Aren’t we all starving to be known and to know others? Join Karlene and her son-in-law, Jimmy Hill, as they talk about the beautiful mess that is community and how our self-talk can be disrupted by soul talk, resulting in conversations that really do matter.
Jimmy is the son-in-law of Karlene Cannon, Director of Content and Product Development for Larger Story. He graduated from Duke University in 2019 with a degree in Global Health and History, and received his Master’s in Teaching from Union University in 2022. He married fellow Duke alumnus, Ivy Hill, in 2020, and today they both teach high school students in Memphis Tennessee.
Growing up in Southern California, Jimmy moved around a lot and struggled to experience lasting relationships. When he got to college at Duke University, that all changed as he was invited to engage in deep conversations by a young woman named Ivy who had experienced the beautiful and broken mess of community in her home and had decided to bring that passion for community with her. Now they share that strong commitment to relational spirituality with their students and friends.
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[00:00:00] Karlene Cannon: Welcome Larger Story family. Thank you so much for joining us today on the Relational Spirituality podcast where you can belong, become, and be known. I’m really excited today, I have someone very special joining me, my son-in-law, Jimmy Hill. I think it’s trite, the whole conversation about mothers-in-law and son-in-laws, but I’m very fortunate to have – I hope – a good relationship with my son-in-law, and he’s someone who I am very, delighted by and very grateful for. Jimmy, thank you so much for joining us. I know this is a little bit unusual and I think that’s part of what makes it special. I’m so glad you’re here.
Before I get started, I want to tell you a little bit more about Jimmy than just that he’s my son-in-law. He’s very accomplished on his own front. He graduated from Duke University with a degree in global health and history. Did I get that right? Is there something else? Okay. He’s married to my daughter. They’ve been married for three years and both of them currently teach school in Memphis at Kingsbury High School. Jimmy is an economics teacher and a soccer coach. They have a lot of fun there and are doing really important work in the lives of students there in Memphis.
Anything else I forgot? Oh, this is important. Jimmy also worked for Larger Story between graduation, so he has some familiarity with the work of Larry Crabb and Larger Story through his time with us, and then just being part of our family. I think you’re going to enjoy hearing from Jimmy about his experience.
As we’re focused this quarter on the book SoulTalk and having conversations that matter, I thought it would be good to hear from someone who had come into this as an adult. It was shoved down your throat a little bit. I’m not sure that you were always eager and pleased with some of these conversations that we were trying to have. I think it’ll be good to hear from Jimmy today. Thank you so much for being on here with me.
[00:02:16] Jimmy Hill: Of course. Thank you for having me. Very excited to talk.
[00:02:18] Karlene Cannon: Thank you. Maybe that’s a good place to start. What was it like for you coming into the Larger Story experience in the work that you did? And even before that, you were at Duke with Ivy, my daughter, and you guys built a community with 20 or 25 other students, and I think she was pretty focused on engaging in these deeper, broader conversations. You got pulled in first through her, but then from working with Larger Story. What’s that been like for you?
[00:02:53] Jimmy Hill: Yeah, definitely. In high school I definitely found my first ever people. I think that was the first time I was ever introduced to the idea of real friendships where it might actually cost you something because they were hard and they required a lot of effort, but also there was a lot of joy that comes out of them.
I was born in Washington and then raised in California, and I ended up going to school in North Carolina, so it was really far. Moving to Duke, I was very worried, very nervous, very insecure. My first year in college was pretty hard in that sense. I didn’t necessarily know the best ways to make friends. I did my own thing. I was a part of Crew in and out for my entire first year. Not super committed to it. A lot of it was because I felt that everyone else had much stronger relationships than I did. I felt like there was too much effort to try and push my way into that. Then a few guys pursued me and pulled me in, and so I decided that by my second year I was going to put a lot more effort in.
