Listening with Someone Else’s Ears

July 4th, 2019 Posted by Susan's Musings 40 comments

Do you have words that serve as a form of shorthand when used among your family and friends? Yet, heard by those not in-the-know, those words are easily misinterpreted.

As fans of Arthur Ransome’s charming book, Swallows and Amazons, our family adopted a sentence that appears early in the story. On summer holiday in the early days of the 20th century, Mrs. Walker is unsure whether to let her four children head out on a boating/camping trip in the nearby lakes. She sends a letter asking her deployed husband’s advice. The Royal Navy officer responds, “BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS IF NOT DUFFERS WON’T DROWN.”

Never for an instant did we or our children think that the father didn’t care if his children drowned. He was conveying his confidence that they were capable and responsible. However, when our thirteen-year-old boat-owning son invited a young friend to accompany him on an overnight sailing trip on Lake Washington, my husband’s use of that sentence almost sabotaged the trip. When the friend’s father came over to discuss our son’s skills and the seaworthiness of his boat, my husband blithely said, “Better drowned than duffers; if not duffers won’t drown.” Having no inkling that this was a meaningful quote rather than a callous dismissal, the father retorted rather strongly that he did actually care if his son drowned. (The boys did go and had a wonderful—and safe—time.)

I thought of this story after reading an opinion piece by a college teacher that appeared in the Wall Street Journal. Crispin Sartwell raised an interesting idea, that the inability to hear an opposing point of view and the demonization of anyone whose opinions don’t mirror one’s own is a result of the self-esteem movement. It is an idea worth discussing, but that isn’t the part of his article on which I want to focus.

In what I assume is an attempt to show balance, Mr. Sartwell opens his piece by mentioning how the knitting site Ravelry has banned anything, including knitting patterns, that suggests support for President Trump. He then cites how preacher Paula White spoke of breaking “every demonic network” working against the president in a prayer preceding the kick-off of President Trump’s re-election campaign. In other words, both those on the left and on the right believe that if you think differently than I do, you need to be silenced.

I’m going to speak very plainly  now. It is possible that you think that  I am way off base and, if so, I expect you to tell  me. Maybe I only have part of the story and you can fill in more. But, I do want to share my thoughts.

I have probably spent more time with various leaders and members of Evangelical churches than most non-Evangelicals. I include in this group not only Jews, but Catholics, the unaffiliated, atheists, members of other Protestant denominations and of other religions. My husband and I appear at dozens of Evangelical churches every year.  From my vantage point, I heard Paula White very differently from how Crispin Sartwell heard her. Let me explain.

I sometimes hear a rabbi whose views should parallel mine as we share a belief in the written and oral Torah.  Like my husband and me, he also restricts his diet to that which is kosher and like us he also  observes the Sabbath  and he conducts himself similarly to how we do in other important ways. Yet I hear him speak in a way that mortifies me. I consider his words to be a desecration of God’s name. I think his words or actions are so mistaken that they misrepresent the God I know and drive people away from wanting a relationship with Him. That is embarrassing, but it shouldn’t be shocking. No group is composed only of those who always make other members of the group proud or who reliably represent the correct path. The words may not even accurately represent the speaker’s views. 

Yet, there are other times when I agree with a Jewish religious leader’s words but cringe at his lack of awareness of how those words will sound to a crowd that has no background with which to make sense of what is being said. If he (or she) said those words to students or peers who will put them in context the words would be fine, but speaking in a format where his words will be public for even people with no background to hear is a different case.

When I read Paula White’s words, I understood her use of the words praying for the crushing of a  “demonic network” and “enemy” to refer, not to individuals who don’t support President Trump, but to evil  spiritual forces at work. I have heard words like that used when my Evangelical friends are praying for a relative who has cancer. There it is obvious that  the reference is not to an individual, but to a force with which they are grappling. If Pastor White was speaking in her church, everyone would understand the context. But she wasn’t. She was speaking at a political event.

I don’t believe that those of us who are religious should change our views or pander to those who don’t share our faith. But we should accord them respect. Retaining integrity in what one says while being aware that the crowd is diverse and of different faiths and backgrounds is a challenge that I think that we can, and must, meet.

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Marilee Holmen says:

I SO agree, Susan. Thank you for your considerate and loving stand. We all need to act in love to one another, and watching what we say, being sensitive in how we say it, can go a long way in that!

