“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand…” (Mark 4.23)
We’re not sure who, but someone first said, “God gave us mouths that close and ears that don’t – surely that must tell us something.” If you’ve ever had a job working with the public, chances are you’ve heard some pretty strange stuff. You’ve probably had some strange stuff said right to your face.
Recently on Twitter someone asked pastors to share the strangest things people had said to them after a service. One pastor was told: “Your preaching has gotten worse since your baby was born. It’s like you’re not as passionate about God as you were before.” Another minister, in their very first church, heard someone say: “You’re not like most pastors; when you say that you sin – we believe you.” Another pastor recalls someone telling them that there was far too much about Jesus in their sermons, so they were going to attend another church. And an oldie but a goodie, at the end of one service a pastor was told: “The Lord healed me during your sermon… of insomnia.”
Preachers aren’t the only ones who wonder if anyone’s really listening. Everyone knows what it feels like to be dismissed or ignored or lost in an inhospitable crowd. These days people often talk at you rather that with you. At some point we’ve all asked the question, “is anyone really listening?” Today in our “Love Your Neighbour” series, I’ll share something of an ironic sermon, because we’ll spend the next 15 minutes talking about the importance of listening.
Anyone with Ears?
When Jesus begins working with the public around age thirty, sharing his gospel throughout the villages and towns of Judea, early on we hear him say, “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand.” (Mark 4.23) Even a cursory reading of the gospels tells us that Jesus had something to say and his invitation to the world was to listen. His message of reconciliation and hope takes us back to one of the primary themes running through the Bible, that God is speaking. As we see through Jesus, we receive God himself by listening. “Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand…” Maybe that’s one of the reasons St. John calls Jesus “the Word”. As one writer puts it, “Jesus is the body language of God” (Mark Oakley). In following Jesus around we meet person after person who learns that God is someone to be heard, someone we can either tune in to or tune out. Tell Jesus to get lost and he’ll leave. Listen and God mysteriously moves into the depths of your heart.
American-German philosopher Paul Tillich said that “the first duty of love is to listen.” Many people think that worshiping God is about adhering to rules or checking off lists, when in fact we’d do better taking that word list and adding a couple more letters on at the end. List-en. Listening to God is the beginning of loving God. In fact, that’s what Jesus describes as genuine worship. Incline your whole self to God, to hear, to be shaped and to be re-tuned by God, says Jesus.
So it might come as no surprise that if loving God begins with listening to God, loving our neighbour also begins with listening to our neighbour. “Love God with everything you’ve got” says Jesus, “and love your neighbour as yourself.” Sometimes Christians have little trouble with the listening to and loving God bit, but are woefully inept when it comes to the listening to and loving our neighbour bit. “I’ve heard enough” say many Christians, “enough to know I don’t need to listen any more in order to make up my mind about this person or that group.”
Maybe that’s not entirely a Christian problem. Listening is growing more challenging these days, especially as things like social media often parade themselves as heart-felt connection. It seems as though we spend more time consuming information and less time cultivating communication. We don’t know how to discuss with one another, so we dismiss one another. We don’t converse anymore, we comment. We don’t talk, we Tweet. We don’t care, we cancel. It’s harder to really hear one another and easier to harp on one another. Who knows why that is. Maybe we’re too busy, maybe we’re selfish, maybe we’re insecure or afraid of one another. I recently heard someone sum up our societal problems by saying that “we’re desperate to be looked at and terrified of being seen” (Mark Oakely).
We might be terrified of being seen and heard, but we all need acknowledgement at the very least. We want to be listened to and know we’re at our best when we’re listening to one another. But listening takes time, something our society often dissuades. We’re always in such a hurry, so why use the oven when we can use the microwave? Why pay attention, when we can just write off? Why listen to one another, when it’s easier to list one another into reductive categories?
Yet scientific study, business study and religious insight often tell us the same thing when it comes to listening. Listening, though time consuming, opens others up, and therefore opens up relationships and solutions to complex problems. As the Dali Lama says, “When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” So when we stop list-ing each other and start listening to each other instead, we learn, we expand, we even heal. And the ridiculously obvious thing about listening is that anyone can do it, and there’s always someone hanging around to help us practice – who’s willing to talk.
Very often what we learn through listening is profound and beautiful. “The earth has music for those who listen” wrote Shakespeare. When we stop from banging away on our own piano, we afford ourselves the chance of finally hearing the melody of someone else’s life. It might be slow, it might be quick, it might be deeply sad, it might be joyous. Sometimes all we catch is a sound bite, sometimes we sit long enough to hear the whole concerto. Listening makes room for every note of the melody that someone is willing to share with us.
