August 29, 2021
Last week the staff was on a Zoom training for our new database – ACS Realm.
I hope you’ve gotten your invitation; I encourage you to upload a great picture!
During the training session, the staff was blowing up the chat with questions and comments for our quirky trainer who kept us entertained with personal anecdotes. Joey – our Hawaiian-raised organist – used a phrase I had never heard before. He said “can we just talk story with her when this is over?”
Meg typed “Talk Story? – Question Mark.”
I followed up: “Is that a Hawaiian thing?”
Joey writes “Is it? I totally thought mainlanders said that too?”
Within moments there were a couple links pasted in the chat with articles about the Very Hawaiian expression known as “Talking Story.”
Essentially it means to shoot the breeze. But in one of the articles a linguistic scholar defined Talk Story as “A rambling personal experience mixed with folk material.” Swap Scripture in for folk material and, well, that sounds like one of my sermons…the rambling part at least.
I want us to hold this “Talk Story” phrase in mind as we hear these words of practical wisdom from the book of James:
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves[h] in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
This is the word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
I’m going to say the name of a certain toy.
If you’re a good bit younger than me you may not know this one, but for a moment in my childhood this toy was top shelf.
It’s a talking toy called Teddy Ruxpin. Show of hands, who remembers Teddy Ruxpin?
Teddy was invented by Ken Forsse, the same guy who helped develop some of the animatronics that 80s kids know well. His moving, talking, singing creations could be found at Disney World or at the local Chuck E. Cheese. But what Forsse wanted most was to get that same kind of magic into homes and classrooms all across America. So he designed a smaller bear who would blink and move his eyes, whose mouth would move and mouth the words of the stories programmed by a cassette tape you could insert in his back.
Teddy made his debut in 1985 and as a child I remember thinking that he was pretty amazing, but what I remember most is how this new toy began to muddy the expectations children have of their toys. Teddy spoke to children so it was only natural that children would talk back – and even expect him to interact with them.
One little boy might ask Teddy a question about the story.
Teddy kept on talking. One girl might interrupt Teddy to tell him about the goal she scored at soccer last Saturday. Teddy kept on talking.
There’s only so much you can expect from a toy, but Teddy was unphased by anything that anybody might have to tell him…he would just blink and keep on telling HIS story.
But what we really need as human beings is to Talk Story – reciprocal, back and forth. You speak some; you listen more.
So let me ask you – have you ever met somebody who is more like that Teddy Ruxpin toy? Have you ever spoken with somebody and you get the distinct impression that they’re not really listening to you; that they are politely (or even impolitely) waiting for you to finish before continuing with the far more interesting thing they have to say?
It doesn’t feel very good does it? James has some practical advice for us – Don’t Be A Teddy Ruxpin!
“Be quick to listen,” he writes, “slow to speak, slow to anger.”
That’s important so I’ll say it again:
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Actually – One more time – but you say it with me
Be quick to what? Listen.
Be slow to what? Speak.
And Slow to what? Anger.
Fletcher Bell is a medical student doing his residency in gynecological oncology. Having moved from sunny California to New York City, he found the winter weather as grim as the diagnoses he dolled out on the regular. Like many doctors-to-be, he was just beginning to practice medicine in a culture of short, impersonal visits prescribed by the limits of what insurance companies will and will not pay for. Until he met Mrs. G.
Mrs. G would grab his hand warmly when he visited her room and envelop him in the easy warmth of her sunny disposition. Fletcher found himself spending more time with Mrs. G than with any of his other patients.
She told him about her upbringing in Central America, her immigration to the United States, her life as a single mom with four children. She told him about her doubts when it came to religion, yet how she prayed every day.
Her metastatic ovarian cancer was by all measures terminal, and yet she taught this resident one of the most important lessons he might ever learn: the value of listening to your patients. Now, Fletcher Bell can be counted among those who are rediscovering the value of narrative medicine – where healers treat the whole human being, where doctors and their patients “talk story.”
Say it with me. James says be quick to what? To Listen.
Dr. Tania Israel is a psychologist who studies communication in conflict. She’s living in boom times with the level of political rancor spilling over from politics into personal relationships. She documents just how many people are canceling relationships with people who think differently from them.
In a clickbait worthy TED Talk entitled “How to Win a Political Argument” she begins by describing the classic conversation with your uncle who, when you say “Black Lives Matter,” retorts by saying “All Lives Matter.”
She continues to describe how humans are hardwired to go straight in to debate-team mode. “Uncle Earl is just woefully ill-informed” we say. “Once I lay out “THE FACTS” for him, he will have all of the accurate information and he will certainly see things my way.”
