Between the words that are spoken and the words that are heard, may there be peace.
I was working for most of this week in Toronto, talking about increasing the quality of conversations. Juanita Brown, a teacher of mine suggests that “conversations are to humans, what water is to fish.” It is our milieu, a fundamental part of our environment. And so, we might ask, what would happen to the world of work, or even the world generally if we were able to increase the quality of our conversations?
And to begin this, we might ask, what do we mean by quality. In the work place, and I think this is true generally, we say quality conversation happen when those harder interpersonal conversations result in positive change. Or put another way, when both participants in the conversation are able to find balance between advocacy (speaking my truth) and inquiry (understanding and respecting your truth), so that positive change occurs for at least one of us.
In tonight’s Hebrew text we hear, “God was in this place, and I, i did not know.” I wonder if a positive change has occurred to Jacob? What do you think?
A key element to increasing the quality of conversations is to ensure that everyoneparticipating is thinking. And that is much more difficult than it sounds. Most of the conversations we engage in, especially at work, involve a lot of telling and being told, and not much thinking for ourselves. Most of them sound like: “This is what you need to do (or even be);” “Here is your goal;” and “Here is the first step, and the second step, and the third step…” There is a great deal of advocacy and very little inquiry. And a downstream result, it seems to me, is that we live in a time when we are habituated to spoon feeding and being spoon fed. In fact, great workplace conversations increase the inquiry side of the equation, asking questions like: What do you think? What do you see as your goal here? What are the steps you will take? What connections are you making?”
So, I’m curious, how often do you get asked what you think? At work? Generally? What do you think would happen to the quality of the conversations in which you engage, if you were asked even 25% more often, what do you think? Or if you asked 25% more often, what do you think?
So, to our Hebrew Bible text this evening. Much of the biblical text, handed down to us from Judaism, is actually implicitly, if not explicitly asking, “What do you think?”
Lawrence Kushner, in his wonderful book, God was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know (www.jewishlights.com/page/product/978-1-879045-33-0) writes, “The words of Torah are infinitely analyzable and strike each recipient in a way appropriate to his or her strength and life situation… The words of Torah are holy because they provide a glimpse into the infrastructure of being. [The words of Torah] comprise a single living organism animated by a secret life which streams and pulses below the crust of its literal meaning (page 16).” And so, when looking at Biblical texts, we need always ask, what do you think, and how does this passage have meaning for you? We must always enter into a quality conversation with Holy Text, this “living organism,” hearing what it advocates for, and inquiring what that means for me?
And I think it important that we have people like Marnie and Andrew, and all who preach in this important place and time; people who have taken the time to think, to reflect and to offer their own perspectives. A sermon might be seen as an invitation; this is what I think, what do you think? And here at St. B’s we are welcome to do that; to explore and wonder together. It is what Ellen Clark-King the former vicar here, calls a Choral Theology.
Choral Theology is a quality conversation about theology; inquiring of and hearing the other singers, honouring their voices, and advocating our own ideas, our own voice in humble confidence. It is a quality conversation that results in positive change.
Let’s do a little choral theology. There are two great lines in this evening’s Hebrew text that ask us, what do we think, what does this mean to me and for me? The first is “God was in this place and I did not know.” The Hebrew actually has two I’s; and so, it better reads in English, “God was in this place and I, i did not Know.” Rabbi Kushner’s book by that title, takes this one sentence, and provides seven different interpretations from Jewish scholars going back about 1,000 years. Each of the interpretations is unique, complete, and wonderful to explore on its own. And each are exploring ideas of “the infrastructure of being;” self, relationship with God, relationship with others. It is wonderful.
The second is the line, “and there were messengers ascending and descending on the ladder.” What does it mean to say that angels/messengers were ascending and descending? In that order? Ascending? And descending? Again, there are many interpretations over the last ,3000 years of this line; each particular to individual strengths and time and place.
Paper and pencils were handed out…
And so, I’d like to invite you first into a quiet space for yourself. Focus first on your breathing, feet on the ground…
Now, I’m going to read both of the lines again, and invite you to write down the one that speaks to you. And then ask yourself, what does this line mean to me, in my place and time? At first in silence.
“God was in this place, and I, i did not know”
“And there were angels ascending and descending on the ladder”
What do either of these lines mean to you in your space and time?
Write a few notes for yourself.
Now turn to people around you, and share, as much as you feel comfortable, your answers. You can “pass,” you can sit in silence, or share. And there are no right or wrong answers, we are exploring what the lines mean to you, in this place and time. And please remember, advocacy and inquiry
Time for reflection
And so, it is with much of our lives; we are called to think, to explore, to wonder and to learn with and from each other. All too often my friends we are spoon fed; we are slurping the pablum that others are supplying us. It is time to be feeding ourselves.
It is such difficult work, to think for ourselves, and it is much easier to believe what others have said. We ourselves need to sift through all of it, at work, at home, and in our communities to find the kernels of truth and meaning for us, right here, right now. And that journey is best done in small groups, learning and thinking together. Just like St. Brigid’s.
And so, I wonder, what do you think?
 Lawrence Kushner God was in this Place and I, i Did Not Know Woodstock, Jewish Lights Publishing (1991) p. 12