That’s where I met Ivy, through Crew. She was a year younger than me, so we knew of each other in the first semester, her first year, my second, and we had a lot of mutual friends. One of my best friends is Brandon and Brandon was getting very close with Ivy and a lot of the other people in her grade, so he was slowly connecting me with them. I think that was the first time in my life that I actually started to believe that I might have something to offer. I think that as these relationships started to develop, it was partly me being able to start asking questions of others and believing that they actually would want to answer them, and on the flip side of that, believing that people had questions and were genuinely curious about me and my inner world and my thoughts and where I was from and who I was as a person. Part of the reason why I was so attracted to Ivy in the first place was that she is very intentional, asking lots of questions, and I think it’s very easy to feel seen by her. I think that’s, in a lot of ways, where our relationship started. I felt very safe and comfortable to just talk to her. From that, I started to hang out much more with her and her friends.
I think that she really had taken on the ideas of Larry Crabb – from both Larry Crabb and your family – believing in fostering a community that actually seeks to get to know each other in a deeper way and process through things. At times that was really difficult. I think it’s easy when you’re talking to the girl you like, it’s a lot easier to be vulnerable.
But when joining her friend group, I had a lot of hesitations that it would be her group, not mine, that they would be her relationships, not mine. I think that was really tough at first, but one of the implicit values of the community was that there really shouldn’t be “in” groups and “out” groups. There shouldn’t be hierarchical relationships or people who everyone’s trying to hub around; that it would become more of a safe, equal place. I think there’s always problems with that. It doesn’t always work out as people’s stories interfere and interact with that and different securities and stuff like that, but in general, that was definitely one of the goals. I felt very empowered in a lot of moments to actually ask questions and get personal. Growing up, I’d always assumed that could be invasive or not necessarily in the best heart or spirit, it was more of an aggressive questioning stance.
I started to believe that other people were really generous. They actually like it when you are engaged, ask questions and step in. That was a very unique experience and a lot of my mind set shifted in that I started to believe that people actually might want me to get to know them and ask questions.
From that, I took on a very strong commitment to community; partly because of that, probably because of other elements of my story. Having people around you, being willing to be vulnerable, those types of things became very essential to who I was and to my relationship with Ivy. Personality-wise, there’s always going to be differences, and so I think being in a relationship with Ivy we had to navigate a lot of, what does community look like. At our worst moments, community could become one of the things that was the most fraught, we had the most fights over that, and what is the purpose of community, what does community look like, different visions of it what is an essential element of community versus just what is a priority of community, stuff like that.
By my senior year with Ivy, a lot of those questions had become wrapped up in the family dynamics and what is it like to enter into a new family? What does it look like to participate in the way they understand community? There were things that I wasn’t sure I was willing to give up and there were things Ivy wasn’t sure she was willing to give up. Trying to navigate what that looked like and were these things actually important to us, just takes a lot out of you. Community is tough and it’s hard and it’s not always going to be good. I don’t know fully where I was going with that, but that just could lead to a lot of difficulties.
I think from that, I had felt in some ways hurt by community, but also still deeply committed to it. After I graduated, I moved to Atlanta where I stayed with y’all. Y’all are very generous and gracious to let me stay with you for a year. I worked for Larger Story. It was easy for me to take a lot of the conflicts that we’d had as a family and project it onto Larry Crabb as a person and blame him for conflicts we had like it could be his fault. On the negative side of that, I think I had a lot of very bitter feelings towards certain buzzwords or ideas or thoughts around some of his thinking. But on the other hand, I think it also was good because I had to really deeply think about everything.
Since I was coming in with such a hesitancy around certain topics for example, one of the things we talked about was, what does it mean to have deep conversations? Do those have to be through one on one conversations? Can those be larger? At what point does a conversation become too large to where it’s a few people interacting with one person so that everyone else has been left out? I’d struggle with that a lot because my personality didn’t always enjoy that, or feel seen by that, or was concerned other people weren’t necessarily feeling seen. Is there a right way to do that, or a wrong way? Is my way the right way? With all those things going into that, I was thinking very deeply about a lot of these ideas.
Working with Larger Story was both one of the hardest things I’ve done, because I wasn’t sure how I always felt about things, but also really good, because I had to seriously consider what he was talking about and how I fit into this and how it applied to me and my life and my relationships. By the end of it, I can definitely say that I really respected Larry and all his work, and, at the end of the day, I am deeply appreciative of his thinking and how he has carved a space out for community and relationships in a way that, even if I don’t always agree with everything he says I don’t think many people are talking about that in the way they should. I think for better or worse, that will shape a lot of Ivy and I’s life and how we pursue people and jobs and careers and where we live for hopefully the rest of our lives.
