I was in my mid-twenties, a young mother and wife. Someone I cared about very deeply was struggling with difficult changes in her life. I knew what had happened, and I had a lot to say about it.
So I did. I told her what was obvious to me; that there was a right way of living to please God, and that there was a wrong way. Her choices indicated that she was headed in the opposite direction of good.
I loved her, and I told her so. And I shared with her that I would support her, and pray for her, and that she needed to do the right thing, which - at that particular moment - she was not.
One line is clear in my memory; I said to her, "You know God doesn't want this for you. God hates this. It says so in the Bible."
Truth be told, my intentions were good and my reasoning was solid. I stood on a firm foundation. I was, technically, right.
But I continued to talk, and talk, and talk, until finally she lost her patience with me. I remember her fury, when she said, "Do you want to know what's really going on here? Do you really want to know why?"
And then she told me her truth. She honored me, because she was completely, devastatingly honest. It was ugly and shameful and awful and embarrassing.
It was her truth.
And then I shut up.
I quit tossing around Bible verses. I stopped trying to persuade. Thoughts of "fixing" her went out the window. I shut my mouth and heard her story, and it was far more complicated than I ever imagined. I really, truly heard her.
"Lead with your ears; follow up with your tongue." James 1.19
She told me her story; she shared her pain and her shame. And then I saw her. The compassion I thought I expressed was nothing compared to the authentic experience of seeing and hearing her truth - which was not her position or her passion, but the very real story of what happened in her life.
And that changed everything.
Our relationship continues to this day. In the years that have come and gone, I have not always agreed with choices she has made. But neither my theology - nor my humanity - insist that I agree with her; only that I love her.
And I do.
/ / /
That moment was definitive in my life, in ways far beyond my personal relationship with this woman. I learned a great deal, in that moment and in the years since, about the devastating effects of hidden shame and secrets. There's a backstory to pretty much everything we do and say and think and believe in this life. That popular quote rings true; "Be kind, for everyone you know is fighting a hard battle."
It doesn't require Bible quotes or definitive demarcation of right and wrong to love someone. It simply takes honestly and a willingness both to tell and hear and tell our stories. Compassion actually takes root and grows quite rapidly when we are slow and speak and quick to listen.
I think we should love first, with integrity. Love that is authentic means we work to build trust and then we sit across the table and listen. Afterwards, we can agree to disagree. Or give guidance and encouragement, speak truth and wisdom - because we've earned the right to do so.
I wish I could say I've done this consistently ever since. I have not. I have agendas and attitudes and opinions and I have certainly shared them at inopportune times. I've stated my case in order to win an argument or two.
But every time - every time - I follow that blatant, obvious encouragement to be slow to speak and quick to listen, the deepest part of my soul knows that this is, indeed, the key to loving your neighbor.
It's obvious. The Bible says so.
Try it this weekend: Treat your kids this way. Your spouse. Your crazy uncle. Your weird neighbors. The person at work who drives you crazy. The acquaintance on the other side of the political spectrum.
Invest time. Build trust. Listen.
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. - James 1.19