One of the wonderful things about spring is the early morning bird song. Of course, one has to be quiet to hear. Other noises, like the radio, kettle boiling or conversation so easily drown out the beautiful pre-dawn blackbirds and thrushes summoning the entrance of a new day.
There’s a story about an aborigine visiting New York for the first time and his host walks him around Manhattan with the buzz of the city heard on every street. The aborigine stops for a moment and asks his friend, “Did you hear that”. ‘Hear what?’ asks his bemused host. “The cicadas, chirping”. His host had not but the aborigine, listening carefully, finds and gently cups the insect in his hands and says to his friend. “It depends what you’re listening to”.
In a culture that is so saturated with noise, intentional listening becomes a discipline. All kinds of distractions can get in the way of listening well. Intentional listening begins with questions like: How are we listening? or what and who are we listening to? To God, ourselves, others and the world around us? What distractions prevent us from listening well?
It reminded me of a story I read earlier this year of Roosevelt being weary of people not listening to him well. He told his Chief of Staff that he was to conduct an experiment at one of the many receptions that were held at the White House. To everyone who passed down the line and shook his hand he said, “I murdered my grandmother this morning”. So many guests, not listening properly, responded with phrases like “Marvellous! Keep up the good work. God bless you sir. That’s so good Mr President, thank you”. It wasn’t until the end of the line, greeting one of the foreign ambassadors that his words were actually heard. Nonplussed, the ambassador whispered,” I’m sure she had it coming!”.
I’m sure we’ve all had those experiences where we wondered if anybody is really listening.
The church here in the UK and in the States has, in recent days, found itself mirroring the spirit of the age: factionalism. The unity of the church, reflecting the unity of the triune God, is something Jesus prayed for. Vital for a credible witness to an unbelieving world, Jesus said that it was through our love for one another that the world would know that we belong to him. The task of the church is to maintain the unity that God’s Spirit gives. It is so sad how many Christians are splitting into camps and campaign mode, contending, fighting and falling out with one another. The result is an inability to listen well, listen in order to learn, understand, gain a wider perspective, be challenged, enlightened and changed.
Of course the issues that churches and denominations are splitting over, like the current debates on human sexuality, are complex and contentious. Would that the same amount of energy and passion was spent grappling with issues like poverty, global warming, corruption, propaganda, the power of corporations, war and peace – most of which the Scriptures have more to say about than the current issue being debated.
To listen well requires humility, gentleness, respect, patience, compassion and a commitment to maintain the unity of the Holy Spirit. It seems to me that sometimes we are more zealous fighting for our rights, privileges and preferences, contending for that which is right in our own eyes, rather than continuing to maintain unity, to hold truths in tension and recognise both the challenges and blessings that come through diversity.
I loved being away this week at St Hilda’s Priory in Whitby with my Northumbrian Collective Associates. Yes, it helps significantly that we are good friends, but the level of debate and discussion on contentious issues, with sometimes four different opinions and perspectives, was a healthy experience. We prayed and we laughed, we ate, (fish and chips – we were in Whitby!) and drank, were light-hearted but also serious about listening well, thinking deeply, living authentically and intentionally. My heart and mind was stirred. I was challenged and some of my thinking has changed. Some of my assumptions and opinions are now going through a rethink – the fruit of discerning together. All the time seeking to recognise the quiet, sometimes comforting, other times inspiring and occasionally grieving, presence of the Holy Spirit. BY ROY SEARLE