  Among the additions to our regular worship space was a series of small flags representing various countries around the world.  The intent of the flags is to help the congregation focus on Christians in these countries.  I was talking with another man about some new ideas to draw people into the idea of “worldwide”.  As we pondered this theme we had an idea that would have required us to remove the large American flag from the sanctuary.  He had just set up two miniature American flags along with the flags reflecting the global presence of the Church.  But we were discussing “the flag” the one that would be noticed should it be removed.  We decided to leave it because we said our purpose would not be understood because people were fighting over national symbols right now.

To me this is not the time to discuss the acceptability of athletes kneeling for the national anthem as a form of protest.  frankly to discuss that issue would probably cut against the grain of my current thought.  What concerned us was that the shouting match taking place around this issue would detract from what we were trying to do in the worship service.  Our intent in the stage layout was to show the overarching nature of the Church and the subordination of all nations to her position and Christ’s rule.  But we soon realized that the charged political climate would make such a statement offensive.  We were concerned that veterans would see this as a political attack against their service, and that those supporting such protests would see this as tacit support.  But mostly what we recognized is that no one would likely ask what message we intended by the arrangement of the flags.

This has started me thinking that our inability to listen to one another is now starting to impact the number of messages we can hear.  It is getting to be like the mom and dad arguing and fighting to the point they cannot hear the baby crying “I’m hungry”.  We must learn to conduct ourselves more civilly.  We must learn to listen to one another in our complaints and respond to them in fairness and courtesy.  Truly listening means more than hearing the words, it requires one to think about what the other person is saying (and implying).  Listening requires us to get into our opponents shoes and understand their priorities, fears, and motives.  If we cannot learn this we will be dragged down as individuals and as a collective, toward a narrow self-imposed ignorance.  Our culture is on the point of developing a myopia which will cause us to miss the real issues at hand while fighting over the importance of our factions being “right”.   I see this starting in the way we look down on our political opposition as ignorant of reality and completely uneducated.  “They” are simply stupid and wrong, while I am right, “the facts are on our side, and of course facts don’t lie.”

I was reminded today of the story of the Tower of Babel.  I can picture that story in my head, the foundation has been laid and they are placing the first door, there is a small disagreement about how the door should look.  As the tower grows so does the disagreement and the shouting and yelling and by the third or fourth story the two sides who had a minor disagreement are shouting past one another as they debate the pattern of the stairs.  Finally, one group is going one way and the other group going the other way, each using their own dialects and distinct vocabulary.  Each group is focused on the problems as they see them, shouting about the injustices which the other group tolerates.  Both parties are less concerned about the tower than being “right” and have the other group listen to them.  As the fifth story is completed major structural flaws start to become visible, but rather than coming together to repair them, the factions stand back blame the other side for the flaws and refuse to lift a finger.  Because after all, “they caused this mess, and they should fix it.”  At last the tower being so unstable, it collapses in on itself and both sides walk away grumbling about the other people in dialects wholly unintelligible to the other side.  Neither group remembers the initial argument over the door.  Or if they do they forget their own part in the argument.  They are suddenly saying “those people would not listen”.

I know that saying this I am a bit of the pot talking about the kettle.  I am a stubborn know-it-all, and sometimes must be reminded to listen.  But, I think that is exactly why I am saying this.  I know what happens when I fail to listen and learn from others, I make hasty decisions which ultimately lead to problems.  It seems to me, we as a society are at that point where cracks are beginning to show, and rather than get down to the work of fixing the problems factions are want to cast blame on the other side.

“I am practicing the discipline of not having to have the last word.” Dallas Willard

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