April 30, 2006



Listen! (4/30/06)

Dr. Gary Cox — Wichita, Kansas

University Congregational Church

Today’s scripture reading from the Gospel of Mark reiterates a common theme of Jesus in the gospels. Jesus says, “Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes, and fail to see? Do you have ears, and fail to hear?” This morning I want to concentrate on that notion of having ears and failing to hear.

The ability to hear is one we take for granted, but what a gift it is! What a miracle it is! Think about it. This ability we have to communicate would seem almost impossible, or at least improbable. We live in world where we have this uncanny ability to make our vocal cords vibrate in such a way that this noise, these vibrations, float out through the air. And those vibrations enter our ear, vibrating some membrane and tiny bones between our ear and our brain, and…

Well, it is simply amazing. We can make sense of each other. The thoughts generated by your brain can float through the air and enter my brain. I can consider the things that are on your mind. What an amazing plan. I mean, God could have made us without ears. But then, we wouldn’t be able to hear. We would each be in our own little worlds. We would each interpret the things we see, the emotions we feel, the world we encounter, in our own private way.

From a theological standpoint, we should have a big clue about how important it is to hear by the way the Bible begins. God speaks the world into being in Genesis. Listen to the first words of the Bible:

In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep, while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters. Then God said, ‘Let there be light’; and there was light. And God saw that the light was good; and God separated the light from the darkness. God called the light Day, and the darkness he called Night. And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.

After that, with each step of creation, God speaks this new creation into being. The passage continues, And God said, “Let there be a dome in the midst of the waters, and let it separate the waters from the waters.” And God said, “Let the waters under the sky be gathered together into one place, and let the dry land appear.” Then God said, “Let the earth put forth vegetation: plants yielding seed, and fruit trees of every kind on earth that bear fruit with the seed in it.”

Well, the story goes on, and with each step of creation it is spoken into being by the power of God. I wonder if that has something to do with the idea of human beings being created in the image of God. Like God, we can speak reality into being. Or at least, we can change reality with the power of our words.

How important it is for us to be careful with our words. They are such powerful weapons! When Shakespeare wrote, “How sharper than a serpents tooth it is to have a thankless child,” he knew the power of words. And families can be a breading ground for hurtful words. Of course, a child’s words can cut deep wounds into parents, but more often that sword cuts the other way. I’ve said before that the biggest lie we teach our children is, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words can never hurt me.” Nonsense! The truth is, “Sticks and stones can break my bones, but words, words can absolutely destroy me. Words can make me feel small. Words can make me wish I had never been born.”

Maybe it is our carelessness with our words that has made us such bad listeners. We’ve been scarred by the words of others, and we’ve learned to build a defensive shield between our fragile psyches and the words that come at us from all angles throughout our lives.

But there is something we should always remember. Words define the speaker, and never the person to whom, or about whom, the words are spoken. If I approach one of you after the service in Fellowship Hall and say, “Oh no, here comes Reggie. That guy drives me crazy. He always wants to talk talk talk and he never has anything to say that is worth hearing.”

You haven’t learned a thing about Reggie by listening to my words. But you have learned a great deal about me. You have learned that I am a person who talks behind the back of others, and am evidently a person who does not have a great deal of patience.

I think if we always bear that in mind—that the spoken words define the speaker and not the person who is spoken about, it allows us to become better listeners.

When Jesus says we have ears but do not hear, he offers a powerful metaphor. Among his miracles are healings of the deaf. We are all deaf in our own ways, shutting out the parts of the world around us we don’t want to acknowledge. But it seems to me that it is fear that causes our deafness. We are afraid of being hurt by what we hear from others. We create our safe little universes around ourselves and don’t like the world we have created for ourselves to be challenged in any way.

But if we can be comfortable with ourselves; if we can find that solid rock on which to stand; if we have a faith foundation that will keep us anchored regardless of the words that come at us; then we can truly open our ears, and open our hearts, and listen.

It seems to me that we are becoming worse and worse listeners. I think people felt like they had time to listen in generations past. Now the television keeps us from having to talk to one another. Our family hours are spent in front of the tube, and our listening skills suffer as a result. Perhaps we sneak in a little conversation during commercials, but nothing that challenges our listening skills.

I think the perfect symbol for our lack of listening is found in all the headphones we see people wearing. Headphones say it all. I am in my own little world, and you are not welcome here. Not only am I uninterested in anything you might have to say, I can’t even hear you, so you might as well shut up.

