The lost art of listening



 I picked up Eugene Peterson's The Contemplative Pastor again. It is one of those books I return to frequently to help remind me what I am supposed to focus on as one who follows a compassionate and unhurried Christ. Today I'm struck by Peterson's self-pondering, "The question I put to myself is not 'How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?' but 'How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?'" (21).

Coming from over two decades of vocational ministry and having had to turn in statistics counting the former (speaking to others), but never the latter (listening to others), it makes me wonder:
  • Why did I never have a seminary class on listening? There is homiletics and hermeneutics, but what about hearing God? Self? Others? (I did learn how to listen and pay attention to culture in my Intercultural Studies degree and I am learning to listen to "self" in my Spiritual Formation classes at Fox!) 
  • Theological debates are always verbose - people trying to prove their reasoning and thus "listening" merely to garner points to disprove, with verbosity, anothers' "faulty" reasoning. What would happen, instead, if we listened more to one anothers' hearts than to their reasoning (and our intent to disprove it) alone? 
  • Jesus never un-welcomed someone for their different theologies (except perhaps the Pharisees) and He was an equal-opportunity listener to those with different genders, economic status, race, nationalities etc. Who do I "instantly" close my ears to because they are different from me?
  • Why are new disciples trained to be so wordy in prayers, in teaching, in evangelism and in sharing  testimonies? How might discipleship programs teach listening to God, self, culture and others in our quiet times, witnessing, prayer and Home Fellowships/Bible Studies?
  • Why is it that I have been taught that my greatest growth as a disciple depends mostly upon listening to other people's sermons, books, seminars, teachings etc? Who teaches the disciple to listen to God in the daily ordinariness of life in nature, self-reflection, good fiction, strangers,dirty diapers etc?
  • How can I, like Jesus, join the Father in what He is doing if I do not take time to pay attention to what He is doing? How can I heed His invitations if I cannot hear them? It is far easier to make (and measure) my own plans and ask God to bless them, than to listen to His plans and join Him.
  • Why do so many need to pay a professional to "listen" to them when it is our job as the body of Christ to do that for one another?
  • What would change if missions organizations had a column in their weekly statistic gathering for "listening" to others in Christ vs. merely speaking to others about Him?
Listening, I believe, is a greater act of love than speaking. Indeed, some of the most intimate moments of sharing a sunset, holding a baby, making love, require little in the way of spoken words. They require listening and responding and enjoying.

Listening also requires unhurriedness. To be fully present to one another (or even to myself and God) is a rare and wonderful gift! But if I am busy, thinking about what is next on the schedule, I will not listen (nor, consequently, love the other,) well. I am double minded - unstable in all my ways and in what I offer. If I have not cultivated a habit of paying attention to God and my own soul in the quiet times of solitude and silence, I cannot impart the space and energy required to engage in loving others with my ears and heart. People can mince and manipulate words and fake sincerity. You cannot fake being a good listener. It takes time and not a little amount of energy to "hear" beyond what is being said on the surface.

Perhaps that is why in the Old Testament the most often iterated command is: "Hear/Listen."

In the twice daily repeated Jewish Shema (which is, incidentally, the Hebrew word for "hear/listen"), an  invitation to Listening and Love are mingled together:

"Hear, O Israel, the Lord our God is One. 
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul mind and strength."
Deut 6:4

How do we become good at listening/loving?

According to Peterson
  • Practice lingering and unhurriedness - with a  friend, child, spouse, pet, stranger, elderly person etc. Another offer suggests slowing to look at one thing a day through a magnifying glass - pay attention, do not rush.
  • Schedule "margin" in your days so you are not rushing from one thing to the next and thus can linger honestly, sincerely and with focus and enjoyment;
  • Cultivate a "listening" prayer life: "I can be active and pray; I can work and pray; but I cannot be busy and pray. I cannot be inwardly rushed, distracted and dispersed. In order to pray I have to be paying more attention to God than to what people are saying to me; to God than to my clamoring ego. Usually for that to happen there must be a deliberate withdrawal from the noise of the day, a disciplined detachment from the insatiable self" (20).

Incidentally, the qualities of Love mentioned in 1 Corinthians 13 seem suspiciously similar to someone who is a good listener:
4Love is patient, love is kind.
It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud.
5It is not rude, it is not self-seeking,
it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs.  
6Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth.  
7It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

www.paulagamble.com