This last Friday the weather widget on our laptops promised relief from humidity. There is a little park in Lake City, MN (the home of water skiing, the sign says as you enter the town) that we discovered several years ago. Huge oak trees carpet the grass with shade. On one side of the park stretches the Mississippi River and on the other a little canal linking a marina with the river. With two canvas chairs, books, and a thermos of iced water we retreat to absorb the quiet, read, pray, doodle notes as ideas present themselves, and talk.
We rag on some of the powerboats, their phallic shape unnecessarily calling attention to the shuddering power of their inboard motors. We wonder at the sprawling yachts that coast by emanating signs of wealth and guess whether the owners work for an investment bank or an insurance company. We imagine taking our grandchildren out for a day on one of the slow but steady houseboats, complete with gas grill on the flat roof. Jet skies, rather like high-pitched mosquitoes dart in and out among the traffic.
But mostly we break the leisurely silence of the day to talk about our life together, and the shape of our calling expressed in the ordinary things that come our way. We have talked about this for years, and know we will need to continue the conversation. Things don’t stand still, and if we aren’t intentional about it, our schedule slips out of balance and the tyranny of the urgent soon crowds out the good. Faithfulness isn’t automatic.
Later we continued our conversation as we ate together at Nosh, on an outside second story patio overlooking one of Lake City marinas. Beyond lay the River, dotted with sailboats, on which two barges slipped by en route from St Paul to someplace south, perhaps even to New Orleans.
We are best friends, married now for 43 years, working together in Ransom for 27 years, and still we find that none of this can be assumed. Such conversations must be intentional, listening must be unhurried, and still misunderstandings arise. I think she means one thing, she thinks I mean something else, and going back to square one can seem an annoyance. But it must be done, listening, asking questions, listening some more. Even when we are on the same proverbial page digging deeper can deepen understanding.
Sometimes the most important words are the words behind the words. They are often unvoiced, at least at first, but to not hear them is to not hear at all.
This is true in the public square as well. As we drove to Lake City we passed several billboards and signs on both sides of the abortion issue. I do not question the motivation of the people who paid for and erected them by the side of the highway. I assume both are passionate in their convictions. But I am impressed at how both sides seem to be preaching to the choir and I can’t imagine any of the signs persuading anyone on the other side to change their position. They are talking past one another. Neither side hears the words behind the words.
I am not interested here in debating abortion. But as a Christian I want to argue that the pro-life effort in the public square is often counterproductive. We raise arguments only pro-lifers will be impressed at and then expect pro-choice people to be persuaded. Our arguments not only are unpersuasive, but by failing to take pro-choice reasoning seriously we give the impression of being out of touch and of being people who simply want to force our convictions on others.
In The Rage Against God British journalist Peter Hitchens chronicles his pilgrimage through atheism to faith in Christ. As he tells his story, he remembers going to stores to purchase items for the birth of his first child, brightly colored plastic stuff that seemed cheap and aesthetically distasteful. The entire event is unnerving, but not just on the surface. Values about the good life that he has long held are in the process of crumbling—or more accurately, they are being torn down. “I felt (correctly as it turned out),” he writes, “that I was being called by irresistible force into a state of life I had not chosen and would never have voluntarily accepted.” That state of life was parenthood. “I have often thought,” Hitchens continues, “that the strange popularity of abortion among people who ought to know better has much to do with this sensation of lost control, of being pulled downwards into a world of servitude, into becoming our own parents.”
If Hitchens is correct, then the favored pro-life argument that abortion is wrong because it involves a baby is guaranteed to fail. (This was, indeed, the argument on all the pro-life signs and billboards we passed on the highway.) In fact, if Hitchens is correct, reminding pro-choicer people that it is a baby will serve to reinforce their commitment to abortion!
Civility, it seems to me, must include a passionate determination to listen to and address the words behind the words. It’s a skill that must be learned and a posture that is in conflict with the vast majority of speech practiced in the public square and in the church. By God’s grace may that be changed. When we fail in this most basic truth about human communication, we may even discover that our attempts to speak backfire into instances of strengthening the commitments we are trying to change.
As always I look forward to reading your thoughts and comments.
Source: The Rage Against God: How atheism led me to faith by Peter Hitchens (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2010) p. 31.