Monday, August 15, 2016

The Holy Act Of Listening

Listen to the thunderstorm.


Really and truly listen.

Or to birdsong.

Or to the wind.

Too often we hear selectively and think we are listening, but we are not. We do not listen to what is actually occurring and not what we think is.

Listening is intimacy.

Listening is being present, either with another person or our environment.

I love what Henri Nouwen said on the subject, "Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even dare to be silent with you."

How beautiful is that notion of listening being a form of hospitality? It is saying to the other person, you matter, what you have to say is worth hearing without my need to interrupt or comment or I'm just waiting to say what I really want to say. To listen to someone is a form of blessing or sacrament. It is an offering to die to self, in the sense of letting their voice be important. It is a way of serving them in an expression of not having our own agenda or getting out what we want to say. As Paul Tillich wrote, "The first duty of love is to listen."

Do we view love through that lens?

How much of our relationships to others would be deepened if we listened more than we talked? How much would our public atmosphere, which is so toxic with opinions, be different if there was more listening and less expressing? How much we would learn that we didn't already know if we stopped and truly listened to others? The book of James extols us to, "Understand this, my dear brothers and sisters; You must all be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to get angry" (1:19).

I have heard numerous composers, musicians, playwrights and actors talk about how silence can sometimes be more important and powerful than the words or notes. Handel used this brief moment of silence in his Messiah right before his rousing "Hallelujah" chorus and that moment gave it greater impact. Beethoven used silence as a motif in his works. Jazz musicians understand that to be an artist in improvisation means knowing how to use silences. They know that by being silent for a few beats can raise the listener's expectation about what's to come.

Recently, as we were getting in the car to go the store, I told my boys, "For the ride to Publix, we are all going to be silent. No talking. No radio. Nothing."

Distrustful, Benjamin asked, "Are you trying to get us to play the quiet game?"

"No," I admitted, I was not trying to use that old parental trick to keep kids quiet and in line. "We are going to practise a very old spiritual tradition. It's no gimmick or game or trick. We are just going to be silent and listen."

"To what?" Cava was confused.

"To whatever. To the life all around us, To our own lives. Just listen and let's see what we hear."

Needless to say, neither boy was really thrilled. There is that awkward quiet where one shifts nervously that took place at first. But then, they settled into it. We heard the sound of the car's engine. The sound of traffic. The boys pay closer attention to their surroundings. In the silence, there was peace. No arguing. No complaining.

When we pull into the parking space and get out of the car, they immediately ask me, "Can we do that again on the way home?"


Because they had space for their thoughts. They weren't inundated with noise, which we are in so many places that we are during our days. And they have asked many times since that first one.

It is important to view silence as a precious gift, which it is because there are so few places where we can in our modern society.  In our own lives and those of our families we need to nurture silence so that we can be nourished by silence. I love how the Sufi poet Rumi wrote about it, "There's a voice that doesn't use words. Listen!"

When we stop and listen to silence, we are forced to really pay attention to all of those things that we drown out, especially our own lives. I often think the reason so many people are averse to silence is that they don't want to face their real selves. We have so often constructed an image of our self that we display to others that we do not want to go past that, even when we're alone. But image is an idol, nor reality.

Noise also keeps us from hearing the still, small voice of God who most often whispers like a loving parent to their child. How much more my kids love it when I lean in close to them and gently whisper in their ear, "I love you" as if it were a secret. Thomas Merton once said, "Just remaining quietly in the presence of God, listening to Him, being attentive to Him, requires a lot of courage and know-how." I am attempting to teach my children and myself to have the courage to take the time to sit in silence and listen. How many of us do as Samuel did and say, "Speak Lord, for your servant is listening" (1st Samuel 3:10). And then say nothing else? But just listen? For however long it takes for God to speak to us.

Listening is a holy act. The prophet Isaiah said, "Listen that you may live." Do we view listening as necessary for living?

It's not easy, especially with children. I cannot even count the number of times my time of silent prayer is interrupted by one of, if not both of, my sons. But I've begun to realize those aren't interruptions but also ways that God can speak. It is a way to listen to their needs. It's often a way that I am being taught patience. Even as I write this, one of my kids keeps wanting my attention and asking me question after question after question. It begins to test and strain one's listening skills to the nth degree. It always makes me want to change my name so that I can reply, "Nope. Sorry. No Papa here" and walk away. Thankfully God is never that way with us. When I find myself snapping at the kids or at wit's end, I go somewhere, off by myself (even if that just means going out into the backyard) to be in silence to recalibrate myself.  Often God teaches me that to teach my children to listen to me, I must also listen to them.  I have to ask myself: What is the ratio of how much I react to my kids then how much I relate to my kids? Too often there can be a time where reacting far outnumbers the listening.