I was reading over an old self-help book from my library a few weeks ago. The book is called Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff, and was written by Richard Carlson. It was on the bestseller list 9 or 10 years ago. I’m not really that big on self-help books, but I glance through them now and then because they usually contain some simple wisdom that helps one keep things in perspective.

In this particular book there was a small section on listening, and it really struck a chord with me. I am not a great listener by nature. Listening is hard work. My biggest problem with regard to listening is a problem shared by many peopIe. I am always trying to formulate a response in my mind while the other person is talking. I hear their points, and start lining out what I am going to say in response, instead of truly opening my ears and opening my mind and listening to everything they have to say.

Richard Carlson says that part of keeping our ears open is to search for the grain of truth in other opinions. That’s not so easy to do. By the time we reach adulthood we tend to be set in our ways. We know how we feel about politics, and religion, and a host of other subjects, and when we are confronted with an opinion that runs contrary to our own, we label it as wrong and quit listening. I’ll read from Carlson’s book. He writes:

Search for the grain of truth in other opinions. If you enjoy learning as well as making other people happy, you’ll love this idea. Almost everyone feels that their own opinions are good ones, otherwise they wouldn’t be sharing them with you. One of the destructive things many of us do, however, is compare someone else’s opinion to our own. And when it doesn’t fall in line with our belief, we either dismiss it or find fault with it. We feel smug, the other person feels diminished, and we learn nothing.

Almost every opinion has some merit, especially if we are looking for merit, rather than looking for errors. The next time someone offers you an opinion, rather than judge or criticize it, see if you can find a grain of truth in what the person is saying.

If you think about it, when you judge someone else or their opinion, it really doesn’t say anything about the other person, but it says quite a bit about your need to be judgmental.

Carlson continues, I still catch myself criticizing other points of view, but far less than I used to. All that changed was my intention to find the grain of truth in other positions. If you practice this simple strategy, some wonderful things will begin to happen: You’ll begin to understand those you interact with, others will be drawn to your accepting and loving energy, your learning curve will be enhanced, and, perhaps most important, you’ll feel much better about yourself.

There’s a lot of truth in that little passage. We are drawn toward people who are good listeners. We all know what it feels like to be talking to somebody and have them look off in the distance as if searching for some way to extricate themselves from the conversation. We feel belittled. But when somebody really listens to us, we feel empowered. We feel like our thoughts and feelings matter.

Another great thing about being a good listener is that people tend to really listen to you when you have something to say. I remember back in my senior year of high school, my favorite class was philosophy. There were about twenty five of us in that class, and we were all more than happy to let our opinions be known on a wide variety of subjects. But there was one girl in that class—her name was Kay—who seldom spoke. She made good grades and was clearly as intelligent as the rest of us, but she sat through the classes, day after day, listening, and seldom opening her mouth.

And then one day it happened. In the middle of a class discussion, Kay raised her hand to speak. And a hush fell over the whole room. People were saying, “Quiet, quiet! Kay wants to speak.” I don’t’ remember what she had to say, but I assure you that I and everybody else in that class listened very closely at the time.

The hardest time to listen is when somebody is being critical of us in some way. Our defenses automatically take over. We shut the other person’s words out, and instantly think of counter-arguments to every point they may have to make. Richard Carlson makes this suggestion. Just for fun, agree with criticism directed toward you, and then watch it go away. I’ll read another passage form Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff:

So often we are immobilized by the slightest criticism. We treat it like an emergency, and defend ourselves as if we were in a battle. In truth, however, criticism is nothing more than an observation by another person about us, our actions, or the way we think about something, that doesn’t match the vision we have of ourselves. Big deal!

When we react to criticism with a knee-jerk, defensive response, it hurts. We feel attacked, and we have a need to defend or to offer a counter-criticism. We fill our minds with angry or hurtful thoughts directed at ourselves or at the person who is being critical. All this reaction takes an enormous amount of mental energy.

An incredibly useful exercise is to agree with criticism directed toward you. I’m not talking about turning into a doormat or ruining your self-esteem by believing all negativity that comes in your direction. I’m only suggesting that there are many times when simply agreeing with criticism defuses the situation, satisfies a person’s need to express a point of view, offers you a chance to learn something about yourself by seeing a grain of truth in another position, and, perhaps most importantly, provides you an opportunity to remain calm.

There is a lot of wisdom in Richard Carlson’s thinking. I think it takes a strong person to be willing to listen. One must be grounded in some truth that they believe is unshakeable. And then there are no words that can shake the foundation of who and what we are. And that foundation is the love of God. For all our hurtful words, for all our deafness in the face of a world that speaks to us in countless ways day after day, we are the beloved children of God. That is our foundation, and it is unshakeable.