Thoughts on Restoring Conversations

Restoring Conversations
March 7, 2017
The Rev. Eric L. Miller

Saturday March 4th, I stepped a bit out of my comfort zone, and therefore, I experienced a bit of spiritual growth, too. Isn’t that something! I attended the first of six workshops titled, “Restoring Conversations: A Six-Week Workshop On Civil Communication” hosted by the faith community I am proud to call my spiritual home, Ascension & Holy Trinity Episcopal Church in Wyoming, Ohio.

To be more accurate, I stepped outside of my comfort zone several months ago when approached by parishioners who were concerned that society wasn’t listening to one another. My parishioners’ concern was that our nation was quickly becoming polarized by the presidential election of 2016, and they wanted to know how we could build community, foster listening, and have a spirit of hopefulness. To be clear, like most Episcopal Churches, we have our fair share of members who are happy with the election results, and we have folks who are quite saddened and concerned, too. We have folks who want to work for change, and folks who want everyone to get on with life as usual. Some might wonder what’s the big deal. After all, every election has a winner and a loser. So, what is different about the 2016 election? One could argue there are many differences; however, for the purpose of this blog, the major difference for me is that people were not/are not listening to one another. As a friend and follower of Jesus, I was saddened to witness the lack of listening with love.

The “courageous” act for me, if you will, was in agreeing to and offering space for these holy conversations to occur. There are many members of our congregation who are more than supportive of the six week workshop. However, I might be relatively young, but I am not naive. I am certain there are some who are either indifferent to the idea of the workshop or simply non-supportive. Let me say that I have never been the sort of priest who comfortably rallies people around social or political causes. I have many friends who live their ministries in the above manner, and I am so very thankful for them and their ministries of social justice. I do my very best to work toward reconciliation, and part of that for me, is not being a mouthpiece for hot-button issues. I want to be able to work with all sides of issues and all varieties of people.

All of the above being written, allow me to be clear that I have my convictions. I firmly believe in equality and justice and stewardship of God’s creation. I do not judge people by the color of their skin, their gender identity, their sexual orientation, political persuasion, Appalachian upbringing or city-dwelling lifestyle, or any other number of distinguishing categories we enjoy throwing around.

Mercy, we divide one another and judge each other so quickly these days. And so often, we limit ourselves with all or nothing sort of thinking. We can “size one another up” over anything. What’s the best way to worship? All pipe organ all the time, or is a bit of acoustic all right? Rite I or Rite II Holy Eucharist? Should The Great Litany be chanted, said, or never uttered again? I know of folks who have strong and divisive opinions over stuff like this.

The Jesus I read about in the Gospels told stories, loved God, loved people and listened to a variety of people. The God I learn about in my faith tradition as a Christian is a God who yearns for all of God’s precious creation to be reconciled with God and with one another. Jesus wasn’t a Democrat or Republican. He most certainly wasn’t in the top 1%. The Jesus I know isn’t concerned with what kind of a car I drive or house I live in or whether or not I offer God thanks and praise with a full on pipe organ with all of the trimmings or with a juice harp. The Lord I love and serve cares about the spiritual condition of my heart, and She cares about your heart, too.

We can not know the mind of God if we are not willing to listen to one another. For me, Restoring Conversations has taken courage to go against the grain a bit, and it has taken humility to acknowledge that I do not have all of the answers. The kind of folks who scare me are those who are absolutely certain they have the absolute best way forward. Being open to another’s ideas is not a sign of weakness. Being open to another’s ideas is a sign of a willingness to collaborate.

And now, what all of my eager readers have been waiting for…what I experienced during the first of six sessions in the Parish Hall of Ascension & Holy Trinity for “Restoring Conversations:”

I witnessed a variety of people from all walks of life gathering in our parish hall to learn to
listen to one another in love. My sense is that people came into our space with open hearts and open minds. It was a beautiful thing to behold.

2. I have to slow myself down to more intentionally enter into the listening process.

3. I get to choose whether or not I hold open a space of love and receptive listening for another. Often, I make assumptions that I know what the other is about and think I know what they are going to say before they say it. My perceptions are occasionally correct; regardless, I need to clear out any preconceived notions to make room in my heart to truly hear the other.

4. I only need to speak when I feel moved to speak. So often in life I feel that I must speak and respond, and it is o.k. to respond if I feel compelled to speak for the right reasons. I do not need to speak, though, because I think that others expect me to speak.

5. I get to remember that speakers are the experts of their own experiences and stories. We all have our stories to tell, and most of us love the sound of our own voices. My job as a listener is not to correct, but to be present. To be a more compassionate listener I get to replace certainty and advice giving with curiosity for whatever the other is sharing.

There are many many more takeaways, too many to be shared in a single blog post. I invite you into the conversation of listening. Join us this Saturday the 11th at 10:00 to learn to listen more completely.

In God’s Grace,
Eric L. Miller+