Listening and Doing
“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” These are words to live by.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer says in his book on Christian community (Life Together) that the first service we owe others in the Christian community is to listen to them. This, he maintains is where love for others begins, just as love for God begins with listening to God’s Word.
Adam McHugh, a Presbyterian minister and spiritual director in California, speaks the language of James when he says, “My dream for the church is that we would be known as the community that listens.” Wow. How radical would it be if our neighbours knew us as The Community That Listens!
I think it is telling that James put so much emphasis on listening early in his letter. One of the major temptations for the church is that we talk too much, too quickly, and too loudly. We talk without listening. We are always ready to share our opinions, to offer advice, to provide the answers (I mean we’ve got the Answer, right?), to rebuke, to preach. When you come to church, you can be sure that you will be spoken to. Afterall, McHugh writes, “The church’s job is to preach, to teach the Bible, and to share God’s opinions on the issues of the day, and your job is to listen to our message. We have a pulpit, and you have ears.”
We are a wordy church. And we live in a wordy world. Henri Nouwen describes a visit to LA, saying, “it was like driving through a huge dictionary.” Everywhere he looked there were words shouting at him, trying to take his eyes off the road; billboards shouting “Use me, buy me, take me, smell me, drink me, eat me, Try this, Come here, Go there … “
A wordy church who are quick to talk. But often, because we have not listened first, all our talk is beside the point, empty chatter, cheap advice, emotional reactions, arrogant judgments. When we don’t listen carefully, when our speech does not come from a place of deep listening, our words may end up interrupting the work and the word of God in people’s lives.
The Desert Fathers and Mothers believed that talking too much is unhealthy for the spiritual life. It is like leaving the door of the oven open. It lets the heat escape and spoils the baking. If we speak too much, the fire of the Holy Spirit within us dies, they said, and we are left with our own boring, petty ideas. The Abbas and Ammas of the desert maintained that silence is the best way to guard the fire of the Spirit inside. Silence is the safest way to God. It is the birthplace of words that are wise, and meaningful, and beautiful, and true, and respectful, and life-giving. Silence teaches us to speak. It keeps our hearts and minds anchored in the future world, the kingdom world, so that we can speak from there a creative and re-creative word to the present.
One major temptation for us is that we talk too much, too quickly, without listening first. Another major temptation for the church is that we think doing is more important than listening. We make a false dichotomy between listening and doing where one is useful and helpful, contributing to society, the other much less so. Listening is seen as passive, something that doesn’t accomplish much; it is nice, but not all that useful. Doing, on the other hand, is valued because we view it as active, and helpful, and productive.
We prefer doing over listening. We are a church of Martha’s. You’ve got to do something, make yourself handy, you can’t just sit there and listen. Or, as someone in one church complained, there’s too much praying in this church.
That is often how we read this text. There are huge needs in the world, we can’t sit around wasting our time with prayer and Bible study and listening to people. We’ve got to do something practical. Better get on with it. So we separate listening and doing and over-emphasize doing. We are called to do, to serve, to work, to address the needs of widows and orphans. But so much of what we do as a church, and as Christians, do not come from a place of deep listening. We end up becoming pragmatists, busybodies, workaholics. And there’s no freedom in that; there’s no joy in that; no lasting fruit ever come from that. We are left with a kind of works-righteousness that cannot save.
The problem in the church is seldom that we don’t do enough. It is more often that we don’t listen enough to God, to each other, and to our neighbours. Adam McHugh, writes, “In an age when the church has lost some of its influence and prestige, our temptation may be to turn up the volume. Backed into a corner, feeling like a persecuted minority, we might fight harder and preach louder. We hope that our shouting will unplug the ears of a culture that has ceased to listen to us. Instead, I consider this a good time for the church to listen.”
We have to be “on the front lines of listening”, listen to the questions people ask. Listening so that we may speaks words of wisdom, words that sustain, that comfort, that heal, that reconcile, that give direction and peace. Speaking and doing that comes from a place of deep listening sounds and looks radically different than the compulsive speaking and doing that we have become so used to in the church.
I always find it interesting how the Servant of the Lord is described in Isaiah 50:4. The Sovereign LORD has given me a well-instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary. He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen like one being instructed.
Dualistic thinking that separates listening and doing completely misrepresents the text. It fails to understand the relational nature of the Christian life, how completely dependant we are on God’s word. James reminds us that God chooses to give us birth through the word of truth. Listening to this word produces the fruit of righteousness that God desires.
And so the invitation is to humbly accept this word planted in us that can save us. We continue to listen so that we will be rooted in the Word.
One of the basic truths about God is that God speaks, and God listens.
God speaks. And when God speaks, things happen. The Word creates, bring to life, arranges the universe, guides and directs, inspires, transforms, heals, saves.
And God listens. There is a moving account of this in Exodus 3, where God says, I have heard my people’s cries. Hearing their cries moved God to action. Cornelius prayed and God hears his prayers. And in answer to that prayer, Peter receives a vision of the blanket with clean and unclean animals. David says in Psalm 40, I waited patiently for the Lord, he turned to me and heard my cry. He lifted me out of the slimy pit …
Our spirituality is based on how God is - a God who speaks and who listens. This is the basic flow of our communion with God. God speaks and we listen. God listens as we speak. First for us is to listen. Be still and know …
We start at the feet of Jesus, like Mary. This is where love for God is born, where we are transformed, where the truth is planted deep in us, where we are inspired for authentic service.
This is easier said than done. Sometimes we fool ourselves that we are listening. We take a quick glance, we read quickly but don’t ponder, we hear but don’t listen. Like the person who looks briefly in the mirror, turns away, and forgets. The word doesn’t get a chance to germinate and take root. Nouwen says, when we don’t guard God’s fire within, we will have little warmth and light to offer others.
James calls for a different kind of listening, a different kind of looking in the mirror. To take a long, intentional look, to continue in it, to remember; a listening to the Word that will transform our doing and issue in radical obedience, in humble service.
Not only are we called to listen to God, but we are also called to listen to others. Again, this easier said than done. Listening takes time. It can’t be hurried. How do we do that when we are always on the run? Listening means we have to set aside our own ideas and opinions and open ourselves to the other person. We have to pay attention to the other and take them seriously. Listening requires that we create space for another person in our hearts and in our calendars. How do we do that when our minds are full, and our agendas crammed with appointments? We have to get out of our own heads.
“Sometimes,” Nouwen says, “it seems that our many words are more an expression of our doubt than our faith. It is as if we are not sure that God’s Spirit can touch the hearts of people, and we have to help him out.”
Listening requires more than skills. It asks for an attitude of love, a desire and a will to welcome the other. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which we receive, welcome, and accept the other. It creates space where strangers can enter and become friends. The good news is that it is not all up to us. The Spirit creates sacred space in us where others can be received and listened to.
When we open ourselves to the Spirit and to others in listening, amazing things happen. Words and deeds that are born in silent listening where the Holy Spirit is at work become means of grace, expressions of true love. Nouwen reminds us that, “The Spirit of Jesus prays in us, and listens in us to all who come to us with their suffering and pain.” Isn’t that remarkable!
Sermon by Rev. Dr. Gerard Booy
Langley Presbyterian Church, August 29, 2021