A THEOLOGY OF LISTENING

I am standing in front of a class of 120.  It was supposed to be maybe 50 at most when we were asked to teach the class but this is Kenya and plans and projections are never actually finalized and compete until after things are finished.  The 70 extra students are a minor blip for the organizers–a major problem for my wife and I, though, because we only have student books for 50.

The room we are in would be a poor one for 50 people–it is long and narrow, meaning that the students at the back probably need binoculars to see us and with no PA system, they probably can’t hear us all that well.  With 120 people jammed into the room, the acoustics and comfort level are even worse.  With my poor hearing, I have to be up close to people to hear what they are saying but finding a route to the people at the back involves twists and turns that would make a yoga teacher squirm.

We are there to teach these students how to do some basic pastoral care.  And the most basic of pastoral care processes is listening.  From long experience in teaching listening skills, we both know that this will be a big job–if we can reach the end of the week with at least some of the students being aware that listening isn’t a natural process for many of us, we will have accomplished something.

We have a bag of tricks to get the point across:  there is Proverbs 18.13, which says, ” He who answers before listening—that is his folly and his shame.”; we also use the old proverb, “God gave us two ears and one tongue so that we will listen twice as much as we speak.” and I also joke that most people only use their ears to hold up their glasses.  We also have some exercises that look simple but which give the students extreme frustration when they fail and extreme laughs when others fail.

We also know that we have to fight against a reality that crosses cultures and may be a deeply embedded human trait.  Most of us don’t put a lot of value in listening.  In truth, our approach to listening says a great deal about our approach to other people.  The almost universal human desire to talk rather than listen says that in the end, we value ourselves more than others.  Listening requires that we focus on the other person–and for many of us, that is just too much for our essentially self-focused nature.  And this self-focus is at the root of that the Bible calls sin.

Not to listen to another person is not to value that person.  Not to listen is to put ourselves above that person.  Not to listen is to think–and act–as if we are more important than the other person.  To think that what I have to say is more important than what another person has to say is to make myself more important in my own eyes than they are.

If we are to truly love others, we need to work at expressing that love by actually listening to the other person.  I can teach tricks and give tips on how to do that but in the end, being able to listen is not a matter of tricks and tips–it is a matter of the soul.  We have to know that the other person is important and valuable and has inherent worth.  We have to be willing to give them space in our lives to be important and valuable worthy–and the best and most basic way of doing that is to listen to them.

No amount of my telling a person how valuable and important and worthy they are will make up for the fact that when I don’t listen to them, I am telling them they are of no value, unimportant and unworthy.  And the irony is that I can be telling them just the opposite verbally but my lack of listening will give them exactly the opposite message.

We did, I think, succeed in helping some of those 120 students learn a bit about the importance of listening.  Some were actually really good at listening.  But even me, one of the teachers that day, needs to put a lot more effort into what is one of the most important and most lacking of the acts of love.

May the peace of God be with you.

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