My wife and I enjoy making up stories about people. We might be out for coffee, sitting on a train or walking through town. Just based on what someone is wearing or how they present themselves we imagine a whole back story to their life, relationships they have or don’t have, and what they are involved with now. We have imagined everything from a relatively ordinary individual just going about their daily lives to undercover secret agents.
Sadly, the church too often looks out at the world this way. The church imagines it already knows, it has worked people out and it has all the answers that anyone will ever need. Instead of involving itself in a fun game imagining stories the church often believes it knows best and does not take the time to listen to those it encounters.
Every village, every town and especially the world’s major cities tell thousands of stories. I’ve had the privilege of visiting a few and having time to explore and observe. There are always people hurrying around, busy with work. Others are casually ambling along, blocking the paths as they are unaware of those rushing around because they are lost in their own thoughts, taking in a new place, absorbed in sight seeing and finding everything fasinating (even those that are most mundane to the locals). There are the residents without work, avoiding homes or without homes hidden in plain sight as they crouch in doorways and linger on benches and around street corners.
Beyond the people the buildings, roads, transport, parks, trees, green spaces, signs, billboards, posters, all tell stories. Monuments remember historic events and national hero’s, street names tell of what the neighbourhoods were once known for, and cranes reaching up across the skyline like the metal giraffes of the concrete jungle tell the story of what is coming.
I recently had the opportunity to stand looking out across London from the Sky Garden. Chatting with my son we discussed the Great Fire of London that had begun in the streets immediately below us in 1666, we looked down upon the Tower of London, across to St Paul’s Cathedral and the Gherkin, and off into the distance at Wembley Stadium. Hundreds of years of history, thousands upon thousands of diverse stories as people from around the world mingle within a few square miles.
There are plenty of books telling the history and story of the places we live and move. These are great but they only tell part of the story. I recently picked up the book This is London: Life and Death in the World City by Ben Judah. In his book Judah explores the streets of London, observing and listening to the stories of its inhabitants. He shares the stories, amongst others of the Romanian’s sleeping rough and begging for change and the teacher supporting students who struggle with English and who are arranged for marriage by the time they are only 12 or 13 years old. These are the people in our towns and cities, often unseen and unheard. Very few people have time, or take time to listen.
Judah doesn’t just imagine the stories of those he observes, he immerses himself in the places they inhabit and he listens to the stories they share of their life.
The church should be a people who create space for people to tell their story, to be heard and validated. A repeated sentiment through the bible speaks of those who have eyes but do not see and ears but do not hear (Isaiah 6:10; Jeremiah 5:21; Ezekiel 12:2; Matthew 13:15; Mark 8:18; Acts 28:27; Romans 11:8). Jesus often shared stories himself, he used parables as a means of using a story to make a particular point and help people to learn. Not everyone understood what he was saying, his disciples would ask him what he meant and why he did so. In Matthew 13:15 Jesus uses words from the prophet Isaiah to explain that people will listen, but never understand, they will look but never perceive, because their hearts have grown dull, their ears hard of hearing and they have shut their eyes.
Listening is a time-consuming exercise. As a society we are losing the gift of listening and the church should be one space that offers the gift of listening to the world. If we want to overcome the virus of loneliness in our communities we need to stop and listen. Loving our neighbour involves listening to our neighbour. Loving God involves listening to God.
Sometimes the church needs to shut up and listen.