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Listening with love

Bill Tammeus

Second Presbyterian Church where I worship in Kansas City, Missouri, is in the midst of a physical overhaul in concert with a new visioning report that’s intended to make us even more effective in ministering to those both inside and outside of the building.

All of which means change — and the inevitable trauma and resistance that comes with it. In harmony with what the organizers of the Fearless Dialogues initiative are advocating, our pastors and other leaders are doing their best to engage both supporters (the vast majority of us) and the resisters in healthy, constructive ways.

But it can be a little painful to watch.

One recent Sunday, for instance, our pastor, Paul Rock, spoke to an adult education class about the many ways we’re changing our building to be more of a community center and less of what guests now experience as a hard-to-navigate 3D puzzle.

As part of that process, we’ve adopted this new mission statement: “We exist to love God, ourselves and others – whoever, however and wherever they are – with a love that transforms us all.”

When Paul reminded the class of that early in his remarks, one of our older members – a really smart man who tends to challenge almost any proposed change – raised his hand to ask, in an unexpectedly skeptical tone, where in the Bible it says we are to love ourselves.

My guess was that he knew perfectly well that it’s found first in Leviticus and then repeated in the New Testament, but that he simply wanted Paul to know he’d be questioning almost every change we’re making. As Paul answered his question, he added that the only way to love God is also to love yourself. But the man indicated he disagreed.

“Oh, really?” Paul asked, genuinely surprised. The man nodded and added, “But I understand what you’re saying.”

I thought the exchange was a nice model of how Christians are to speak the truth in love. The man was fearless enough to question what seems to most of us a foundational tenet of Christianity. And Paul was confident enough to absorb the challenge and continue the dialogue. Did the two of them later talk privately about this? I don’t know, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

The auto tycoon Henry Ford was wrong about a lot, especially his vicious antisemitism, but he got this right: “If there is one secret of success it lies in the ability to get the other person’s point of view and see things from their angle as well as your own.”

Which is exactly what Jesus did when, as Mark 10 records, he asked this of a blind man: “What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus didn’t assume he knew the man’s thinking.

And even when we suspect that we won’t like the answers others give, we are obligated to hear them because those people also bear the image of God. So we must see Christ in them — even when they make that task exasperatingly hard.