Last year we lost the prominent Christian author Eugene Peterson. If you don't know his writing, I recommend the acquaintance. Among his many books: A Long Obedience in the Same Direction discussing discipleship in the Christian life, and Leap Over a Wall, reflections on the life of David. Peterson introduced me to the likes of Annie Dillard whose Pulitzer-prize-winning narrative is based, incidentally, in a neighborhood where I once lived.
Peterson's best gift may have been a fresh window on the meaning of Scripture. I love most his re-telling of an admonition in the New Testament letter of James: “Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear.” (MSG) Or as the inimitable KJV has it, “Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” As always with James, this hits us right where we live.
Alas, so much public discourse turns this earthy admonition on its head. We hear something and find ourselves provoked. Next, anger feeds our speech and all goes from bad to worse until, exhausted, we decide to stop and listen. But by then it is usually too late. The essential diet of humble pie is not on the menu and, in any case, the news cycle has passed us by like the insatiable leviathan it is. Truth wimpers and leaves us to our lot, friendships and community suffer another blow, and we wonder what is wrong.
James knew. “Listen first,” he said. “Be slow to speak.” He might have added, “Until you really listen, you have no idea what you are talking about.” Or, “You have two ears and one mouth. Act accordingly.” Again, the reverse of this advice is commonplace in various political messes. If all of our leaders and talking heads 'led with their ears', much of the discourse would evaporate.
But it is always easier to point fingers elsewhere when the real test is at home, among friends, and in the work place. Can we cultivate enough inner peace and be assured of our place in God's good hands so we need not defend ourselves and insist on our way of thinking? Can we gladly give the gift others desperately need, to let them talk out their understanding so they may land in a better place? This is the heart of James' counsel, I believe, and we do well to practice it daily.
Of course, none of this means we cannot hold strong opinions. After all, what we believe most deeply about life is what we want to share with loved ones and, eventually, the whole community. Some ways of life are better than others, and we do everyone a favor if we learn to listen respectfully and respond in like manner. We may learn a better way. So might they!
I faced this challenge recently when a friend called me to account for a strongly-worded opinion I expressed on the fracas in Virginia over late-term abortion. “I share your concern,” she said, “But you may be sacrificing truth on the altar of an agenda. And that is never right.”
My first response, alas, was anger. “How dare she disagree! Of course I am right!” But in quiet waiting and necessary humbling I listened, heard both sides and realized she had a point. Maybe some were over-reacting. Maybe the ideas we hold dear are best lived out close to home where they matter most. Maybe I need the lesson again to hold loosely the uncertain verities of distant news. Maybe my words were not all that important after all. Ouch!
In the end, I landed very close to where I started but I had grown in openness and honesty because I managed to heed James' words: “Listen first, speak slowly, leave anger lagging far behind.” Finding the grace to submit to that discipline always makes us better.
I hope you are doing well on this journey. The early Christians said our faith seeks understanding. And so with our faith, our families, political difficulties, myriad relational problems in the mix of life, if we would grow in understanding we need James' counsel. It is essential to healthy friendships, families and communities, and I pray it can find renewal in our life together.