It’s very likely that when you gather with others at the Thanksgiving table next week, you’ll be sharing the meal with people with whom you have serious disagreement. Pastor Char and Pastor Jim have been talking together about this likely situation and offer the following thoughts and ideas about the ways in which Christian teaching might help you not only get through Thanksgiving dinner but make the most of it.
Pr. Char: Something happens when we eat together, when we sit down at table, gather around food and drink, talk, laugh, share, embrace one another in our stories and across our differences. When we taste and see across and through the shared experience of a meal, we experience ourselves differently, and we experience one another differently. Eating together does something to us. In her book Eating Together, Alice Julier argues that dining together can create a radical shift in perspective. Eating together challenges our notions of difference and inequality and creates an experience by which we come to know each other more openly and more deeply.
Pr. Jim: There’s a story that’s told in the Gospel according to Luke of an encounter that two of Jesus’ followers have with him on the day of his resurrection. It takes place at the end of the day and these two don’t initially recognize Jesus. So when they invite him in for dinner, it’s simply an expression of their impulse toward hospitality. It’s dinner time and this traveller needs a place to eat. Jesus honors their invitation and joins them at their table. And then the tables are turned. Jesus, who was the guest, offers the table prayer and, in doing so, becomes the host. The event turns from their supper with him to the “Lord’s Supper” for them and they recognize Jesus for who he is as he breaks bread. At the Chapel of the Resurrection, we believe that when people gather around the Communion table, the table of thanksgiving, Jesus is actually present with us and for us with gifts of life and salvation. These gifts of God come to us across the great divide of our alienation from God. In our sin, we have not always “agreed” with God (to put it mildly) and yet God comes among us and offers hospitality. Insofar as all meals offer us the means for life and create occasions of companionship, this meal of Jesus, which offers eternal life and companionship with God, is the primary meal.
If Jesus’ meal is the primary meal then we have the opportunity to see all of our meals as reminders of it. This means that we can take the gifts given us in Jesus’ meal (gifts of acceptance and hospitality by God, gifts of enduring life) and hold them close when we dine with others, allowing these divine realities to inform our lives as we think about what it means to be with others, especially when our disagreements threaten the relationship.
Pr. Char: How do I approach my dear ones whose thoughts, ideas, passions, and perspectives may not only not match my own, but may in fact be diametrically opposed to my own? How do I sit at table with those whose opinions I believe may be harmful to me in the living of my life? St. Anselm of Canterbury (1033-1109) reportedly lived by the motto faith seeking understanding. While this motto had particular nuances for him in his philosophical perspective, I think it offers wise counsel as we sit at table with one another across difference. The eighth commandment enjoins us to “not bear false witness against one’s neighbor.” Martin Luther suggested that this means that we do not “tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations. Instead we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and explain their actions in the kindest way.” Combining St. Anselm’s motto – faith seeking understanding – with Luther’s explanation of the eighth commandment – explain my neighbor’s actions in the kindest way — to come to the table in good faith is to actively and intentionally believe the best of another (not assume the worst), and out of that believing seek to understand. Understand the other’s story. Understand the other’s thoughts. Understand what it is that has led us to different places and different conclusions.
Pr. Jim: When I’m struggling with disagreement or trying to help others through the same dilemma, the practice of active listening always works wonders. Simply put, “active listening” means repeating back to our conversation partner those things that they have just said. By making their words our words — if just for a moment — we enact listening. Their words have entered our ears, been processed by our brains and have come out of our mouths for them to hear. This practice affirms to them that they have been listened to by us and being listened to, actually listened to, is a small miracle in itself. As we listen with the goal of understanding it’s helpful to try to move our conversation partner beyond the positions that they take which are frequently immovable to the interests or values that inform those positions. Why is it that they are taking the position? What are they hoping to accomplish by it? What are the values that make this goal so worthy or necessary? Roger Fisher and William Ury, the authors of the book Getting to Yes, argue that this quest for the interests that inform positions is fundamental to good negotiation. Further, our work of listening begins to provide the forum for others to listen to us. When this back and forth of listening and speaking begins to happen we may find ourselves engaging ideas that are new to us or are nuanced in ways that we didn’t anticipate. Yet, even if we never get to this place of perfect reciprocity, we will have listened to the best of our ability and will be the richer for it.
Pr. Char: I am a lover of stories, and I truly believe that our stories can help us bridge divides and better understand one another. In her work regarding shame, empathy, and vulnerability, Brene Brown (University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work) suggests that “vulnerability is the birthplace of innovation, creativity, and change.” To be vulnerable, she asserts, is to “show up and let yourself be seen.” It is to dare to be your authentic self, to cultivate love by embracing the risks of owning your story and trusting another with that story. Equally, it is to invite others to consider you trustworthy with their own stories. To come together across difference, then, is to dare to say “this is me. This is what brings me joy. This is what hurts.” That doesn’t mean that we point fingers of blame and division; rather it means that we stay in our own story, speak out of our own story, and seek to invite the vulnerability of others to do the same. When we meet each other in story, then we create together a larger narrative of the human experience by listening with the eyes of the heart.
Finally, Pastor Char and Pastor Jim want to remind us all that it is “Thanksgiving” dinner around which we are gathering. In our call to seek common ground, our common thankfulness for the gifts of life in this good creation is a wonderful place to both begin and end our conversations. We hope and pray God’s richest blessings be with each of you as you sit at table together and join in the companionship of eating and storytelling, listening and sharing.
Nov. 16, 2016