What Do You Mean?

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Chalice lighting

We are here
We have arrived
It is our first day here, our hundredth, our thousandth
We entered alone or with another or several
We share so much with each other - we all have longings and dreams and sorrows and joys
We have frustrations and fears and we have hope
Despite our deep commonalities, there is much that keeps us from understanding one another
We speak different languages and use different dialects
We were taught to converse in different ways - forceful, respectful, timid, domineering, eloquent
And so we fail to communicate or to hear what is the deepest and truest within
Today, as we light this flame, let us open our senses and our hearts
Let us be still and peaceful with each other
Let us be present
Let us be receptive
Let us listen.

Reading: A Ritual To Read To Each Other, by William Stafford

If you don't know the kind of person I am
and I don't know the kind of person you are
a pattern that others made may prevail in the world
and following the wrong [path] home we may miss our star.

For there is many a small betrayal in the mind,
a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break
sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood
storming out to play through the broken dyke.

And as elephants parade holding each elephant's tail,
but if one wanders the circus won't find the park,
I call it cruel and maybe the root of all cruelty
to know what occurs but not recognize the fact.

And so I appeal to a voice, to something shadowy,
a remote important region in all who talk:
though we could fool each other, we should consider--
lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.

For it is important that awake people be awake,
or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep;
the signals we give--yes or no, or maybe--
should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.

Message part 1 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

William Stafford’s poem describes how we need one another. Like parades of elephants holding each others’ tails - we need each other to find our way.

It is with our words that we guide each other. It is with language that we can lead each other home.

And language can go wrong - very wrong.

“For there is many a small betrayal in the mind, a shrug that lets the fragile sequence break sending with shouts the horrible errors of childhood storming out to play through the broken dyke.”

We don’t know each other. We don’t know what holds us back or impels us to speak harmfully or without content. We don’t know what “horrible errors of childhood” cause lies and domination to fill our words or stem their flow altogether.

And so, Stafford appeals to “a remote important region in all who talk”. We must be true and present for one another, “lest the parade of our mutual life get lost in the dark.”

We are an amazing species. Of all the others that we know of, we are the only ones with a fully developed ability to create language. We have created a diverse range of languages - elaborate systems to communicate with other that let us transfer both the simplest and most abstract information.

We can efficiently say ‘look out for that bear’ and something as complex as the relationship between energy and mass: E=MC2.

Despite the wonder of human language, when it comes to building relationships or disagreement or sharing our deeper truths, language often fails us. The author Stephen King noted this, saying: “The most important things are the hardest to say, because words diminish them.”

The irony doesn't escape me that I am pouring forth more than a thousand words now to talk, talk, talk about the failures of talking.  For some things, though, it’s all we’ve got.

Have you ever had a conversation you walked away from feeling it was a waste of time or worse? Did you ever just start nodding “yes” because you realised that there was no way this communication would ever work?

The failures have many sources.

Sometimes it’s a language mismatch. If you speak only Italian and I speak only Polish, relatively little information will get transferred.

And it can be hard too even when we think we speak the same language. English in Scotland and Wales and England is different enough to cause problems. Even between London and Manchester, it’s a problem.

And between the UK and the US…  It’s taken me twelve years to get close to understanding British English, and I’m still not there. There are the obvious differences, of course.

But the miscommunications along the way were… interesting. The subtle differences, especially, were the most challenging. It took me a long time to understand what we’re doing in a meeting when we’re tabling a topic. It’s opposite in the two countries and I’m so confused now that I don’t know which is which.

There was the time I inadvertently insulted a congregant by praising her cooking, saying it was ‘very nice.’ The times I thought our Meeting House was being insulted when someone called it ‘homely’. Or the times I was told something I’d done was bold or courageous, and I thought I was being complimented. It was years later when I realised I had misunderstood.

This also shows just the tip of the iceberg of how culture influences our verbal communication. There are people I’ve met who come from different cultures within London who I have a very hard time understanding. Their word choice, their expressions, their intonations - it’s all too different for me to grasp.

Those cultural differences include the differences between different generations. As Jessamyn West put it: “There are two barriers that often prevent communication between the young and their elders. The first is middle-aged forgetfulness of the fact that they themselves are no longer young. The second is youthful ignorance of the fact that the middle aged are still alive.”

