Quick To Listen, Lament and Learn
You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. James 1:19 (NRSV)
Why do I often get this backward? Why is it that I am so slow to listen, yet quick to speak and quick to anger? I see this play out in all of my relationships – whether it’s with Denise, my kids, my co-workers or my neighbor. I have a hard time obeying this command. But why? Where does this urge to speak first and listen last come from? James says that we can trace the answer back to our heart. It is rooted in a need to be right, to feel in control of our lives.
If being right or feeling in control of my life is what I’m living for, then I will seek to control people. I will control them with my words (quick to speak) and my emotions (quick to anger). I will do whatever it takes (except listen) to get people to see and accept my point of view.
This was on display in Charlottesville last week as we were reminded that racism is not a thing of the past but very much a thing of the present. There was a lot of quick speaking and quick anger (even leading to deadly violence), but not much listening.
And yet while that was taking place in Charlottesville, a group of 125 men, women and children from different racial, cultural, and socio-economic backgrounds gathered for a picnic at the Hunton Randolph Community Center, itself a monument to the racism of the past, as it served as the black YMCA in Lynchburg. This monthly picnic is an outreach of No Walls Ministry, of which I am privileged to serve on the Board. No Walls Ministry exists to help churches cross cultures to engage in racial reconciliation while working together for poverty alleviation in all its forms (spiritual, financial, emotional, et. al.).
This ministry is shaped and empowered by the gospel of God’s grace in Christ. Paul writes in Ephesians 2:14, “For [Christ Jesus] himself is our peace, who has made us both one and has broken down in his flesh the dividing wall of hostility.” Through Jesus’ atoning sacrifice, he has made peace not only with God, but with one another. The dividing wall of hostility towards our sin has been removed.
And yet as we bring churches from different cultures together, there is a great deal of past hurt and pain that must be dealt with before we can experience the fruit of reconciliation. I have observed three elements that must be present in any reconciliation attempt, especially for whites churches (majority culture) engaging black churches (minority culture), which is our cultural milieu in Lynchburg.
The first thing we must do is to listen. We do well to listen to the perspectives of our black brothers and sisters…perspectives about their culture as well as the white culture. As a majority culture, we are often ignorant of our own culture and how we are seen by minority cultures. One of the questions that Denise asks her Diversity Class at Liberty University is, “What does it mean to be white?” The question usually makes the white students uncomfortable and unsure how to answer while the non-white students have ready answers.
I remember traveling to Honduras to spend a week with one of the missionaries a former church supported. He was working with young boys he had helped get off the streets of Tegucigalpa. He had established a home for the boys where he and his staff loved them, fed them, clothed them and educated them all in the name of Jesus. One day, we were sitting in one of the classes and the missionary asked the boys about their perspective of the US. I was shocked to hear some of their negative perceptions. Living in the US, it is easy to think that we are God’s gift to the world. Yet there are those who have a different experience. I certainly wouldn’t have known that had I not listened to their perspective.
We must also take the time to listen to the story of our black brothers and sisters. To listen to their history. We must be willing to hear all the ways that we, and those who have come before us, have injured, mistreated and devalued them and their culture. Listening to their stories and their perspectives shows that we care and helps pave the way toward reconciliation.
Secondly, as we listen to their story and their history, it is appropriate for us to lament. To lament the ways our black brothers and sisters have been injured, mistreated and devalued. To lament the horror of slavery that took men and women made in the image of God, descended from Adam and Eve, being treated as property. As chattel. To lament the horror of the mistreatment of Native Americans, whose culture was destroyed in an attempt to Christianize them. We grieve the injustices that have been perpetrated against them as painful as it may be to us.
How readily the psalmists remind us of the need and call to lament over the injustice of this world…the violation of shalom caused by sin. Sin done to us and by us. Sins done to people groups and by people groups. We lament the brokenness of our humanity and the ways we offend God by our treatment of others. We lament the societal and systemic injustices of the past and the present.
There is yet a third and final element to embrace as we walk down the path of reconciliation. We must learn from those in minority cultures. To sit at the feet of our black brothers and sisters and learn from them. To look to them as guides, and even mentors.
Serving on the Board of No Walls Ministry has put me in the path of godly and mature men and women from non-white cultures. They are not only friends but mentors to me, exposing me to aspects of their culture I knew nothing about. They are teaching me about gratitude. They are teaching me about hospitality. They are teaching me about community. They have helped me understand how to help those who are poor without hurting them. I don’t know where I would be without them.
If you’re serious about racial reconciliation, I encourage you to find someone from another culture – African, Hispanic, Asian – and listen to their story and their perspectives. Lament with them over the injustices they have faced at the hands of our majority culture. Learn from them as they teach you not only about their culture but your culture as well.
In doing so, may we be quick to listen, quick to lament and quick to learn.
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If you’d like to explore this further, I will be co-teaching a class at Rivermont Pres. on Wednesday nights this Fall with Julius Thomas and SharDavia Walker, two black members of our church who work with college students through Campus Outreach. We are teaching a class on cultural intelligence using Soong Chan Rah’s book, Many Colors, that will help us better understand our own culture while pushing us to consider the Biblical call to unity in Christ. Hope you can join us.