Heart. Mind. Body.
Let’s talk more about listening well. Listening well involves the heart, activates in the mind, and expresses itself in the body.
We start by wanting to listen, valuing the other person and caring for them. Listening is an act of caring, and that’s why it starts with the heart. We begin by preparing our hearts to be open to someone, to love them and to want to be part of sharing with them as they speak. This isn’t romantic love, or just a warm fuzzy feeling, but it’s the kind of love which comes from understanding that God loves them and values them, and so they are important to me as well. I begin by cultivating a heart that is open to the one speaking.
Next we make the choice to listen; this is where our minds come in. It’s a play on words, but while we may not always have a choice when it come to hearing something, we can always make the choice to listen. I need to clear my mind of other distractions, set aside other things I’ve been thinking about and bring the person speaking into focus. I have to stop my mind, rally my attention and turn it to the one speaking, concentrating on what they say and how they say it.
Finally, our bodies help us to bring the other person into focus. We put down our phones and close our notebook computers to avoid their distracting screens and notifications. We make eye contact. We use our body language, facial expressions and even our words to convey that we are ready to listen. When someone comes to me and says they need to share something, or maybe I see in their face and body language how important something is going to be, I can say “Just a moment, my mind is spinning” and I stop to take a deep breath, put down my phone and then give them my full attention and say, “Ok, I’m settled and better ready to listen now.”
Decisions & Practices
This is very similar to conversations I’ve been in dealing with topics like eating and studying. Have you been in a conversation with someone about the benefits of not always forcing down meals as fast as possible to get back to work, but slowing down to better enjoy the food and allow our bodies a chance to digest things? When it’s time to read, pray or study do you find the best place to sit, make sure the lighting is good and that you have all the materials you need like reading glasses, a journal and your favorite writing pen and highlighter? We know that investing time and energy to prepare for meals and for study will pay off. If listening is important, then it shouldn’t be taken for granted. We should develop habits and personal practices which help us enter a posture of listening well.
We use our hearts, minds and bodies to prepare ourselves and to listen. These are decisions we make (caring and focusing) and practices we exercise (putting aside distractions and making eye contact) which will pay a rich dividend of better conversations and stronger relationships.
“If, then, there is any comfort in Christ, any consolation from love, any partnership in the Spirit, any tender affection and sympathy, make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or empty conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests but to the interests of others.”
St. Paul in Philippians 2:1-4, NRSVue
Be blessed, Rev Todd
These are my notes from the sermon of January 8th 2023 as we begin a sermon series Life Together on the foundational practices of building strong relationships and community.
Life Together: Listening, Our First Foundational Practice
Good morning, St. Timothy’s family and friends and everyone gathered for worship this morning. It’s January 8th, a feast day when we celebrate the Baptism of Our Lord (so we are liturgically white instead of green), the first Sunday after Epiphany, we’re commissioning our Vestry in worship, and we’re starting a sermon series entitled Life Together… sound like enough for one day? As we spend some time with our scriptures and a foundational practice for building our life together, may the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable to God, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
I love the story we read in John chapter 4 when one day along the hot, dusty road Jesus has an amazing conversation with an unnamed Samaritan woman beside a well. The two talk theology, comparative religion and about life in general. The woman will eventually become quite the evangelist bringing her whole town out to meet Jesus. I love the story because we see Jesus practicing what he preaches… accepting people without judgment, valuing them above societal, national or even religious reasons to withdraw from them, and listening. Yes, listening.
You may remember that back in Advent one of the contrasts we made between the ministries of John the baptizer and Jesus was that we have such a rich record of Jesus not only preaching, but also conversing and spending time with people. It’s something we really don’t have for John the Baptizer. And it’s so important for us to see Jesus with people and not just preaching. Oh, Jesus is a fine preacher, and surely we are who we are because of what Jesus teaches, but we are also so enriched to see him with people in daily life, building relationships and doing life together with the people around him. We’re enriched because this is where we most often find ourselves… not standing in the pulpit and exercising grand oratory skills, but praying together, working and walking alongside each other in the routine of daily life and community needs.
Even for a vocational preacher we’re just talking about a few minutes of each week preaching, ah but doing daily life and building relationships and community is the stuff of every single day. And so even for preachers, as for Jesus, as for all of us, the art of listening is so crucial to valuing and participating with one another.
Jesus Was a Good Listener
I mentioned that in the conversation with this unnamed Samaritan woman we see Jesus practicing what he preaches, and you’re probably familiar with the phrase “Let them with ears hear.” Jesus uses that phrase in conjunction with important parables, as in Luke 8 and the Parable of the Sower, to get people to stop and pay attention to what’s being said. The author of Revelation uses the same phrase many times as messages are delivered to the individually named churches, “Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches.” In other words, listen up!
Jesus not only asks for us to listen up, but he shows an active interested listening when he’s with people. He’s able to chat and have conversations because he cares about people and what they have to say. The long conversation in John 4 is just one example.
It’s actually one of the first things Teresa and I were taught at seminary in the process of getting our degrees in missiology, rule number one: before you teach, you must learn; before you speak, you must listen. The practical reasons for that are found in things like the importance of learning language and culture so that what you say has a better chance of being sensical and understandable. But the real value is found in making relationships and sharing life before you would try to teach or impart your message.
I’m sure you know the old saying, “No one will care how much you know until they know how much you care.” Listening well conveys valuing, and it lays a firm foundation for all that may come after, like questions, dialogue, and even debate. Listening conveys respect, upholds dignity and brings two or more people closer.