That’s a broad overview. I don’t know if I fully answered your question.
[00:10:49] Karlene Cannon: Oh my goodness. There are so many things I could follow in what you said. It reminds me of one of the reasons I enjoy talking to you, Jimmy, is I always feel like you’re very honest and you do think deeply about everything that you say. I appreciate that. I seriously had so many questions. What’s one of the things that encompasses a couple of other things?
You use the phrase that it made you feel empowered and I wanted to follow that a little bit. I think if I recall correctly, there was this linkage of being pursued, exploring curiosity a little bit, discovering how people responded and how they felt about it and that at some point that gave you some confidence and made you feel empowered.
Can you talk a little bit more about that? And that sense of empowerment, comfort, confidence, how that infused itself into the way that you pursue relationships and community and conversation.
[00:12:09] Jimmy Hill: Yeah, definitely. Growing up, I was extremely outgoing. I think I’m very extroverted, but I did not always realize that growing up because I was also deeply insecure and we moved around a lot, so relationships to me were something that was very temporary and fragile. I usually assumed that either I was going to leave or the other person wouldn’t want to be in a relationship. All relational encounters were, in some ways, dangerous. I was very much focused on how I felt that they perceived me, and all these different things. Which, by the time I got to college, I was starting to realize – one, I was just starting to understand myself and how I reacted to things, but also I was realizing how that’s a very big selfish way of being. It centers you in the story of everything, and I was never thinking about the other person.
I was always worrying, how would they perceive me? How are they thinking about me? Where am I in their list of friendships or relationships? As I started to develop, and started to realize that I belonged both to God and to others and to have that kind of that freedom that in part was through people genuinely asking me questions and being curious about me and realizing, I do have an inner worth that other people are desiring to pursue. As people pursued me, I then started to realize, I also have a burden to pursue others. At first that plays back into all the danger. If I ask too many questions, are they going to walk away? Do they want me to ask questions? They don’t want me to be here. It really took other people in conversations expressing how I was affecting them.
Larry talks about that a lot, making sure that as you’re in conversations, especially difficult or deep or vulnerable conversations, being pretty regular about checking in with how each person is feeling. I don’t think I had any of that language, but as other people would say how I was impacting them in the moment, that started to allow me to stop second guessing myself or second guessing where I was. You have to trust the person’s not lying to you and that they genuinely are being truthful about how they feel and how you’re impacting them, but I think the more feedback I received in that way, the more empowering it was to then go out and do that in return. I think the negative side of that is that it can – sometimes I almost was too empowered. I started to lean into the questions with this idea that people would open up and not that I didn’t genuinely care about them, but that there was a point where I did feel a sense of power or self parts of my identity that I wanted to be true, and felt more true when I was able to ask people vulnerable questions and they would respond and allowed me to feel as if I was truly having an impact and being important. That’s on the negative side. The questions can become for you rather than for them. But I think on the positive side, for some people like me, I had to get to a point where I felt free to even ask those questions. I think that’s where empowerment comes in a lot, other people giving me feedback. Demonstrating that at the end of the day, I couldn’t do or say something that would just break the relationship or I didn’t have to second guess every single thing I said.
[00:15:46] Karlene Cannon: In listening to you talk about that, I’m reminded of both the sort of early insecurity, and I think if I use your words correctly, the inward self focus on your own performance, if you will, and then even how the empowerment could also kind of circle back on you and bring the focus back to yourself.
One of the things Larry talks about in his book is the difference between self talk and soul talk. I think you just articulated a lot of what he’s getting at; when the conversation is about me and energized by me and is about proving something about me or my demands or my requirements, it quickly goes awry and it’s not the kind of conversation that we’re talking about here because these conversations are intended and designed to be other centered and it is the Spirit that energizes them.
