Deuteronomy 6:4-9; Philippians 2:3-4; James 1:19
We are a bridge building congregation. We have written it in bold in the lobby of the church. Everyone who enters here is greeted by these words proclaiming that we are a bridge building congregation. Go look!
So are we?
When Rabbi Harold Kushner talks about how to be a leader in a congregation, his first bit of advice is this: “Make up a good lie about the congregation and tell it to anyone who will listen. Tell it in sermons, in classes, at meetings, in the bulletin, at social gatherings, during chance encounters in the post office…. [Like -] we are a congregation of spiritual anarchists; our members understand that quality costs money; our congregation caters to intellectuals…. After a few years people will try to live up to it.” [Lawrence Kushner, I’m God, You’re Not, p. 38]
We are a bridge building congregation. Now, I wouldn’t call it a lie. I would call it the dream that lives in us, that motivates all we do, that we sometimes haven’t a clue how to do, but we want to be it more than anything else in the world. So we write it on a plaque, not unlike the stone tablet upon which Moses wrote the Law. We put the phrase everywhere: We keep these words in our heart. We tell it to our children and talk about it when we are at home and when we are away. When we lie down, we say it to ourselves; when we rise up we say it again. We put it on our name tags, on T-shirts and caps; we write it on the entry to our house – right there in the lobby.
When we created Taborspace, we set an intention in our hearts to be a different kind of church. To be open, to be a place of unconditional belonging. To be the sacred heart of belonging for our whole community and any who would join us on the journey.
Have we been successful? …What has flowered here is beyond anything we ever imagined. People do come here all the time and find a place of welcome. Many are anxious at first. “Isn’t this a church?” they ask. “Is it okay? Is it safe,” they wonder. Most have found through our open doors a bridge to a safe place, a place which reminds them of the heart of belonging, which nourishes in them. Yes! We have built a bridge with our community.
And we have made lots of mistakes along the way. In some ways, what has happened has been wholly of the Holy Spirit, and we stumbled into it by accident. We let it happen around us, and that is half-way to doing it.
We are a bridge building congregation. And there is no greater need in our world today than followers of Jesus who can build bridges across gaping divides. We are going to spend some Sundays together unpacking this tag line. And then, the rest of our lives living into it.
I believe that the key to bridge building is communication. But the truth is that we are unskilled communicators. This is one of the reasons half of marriages end in divorce, children are alienated from their parents, and young people leave the church in droves. Like most communities, we have stormy episodes in our history. It is sad. But it doesn’t have to saddle us into the future.
We can instead remember and celebrate the wonderful includers we have had among us. The coffee house congregation will always remember Christine Stacey for her hugs and big welcome. We want to be like her! The sanctuary congregation will remember Leo Hilderbrand, who always greeted you with a twinkle in his eye of true delight. We want to be like him!
Communication has four movements I want to talk about. Listening, Speaking, Connecting and Doing. Unfortunately, most of our academic training in communication is only about speaking. We are required to take classes in speech and public communication. But these don’t help us with our everyday lives. Public speaking is great for casting a vision. But it won’t help us manage our children or get along with our spouse. Public speaking is all about telling and convincing. For too long, this has been the primary form of communication used in the church. We proclaim answers. We write statements of doctrine. We are really good at the public speaking part of communication.
But what about the healing presence kind of conversation? We have some deacons who are really amazing at this! And we have tended to say this is Deacon work, not what we all need to be about. But Paul the apostle would strongly disagree: “Let – each – of – you – look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others” (Philippians 2:4). How do we do this? By listening.
The Proverbs are full of wisdom about listening. James, too, reminds us that our first task is to listen: “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak” (James 1:19). When Moses prepared the people of Israel to go into the promised land, his speech opened with “Hear, O Israel!” “Hear” in Hebrew does not just mean apprehending a sound, but heeding, paying attention, even doing. Hearing in Hebrew is a very active thing, never passive.
