Listening as a Spiritual Act

December 30, 2007

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The Christian religion is very focused on talking; you can see this in the role of prominent leaders. The more important they are, the more they talk. But what if we have it wrong? Could true religion be more about listening?

I just read the following in the excellent book Soul Graffiti: Making a Life in the Way of Jesus by Mark Scandrette:

I believe part of our society’s frustration with organized religion stems from a lack of discourse and question-asking. The one-way communication from pastor or priest to congregants that is so prevalent maintains awe, authority, and distance, but does not invite fully engaged participation, ownership, or collective action. If our goal is generative loving activity, rather than mere indoctrination, then candid dialogue must be encouraged. We need casual cooperative contexts in which we can ask questions and navigate how to live and travel well together. Perhaps this is one of the reasons why early followers of the Way so often ate together in their homes and met from house to house.

Some may respond, “Ah-ha, then what we need to do is promote conversation!” which is not a bad idea. But if it’s contrived or controlled, I’m not sure that it’s a conversation. The hallmark of conversation is listening. How can you tell when listening is taking place?

At a surface level, listening happens when I allow you to change the course of the conversation. Let me use a negative illustration to show what I mean: I say something. Then you say something. If what I say next is the same regardless of what you said, was I listening? We have all done it, and had it done to us. I wasn’t really listening; I was taking a breath to prepare what I would say next.

But now let’s stretch it further: What if I give some kind of response to what you said, but then I get back on my original track, which I had planned out in advance? I’m not saying this is a bad thing one should never do. It’s called teaching. But it is not listening, so please don’t call it a conversation.

Listening is the act of acknowledging another person’s life.

At a deeper level, listening happens when I allow you to change me. Again, a negative illustration: I say something. Then you say something. I acknowledge what you said, and even use it later to illustrate my point. But if I am not changed in some way by what you said, was I listening? We often fulfill Colbert’s roast of President Bush: “He believes the same thing Wednesday that he believed on Monday, no matter what happened Tuesday.”

Bear with me, but I want to take this beyond an exchange of words. If you enter my sphere of life for a short time, but that interaction does not shape my life even subtly, then I am not listening. It’s like the interaction never took place, because I wasn’t changed. You know the saying, “If a tree falls in a forest…” If we exchange words but are no different for it, was it an interaction? Here, the movie Waking Life says it better than I can:

I believe that listening is a daring, spiritual act. Do you like people-watching? Yesterday at the mall, while trying to let the crowds flow by me, I paused to observe individuals, each living their own life, and I tried to imagine who they were. Listening is the act of acknowledging another person’s life. It is recognizing that someone’s words and body language are not isolated data, but are a reflection of a lifetime of experiences. Listening is recognizing that hey, there are other people here, too.

Humility is, perhaps, the most important spiritual practice of all.

How does this “I allow you to change me” stuff work when you and I disagree about something? I think deep listening requires the humility to ask myself, “What if I am wrong?” Even when we agree, it is easy to have the conceit that our agreement means you see things exactly as I do, which is simply not true. If disagreement builds humility in us, agreement requires us to use that same humility. And humility is, perhaps, the most important spiritual practice of all. (Thank you, Dave Jacobs.) God is often portrayed as grandiose and controlling, so it may seem odd to consider the Master as the most humble of all:

Don’t be selfish; don’t try to impress others. Be humble, thinking of others as better than yourselves. Don’t look out only for your own interests, but take an interest in others, too. You must have the same attitude that Christ Jesus had.Philippians 2:3-5

Humility is so central to the Way of Jesus that he made it a strong emphasis at the Last Supper. (Quick aside: another reference to the importance of shared meals, hmm.) If we embrace listening as a spiritual practice, we will learn humility, becoming more like the Master, and thus becoming more like God.

Exercises

  • Observe yourself during conversations. When the other person is talking, are you listening, or are you thinking about what you will say next?
  • Break out of “ant auto-pilot”. The next time you are buying something and the cashier says, “How are you today,” can you turn the programmed ritual into a conversation? Ask for their opinion about something, even something random. When they say, “Thank you and have a good day,” don’t reply, “Thanks, you too,” as you look at your receipt. Instead, look them in the eyes, thank them by name, and give them a blessing.
  • The next time you have a disagreement, ask yourself, “What if they are right?” Even with something you think is flat-out wrong, say a quick prayer: “Master, show me the grain of truth in what they are saying.”
  • When somebody agrees with you, remind yourself that they see the world through their own experiences, for their own purposes. Does that deflate your pride somewhat?
  • Practice listening to strangers, acquaintances, colleagues, friends, and family. Try it at home, at work, at school, on the street. Where is it easier or harder? With whom is it easier or harder?
  • Invite yourself to someone’s home for a meal. Invite others to your home. Listen, and let these moments change you.

I would love to hear you share your experiences with these exercises. What others would you suggest?

Jon Reid

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As an American missionary kid who grew up in Japan, I'm a child of two cultures, while not fully belonging to either. This gives me a sightly different view of the world.

8 responses to Listening as a Spiritual Act

  1. The exercises sound easy to do it I remain conscious of them. This sounds like a good way to live life. Glad you stayed home from the Sunday Morning Service today.

  2. Rob, me too! I don’t think I could have written that unless I had had the entire morning free.

  3. Narrator: When people think you’re dying, they really, really listen to you, instead of just…
    Marla Singer: – instead of just waiting for their turn to speak?

  4. Love the quote, Noelle. Too funny!

  5. Good advice.
    (Nope, did’t read the other 100 comments, but started reading your blog from the beginning, I’m up to 2007 now…)

  6. Dana, you are taking the grand tour! I hope some of it, at least, is worth your time. 🙂

  7. Jon, somehow I missed this when you originally posted it… thanks.
    I have a feeling it will work its way into my sermon on Sunday

  8. Roy, glad to see you (and others) find this post. If you ever use it, I’d be curious to know!