Sunday, September 16, 2007

Toward a Theology of Listening

Start here, but for more on this topic, see also:

More on a Theology of Listening (9/24/07)
Listing and Listening (12/29/07)
Diffusing Tension with Respect (11/27/07)
Story Questions (4/2/08)
PowerPoint: The Ministry of Listening (6/18/08)

There’s a Bible study I’ve pulled out and used in so many contexts that I finally realized it must reflect or have come to shape my core values and become a recurring theme in my life. It’s one of the things I believe most deeply and see as most practical and relevant to life as we know it. The topic: remembering what God has done. The practice of reflection on what God has done is one of the best ways of developing two of the things we may need the most: gratitude and hope.

Knowing how good it is for us to have these things, and to see clearly, God and his prophets repeatedly exhort the people: Remember! Talk about what you’ve seen and heard, tell those stories, write them down, sing about them, tell them to your own hearts, tell them to your children, tell them to the people, tell them to the nations... don't forget.

A few weeks ago I started thinking about another one of those core values, those themes, that I want to shape my life and consistently pass on to others: listening. A high value for listening to people is a big part of my job, of course – perhaps why my job even exists. I teach people how to listen. I create environments where people can listen. I send them out to talk to people who need to be heard. I facilitate discussions, I look for consensus, I listen for problems and fears and hopes and expectations. In my recent trip to the Balkans, the whole reason I went was to listen to the team and help them articulate what they’d heard, to talk about the lives of those they’d been listening to as well as how the process affected their own lives and what they thought it meant.

Even so, I am not sure that listening is really something I practice faithfully or well.

There’s nothing I love as much as a good three- or four-way dialogue. So, I find it really irritating to be around people who prefer making speeches =over= starting conversations, expressing themselves over listening to others. As I lose my temper I find myself thinking of cutting things I could say to them (if I could get a word in edgewise...)

But, ah, yes, often I am one of the talkers! All my imagined retorts are symptomatic of a tendency to dismiss other people with whom I don’t agree (or, let's be honest, don't like. I'm fine with disagreeing!). Hijacking the conversation away from the monologist seems to be the only way I know to stop what they are doing, and I seldom do it gracefully. I seem to be guilty of the same thing I accuse them of, and I use the time and energy when I should be listening cooking up my righteous indignation and strategizing my response. (Take a look at James 1:19-27.)

Isn’t it amazing that God is a listener? Surely that's a key point for our theology of listening. If anyone knows best, and doesn’t need to listen, it would be God. Now and then there are signs that he has heard enough already, that he’s disgusted and inclined to turn away, but what we mostly see is “The Lord, the Lord, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger, and rich in love.” He says: I’m here, I’m listening; I love to listen. If God is willing to humble himself to listen, well, it says something for us as well.

What does Jesus teach us about listening? I’ve started a leisurely exploration of this. I haven’t gotten terribly far. Here’s where I started – with this kind of odd thing Jesus used to say. When I checked it out, I realize it must have been something he said a LOT. I parceled out references and had a group of people read these out loud recently, and they must have thought I was crazy because the repetition was so exact. The scriptures record the same phrase from Jesus 14 times:

Revelation 2:7 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 2:11 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 2:17 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 2:29 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 3:6 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 3:13 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 3:22 – He who has an ear, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.

Revelation 13:9 – He who has an ear, let him hear.

Matthew 11:15 – He who has ears, let him hear.

Matthew 13:9 – He who has ears, let him hear.

Matthew 13:43 – He who has ears, let him hear.

Mark 4:9 – Then Jesus said, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Luke 8:8 – When he said this, he called out, "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Luke 14:35 – "He who has ears to hear, let him hear."

Well, to whom did God give an ear? Anybody have two of them? So, who has the capacity, and perhaps the responsibility, to be a person who listens? I know this is a figure of speech, but it works because the whole point of having ears is to listen, and listening means perceiving, getting what it is that you are hearing - and like James says, not just walking away from it like a guy who looked into a mirror and immediately forgot what he looked like. Many people have ears and don't hear, but that's pretty tragic and disappointing. We're supposed to hear - to listen. It's what our ears are for.

Listening is also a key aspect of wisdom, as the book of Proverbs reveals; here are a few verses that stand out to me:

Proverbs 18:2 - A fool finds no pleasure in understanding but delights in airing his own opinions.

Proverbs 18:13 - He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame.

Proverbs 12:5 - The way of a fool seems right to him, but a wise man listens to advice.

Proverbs 12:18 - Reckless words pierce like a sword, but the tongue of the wise brings healing.

What other principles should inform our theology of listening? (What do you think? I'm listening!)


Dad said...

Most people are VERY self-centered. Tell them a story from your life and they'll interrupt you to tell you a similar story from their life that you don't have the least interest in. Listen to them or ask them questions to lead on their story telling and most people will think you are very intelligent and interesting.

Andy said...

What is the point of listening? What are we offering to the one who is speaking? We are adding value to them. We are saying with our attentive silence: what you are saying is important to me. In fact, you are important to me.

The trick for me is to really make it so. In other words, to really make that person important through my listening rather than listen in order to get them ultimately to respect and like me! Ah, what a tangled web!

Listening is like loving, n'est pas? Listening disarms the agitated one who will calm down if he/she is JUST HEARD.

It's nice to know we have a Father who is waiting to listen to his "toddler son" just beginning to form articulate words that come out slant... but are such a delight to Him.

I Was Just Thinking.... said...

I know when I'm in conversation with on other and all I do is the listening I feel used, not appreciated. And when I walk away from a conversation where I've done all the talking I feel selfish.

My favorite times of training for projects was doing the prevenience thing: where has God been in my life. It brings perspective and appreciation.