The Art of Listening
Kathy was a naturalist before she became a pastor. One of her jobs was to give guided walks in state parks to tourists. At a certain point in the hike, Kathy would ask her participants to close their eyes, and to count how many sounds they could hear. It was a way for them to become more attentive to their natural surroundings. Most people found the exercise surprising—they didn’t know how much there was to notice simply by listening.
Our story in the Gospel lesson today is about listening. Let’s imagine the scene: Martha invites Jesus, the famous rabbi, into her home. She is prepared for a high maintenance guest—a man known for ducking out early in the morning to pray and leaving others to make breakfast, a rabbi who travelled with an entourage of 12 disciples. She invites her sister Mary to help her host Jesus and his companions. And what happens? Mary reneges on her duties and leaves Martha to do all the work of getting drinks and setting the table and food preparation by herself!
Then comes the listening part: Mary is praised because she sits at Jesus feet and listens to his teaching. Even though she went back on her promise to help and shirked her womanly duty to serve, Jesus compliments her. It’s quite a radical thing for Mary to be sitting there like a real disciple. Jesus was a rabbi, and rabbis had only male disciples. It took a lot of nerve to sit there at Jesus’ feet. Mary risked angering Martha and breaking social taboos in order to follow her calling to put everything else aside and to listen to Jesus.
It’s quite something, isn’t it? When was the last time you put everything else aside to have some quiet time with Jesus? To simply sit and listen? Not to have a big long list of prayer requests, or a lot of things to read. Just to be still and simply be present. You have to make time for it. You have to put your to do list aside. You have get a little comfortable with being instead of doing. It isn’t easy for most of us; in fact, it is a discipline that requires regular practice. See PB about his contemplative prayer practice for the past 7 years.
But as tough as it must have been for Mary, I think the harder job of listening fell to Martha. Mary gets praised for her behavior, but Martha has to endure Jesus’ reprimand. Let me be clear: it is not because working is wrong, or taking care of needs is wrong—on the contrary, Jesus lifts up the very kind of service that Martha is doing over and over again as faithful discipleship. Jesus reprimands Martha because her focus is out of place. “Martha, Martha you are worried and distracted by many things. One thing is needed.” The one thing that is needed is to listen to Jesus, to be in his presence, and to focus on him.
I think it’s always harder to listen in a situation of critique or challenge to our way of doing things than it is to listen when someone is affirming what we are doing. And that is what Martha was faced with in the story. We don’t get to hear how she responded to Jesus’ reprimand. I imagine his tone of voice was loving as he pointed out her misdirected complaint and lack of focus. But it is nonetheless hard to imagine being brought up short when you were trying your darndest to take care of the person that you love.
It reminds me of a time when I had volunteered to go take care of Barbara, friend and godmother of my daughter, who was dying of cancer. My job was to relieve her caretaker Martha (yes, Martha!) for two hours so that Martha could go to a meeting. I had small children at the time and had to travel across the city, and I misjudged the amount of time it would take to get ready and deal with traffic. As a result we were 15 minutes late. Martha confronted me when I came in the door, “you can’t do that. You can’t be late when I have to be on time. I can’t leave Barbara alone.“ It was hard to hear but true – my own desire to fit in one more chore and to not take this task seriously enough had serious consequences. But it was important for me to listen to Martha’s point of view, and to hear how my behavior affected others, even if I had a legitimate reason for being late.
Listening is a lost art in today’s society. We’ve seen politicians label an opponent rather than to discuss the merits and shortcomings of their views. We’ve avoided talking about things that are controversial, because we are afraid of doing the hard work of listening to someone who has a different view and whose ideas may make us angry or challenge us. We stick to safe topics, and nothing changes. But that’s not following Jesus. Jesus says in our lesson that listening is ‘the better part’ and should ‘not be taken away.’ What can we do to start listening?
The place to start is where Mary did—with listening spiritually. Close your eyes right now and listen: what do you hear? How many sounds can you identify? Can you hear the sound of your own breathing? This is the place to begin listening. The name for God in Hebrew is Yahweh- a name that actually mimics the sound of breath. The God who created our first parents and breathed the first breath into their nostrils continues to animate us and be present to us in every breath. When we pause and pay attention to something as simple as breathing, we tune in to God’s presence.
The spiritual discipline of listening branches out from there. After that initial quiet and centering, we can have a conversation with God, bringing to God’s attention the things that trouble us, the things we are grateful for, the places where we need direction. This is the place where we are accepted as we are, fully and unconditionally. It is the place where we notice God providing for us. That is listening, too.
This listening prayer informs our listening to other people. When we are centered ourselves, when we have a first hand experience of God’s loving affirmation of us as we are, God’s attention to our every need, then we are ready to open ourselves to the needs of others. We are ready to listen to them, no matter if they are giving us compliments or challenging us, whether they are asking for something or giving something to us. Having practiced slowing down and listening in prayer, we can apply that same sense of focus to our conversations. We can listen attentively to what the other person is saying without moving to judgment or a response, simply listening. We are secure in God’s love and convinced that God is working in all circumstances, so we do not need to justify our views or win an argument.
I tried this practice in June as I traveled to visit relatives in western New York state and Pennsylvania. It is a very rural area, and the people there have different concerns than those of us who live near cities in the eastern seaboard. I had a lengthy conversation with my cousin Brian, who is farming the same land that my uncle and grandfather farmed. I asked Brian questions about how his business model has changing over the years and how he adapts in the growing agribusiness sector. He recently got into the organic market. He hires Mexican workers for his dairy farm, and strives to do it legally. I don’t always agree with some of his general statements, but as I hear him talk about his own experience with government regulation, the immigration system, the economics of a small farm, I appreciate his struggle, his integrity, and the work that he is doing. It means a lot to me that he continues to farm this land that’s been in the family for four generations.
I believe we have an unusual opportunity to cultivate it here, in the faith community. We gather to listen —to scripture, to the Spirit’s prompting in prayer, to the concerns of our fellow worshippers and the world around us. This past week, several people reached out to PB and I in response to his sermon last Sunday with a variety of responses. I am grateful for these conversations, because they show that our preaching is just part of the larger the conversation the Holy Spirit wants us to have in this community. We need to continue to expand the opportunities to listen to one another, through bible study and adult forum, through prayer and worship, through community conversations and individual ones.
Listening is a holy art. It is, as Jesus says, the better part. Listening changes things. It changes us, to embrace a greater humility in our lives, recognizing that none us alone sees the complete picture. It opens us up to common ground and builds trust. It teaches us to value the image of God in all our neighbors, and appreciate another person even when you do not agree.
May we open ourselves to grow in our listening, to Jesus, and to our neighbors.