Instead, he counters with his own FACTS and digs in deeper to his position. While in debate mode, you find yourself becoming more frustrated with your uncle, and he with you, and by the end of Thanksgiving Dinner you’re ready to write him off as hopelessly racist.
Dr. Israel, though, asks what is it that people are looking for in those conversations. “What draws you to dialogue?” she asked, and hundreds of people said “I’m trying to preserve a relationship with someone in my life.” So if that is the goal what, then, does it look like to win?
Instead of launching into YOUR FACTS, perhaps it would be more productive to instead ask that uncle “so you think All Lives Matter…tell me what that sentence means to you?” And then listen…really listen. Repeat back the value you hear him lift up – “so you don’t see race as the only reason people are mistreated.” Invite him to elaborate. Don’t cave on your own position, but listen and seek understanding.
Once that uncle feels heard, then you can share your own views – not with your facts and arguments. It’s time to Talk Story. Share the people you’ve encountered, the stories you’ve heard – or even lived yourself – that have moved you to the place where you are.
Chances are at the end of such a conversation you still won’t see eye to eye.
But you will have won the political argument because you have preserved a relationship across considerable differences.
Say it with me, James said “Be quick to what?” Listen.
Slow to what? Speak. Be slow to speak.
Uriya Rosenman served as an officer in the Israeli Defense Forces. His grandfather planted a Star of David flag on the Western Wall in 1967 after pushing back Jordanian forces.
Sameh Zakout is a Palestinian who grew up in the mixed Arab-Jewish town of Ramla. His grandmother resettled there in 1948 after they were forcibly removed from their homes in what Israel sees as their Independence day, but what Palestinians call the Nakba – the Catastrophe.
Against all odds, these two men are now great friends. Both men weary of the way yesterday’s traumas beget today’s atrocities, they collaborated through a music video that lays bare all of the prejudice between their peoples.
The camera pans in on the Palestinian Zakout sitting in an auto repair shop, a low table before him with pita, hummus and a bottle of soda. As a skeletal beat fades in, Rosenman sits down across from him and commences a three minute barrage of bars spewing every anti-Arab epithet imaginable. He calls him a terrorist, denigrates his language and culture, criticizes him for not participating in the military while freeloading off the Israeli economy.
Rosenman’s most pointed words are “I’m not racist, I swear, but there’s a cultural abyss between us and there’s a reason. Judaism is about life, repairing the world and free love and you educate children to hate in the name of Islam.”
There’s a pause – Rosenman sits back in his chair confident his debate mode argument is air-tight…but now it’s time for Zakout to respond and he throw it right back:
“I don’t support terror. I’m against violence. But 70 years of occupation of course there will be resistance. When you do a barbecue and celebrate independence – the Naqba is my grandmother’s reality. In 1948 you kicked out my family. The food was still warm when you broke into our homes. You don’t know the accelerated heartbeats every visit at the airport. I’m not racist, but I am mad.” And as the beat drops out into silence, Zakout points down at the low table between them as he gets in one more line:
“We both have no other country so this is where the change begins”
As the camera recedes, they both reach for the bread, dip it into the hummus and eat together.
As I watched this for the first time this week, I was in awe that the very Christian sacrament of communion was embodied by this Jew and this Muslim sharing pita and Pepsi in their war-torn land.
I was also struck that – even using Hebrew and Arabic rhyme schemes – these two men who have every reason to despise one another were instead talking story. They were baring their truth and listening to one another.
The author of James wrote You must understand this:
Be quick to what? Listen.
Slow to what? Speak.
And Slow to what? Anger.
The way our NRSV Bible translates that passage makes it sound sequential:
Be quick to listen, be slow to speech, and be slow to anger.
Some scholars suggest that it’s really more cause and effect.
When you are quick to listen and when you are slow to speak, then you will be slow to anger.
Church – we can do this much.
We can stop playing the tapes of all the interesting things we have to say.
We can interrupt less and ask more questions.
We can listen to one another through deep differences.
We can trade our contempt for genuine curiosity.
And, even if we are mainlanders, we can talk story.
And who knows? If we learn to talk story, perhaps we might find ourselves more deeply grounded in the Gospel story that is the way the truth and the life. Amen.
“Be Doers of the word, and not merely hearers” is another thing James said in our reading today. Those who hear only hear. Those who listen, however, are changed. Let us be quick to listen to the voice of the one who moves us from grace to grace. May the Lord bless you and keep you today and evermore. Amen.