A Space to Be Heard
A while back a couple come into our church. They wanted to get married. You are thinking, ‘okay Andrew that isn’t weird – you’re a church. You do that.’ Let me clarify. They came, marriage license in hand completely unknown to me and our congregation, to see if we would marry them right at that moment. We were the second church they had visited.
Now it was a busy day for me. I groaned when I got the call from the office manager… my head was spinning in that moment. They asked if I would do the marriage and I saw an easy out. Our polity and practice says no. You have to do premarital counseling and often even be a member of the congregation. I could have said no and been done right there and they would have moved on. I could as easily have said yes, had a 5 minute ceremony blessing something they were going to do anyway, and they would have moved on down the road.
I could have… but I couldn’t – I’m really not wired that way. So I told them why the answer would be no or could be yes… and then I came back around to, “However, if you would be willing to sit down with me for at least a one hour conversation, and then see about having the ceremony at the beginning of the next week, then yes, I will do that.”
Fancy this? They said yes. And right at that moment worked for them for the conversation. (groan) Okay, let’s do this. We talked. They talked actually, I listened. I steered now and then, I backed up the conversation a couple of times… and then a moment came when I was able to ask a question about whether they really wanted their life-long covenant to begin in a rushed moment like this?
They looked at me surprised…. and said no. And they walked out of the church not getting married, they walked out thanking me for helping them see that this wasn’t the way to write the beginning of their marriage story, and they went out happy to be told no.
Now… I don’t know what happens in the next chapter of their story. It’s not mine to share anyway. Maybe they went right on to the courthouse and got married anyway. Maybe they held on to the couple “awakening” moments they had in that conversation with me and worked out some matters before getting married… maybe I will meet them again someday. But what struck me about all that was two things important to remember for the ministry of being a faith community: the power of not answering but listening to people first. And the power of place.
Marjorie Thompson, author of Soul Feast and wonderful spirit-filled soul, led a guest speaker series at one of my former congregations and she shared the idea of “listening people into transformation.” She felt we cannot speak people into changing but we can listen to them long enough and deep enough that we open a place for them to change in their own heart from their own words and feelings. Congregational consultant Susan Beaumont will share that same idea from a different perspective when she says that while interviewing people in churches she often finds at the end of the interview they exclaim how wise she is and how much she knows and in truth she hasn’t even said a thing. They simply listened to themselves saying what they already knew but hadn’t taken the time to hear. Listening is a powerful gift we can give people. Stopping our “stuff” and empowering someone with your time and attention is perhaps the best gift any of us have to offer.
I was reminded about all this again last night Investiture of one of our congregation members as a district judge. In his remarks at the end of the ceremony he said that he believed the courtroom in which he presided needed to place where both sides were heard. If a person felt heard, that he had listened to their argument and understand what they wanted to convey, than whether he agreed or not in the end with them they would walk away at least knowing they were heard… they were known. Its a powerful gift, and he is a powerful witness to the gospel at work in our every day lives – thank you Michael Reardon for your ministry and vocational faithfulness.
This is what reminds me of the second point, the power of place. A judge makes his courtroom the right kind of space to be heard. In this way maybe its not so strange that a judge’s robe looks so much like clergy! Similarly, the church in that walk-in visit story was a “set-aside” place, a holy place. That story was a unique one for me, but it wasn’t at all unique. There are many stories like this – I wish I could share them not for those stories’ sake but just to show the amazing depth and breadth of random that walks into our building off the street – but they aren’t my stories to tell. Trust me on this, I could almost spend my day doing nothing other than walk-in visits with people I don’t know. Maybe that’s part of being a downtown church right on State Street… but I don’t think that is all there is to it. I think part of it is in the nature of church. People know that places like this are supposed to listen. They are supposed to care. They are supposed to offer forgiveness and grace. We don’t always. I have failed many people. I wish I could always be the “hero” who chose a person over my busy schedule but I’m not and I don’t and I need grace too… I’m as broken, self-oriented, and finite as the rest of us. But sometimes… sometimes it works exactly according to plan: according to our mission. We act into our vision to be holy space that helps people encounter gospel good news∗.
This is one reason that for all the changes that are happening in the Church and in the push to remember the Church isn’t a building it’s a people (and even to get out of buildings that often weigh down our mission and purpose)… I also hope that we don’t lose all our buildings. Because this building is an important place. It isn’t true that the “mission field” begins only outside our walls. It cannot, conversely, be true that it only happens within them either. But our buildings still stands as a reminder to people that this is a different kind of space. You don’t have to belong to get heard. You don’t have to give to receive. We will listen here. We will endeavor to listen you into our story and be listened into your story.
Spaces like that are hard to come by and while they do not require buildings there is something to a building that stands as clearly identifiable marker that says: we are exactly that kind of space, and you are welcome here. May it always be so, thanks be to God and to the people and buildings that bear the love of God in the world. Holy, set-apart, spaces, in lives far too often over-crowded.
∗There is a great reflection from Martin Marty I reflect on here about hypocrisy as a dramatic term in which we “play a part” that isn’t true but we hope will one day be true of us. We aspire to be better and healthier people than we are now. I love this idea of hypocrisy – and I am exactly that type of hypocrit!