James 1:19-27

The Gift of Listening

By Dr. Gilbert W. Bowen

“Understand this, my friends: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger. Rid yourself of all bad habits, welcome with humility the word implanted deep within you that has the power to preserve your soul. If anyone thinks he is religious but does not keep a close reign on his tongue, he is deceiving himself. That man’s religion is worthless. A pure and faultless religion in the sight of God the father is this: to look after orphans and widows who are in trouble, and to keep oneself uncorrupted by the passing scene.”

Checked out the website of the “International Listening Association” this last week and as a preacher I found it a bit scary.

Most of what we do know we learn by listening. But how much do we remember of what we hear? Twenty percent.

But I guess I am not the only one having a hard time getting a hearing in our time, am I? Seems like everybody is talking, and nobody is listening. Words come to us from every direction, billboards, cocktail parties, bustling crowds, and now even the computer talks. But who is listening? Certainly not the guys and gals on the Cable talk shows. Shows devoid of content and full of combat. Frenzied wars of words where each shouts trying to get at least one in edgewise, and clearly no one taking the time to listen to the others. Where are those in contemporary culture who really take the time and energy, exercise the attentiveness to hear?

Amazing how much emphasis the old story puts on listening. “Hear, O Israel, the Lord your God is one,” calls Moses.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear,” demands Jesus. And in our text, his brother James, leader of the Jerusalem church, insists, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” And the Apostle Paul famously writes to the Christians of Imperial Rome. “Faith comes by hearing, and hearing through the word of Christ.”

So the Christian tradition has always insisted that our faith is a relational thing that has little to do with visuals, ancient icons or modern movies, but rather as with the basis of all real relationships, listening and talking, hearing and sharing. Why? Because Biblical faith is about “Love,” love of God, love of neighbor. And love above all else involves listening. Hard work to bridle our tongue, as James urges, but necessary. Hard work to truly be attentive to the other. Because love means transcending our own agendas, getting beyond the ambitions and worries that preoccupy and truly trying to hear the other. The Listening Association cites studies which say that 75 percent of the time when we are together we are distracted and preoccupied. And the top skill needed for success in business or profession is listening. And, says Moses and Jesus, the top skill needed in loving.

Beginning with our children. The Wall Street Journal tells us that American parents spend less than fifteen minutes a week in serious discussion with their children. The boy said, “Dad and I had words this morning, but I didn’t get to use mine.” But as we patiently listen to our children and young people, we grant them reality and worth.

Elizabeth Green writes, “What are you thinking about?” my daughter asks in the middle of telling me a story from her day. I may be thinking about one of a hundred things: a work or church project that has popped into my head, a bill I forgot to send, something I heard on National Public Radio. To the casual observer, it appears that I am still listening to her. But she knows the instant my mind wanders because I am no longer attending. Her question calls me back, focusing my mind and heart on her, on this moment. To attend to her experience, to walk in her journey, I need to let go of the distractions and thoughts of past and future, and just be.

She goes on, “A phone call to a grandparent, a midnight walk around the nursery with a fussy baby, a chat after dinner with a spouse or parent – each day affords opportunities for this kind of listening if we train ourselves to notice them. In the midst of the doing, we can sneak in moments of being, brief encounters with the inner lives of those closest to us. We may even notice our resistance to the practice of listening, our tendency to offer not accompaniment, but the more familiar and comfortable gifts of solutions, advice, reassurance, or consolation. Listening is difficult because it asks us to set aside our agendas. It demands that we recognize the integrity of our children, spouses, parents, and siblings. It invites us into the realm of uncertainty and imperfection, where we have to admit that we don’t have all the answers.”

Why do we need someone who will listen? We need a listening ear to break the loneliness and sense of isolation that we all feel from time to time, especially when our troubles threaten to overwhelm us. Loneliness is, after all, not the absence of other bodies. It is the sense that no one understands or cares, that we are essentially alone with our struggles and troubles. An eighty-year-old grandfather went to his daughter’s house for Sunday dinner. Along in years as he was, nobody in the family game him much time or attention. When the meal was over he announced that he was going to take a walk in the neighborhood. “I’ll be back in twenty minutes,” he said. But two hours had passed before he finally returned. “Sorry I’m late,” he said, “but I stopped to talk to an old friend and he just wouldn’t stop listening.”

And, above all, we feel diminished, unimportant, of no consequence, when no one will take us seriously enough to hear what we have to say.

But we all need the affirmation of the listening ear. Love your neighbor, says the old book. Well, perhaps the greatest gift of love is the gift of an ear — for by it we enable one another to break through confusion of mind, loneliness of heart, and we grant one another worth and feeling of importance. I don’t know if that is exactly the kind of listening the writer of the little New Testament letter of James had in mind when he calls us to be quick to listen, slow to speak and be angry, irritated with one another. But I do note that one half of real religion as he defines it is to visit the orphans and widows in their distress, that is, precisely those who are alone, isolated, troubled, desperately needing a sense that they count.

The gift of an ear for one another. The love that involves the time and trouble, the concentration and empathy that allows us to really hear one another. So why don’t we do it? Why do we have such difficulty listening? There are several reasons that come to mind. In the first place it does take time. Again and again I run into marriages where there is clearly a communication problem. The partners both point to this. We don’t communicate, they are quick to admit. And yet when you ask about their schedules, their routine, it becomes apparent that they are seldom in settings conducive to communicating, speaking and above all listening. Other things have become more important, work schedule, social obligations, care for the children. And because of preoccupation with all these good things, ironically the marriage itself is heading for the rocks, threatening it all. It takes the sacrifice of time not only to talk but to listen, truly listen.

