Ask any military expert: knowing when to attack is of vital importance. The ancient Romans knew this; and that is why, before any battle, they inquired of the chickens. You read that right. To discern whether or not they should execute their battle plan, the Romans asked . . . some chickens. But not just some ordinary chickens. They asked the sacred chickens. According to Roman religious practices, the will of the gods regarding an upcoming battle could be discerned by simply offering grain to a handful of sacred chickens. If the chickens ate the grain, it was a sign from the gods that conditions were favorable and that victory was nearly assured. However, if the chickens refused to eat, it was a warning that they should postpone fighting to another day.
On the morning of the Battle of Drepana (that’s right, the one in 249 BC), the Roman naval commander, Publius Claudius Pulcher, gathered up his sacred chickens to confirm that all was well. However, his chickens refused to eat. It was the worst of news. If Pulcher was going to trap the Carthaginian navy in the harbor, he had to act now. Any delay would mean that the element of surprise would be lost along with all hopes of victory. And a defeat would mean a staggering blow to his reputation. Pulcher panicked; and in a fit, he threw the sacred chickens overboard saying, “Since they do not wish to eat, let them drink!” (Now, there is a quote you can drop at your next party, especially if things are going wrong!). Unfortunately for Pulcher, he should have listened to the chickens. Even though Pulcher didn’t delay his attack, the Carthaginians escaped the harbor. And once out in open water where they could maneuver, they turned on the Romans and squeezed them between their warships and the shore. The Roman navy was decimated. By battle’s end, 93 of the 120 ships under Pulcher’s command had been captured and 20,000 men had been lost. Pulcher limped back to Rome and was immediately charged with crimes against the state. He was found guilty and banished from Rome forever, but not for treason. Instead, he was found guilty of killing the sacred chickens! Just think, if the gods willed exile as the punishment for killing a handful of chickens, what punishment must they have in store for those who work at KFC!
Thankfully, we don’t need chickens to discern God’s will for us. Instead, we have the clear Word of God. God’s will for us is to love one another (Jn. 13:34). That command entails many other commands, a few of which I list here:
- We are to be devoted to one another (Rom. 12:10).
- We are to encourage one other (1 Thess. 5:11).
- We are to bear one another’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
- We are to spur one another on to love and good deeds (Heb. 10:24).
- We are to accept one another (Rom. 15:7)
- And we are to serve one another (Gal. 5:13).
Now, some of that sounds simple (“I accept everybody!”), and some of that sounds nebulous and vague (“I encourage everybody!”). So, let’s talk about four simple skills that can put feet to all of these commands. And while these are “simple” to do, don’t make the mistake in thinking that these skills will have little impact. Hardly. In fact, here is my bottom-line commitment: if we ever hope to be God’s church, if we ever hope to experience true community, if we ever hope to find our authentic selves, then we need to do everything we can to master these four skills, even though, at first glance, they seem rather unremarkable and bland.
First, we need to master the art of listening to one another. I know, even to say that listening is one of these four skills sounds so uninspired, that you may be tempted to stop reading right now. The fact is, most of us don’t really listen to those people to whom we are speaking. Oh, we hear them, but all we are really doing is biding our time so that we can have a turn to speak. Or perhaps we are simply listening to them so that they will have to listen to us. What we aren’t doing is actually listening to their heart. And as a result, we never hear their hopes and dreams, fears and disappointments, loves and losses, moments of pride and moments of pain. And without hearing these things, we can never truly encourage them or share in their joy or sorrow. Here’s one of our gravest mistakes: we underestimate the power of listening. The theologian Paul Tillich said, “The first duty of love is to listen.” Our calling is to love one another, but that can only happen if we listen to one another and respond to what we hear appropriately. Bob Nelson said: “Just the act of listening means more than you can imagine.” And he is absolutely right.
Second, we need to master the art of asking questions. The inventor of the stethoscope once said: “Listen to your patients. They will tell you how to heal them” (quoted in Frost and Hirsch, The Shaping of Things to Come). Don’t miss that. We listen so that we may heal the other person. But to do that, we need to ask follow-up questions that enable the other person to explore what they are thinking and feeling and what is motivating them. These insights will then, hopefully, give them the courage to share them with us. We also need to ask questions to show we are engaged in the conversation and not just with the story, but also with the person behind the story. Now, “WHY” questions usually don’t prompt people to go deeper (in fact, usually they cause people to clam up!), but asking about feelings and thoughts and hopes and intentions may open some interesting doors. Ask open-ended questions that allow the person to think about their answer in more depth, rather than just giving a “yes” or “no” answer. Always have the attitude of “tell me more” and “tell me what this means to you.” And look for feelings and reactions, causes and motives, next steps and evaluations of previous steps. Bottom line: “It is not the answer that enlightens, but the question” (Eugene Ionesco).
Third, we need to master the art of being vulnerable. See, I can’t touch your heart in a conversation if I refuse to allow my own heart to be seen. I am always struck by that awful verse in James (5:16): “Confess your faults to one another.” Who does that? Who wants to do that? Who has the courage to do that? But think about a community that would be willing to be that vulnerable. What an impact that would make! Brené Brown once said:
“One of the greatest barriers to connection is the cultural importance we place on ‘going it alone.’ Somehow we’ve come to equate success with not needing anyone. Many of us are willing to extend a helping hand, but we’re very reluctant to reach out for help when we need it ourselves. It’s as if we’ve divided the world into ‘those who offer help’ and ‘those who need help.’ The truth is that we are both.”
Imagine a church where vulnerability is a visible and practiced core value. Imagine a church where everyone feels safe to be themselves. Imagine a church where no one feels afraid to share their heart. I love this quote from Eric Michael Leventhal: “We are at our most powerful the moment we no longer need to be powerful.”
Fourth, we need to master the art of communicating love, acceptance, encouragement and emotional support. How do we do that? We go the Nike route and “just do it” until it becomes natural.
Here’s the bottom line: for the church to be the church, we need to be authentic with ourselves, with God and with each other. That is the path to becoming a healing community. I know I just quoted from her, but her words are so important here. Brené Brown writes:
“Vulnerability is the birthplace of love, belonging, joy, courage, empathy, and creativity. It is the source of hope, empathy, accountability, and authenticity. If we want greater clarity in our purpose or deeper and more meaningful spiritual lives, vulnerability is the path.”
I could not agree more. If we want to be God’s church, we need to put on the twin virtues of authenticity and vulnerability. But sadly, the church oftentimes wants nothing to do with these two commodities. They are simply too scary for most churches. Here’s my advice: don’t be a sacred chicken. Instead, invest yourself in making our church a place where God’s will is clearly visible by being authentic and vulnerable. If we do, I promise, it will be clear sailing from here out.