The Gift of Listening

The Gift of Listening

by the Rev. Virginia McNeely, Deacon, All Saints', Sacramento

The ability to hear is a sense. Our brains sift through what is coming to us as sound, and decides what we will hear. For instance, if we live near a railroad track, after some days, we are no longer awakened by the sound of the train on the tracks. Our brains catalog the sound, file it and allow us to sleep peacefully. If we have a spouse or a friend who talks constantly, or if we don’t want to hear what someone has to say, we drown out the others’ words with our own thoughts and no longer listen. We do this with all of the sounds we hear. If we didn’t, we would be overwhelmed by a cacophony of sound that would drown out our inner sounds in our brains, and the thoughts that we process. If we choose to listen, really listen, and focus on a particular sound—the sound of nature, the sound of music, the sound of a voice speaking to us—we can understand how the ability to truly listen is a gift, and a blessing.

This morning, when I went out to get the newspaper, it was softly raining. Big drops were falling down gently. When I took the time to listen, I realized that the drops made different sounds when they fell. If a drop fell on a dry leaf from my tree, it made a different sound than the drop that fell on the concrete walkway, which made a different sound than the drop that fell on the grass. I had not realized that until I took the opportunity to listen. Then I gave thanks to God for the rain.

In the church, we have different opportunities to use the gift of listening. We can focus on the music and truly listen, not thinking about setting up coffee hour or what we will do on our way home. If we choose to listen (truly listen) to the music, we can transport ourselves into a different place. We can be absorbed by the beauty of the music.

During the service, we often don’t allow ourselves to listen. Instead of listening to the readers, we may read the lessons to ourselves. If one is deaf, this can be a form of listening, to be absorbed in the written word. But if we are able to hear, when we read we block out the words of the reader of the lessons. Our brains focus on the written word, and the words of the reader are background sound. This is particularly true if we read the words of the Gospel when the deacon or presbyter is proclaiming them. As a deacon, I proclaim the Gospel, but I can hear the congregation turn the pages of their bulletins. They aren’t truly listening to the Word. The Gospel is proclaimed, not read, to the congregation. If you are reading the words from your program or from a projection on a screen or wall, you are not hearing them proclaimed. You aren’t listening to them as they are meant to be heard.

The preacher spends hours crafting a homily or sermon that will be meaningful to the congregation, doing justice to the lessons and the Gospel reading and challenging the listeners to think about how we are called to action as Christians in our lives and in the world. But we don’t always listen, although we hear. We owe it to ourselves and to the preacher to truly listen and accept the gift being given to us. The gift of listening is the gift that binds us to one another. If we listen with our whole mind and our bodies, as well as our eyes and ears, we are not only giving a gift to the person we are listening to, that person is also giving us a gift of himself or herself. This can also be a gift to others.

On All Saints Sunday, Bishop Beisner celebrated at All Saints', Sacramento where I serve as the deacon. At the end of the service, when we were standing in the narthex to greet people as they left, a small girl came up to the Bishop with a picture she had colored for him. Bishop Beisner lowered himself almost to the ground to be eye-to-eye with her, listened intently to her description of what she had drawn with her crayons and asked questions about it. He did not look up to see how many people were waiting in line to greet him. He did not hurry the child along. He listened. This was a gift not only to the child; it was a gift to him and to all of us around him. He connected with the little girl. She will have a memory of what a bishop is like. And it gave all of us watching a reminder of what a gift the ability to listen is, how it binds us to others and to God.

Take time to listen. Listen to nature. Listen to others. And take five or ten minutes to quiet yourself and listen to God.


1 comment (Add your own)

1. David Shewmaker+ wrote:

Thanks you for this thoughtful article. I have often thought that learning to listen is one of the core principles of our faith, though it is infrequently talked about. I also believe that it is the most important thing that we "of the cloth" can learn to do. If our congregation is desperate about keeping track of the service by making certain that they are following along as the reader reads, is it because we have not listened to THEM but have all too often shaken our clerical fingers at them? Perhaps a homily in which we ask them what they get from the gospel, instead of insisting that only we who wear collars really know what it means.

In relation to God, Are our prayers about telling God, the Lord of the Universe, what we think He should do, or can we learn to sit in humble silence before His throne and listen to the subtle messages from the "still, small voice."? The rubric, "Silence may be kept" needs to be followed to allow ourselves to slow down and absorb the service.

Wed, November 26, 2014 @ 12:28 PM

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