Conflict is Life and Listening is Living

The following is taken from a homily given in Christ Chapel, on the campus of Gustavus Adolphus College (St. Peter, MN), on March 7, 2016. The assigned preaching text was Isaiah 55:3.

Conflict is an inescapable reality of being human.

One cannot be human without being in conflict, which means every human community is - by definition - inescapably caught within a cyclical network of battles, struggles, wars, and disagreements.

Conflict is life, and life is conflict.

But of course, many in our cultural context did not get this memo. Or, perhaps got it but chose not to read it! Whatever the case, far too many among us seek to somehow escape the inevitable corollaries of conflict, and in doing so, endure the precious moments of life by trying to avoid the unavoidable and escape the inescapable.

Like trying to run away from the wind, it simply cannot be done.

Instead of trying to run away from the powerful winds of conflict, the task of a community is to see its conflict not as some sort of shameful social stain, but as a collective opportunity, in order to harness its renewable energy for the sake of creating something more just than that which existed before. Despite what many of our cultural proclivities may proclaim, conflict in and of itself is neither positive or negative, but every conflcit is an opportunity to directly create something new, and yes, even create something better. Which means, instead of trying to run away from the winds of conflict, we are called to faithfully walk through them, and in service to the common good, even learn to journey with them.

Whether it is the psychological and spiritual struggles that sit deep in our own minds and souls... Whether it is the friend, sibling, or parent that one no longer speaks with... Whether it is the poison of partisan politics, the cowardly combustibility of social media, or questions surrounding whose lives really matter... Time does not heal all wounds. I disagree with Hallmark! Time does not heal all wounds, thus every community conflcit presents an opening to either weaken or strengthen a community, which offers an important set of choices for the community.

While there are a multitude of multi-faceted steps involved in transforming conflict, an important point to make is from Isaiah 55:3, which explains, "...listen, that you may live".

Listen, that you may live.

The Book of Isaiah is, in many ways, a narrative about the realities of conflict, as it accounts for a number of complex confrontations, such as, the defeat of King Uzziah's coalition, the Syro-Ephraimite skirmish, the struggle between Assyria and Judah, as well as Hezekiah's rebellion against Senacherib. The prophet Isaiah, while living through this period of extended dispute, served as a minister to the Judean court, and in doing so communicated an important message that rings true to this day: "Listen, that you may live."

Listen, that you may live.

How simple, and yet how timeless, profound, important, and yes, incredibly difficult.

Listen, that you may live.

Thousands of years after the book of Isaiah was first written, we now live in the so-called "Age of Communication". With mobile phones, texts, tweets, snap chats, and a whole host of other emerging technological methods, there is a great deal of mass communication taking place in our midst. However, while there is a great quantity of communication, one is forced to consider what is the quality of such communication? The deeper question is: How much listening can there actually be when there is so much chatter that clouds our collective consciousness? As Henry David Thoreau once remarked, "It takes two to speak the truth, one to speak and another to hear".

Like the old philosophical question of whether or not a fallen tree makes a sound if no one is around the forest to hear it, in our day and age we must wonder: If everyone is speaking, yet no one is actually listening, is anyone actually saying anything? If everyone wishes to exercise their freedom of speech yet no one wants to embrace the equally important responsibility to listen, then what do we have? Is there any space to actually speak the truth? What are we left with?

I suppose it is like a (very bad!) joke that is sometimes offered before weddings:

During the first year of marriage, you will speak and she will listen.
During the second year, she will speak and you will listen.
During the third year, you both with speak and the neighbors will listen.

In the midst of our so-called age of mass communication, the 55th Chapter of Isaiah reminds us that, to live, we must be able to listen, because conflict is life and life is conflict. This insight is especially important during situations of heightened conflict, as listening allows us to understand diverse views, listening allows us to connect with others, and ultimatley, listening allows us to release our minds and journey through the all-important process of conflict transformation. Ultimatley, listening is the golden key that opens the door to authentic human relationships, which is why genuine listening needs to be practiced each and every day, so we can not only hear each other, but we can listen to what is actually being said, and even notice what is not being said.

The bad news is that we are - quite frankly - terrible listeners! We are, for the most part, terrible listeners, and it is not too difficult to understand why, because we as a society simply do not value listening. Furthermore, because we do not value listening, we do not teach the art of listening. The reality is that, while countless courses and workshops are offered in order to develop the skills associated with speech, very few people intentionally learn how to listen, and the results are absolutely staggering.

For example, according to "The Listening Center":

About 75 percent [of the time we are supposed to be listening] we are forgetful, pre-occupied, or not paying attention...

75% of the time! Which means:

Immediately after we hear someone speak, we remember about half of what they have said. And just a few hours later, we remember only about 10 to 20 percent.

And why is this? For starters, according to a recent study the average attention span for North Americans in this so-called age of communication is now about eight seconds. Eight seconds! This basically puts us just a bit lower than goldfish! Goldfish! This is amazing (and terrifying)! In the so-called age of communication our attention spans are lower than goldfish, which reveals a great deal about the value we place on our various interactions. Moreover, in times if conflcit, when anger, resentment, and distrust gets added into the mix, it makes matters even worse - and our communities end up looking like a small fishbowl filled with angry and distracted goldfish!

In daily life, but especially during times of conflict, many of us do not listen with the intent to understand, but with the intent to reply. As we consider the various conflicts taking place in our communities, perhaps we should recognize that communication is not simply about letting your voice be heard, but it is also about having the confidence, strength, and amazing grace to actually receive the voices of others. In doing so we see the face of God in others, assume the best of others, and embody the Good News alongside others.

As people who seek to listen to God and believe that God actually listens to us, we recognize that there is no greater gift than to give someone your full, undivided, and genuine attention. This is the gift God gives to us. This is the gift we are called to offer each other. As Paul Tillich once said, "The first duty of love is to listen". For us to love our neighbors as ourselves, and in order to transform the conflicts in our midst, perhaps we start not with preaching or professing, but with listening and understanding. As the world renowned cellist, Yo-Yo Ma, once said "music happens between the notes", which leads us to believe that communication is actually what happens between the words.

As we seek the life in its fullness that God so graciously offers, we affirm that to listen is to live, and to live is to listen, because conflict is life and life is conflict, as the song of our existence is still being written and played, and not a single one of us knows exactly what the next note may hold.

The time is upon us to place less value of mass communication and more value upon faithful communication, and in doing so, practice the freedom of speech, but also cherish the responsibility to listen. For in such ways we will stop trying to run away from the wind, but instead see the Spirit of God within it, to welcome it, embrace it, and journey alongside it.

May we listen, so we may live. May we live, so we may listen. Amen.