Taking time to listen leads to multigenerational reconciliation opportunity
Stories of reconciliation are all around us in the Episcopal Diocese of Rhode Island.
Today’s post, written by the Rev. Linda Griggs, priest associate at St. Martin’s, Providence, is about a reconciliation story that occurred in a moment of grace at the diocesan Learn & Lead workshop March 18.
As assisting priest at St. Martin’s, I have the luxury of having more than a week to prepare sermons, since I preach about one Sunday a month. So I knew well ahead of time that I would be preaching on the 4th Sunday of Lent. As is my practice, I read the passages and background material and set the whole thing simmering for awhile. By the time I was ready to write I had some general ideas, but it wasn’t coming together. As the day approached I was no longer simmering the sermon; I was in full-on wrestling mode.
What was so frustrating was how much I deeply love the passage I was working with — the story of the man born blind (John 9:1-41) who, once healed by Jesus with dirt, spit and water, keeps trying to tell his simple story of transformation —
“…I was blind; now I see”
— to members of a community who could not get beyond their own agendas long enough to know that the dream of God was unfolding right in front of them. I love the drama, the vividness, the energy, and the snappy dialogue worthy of an episode of “The West Wing.”
And at the quiet gravitational center of it all, a blind man and a Messiah.
But just loving the story wasn’t enough; I needed the answer to the question that faces every preacher: What was the Holy Spirit calling me to say about this passage to these people on this occasion?
As I continued to wrestle, I found myself thinking a lot about the importance of truly attending to people we encounter. The St. Martin’s Lenten program this year is giving participants the opportunity, through dinner discussions, to tell stories about our journey of faith and to listen to each other. We are learning to articulate our faith in a way that is magnetic to others — attracting them to a community that seeks, and very much needs, to grow. And the corollary to the telling of each story is that we also learn to attend to it — to see the identity of the teller as beloved of God who can offer a story of his or her own. Because we are not just called to name and claim our own identity as followers of Jesus; we are called to see Jesus in others. And that carries with it the risk that comes from true listening: the risk of change.
The blindness Jesus was talking about in John’s Gospel was not literal blindness; it was any dulling of the senses that insulates us from fully encountering the truth of another. Jesus confronted his hearers with their blindness and deafness to the signs of new life that the formerly blind man was trying to show them.
“…I was blind; now I see.”
So I pondered and wrestled with blindness and deafness, and telling and healing, and waited for the Spirit to reveal where She was leading this sermon. It turns out She was waiting for Learn & Lead. The topic of this year’s Learn & Lead was understanding generational differences. The focus was the generational research of Chuck Underwood, founder of Generational Imperative, Inc. and presenter of the PBS Series, “America’s Generations.”
Our workshop focused on the material in Underwood’s introductory video, in which he presents a broad portrait of the main generations alive today: the Silents (1927-1945), the Baby Boomers (1946-1964), Generation X (1965-1981) and the Millennials (1982-1999). Our committee planned the day to maximize discussion and interaction by all generational groups. We hoped to learn from each other’s generational wisdom and to be able to use it to enhance four main aspects of parish life: learning, communicating, giving and engaging.
We worked from an understanding that Silents and Baby Boomers comprise the bulk of our church populations, while we struggle to attract and keep the younger generations, particularly what I came to think of as “those shy elusive creatures, the Millennials.”
We made a special effort to attract both Generation X and Millennials, not only because we wanted to learn from them, but because we didn’t want to fall into the trap of discussing people in their absence.
As it turned out, we ended up talking about them in their presence.
Our committee had good intentions, but we made a crucial mistake. In the process of selecting moderators for the discussions of individual parts of the video, we neglected to ask a Millennial to preview the section on that generation and then lead the discussion. This was especially crucial with this group because, since the video was produced in 2012, nearly one quarter of the Millennials’ lives have passed since it was done, and the data on their lives is still coming in. In other words, the portrait of them is still in flux and it is all too easy to make snap judgments. So instead of observing an informative back-and-forth dialogue between generations I watched in some consternation as Baby Boomers began to opine about Millennials in the third person even though seven of them (they were totally outnumbered) were sitting right there. The opinions about them swirled through the air for several minutes until one young woman was finally able to get to the microphone and say, “If you would like to know more about us, we’d be delighted to tell you, if you would ask us.” Thanks be to God this was greeted with widespread applause.
But it was during lunch that the real grace happened. As the rest of the conference attendees moved around them, a couple of older folks and five of the young people took their sandwiches and sat in a circle on the floor.
At that quiet gravitational center, the young folks talked.
They talked about their frustration at being treated as the automatic go-to people for social networking and technology when their gifts, talents and interests are vastly more diverse than that. They talked about their frustration at being assumed to be too young to take things on when they are more than fully capable of developing and running successful programs; They told of their childhood experiences of church and faith; about their desire for community with their friends, and their desire to have their questions about spirituality and religion truly heard and not dismissed. As one person said with an ironic smile, “If I may generalize about Millennials, we all hate being generalized.”
And as the hour and the conversation went on, I noticed a number of additional people quietly gathering around the little group. This time, instead of opining, they listened. I think I was not the only one who felt humbled in the presence of the vulnerability and wisdom of these young people.
I was blind, but now I see.
Now I could see, not generalized “Millennials,” but individuals with names and stories of their own.
That’s all anyone really wants, isn’t it? Regardless of age and wherever we meet. To be truly seen; to be known as a child of God with both strengths and vulnerabilities. Our challenge as a community that is focused on Jesus is to be that quiet gravitational center for others — that place where they not only encounter Jesus, but they also show Jesus to us, so that we all may be transformed. Amen.
Do you have a story about reconciliation from your church or your own life? Send it to us at firstname.lastname@example.org.