I have a place I like to gather. It doesn’t serve food or even coffee. It is just a place to gather for people that I have met along the way. Last count there were 2, 294 people that have visited or stopped by my little gathering place. I’ve had this place for well over a decade. There are times when I just want to stop going there and other times there is no place I would rather be.
Usually before I head off to work, I stop by and share something like photos of my grandchildren or announcements of a future events. With the amount of people that stop here, it is usually a good place to search for concert tickets or get information about what is happening in the world. But, almost every day, I like to pose a question to the group. People ask questions for different reasons–I ask because I am trying to learn.
Often the question is related to politics or current events, but lately topics have swirled about racism, church, and religious deconstruction — safe, easy topics, right? I try to pose questions in a provocative way so that people will respond and interact with the question. One of my favorite ways to learn is to listen to a couple of my wise friends discuss and even debate a topic.
I can tell when I ask a good question, because after a moment of silence people begin to speak up. Some just indicate that they like what I said, where the more demonstrative might say they love it and others just have to give me their opinion right away – “just so you know.” For the most part, these friends of mine are fairly articulate and supportive. They genuinely want to discuss the issue and give good feedback. Most times, the conversation is productive.
But, let’s just suppose the question was about the viability of organized religion. Then, I can be assured that someone I will call “the guy under the table” pops out of nowhere and says something like, “Karl, I’m sorry you don’t believe in God anymore” or “What has happened to you–I’m concerned about you.” Coming from a fundamentalist background, I understand this mindset, so I try to be understanding when people are trying to save me.
But, there is another type of person that always shows up. Let’s just call them the terrorists. They really don’t want to have a conversation; they mainly just want to point out how stupid I am or put me in a box like libtard or whatever fits their mantra for the day. These people have to be counseled to take it easy. We are not in a war–this is just a discussion. If they persist, I sometimes must take them off the guest list or block them from visiting.
I really hope that all types of people will stop by, but along with the good comes the annoying. There is the coach type that seem to have to question my question or pronounce some type of judgment on the discussion instead of participating in the conversation. I usually remind them that they are welcome to start their own discussions, but please don’t sabotage what I am trying to do–I have specific reasons for asking these questions.
Before leaving for work, I sometimes step back and just watch these people discussing the question. It makes me feel good. I determine to stop back in over lunch and see what they decided. Often, when I return at lunch time, the conversation is still going. I notice some groups are having a spirited discussion and another is quietly discussing the issue. A twinge of fear runs through me because I do not want any negative to come out of this. I try to notice bits of the conversation and comment before I rush back off to work.
After work, I check in again. Many times, people are waiting to ask me a question and other times they have ventured off into other issues — but that’s okay, right? Discussion is always good, unless you are like the person in the corner pummeling someone with accusations and another wondering what they have gotten into. After I break up a couple of fights and occasionally ask someone to leave, I try to give my input on some of the discussion that I have heard. A few people thank me for hosting the discussion, a few curse me, and others just quietly disperse.
When the topic is good, it can continue into the night. I feel a satisfaction that maybe we have taken a small step toward awareness of an issue or learned some compassion for an issue we didn’t previously care about. But other days I wonder why I even bother.
I didn’t even mention, the people that watch from a distance, only to pop in when they smell blood and pile on with condemnation. Unfortunately, these are also almost always religious people. I recognize the people that have been hurt by institutions like religion and I try to be sensitive when they timidly enter my space. Sometimes a well-meaning know-it-all will storm in and proclaim some passive aggressive type of pseudo-judgment and storm back out. I want so bad for this person to join the conversation-not to prove them wrong, but to show them love.
I occasionally consider just abandoning this practice, because sometimes is seems like a waste of time. Other times, it is so rewarding, I just want to keep asking more questions. It’s like most things in life. When a struggle is required to make something good, it is a good indicator that it is worth doing. And when people are involved, things are usually messier than we would like–people are complicated, ideas and concepts are nuanced and communication has always been one of our greatest challenges as humans.
I hope we are learning to be better and I hope you stop by and contribute to the conversation…
Karl Forehand is a former pastor, podcaster, and award-winning author. His books include Apparent Faith: What Fatherhood Taught Me About the Father’s Heart and the soon-to-be released Tea Shop. He is the creator of The Desert Sanctuary and Too Many Podcasters podcasts. He is married to his wife Laura of 32 years and has one dog named Winston. His three children are grown and are beginning to multiply!