There are moments in life where I have to catch my breath from the sly & subtle way God’s Spirit works among the Body of Christ. Last night, I was privileged to moderate the second of three summer conversations (and, of course, potlucks) on family discipleship at R Street Community Church, my local faith community, our own little corner of the catholic Church.
Both of the gatherings we have had were significant times of coming together, of breaking bread and sharing hearts, of nourishing foods and nurturing words, and humor, sarcasm, messy realness and lightened loads. Each gathering has called us deeper into community, into each other’s lives, into a practice of relationship building that is simply not possible during a few hours on Sunday morning.
Both of the gatherings were unique. While the first gathering was packed with preschool parents and little ones in tiny chairs abandoning plates of food for playtime with friends, many of those families were unable to attend last night. Their presence was certainly missed, but in their place appeared families who had not made the first gathering, families of older children and emerging youth, families who were interested in investing in relationships with these pre-teens and teenagers. I could not have planned it better if I had tried to control the guest lists, tried to map out a strategy.
Both of the gatherings were similar, as well. What came out of both, and of our times huddled in the kitchen, gathered around the dining table, curled up on living room furniture, is an understanding of the deep significance of moments like these – moments of relationship. The greatest desire expressed for our preschool and younger school-age children was that they would build significant relationships with each other, with adults in the church, with their families – that they would feel themselves to be (that they would be) a vital part of the fabric of community. The greatest desire expressed for our youth, our pre-teens and our teenagers, was the same. We want them to seek together, to create together, to serve together, to learn & grow together. And overarching those desires was an understanding that we must model those relationships – we have to be intertwined in each other’s lives, not as busy-bodies, as community. Certainly stories will be shared, topics will be taught and lessons will be learned – but it is the relationships and the conversation that make those lessons significant and that invite all ages to share insights and ask questions.
As we opened the second conversation, I shared a passage from The Art of Christian Listening by Thomas N. Hart as a form of prayer, and I’ll share it again here. I think if we can soak in the significance of listening & loving to others, we can begin to grasp a little more the simplicity and significance of those great commandments to love God & love others:
A helper is, in the first instance, one who agrees to listen. Anything else that may happen in the relationship will derive from this. Listening to another may not seem like much, but its effect happens to be very therapeutic. Everyone yearns to be heard. But so many cannot find anyone who will listen, or do not trust most people to be able to handle what they really need to say. So they come to you.
Listening is not always easy. It takes time, and the time might be inconvenient besides. It demands really being for the other during that period, fully present and attentive, one’s own needs and concerns set aside. This is exciting. Listening might mean being afflicted with the most profound sense of helplessness, having the springs of sorrow touched, seeing one’s dearest convictions called painfully into question by the experience and testimony of another. The person may not be attractive, might be telling a dull and too oft repeated tale, might be making mountains out of molehills, might be demanding and even manipulative. These are the hazards. Nevertheless there comes to me a human being whom God created and loves. There comes a sister or brother for whom Christ died (Rm 14:15). There enters a suffering fellow pilgrim. The first thing one consents to do is to welcome and listen. It is an act of love…
The helper does not always solve the problem or take the pain away. But he or she is friend and resource, to explore with another, to watch another with concern, to listen and respond, to be available…
To listen attentively to another and to go with another in companionship are expressions of love. To do either without love is an empty gesture and bears no fruit. The helper loves the other. Now there is no greater thing we can do for another human being than to love him or her. We touch here a truth just large enough to be easily overlooked. I am supposed to be a Christian helper, so I snap to attention. I put on a hat. I will be a sterling model of the Christian life, a shrewd analyst, an expert advisor. I will also develop a pep talk. These things have their place, but to put them first is to mistake the lesser for the greater. The most helpful thing one human being can do for another is to love him or her, and this is as valid for helping relationships as for any other kind.