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Reflection October 13, 2019
Learning to Listen by Rev. Dr. Thomas Aldworth
As we get ready to conclude our series of sermons on prayer, I wanted to add an important element of prayer: the ability to listen. I touched very briefly on this in last Sunday’s sermon. Let me add some further reflections in this week’s Advance.
In Psalm 40 the author proclaims to God: “Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear.” But aren’t all of our ears open? Perhaps the psalmist is speaking about a certain kind of openness. I suspect there are people who have physically open ears who seem incapable of truly hearing, truly listening.
Our spiritual life, our faith journey, necessitates open ears, ears capable of hearing, ears capable of deep listening. Deep listening is an art that requires training. In their book, The Sacred Art of Listening, Kay Lindahl and Amy Schnapper point out that “the pace of life today leaves little room for reflection and listening.” I imagine most agree with this assessment.
I wonder how some of us have time for listening. It’s been noted that the average 13 to 17 year old sends out 3,339 text messages per month. I believe I send out an average of three or four text messages per day. I can’t imagine where I’d find the time to write and send out 111 text messages a day. I pray this abundance of electronic “note passing” among our young helps them form deep and lasting relationships.
The psalmist speaks of receiving an “open ear” as a grace, a gift, from God. And so it is. Yet true listening is holy and holy- listening is a discipline that requires work to achieve and maintain. Most of the time when we think we’re listening, we really are not. We may assume if we’re not talking, then we must be listening. But we know this is an illusion. Research shows that “75% of the time we spend listening we are distracted, preoccupied or forgetful.” (Lindahl & Schnapper)
Just think about how many times in our ordinary conversations, we interrupt one another. Our interruptions happen for a variety of reasons. One problem is that the average attention span for adults is 22 seconds. After 22 seconds, our attention begins to wander. Maybe I should consider a series of 22-second sermons! Certainly if I only had 22 seconds to work with, I’d get to the point quickly! Maybe I should write a book: sermons as sound bites!
There is a deep sacredness, a deep holiness, found in deep listening! Do we not believe that God listens to us at all times? Again passages from the Psalms: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their cry … When the righteous cry for help, the Lord hears and rescues them from all their troubles.” (Psalm 34:15, 17) “Take heart, you seekers after God, for the Lord listens to the poor and does not forget his captive people.” (Psalm 69: 32b - 33) “The Lord is near to all who call on him, to all who call on him in truth. The Lord fulfills the desire of all who fear him; he also hears their cry, and saves them.” (Psalm 145: 18–19)
What we learn from these passages is that God is always attentive, always listening, to the cries of all of us, to the cries of all creatures great and small. Yet can we imagine what all these cries must sound like in God’s hearing? All the cries of the estimated 7.6 billion people who live with us on this earth! This doesn’t take into account all the many other creatures crying to God in some way or another. I’m sure that if I heard all these cries for just a second, I’d be crushed under their weight.
Some years ago, Beth and I discovered a young raccoon next to our backyard porch. The raccoon had apparently been hit by a car and was in the process of dying. There wasn’t much we could do except say some soft words to the raccoon and pray a prayer. It took some hours for the raccoon to die. I’m sure if it had been crying and making sounds, our hearts would have been even more burdened than they already were. I recalled this experience this past Sunday night when I watched three young raccoons parading outside my kitchen window.
As a human, I can’t imagine how enormous the heart of God must be to endure all the cries that come to it each and every day. We know that God loves each and every creature inhabiting our world. We know from Jesus that not a sparrow falls to the ground without God being aware of it.
We’re called by Jesus to become like our Father in heaven, which means we’re called to open our ears more and more to the cries of all creation. We’re called by Jesus to listen to each other with care, compassion and attention. This is not an easy task to accomplish.
When the psalmist speaks about having an open ear, it doesn’t just mean that one’s ear is open. It means one’s mind is open. It means one’s heart is open. It mean’s one’s soul is open.
There’s a certain dynamic that I believe makes many of us unable to listen well. It’s our common addiction to being right. Many of us get energy from believing ourselves to be right. Now it doesn’t really matter if we truly are right. The important thing is for us to believe we’re right.
