Open minds

I never have far from my mind a certain legislator who served in the South Dakota House and later the Senate in the late 1970s and early ‘80s. Marvis Hogen was among his many walks of life a rancher and hardware store owner from Kadoka. And Marvis will long be remembered especially among those in the news media who covered him during his legislative tenure because Marvis was extremely quotable. He had a real knack for talking in sound bites – that is, he could very succinctly make his point. But in addition to that, he would use illustrations that captured the imagination of everyone who heard him regardless of whether they agreed with him politically or not. He was, in short, a journalist’s dream. Whenever a writer was looking for a snappy lead for a story, he or she was guaranteed that there would be found a great quote in Marvis Hogen.

Marvis Hogen, about 1996

Marvis Hogen, about 1996

When it came time for Marvis’ funeral a number of years ago, people laughed and cried as Marvis was quoted at length with a re-telling of many of his stories. But there was one quote in particular that Marvis said over and over again to the point that when it was quoted at his funeral, the guests there could be seen moving their lips along with the speaker. You see, whenever Marvis was having a particularly fine day, whenever he achieved a high point in the legislative session, whenever he had a particularly successful year in the hardware business, whenever the ranch was blessed with just the right amount of rain and the longhorn cattle were content, Marvis would be heard to proclaim, “It just proves it! God IS a Norwegian, Lutheran, Republican.”

There are those of us who may agree with Marvis on all counts. I would dare to suggest, however, that most would disagree with him on at least one if not all of those.

But the irony of Marvis’ convictions is that, first, he had a sense of humor about them, and, second, he respected the opinions of those with whom he disagreed. He was inquisitive to a fault, asking complete strangers and colleagues alike what they believed about this or that. In fact, he once almost started an international incident in a pub somewhere in Great Britain when he struck up a conversation with a local on a subject of some political concern. Marvis was just asking what the fellow believed and offering an alternative viewpoint. Marvis’ friends got him out of the pub before punches were thrown.

Now, Marvis never stopped believing in his Norwegian, Lutheran, Republican roots and that was important because Marvis, as we all do, craved an inimitability with which he was comfortable, with which he could identify and which would identify him to others.

We all need a kind of identity with which we find some comfort, some stability in a world that seems to me to be anything but. Yet we also have to acknowledge that there is a possibility, a reality that we might be wrong about this issue or that belief. We must be open to hearing others’ opinions and inviting new and different people into our sphere of influence.

In one of the very first churches I served, there were perhaps 25 people who would gather for worship when I first arrived. Within a year, the numbers of worshippers had climbed to around 100. Not everyone joined the church. Not everyone was a member. But many of those 100 took part in activities ranging from studies to potlucks to bazaars. For the most part, the folks attending the church were happy if not ecstatic (I was ecstatic). But there were moments of concern and I would see that concern on some faces.

One Sunday morning during the fellowship time after worship, the increasingly growing crowd in the basement was sharing coffee and bringing one another up to date on what was going on in their lives. I remember looking at several of my original 25 folks who had found their usual spots at their usual table. One of the women there had a look of apprehension on her face. “Hazel,” I said, “is there something troubling you?” Without hesitation, Hazel motioned off to the other side of the room and said, “I don’t know anyone anymore. I don’t know their people.”

“I don’t know their people.” Hazel wasn’t angry about the changes in her community. Hazel was scared. Having to learn new names and then probably no longer being able to associate those names with generations of names she already knew was almost an overwhelming consideration for her. She was probably well into her 80s. New people and new ideas can be scary.

I read this week that former late-night talk show host David Letterman gave an interview to a news organization in his home state of Indiana. He was mulling over what his retirement meant after 33 years in the business. He said he felt it was like ice melting out from under him. Letterman is in his late 60s.

donkey and elephantBut here’s what ticks me off. It’s not just older people who have a difficult time with change. In my work in the church, I’d say there is a stubbornness in all age levels about change and differing opinions on it or even listening to the possibility that there may be other valid opinions. Outside of the church in the “real world,” it’s no different. We have become so entrenched in what we believe is right that incivility is the rule of the day. Whether the topic is religion or politics, it’s just not safe anymore to even honestly inquire about how someone feels on a given topic. I can’t even get a straight answer from someone who lives in our rural township about her opinions on a proposed rock quarry. “Politics. I’m not going to get into that. It’s all politics.” Well, fine, but I’m asking her to give me her opinion which might help me shape my own opinion on that subject. On the other hand, there are those who can’t wait to shove their opinions down my throat without care for my own.

I want to hear everyone’s opinions. But I want everyone else to be open to hearing mine.

That’s the way I was raised, I guess, surrounded by classmates who engaged in wide-ranging discussions on religion and current affairs. We had our debates, but few of our talks degenerated into the venom so apparent in conversations today. We were never hateful toward one another when we disagreed.

When we consider whether God is a Norwegian, Lutheran, Republican, what we must best do is take those three delineations out and put blanks in their places. Then each one of us can fill in the blank as best we believe, yet with the assertion that God is really none of those things but in the midst all of those things whether we like it or not. What God is is love. And our relationship with one another depends on our willingness to at once hold fast to what we believe and yet believe that to what we hold fast is subject to both affirmation and admonition. It is in the context of God’s love that we can best do that for one another. But we have to be open to the possibility that somebody else may be right and we might be wrong. That’s scary. Like ice melting underneath us.

“You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger….” — Job 1:19


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