Resolutions 3) To Listen
Hespeler, 15 January, 2017 © Scott McAndless
Mark 4:1-9, James 1:19-27, Psalm 116:1-8
esus, like many good speakers, had certain catch-phrases that he would use over and over again in his preaching and storytelling. One of his favourite lines, for example, was “the first shall be last and the last first.” It comes up so often in the discourses of Jesus in the gospels and in varying contexts (usually as the punchline of a parable) that it seems reasonable to conclude that it was one of those phrases that Jesus threw around all the time.
there was another phrase that Jesus must have used even more – one
that just seems to have slipped out all the time – not necessarily as a part of
the parable or story he was telling but almost like punctuation or emphasis.
That saying was, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen!”
It is an odd phrase when you think about it. I mean, very few people don’t have ears. Barring some birth defects, tragic accidents or the madness of Dutch post-Impressionist painters, ears are pretty much universal. Everyone listening to Jesus had ears which would make the saying seem like nonsense. But obviously Jesus didn’t keep saying this as a nonsense phrase. It is, in some ways, an expression of Jesus’ own frustrations. Here he was communicating vital truths that, as far as he was concerned, were quite clear. He was illustrating those truths with stories and parables that were really quite easy to understand and yet people weren’t getting his point.
Jesus was pointing out that it is one thing to have ears and to be able to hear what somebody is saying but it can be quite another thing to listen. Hearing is a passive thing. Hearing is actually something that can be very hard to keep from doing. If you are in the vicinity of a noise or of someone speaking, you can’t help but hear it unless you do something to prevent it like plugging your ears or shutting off your hearing aids.
Listening, on the other hand, is active. You don’t listen to something unless you choose to do so. Listening means attending to what is being said and acting in response. Jesus’ frustration was that people were hearing what he was saying but that something that was preventing them from actively listening. Often it was because they did not want to actually hear the truths that he was teaching and they certainly didn’t want to change their lives because of what they heard. It was just easier for them to hear what he was saying without actually listening because, if they listened they’d probably have to change in ways they didn’t want to.
And if Jesus were here today, would he continue to repeat that same saying? Would he be as frustrated with us over our tendency to hear without listening? I am afraid he probably would because things really haven’t changed all that much.
I wanted to start out this New Year by preaching about the resolutions that I’d like to make and that I’d like to see more people make that might create a real difference in the world. I’ve talked so far about resolving to leave some time and space to grieve losses and I’ve talked about being committed to the truth. I think that the third resolution that we could make that would make a real difference in our world is to learn to listen. I would even go so far as to say that the failure to listen is creating a number of crises in our world.
Take, for example, two of the most surprising political developments of the past year: the Brexit vote in the United Kingdom and the election of Donald Trump. Neither of those political developments were supposed to happen. They defied polling but also were contrary to what the “elites” and political “experts” and establishment said should happen. They are also events that will likely have some far-reaching effects on where the world goes from here for good or ill (and I don’t really have an agenda at the moment to say whether it will be good or ill).
But I think that we can say a little bit about why things unravelled the way that they did. Many people did not cast their vote because they were making a positive selection of a candidate or an agenda. Many, perhaps the majority, were voting to reject instead and what they were rejecting were the opinions of the elites, the experts and the establishment political leaders. The widespread perspective was that the elites and establishment didn’t care about the needs of the great majority of people and had not listened to them and their needs for a long time. Some really big things – world-changing things happened this past year because a lot of people felt like they were not being listened to. When I say that the failure of listening is important, that is the kind of thing that I am referring to.
But it is not just something that we see happening in big political events and movements. It is a something that affects people’s personal lives and struggles. How many people go through their daily lives without ever getting the sense that anyone is truly listening to them? How many have to pay money to go to a psychologist or counsellor just to have someone actually sit there and listen to them talk.
And what a difference that can make! I am not trying to put down the professions (like counselling and psychiatric analysis) that have a big element of listening to them. Such a level of listening does not come without a great deal of learning and practice and it truly can bring a great deal of healing into a person’s life. And there are definitely many people who will not be able to find the healing that they need without making use of such professional counsellors. No one should ever be ashamed if they need to access them. But I cannot help but think that such professions would be much less desperately needed if only more people put in the effort to really listen to people at all the various times in their lives where they really need someone to just listen to them.