Listening also helps us avoid the relationship breaking anger of speaking too much or too hotly. You’ve probably also heard the old saying, “God gave us two ears and one mouth, so be quiet and listen!” It’s very similar to what James said in our reading this morning in (James 1:19-20)… lean into listening, be quick and curious to hear, but then slow down when you speak… because anger doesn’t bring about God’s righteousness. Oh, we all get angry sometimes, and it can be a good motivator when we need to make some changes in life and the world around us, but it’s not a tool for good when we’re in conversations. It makes us overstate things, tempts us to punish or attack; it leads us astray and begins to separate us further and further apart.
Listening to one another will help understand one another, learn from one another and move forward together. Honestly, I fear that when we stop listening we start competing. When we start competing, we start having winners and losers instead of community. We’ve all been there… we’re in a conversation and when someone starts talking we immediately start thinking of what we’re going to say back. When that happens we not really listening any more. We’re not valuing the person or wanting to understand them, but probably hoping to score a point and win the conversation. Any response we might eventually give will be so much the better for having listened to and having valued the one speaking.
And so our first foundational practice of building life together is the art and practice of listening, giving a gracious and welcoming ear to one another that communicates the love, respect and value we have for one another. And like all practices, it’s something for us to practice! It’s not about having always done it perfectly or being the best at it, but about practicing and making it an intentional habit and growth area.
God Takes the Posture of a Listener
And if we think about it, it’s emulation of God, who we believe is a God of listening. We believe that God hears us when we pray and listens when we cry out in life. As the opening lines of Psalm 116 sing aloud, “I love the Lord because he has heard my voice and my supplications. Because he inclined his ear to me, therefore I will call on him as long as I live.” We believe that God gives an ear to us, and what a gift for us to do the same for one another!
Sharing the Gift of Listening Well
O God, we would have ears and we would hear. We would hear you and one another, learning from you and from one another. Develop in us the gracious listening you showed us in Christ and that the Psalmist sings of in your giving us an ear. We would listen to one another in such a way that grows our mutual love and communal bonds. Help us slow our words and churning minds to make more room in our hearts for one another. We ask this in Christ Jesus. Amen, amen and amen.
Be blessed, Rev. Todd
Hey. I’ll listen. Need to say something? Need to get something off your chest? Need to just be heard? I will listen. Really.
I had a great conversation this week with a friend and fellow life coach about the struggle we often face to listen well. Sometimes we’re just wired to be talking. Sometimes our own pride wants to speak and to share and to be getting the attention. Sometimes we just don’t care what the other person is talking about.
But the other person has an intrinsic right to be heard. My friend said that he felt that “he owed it to the person speaking to listen as well as he could.” I think he’s right. He owes a debt of listening to the people around him. I owe that debt to others. I owe that debt to you.
We pulled out our Bibles and sat with Paul for a bit in the letter in the Philippians…
“Therefore if you have any encouragement from being united with Christ, if any comfort from his love, if any common sharing in the Spirit, if any tenderness and compassion, then make my joy complete by being like-minded, having the same love, being one in spirit and of one mind. Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others.” Philippians 2:1-4
That’s kinda cool, huh? I have a debt to care about the things that interest you. Honestly, I was raised to think more that scripture told me what to be interested in, and by default I was to do the same for others. Looking into the Greek just a little it seems to me that the emphasis is as much on the “looking to” as the “interests.” It’s a posture of focus, attention and concern for the other person that flows from an experience of Christ.
In our life coach training we go over the essentials to listening well and ways to be sure that we respect and hear someone who is speaking to us. It’s not too hard, and here are a few of the core elements to adopting a posture of attention…
1. Give the speaker your visual attention. Stop looking at other things and letting yourself get distracted.
2. Don’t interrupt. Let the person say what they need or want to say. Silence really is awesome at times! Give the person time to refine their words and hear themselves.
3. Stop creating a response before they even finish speaking. This is a hard one for many of us as we want to argue and begin arguing in our minds before they finish their thought.
I need to be giving respectful attention, making eye contact and communicating my concern with body language. I need to give enough uninterrupted space for the other person to finish sentences and complete their thoughts. I need to release the assumption of needing to change the person, argue with the person or correct the person.
Having listened, I can be creative with ways to better understand what is being said. St. Ignatius taught a principle for listening that basically said I should receive what is said with the “benefit of the doubt” assigning the speaker the best possible intentions and meanings. He said that if I have trouble with what was said, I should ask for clarifications. If what is being said is simply hurtful or negative and there’s no good to be found in it, my response is still charity and love, even if I must give correction or a dissenting view. Listening well and trying to hear the best possible intention in the other person doesn’t presuppose acquiescence, but instead sets the stage for understanding and responding with charity and love.
If you’ve taken a counseling class then you’ve probably learned to ask clarifying questions. We were taught ask questions that clarify meaning and clarify feeling. We don’t want leading questions that presuppose a particular answer, but we want to encourage the greatest level of understanding and sharing. We want to create an open safe space for answering.
To open another piece of scripture from Paul, this seems to be an imminently practical way to live a fulfillment of our shared “debt of love.”
“Give to everyone what you owe: If you owe taxes, pay taxes; if revenue, then revenue; if respect, then respect; if honor, then honor. Let no debt remain outstanding, except the continuing debt to love one another, for whoever loves others has fulfilled the law. The commandments, ‘You shall not commit adultery,’ ‘You shall not murder,’ ‘You shall not steal,’ ‘You shall not covet,’ and whatever other command there may be, are summed up in this one command: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ Love does no harm to its neighbor. Therefore love is the fulfillment of the law.” Romans 13:7-10
I’ll do my best to pay my debts. I’ll look you in the eye and give you the respectful hearing you want and need. If I’m not, poke me on the shoulder and remind me that I owe you more.