Wednesday, June 7, 2017

The Ministry of Listening and an Invitation to Spill

I am by no means a film connoisseur. I restrict my viewing strictly to educational or entertainment purposes. That said, one of my favorite movies is Legally Blonde of "Bend and SNAP!" and "Exercise gives you endorphins. Endorphins make you happy. Happy people just don’t shoot their husbands, they just don’t" fame.

Elle Wood's first day of class at Harvard Law School proves horrifying on a number of educational and personal levels and she parks her fancy ride haphazardly and staggers with rumpled hair and a tear-stained face into a hair and nail salon. The manicure lady, Paulette, looks up and takes notice.
Paulette: Bad day?
Elle nods. "You have no idea."
Paulette: Spill!
What a beautiful invitation! Who doesn't want to be able to spill. Just spill. To pour their heart out to another human being without encountering judgement or chastisement or correction or fixing or lectures or debate. In effect, to be listened to. To be heard. To be known. We want it. We need it. But we aren't good at doing it.
Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry. (James 1:19)
It seems that the first part of James command gets lost in the mix. How often do you hear a sermon about listening? Or read an article or blog post? We hear so much about the use of our words. What we shouldn't say (slander, gossip, false witness, profanity, the Lord's name in vain) and what we should (the truth) and sometimes we hear about how we should say it (in love). Sometimes we even hear about the value of keeping silent, so as to avoid sin. Proverbs is chock full of such wisdom and James later waxes eloquent about the destructive power of the tongue. We even have classes on logic and debate so that we can better communicate the wonderful truths of our biblical worldview. 

But when do we hear about listening? The thing is, listening is essential to all relationships. But listening is hard. It requires a humility to listen. It forces you to set aside your own agenda. It requires a certain level of other focus. It is proactive. I am going to go out on a limb and say that I do not think that you can truly love a person unless you are willing to listen to them.

I can already hear the pushback. "Aren't we told to teach one another and exhort one another and encourage one another and speak the truth (in love, of course) to one another?" Sure we are. But we aren't called to all of that all of the time. And how on earth can you know if you are to encourage or exhort unless you spend the time listening. Listening to understand not just listening to formulate your own response or fix the other person. 

Even Dietrich Bonhoeffer (and who can argue with him?)wrote of what he called "The Ministry of Listening."
“The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.
So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. 
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too. 
This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
I often hear people say that they don't know what to say to someone in crisis or someone that is hurting. You don't have to say anything. Offer to listen.

Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable. - David Augsburger 
Listening gets you outside yourself. Outside your well prepared answers. If love is all about laying aside your own agenda and desires, indeed your own life for that of another, there is not better way to do it than listening.

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