This article was originally published by The Mennonite

Learning how to speak

Jessica Schrock Ringenberg is pastor at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio.

Someone once said to me, “You know what you are called to do by the things that keep you up at night pondering.”

I lay awake at night trying to imagine a way that I can get “sides” to actually hear each other.

Maybe it’s because I am the stereotypical “middle child,” the peacekeeper. Maybe it’s because I come from a family of predictable broken records. I could set my watch to who is going to say what to whom to set them off. Maybe it’s the theater junky in me that is always observing behavior to try to understand people’s deepest motivations. Or maybe it’s just because I have fully lived the experience within our American spectrum of social class, education, religion, and non-religion, and wealth and poverty. Or maybe it’s just this feeling I have in my gut that I have a good understanding of the motivations behind each assumption the one has of the other.

I’m awake often these nights.

Lately I find myself unable to speak, not because I have nothing to say, but because I am perplexed by our culture’s inability to listen, let alone hear. I am perplexed by the Church’s inability to listen, let alone hear. And so rather than going hoarse, letting my voice be lost in the cacophony of voices I lay at awake at night and try to imagine a different way of speaking to each other or maybe more importantly, a different way of instilling the value of listening to each other for the deep needs that lie behind what is really being said.

My Facebook feed reads like a polarized nightmare and I try not to let it affect me. It truly represents the range of my life and the breadth of my experience and it is most likely a microcosm of our country. Perhaps that is why I have felt almost paralyzed to speak in a way that I think anyone could hear me, let alone listen.

George Lucas really had it right, when he correlated the cause and effect in the brilliant line spoken by Yoda to the young Anakin Skywalker (the future Darth Vader) in Star Wars: The Phantom Menace, “Fear leads to anger, anger leads to hate, hate leads to suffering. I sense much fear in you.”

Which means that before we can go to the hateful rhetoric, we have to address the fear. The fear of not mattering. The fear of insignificance. The fear of being undervalued. The fear of not being heard and most importantly the fear that one has no ability to change one’s lot in life…and that leads to anger, and that leads to hate, and it all ends in suffering.

And I write this in trepidation, knowing full well that the reaction of many will be that someone has to speak the truth. Someone has to holy rage in the name of justice, someone has to speak for the voiceless. I get it. I do. I understand.

But somewhere in the pit of my gut sits the role of social media within the history of the Arab Spring, and the testimony of Corine Dehabey, Syrian American and Refugee Resettlement Director with US Together, who spoke at our church in December.

Dehabey, who is quickly becoming nationally known for the rapidly growing number of families being resettled in the Toledo area, where she serves as an administrator, shared her personal story of being a Syrian Christian, who never grew up, in her time in Syria, with religious tensions, or persecution in Syria. She never once dreamed when she took the role as Refugee Resettlement director with US Together, that she would be resettling her own people. She never dreamed that division would tear her country apart. She never dreamed that people who lived within their differences for a lifetime, all the sudden, one day, wouldn’t. And she never dreamed how quickly the extremes would use the fear of the other to their advantage.

And there they are: Worst refugee crisis in history.

And here we are. Us. Together. Fearful. Angry. And not without reason. But unless we can imagine a new way of listening to the deep felt needs of our neighbors, the needs that are creating the fear, the fear that creates the anger, and the anger that spurs on the hate, we will all suffer.

Yesterday, I stood at the bedside of a dying man. He was intubated and he could not speak. He was in pain, he was fully aware of what was going on and the fear in his eyes as he looked up at me, trying to communicate was palpable. But I had no words. And he didn’t need words. He needed someone to hold his hand, to make eye contact and to stand calmly and lovingly at his side and to reassure him, just simply by being a non-anxious presence, that his life was valuable to me, to us.

I know someone needs to speak up. But what good is speaking if nobody is listening?

As the pastor of a church in a rural midwestern community, I know well the great political divide that runs through our congregation. I know the ideological battles that take place in the parking lot and in the cafes and around the water coolers. I know the immediate assumption that if you are against someone or something you must be for the other. I know how easily a family (or two) will leave the church if they perceive you do not hold their same political views.

But what I know even more is that nothing I can say will change a person’s mind about anything. We human beings are experiential learners. We know what we know until experience proves us wrong, and then we eat crow.

In the midst of our great division, how can we as a church imagine ways in which we can bring a new paradigm into our communities? How do we introduce our neighbors to our neighbors so that they aren’t afraid of each other or afraid of us anymore? How do we facilitate an open place so that prejudices of all kinds are dismantled?

How do we grow listeners and hearers?

Isaiah’s suffering servant in chapter 50:4-5 says, “The Lord has given me the tongue of a teacher, that I may know how to sustain the weary with a word. Morning by morning he wakens–  wakens my ear to listen as those who are taught. The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious, I did not turn backward…”

The tongue of the teacher, needs to have the ear of listener: one who is taught.

In these days of outrage, too many of us are becoming numb to the words of others. Let us imagine a new way of being teachers, listeners, hand-holders, and lovers of human life. May we pause and recognize the glimpse of the divine that is buried amongst the fear and the other’s hate.

Perhaps if we can be patient enough to uncover the root causes of fear, we can speak to the anger, dismantle the hate and prevent all forms of suffering. Let it be so.

Photo from Ky/Flickr. Creative commons. 

Jessica Schrock-Ringenberg

Jessica is on the pastoral team at Zion Mennonite Church in Archbold, Ohio where she lives with her husband Shem Read More

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