As is the case with most Diocesan Conventions, there was a lot of sitting. But at this just-concluded Convention, instead of sitting to listen to someone make a report or resolution, a sermon or presentation, this time the sitting was mostly in groups or in pairs. Sitting to listen – to scripture, to each other – and to the Holy Spirit. There was great emphasis on listening at the Convention – and an invitation to engage in some serious and disciplined listening in congregations and neighborhoods after Convention. Indeed, we have set up a three-month window (March, April and May) for teams in congregations to participate in a listening season – with all sorts of options as to how that might be done. (See the invitation.)
Listening best happens when we are sitting and paying close attention. We listen beyond information-gathering in order to discern what God is up to. Listening is a vital and necessary pastoral practice – because it builds relationships with God and with each other.
People sat, and listened to each other despite the cacophony of being among 400 people in the large ballroom and the challenge of 40 to 50 people in the breakout rooms. People were committed to listening – and reported they were energized by the listening – and expressed a desire and intent to do more of it.
Near the very end of Convention a group of clergy and laypeople stood in solidarity with the Rev. J. Brent Bates, who read a statement which seriously and systematically critiqued the President’s Executive Order halting refugee resettlement from seven identified countries. The statement invited individuals, congregations and the diocese to begin to fashion a prayerful and faith-filled response. And challenged us to stand with those who have been targets of what I referred to in my Convention address as the “Disrespectful D’s” – deport, demean, diminish and denounce.
I commended the statement and those who stood. As important as it is to sit and listen in an effort to be pastoral, there are times when it is necessary to stand and be prophetic. We need to do be about both; they cannot be separated. And we need to develop the wisdom and discipline of when and how to move from one to the other.
Clearly there are policy issues at stake in the Executive Order, and there are political dynamics in play. But this issue goes beyond policy and politics: it is about morality. Specifically, the immorality of denouncing and demeaning whole cohorts of people in order to serve a specious policy and divisive political gain, which leaves millions of people feeling acutely vulnerable and marginalized.
Nearly one hundred years ago, in 1923, the great Jewish theologian Martin Buber wrote I and Thou, a seminal work that continues to shape theology and philosophy all across the world. Buber maintained that the world tends to pressure us to see one another as “I-it,” which reinforces distance between people – such that differences between people are then to be feared. Buber invites people to move toward “I-thou,” a relationship where we see each other as sharing humanity and having mutual concerns and interests.
There is a lot of “I-it” rhetoric in the public arena today. The distance it promotes gives people free reign to demean, diminish, denounce – and deport. As people of faith, we are invited to stand for “I-thou” relationships – an orientation that enables us to see one another as neighbor, if not brother or sister.
Sitting and listening to one another is the critical practice that invites us to move beyond “I-it” to “I-thou.” And when we are able to see and share our common humanity, we have no option but to stand with and for those who are on the receiving end of the “Disrespectful D’s.”