How God flips our understanding of power by inviting us into a listening-first relationship.
In our church midweeks over the Autumn months, we have been speaking about The Listening Life.
We have recognised that to build and maintain a healthy relationship with God and one another, we need to learn to listen better than we have been.
At the beginning of the first lockdown (which seems like a very long time ago!), we looked at 12 spiritual disciplines and tried to take advantage of less noise, less distraction, less busyness and listen to the heart of God. We took advantage of Zoom (before “Zoom-fatigue” became a thing) and hosted conversations with people within our community to listen to their stories and to hear their hopes and dreams for their families and neighbourhoods and beyond.
As the volume is turned back up again, we still want to be able to assume the posture of a listening servant. I love how God flips our understanding of power upside down by entering into a listening relationship with us. David asks of God in Psalm 31, “Turn your ear to listen to me”. And then again he offers us this beautiful picture of the listening nature of God when he boldly prays, “Bend down, O Lord and hear my prayer”.
He is asking God to stoop low to listen. God is a listener. God is love and love requires listening.
How is your listening?
James 1:19 says, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak”. How are you responding to that challenge?
We’ve really tried to think deeply about what we find most difficult about listening. Maybe, like the rest of the world, your attention span has continued to decrease. Maybe it’s fear of what will be asked of you if you are truly paying attention.
There are at least two things that have come to the surface for me as I’ve asked that question.
One is that I’ve become increasingly aware that listening requires patience.
In Mark 4, Jesus tells the story of a farmer sowing seed. In fact, this is one story he wants people to really hear (v3). “Listen” is what he calls from the boat to all those gathered on the shore.
Luke 8 tells us the same story. And in explaining what happened to the seed depending on where it fell, of the good soil, Jesus instructs “good-hearted people who hear God’s word [to] cling to it and patiently produce a harvest”.
We want shortcuts to fruitfulness, the quickest way possible to hearing God’s voice. But to listen well requires us to slow down and pay attention; to patiently wait. In light of this, here are some helpful tools to help us do just that.
Praying the Psalms. This is a way of praying the words of others to find our own prayer. Whether it’s a Psalm of praise or lament or celebration or pain in repeating their words we can soon find ourselves entering into conversation with God.
We can also prayerfully use our imagination to place ourselves in the gospel stories. This allows us to slow down as we picture the scene and take in all that is going on as Jesus engages with people.
Lectio Divina is my personal favourite. Again it’s slowing down our reading of scripture, going through it a couple of times to create the space for the Holy Spirit to speak.
These are all ways for us to patiently wait and listen.
Time and response
Almost as important is how patient we are in listening to others. Often we want to rush to solving the person’s problems or providing solutions to their pain. While they are talking, our minds are racing with the ‘right answers’ to give and we often miss what they are really saying. I think there is a lot of times our friends or family or neighbours just need someone to listen to them, to validate their story and be in no rush with our time and our response.
The other thing for me is that listening requires humility. I’ve learned from reading Adam McHugh: “that ‘listen’ and ‘obey’ have the same root in Latin, the word obeys would not exist without the word listen. The word we translate into English as ‘obedience’ literally means a ‘listening from below’. Obedience is a deep listening, a listening of the whole person, a hearing with your ears and with your heart and with your arms and legs”.
Being obedient can certainly be a battle at times, I really want my own way most of the time so to obey the whisper of God looks like me submitting to His ways and to His voice. I love how Paul puts it in Philippians 2:6 – 8, speaking about Jesus: “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be used to his own advantage; rather, he made himself nothing by taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death even death on a cross!”
This is the same attitude we are to have.
Listening to and obeying God will often mean laying down my rights — my personal ambitions. Without humility, it will be difficult to always say “yes” to what he speaks.
And listening to others as best as I can also looks like laying down my own biases and prejudices to hear well, so that I can give the other person, equally created in the image of God, the dignity of being heard.
I’m glad that over the years we have heard what it is to be good storytellers and we should continue to tell it, but I think there is a challenge for us all at the moment to be better story-hearers.