By Bill Lewellis
July 17, 2012
A few weeks ago, Monica and I dined with three close friends. We sat three on one side and two on the other of a rectangular table in a crowded Italian restaurant. I was at the end where no one was directly across from me. A 50-something couple at a small table to my left was within arms reach, closer to me than my friends at the other end of our table.
Occupied with our conversation, the gentleman at that table frequently stared our way. Turning toward him was my first mistake.
My first mistake enabled him to engage me in conversation, something he obviously wanted to do.
When I turned toward him, this was his opener: "You believe in Jesus, right?"
Every nun who taught me in parochial school was now in my head: Do not deny Jesus.
"Yes," I said, "I believe in Jesus."
That was my second mistake. It gave him an opening. I allowed him to engage me in cross-table talk.
"This is my Jesus," he said, finding a photo on his iPhone, then handing it to me.
The photo was a Pennsylvania historical marker with which he obviously sought to draw me into a political discussion.
The historical marker told of the long ago armed resistance by Pennsylvania-German farmers to the federal government's taxing authority.
Then he put the bait in front of me. Should not my churches rather than his taxes take care of people in need? "Isn't that what churches are for?"
Though my friends and my scungilli salad were calling, I devoured his bait. As he impolitely ignored his wife, I impolitely ignored my wife and friends.
We spoke at each other, perhaps for three minutes, until my final volley, basically this: "Look, you were eavesdropping on our conversation; you recognized that we were church people and thought you had an easy target. Well, you don't. But let's end this conversation. We're talking past each other."
We turned away from each other.
I'm now sorry about that. I wish we had exchanged email addresses.
I'd like to have another conversation, not about government and his understanding of what churches are for, but about who he is and who I am.
We’re both better than the worst we may think of each other.
Perhaps, after some conversation about who we are, neither of us would think winning matters. We would, instead, respect each other's dignity. That may be as far as we would go. Far enough.
In Marilynne Robinson's book, Gilead, an elderly preacher who thinks he will soon die, writes to his son:
"In every important way we are such secrets from each other, and I do believe that there is a separate language in each of us, also a separate aesthetics and a separate jurisprudence. Every single one of us is a little civilization built on the ruins of any number of preceding civilizations, but with our own variant notions of what is beautiful and what is acceptable – which, I hasten to add, we generally do not satisfy and by which we struggle to live.”
New Yorker magazine blogger Mark O'Connell commented: "This is not the kind of voice I normally associate with religious people, and it makes me wonder whether we might not be listening to the wrong voices."
Bishop Frank Griswold, while he was presiding bishop of the Episcopal Church (1997-2006), wrote that "conversation" came from the same root as "conversion."
Both realities require respectful listening; they require that we allow for the possibility that we might change our mind and heart.
At the opening Eucharist of General Convention, Presiding Bishop Katherine Jefferts-Schori said: “Our ongoing challenge is to look beyond our own interests to God’s intent for this world. That will continue to be our challenge until the end of all things, for there is nothing so characteristic of sin as the centrality of our own self-interest.”
To have an honest conversation – with one's conscience, with our Lord, with a friend, even with a stranger – is to chance conversion. What a sublime opportunity.
Canon Bill Lewellis, Diocese of Bethlehem, retired
Communication Minister/Editor (1986-2010), Canon Theologian (1998)
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Be attentive. Be intelligent. Be reasonable. Be responsible.
Be in Love. And, if necessary, change. [Bernard Lonergan]