The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship
consists of listening to them.
Just as love of God begins with
listening to his word,
so the beginning of love for our brothers and sisters is
learning to listen to them.
— Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together
Bonhoeffer was writing about what makes a “church” in this devotional classic, Life Together. Over the years before the war he had come in contact with many different styles of being church that changed his own understanding of his traditional German Lutheran training. He saw a need for a “new monasticism” in the church and incorporated that into his seminary he began for the Confessing Church. Part of such monastic-style fellowship he saw was the need to listen to each other.
Listening is hard. It takes effort to pay attention to what someone is saying to us. It has become a cliche that we spend all our time listening thinking about how we will respond instead of paying attention- truly listening. When we are not listening to respond we are not even listening. Our mind wanders, we lose track, we simply nod our head, vocalize some non-committal response, and look interested. The other person doesn’t often catch on because, in essence we are both doing the same things. We are talking around each other, over or under the discussion and not actually being in dialogue.
None of this is helpful, as Bonhoeffer saw it. It is not dialogue, it is not fellowship, it is not learning to love others. No wonder the church was in difficult times and not just with Hitler’s attempts at co-opting, taking over, and eventually destroying the church. It was boring itself to death without love because no one was listening.
Earlier this week we were driving north through eastern Louisiana and Arkansas. As we drove through those wide-open spaces of the Delta two things jumped out at my wife and me. I realized that this issue of listening may be right in front of us. The first thing noticeable was the incredible number of churches we passed on the way. We figured that in the 75-100 miles from just west of Vicksburg where we turned north we must have passed at least 50 or more churches. That averages to one every two miles or so. Not bad when you then realize we would go miles and miles with the farmland and no churches, then a cluster of them, barely half a mile apart.
Most of them were small buildings, like a majority of churches in the United States. Many smaller than houses, but on average, not much bigger than a mobile home or small sanctuary. Every now and then there would be a bigger one, but it was mile upon mile of small buildings for worship.We wondered what the story might have been? Rural people, most of them poor, no doubt, started these churches as places to be together. My wife, not knowing what I was writing about for this week, said, “They wanted someplace to belong- and to be heard.”
They wanted to be listened to! Oh, I am sure that there were enough church fights represented there as well. More like church “brawls” no doubt. Someone wasn’t listened to, someone was misheard and therefore misunderstood, someone was offended by what they thought someone else was saying, doing, or planning on doing. Theology may have been under some of it, too. But in those congregations theology was interwoven with the life, the people, the families, and the relationships. Change in theology can mean disaster to such fellowships. The search for meaningful fellowship was represented in those long string of church buildings lining the Mississippi Delta. It was almost like “house churches” except they came to “God’s House” since no one else had a large enough building.
Listen to each other, said Bonhoeffer. Truly listen. It is as important to listen to the word of your brothers and sisters as it is to listen to the Word of God.
The second thought saw what was more than obvious- the level of poverty and loss these people were living with. It was almost desolate. True- crops were not planted or growing which meant the colors were wintry drab. But the ramshackle buildings, corrugated metal sheds, the hardscrabble existence was obvious. Is anyone listening to them in their silent desolation? Is that even what it is?
Have we who have ears to hear heard that? Or are we still doing the same old thing. We think we know what they should be thinking, even as I am doing in this post. We judge what we think is going on.
And no one is listening to each other. Not truly listening. We throw words and phrases at the problem. We put our two cents worth of spin to it and go away angry or frustrated. We all then become more angry and frustrated at each other. The politics of the day then begins to take that all and spin it some more, further dividing us. One of the great disheartening results of this last election was that it appears no one is listening to each other. One side says they speak for a particular group while ignoring the needs of another; the other side says they speak for a particular group while ignoring the needs of another; and around it goes in a vicious cycle of not listening and not caring.
It is time to learn to listen to each other- not to the media, not to the talking heads and pundits, but to each other. Active listening, alive listening, compassionate listening. Am I, in this Lenten season, willing to listen as carefully to the words of my brothers and sisters on all sides of these issues as I think I am listening to the Word of God. We must have that dialogue of the needs in others. To do that, and I know I am being repetitive, we must listen.
So I am hoping to work more on that this Lent. I need to be able to hear the cries of others- on all sides of these divisive issues. I need to do that with their best interests in mind as well as the awareness that, as a Christian, I am called to affirm their concerns and then seek ways to work with them. So here are some of my guidelines for listening gathered from my experience as well as from myriad sources.
I start with one I learned a few years ago from one of my mentors, Dr. Amit Sood of Mayo Clinic:
- Assume positive intent with others.
- Don’t interrupt and place your solution on them.
- Try to feel what the other person is feeling.
- Be patient.
- Ask questions for clarification.
- Affirm areas of agreement.
Can I do this for the next week? Can I make sure that I slow down my tongue so that it isn't getting ahead of my thoughts? Can I turn off that inner voice that always has the right answers for every issue and let wisdom come from someone other than myself?
Tough to do, I know. But it may be the most spiritual thing I can do on any given day. A number of writers have suggested that spirituality is part of who we have evolved into because it can be a way of interacting in healthy ways with others. Religion hasn’t done well in this department, but spirituality is the ability to care and have compassion and be led to deeper understandings. In the end the most spiritually important thing we can give to another person is to listen to what they have to say without judgement or prejudice or seeking to overthrow their thinking.
It is being a vessel of peace- and the love of God.