Sunday, September 28, 2014

Difficult Conversations

And all were astounded at the greatness of God.
While everyone was amazed at all that he was doing, he said to his disciples, ‘Let these words sink into your ears: The Son of Man is going to be betrayed into human hands.’ But they did not understand this saying; its meaning was concealed from them, so that they could not perceive it. And they were afraid to ask him about this saying. - Luke 9:43-45

Today's reading is a very short passage that comes between the healing of a child and the argument about who is the greatest. Indeed, the previous chapter is filled with lots of things like the Transfiguration, Jesus giving power to his disciples to heal, and the feeding of the 5,000. Through it all, Jesus is repeatedly warning that he was going to have to suffer and die but that he would rise from the dead but it seems that even repetition dulled the ears of those who heard, even and especially his disciples. Jesus said something (multiple times) that they didn't understand but they were afraid to ask him outright what he meant. It would have been a difficult question that would probably provoke a difficult discussion, difficult in the sense that something needed to be said, something that might be hard to understand or unpleasant to contemplate but which would have been necessary both to the speaker and to the listener.

Nobody wants to hear that a loved one, friend, teacher, mentor or respected figure is going to die. Jesus wasn't sick, so why did he keep talking about his own death? Certainly he and the disciples and followers faced some dangers on the roads from brigands and bandits and perhaps even from the Romans who controlled things pretty much everywhere, but those were common, everyday risks any traveler leaving home would have to take. Jesus was trying to open the door to what could be a very difficult discussion on a very difficult topic, one his disciples and followers were not ready or willing to participate in or even to hear.

Sometimes someone will open the door for a difficult discussion by saying something that brings a friend or loved one up short. "I'm not sure I understand what you mean, can you please explain it to me?" The blessing of a response like that is that it gives the person permission to talk about something they want and need to discuss but perhaps had never had the courage or the opportunity to do so. It also gives the listener the opportunity to really hear what someone else needs to say and, possibly, offer a way to help or support them in some way.

Some of the most difficult conversations come around the subject of death. Someone may want or need to talk about it but almost invariably the person to whom they are talking will come out with something like, "Oh, don't talk like that! You are going to be fine! You have a lot of years ahead of you!" The thing is, we don't know that for sure. We project our own hope and discomfort onto another who might need something quite different. It is more a time for listening than speaking, but it takes courage to take that step that gives that person permission to be open and honest about something they need or want. Jesus opened the door but nobody walked through. They were afraid to ask and so missed the opportunity to learn.

Difficult discussions happen every day and the thing that is almost a given is that somewhere in the conversation someone is going to hear something unpleasant or that will hurt or even point out their helplessness over the situation. How to confront a teen who has drugs in their room or backpack? How to speak to a long-time employee and tell them their job has been eliminated? How to tell a loved one that their drinking is causing a rift in the family? How to express feelings of hurt, whether physical, mental, emotional or spiritual, at the hands of another to that person? How to begin a discussion of finances before the problem gets out of hand? The discussion has to take place, but how to begin -- and how to speak and listen so that each side is heard and understood. It's not easy having difficult discussions or opening the door to one.

The followers of Jesus had the opportunity and let it pass by because they were afraid. Fear often prevents difficult discussions simply because it makes both parties to the conversation vulnerable. Vulnerability is something we fear; it lets people get too close and strips away some of our protective armor against discovery. To be vulnerable is to be open, and being open invites hurt. It also means loss of some control and the feeling that everything is just fine, no problems, no worries at all. But at least one party in the conversation has something to convey and the other needs to hear it and respond to it in a way that doesn't shut the door on the continuing talk. The followers' fear kept them from a greater understanding, and that was their loss.

One thing the followers seemed to lack was trust. They possibly didn't trust that Jesus would understand their hesitancy and confusion and clarify what he meant, hence their fear. I wonder what the answer would have been had they trusted enough to ask their questions and let Jesus answer.

I trust Jesus enough to have a difficult discussion with him but do I trust anyone else?  What discussions do I need to have and how do I broach them? How do I respond if someone trusts me enough to want to have such a conversation?

I think I need to be more attentive and aware. Who knows when I may need to have or hear from someone else something that is weighing on them. God, save me from glib answers and the dismissing of concerns. Save me too from being afraid to speak when something needs to be said. Don't let me be afraid of being vulnerable or to let others. And if I don't understand something, give me the grace and wisdom to ask the question.

Originally published at Speaking to the Soul on Episcopal Café Saturday, September 27, 2014.

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