I really appreciate your honesty and you sharing with us how you wrestled through that as you came into this kind of environment where there is a high priority on deep interpersonal conversations, knowing each other, being seen. You talked about the power of someone seeing you and just how meaningful and transformative that can be. Those are all really good things until we take control. I appreciate that self awareness and acknowledgement on your part. I think that’s really important. You used another phrase when you were first talking that really intrigued me and I wanted to unpack that a little further. You said that as you guys were interacting in community – I think you were still talking about back in the Duke days when you guys were all in college – that people’s stories would interfere and interact with what was going on. I think I have a sense of what you might have been getting at, but I found it a really interesting way to verbalize it.
Could you tell me a little more about how people’s stories interfere and interact in community from your perspective?
[00:18:02] Jimmy Hill: We, as people, are just these super complicated, multifaceted individuals. We’re bringing a lot to the table, whether it’s personality, experiences we’ve had, ways of viewing the world.
Using soul talk is being focused on the other, not focused on you, but there’s so many parts of us that want to get in the way of and interfere with that, and then they become self talk.
I’ll use an easy example with me and Brandon, he’s one of my best friends. He was also in the community too, he lives with me now in Memphis. As I was feeling much more confident in myself and understanding the way the world worked a little bit, I was also deeply desiring relationships. I wanted as many relationships as fast as I could get them, because I didn’t feel the same fear I used to feel. Brandon had been someone who had pursued me from very early on, he had put a lot of effort and energy into that.
Because of my story of not feeling able to enter into relationships, when I suddenly wanted as many of them as possible, I neglected the ones I had. A lot of the time with Brandon my story of not feeling like I was worthy of relationships, not having them, feeling like they would always end, meant that when I didn’t feel a lot of those same restraints, I didn’t necessarily focus on what I had, and so I was just pursuing relationships to pursue relationships, and they were much more like relationships that were self gratifying and that I could get something out of, maybe that person really did some things that I liked or maybe they complimented me a lot. Basically, I could get stuff out of the relationships. When I didn’t necessarily feel as if I could get something out of each other’s brain, then I wasn’t able to engage with them to the same degree. So our relationship was very caught in the self-talk, all the energy, at least from my direction to his was very much in that, what can you do for me? What purpose do you serve me?
I think that’s one example of my story, how it interfered with my ability to connect to him, and then also to connect to others who I was personally in a relationship with. I wasn’t being honest with anyone, or myself. Things that had happened in the past that maybe even were not my fault or that were just things that you can’t control like how often you move, or what happens in relationships or friendships. But I took that, and as I became an adult, I used that in a wrong way.
I think that’s one way my story specifically interfered, and continues, and can still interfere with my relationships today. Where, in my flesh, I will default spending time with people who are the easiest to be around or who I get the most out of or avoiding challenging people or people who I don’t know or I might not want to talk to at that moment.
[00:21:03] Karlene Cannon: Thank you so much for your honesty and your self awareness. I think that’s a good caution and a good example to all of us to check ourselves, because we’re always bringing our own story and our own self interest into a conversation.
One of the components that Larry outlines in SoulTalk is to think passion. When he says that, he means to think about what’s going on in you and you can’t always fully know and understand what’s going on in the other person but you always know what’s going on in you and to just be aware and honest that, that’s myself interfering in the interaction, and so, how can I repent and invite the spirit to do a different work in me and not let that hinder what’s happening in the conversation?
Thank you for sharing that with us. I think that’s something we can all identify with. We all enter relationships with our own agendas and our own needs and not that needs are bad, but oftentimes my needs become the most important thing in the room. That’s when that interference starts to happen. I think that’s a good reminder.
Ivy was on here a few months ago with me and I asked her this question and found some of her answers really interesting, so I wanted to ask you this as well. How does what you’ve learned in community and what you’ve learned about having conversations that matter, how does that translate and impact your work with your students and teaching? It’s a completely different kind of environment, but obviously you’re having important conversations all the time. How has that shaped how you approach teaching high school students?
[00:23:10] Jimmy Hill: One thing I’m very thankful for is in our current educational moment, there is a large push to try and figure out how to build community and specifically communities centered around questions and discussion and seeing each other. I think that going through school then and now teaching, I was able to bring a lot of what I’d learned in community and have both a theoretical understanding and a more practical understanding of that.