Susan Lapin says:

There is a delicate balance, Marilee, between feeling censored and unable to speak one’s true feelings in any setting because someone, somewhere will be outraged or hurt (since in our internet age really nothing can be assumed to be private) and knowing that when one is intentionally speaking to a diverse group of people, extra awareness of the audience is needed. I deplore the first and urge the second.

Carl Schleg RN, CDN, LMT, CDL says:

YOU are correct, we have allowed a very shallow and whining culture. The days of ‘Arche Bunker’ and ‘Blazing Saddles’ is all but a whisper in the wind….
With that said, not out to offend but educate when asked where I am from I simply say ‘A misplaced Coon Ass’, then explain a wild and wonderful group of people from Southern Louisiana and their history. GREAT POST as always

Susan Lapin says:

Carl, I admit I would have no idea – and be taken aback – if you answered that if I asked where you are from. I don’t think this article was whining at all, just misunderstanding (I think) what was said.

bob aronson says:

I cringe every time I see an article or listen to a video or podcast by a “modern jewish rabbi” that always is prefaced with “As a Jew” or “from a Jewish perspective”… and equally a “pastor” from the “christian left”….

Susan Lapin says:

I think we all misunderstand cultures that we only hear about rather than have some familiarity with, Bob.

bob aronson says:

i am familiar with them- i used to be in that culture!….it was reading your husband’s “Toward Tradition” mailings in the 90s did i “convert”…

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Yep, me too, Bob!

bob aronson says:

(not meant for publication!)
thank you Teacher …… your prayers…

Rabbi Daniel Lapin says:

Count upon them, Bob.
And efficaciously too!

Lisa says:

Interesting. There has always been a debate whether churches and politics should be mixing. As if somehow the bible can never pertain to politics.

I’ve been around churches as a child. Paula White’s manner of praying and speaking are just so common and predictable. She is not known to speak unkindly to people, or even speak unkindly about people in public. She’s not known to be political, as far as I know. Her association with Trump has been established for decades, long before they were both cast within the political arena.
I understand the need for any spiritual person to pray for the peace, strength and wisdom of the White House regardless of opinion. I just don’t know if I can explain such spiritual things to people who have no clues about the spiritual world.

Susan Lapin says:

Lisa, I know that you know that my husband and I believe as he says, that politics is nothing but the practical application of your most deeply held values. From the founding of the United States when pastors left the pulpit to go to the Revolutionary War (and earlier), this country’s politics have been intertwined with religion. My point is that those of us who are religious need to think what words we use that may have significance only to those who share our culture.

Gus Kane says:

Susan, I agree with you. That was not to strong at all.
I would like to offer a little more on God’s way more so than most peoples ways. I believe that 70 to 80 percent of the human population Do Not follow God’s word the way they should. In listening to these people’s ways and thoughts may pull you under and away from a stronger relationship with our Father God. We have to be very very careful in this respect as you stated in hearing and trying to understand what people have to say. I feel these times are a lot like Noah’s times.
In these times if you walk too softly you may miss the boat if you know what I mean. We can not hold our selves back because most people want what they want and not what God wants. This is the times we need to get on the boat.
Paula has known Trump for the past 17 years. God connected them together as part of His plan 17 years ago. Trump has been following her ministry for that long. Trump talks a different language than most but his heart and soul is with God, maybe not perfect but he is on the boat. Trump unlike most people has every demon in the world coming at him trying to stop him. He needs strong prayers more than anyone in these times. Godly people know this. People today either have there eyes open to see or closed and only see what they want to see sad as it maybe. Hope this was not too strong.

Susan Lapin says:

Gus, I hope I understand what you are writing. I agree that Donald Trump needs all the spiritual help he can get and that Paula White’s prayers are heart-felt and correct for her to offer. I am only questioning where and when she offered them.

Joanne says:

I connect with Gus’ comment. I also think we need to consider that if Paula White previously asked God to help her with the correct prayer, she said exactly what God wanted her to say! His ways are far above our ways. Also Paula could have softened her prayer and the left still could have been offended by it. There are multiple evil forces out there and this might be some people’s first exposure to such ideas. Perhaps these very words will spark more believers in God and Jesus to pray for Trump in this specific way of protecting him from evil forces. I can relate to Susan’s comments about timing and wording, but I can also see that God could have a higher purpose for her words.