How much do our churches incorporate silence into the worship? Do we even think of silence as worship?

If the pastor got up in front of the congregation and said only, "We will now sit in silence" and said nothing else for the rest of the service, how would people respond? There would probably be a lot of shifting and glancing around at each other. Yet this kind of worship is often a staple in Quaker services, not speaking until God speaks. In fact they have a saying that works in any situation, "Try to listen carefully that you might not have to speak." When we develop close relationships with someone, we find we can trust them enough to be silent with them and not need to fill that empty space with chatter. Why then should we not do the same with God?

When we listen to someone else, we might begin to see things from a different perspective.  The Bible says those who don't listen are "fools." As Proverbs 18:2 states, "Fools have no interest in understanding; they only want to air their own opinions." How much of this do we see in the world today as opposed to active listening? How much suffering and hurt is caused my speech that is not mindful or compassionate? Do we cultivate this in ourselves? In our kids?

One of the most important things Jesus did was listen. He listened to people and heard them. He heard not only what they were saying but what was unsaid. Christ asked them questions and listened to their answers. He was a discerning listener. And by listening, he found out what was important to the person speaking and, by listening to them, he made them feel not only heard but important themselves. The Son of God, the Messiah, the Word made Flesh gave them his undivided attention. When we think we are too important or too busy to stop and listen, we need to think about that. Jesus took the time, went out of his way, to find the person who needed him to listen (such as the Samaritan woman by the well). Is it any wonder then that she responded to him as she did?

How would people respond to us if we listen as Christ listened?  How much of an impact would that make in another person's life? If we listened with full attention, without judgment, and with compassion? Especially those who society doesn't listen to (the powerless, the poor, the people on the fringe of society). "Only when we have learned to be truly silent are we able to speak the word that is needed when it is needed," as Richard J. Foster understood. Our lives need less commotion and more communion.

"If you want to be listened to, you should put time in listening." as the poet Marge Piercy accurately assessed. I find myself asking: Have I? Have I put in the time listening? Did I really listen to what someone was saying verbally and non verbally? Did I listen to what it was they really needed? Or did I focus on myself and was I just waiting to give my response? Did I listen to not only the words but what was behind them (the underlying emotions, feelings, wants and needs)? Mother Teresa understood that "We need silence to be able to touch souls."

We live in a world with a deficit of silence and an abundance of noise. Again and again, in the midst of this cacophony and chaos, I find myself being drawn back to, "Be still, and know that I am God." Notice how that is written. "Be still" then the comma to mean we are to pause and not plow through that statement. To know that He is God, we must first be still and be present. Stop the noise. Stop the busyness. Stop the idle chatter and the TV and radio and the iPods and all of it. Be still. Only God and not society tells us to do this. The world is full of pragmatism and utility. Being still is not an option. Be multitasking. Fill our calendars and our days. Once again, the kingdom is contrary to the culture. Be still. Know that I am God. That reminds me of a great saying the Jesuits have. "I've got good news and I've got great news. The good news is: there's a Messiah. The great news is: it's not you." We need to remember that. But to remember means we have to step out of our schedules (one more task, one more thing that needs to get done) and be still and know that God alone is God and we, thankfully, aren't.

When we are fragmented then we only have small fragments to offer others and to God. We cannot listen when we are too busy, too tired and too frantic. We will be run rugged and scraped raw until we stop, be silent and listen in the stillness and quiet. To not "Be still, and know that I am God" means that I am running in order to avoid knowing God. My busyness is building a wall to avoid holy intimacy. Is it any wonder Eugene Peterson calls busyness a "spiritual illness?" Yet it's in silence we will find substance. In silence we find healing and wholeness.

Listening is an attitude of the heart. Listening is a spiritual act. This means that listening isn't easy. It means I have to humble myself, I have to remove so much of the noise and distraction in my daily life. This can be in the morning commute or out running errands. Turn off the radio. Turn off the distractions. And let the silence speak to us and into us. The soul will only speak in quiet solitude, which means I have to make and take time to practise both of these each day. By first listening to silence, then I can listen to my kids, my wife, others, the world around me and ultimately God.

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