I spent the last year training to be a certified coach and one of the core tenants of coaching is active listening. Coaching is a relatively new industry, about twenty-five years old, but coaches, like therapists, are trained to do 80% listening with a client and 20% talking at most. In some corporate settings coaches now being paid more than lawyers. Listening has become a rare commodity. I heard one executive coach remark that people are so desperate to be heard that sometimes he feels as though all he’s being paid to do is listen.
It’s worth noting that as well as speaking God does an awful lot of listening in the Bible, which is helpful when asking ourselves what it means to be God-like. Scholars of Jesus often wonder what on earth he was up to for the thirty undocumented years he spent living in first century Palestine. A lot has been made, and frankly overdramatized, of the “lost years of Jesus”. Still, it’s a curious question – what did Jesus fill his time with? The odd scholar ventures a guess that maybe he spent thirty years listening. And if you do the math that’s a lot more of Jesus’ life spent in silence than in audio. Maybe God was just listening to the human condition through Jesus.
So listening, we learn in the Bible, isn’t a superfluous action for God. Listening is so central to loving that God doesn’t know any other way. God’s listening ear is as important as God’s speaking tongue. What are the Psalms for if not a place for us to lament or celebrate, and for God to listen? Maybe that’s why the Psalms are so timeless – we’re desperate for God’s love, and the Psalms remind us that God is listening and therefore God is loving.
Listening Gets Our Heart Working
C.S. Lewis wrote “Do not waste time bothering whether you ‘love’ your neighbour; act as if you did. As soon as we do this we find one of the greatest secrets. When you are behaving as if you loved someone, you will presently come to love them.”
Some would call what C.S. Lewis is describing here empathy. Sympathy is having compassion for another person because of what they’re feeling. Empathy is different, it’s the ability to identify with another person, to put yourself in their shoes, hoping to understand what they’re feeling. Sympathy is feeling bad for someone who’s stuck up a tree, empathy is climbing up into the three and joining them as best you can. Jesus’ life is full of empathy. He climbs up the tree and into the human condition and really listens. Even in his darkest hour we’re told he was listening to the men hanging on the trees beside him.
So how do we love our neighbour? Sometimes, the most loving thing you can do for another person is to listen to them. When we listen, we are making room for someone, we’re dignifying them by demonstrating that they are worth our time, worth being seen and heard, their melody worth our attention, especially if they’re not used to an interested audience.
In The Art of Listening, poet Johnathan Drane writes, “Since the day I silent kept- and listened to another, There opened up a life which had ‘til then been merely shadow…” When we listen we’re welcoming more light into our shadowy lives. We’re inviting others to contribute to solution building, rather than presuming we can fix everything with our ideas and words only. So listening is a deeply humble posture. Many cultures have wonderful proverbs about listening. In Indonesia they say, “before you let your voice be heard, first lick your lips.”
If we’re not used to listening, it might take some practice, it might feel uncomfortable or stretching. But like learning a new physical posture, with stretching comes growth as the heart begins to pump fresh blood around the body. In other words, listening gets our heart working. And if we find listening a challenge, for example when it comes to listening to some of the pain being poured out through protest around the world these days, it might be an indication that our hearts are due some growth. Listening is not about winning arguments, it’s about washing feet. Listening is putting our hearts to work. And its heart-work we all must do, no matter our background, political leanings or social interests. When we listen to one another, what divides us tends to take a back seat to what connects us.
Tom Hanks recently played the famous Mr. Rogers in a movie. “One of the things he taught me” said Hanks, “is that listening is a million times more important thank talking. You should just sit and listen to everyone who comes across your way, and you’ll be amazed at what you learn.” Hanks also described listening as “a disciplinary art”, which no doubt many of us resonate with. Listening takes some patience and some practice. Hanks said he picked up a little trick from Rogers to help him in the day to day discipline of listening. Fred Rogers would constantly ask himself to W.A.I.T., an acronym which stands for “why am I talking?” Hanks wrote that acronym down in a notebook which he keeps with him, a constant reminder to cultivate the discipline of listening.
There’s one small step for us today, just to ask ourselves to wait with others; to ask ourselves, online, in person, on the phone, over text, why am I talking? It’s not that we shouldn’t ever speak or don’t have something to say, just that like Jesus we’re committed to making room for every voice. Heaven, after all, will be a choir, not a solo.
Who will you listen to? The neighbour who’s name you’ve never bothered to learn? The co-worker everyone avoids? The person you know you disagree with or don’t respect? Who will you listen to and therefore love? Councilor David Augsburger simply says, “Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person they are almost indistinguishable.” When we listen, we find ourselves accidentally loving. That’s the goal of a life of faith, to become as indistinguishable from God’s love as possible.
“Anyone with ears to hear should listen and understand…”