The Holy Art of Listening


Isaiah 65:1-9

Psalm 22:19-28

Galatians 3:23-29

Luke 8:26-39

Prayer of the Day: O Lord God, we bring before you the cries of a sorrowing world. In your mercy set us free from the chains that bind us, and defend us from everything that is evil, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord.

“I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask,
   to be found by those who did not seek me.
I said, ‘Here I am, here I am’,
   to a nation that did not call on my name.
I held out my hands all day long
   to a rebellious people,
who walk in a way that is not good,
   following their own devices;
a people who provoke me
   to my face continually…” Isaiah 65:1-3.

The psalm for this Sunday begins with the cry of dereliction echoed by Jesus hanging on the cross: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from helping me, from the words of my groaning?” Psalm 22:1. It is a cry that I am sure resonates with parents of the children gunned down at Robb Elementary School in Uvalde, Texas on May 24th. So, too, the loved ones of those shot down the week before in a Buffalo, New York shopping center by a white supremacist. I could add to the list millions of people in this country who have been living hand to mouth for decades and now find that their fragile existence has become even more tenuous due to crushing inflation. These words also resonate with the Israelites recently returned from exile to a land ravaged by war and ruled by foreign powers. Their high expectations for a new beginning seemed dashed by the hard realities of life under Persian domination. “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” they cry out in despair. Isaiah 64:1.  

Our lesson from Isaiah, part of which is quoted above, is God’s response to Israel’s complaint in the prior chapter. In effect, God replies, “I did come down to you! I’ve been here all the time stretching out my hands to you, calling you, pleading with you. The problem is not that I’m not speaking. The problem is that you are not listening!”

Listening involves more than hearing. Listening creates, in the words of poet, Mary Oliver, “a silence in which another voice may speak.” It requires focus, discipline and patience. I find that the most difficult part of listening is putting what I want to say out of mind. I don’t know about you, but I often find that, when discussing what I believe to be important issues, particularly with those with whom I disagree, I lose a lot of what is being said to me because I am already formulating my response to what is said. I have convinced myself that I already understand the tired, ignorant and fallacious arguments my conversation partner is raising and all that remains for me is to defeat them with the superior knowledge and reasoning I already possess. I don’t believe there is anything I have to learn in this discussion. This isn’t about learning. It is about winning. For that reason, much of our dialogue these days is unfruitful. People are seldom persuaded through argument and debate. Minds are seldom, if ever, changed as the result of a single argument, speech or sermon-much less a post or a tweet. In any event, that has never been the case with me. My mind changes more like an aircraft carrier altering its course than a hydroplane making an abrupt turn. Profound changes of opinion come more through having to wrestle with troubling questions raised by people who have listened to me long enough to understand not only my convictions, but also the life experiences that brought me to those convictions. I have been most profoundly changed by people who speak parabolically rather than strictly rationally.  

Arguments operate as frontal assaults upon our beliefs. They evoke a defensive response and so tend to drive us deeper into our entrenched positions. Jesus understood this well. That is why he seldom allowed himself to be drawn into moral and theological arguments. Instead, he used parables. Rather than pounding on the front door and demanding admission, parables sneak in through the back door. They invite us to recognize ourselves in stories that put flesh and blood consequences upon what we claim to believe. They tend to sow seeds of doubt about our entrenched convictions causing us, over time, to question and, perhaps, abandon them.

Many of our modes of communication do not lend themselves to the art of listening. So much of our public discussion takes place these days over social media where we often know nothing about those with whom we are disputing other than what little they can manage to say about significant issues in tweets and Facebook posts. Such disembodied, one dimensional dialogue tends only to deepen divisions, re-enforce stereotypes and inflame passions. Would it make a difference, I wonder, if you knew that the pro-life activist with whom you are debating online was a woman who lost a pregnancy, but never found a way to grieve that loss through ritual, tradition and communal support typically accompanying the loss of a child? Would it make a difference if you knew how it grated on her to hear the terms “miscarriage” and “loss of a fetus”? Would it make a difference if you knew that the pro-choice advocate you encounter in the chat room was the father of a teen with a pregnancy threating her life and health? Would it make a difference if you knew how this family is agonizing over how to deal with this crisis? If we took the time to listen, not merely to each other’s points of view but to our respective stories, would that change the way we speak to and treat one another?

How, then, do we listen to God? Jesus has answered that question for us. In the gospel of Matthew, he tells us that whatever we have done or failed to do for those regarded as “least” among us, we have done to or left undone for God. Maybe we have spent too much time looking for the God who sits at the controls making things happen down here on planet earth. Maybe we have looked too long and hard for the God who will solve all our problems and make everything come out right. In fact, there is no such god and it is therefore not surprising that those seeking it find nothing and meet only silence. The true God is crying out to us from refugee camps around the world, from the depths of prisons, from slums, from war torn cities and towns, from homeless shelters, from within abusive and dysfunctional families. The true God addresses us in all that God has made; through “weeds in a vacant lot, or a few small stones.” The true God calls out to us from rivers choaked with sludge, deforested wasteland and dying coral reefs. This God is ready to be found. This God’s arms are outstretched. This God is present and longing to be heard. We need only listen.

Here is the poem by Mary Oliver to which I alluded above and which invites us to prayerful listening.


It doesn’t have to be
the blue iris, it could be
weeds in a vacant lot, or a few
small stones; just
pay attention, then patch

a few words together and don’t try
to make them elaborate, this isn’t
a contest but the doorway

into thanks, and a silence in which
another voice may speak.

SourceThirst, (c. 2007 by Mary Oliver; pub. by Beacon Press). Mary Oliver was born in 1935 in Maple Heights, Ohio. She spent much of her life on Cape Cod and was deeply influenced by poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay. Her work received early critical attention with the 1983 publication of a collection of poems entitled American Primitive. She is a recipient of both the Pulitzer Prize for Poetry and the National Book Award. You can read more about Mary Oliver and sample some of her other poems at the Poetry Foundation Website.

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