I’m a talker.
They say I said my first words at nine months, saying “Hi!” to strangers in the grocery store.
I gave my first speech at the age of nine and many might say that I haven’t shut up since.
I’ve spent a lot of my time talking rather than listening.
And yet the people I love most have been the people who listen to me.
Those are the people I find myself wanting to go back to, to share whatever’s on my heart. And the great irony of that is that the more they genuinely listen to me, the more I care about them – about what they think, about what’s important to them, about what they think of me.
I’m trying to change.
To become a better listener.
Maybe that’s what’s needed in conversations about Christianity and homosexuality.
When people tell me about experiences they’ve had with loved ones admitting that they’re gay, or expressing an attraction to their own sex, they usually want to tell me what they said to the person in response.
Every now and then I’ll hear a thoughtful response, like “what’s that experience been like for you?” or “when did you first realize there was something different about you?” and “was that difficult?”
Or maybe their response was like my friend from high school who sat across the table from me, with tears streaming down her face, who said, “oh Sally, I wish that I had known – how hard that must have been for you, feeling all alone.”
She sat there and listened. For a couple of hours. And then we left the restaurant and she took me to her house for the rest of the day. We played with her little girl and her dog. We went to the store and bought groceries. We laughed as we cooked in her kitchen together, and when her husband came home we all ate dinner together.
Then we got up and went to church. Because, you see, it was a Wednesday night and that’s what we’d always done growing up.
And nothing had changed between us.
Many of my friends who identify as gay, as well as my friends who view same-sex attraction as a struggle, express the same disappointment in how people respond to them. Rather than listening empathetically – rather than feeling with my friends in that moment of sharing a deep part of themselves that’s often terrifying – sometimes we feel the need to turn the conversation to our own personal beliefs about the morality of homosexuality.
To let them know exactly what we think.
As if the person who experiences same-sex attraction would instantly, upon hearing this new information, realize the error of his or her ways and “not do that anymore.”
As if this was new information.
A big part of me understands where they’re coming from. Because I, too, was raised to stand up for what I believed. To not let an opportunity pass. Especially if I believed the person was involved in something contrary to what God wanted for them.
But here’s the deal. I may not be at a place to receive that. And if you really believe that you need to share something with me that’s that important, it’s essential that you consider where I am emotionally to be able to process that information. Because you see, at the point in time that I come to tell you this, I’ve obviously given it a lot of thought. I’ve probably wrestled with it for a long time by now on my own – all by myself – because I’m not sure what you’re going to think. I’m not sure of how you’re going to receive me, so it’s scary for me to even come to you in the first place. So when I do come and tell you this, all of those thoughts and emotions are going on inside me, even if I say that I’ve come to terms with this being who I am, or if I say to myself that I don’t care how you respond. Because on some level, I still do care. Otherwise I wouldn’t want to have this conversation with you.
So what do I need from you in that moment?
. . . that you aren’t going away.
. . . that you still love me.
. . . that our relationship isn’t suddenly going to be strained and awkward.
What I’m learning now is that as much as I like to talk, and say what really makes me feel better about the situation, what I have to say will never be as powerful as the gift of listening.
Of simply letting those difficult conversations grow out of relationship. Over time.
Of holding my tongue and waiting to say what I think. Until I’m asked. If I’m asked.
And even then, is it always essential to say what I think?
I think sometimes we feel pressured at both ends of the spectrum on this issue to pick sides – to draw lines in the sand. To put our opinion out there, to say what we believe to be truth, without giving thought to the person standing in front of us. Or goading someone into expressing his or her thoughts, when really all we want is an excuse to cut the person off.
And then we can claim that they rejected us.
And yet Jesus drew no line in the sand that day.
Instead, he drew a circle that includes all of us.
That’s why he invited Zaccheus down out of the tree that day.
It’s why my friend Julie took me home with her that Wednesday.
And oh, what conversations we ended up having around her table.
“Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters:
You must all be quick to listen,
slow to speak,
and slow to get angry.”
James 1:19, NLT