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Evangelical Listening

In Matthew 15:10 we read: “[Jesus] called the crowd to him and said to them, ‘Listen and understand.’” Personally, I often find myself challenged to listen. Not the kind of listening that regularly takes place in conversations between friends, but listening for understanding. The type of listening that actively seeks out and welcomes others’ input is hard work. Isn’t it?

”If the greatest of all spiritual gifts is love [1 Corinthians 13:13],” notes Craig Nessan in his book From Maintenance to Mission,

“then one of the purest expressions of love is to listen” (p. 18). So much so, that it helps to remember that God gave us two ears and one mouth for a reason.

Evangelical listening honors people by taking them with utmost seriousness. “It means listening carefully, listening actively, making sure we have genuinely understood what they are saying,” writes Nessan (Beyond Maintenance to Mission, 118-119).

Listening for understanding, especially the kind of deep listening that seeks out and celebrates diversity and inclusion, is not for the faint of heart. It takes a lot of work. Think about it. How often do we really listen to one another? Listening with a heart that seeks to understand by creating space that not only invites but actually welcomes the sharing of ideas. It is the kind of engaged listening that refrains from jumping in too quickly with answers or advice. It allows others to speak freely without interruption or added commentary. Instead, active listening reflects upon what it is said and then looks for understanding and clarity.

Putting into practice active listening skills that gift others with our full attention without being distracted by thinking about what we are going to say next recognizes Christ in the other. It is the type of listening that works to listen for understanding without wishing that others would “just stop already” so we can chime in with our own thoughts and opinions; thereby dominating or moving the conversation in a direction that is familiar or comfortable for us. By monopolizing the conversation we minimize and discourage the contributions of other participants, especially those who respond by remaining silent.

The art of listening is hard work because it challenges us not only to be fully present and engaged but also to "see” and “hear” what is being said. It also challenges us to pay attention to what is left unspoken and to seek out feedback and input. Listening with the ear of our heart also requires honesty. It asks: “How might we expand the circle of our conversation? How might other voices enrich our deliberations and planning?”

Evangelical listening not only invites, but listens deeply to and celebrates the inclusion of the voices of our siblings in Christ who are far too often ignored or overlooked, especially the marginalized, forgotten, scorned, and oppressed. For scripture teaches that Jesus meets us in the “least of these.” Craig Nessan advises: “To establish a congregation as an association of the ‘like-minded’ runs the imminent danger of excluding Christ as the one who meets us in the form of the unlovely. We are summoned to be a church that is radically egalitarian in its composition, inviting exactly those scorned by the world” (Beyond Maintenance to Mission, p. 86).

Listening is also a key component of any organization’s visioning and planning. But even the best-laid plans fall apart without input and feedback; information that is not only listened to but valued and actively sought after. After all, listening carefully and deeply to God’s activity in our lives is an important part of what it means to be the church together.

In the weeks and months to come we, the people of the Central States Synod, will gather in our respective conferences to engage in meaningful conversations regarding where God might be leading us as congregations, conferences, and as a synod. As we do so, may we be intentional in our efforts to be intentional about listening deeply to the thoughts and ideas of others. If some participants seem to be holding back, invite them to offer feedback, perhaps by asking: “Where do you see God at work in your ministry setting right now?”

It’s no surprise that in the gospels Jesus often begins a teaching episode with the call to “Listen.” Notice, for example, how in Matthew 15:10 Jesus begins a teaching episode by calling the crowd to himself as he directs would-be followers to “Listen and understand.” The pairing of the two imperatives is fascinating. Perhaps Jesus invites inquiring disciples to both listen and understand because he knows that understanding cannot happen without active, engaged listening. Maybe Jesus begins this particular address by challenging the assembled crowd to listen because he knows that listening for understanding is hard work. It requires intentionality of purpose. To compound matters, a lot of the confusion surrounding Jesus’ teaching discourse that follows appears to be deliberate. Instead of speaking to his followers in a straightforward manner, Jesus teaches in parables. Even the disciples, the called ones, struggle to make sense of what Jesus was trying to convey to them. Prompting Peter, who cannot grasp the intended meaning of Jesus’ parable about the blind leading the blind, to declare, “Explain this parable to us” (Matthew 15:15).

The same could be said about many of us; especially as we continue to navigate our way through the unchartered waters of an ongoing pandemic. In the midst of the world’s chatter and distractions, we may find ourselves challenged to experience God’s ongoing activity in our lives right now. The stress of developing coming back together guidelines, implementing safety protocols, listening to a diversity of viewpoints in our efforts to build collaborative teams, and navigating new technologies and social media platforms can be overwhelming, to say the least. So much so that many of us may find ourselves frustrated, stressed, anxious, and struggling to hear God’s life-giving and healing Word of promise amid the din of a whirlwind of activity.

So instead of listening, perhaps many of us find ourselves doing a lot of the talking right now. For some, our hearts may have grown calloused as we struggle to put out one fire after another. The toxic chatter so prevalent in our civic discourse these days and a jettisoning of both/and thinking in favor of the false security offered by either/or dichotomies is doing its best to gain a foothold in our lives and in our congregations. As a result, many of us may be feeling external pressures that are bending us inwards toward ourselves and away from loving service to our neighbors in need.

The need to listen is more important now than ever. The need to plan and envision a future together demands our attention and requires our input. Questions to ponder as the process moves forward include:

· What is God doing in our community?

· Where is God powerfully present right now?

· How might God be calling us to use our gifts of time, talent, and treasure in the future?

· How are we helping people to connect what happens in worship to their daily lives? How might we do this differently?

As the planning and visioning process moves forward may we do so in the knowledge that “our listening to one another is grounded in God’s faithful listening to us” (Beyond Maintenance to Mission, p.15)

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