By Pat Plude, with Joanna Lawrence Shenk
Today we depart temporarily from the Ephesians passage we have been using throughout this series, to look at a time when Jesus demonstrates his humanity by speaking to a woman in a particularly snarky way! Using the story of the Syrophonecian woman in the Gospel of Mark, we will look more deeply at the practice of listening, another crucial component of learning to speak truth in love. As we go you’ll hear several voices and stories: those of the Syrophonecian Woman and Jesus, as well as my own and Joanna’s.
I begin with my own story. As many of you know, last February this congregation discussed and approved an expanded role for me in my ministry here at FMCSF, a role that came with a new title, a new job description, and increased accountability and support. My request for these changes followed several years of personal discomfort with the lack of clarity between how I was serving this congregation as part time paid staff and also as a lay leader with 25 years in the community. I had become increasingly conscious of a yearning for not only clarity in my role, but also a title and a support structure that more accurately reflected how I was (and had been) serving the congregation.
I felt vulnerable about making this request, so we proceeded slowly. In consultation with Sheri, we began by creating a small, ad hoc committee to help us think through the issue and discern a plan for going forward. The first of those two meetings went well. But at the second, things fell apart. The rupture was complicated. I knew everyone in that meeting loved me and held me in high regard. Yet, the conversation went off the rails in a way I would have never predicted. I left the meeting feeling vulnerable, hurt, and later, angry. My relationship with each person in the room felt either deeply compromised or broken.
So, spoiler alert! Joanna was one of the people in that meeting. And, it was her idea for us to tell together the story of the intentional repair work we did in our relationship over the next several months, repair that included what we are calling today, “transformational listening.” Each member of that committee and I have also undertaken a similar journey of repair, a journey that took a full year to accomplish – in part because it was powerful energy to work through for all of us, in part because schedules demanded that we proceed slowly, something which was, in the end, probably a blessing. So know that when all was said and done, there was healing among all of us, and the work we did together strengthened and deepened our relationships.
However, as is often the case, things got worse before they got better. I embarked on my repair work with Joanna by requesting a phone conversation a week or so after the meeting. I reached out to her to affirm some of the ways I had felt seen and supported by her at the meeting, but also to seek clarity on something she had said. Unfortunately this conversation did not go well either! Still reeling from the full group meeting, I hung up the phone, now in full flight mode.
Joanna: Following the meeting that went off the rails I felt frustrated and confused about how to move forward. I was not surprised that Pat wanted to check in by phone but was concerned about how that conversation would go. I didn’t feel able to clearly articulate my thoughts because I knew the recent meeting had been especially hard for Pat and I didn’t want to add a layer of complexity. As the conversation progressed I realized I was failing at any attempt to mend things. For a variety of reasons, I was vague and therefore unable to offer Pat the clarity she sought. By the end of the call it was clear that our relationship was broken and that we couldn’t fix it by continuing the conversation at that point. After we concluded the call I felt a combination of defensiveness, foreboding and sadness. Truly, if it was going to get better, it would get harder first.
Pat: So let us turn for a moment to the story of the Syrophonecian woman, our scripture passage for today. In this story Jesus, following a rejection in Galilee, has traveled to Gentile lands, near the cities of Tyre and Sidon, historic centers of the Phoenician naval empire, a legendary adversary of Israel. (All quotes and historical references come from Ched Myers, “Learning from the Other,” Radical Discipleship, September 3, 2015, https://radicaldiscipleship.net/2015/09/03/learning-from-the-other/)
We don’t know why Jesus has retreated to this private home deep in Gentile territory, but in my imagination it’s because he is utterly exhausted and needs time to rest, pray, and strategize.
The unnamed Syrophonecian woman – a woman who is a Gentile – also had a great need: her daughter is possessed. In my imagination she is utterly desperate – in that way only a mother can be – to see if this Jewish healer can give relief to her beloved child. In his study of this passage, Ched Myers writes, “In conventional Mediterranean ‘honor culture’ it would have been inconceivable for an unknown, unrelated woman to approach a man in the privacy of his residence—much less a Gentile soliciting favor from a Jew. Here is an archetypal “other” from a Judean perspective.” This woman’s need was so great as to risk the rebuke we know comes from Jesus.
Jesus: “First let the children eat all they want, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and toss it to the dogs.”
Myers suggests that in modern times we would call this nothing less than a racial slur. “Doggies seems to have been a derogatory term for Gentiles or outsiders,” and there are references to it in other places in the New Testament as well in rabbinic writings. Myers goes on to say that one way to read this passage is to understand that “Jesus is being portrayed as truly human, which in this moment meant that he wasn’t immune to being caught up in ethnic and male entitlement.” He also wasn’t immune to anger. So here is a woman, who is lower in status just by her gender, and is also socially and religiously perceived as “other,” who has now been harshly put down by the very man she hoped and prayed would help heal her daughter. We have no record of what she was thinking or feeling in this moment, but in my imagination, I hear an inner dialogue that goes like this:
His eyes are burning into me; his disciples are smirking… I just want to melt into the ground.
