Communication Matters

The other day, I spotted a fantastic story making its rounds on Facebook, and I posted it to my personal site:

An African tribe does the most beautiful thing.

When someone does something hurtful and wrong, they take the person to the center of town, and the entire tribe comes and surrounds him.

For two days they’ll tell the man every good thing he has ever done.

The tribe believes that every human being comes into the world as Good, each of us desiring safety, love, peace, happiness.

But sometimes in the pursuit of those things people make mistakes. The community sees misdeeds as a cry for help.

They band together for the sake of their fellow man to hold him up, to reconnect him with his true Nature, to remind him who he really is, until he fully remembers the truth from which he’d temporarily been disconnected:


I posted this story to my site, and one after the other, friends indicated they “liked it.” Some even posted it to their own site. (So much of Facebook, after all, is like stamp collecting.) But then I saw a comment someone had made, which struck me as important: “Is this true?” A fair comment, since the Internet is the Internet, information of all sorts of quality lurks on it, therefore caveat emptor, “buyer beware.”

“Is this true?” Perhaps it sounds too good to be true. Are there in fact people who, when faced with wrongdoing, do a most beautiful thing and take the time to literally surround the wrongdoer and tell him every good thing he has done, to reconnect him with his true nature? Is this true?

The question reminds me of another.

The time is Before Facebook, BF. The situation is not virtual but real. I am at Pathways Church, the congregation I planted in Dallas/Fort Worth, and part of the planting process was developing our system of covenant groups. We started covenant groups before we started our Sunday worship service. At any rate, I’m leading one of the small groups, which happens to be for families with small children. The group meeting started out with a meal and then a short worship, and that part was for everyone. Then the kids went off to play, supervised by a sitter, and the parents and I went on to share an hour together of relationship building and spiritual reflection.

It was during the spiritual reflection time that I shared this story, from one of my all-time favorite books, Zen Flesh, Zen Bones:

Ryokan, a Zen master, lived the simplest kind of life in a little hut at the foot of a mountain. One evening a thief visited the hut only to discover there was nothing in it to steal.

Ryokan returned and caught him. “You may have come a long way to visit me,” he told the prowler, “and you should not return emptyhanded. Please take my clothes as a gift.”

The thief was bewildered. He took the clothes and slunk away.

Ryokan sat naked, watching the moon. “Poor fellow,” he mused, “I wish I could give him this beautiful moon.”

The folks and I in the covenant group circle had been talking about communication, how it’s about the creation and expression of meaning, the meaning that makes up our lives. We were talking about how it is that what we say and how we say it builds our lives and builds our world, moment by moment, one moment at a time. And so, the example of Zen master Ryokan. How he talked to the thief. How he received him as though he were an honored guest. How we might do that in our own lives, when a thief of one kind or another shatters the calm.


This is when I heard the question. From one of the fathers in the group, who looked exhausted, who looked like he’d been dealing with his own kind of thief. “Is this true?” It just sounded too good to be true. Maybe possible for Zen masters like Ryokan (assuming Ryokan even existed) but as for regular folks? IMpossible.

And I get that. I understand that skepticism. Over and over again, my own life teaches me how hard it is to respond to the thief as an honored guest and, in this way, create a moment of pure grace and beauty.

Here’s how it did this most recently. Yesterday at the playground build. Everything was going great. Amazingly, a day of no rain—thank you Buddha! Then there was the tireless dedication of your administrative staff here at UUCA, working behind the scenes in getting the word out, answering questions, setting up childcare, planning for the build, communicating with our awesome coordinator-on-the-ground Bailey Pope, ordering the playground equipment and mulch, tracking deliveries, staying calm when the company says that a piece of equipment is “out there somewhere” but is “definitely on its way,” staying calm, staying calm, getting everything ready…. A lot of people don’t see what goes on behind the scenes but I see it, and before I go any further, let’s give our administrative staff a round of applause.

That’s the behind-the-scenes flurry of activity. Then there’s all the people who showed up. 8:30am and Bailey Pope with his daughter Carly are there. He’s used to directing “pop-up” builds with the Mad Housers, a non-profit group dedicated to building living structures for homeless folks. His sleeves are all rolled up, he’s ready to go. 9am and things get moving. Grier Page is out there with his son working on a slide which is to be embedded in the earth—it’s very cool. Jason Delaney and Amelia Shenstone are constructing one part of the playhouse structure, while a dozen or so others are hard at work on the other. Meanwhile I’m working up a sweat with a bunch of others putting together the benches. Jean Woodall is partnered with me, and we’re studying the instruction manual which looks like it’s written in mystical Hebrew. Think IKEA times 50. At one point Jay Beech (who happens to have a Ph.D. in engineering) comes our way and yay! we are saved. There are just so many other folks I could name. It was great. Great energy. Great productivity. People taking care of their spiritual home.

But now here’s the story. Besides being one of the workers, and just being present, my job was ordering the pizza. My big task. Kelly Schwartz, another one of our awesome UUCA staffers, had prepared things beautifully. She’d left me an instruction sheet in my box at work. How many pizzas to order. Whom to call. Call an hour ahead if you want the pizza delivered at noon. Detail stuff like this. A cheat sheet crafted lovingly and with (perhaps) gentle concern that your Senior Minister may be really good at some things but needs a tad bit of support with some other things.

So I order the pizza. 13 of them. Then back to work for an hour, until 12, when I note happily that the pizzas should be arriving any moment. Our Board leaders are there in the kitchen, Joetta Prost and June Lester, laying out the plates and utensils and drinks and salad and scrumptious leftovers from one of our fellowship group parties the night before. Getting ready for the onslaught of hungry volunteers who’ve been out there working up a sweat all morning digging, hammering, drilling, lifting, and more.