You’re with 35 kids in a room, and they rotate four times a day. You got a lot of kids, a lot of needs. Most of the time, they don’t necessarily know what they’re thinking or feeling, especially the younger ones. I didn’t realize how essential of a skill it would be just to know what questions to ask. I do it wrong all the time, but I think if this had been four or five years ago I would have felt completely inadequate in this, whereas now I do think asking questions and knowing what the next one’s going to be and how to phrase it and all those kinds of things is a skill that has to be nurtured and grown and I don’t think it was something I was good at I think it’s something I’ve grown much better in in a trial by fire kind of way. The hardest part about teaching is that it’s always easy to have something else that you have to do that’s more important, and in that, you miss the child.
I struggle with that all the time, knowing I have x or y deadline or the kid’s trying to talk to you in the middle of a passing period, or maybe they can’t fully express what they want to say, but they’re clearly trying. Just being there and not leaving. I think the hardest part for me is knowing that there’s so many needs in that community that I will not be able to satisfy. Being able to trust that there are other people, that there are other places that can happen because I do think that since kids are spending so much time at school, that is where most of their relationships will either be in the house or in the school. It’s their primary spots. You’re going to have all the difficulties of family, of friends, of teachers, adults. A lot of kids don’t have positive images of what good relationships look like.
One of my friends was telling a story, I think yesterday. She works with middle schoolers, so they’re already chaotic. But she talks a lot about how you can tell which students expect to be responded to with yelling or anger. You can almost see them deflate. She was talking about how she’s realized that when she’s able to take herself on and not engage in anger, even when a kid’s doing the most annoying thing, the kid is actually surprised and doesn’t know how to handle that, because they’ve never seen it before, it’s not something they’re used to. They expect that if they do something, the response will be anger getting bigger, flexing authority and so doing the opposite a lot of times catches them off guard. I just thought that was a really beautiful picture of how these relationships are all really complicated, and being able to take yourself on and be aware of your own issues and how those issues are then going to play out on the kids. Ivy does a really good job, she’s gotten much better at being able to express to her kids where she’s at. If she’s in a bad mood, she’s become very vocal. Like, guys I’m in a bad mood. This is not you. You have not done anything, but things that maybe wouldn’t annoy me normally are going to very much get on me. That’s something I’ve now tried to use a lot more and it is really impactful. It does change the behaviors that they are able to see you as a person rather than just an authority figure.
I don’t know if that fully answers your question. There’s a lot of community and relational aspects.
[00:27:22] Karlene Cannon: No, I really like what you’re saying. One of the things Larry talks a lot about is disruption and the power of a holy disruption, if you will. A lot of times he’s referring to saying the thing that is hard to say, or lovingly pointing out something that needs some attention. I think what you just described was a beautiful disruption of really surprising someone with a loving response. Your friend who’s noticed that these students are expecting anger and then surprising them with what Proverbs says is right. A gentle response turns away wrath. That’s a different kind of holy disruption, especially in a situation like what you guys are facing, where you’re dealing with so many – talk about stories that interfere – you’ve got hundreds of them on any given day. Those kinds of softer, gentler disruptions that are surprising really do have a lot of staying power and make a big difference. I love the way you guys take yourselves on in your building a career. There’s a lot that goes into that, but because it’s such a relational kind of job, you’re both really faithful to take yourself on in that every day.
I think that’s beautiful. I’m very grateful.
[00:28:53] Jimmy Hill: I love the language of disruptions. I think that’s a really good way to describe it. I think back to the original question of community. I think the thing I say most is, now that you’ve said that and boiled it down, it really is just all these stories and learning how to understand yourself helps you understand all these other people around you. They can disrupt you, and you can disrupt them, and it just creates space for a lot of growth and change in that. I love that language of disruption. That’s very cool.
