It’s not always about finding the right words. As an inveterate word lover, that’s a hard admission for me to make. I want to believe that there is a perfect response if I’m smart or patient or wise enough to find it. That can be the hardest part of listening sometimes – the temptation to search for the perfect response instead of being fully present in the moment with all its messiness.
Part of the unspeakable privilege of my job as a priest - and more fundamentally, as a follower of Jesus - is to listen to people. It strikes me just how many times Jesus in the Gospels starts a story with the word “Listen!”, as if he knows just how difficult this is. I’d like to say that I’m always fully present to people in their pain and able to listen with my whole self, but I’ll admit it - sometimes my “savior strings” get tugged. I feel the urge to fix or suggest or focus on what can be changed; and when advice is actually sought, those tugs can be helpful.
But oftentimes, it’s not my problem solving tools that are required. The real need goes deeper than that. More often than not, the need isn’t something to be “fixed;” the need is to be heard. We need to know that our thoughts and feelings matter, because we matter. And when we believe that, when a flesh and blood person honors us in this way whether they agree with us or not, it’s becomes easier to bring our whole selves to God and let the real work of healing begin.
When we are truly listened to, we get outside the echo chamber of our own heads. We can begin to hear our own voices – and perhaps even the guidance of the Spirit - amidst all the others and clarify what it is we’re really seeking. When someone listens to us with patience and without judgment as we begin to untangle all our knotted impressions and intuitions, it becomes easier to believe that God could be listening too – that the divine silence isn’t empty, but full and loving and expectant.
Many of us, in the helping professions at least, have been taught how to listen – how to pay attention to body language, to the phrases that keep getting repeated, to what is being avoided or not being said. We practice being present and restraining the urge to speak – striving to speak only when it improves upon the silence. Perhaps the reason it takes so much practice is because it goes so against our grain. We’re taught in this particular outpost of American culture to be experts at all times, to present solutions, to always remain action-focused and outcome-based.
We grow frustrated sometimes at the inability of our words to fix things. (Or maybe that’s just me.) But perhaps it’s only when we realize the limits of our words that we can at last grasp the depths of another’s reality and truly walk alongside them. Perhaps it’s only when words fail us that we can experience and communicate the love and healing power of God that goes beyond words.
In his ceaselessly challenging book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes: “We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.” Who do you need to listen to this week? Who needs to listen to you?
In the Name of the Spirit who intercedes with sighs too deep for words (Romans 8:26),