Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters: You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to get angry. Human anger does not produce the righteousness God desires.
A few months ago during a backyard discipleship circle, the old Amelia Bedelia books came up in our conversation. I think it somehow connected to the idea of offering grace to people, but I can't exactly remember. What I do remember is that I had read these famous books as a child many times, but couldn't recall the actual storyline at all. But it peaked my interest enough to revisit them a bit.
Amelia Bedelia is a somewhat antiquated children's picture book series about a housemaid who repeatedly misunderstands the tasks that her employer gives her, because she takes every word completely literally. So anytime a figure of speech is used, she interprets the words exactly as written. Obviously this leads to some funny situations. Her boss asks her to draw the drapes when the sun is shining, so she breaks out a sketchpad and gets to work. And when she is told to dust the furniture, she gets out the makeup kit and puts dust all over everything... just like he said to do!
It made me think about the complexities of communication and understanding in our world. How many times do we think we are being clear, yet we feel absolutely misunderstood? How many times do we read or hear something and get a very different impression than what the writer, speaker was trying to say? How many movie storylines rely on an overheard, out-of-context statement that gets misinterpreted? Before you know it, a wedding is off, a best friend is angry, or Shrek and Fiona almost ruin their future together!?!
Communication is hard. Especially when our human emotions get involved.
Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw once said, "The single biggest problem in communication is the illusion that it has taken place."
We assume that people understand exactly what we're saying. And we assume that we know what others are saying. But words are often seen completely differently based on our social location, history, biases, and a number of other factors.
So why is this so important to disciples of Jesus?
Communication breakdowns are often the result of people moving far too fast, or allowing anger to take the place of understanding.
That means we need to learn to slow. down.
Slow down our minds. Slow down our hearts. And ask better questions.
Jesus' brother James watched Jesus closely for much of his life, which gives each of his written statements an added layer of authority. And to be a disciple, he writes, is to be quick to listen rather than to speak. And to not move toward anger or offense quite so fast, because we're seeking understanding.
How often, when you hear something that you don't like, is your first statement or thought a rebuttal rather than a question to try to understand better? Most of us are quick to take a word at its literal value (what we see as literal, anyway), rather than try to listen closer so that we are sure to understand where another is coming from.
Simply put, this requires leading with an attitude of grace. And if we've received grace upon grace in Jesus in our own lives, despite our own shortcomings, surely we can slow down enough to extend grace to others and be eager to listen and more slow to become angry. In fact, you'll find that the world opens up in new ways when your desire is to understand people with the eyes, ears, and heart of Jesus. You'll find that many times, people use vastly different words to communicate similar desires for the world... which then becomes a building block for reconciliation, partnership, and relationship. This can be true in church experiences, in politics, in culturally diverse interactions, and in community development. There is hope!
Amelia Bedelia's employers did extend grace to her once they learned that the real issue was a misunderstanding in communication-- but that was only after she baked an amazing pie for them. As Jesus people, let's go beyond that. Let's be eager to listen, to learn, and to extend grace with nothing else required (though who doesn't love a good pie!).
Jesus, lead me to depth in you that slows me down enough to be a grace-filled listener and understander of my neighbors.