Holy Conversation: Listening

This post is one of a series** expanding on messages preached at Eastview Baptist in Spring 2014. 

The second suggestion in these themes from Doug Pollock's GodSpace book about the arts of spiritual conversation is called Listening your Way In to spiritual conversations. The author utilises the metaphor of a map, and warns us of ways we can get lost or stuck. The old maps for sharing faith were tracts and scripts. I know some of you came to faith through those things, but one-sided presentations have very limited usefulness in a society where worldviews are diverse and no-one believes in truth with a capital T any more. We need to be more responsive, and listen our way through. In a insightful article by Richard Peace (Holy Conversation) I picked up some points about Authentic Dialogue by Aussie theologian Geoff Broughton. He suggests that values like mutuality, reciprocity,  openness and respect make for more authentic dialogue than do evangelistic tracts. And there’s no better way to build those qualities than deep listening. Too often we monopolise the conversation, or listen only for ideas we can correct or critique, something the apostle James warned about:

"Brothers and sisters, be quick to listen and slow to speak" (James 1: 19).

Q Place's Arts of Spiritual Conversation resource offers some contemporary takes on the importance of listening:
"Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians because Christians are talking when they should be listening." Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

"Listening is a magnetic and strange thing, a creative force. The friends who listen to us are the ones we move toward. When we are listened to... it makes us unfold and expand." Shel Silverstein.

"Active listening is the gateway to truly building relationships." Ram Charan. 

"When someone receives us with open-hearted non-judging intensely-interested listening, our spirits expand." Sue Patton Thoele

All of these quotes reminded me of the PET courses I undertook in the seventies = Parent Effectiveness Training. They were based on the freedom and grace we give our children (and our spouses!) when we truly listen to them, when we look for, and reflect back, the deep feelings and values beyond the surface words and actions. Many times I have used this paradigm's insights about "active listening" to reveal what is truly going on in a person I care about. Listening reflects the attitude of Jesus who sought to understand and minister to the deep stuff in people's lives. When we listen to others, we embody his humility and self-sacrifice, and reveal the heart of God. When we don't listen, it places roadblocks or obstacles to listening and caring; see my other blog godshapedmentoring for more articles about listening. 

John Stott put it this way:  
"It seems more natural to us to shout the gospel at people from a distance than to involve ourselves deeply in their lives, to think ourselves into their culture and their problems, and to feel with them in their pains." 
(in  Christian Mission 1976, republished 2008).

An Anglican church planter and former executive of Alpha USA, Todd Hunter, said recently that in postmodern society the most important evangelistic skill for Christians is listening. He said 'evangelistic' because that’s his context, but I’d go wider and say that in any human context, the most important skill is listening. Instead of just waiting for a person to say something with which we disagree and pouncing on them, we should invest time in respectful curiosity. Hunter noted that in the days of the big crusades and evangelistic leaflets, people listened their way into the kingdom. These days, he thinks, people are more apt to talk and observe their way into it. 

A good way to exercise this ministry of listening is by finding common ground. Maybe it’s a movie you’ve seen, or a hobby you enjoy. At church we've been leveraging this idea in interest groups, very like the free-market small groups popular in the US. But common ground works with our wider connections too. You can ask, and expect, God to use your background and experience in opening up conversations that touch on deeper things. I already mentioned some examples but here's another. Last year when I was taking my granddaughter to preschool, I was with someone who was feeling frustrated in making arrangements for a relative’s funeral. By carefully listening, I was able to work out what was bugging her, and as an experienced funeral celebrant give some simple input that helped her clarify what was going on. You might not know much about funerals but you might be familiar with other matters that God can use as common ground for conversations with someone in your circle. 

Our first sermon in the faith-conversation series said "Words and deeds are partners in sharing Christ." God does want us to have faith conversations and to make connections with people’s spiritual experience, but being bullied into decisions that have no real connection rarely works with people. They are fascinated, though, by anything that transforms lives. Allowing our faith to spill over into daily life, even with those who don't share the same worldview, doesn’t mean we have to go for the hard sell. Rather its good listening, dropping a seed here and there, and remembering what Paul wrote about who gives the growth (2 Cor 3: 6, see also Mark 4: 26 - 29).  Tim Downs' book on Finding Common Ground makes a good case for being a sower -  cultivating fruitful relationships in our community - rather than always wanting to see a harvest from our conversations. He says that when we focus on arguing a non-essential matter with people we work and study with, we draw energy away from the relationship and where it might have led in the future.  "When we consider Error as an assault to be repelled... we end up wandering off on a hundred rabbit trails instead of staying on one that one day might lead to the gospel" (Downs, p 160). Rather, listening is an art, a sensitive quest to really understand other. Doug Franck has written a good article on practical ways to keep listening in the search for common ground

I can't finish this post without mentioning Lynne Baab’s great new book about The Power of Listening in mission and ministry. Baab who teaches Pastoral Theology at Otago University offers some gems about curiosity and listening:

Curiosity can take two forms. One version is nosy and prying, and it comes across as invasive. That kind of curiosity arises out of the listener’s need to know all the details about a person’s situation, perhaps so they can gossip with others about it or appear to be knowledgeable in other settings. A more subtle form of invasive curiosity arises when we feel proud of our listening abilities, so we draw people out in order to demonstrate our listening skills, so we can feel good about ourselves. Any self-focused listening can slide into being nosy and prying. That’s why minimal encouragers and reflection are such important listening tools. They allow our conversation partners to change the subject when they’re ready to do so. A constant stream of questions on the part of listeners does not give speakers the freedom to stop talking about a topic when they feel they have said enough….. by contrast there is a form of curiosity that involves being interested and concerned, eager to understand the other person’s interests, priorities, and experiences if they want to talk about them….motivated by God’s love,  holy curiosity can undergird conversations in congregations, workplaces, and homes where people are able to express the overlap of their faith and their daily lives. Holy curiosity makes possible pastoral care listening and listening for mission, and it lays a foundation for sharing the Christian Gospel. (The Power of Listening, 2014, p 160) 

Something else she taps into is the idea of double listening. In this context of holy conversation, it means listening to God in our own heart as we pay attention to the words of another about their lives. Not easy, but it can really help us identify what not to say. We might be inwardly thinking, oh that’s wrong, or that’s sad, or that’s just like my own story – and the Holy Spirit might put a little brake on, saying no, Viv, its not the time to tell your own viewpoint or your own experience. Those things get in the way. Just listen.

To Chew Over: Todd Hunter said "these days people are more apt to talk and observe their way into faith." Have a think about that. Do you agree? How can you leverage that in your own conversations?

 Hushed was the evening hymn,
The temple courts were dark,
The lamp was burning dim,
Before the sacred ark:
When suddenly a voice divine
Rang through the silence of the shrine.

 The old man, meek and mild,
The priest of Israel, slept;
His watch the temple-child,
The little Levite, kept;
And what from Eli's sense was sealed,
The Lord to Hannah's son revealed.

 Oh, give me Samuel's ear.
The open ear, O Lord,
Alive and quick to hear
Each whisper of Thy word!
Like him to answer at Thy call,
And to obey Thee first of all.

 Oh, give me Samuel's heart.
A lowly heart, that waits
Where in Thy house Thou art,
Or watches at Thy gates!
By day and night, a heart that still
Moves at the breathing of Thy will.
James Burns.

** See the first and third parts of this series.