Susan Lapin says:

Joanne, I appreciate your input but I’m not sure I got my whole point across very well. I wasn’t speaking of the extreme Left being offended because they would be offended by a ‘good morning.’ I’m talking about open-minded people who hear the words as they sound if you don’t have a background and very reasonably decide that the words are full of hatred. That is what they sound like. Since this is a political rally which is attempting to attract people, that doesn’t seem like the right place for these words, IMO. I understand (I think) that you feel that a Higher Authority was directing her speech.

GUS says:

Susan, sorry it was a bit hard to see where I was going with my answer.
What I wanted to say is when we try to watch or control what we say, we become someone we are not and that is what makes us special. Satan has been around for millions of years, much smarter than us. He is trying to strip away or take away everything we are. We need to be careful not to allow Satan to change us by limiting what we can say or do.
Paula has been someone that Trump can confine in when things get confusing and needs help seeing more clearly in the rami of spiral or Godly guidance. No different than what you and Daniel or doing. Yes what she has said is strong because she sees what he is up against. Just as you would for your family member were in a similar manner. Not in the same words as she may have used but words you feel that you needed to use. Also remember Jonathan Cahn’s parallel of Trump and Israel’s military leader Cyrus that is much like Trump. Neither used language that was or is politically correct. They are who they are. So all in all God will use us the way we are, whether some people like it or not. Don’t let Satan put you in a closet from being afraid of the real way you feel when it comes to Gods work. That just might be the very words someone needs to hear.
I apologize for this being so long. For some reason I really feel I needed to make this point.

Susan Lapin says:

Gus, Is there a middle ground between the squelching of speech that the extreme left demands, often through the use of the concept of political correctness, and showing decent, human sensitivity to the idea that not everyone has exactly the same background that we do? I abhor the first and think that God demands the second from us. For example, one Biblical idea is that we need to show extra sensitivity in what we say to a widow or orphan. A phrase that might be just fine to say to a married friend, such as, “Thank God my husband was there when the power blew,” might be considered wrong if said to a widow. I don’t think the Leftist extreme needs to push us to say that we can be as insensitive and unaware of who’s listening to us as we want. Just like in my boat story – my husband erred in assuming that the friend’s father would take the sentence in the way it was meant. That wasn’t the father being overly sensitive – he simply didn’t have the context. And sometimes when religious people speak, we can use language and forget that not everyone around us has the context.

Regina says:

Let us call the election of Donald Trump for what it is, a Judgment Call on the United States. We are a Country founded on some Godly principals. Therefore we know God and many have turned away from Him. Paula’s White relationship with Trump should be to Minister God’s uncompromised Word to President Trump and not hers. Praying for Truth, Justice and Righteousness In his decision making. Praising God for His Mercy and Calling out to God to help Heal our country would be a great start toward removing evil forces, without ever speaking those Words in public. Whoever offers Praise Glorifies God, according to Scripture.

JasB says:

In this time of networked eclectic forms of communication it seems even the most privately mumbled comment can “go viral” in a heartbeat and become totally unrelated to its intent to those to whom it was not aimed. Especially in the current charged atmosphere where ill intent is assumed, hate is sought to fuel outrage, and victimization is a treasured status our “freedom of speech” becomes less free. Thoughtfulness is now a 400 level study that is only attained by grinding self-discipline. We may share a common language but we no longer share a common culture and that makes our understanding of our own words suspect in the salad bowl of the masses. When you then sprinkle in the croutons of outright lies that are permitted (and de jour) for our politicians and MSM outlets we seem to be erecting another tower of Babel. Will we retreat to our own small, safe(?) enclaves where we find respite from what used to be civilization?

Susan Lapin says:

Jas, I agree that even private communication has become fair game and I don’t want speech to be suppressed (as it was/is in Socialist and Communist countries) so that we stop communicating. But this prayer was offered before a political rally. It wasn’t a case of someone sneaking into a private event and illegitimately sharing something. I think it important to know how that type of prayer is misunderstood, not by those looking to take offense but simply by those not of the same culture.

