What I Needed to Hear
This past weekend I attended a ladies’ tea at my church. The normally plain, functional fellowship hall had been transformed into an oasis of beauty and delicacy. Sparkling flatware lay against pristine tablecloths. Vintage china cups and plates, positioned just so, sat ready to receive sweet finger-foods and steaming water. The scent of spring flowers perfumed the air. Floral-patterned skirts and dresses were hauled out of closets, their wearers more than ready to shake off the gloom and cold of winter.
Though not a big tea drinker, I loved being in that beautiful room with all those lovely ladies, many of whom I am privileged to know. (My mother also attended, a great bonus to the day). It was fun to nibble petit fours, chocolate chip scones with Devonshire cream and delicate cucumber sandwiches. The conversation was light and cheerful, sprinkled with a few tries at a British accent. I enjoyed watching different ladies attempt to hold their tea cups “properly,” with the pinky extended.
It was like a mini-vacation, those few hours. The chance to step out of the ordinary, work-a-day routine and into a world of grace.
A worship leader from one of the other churches in our area came and guided us through a time of gentle praise to the Lord. (I do find it difficult to sing in a room filled with women. All those high soprano voices. But we contraltos win Grammy’s, right?) The leopard-print guitar strap she sported didn’t at all clash with the finely printed china or the pastel clothes. Somehow it made me appreciate the uniqueness of being a woman all the more.
One of the women in a position of leadership within our denomination had been asked to come and speak. As she took to the podium following the singing, I was curious to hear what was on her heart. As she launched into her talk about the importance of friendliness and community in the Body of Christ, I felt myself relax. This was obviously an outgoing woman, but she wasn’t overpowering or loud. She was just the sort of person to put others at ease.
And then she hit a raw place in my soul.
When the topic of friendliness is being discussed, it’s only natural for an example of what it is to be unfriendly to emerge. This particular one detailed the hurt and even offense that can result when passing another in a hallway and the person fails to acknowledge you. Before I go any further, let me clear: I know that her point was to encourage us to reach out to others in love and friendship, something I wholeheartedly support. I am not attempting to tear down the speaker in any way. With this example, however, old fears came rushing to the surface.
For a moment, I felt condemned. The plain truth is that I’m quite reserved. I’d no more walk up to someone I didn’t know and launch into a conversation with them than I would dance naked down the street. Add to that shyness the poor eyesight that robs my view of much of the world and there’s a good chance that I come off as ignoring people a lot of the time. “I’m a bad person,” I immediately thought.
Two seconds later, I got mad. “Now, wait a minute,” my thoughts continued, “there could be a lot of reasons that someone doesn’t look at you when they pass by. Maybe they’re shy, like me. Maybe they’re lost in thought. It can’t all just be rudeness and unfriendliness. And I’ve spent NEARLY A YEAR in counseling, learning that it’s okay to be the way God made me. What about all that stuff about hands and feet and the parts of the Body needing each other?”
I don’t at all think that the speaker was trying to tell us that we all have to be carbon-copies of each other. Yet that is where my mind went. I confess that I tuned out the last part of her talk, focused as I was on sorting out my own issues.
Later, I read a wonderful article by Sharon Hodde Miller, posted on her blog, http://sheworships.com/, the day before the tea. Miller regularly contributes to Her.menutics, Christianity Today’s blog dedicated to women and theology. Her most recent piece, on cross-gender friendships within the context of the church, generated some heated discussion. In responding to that discusion, Miller wrestled with what it means to speak the truth in love – and how to respond to criticism or disagreement. She asks three questions:
1. What are they saying that I can agree with?
2. What are they saying that I need to hear, or that the church needs to hear?
3. What legitimate problem or blind spot in the church are they addressing?
As I read the article and those questions in particular, the speaker’s message and my emotional, knee-jerk response clicked into something that made sense. I absolutely agree that the church is to be welcoming, loving and friendly. This can be a huge problem in our clique-prone world. Lack of friendliness isn’t always intentional, but it is something that we need to be sensitive to. We are the conduits through which the love of Christ is expressed. How awful it would be to find that channel blocked!
I became mindful of this at work today. While I still would not walk up to a stranger and ask her about her life, I did make sure to keep my head up. If someone caught my eye, I smiled. I made sure to say “good morning” to my coworkers. Those things seem simple, but that was my way of answering the implied question hidden in the message: How can I work at being friendly, within the context of my own personality?
I needed to hear that message. It helped me to take yet another step forward on this journey. I know now in a way I didn’t before that there are many layers to our words. We tend to be shocked when someone takes something we’ve said or written in an entirely different direction than what we were aiming for, but it’s not difficult. The speaker’s tone and body language are hugely influential; the listener’s emotional state and personal experience even more so. Perhaps this is at least partly why James wrote:
“My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires.” (1:19-20)
If I had given full reign to the anger I felt, I would have missed the treasures and challenges God had for me. I needed to take the time to cool off, let the feelings recede and allow myself to listen, even hours later, to what the speaker was trying to convey. In that, I think, is the art of friendliness. When we allow room for grace and empathy, when we submit ourselves to the molding hand of the Spirit, we avoid flying off the handle and giving someone a good bite or two. We allow both ourselves and the other to be human, to be less than perfect.
We hear the voice of God.
Grace and peace,