This dynamic works something like this: I’m feeling deflated for some reason, perhaps my Bears lose a game in London. My fragile ego, my sense of self worth, must puff itself back up some way or other. An easy way for the ego to get back up is to engage in a fight, in a tussle of some kind or another, and win.
This dynamic happens often. Many of us create battles, where we engage someone or something deemed the “enemy” and we try to come out on top, to come out “right,” to be a “winner.” Our ego, our fragile sense of ourselves, is determined to be right, even if it costs us something important in life.
Being human, I’m infected with this insidious malady: the need to be right. But being right doesn’t make us happy. Being right doesn’t cause God to love us more. Being right doesn’t much help us at work, at home or at church.
Yet how often, in religion and in politics, have we engaged in battles over who’s right? I don’t care any more about being right when it comes to religion, when it comes to our faith. I’m not a pastor in order to convince you of my way of understanding God or my way of living my Christian faith. I’m not your pastor in order to bring to you a liberal Christianity. I’m not your pastor in order to bring to you a conservative Christianity. I’m your pastor primarily to tell you again and again that God loves you.
God loves us not because we are that loveable. God loves us because that is God’s nature. God loves us because God is love. Or to use the words of Richard Rohr from The Naked Now: Learning to See as the Mystics See: “God does not love us because we are that good. God loves us because God is good. That changes everything.”
We spend too much energy trying to make ourselves worthy of God’s love, worthy of God’s grace. But this is a foolish pursuit. God loves us because it’s God’s nature to love us, not because we can ever become worthy of that love. This is the heart of the Gospel, the soul of the Good News, proclaimed by Christ Jesus.
So why do we expend so much time and energy fighting among ourselves over who is right, who is more right, who is the most right among those of us who follow Christ Jesus? I’ve been a happy American Baptist for over 11½ years. But let me add that while I’m a Baptist, I do not consider myself a Protestant.
I’m not protesting others who do not believe in Christ Jesus exactly as I do. The Protestant Movement arose in 1517 with Martin Luther’s famous 95 theses against the practices of the Catholic Church. So for over 500 years, those who disagree with the Catholic Church have been labeled as “Protestants.”
But I believe the time has come to let go of this name. If I’m asked what religion I practice, I state I’m a Christian (or a Trinitarian!). If pressed further, I say I practice Christianity as an American Baptist. I’m not protesting. I’m trying to deepen my belief in Jesus Christ.
If I cling to being a Protestant, I become less incapable of listening. I close my ears to what my fellow Christians, who practice their faith as Catholics, have to share. We must let go of religious wars. We must let go of sectarian violence. We must let go of trying to be right when it comes to being a disciple of Christ Jesus.
We are Christian, first and foremost. How we live out that Christianity is secondary to the gift of our Christian faith. I believe it’s time to stop trying to be right when it comes to our religion. Instead of fighting, let’s listen to one another. Let’s cease battling over who has it right and who has it wrong. The truth is that when it comes to God we all know very little. When it comes to being faithful disciples of Christ Jesus, we all fall short.
I agree with Lindahl and Schnapper who state: “We must learn to listen if there is to be peace in the world, particularly among religious traditions.” I’m suggesting that we stop being Protestants and instead be Christians. I also ask our Catholic brothers and sisters to stop seeing themselves as Catholics first. All of us, Protestants and Catholics, are Christians first and foremost. We must learn this truth if we want the Spirit of God to do what the Spirit of God wants to do among us.
It’s not easy having open ears. It’s not easy letting go of centuries of religious warfare. It’s not easy letting go of our need to be right. It’s not easy letting go of the energy we get by believing ourselves more righteous than our neighbors. It’s not easy relinquishing prejudices poured into us from our birth. It’s not easy letting go of our proud assurances of being more saved than others. It’s not easy relaxing fists that have been clenched for so long. It’s not easy learning how to truly listen. It takes God’s help as do all things important!
Rev. Dr. Joel Mitchell, Pastor