President Franklin D. Roosevelt got tired of smiling and saying the same things over-and-over at White House receptions, and so one evening, he decided to find out whether anybody was paying attention to what he said. As each person approached him to shake hands, he gave them a big smile and declared, “I murdered my grandmother this morning.” One after another, each guest automatically responded with comments such as, “How lovely” or “Keep going with your great work.” Nobody listened to what he was saying, except for one foreign diplomat. When the president declared, “I murdered my grandmother this morning,” the diplomat leaned in conspiratorially and whispered, “I’m sure she had it coming to her.”
The point of the story is that there is a big difference between hearing and listening. For those of us blessed with hearing, we can often hear but not listen. For example, sometimes, when I am at my desk and engrossed in writing, my lovely wife will ask me to do something to which I automatically reply, “Yes dear.” Soon after I will get a gentle poke in the ribs with the question, “Did you hear what I just said?” to which I will answer defensively, “Yes, of course I did!” and then she will reply, “Well, what did I just ask you?” Ooops. Busted.
Sometimes when someone speaks to me I am looking at my phone or distracted. That is not listening. Sometimes, when someone is telling me something, I simply want to jump in and say what I want to say, to pronounce judgement, or offer them advice, but that is not listening either. Listening means giving someone your full attention, waiting, being patient, and not giving opinions or advice unless it is specifically asked for. You wait for the person to finish. You ask them if there is anything else they would like to say, and then you repeat back to them what they told you to confirm to them that you not only heard them but listened to them. In counselling, there is a name for this kind of communication, and it is called active listening.
Have you ever considered that one of the greatest gifts you can give someone, is not to share with them the benefits of your great and majestic wisdom, but to listen to them; to really listen to them. Listening to someone validates them, makes them feel wanted and loved, and gives them self worth and self-esteem. Listening is the foundation of good communication and builds up and strengthens relationships.
I wonder if part of the problem is that we like talking. We especially like talking about ourselves or our own interests or concerns. There is this well known saying that comes from the letter written by James included in the Bible, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak.” Yet many of us find silence difficult or even awkward. We turn on the radio or the television, or constantly have YouTube videos playing on our devices. We find it very difficult to just ‘be’. And I wonder if that is why, when it comes to church worship, most denominations fill their worship from start to finish with talking: sermons, prayers, liturgy, readings, songs, and so on. Surely, if listening is the foundation of good communication in relationships, is it not a little ironic that we spend nearly all of our corporate relationship with God as the ones doing the talking?
Do I think God wants to speak to us? Yes. Absolutely. I think God wants to speak to us both as individuals and collectively as his church. Because of the constant sound of our own voices, I wonder if we are missing out on what God wants to share with us. As a pastor, it is a reminder to me to build in times of quiet and space during our worship to enable us to listen to God, and to allow his Spirit to speak into our hearts and minds. And though changing the culture of our corporate worship might not be so easy, there is something we can do.
Every day, each of us can spend time with God. We can start by setting aside just five minutes — not to pray or to spend the time talking out loud or in our heads — but to simply be and to listen to God. During this time we can be open to God speaking to us. And because God can live in us by his Spirit, God can speak to us through our hearts and minds. We may have a feeling, or someone may pop into our head, or we may think words of comfort or encouragement. We may see something around us in nature or even in our home or office that God will use to communicate with us. God can speak to us in many different ways, and the way God speaks to you may not be the same way God speaks to me. And that is okay.
Shall we try it? Let’s see what God wants to say to us this week, and may God’s blessing, God’s joy, God’s comfort, and God’s peace be with you this day and always. Amen.