Life Takes Practice: Listening

Second Sunday in Lent ● March 12, 2017
Reading: 1 Samuel 3:1-10
Pastor Jeff Wells

This is the second of five worship experiences focused on life practices that can help us to live well and be fully alive. Last week, we talked about centering practice. This morning, we are focusing on listening. It may sound simple, but listening well, ah, that’s a tricky thing to do. We are not talking about just hearing the words spoken, but listening deeply and with compassion, to try to understand – even when we might disagree. We can think of endeavoring to practice deep listening with three objects in mind: Listening to self, listening to the other, and listening to God. Let’s take the listening to ourselves first.    

Listening to self
This may be the best place to begin, because if we are unable to deeply listen to ourselves, how can we hope to listen to another or even to God? So much can get in the way of being able to listen deeply and compassionately to ourselves. Sometimes we have trouble because as children or adolescents we were diminished or harmed in some way. Perhaps we were discounted and not listened to and now we have suppressed parts of ourselves. Maybe there are parts of us we do not like very much or even make us feel shame, so we turn from listening to ourselves. Or, maybe we never learned how to listen to ourselves with love. For some people, it takes years of some combination of meditation, counseling, and psychotherapy to be healed enough to listen to themselves with curiosity and compassion.

This sort of deep listening is a crucial part of our process of discovering ourselves; of recognizing our beauty and giftedness and learning how to express these; of learning to love ourselves as we are now, even while we continue to evolve and grow. And listening to oneself has to involve our whole selves – body, mind, and spirit. I can share from my own experience that it took me a very long time to be able to listen well to myself. The mind is the easiest, because most of us are constantly in our heads, yet it is a struggle to bring to consciousness the many undercurrents of our minds and to recognize and deal with all of the experiences that have shaped us. Since coming back to faith in the late 1990s, I have grown to be much more in touch with and listening to my spirit. I am much more aware of my spiritual health and when I need to pay attention to an unexplored feeling or impulse.The body was hardest for me in some ways. Only in the last 15 years or so have I learned to listen well to my body – how it feels, how to experience when tension is building up and muscles are tightening, when I am in danger of getting sick, when I need to rest, being more careful about what I consume.

While I still have plenty of room to grow, having become more attuned to listen for my own inner processes and workings, I am also better equipped to listen to others – whether individuals or communities.

Listening to others
For most of us, our tendency is to speak more than listen and even when we are supposedly listening, we listen not to understand, but to prepare our reply, argue our point, defend our agenda, or make ourselves look smart. What if, instead, we could learn to really listen deeply to one another? What is we approached every conversation – every individual, even the stranger – with lively curiosity and an attitude of positive regard? That is, what if, instead of pre-judging, stereotyping, or making assumptions, we desired to really understand the person in front of us, what is behind the words they are saying, and what makes them tick? As author Sue Patton Thoele has written, “Deep listening is miraculous for both listener and speaker. When someone receives us with open-hearted, non-judging, intensely interested listening, our spirits expand.” Imagine what sorts of misunderstandings, conflict, confrontation, and even violence might be avoided if we could all learn to do that?  The Letter of James puts it this way: “Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19).

There are many ways to practice listen to others, whether they are friends or strangers, individuals or communities. We begin with listening to understand. Focus on listening with curiosity and compassion to discover what is being conveyed, rather than projecting your opinions or an agenda. We can commit to self-control and self-awareness. When I am in a group,  unless I am facilitating a conversation, I often refrain from speaking first. When we listen with curiosity and compassion, we almost naturally develop an other-centered or group-centered attitude. When there is a gap in the other person’s speaking, resist the urge to jump in. Welcome gaps and silence. If you find your mind wandering, focus on the speaker’s voice and remind yourself to be curious so you will be able to stay present in the moment.

I readily confess that I have not completely mastered compassionate listening or a consistent attitude of positive regard for the other. This is not how I was trained. This is not how boys and men were instructed when I was growing up and particularly white men. We were taught to have an attitude of “me first,” not “we first.” We were to speak with confidence and determination, working hard to formulate our thoughts well so that we could get our viewpoint across. To give too much space to the other was considered passive. I was taught to debate and to win. When I became a Trotskyist, that training was strongly reinforced. When we went out on campus or to a protest our goal was to “polemicize” and debate our opponents – whether the Young Republicans, an anti-communist we encountered, or members of other leftist groups – who we called “reformists,” because we were the only “real” revolutionaries. It was not a recipe for good listening. Diane will tell you that I have not completely overcome my training, but I am growing in the Spirit.  

Listening to God
The story of Samuel and Eli is a powerful allegory for the difficulties we have listening to God. Repeatedly, God calls to the boy, “Samuel! Samuel!”, but the Samuel assumes this is the priest calling him in the night. Despite Eli telling him twice that he did not call, Samuel cannot grasp that God might be speaking to him, even though he is servant to a priest and living in the temple. On the other hand, neither does the wise old priest get it the first two times. He apparently did not even consider the possibility that God might be trying to communicate with this boy. Maybe he dismissed the idea because of Samuel’s age or imagined the boy was dreaming. Now, we are not told in the story how old Samuel is, but it is likely he is in his early adolescence – perhaps 11 or 12 years old. So we, too, might discount the idea that God was speaking to one so young. Yet, remember that Jesus was about 12 when he was called to his spiritual vocation and began to have theological discussions with the religious leadership at the temple in Jerusalem. And when God calls Jeremiah to be a prophet, he responds, “Oh, God! Truly I do not know how to speak, for I am only a boy.” I, too, had my own first experience of spiritual and social awakening when I was 12 years old. So, listening to God does not seem to be a matter of years – for either Samuel or Eli – or a matter of great maturity or wisdom. I happen to believe that God’s Spirit communicates with us continually and that the problem is that, most of the time, we are not listening. We are not paying attention or we are afraid at some level of what we might perceive from God.

It is first a matter of faith – of believing that God actually wants to communicate with us and is actually doing so. And secondly, it is a matter of keeping our minds and spirits open to listen, as in the story when Samuel has his eureka moment and replies to God, “Speak, for your servant is listening.” It takes practice to stay open. So how can we practice listening to God? We have to utilize the channels and means that keep us open. Spiritual people from many traditions have developed specific practices to facilitate our listening. We can listen to God through prayer and meditation, just as we also can listen to our own spirits. God can speak to us through contemplative reading of scripture and other spiritual writings. We can experience through nature, in caring for others and seeing the face of God in them, through conversation, music, and many other means. The key is to keep our spiritual ears open and listen deeply.

Usually, we have to desire to hear what God wants to convey to us. But sometimes, God will surprise us, even when we unintentionally open ourselves. For example, at the moment when God called me to be a preacher, I did not sit down with the intention of listening for God. I just wanted to breathe deeply into a relaxed state and meditate. I hesitate to use the phrase, “God spoke to me,” but when it happened, when I heard the word, it was loud and clear. Even then, I had a hard time taking it in.

I want to encourage all of us to stay open and listen carefully and deeply. Listen to yourself with love and forgiveness. Listen to others with positive regard and curiosity. And listen to God with humility and openness and love.