[00:29:26] Karlene Cannon: I like the way you just tied that into cultivating a space that is cut where it’s comfortable or at least acceptable to disrupt is a really significant part of how spiritual formation happens in community and in relationships. It can’t be the only thing. And like I said, sometimes disruption is thought of as more, I’m going to sock it to you and give you the thing you don’t want to hear. I don’t think that’s what we’re talking about here. I do think having that kind of open, spacious culture does make a big difference. And it is part of iron sharpening iron, all the Proverbs, they all talk about this stuff in their own way. You guys are living that out in a unique environment with your students. I appreciate that. I think that’s really important.
We’ve got just a few more minutes, I’m going to ask you one more question. How do you experience spiritual formation and how do you experience community nurturing and enlarging your relationship with God? I know, the way I grew up and most of modern evangelicalism still think that a relationship with God is an individual kind of effort. There’s certainly a necessary individual focus and very particular relationship, but the Trinity is a community. How do you experience community really enriching your personal relationship with God?
[00:31:04] Jimmy Hill: Man, I don’t think I’m going to be able to do justice to this question.
I think it’s something I’ve been grappling with a lot, because like you said, I do think that the common narrative in American evangelicalism almost borders on self help, you have an interior world, you do these ten things. Not even necessarily in a legalistic sense, not don’t hurt someone or don’t lie, but almost more in a, if you read your Bible, if you go to church every Sunday, if you pray this many times, then your relationship will be good. I think that those definitely play a part for sure, but I think, at least for myself, I can get very wrapped up in my own world, and at a certain point just doing those things can become very gratifying in and of themselves, rather than for any purpose they might achieve, and I think without people, and other people’s messiness, and your messiness, and all those messinesses interacting and combining, I don’t think that there’s really a way for you to fully understand yourself.
I don’t believe that we as individuals have an identity that is formed outside of community. Whether you’re talking about roles or whether you’re talking about how you as a person are shaped, there’s too many people around you for you not to be shaped by them and the institutions they’ve created. I think probably the most challenging thing for me in community is making sure that my community isn’t just a self gratifying community, but is a community that actually does challenge. Not even just the accountability sense, but if there’s differences, how do you navigate those differences? What does it look like to have conflict? What does it look like to have differences of opinion and yet still be able to care about the other person? What does it look like when loving someone is hard or you’re difficult to love and be willing to stay in a relationship when you don’t feel as if you’re either worthy of love or the idea that maybe you’re being too difficult and you’d rather just not avoid the whole thing?
I think that’s where all that pushes you towards God. I think it also if God is love, then the only way you could truly experience love is through love. Through other people in a lot of ways. And so I think with community, it provides that opportunity. It also provides the opportunity for the opposite. That’s why a lot of people struggle with it, because even as community and relationships are the avenue for the greatest times and moments of love and joy, they’re also biggest for the opposite: for rejection, for anger, all the way up, escalating to hatred or whatever it is. I think that because there’s such extreme possibilities, it can be easy to either avoid them and just stay in the middle and keep it safe and comfortable or just avoid them entirely. That’s probably how I would think about it in relation to God and just that through others, we can see Him.
[00:34:18] Karlene Cannon: What I really loved about what you described is in everything you said, what I heard was: in both the positive and negative of community and relationship, there is great opportunity, that God is offering you an opportunity in each situation to know Him, to know yourself, to connect. He’s offering you something significant and beautiful, whether it’s a positive interaction or a negative interaction.
I really admire and appreciate that mindset. I think that’s necessary to navigate some of the challenges, but I also just think it’s holy. I think that is what God’s doing. I really appreciate your articulation of how you experience God through community.
Jimmy, thank you so much for joining me this afternoon. I think we had a really important conversation. It mattered to me. I hope it mattered to you. I always appreciate learning more, hearing more of your story, and I really do enjoy deeply wrestling these things out with you, and I learned a lot today. So thank you so much. I hope we can do this again sometime.
[00:35:31] Jimmy Hill: Thank you. I love the questions. They made me think about things in a way I haven’t in a long time. So that was a lot of fun. I really appreciate this. Thank you.
[00:35:43] Karlene Cannon: Larger Story family, thank you guys so much for listening. I hope that you enjoyed our conversation together and we look forward to seeing you again next week.
Thank you so much. Blessings everyone