So, as a bridge building congregation, we need to become known as a listening congregation. And this is hard, determined, intentional work. Like Paul said, it requires us to set aside our own personal interests and look to the interests of others. What do they want? What do they feel? How can we collaborate on a solution?
One of the best resources for learning bridge building is Nonviolent Communication, a concept developed by Marshall Rosenberg. Lauren Moomaw introduced it to me. We read it together as the Taborspace staff and discussed and practiced it at staff meetings. I have had counseling classes, but nothing taught me about listening like this book and the practice circle we engaged.
The practice is also known as Compassionate Communication or Empathic Listening. Rosenberg taught that all human beings have capacity for compassion and empathy. We only resort to violence or behavior harmful to others when we do not recognize more effective strategies for meeting needs.
The first part of healthy interpersonal communication is listening. Listening has several aspects.
1. Hear. The first thing we have to do is to hear the other speak. Sounds simple, but there are several reasons this may not happen. It may be that we are hearing-challenged, and do not actually have enough auditory reception to hear. Christina Stacey was deaf which limited her ability to hear, but she found ways to overcome her handicap.
Another reason hearing does not happen may be that we are too busy and we just don’t take the time for conversation. In order to hear the other, even just to hear their voice, we have to choose to dial or answer the telephone, make a date for tea or dinner. It takes not only functional ears, but time, to hear the other.
And it means we need to get comfortable with silence. Even the conversation can take time to unfold. Not filling the silence with our own words is a challenge, but we can learn to do it.
What happens when you take time to hear? It demonstrates genuine humility. It shows that you realize you do not have all the answers. It tells the other person that you value his or her thoughts and opinions. It is a way of honoring the other.
2. Understand for information. The second part of listening is to gather the information the person is relaying. This is trickier than it sounds. Often when we are in conversation, we are planning what we will say next, rather than comprehending what the other is saying. Or we jump to our own similar stories and start talking about our own experiences, rather than listening. Or, we hear something which we like or don’t like and make a judgment. We have just put our own filter on what the other is relating. And so we have not listened. We have only understood our own opinion.
Proverbs 18:2 says, “A fool takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in expressing personal opinion.” This is the way we have learned to communicate and it is hard to unlearn.
3. Hear feelings. This third part of listening is perhaps the hardest. In my home we worked hard, did our part. There was lots of love in my home, but it was rarely spoken or identified. We did not have a vocabulary for feelings, which may have been true for you as well. Rosenberg’s book has given me a wonderful resource – 2 pages of feeling words! He gave me language for feelings.
Many of us experienced this lack when we became parents. We don’t get much training for parenting. It seems to be assumed that if we can conceive children, we can raise them. Have you ever had or heard conversations like this: CHILD: Mommy, it’s hot in here. PARENT: It’s cold. Keep your sweater on. CHILD: No, I’m hot. PARENT: I said, “Keep your sweater on!” CHILD: No, I’m hot. Or, CHILD: That TV show was boring. PARENT: No, it wasn’t. It was very interesting. CHILD: It was stupid. PARENT: It was educational. CHILD: It stunk. PARENT: Don’t talk that way!  It is so obviously unproductive communication, but I am guessing we have all been guilty of doing it. I have.
I have also known the moments when someone has heard me, put what I have said in their own words and recognized the emotions underneath what I have said. When in that conversation, I am able to own my feelings, I finally have a way to work out my situation. I realize that my reaction is based on feelings, which are normal parts of being human. And they need to be honored.
The same is true in a community of people. If we are going to be known as a bridge building congregation, we are going to have to become known for our listening.
This week, let’s work on listening for feelings. I have printed Marshall Rosenberg’s 2 pages of feeling words for you to pick up as you leave today.
For extra credit, if you have not seen the Pixar animated movie, “Inside Out,” it would be a great follow-up to learning about feelings.
We can learn to be better listeners. We can become a listening congregation. We are a bridge building congregation. Now let’s live into it.
 Faber, Adele. How to Talk So Kids Will Listen & Listen So Kids Will Talk (pp. 2-3). Scribner. Kindle Edition.