But now it’s 12:15. I call the pizza joint. Where’s my 13 pizzas? They were supposed to be here 15 minutes ago! The dispatcher, Eric, sleepily tells me that they are on the way. I want him to sound more concerned. But no. He tells me calmly that one of their drivers didn’t show up, and the driver with our pizzas has several other big deliveries he needs to make. But he’s on his way. I want to yell at him. I control myself. I’m outside on the patio while I’m making the call, by the way, and when I come back inside, I am met with some lean, hungry stares. Uh oh.

At 12:30, people start to go ahead and line up to take a shot at the salad and leftovers. More lean, hungry stares my way. The murmuring has begun. Murmurmurmurmurmur. I’m feeling pretty anxious by now. Making sure the pizza got here on time was my job, and I followed the instructions to the letter, but it’s not panning out.

The thief in the guise of the pizza delivery man has just entered into my world, shattering my calm.

At 12:45 I call the pizza joint again. It’s Eric, again. Still sleepily calm. Yes, the delivery guy is on his way. No, he is not lost. He will be there soon. I want to scream. Soon? You said that 30 minutes ago! I’m working hard to be cool, but I’m hanging on by my fingernails. Definitely, the last thing on my mind is doing what the African tribe does, and telling this man every good thing he has ever done. Just bring the pizza, already!

Minutes later, the delivery guy drives up. But it’s no victory, at least for me. The others devour the somewhat cold pizza like piranha, and I’m starving too, so I’m eating away like them. But inside, I know that I have created a bad moment. Moment by moment, we build our world, but I have built something sour. I want to be like the African tribe, I want to be like Ryokan, when hurtful people enter in (whether by intent or, like the pizza folks, by accident). But can I? Is it even possible?

ARE those stories true?

The answer is yes. Something happened this past week in Decatur to prove it.

On Tuesday, a man slipped into Ronald E. McNair Discovery Learning Academy armed with an AK-47-style assault rifle, 500 round of ammo, and “nothing to live for.” But the school’s bookkeeper, Antoinette Tuff, was there at the front office when the man, 20-year-old Michael Brandon Hill, came in. She wanted to run, but she did not run. She felt anchored in her Lord. For almost 25 minutes, she calmly kept the conversation going among herself, the gunman, and the 911 dispatcher. In the end, there would be no funerals with tiny caskets, no candlelit vigils, no families broken by grief.

Here’s how part of that almost 25 minute conversation looked like:

Michael Hill has just returned inside from taking a couple of shots at police officers. You can hear the BOOMS of the gun going off. He comes back in, and here’s what Antoinette Tuff says to him and then to the 911 dispatcher.

“Now, what did you want me to tell her, sir? Okay. He told me, put you on hold and call the news, ma’am.”

“Are you willing to tell me your name?” she asks him. This is at around 2 minutes 30 seconds of the recording, and his response is a definite no. Like he wants to remain separate, secluded, shrouded by his horrible mission.

But she keeps talking. “Okay,” she tells 911 dispatch. “He doesn’t want the kids. He wants the police. So back off and – and what else, sir? He says he don’t care if he die. He don’t have nothing to live for.”

But then we hear this: “He said he should’ve just went to the mental hospital instead of doing this because he’s not on his medication. But do you want me to try – I can help you. Let’s see if we can work it out so that you don’t have to go away with them for a long time.” Do you see how she’s bonding with him?

When he appears to mention suicide, she says, “No. You don’t want that. You gonna be okay. I thought the same thing. You know, I tried to commit suicide last year after my husband left me, but look at me now. I’m still working and everything is okay.”

Finally, Michael Hill tells her that he’s sorry. He’s going to lay down his weapon. She says, “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.”

“Your name is what? Michael what? Michael Hill?” Almost 12 minutes it, he tells her his name, he reveals what he had initially wanted to keep hidden. “Guess what, Michael? My last name is Hill too. You know my mom was a Hill.”

A few moments later, the police rush in. It’s over.

One of the most remarkable conversations I have ever heard, and perhaps you too. Communication matters. What we say and how we say it matters.

One of the many things that strikes me about this conversation is the character of the shooter. The form the thief took this time. On the outside, his appearance scared Antoinette Tuff to death. There he was, with his AK-47-style assault rifle and 500 rounds of ammo. But on the inside, he was a mess of conflicting possibilities, and the ones that were actualized depended a great deal on how he was received. What if Antoinette Tuff had fled? What if she had screamed and screamed or berated him, insulted him? But no: she appeared calm as a cucumber. Polite. You listen to the phone conversation and it’s like that African tribe, she is surrounding Michael Hill with love, she is giving him a chance to shed his identity as a shooter like it’s an ill-fitting suit. She is giving him a chance to remember he is good. “It’s gonna be all right, sweetheart. I just want you to know that I love you, though, okay? And I’m proud of you. That’s a good thing that you’re just giving up and don’t worry about it. We all go through something in life.” This is why he lays down his weapon. This is why he shares his name, why he returns to his humanity. Antoinette Tuff built a moment in time through her words that was beautiful.

That’s what I hope for all of us. Building beautiful moments through our words. Building the meaning of our lives, moment by moment. A thief always comes in to shatter the peace. It more often happens as it did with the pizza guy than with the gunman, thank God. But the episode with the gunman teaches us some universal lessons. You start up a conversation in a harsh way, and it’s going to end harshly. If you are always focused on what’s wrong, you will never allow a person to be right. Faced with a person who ruins your calm, you don’t have to feel calm inside to act calm. Don’t run. Don’t scream. Stay anchored in your God, your spiritual faith, your sources of hope; stay nonanxious and polite; and above all try to remember: We are all in this together. We are all human beings, children of a great compassion, children of a Great Mystery. Even pizza delivery guys.

We all go through something in life.