Sunday, January 15, 2012

Listening, by Greg

I have been enjoying introducing Alex to some of Puccini’s great Arias ... including “O Mio Babbino Caro” from one of his less well known operas. It is such an extraordinary thing to close your eyes and allow the passion of this almost painfully beautiful piece of music to cascade down upon your ears and your soul. I know very little about Puccini, but listening to his music almost feels like you’re looking through a window into his soul.

Alex is glad that we’re now listening to Puccini or Bach or anything besides the nearly non-stop onslaught of Christmas music that I’ve subjected my household to for the past couple of months.

We have just come out of a season that is notable for, among other things, its sound ... the nearly non-stop din of seasonal music and bells ringing and general “hubbub”. One of the things I’ve always appreciated about this month ... the month of January ... is the quiet ... the cessation of sound ... the chance to still oneself and to ... simply listen. To this day, our New Year’s day worship of two weeks ago remains a gift for the calm and quiet worship we enjoyed together. During the closing guided meditation, we were told repeatedly to “smile and breathe” ... a simple, but effective spiritual practice.

This past Monday and Tuesday I joined a group of my colleagues for a brief time of retreat ... the theme of the retreat was “Sabbath Keeping” and one of the important “duties”, if you will, of Sabbath Keeping is, simply, listening ... ceasing to speak and slowing your activities and opening up your mind and your heart and your soul to ... whatever is there to be heard. Several times during our retreat we simply sat in silence ... our eyes closed, our bodies relaxed, our minds relaxed, as well, and open ... open to whatever gifts might come to us when we cease activity and speaking for a time.

Our friend Trevor, who preached last Sunday, came out from snowy Vermont to join us at our Sabbath Keeping retreat, because he knows, as I know, that our ministry and our personal spirituality is deepest and most effective when we take time to pause and grow still and listen. After the retreat, Trevor took leave of us for a couple of days and drove to the coast. Wednesday, he told us, he made a “day of silence”, that is ... where he did not speak. He even carried a note with him that explained to people he might encounter that he was observing a day of silence. One young woman at a store said to Trevor, who was speaking again by the time he returned to our home, “I’d love to ask you about your day of silence ... but ... I guess that wouldn’t really work, would it.”

One of the potential hazards of being a human being is that we forget that communication is a two-way process ... we too often get the “speaking” part down, but forget that “listening” is the critical other half of the equation of communication. For as many years as I’ve performed marriages, I’ve always reminded soon-to-be-married couples of the sage advice of the wise old Stoic philosopher, Epictetus, who said “We have two ears and one mouth, so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”

Some of us were born as “chatty Kathy’s” and stilling our voices, for a time, does not come easily to us. But whether we are naturally chatty or not, learning to cease speaking and to listen remains a challenge for most of us. No less of a challenge is to turn off the noise and distractions to which we modern creatures seem almost addicted. It would be interesting to observe our neighbors in a number of places ... on the bus, on the street, in their homes ... and see how many have a compulsive need for sound or information ... see how many must have the television running, the ipod playing, the social network buzzing, the smart phone or the home computer chugging out its information. It might be our neighbors ... it might be us. Too often it is only when we lie down in exhaustion to sleep that we let go of these things and allow silence to envelope us.

Silence and stillness can help open what we might call “the ears of our souls” ... that is, while we are in a posture of receptiveness and listening, it is listening at a deeper level that we are seeking ... to deepen our listening opens us to hearing, finally, the gentle voice of God ... the heart of another person ... the world and its “hopes and fears” ... and even the voice of our own hearts.

To “listen” to the voice of another isn’t simply to hear their words, but it is to seek to understand their heart and their purposes and their concerns. Listening is an act of “knowing” ... it is a communion of souls where the “other” becomes more deeply known to you.

Young Samuel, that we’ve heard about this morning in our scripture reading, models for us that simple receptivity to the voice of God. He keeps hearing his name called and once old Eli sets him straight about who’s doing the calling, Samuel demonstrates for us how to find communion with God: “Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.” It is Samuel’s openness and willingness to wait for the voice of God and to listen to the heart of God that helps him play a critically important role in the life of the nation of Israel as a judge and a prophet. It is Samuel’s discernment of God’s heart that allows him to help Israel in the selection of its rulers ... first Saul ... and then David.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

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