Last Sunday we picked up part two of our teaching conversation, How To Talk About Elephants. This is where we embrace the big topics, the questions that define our times, the difficult issues that often the Church has been afraid to approach openly and bravely. We want to be a church that dares to talk about the kind of things that often you don’t talk about in church. But we recognize that before we have that conversation, first we need to have another. Before we talk about the elephants in the room, first we need make sure we’re all talking about the same thing.
There is an ancient Eastern story about a group of blind men tasked to describe an elephant. They each touch a different part – the trunk, the tusks, the hide, the tail – and each of them comes out giving an entirely different description of what an elephant looks like. Of course, the penetrating wisdom of the story is that it is possible for people to be talking about exactly the same thing without talking about the same thing at all.
The reality is that before we talk about the big issues, we first have to recognize that maybe we’re not all talking about the same thing. Though each of us has our own idea as to what we think the elephant in the room is, it’s a healthy practice in humility to remember that the person next to us may not see the same thing we do.
Ask one person, and maybe the most pressing issue that the church needs to address is sexual identity. Ask the next person, and maybe the issue is money, greed, consumption. Ask another and it’s politics, the uncertain and fractured political climate of the world, that the church desperately needs to speak to.
Which goes to show that maybe the bigger problem we have to face is that dealing with issues is often a safeguard we hide behind so that we don’t have to do the much harder work of dealing with people. At the end of the day, the elephant is not an issue that needs to be solved but a person that needs to be loved. It is a face, a storyline, a history. It is a human being, in all their complexity and uniqueness. And it is a great disservice to God’s Image when we treat people as issues to be solved instead of lives to be embraced.
That’s why the first thing we need to do, the groundwork that needs to be laid, is to learn how to talk. Before we put a stake in the ground on Westside’s stance on the big issues, whatever those issues may be, we first have to commit to being the kind of community that seeks to respond as Jesus does.
We can be placard Christians, yelling things over the top of sandwich boards. Or we can go the other way: become sterile old saints whose uncompromising commitment to niceness leaves us afraid to approach the wrong we see in the world and in ourselves.
Or maybe, just maybe, we can become the kind of people who give the world a better story.
We can teach the world what it looks like to embrace everyone, the hurt and the hypocrites, and to walk together toward the grace of Jesus. We can show the world a community that refuses to throw one more ‘stance’ into the tangle of hostile opinion, that refuses to pick up its rocks and fight on the world’s terms, but instead wants to stand on the side of the line closest to Jesus, because the line Jesus draws in the sand is not the choice between grace or truth, but the choice between pointing at the issue or embracing the person.
And who knows – if we start on that side of the line, we might just find the grace and the truth to learn how to talk about elephants.