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The story of Lydia's conversion from the book of Acts is one of those biblical narratives almost suffocated with irony.
Perhaps the most visible of those ironies is that the story takes place in a city in Macedonia. Which is to say, Alexander "I Am A Cultural Imperialist And I'm Okay With That" the Great's old stomping grounds.
Paul, good Jewish boy that he is, is bringing the word of The LORD, that wild and weird Semitic God, right into the heart of the civilization that tried to stamp out the Israelite culture.
I mean *right to the heart* of it: Philippi, the city named for Alexander's father. Just to add another spritz of irony, Philippi is more than any old Greek city.
It's a Roman colony, populated in large part by retired members of the imperial armed forces. So, you know, the people who killed Jesus?
The overarching irony of Acts is that the good news blooms exactly where you might think the soil was most poisoned: in a town disposed twice over to be culturally hostile to the Christian message.
But! That's not even the biggest irony here. No, that honor would go to this little embarrassment: Paul's second missionary journey, which begins with this story, gets exactly nowhere...
...until he and his partner Barnabas decide to stop bickering about what to do and agree to go their separate ways.

Once they stop fighting with one another, the productive work can begin.
(It's also ironic and a bit terrifying that God's reward for the end of Paul and Barnabas' argument is a vision directing them straight into enemy turf. Good job, boys, says God. Proud of you. Now, let's see if we can't get you killed.)
Paul and his companions decide to start things off by going down to the beach. The text says they were looking for a "house of prayer."
It's a bit unclear what is meant by that. It could be a spot where Jews gather to pray, or it could be an actual house of prayer, that is, a synagogue.
Likewise, it's also bit unclear who Lydia and the other women are. Are they members of the formal synagogue? Are they Jewish women who have come together to pray? Are they *pagan* women? We have no idea, and in some ways, it's not important.
What is important is that these women, including Lydia, are ready to hear what Paul has to say. They are spiritual people, people of prayer, people who can listen and respond with autonomy.
And in fact, it's not Paul at all who converts them. The text tells us that God "opens" Lydia's heart to listen eagerly, the same word that describes the disciples' hearts opened all the way on the road to Emmaus.
You can quote me on this: Paul's just a tool. God's the master carpenter.
So here's one of Paul's first great successes, the start of the church in Europe - and it's not even his doing. Lydia's open heart responds to God's message, which happens to come through Paul having a conversation with her.
A lot has been made over the years about Lydia's special characteristics. She is, famously, a dealer in purple cloth, which is to say, a luxury item. She's successful enough that she has her "household" of servants, and apparently no man she needs to answer to.
[I can already hear the congregation murmuring, "I don't, either."]
But to my mind, the most remarkable part about Lydia isn't her wealth or her independence. It's her willingness to enter into dialogue.
Lydia is willing both to listen - and to prevail upon Paul to listen when he needs to.
Actually, I shouldn't be so polite about it. The Greek word is literally she "beside-forces" Paul and his friends to stay with her. You could say she urged them, but let's be real: it means she twisted their arms.
"If you have judged me to be faithful to the Lord, come and stay at my home," she says. In other words, if you really think I am a Christian, you will accept the Christian hospitality that I am offering you.
Now, how is a missionary supposed to say "no" to that? And just like that, she levels the social playing field between them.
Paul is no longer the authoritative teacher and minister, and she's no longer the rich woman throwing her money around. He gives, she gives. She receives, he receives.
The modality for that social leveling isn't God imposing God's power upon them. God doesn't send a vision here to straighten them out. No, things even out here because the two parties choose to listen constructively to one another.
Sometimes, we in the church like to dress this stuff up in special language: it's "holy listening" or "sacred conversation" or "dialog." It's people talking to one another. That's all.
Well, that's not all, of course. If that were it, we wouldn't need a sermon.

The point is that listening doesn't have to be some kind of otherworldly, supernatural gift. Even the most ordinary practice becomes sacred when we do it before God and with God.
Listening is a practice. It's not something that most people are born with a natural gift for doing. It's something that needs to be worked at carefully, intentionally, and repeatedly, over the course of time.
A friend (@tellthestories? @LiturgyGeek?) introduced me to the structure LACE, which I'll pass on to you in an adapted form.
@tellthestories @LiturgyGeek The way I heard this was that L stands for Listening, but I think it goes beyond that. It's not just listening, but listening to learn, to grow, not for advantage or how you can score points when it's your turn to talk.
@tellthestories @LiturgyGeek A is attending: noticing and being present to and with people. Someone described this as radical mindfulness, and that's quite right. It's clearing your mind of everything but what's in front of you, most importantly, that person who is speaking to you right here, right now.
@tellthestories @LiturgyGeek Someone once said Bill Clinton had this way of listening to people that made them feel like no one else in the world existed but them. Whatever else you might think of him, that seems like a quality worth imitating.
@tellthestories @LiturgyGeek C is connecting, which is pretty straightforward. What do I have in common with this person? How can we see the world in the same way? How can we have the same conversation, even if we don't agree?
E, last of all, is engaging, or building relationships. The church at Philippi became one of Paul's favorites, no doubt in large part because of the friendship kindled with Lydia. Years later, he could write fondly to them.
So there you have it: good, active listening involves Learning, Attending, Connecting, and Engaging. LACE.
I go through that in some detail because guess what? Listening turns out to be incredibly important!
How do you build a strong marriage? Mutual trust and shared goals! Seems like you might need some listening to develop those things.
How do you raise intelligent, independent, compassionate children who have the time of day for you? You listen to them, and you expect them to do the same!
I'm not going to go too far down this rabbit hole, but how do you build a better political environment in a society and trust me anything is better than what we have at the moment?
You listen to people, to learn, to attend, to connect, and to engage - and you ask them to do likewise, respecting and accepting all those beautiful differences between people.
Paul could have blown off Lydia as unimportant or irrelevant to his mission. But he doesn't - the openness of his heart matches hers - and *that's the mission in itself.*
If you're reading this story as being about Paul's first notch on his European conversion belt, you're reading it all wrong. It's about God power in opening hearts and minds across what ought to be insurmountable social and cultural barriers.
There is a great wall of Jericho that runs between many of the characters in the Book of Acts, and the only trumpet that causes that wall to come tumbling down is the one that goes in the ear.
LACE stands for?
How do you get a strong congregation? You get a pastor who will actively listen to you - and you listen to your pastor, and to one another.
You practice learning from one another, attending to one another's presence, connecting, and engaging.
No no no no - it's not those other guys who need to listen. *You* need to do it. *I* need to do it. *We* have to do it together, and make it part of the norms of the community.
Everybody has to listen, or nobody gets heard. You can turn on cable news any old time you like if you want to hear how that works out.
But here's the thing. If you do listen, intentionally, you will soon find your hearts opening up.
The people who can't listen are those whose hearts are too broken to allow themselves to step aside and make room for someone else. They don't have the strength, or the courage, or sometimes the will, to open their hearts to someone.
We're all cowards or blowhards at some point, or we've been beaten down too much to have the self-confidence it takes to really absorb what someone else has to say.
The work of faith, the work of living together in community of any kind, is the work of opening our hearts until they are wide open, all the way open. That is a lifelong project, my friends.
But the good news is this. It is in engaging that work that we learn to listen not just to one another, but to God. Not just for one another, but for God, the God who comes in a still, small voice.
You open your heart through your ears, and in comes not just your friends, but God.
Hear these words, and listen to them: May God bless you and keep you, may God always be present to you, and may God give you the biggest damned jug ears anyone ever did see.
Amen and the end.
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