And sometimes, it’s just too… many… words. In a ten thousand word soliloquy, the important message may be lost as the listener goes from interest, to distraction, to apathy, to boredom, to losing the will to live.

The person using so many words may not be domineering or arrogant. Putting a thought into few words is an art. The American President, Woodrow Wilson, explained: ‘If I am to speak ten minutes, I need a week for preparation; if fifteen minutes, three days; if half an hour, two days; if an hour, I am ready now.’

Sometimes, we talk in abstractions so far removed from what the other person really thinks and feels that we might as well read Wikipedia - we’d get the same information, and probably in a clearer form. And sometimes, it’s us who drifts away into abstractions to avoid being vulnerable by sharing our real selves.

Stafford warns us at the beginning of his poem that it may be that ‘...you don't know the kind of person I am and I don't know the kind of person you are…’ 

We have been unable to communicate this despite sometimes days, weeks, months, or even years of conversation.

How can we know each other? How can we communicate from our hearts? How can we be there for each other?

Reading: When Someone Deeply Listens to You, by John Fox

When someone deeply listens to you
it is like holding out a dented cup
you've had since childhood
and watching it fill up with
cold, fresh water.
When it balances on top of the brim,
you are understood.
When it overflows and touches your skin,
you are loved.
When someone deeply listens to you,
the room where you stay
starts a new life
and the place where you wrote
your first poem
begins to glow in your mind's eye.
It is as if gold has been discovered!
When someone deeply listens to you,
your bare feet are on the earth
and a beloved land that seemed distant
is now at home within you.

Message part 2 – by Rev. Andy Pakula

If you’ve ever listened – just listened to another person in a careful and mindful way – or if anyone has done that for you - you know that it is a powerful experience for both of you. We are so unaccustomed to just listening - with no one jumping on the end of your sentence, and without forming your response while they’re still talking.

You probably also found that it is an intimate experience.  It feels much closer than having a one-to-one conversation in a normal way. That’s partly because we know we’re being heard. It’s partly because we use a lot of words as a shield to keep anyone from really seeing or knowing us.

The pioneering psychologist Abraham Maslow noted this, saying: ‘...language can be a way of hiding your thoughts and preventing communication.’

To stop talking can be an essential part of communication.

Before you get the idea that I’m saying we should all try to communicate without words - maybe put on a shirt with black and white horizontal stripes, braces, white makeup and a beret… - no. Not that. Anything but that.

We need to introduce more silence into our communication. Less haste - more listening. Less responding - more understanding. Less self-expression and more caring.

I hope you’ve had experiences like those that John Fox talks about in the reading we heard a little while ago. (Were you listening?)

Having someone listen to you sends a message that you are valued, that you matter, that what you have to say is important, that someone cares.

Dr. David Augsberger, a Mennonite minister, offered this wise observation: ‘Being listened to is so close to being loved that most people cannot tell the difference.’ Listening openly to another is an essential part of loving them.

And this is hard for most of us. Both being listened to and really listening to another are each a struggle for us.

When we are listened to, we may feel exposed. Without the back and forth, we realise that someone is actually hearing and absorbing what we say instead of just preparing for a response. When we are listening, all manner of troubles get in the way. Our minds jump around - remembering we wanted to do this or say that. We wonder if we are doing this right. ‘Am I nodding enough or too much to show I understand?’ We form an internal conversation about whether we agree or disagree with what we’re hearing.

We need not only to close our mouths but to quiet our minds and that is hard. That takes practice.

But it’s important. If our world continues to be a place where we have more and more words around us and coming from us - where we have more and more opinions to defend - more and more talking and less and less listening - then we will create a world even more riven with misunderstanding and suspicion. We will lose out on the opportunity to help each other heal and grow. We will lose out on the opportunity to love more deeply.

Listen more. Welcome the silence. In this there is the potential for love.

May it be so.

Closing words

You can change another person’s experience through mindful listening
You can help them to grow
You can remind them that their life has value and that they are cared for
And in a community where such care is commonplace, there will be abundant compassion and love.
There will be strength. There will be a drive toward a better tomorrow.
May it be so.