We live in a noisy environment and hear an awful lot of things without actually listening properly. Tuning some things out may be good but if we are to help other people and also to work with others of different viewpoints, we need to actively listen. The sermon preached in the Cathedral at 2pm SLT today is below. The readings were Psalm 87, Acts 11:19-26, John 10:22-30.
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord our rock and our redeemer. Amen.
We’re surrounded by noise in our everyday lives. It may not be as bad as in some Indian cities where the level of sound from cars using their horns all the time is so high that it is causing hearing loss in the residents, but unless you are very fortunate, getting some peace is hard work. I am lucky enough to work from home and so can choose not to have music playing but I can still hear a bit of sound from cars passing our home, more so if I have the windows open of course. Once we leave our homes we are assaulted by the noise of traffic, that irritating half music from other people’s headphones, people shouting down their mobile phones (I have to wonder why some need to use a phone to communicate as their voice must carry far enough without), musak in supermarkets and stores, sirens from emergency vehicles and so it goes on. Somewhere among all that there is probably the sound of birdsong but you would be hard pressed to know.
We are hearing things all the time but something we are not doing as often as we should is listening. You can hear without trying to do so and if you hear a particular noise often enough your brain tunes the sound out so that you don’t notice it. Even people who have express trains thundering past their house every half hour can get to the point where they don’t notice it at all. Maybe it’s a good thing that we can tune out some of the sounds around us but there’s a risk that we also ignore important items. When I was training as a teacher we were told about children who become ‘mother deaf’. They live with a constant noise from their mother: ‘Put that away!’ ‘Come here now!’ ‘I’ll kill you if you don’t give up.’ ‘What did you do that for, stupid?’ and so on. It never stops and so in the end the child switches off in order to preserve their sanity. In the process they might miss the one useful comment such as ‘Look out!’ when they are about to step into danger. Switching off can have dire consequences.
We hear about people who have had strokes and then need to learn all the things they once knew all over again. Walking, talking, feeding themselves, getting a shower, reading, so many things might be affected depending on which bit of brain was damaged. In our noisy society we all need to learn to listen again. It’s a skill we have mostly lost, one that was well developed in the cultures which relied on transmitting history and news orally in the past. So much of what we think of as listening is nothing of the sort. We hear another person talking but our focus is on the reply we are going to give, not on understanding the person who is speaking. We need to really pay attention in order to listen as we should. One of the first things I learnt on my counselling courses was to switch off the internal voice and really listen. Proverbs 18:13 says ‘He who answers before listening-that is his folly and his shame.’ James says, ‘Let every person be quick to hear and slow to speak’. I suppose that’s rather like the saying about having 2 ears and one mouth so we should use them in that proportion.
When we listen to someone we need to be alert to what is not said but is felt. We need to think how we would feel in a similar situation in order to develop empathy. In SL listening also includes reading text. It’s a sort of double listening, listening to the person and also listening to the prompts that God gives us about someone. This double listening will be informed by what we read in God’s word. As Jesus said, ‘My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me.’ It is by listening to Jesus that we find out how to follow him, what to do and where to go, or how to minister to a particular person’s needs.
I wonder if you remember these words from a song:
Red and yellow and pink and green,
Purple and orange and blue.
I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow too.
Listen with your eyes, listen with your eyes,
And sing everything you see.
I can sing a rainbow, sing a rainbow,
Sing along with me.
It might be an old song and a bit childish but there’s something to learn. The first thing is that we are asked to listen with our eyes. In SL that will need to be the eyes of the heart as we can’t see the person. In RL we will be looking for non-verbal communication such as posture, expression and involuntary movements. There is some debate about how much information is conveyed this way but certainly a reasonable proportion is. Research suggests up to 70%. When someone says they are fine but looks like the cares of the world are on their shoulders, you know something is wrong.
The other thing the song tells us to do is to ‘sing everything you see’. Songs are much better at conveying emotion than prose. The language used is not just trying to tell us the facts but the layers underneath the facts, the things that really matter in a given situation. Think of the psalms. They were designed for singing. At the beginning of some of them you can still read the instructions for the leader of the singing. For instance Psalm 67 has ‘To the choirmaster: with stringed instruments.’ These psalms are full of raw emotion, without disguise and careful phrases to be politically correct or to say what the psalmist thought God wanted to hear. Sometimes they are full of sorrow, sometimes of joy, sometimes of anger or despair. Even all these years later people will attest to the help they have found from reciting these ancient songs when they wanted to find a way to express themselves. Setting words to music is also a good way to learn them. I know that singing hymns from being very young has taught me much of the Bible and many things about God.
Recently a friend was writing some narrative preaching about the rape of Tamar, a story you can read about in 2 Samuel Chapter 13. In order to write this piece he had to really enter into Tamar’s experience, to feel as she felt – no mean feat for a man considering the impact of rape on a woman. By listening (reading) with the eyes of his heart, what has resulted is like a song, though written in prose. It conveys the desolation and violation in a way very much like the psalms and far more powerfully than a straightforward story could. The title of the piece is ‘Where is my voice?’ and, having read this piece, I would say that Tamar finally has a voice, courtesy of someone who took the trouble to listen and speak for the voiceless.
If we can develop the skills to really listen, not to make assumptions, not to push our agenda, or offer our opinions, but to enter into the feelings of whomever speaks to us, we will be doing a great service to many with whom we come into contact each day. Even better if we can offer such profound listening to those with whom we don’t agree, see things from their point of view. This is needed so much in the Anglican Church at the moment and the Church as a whole. Barnabas listened to those who had begun to reach out with the Gospel to the Greek speaking Gentiles. The Jerusalem church didn’t like what was going on and sent Barnabas to check it out. Barnabas did some double listening, being full of the Holy Spirit and of faith. As a result the ministry was encouraged by him, which makes sense as his name means ‘Son of encouragement’.
As individuals we should listen and as leaders we should also, using our influence with care. As Peter said in his first letter: Now as an elder myself and a witness of the sufferings of Christ, as well as one who shares in the glory to be revealed, I exhort the elders among you to tend the flock of God that is in your charge, exercising the oversight, not under compulsion but willingly, as God would have you do it—not for sordid gain but eagerly. Do not lord it over those in your charge, but be examples to the flock. And when the chief shepherd appears, you will win the crown of glory that never fades away.
I urge you to pray for the leadership team as we move forward, that we will listen to all that has been shared in the review process and to anyone who wants to share with us in the weeks and months ahead as we steer this ministry into its next phase.
May we bring glory to God. Amen.