And one place where listening is surely lacking is in the church and it is precisely on that point that Jesus was expressing his frustration with the people in his favourite saying. People of faith have the opportunity to hear the word of God, but how often do we listen? We believe that God speaks through the life and example of Jesus Christ. We believe that God speaks through the scriptures that bear witness to Christ. We believe that God speaks through the sermon. And this speaking is not something that is frozen in time. We don’t say, for example, that God spoke (past tense) when the Bible was first written. The word of God is nothing if it is not living and active in the present moment. So God speaks; that is not and has never been the problem. The problem is that we don’t listen.
So we really do need to work on our listening. How could we do it? How could we become a people who take the task of listening seriously? Well the first thing we need to recognize is that simple truth that was behind that saying of Jesus – that there is a difference between hearing and listening and that just because you have heard what somebody is saying, that doesn’t necessarily mean that you have listened to them. Hearing is passive but listening is active.
So how can we learn to be listeners? Well, I’ll start with one piece of advice that should be obvious, shouldn’t need to be said, but I’m afraid that it does need to be said. Listening means, first of all, giving undivided attention which means that when someone is speaking you turn off the phone, close the book, turn off the television or do whatever you need to do to shut out any distractions. If we are not willing to do that, we will not progress very far in our quest to learn to listen.
The next piece of advice I am going to steal from the Letter of James. “You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak.” Our own speaking is one thing that most often gets in the way of our effective listening. How often, when you are hearing someone speak, is your brain engaged, not with what they are saying, but with your own speaking. You are thinking of what you are going to say in response to them – perhaps to defend yourself or to further your own agenda at the expense of their needs. This is a symptom of what James would call being “quick to speak.” It is not actually measured by how many words you say or how soon you say them but rather by how much brain power you devote to your own agenda.
Listening, real listening, is about being willing to put aside your own agenda in service to the needs of another person and, let me tell you, it is something that you have to work at. It does not come naturally and most of us will only be able to accomplish it by being incredibly disciplined in our minds.
One thing that can help us to do this is the use of a practice of active listening. The next time when you have a chance to actually sit down and listen to someone, try this: say nothing. If you have to say anything, let it be to ask questions and make sure that they are questions that are focussed on what the other person has said and that help you to understanding their concerns.
You can ask questions like, “It sounds to me like you are saying this event made you feel frightened or excited or whatever it sounded like they were feeling. Is that correct?” You can ask questions like, “What were you trying to do?” “Why are you interested in that topic?” and questions that focus on their personal background in whatever topic is being discussed. These kinds of questions will, more than anything else, convince someone that your really are focussed on what they have to say. And, what’s more, actually help you to be focussed on that very thing.
One mistake that people often make, and in my experience it is often (but not always) men who do this, is to think that listening means that you are trying to fix whatever you perceive to be wrong about the other person. If someone is describing a situation that they are dealing with, for example, you may jump to the conclusion that they are telling you about a problem and you break in and tell them what they should do to solve it. “Well, you see, all you need to do is report your co-worker to management and let them deal with her.” Or, if you perceive that there is some kind of flaw in the person you are talking to, you break in with a prescription for how they ought to change. “You just need to be more assertive,” or something like that.
But trying to fix people or their problems (unless that it what they are asking you to do) is not really listening to them because what you are actually doing is attending to your own agenda. You are trying to solve their problems and get them out of the way so that the focus can return to you and your needs. Most often what people need is for someone to listen to them, perhaps be sympathetic or understanding. Maybe then – maybe after they have been fully heard – you can work on solutions or changes together, but nothing important will ever happen until they have been heard.
Listening is not easy. It doesn’t come naturally to most of us. But, precisely because it is so rare, it is an extraordinary and sometime life-changing thing. So I resolve to work on listening this year. I hope you might too because how much could the world change if people only really listened.