Brian F. Tucker says:

Dear Susan,
Wow this missive covers so much territory that it is hard to know where to start and where to end. However I will try to be brief.
If our students were being real history they might when grown remember the words of Patrick Henry ” I may not agree with what you say. But I’ll defend to the death your right to say it’. When the bible says “Do good to your enemy it will heap ashes upon his head”. I think it is really saying not that it burn him but that it might cause him to rethink his position and perhaps change his opinion of you.
We attend a non-denominational church that has no doctrinal bylaws that must be followed. All you have to do is believe. Being religious is on thing being spiritual is another. That does not mean we are perfect. But that God loves all his creation and wants to forgive us. Oops, look who’s preaching to the preacher.
Having rambled on much to long. Let me just say that knowing my ignorance about many things, I really do appreciate the efforts of you and the Rabbi teaching what the bible really says in Hebrew and how the world really works.
With all best wishes,

Susan Lapin says:

Thanks for your appreciation of our work, Brian. I am all in favor of knowing history but I didn’t mean to speak about that. What I was focusing on wasn’t the right to say things whether or not others find them offensive, but rather in knowing how to say things when we want others to listen to us. If our focus is on our audience, we need to use words that they understand even if in another venue we might prefer using a specialized vocabulary.

Paul Edwards says:

My son and I saw a street preacher loudly preaching (as no one listened or paid much attention) yesterday and my son asked why he was doing it. I was reluctant to judge, but I did say that it’s not the approach I would take.

As is his bent these days, I picked up and read Jeremiah 11:6 this morning to discover there is some degree of historical precedent to people of God being compelled to loudly proclaim the truth in the public square.

I would be far less vocal and loud than that man, but I don’t know that either of us would be wrong, if in fact the Spirit of God told both of us to proclaim Him to humanity in the ways each of us do.

Susan Lapin says:

Paul, the tussle between “work behind the scenes” and “get out on the streets and yell” is one that has occurred frequently in history and not only among pastors. Both have their place and sometimes it is difficult to know which is needed right now. My argument would be that if feels called upon to speak in the public, he should (and maybe he does-I don’t know this man) use language that can be understood by those who are hearing his words.

Susan, you have made an accurate observation. I deal with this every day down here in Texas. We have Pastors becoming politically involved much like the ones during the American Revolution. I welcome their participation as a breath of fresh air. However, it sometimes feels like letting a five-year old help you in the kitchen. The child’s enthusiasm is great, but her skill level needs work. It is a challenge to try to explain to a Pastor with 25 years experience that he needs new skills not in his current tool box.

Susan Lapin says:

That is a bit challenge, Gerry!

Ben Thrasher says:

I recently discovered if I say something capitalist (example: I warned family about a scam, and was made fun of by a relative for supporting capitalism as a Christian; how dare a Christian judge and not support bad business and try to create inequality). More so, I’ve gathered saying or doing anything coming across as not a pushover gets verses thrown at me telling me to give away everything, not judge, Jesus was a socialist, the rich (Job) need punished, along with foolish hypocrite type name calling. I try to explain with more verses and am sometimes also accussed of taking them out context for my benefit. I think I make some progress in explaining with some, but I wonder if I’m more of an embarrassment to God as accused. I have people tell me the church needs to not address stealing, murder, homosexuality, many other issues, and church needs to stay out of government (including in our voting). I feel like a few pushover churches encouraging sin in the news, and people not thinking enough through the pictures and memes (really taking verses out of context) makes for a lot of misunderstood sensitive subjects. I frequently feel helpless when certain people question me. (It’s like a have a sign that says, “anything I say is a lie since I have both a bible and a gun!” even though I never mention guns.) It seems like it’s getting more offensive to mention sin being wrong than commit sin to many. I now can’t say murder is wrong without offending someone. I’m afraid this has to do with many accusations I saw made against a coworker regarding Jesus (acknowledging God’s existance really) being a cult. Is this all that far off from how Hitler justified what he did? Is this getting worse or am I just now noticing this?

Susan Lapin says:

Ben, I’m going to say the same thing to you and then copy it in reply to Gus. Is there a middle ground between the squelching of speech that the extreme left demands, often through the use of the concept of political correctness, and showing decent, human sensitivity to the idea that not everyone has exactly the same background that we do? I abhor the first and think that God demands the second from us. For example, one Biblical idea is that we need to show extra sensitivity in what we say to a widow or orphan. A phrase that might be just fine to say to a married friend, such as, “Thank God my husband was there when the power blew,” might be considered wrong if said to a widow. I don’t think the Leftist extreme needs to push us to say that we can be as insensitive and unaware of who’s listening to us as we want. Just like in my boat story – my husband erred in assuming that the friend’s father would take the sentence in the way it was meant. That wasn’t the father being overly sensitive – he simply didn’t have the context. And sometimes when religious people speak, we can use language and forget that not everyone around us has the context.

bob aronson says:

the jewish and christian left conflates normalizing sin with happiness….”live and let live”….

