Learning to Communicate

Once, when I was living in Korea, I was greeting a well known CEO of a large corporation. I had only been speaking basic Korean for about a month and said “thank you,” bowing in the manner I had been taught.

The man looked at me for a moment and smiled. A fellow priest patted me on the back and laughed. As we departed, he said, “let’s practice ‘thank you.'” We practiced a couple times. I had replaced the “m” with an “n” by accident.

I had really said, “you’re stupid.”

Cats and dogs communicate, but they have very different gestures. When cats have their tail down, they are hunting; Dogs are happy. When Dogs are on their back, they submit; when cats do, they’re attacking. When a cat is saying “kill the furry rodent” a dog is sensing “aww, the cat likes me!” The war between cats and dogs is primarily a problem of misinterpretation.

One time I thought I preached an inclusive, gentle welcoming sermon that was happy and generous. Later, I was told it was patronizing – I had chastised the congregation.

It was like being in Korea again.

Sometimes we don’t say what we mean to say. Sometimes we do, but we need to say it differently. Sometimes we don’t hear what other people are saying; and sometimes we hear the wrong thing. Sometimes our actions and words say different things.

But if we were always worried about misinterpretation, we probably couldn’t say much at all. Charity – aka love – is, perhaps, the root of all translation.

How do we manage everyday misinterpretation and misunderstanding?

1) Trust in each other’s best motives.

2) Welcome feedback. With trust, we can improve and raise our attention with one another.

3) Remain connected. This is how the church works: how we help each other. The promise of the gospel: our relationships matter, and with tenacity and love, we save one another. Being connected does not mean being fused, or thinking identically. All it means is continuing a conversation.

4) Speak with integrity. This does not mean we have to speak perfectly. State what you mean as best you can. And if there is misinterpretation, allow for charity.

5) Sometimes working together is the way of building a new language. It is only through continuing to participate together that we actively build a new community.

None of this is easy: I submit, the culture makes it hard. But with a bit of grace, and will, the work of translation isn’t so bad. Perhaps then: comprehension. And more than that: liberation.

Jesus Encounters the Woman

Based on Proper 19

In this week’s Gospel reading, Jesus has his encounter with the Syro-phonecian woman. She asks for her daughter to be healed. Jesus initially refuses and insults her. But the woman entreats him. Jesus, then moved by her directness, heals her daughter. In a short passage we see our Lord move from being provincial to magnanimity.

It’s not easy to be magnanimous. It requires regular reflection and spiritual discipline. Even those who love us can utter words that can seem cruel and contemptuous. We offer ultimatums, we misunderstand intentions, we have suspicions. In the midst of a fight, magnanimity in these cases seems delusional.

But magnanimity is one of the virtues Christ embodies. It means, sometimes, managing our own anger; interpreting the best (or misinterpreting the best) in other people. We let people make mistakes, and we create an opening of trust that can become an anchor for the future. It means we reject revenge and manage the internal life that would render other people small and inconsequential.

It takes practice. Sometimes it hurts as much as a hard workout – because our natural response to being rejected or hurt is to respond with the same. It requires some bravery. And as one Greek philosopher said, it requires we endure tactlessness with mildness.

As Christ was, let us have the inner strength to be generous to the defeated and broken. The only expense is our own pusillanimity. Perhaps it is the secret of our spiritual healing. It is worth the price.

Kanye West and Joe Wilson

Although I’ve tittered at the media spectacle of Joe Wilson, Kanye West and others, I’m going to hold back on making any grand comments. I haven’t read the health care bill, nor have I ever been interested in the Video Music Awards.

I do think there is a general anxiety about the loss of order around us. To some extent we’re relearning and creating the etiquette, the simple rituals and courtesies, that order our common life. Gone, it seems, are titles and euphemisms. Instead, equality and directness.

The old school perspective was like so: honor the traditions of your fathers and mothers – they still make sense. Hold on to your principles. Respect the rituals that keep us gathered. Be loyal to your family and friends. Acknowledge that there are culturally holy places. Respect the role and office, even if you disagree with person holding it. Let there be civility.

Here’s the critique: sometimes etiquette masks and legitimates provinciality, ignorance and arrogance. It perpetuates injustice by evading simple issues of fairness. In these cases, speaking out makes sense, because the truth needs to be spoken. And the old school perspective is hard to maintain when money needs to be made at civility’s expense. Rudeness sells.

We need both reverence and the shock of truth. When we aren’t sure of what is going on, then we may respect the red lights, the stop signs and the social cues around us. Sometimes in the midst of disorder, being more intentional about respecting others is crucial. But when we need to make a change, speaking the truth is part of how we move forward.

Of course, sometimes we may be wrong when we speak. That’s another risk. But we can survive our mistakes because the tension between order and the catalyzing force of truth is held together by one thing: charity. It may not have been shared with us. But it is necessary for us to survive things changing, and the many mistakes we make along the way.

If we can’t show magnanimity even to our enemies, how can we move forward?

It is difficult to do such. However, the source of that strength is nothing else but faith that we have the strength to be magnanimous in the first place. And the faith that it works. Faith that love is what God wants for us, and part of his infinite beauty. Even Joe Wilson and Kanye West, though they broke the rules, even though they might be wrong, may also in time, be forgiven by God.

The media, however, not so much.