“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Fortress Press, 2015 (Reader’s Edition), page 75.
Bonhoeffer reminds preachers that they ought not to think that they always need to be talking, but that listening can be a greater service than speaking – good advice for us all. He then writes that “Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God” (page 75).
“The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words” (page 75).
I cannot know God if I will not listen to God; I cannot know others if I will not listen to them. The actions of others, the way others look, and the superficial “social” speech of others can deceive me – they may hide inner struggles, hopes, dreams, sorrows, and joys. They may be intended to hide them, to mask pain and disillusionment; to cloak aspirations that the person thinks can never be fulfilled. We live in an incognito society, we hide who we are; even in the church we are seldom known – social interactions in the church are often little different than social interactions at work or in our civic community. In fact, there may be times interpersonal relationships outside the church are more genuine than those in the church for they do not carry the weight of religious pretension or conformity.
Many of us enjoy travel. Many of us would love to travel around the world, to see new things, to experience other cultures. And yet, virtually every day we have the opportunity to travel to places we’ve never been; to places we may not even know exist – we have the opportunity to share a few steps in the lives of others…if we will only listen. If we listen we may find ourselves climbing a mountain, or traversing a desert, or enjoying a placid pond, or on a ship taking on water in a raging sea, or hiking in a field of wildflowers. We will never know these places if we do not stop, be quiet (in mouth and mind!) and listen.
Listening means going beyond initial pleasantries and allowing the other person to trust us, offering ourselves in a certain time and place to another person; it means not looking at our watch or phone, it means saying to the other person by our listening, “You are important, God has placed us here, in Christ I will listen to you.”
On page 76 Bonhoeffer writes, “We should listen with the ears of God, so that we can speak the Word of God.” While I will come back to this statement in a future post, in this post I want to point out that, “We should listen with the ears of God…”
Is God listening to the other person? Of course He is. If God is listening then should not I be listening? Am I too important to listen? If I am too important to listen to others, and yet if God is listening to others, then am I more important than God? God is calling me to join with Him in listening, shall I tell God that I am too busy?
I cannot know a book unless I open the book and read it and ponder it. While I cannot open another person, I can allow another person the time to open himself to me – but if I am not listening it is not likely that the other person will trust me enough to be open with me. There are people who do not want to read a book but to only read a short summary – they will never “know” the book. There are people who do not want to listen to others but only want a few short facts about the person – they will never know the person.
In society, and sadly in many churches, people are not listened to and they are not known. They don’t know others and others do not know them. We are too busy; too busy with religious activities, with spiritual chatter, with Christian faddish jargon. We are bombarded with verbal noise that shatters our souls and cheapens speech – we cannot listen any more than we can drink from the base of Niagara Falls. This pattern of noise and rapid-fire communication which is unable to sustain serious thought molds us into people unable to connect with others, unable to listen and understand. We are pinballs unleashed all at once bouncing around life pinging here and pinging there – caught up in lights and noise and frenzied action.
Our talking can be an expression of our own sense of self-importance – but it can also be an expression of our desire for someone to listen to us. Is this something we will admit? Will we admit that we can be self-important? Will we also admit that we need others to listen to us…to know us?
Today, will I listen to others “with the ears of God”?