The Eggplant: Lend Me Your Ears
The Eggplant: February 23, 2017 – Lend Me Your Ears
When I was in Seminary, one of the lessons repeated in many classes and contexts was that to be a good pastor is to be a good listener. As a priest, both members of your parish and others will often tell you about things going on in their lives, and your first instinct is usually to identify the problem and propose a solution. To be a good pastor, we were told, you must unlearn that instinct and simply hear people out; sometimes they do want your advice or a theological interpretation of their troubles, but often they just want you to hear them, because others in their lives or the world at large seem not to be listening.
This lesson comes back to me during this week every year; on the Last Sunday of Epiphany, we always read the story of the Transfiguration, in which God’s voice tells the disciples present to listen to Jesus. One of my mentors, a retired Methodist pastor, asserted that “listen to him” was the most important part of that reading and that any Transfiguration sermon not emphasizing it was doing the congregation a disservice.
While I am not inclined to go that far, I do agree that listening is as important a skill for every Christian as it is for clergy. In general terms, listening to our neighbors is an easy way for us to love them, requiring only our time and attention. To love those we encounter and treat them with the respect they are due as fellow children of God, we must listen to them seriously. In more particular terms, Jesus identifies himself with the poor, oppressed, and disadvantaged (Matthew 25:31-46 for example), so listening to such neighbors of ours today is one way we can follow the command to listen to Jesus here and now.
This Saturday (weather permitting), some of us Episcopalians from the Nebraska Panhandle will be engaged in such listening. Widening our Circle, a day of prayer and sharing organized by The Rev. Tar Drazdowski and led by Brother James Dowd, is an opportunity for us to listen to our neighbors on the Pine Ridge Reservation and exchange stories with them directly rather than repeating the narratives about their lives that we often hear in the media.
Exchanging stories with neighbors whose experiences are very different from ours helps us to recognize our common humanity rather than fixating on the ways in which we differ (religion, gender, race, sexuality, nationality, etc.). Exposure to more perspectives expands our appreciation of God’s creation and guides us to love our neighbors who are not ‘like us’ just as God loves them. Such listening can also illuminate ways in which we or our forebears have failed to show such love.
Probably my favorite author at present is N. K. Jemisin, who writes fantasy from a Black female perspective. Her first published novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, is set in a world reshaped by an ancient war among the gods; Bright Itempas, the victor, enslaved his surviving enemies and handed their chains to his priesthood, who conquered the world using the power of their divine captives. Jemisin tells her story from the perspective of Yeine, a young woman from the ‘barbarous’ fringes of the empire who finds herself summoned to the capital and thrown into the vicious political machinations of the ruling family and fallen gods scheming for freedom.
Besides being an intriguing story engagingly written, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms was an eye-opener to me as a male Christian of European descent. As the novel progresses, it’s revealed that the war of the gods was primarily between Itempas, god of the sun and proponent of order, and Nahadoth, his brother who embraced night and chaos. The empire blessed by the former resembles the colonial expansion of western Christianity insofar as, in the name of religious devotion and the bestowal of order, it believes in conquering a people and then reshaping their religion and culture into the mold of the conqueror. Yeine’s experience as a conquered person partially exposed to both her own culture and that of the empire bears disconcerting parallels to the experience of Black Americans, Native Americans, and others who are not of European descent, particularly in the ways she is not accepted by her powerful family even when she does succeed in conforming to the capital’s expectations of her.
This story, this fictional version of the attitudes and dynamics that govern race relations in reality but which I often fail to notice, proved indispensable in helping me listen to my neighbors at a time when they were describing things so far beyond my experience that, even listening, I could not comprehend. But even when we find it difficult, we must listen to Jesus by attending to our oppressed neighbors, lending our ears to their voices and our eyes to their stories. Because we are called to love our neighbors, I encourage you to take the time to listen attentively, and to seek out the stories of those who look and act and think differently from you, so that in understanding their perspectives, you may come to love them as God does.
The Rev. John Adams+