The Gift of Listening

This was originally written for the Spencer Daily Reporter in their Friday, November 25, 2016 edition. 

Are you a good listener?  Think of a recent conversation that had some substance to it.  Did you interrupt the other person?  Were you preoccupied with waiting for them to finish so you could say what you wanted to say?  Then you probably have some work to do on your listening skills.  If you focused on them and asked questions to help them express their ideas, you are probably a good listener.

Last week I attended a lecture at Drake University by Krista Tippett.  She is a journalist and radio/podcast host who interviews people about their understandings of faith and spirituality.  Her guests are theologians, scientists, business leaders, artists, authors, poets, all of whom have made it their life’s work to explore the connections among humans and with the natural world.  Near the beginning of each interview on her program “On Being,” she asks the guest about his or her story of faith in childhood.  The stories are fascinating.

Tippett’s appearance was well-timed, because she called for civil, more gracious discourse among ourselves.  If recent years of increasing negative rhetoric in the public square didn’t show us that we have to find a better way of being together, the presidential campaign did.  Tippett says, “we are starved, and ready, for fresh language to approach each other.” (from her book, Becoming Wise)  She quotes poet Elizabeth Alexander, who simply asks, “are we not of interest to each other?”

Last Saturday Pope Francis spoke in a ceremony to elevate 17 new cardinals at St. Peter’s Basilica.  He diagnosed the root of the anger that is seething around the world right now.  “In God’s heart there are no enemies…God has only sons and daughters,” he proclaimed.  He said that our gut reaction is to “discredit or curse,” even to “demonize” those whom we view as opponents so we can justify dismissing them along with their ideas.  He reminds us that God’s unconditional love “is the true prerequisite for the conversion of our pitiful hearts that tend to judge, divide, oppose, and condemn.”

We are a society of sound bites, busy schedules, and internet trolls.  I believe that we all yearn instead to know one another more deeply, and to be known.  This is an aspect of being made in the image of God (Gen 1.27).  We are wired to connect with each other, to love and be loved.  When asked what is the most important ethic for our lives, Jesus said that loving God with all of our being and loving one another as ourselves is at the core of authentic human life.  (Matt 22.37-39)

Our fast-paced lives are dominated by busy schedules and information that overwhelm us and leave us little time for meaningful relationships.  Yet it is those relationships that give us life.  We look forward to holidays and birthday celebrations with family, or Friday night beer with a best friend, slices of time in which we enjoy our relationships.  I’ll wager that lying in bed with your child and talking in the dark feeds both of your souls.  Yet we have come to see these as breaks from the norm instead of normality itself.

This need for loving relationships is at the essence of Jesus’ teaching and the pattern of the life he modeled.  He took time to listen to people who lived on the margins.  He told stories about the reign of God, which is focused on people instead of possessions or institutions.  He entered our story, the Word of God come to us as a person who cared and blessed and challenged and forgave us.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth,” Jesus said.  Those who listen well practice meekness, and they will indeed inherit the earth.  They see people as they are, as companions on a journey that is by turns difficult and delightful, so they recognize and enjoy the riches of life together.

In this holiday season, we can connect with others in meaningful ways, or we can focus on the trappings and keep family and friends at a distance.  It is our choice whether to busy ourselves with unrealistic expectations, or to keep things more simple and enjoy the people around us.  I suggest that a lasting gift you can give to yourself and to those you love this Christmas will be to listen more deeply than before.

In tomorrow’s post, I will list some practical ways to navigate your holiday conversations.  How to look forward to seeing Uncle Bill instead of dreading his political diatribes?  Well, maybe you won’t be able to go that far, but you can approach him with less anxiety.  It’s a start!  Stay tuned.  

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