And then it takes transcendence of ourselves, our own interests and preoccupations. We are often too full of ourselves, our own worries and concerns, our agendas and ambitions, to truly hear the other. A wife of a corporate executive tells how she hates the parties she has to attend with her husband. “When I go to one I am turned off by the level of conversation—everybody chattering away at each other but nobody really listening to what the other is saying.

“They are too busy thinking about what they are going to say when the other stops talking.”

It takes time, it takes transcendence of ourselves and it takes trust. Why is it that we often fail to listen to the child, to the spouse, even to the friend? We are afraid of what we will hear, afraid to let the other person be who they are, afraid of what we might learn, afraid of the pain we may be led to share. You can’t really listen unless you can trust that whatever you hear is not the end of the world, that the process is good, that you, too, have something to learn, Learn about yourself and life, learn that God is with you in the sharing of pain and joy of that spouse, that child, that friend.

Douglas Burton-Christie writes, “I noticed this recently in a conversation with a friend. We sat together in my office. He told me of his wife, who he married only three years ago, dying of cancer. I talked to him of my mother also very ill. They were there in our midst—his wife, my mother. So was our fear, our sadness, our bewilderment, and our compassion for each other. Compassion: “to suffer with.” That is all we could do that day, suffer with each other, awkwardly, tenderly, amid halting speech and long silences. In a sense there was nothing either of us could say to the other, nothing that would make any real difference. Why then did it seem so important that we listen, not only to each other’s words, but to the gestures and the silences. I do not know. But it did matter. Something important happened. Two human beings, caught in life’s web of sadness and beauty, met and carried each other — if only for a moment. Nothing changed. And everything changed.”

Which is why the capacity and willingness to listen to one another rests finally in our willingness to listen to our God. For it is there that we find the wisdom to better order our days, the trust to truly care about the other, and the confidence that enables us to risk hearing what we need to hear.

Have you ever heard God speak? Bin Laden has. A rabbi in Brooklyn has. I’ve met some people in institutions who have. Isn’t it interesting? If we talk to God we are considered religious. If he talks to us, we are considered crazy.

Yet this old faith talks a great deal about listening for the voice of God — urges it upon us. In fact this is what is meant by the word “prayer” much more than it means endless chatter. Quiet waiting, listening for words to sort themselves out, for intuitions to take shape and form, for a sense of affirmation and direction to come. Because we have to contend with a lot of other voices, pressing us to be this, do that, the voices of peers and crowd, the voices of the powerful and proud. The voice of protesters and polls. Listen, of course, but not as if they were the voice of God. Crossfire — people who never listen. Only fire salvos. Daniel Boorstin once said that the longer the pause, the more illuminating the thought that follows it. But long pauses do not make good television, do they?

Above all we desperately need to take the time and quiet to listen for the voice of deeper traditions, the voice of a transcendent faith, the voice of God. James says it. “Be slow to anger. Rid yourself of all bad habits, welcome with humility the word implanted deep within you that has the power to preserve your soul.” For then perspective comes, priorities fall into place, peace and power are restored, and we are kept untarnished by an alien culture.

If we take the time to listen, thoughts, wisdom, music, memories come from our past where they have been buried in memory, in the unconscious, call it what you will. Thoughts, wisdom which put a lot of things in perspective, ideas surface which stimulate creativity, visions happen which grant hope and future, old affirmations return in strength, granting confidence and courage and hope. I think we need more of the wordless in our lives. We need more stillness, more of a sense of wonder, a feeling for the mystery of it all. We need more silence, more deep listening.

One man said he found himself up against the wall in the face of responsibilities that had become increasingly stressful. He found himself profoundly disturbed by the necessity of letting a number of employees go. He found it increasingly difficult to see with any clarity an acceptable future. In spite of his careful organizational habits, he found his mind flooding with the accumulating details of the job. He found it hard to think objectively and stay focused. He was increasingly irritable and short of patience, something quite untypical of him. He found himself exhausted at days end and sleeping not well at night. He increasingly worried about his health. In short he seemed to be losing control of things, life, his own person.

In the midst of one particularly busy schedule, he knew he had to get away, go somewhere for a little peace and quiet, get ahold of himself. Told his secretary he would not be reachable for the rest of the day. In his car he began to drive aimlessly until he found himself near the beach, parked, walked up and down until he began to calm within. The feelings of near panic began to subside a bit. A variety of thoughts marched to and fro through his brain. Although a fairly religious person, God was not particularly on his mind. Now this is his story generally as I remember it. But what he said then I recall almost word for word. He said, “Then it came, nothing audible, just a thought, words out of left field. It is not all up to you.” How odd, he thought. He supposed he knew that, had learned that somewhere long ago. But he had never really heard these words as he did now. And somehow the words felt liberating. “It’s not all up to you.” He began to think about dimensions of his situation that there was no point in trying to manage. Could he live with the worst that might happen? Had he missed some resources? Why hadn’t he talked to someone? And now he was, to me.

“It is not all up to you.” When he told me the story he had difficulty saying anything like “God spoke to me.” But he was sure that a very powerful word had come to him, a word not his own, which had rescued him in his hour of need and he hoped would continue to do so. And all because he had taken the time to listen.

So may we all find enough quiet in our lives to “welcome with humility the word implanted deep within, the word that has the power to preserve our souls.” Listen.

Copyright 2006 Gilbert W. Bowen. Used by permission.