Where is the door? I want to run, but my legs seem to be frozen!
Who does this man think he is, anyway? He’s no healer! I could smite him!
We also have no idea what was going on in Jesus’s head following his retort. But here are some of my imaginings:
Oh man, there I go again. Mouthing off in anger. Jeesh. What is the matter with me?
I’m tired! That’s what’s the matter! I have a right to some peace and quiet!
This woman has no right to be here. Who does she think she is anyway?
Her daughter probably isn’t even really that sick!
Whatever each of them was thinking, the relationship is now broken, and they both have choices to make. Will the woman flee? Or will she stay and engage? If she chooses the latter, will Jesus stay locked in his defensiveness? Or will he truly listen?
Joanna and I had similar choices to make. I was pretty sure Joanna knew our relationship had been ruptured, and I was fully aware that I was in flight mode. I knew that in order to move forward, I needed to articulate how I was feeling and I needed to have the experience of being heard. I challenged myself to dig down, beneath my hurt and panic, where I found that I actually trusted both Joanna and myself to do this work. I trusted that if we set it up well, we could repair the breach in our relationship.
In the course we took this summer from Oren Sofer, we learned that in order to really listen, one must have the intention to understand. We can hear someone express their thoughts and emotions, but without the intention to understand, we often stay trapped in our own story. With the intention to understand we are able to create trust and good will; we open up creative options for moving forward toward healing and resolution.
True listening also – and this is important – depends upon letting go, at least temporarily, of our own thoughts, views, and feelings. It requires genuine curiosity and receptivity. It requires the willingness to NOT speak, to not debate – even if one doesn’t agree at all with the version of events the other person is putting forward.
And, it requires something further: active verbal reflection of some sort. Without this piece, the speaker is often left wondering, “Was my message received? Did they really get it?” Oren used the analogy of a call being dropped… We’ve all had the experience of talking into our cell phones, only to find out after a few moments that the call has silently dropped, and there is no one on the other end. Without active reflection, it can feel to a vulnerable speaker just like this: speaking into a void.
The simplest form of active reflection is when the listener literally says back what they have heard, preferably using key words from the person’s sharing. If you feel resistance rising in you right now, know that you’re not alone! Such reflection can indeed feel very contrived. Yes, it begins that way. And, as I have worked with this form of reflection over a number of years now, I have come to see it as a muscle that strengthens with use.
I first starting learning how to do this when a family member was struggling and the stakes were high. Our family needed to engage in some deep and transformative listening, and we needed to come up to speed fast. As we practiced the form, it became easier – both to remember what the other person had said, and to grab onto key words that would really signal that they had been heard. And, like any good practice there was a sort of muscle memory that kicked in over time. We found that as soon as we began, we would all drop into an open heart space, a place of curiosity, and a desire to really know what was going on for the other. We learned, gradually, to drop our agenda. We learned that the simple act of reflection did NOT necessarily mean we agreed with one another – and that there would be time to work out those differences later, after everyone felt heard. We learned that we had great, ever-increasing capacity to feel what another person was experiencing, from their point of view.
So, after I had gathered myself, and felt more resourced, I invited Joanna into such a structured time of listening and reflection. There are many obstacles to deep listening, which we’re going to talk more about in Adult Education Hour, but perhaps as a tribute to Joanna’s willingness to really give herself to the practice, none of these became stumbling blocks. The result, for me, was that I left this first meeting calmer, knowing that we had begun the process of repair. I knew there was more work to be done, (specifically, Joanna needed to share and I reflect), but I felt safe again in the relationship. Joanna had demonstrated curiosity about my experience, and a genuine desire to understand what I was feeling – from my perspective.
Joanna: I was grateful when Pat proposed the structure for how we could address the brokenness in our relationship. I also felt knots in my stomach as I anticipated the meeting. I wanted to be open to what Pat had to say and believe we could come to a deeper understanding, but part of me also wondered if our conflict would prove to be intractable. Even with these questions, I knew Pat was committed to this process and valued our relationship, otherwise why would she be willing to share in such a vulnerable way?
Amidst my anxiety about how things would go, I made a commitment to really try to hear where Pat was coming from. I was grateful for her clear articulations both of what she valued in our relationship and in me, and also what had been painful and confusing in our disconnection. I appreciated how we held the space together and felt able to receive her words. I was also glad that I wasn’t responding in the moment, but only listening and reflecting back.