Matt says:

“In other words, both those on the left and on the right believe that if you think differently than I do, you need to be silenced. ”

Equating Left and Right. I see this all the time. The middle likes to do this in order to show its superiority. It stands against the Left and the Right. But by employing the key tool of the Left, equality, the middle does not give us confidence about anything. If bricks are on the Left and stones are on the Right, what can exist in the middle? There is no middle. There is only confusion.

Susan Lapin says:

Matt, I see this done all the time and I agree with you that it is used incorrectly much of the time. If 90% of violence is from one group and 10% from another, it is spoken about as if it’s 50-50. In the article I cite, I don’t think that is what the author was doing. And I’ve seen hurt comments about certain Christian language from regular, normal people who are not looking to be offended or close-minded which suggested the same thing to me. That is why I wrote this piece. I did ask for feedback (which I always welcome) and I see that many disagree with me.

Mary says:

I read your posting yesterday when you had only the one comment. I didn’t have time to post yesterday, but I understood what you were saying.
There is a saying, “less is more.”
The prayer could have been modified so as to achieve the intended results without anyone questioning her intent or offending those who are not comfortable with her rhetoric.

And it is possible to do that and still remain authentic to yourself.

I know this is possible as for years, I was misunderstood when I spoke out on any subject.
As someone mentioned, I should be allowed to express myself however I feel called. That’s true to a point.

But, just as any good book is edited before publication, so too must we edit our spoken words depending on the person or persons we are speaking to, if we do not want to be misunderstood.

I learned how to choose my words with care, and since I began doing that years ago, I have fewer misunderstandings and more people sharing their thoughts with me.

They may come from an entirely different background than me, but because my words are not threatening to them, they listen to me.

As we converse, our differences may come out, but because I used nonthreatening words, we both walk away having learned something new. Perhaps even the beginning of a friendship.

I read lots of words about labels in your comments. I don’t believe in labels. We’re all children of God. There is no need for any other label.

I will say I made a previous comment to you, and you misunderstood where I was coming from.
I hope I did better this time!

Susan Lapin says:

I think you wrote this beautifully, Mary, and you are making a wonderful point. Sometimes, we focus so much on what we want to say rather than the result we want to achieve. You’ve learned to be more effective by keeping your goal in mind. I’m sorry I misunderstood you earlier.

Kevin B. says:

Jesus often told parables and followed them by saying: (Luke 8:8 ) “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” It always seemed to imply that some hearers wouldn’t get the message. Somehow they were not able to understand yet. He seemed okay with that. I guess I’ve felt that way at times too, that is, that a percentage aren’t ready to hear what your are saying. That there is nothing wrong or unclear about your message, they just cant yet hear it or understand it.

Susan Lapin says:

Kevin, I hear what you are saying and, certainly, all of us at various times are unable to hear certain messages that we are ready to absorb at another time. But I think one of the points of parables is to speak in a language that people can understand. Yes, some people won’t be able to hear no matter how you speak. That does not reduce the onus to speak in ways that can be heard.

Kevin B. says:

Absolutely. And I love the clarity and candor with which you and Father Lapin speak. Sometimes your truth telling gets me (ouch my toes), but O how helpful it is. There’s only been one other spiritual person in my life that speaks truth like you both do. He is dead now, and I miss him dearly. But often when reading your posts and answers to questions, I think, That’s what Charles would say! Blessings!

Susan Lapin says:

We are honored, Kevin.

Steve Vasquez says:

Dear Susan,
Looks like your thoughts produced even more thoughts of response. Great discussion.
Nevertheless, I agree wholeheartedly with your words, “Retaining integrity in what one says while being aware that the crowd is diverse and of different faiths and backgrounds is a challenge that I think that we can, and must, meet.”
I certainly take this into consideration each time I speak publicly.
Thank you for your thoughts.

Susan Lapin says:

I can only imagine that your speaking reaches more people by taking this into account, Steve.

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