Anticipating the second meeting, I wasn’t sure at first what I would say or how my sharing would necessarily lead to resolution. Even so, I was committed to the process. In the day before the meeting I had an epiphany that I largely attribute to being open to the Spirit.
I realized that the conflict I had been feeling with Pat was not as much interpersonal as it was systemic. I realized that I had internalized a notion that there wasn’t enough space for both of us as pastors. With the knowledge that my arrival at First Mennonite had illuminated to Pat the ways she wasn’t being recognized in her role, I felt like any recognition of me was a negation of her.
The story I told myself is that I needed to downplay my pastoral role around her in order to not perpetuate her frustration about not being recognized. This story also led me to interpret things in a certain light. So in a situation where we would be planning or making decisions and she disagreed with me and suggested something else, I felt like, “Well, what do I know as a new person? So I would defer and make myself smaller. I resented this.
In my sharing with Pat I knew that I needed to name the systemic nature of the conflict and the story I had been telling myself. I felt hopeful that this realization would be freeing to both us.
I was grateful for Pat’s willingness to receive my thoughts and feelings. It felt good to have her reflect back what I was saying. When I shared the systemic nature of the conflict—that it felt like there wasn’t enough space for both of us as pastors—that resonated. Naming that dynamic negated its power and freed both us to a deeper affirmation of each other’s callings.
Pat: In returning to our story of Jesus and the Syrophonecian woman, we see how they navigated the choice point of their broken relationship. The woman gathers her courage and speaks:
Syrophonecian Woman: “Lord, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”
Ched Myers suggests, “Protocol has now been strained to the breaking point, as the woman dares to turn Jesus’s words back on him.” And Jesus lets her do it.
Jesus: “For such a reply, you may go; the demon has left your daughter.”
Jesus has allowed himself to be corrected in a way that deconstructs his male and ethnic entitlement. For the moment, he sets aside his tiredness and annoyance, and he really listens. He opens his heart to the woman’s need. He sees from her perspective the risk she has taken and the greatness of her faith. This changes everything. Transformation ripples out, like the circle of waves that are set in motion when a stone is dropped in a pool of water: transformation of the heart, transformation the mind, transformation of the personal relationship, and even transformation of the structural racial and religious relationships, which had characterized Jesus’s ministry to this point.
So what were the transformations that rippled out for Joanna and me in the process of this work of listening?
Joanna: Even though it had been difficult and I couldn’t see the way through at the beginning, I saw the healing that was possible through committing to such a process. It helped me to strengthen that muscle of listening even in the midst of tension and conflict and realize I could come out on the other side. It also allowed for the naming and debunking of the toxic dynamic that said there wasn’t enough space for both of us. Rather than believing that lie, I was freed to celebrate Pat’s gifts and my own and to see the particularity of all three of our pastoral leadership archetypes in the congregation. Sheri as pastor. Pat as priest. Myself as prophet. We needed all three and I was excited about moving forward together. I also felt a deepened connection and trust in my relationship with Pat.
Pat: Joanna’s systemic analysis was a true aha! for me. As she spoke, and I reflected, I became aware of feelings that had been running unconsciously, feelings that I was now able to name as a sort of “older sibling displacement syndrome.” For a long time, Sheri and I had been partners in ministry here at First Mennonite. Then Joanna arrived (who I fully supported by the way!) and I was – in both actual and perceived ways – displaced from my social / professional position and status. Joanna’s naming of this systemic dynamic has freed us both to forge a more equal, liberated partnership.
Another profound transformation had to do with trust. In the last decade I have lost a beloved community because they / we did not have the skills to listen deeply and repair a devastating breach of trust among us. I realized that a part of me had been waiting for this to happen at First Mennonite: a profound failure of the system to withstand conflict. But here, not only Joanna, but everyone who was involved in that initial off-the-rails meeting was willing to engage in the hard work of listening and repair. It took a year. But when it was complete, we all gathered around a table for a communion meal. We shared the pain of the conflict. We shared our learnings. And we celebrated having come through it together. My trust that communities who love each other can and will do this difficult work together was restored.
The last line of our Bible story is beautiful. About the Syrophonecian woman, Mark writes:
Mark: She went home and found her child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.
As a result of the woman’s courageous choice to stay in the relationship and speak, and as a result of Jesus’s choice to open his heart and really listen, a child is healed. For me, there is nothing more symbolically hopeful than the healing of a child. For in a child rests the future. Our future.
By practicing “Transformative Listening”, which as we have seen, requires active intention and investment from both sides, we too have an opportunity to heal not only our present, but our future. We learn about ourselves and each other, and heal the wounds of both. We free ourselves to challenge the unconscious structures of our systems. And then we are able to join together to participate more fully in creating the Kingdom of God, here and now.