Who Is Listening?

Rev. Seth Patterson

June 23, 2024

Scripture: Proverbs 18:13

The rock was warm along the back of my body and its contours weren’t terribly comfortable, but I was able to find a position, with a shoe and a rolled-up shirt under my head, to make it manageable. The sun was directly overhead and even with sunglasses on I couldn’t open my eyes. But the sun was warm and the breeze was cool, so it was a lovely moment to be alive. This seemed like a good moment to practice some deep listening.

Deep listening may feel adjacent to meditation or contemplative practice or some kinds of prayer but its intention is somewhat different. The practice is to put your energy into listening to your surroundings, or the person in front of you, to narrow your focus.

I listened to the sound of Lake Superior gently lapping against the rocks at my feet. I listened to a small airplane fly overhead and a large truck rumble by on the road behind. I listened to a small bird chirping to my right and several in enthusiastic conversation to my left. I listened to the child humming to herself and the sound of her small rocks clicking together as she collected them in a pile near my right hip. I heard her quietly exclaim to herself the awe she was finding in the beauty of the stones. As I settled deeper into this listening practice, I began to hear my own breath moving through my nose and what may have been the sound of blood moving through or near my ears.

In those 5 minutes or so of deep listening, I found my own internal dialogue quiet, and an expansiveness emerge. Not to overinflate the brief experience, but there was a sense of being connected to something larger than my own self. In that moment I was decentered from my own experience. I then found, after this brief practice, that I was more easily present in subsequent conversations with my daughter.

Have you ever practiced deep listening? Let’s try it together. Not for 5 minutes, but one minute. I invite you to put your focus on these shared surroundings and try to listen for at least 5 distinct sounds. Listening is distinct from hearing. Try to not just hear sounds but to really listen.

Listening

What did you listen to? Was anyone able to discern at least 5 different things to listen to? In our modern life when there is so much noise, so much talking, so much competition for our attention, we are often unaccustomed to listening deeply. How often do you listen deeply with curious intention?

I invite you to continue your practice of deep listening as I read our scripture for today. We are listening to the book of Proverbs, part of the wisdom writings in the Hebrew Bible. Let us take a deep breath together and open our ears, hearts and minds to the wisdom of our spiritual ancestors.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.

Yup, that’s the entirety of the scripture reading today. This is chapter 18, verse 13, one piece of a significant list of short proverbs intended to raise questions of values and morals, the meaning of human life, and right ethical conduct.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.

I can imagine that most (all?) of us would agree with the substance of this proverb aphorism. We could agree that it is essential to listen before answering and to do otherwise is akin to folly and shame. But how often do we do it? How often do we listen -which is active—instead of merely hearing—which is passive?

We are innately listening beings. In the last trimester of pregnancy, a fetus can distinguish the difference between language and other sounds.[1] That means all of us were listening with some discernment before being born. Listening is central to our humanness. [Sidenote: while listening typically refers to that which is auditory, those who have been otherwise gifted and cannot hear well with their ears certainly “listen” in ways that fit them.]

I have been wondering about listening—or the lack thereof—since Beth’s excellent sermon last week. In part because of what she said and in part because I knew it was my turn to occupy this space and I would rather listen than speak. Last week Beth wisely and powerfully said this:

So, recognize your anger, my friends. Even when it is hard…Because unattended anger leads to resentment. Built up anger leads to violence against others. And unaddressed anger often triggers us to take out our feelings on those who do not deserve our wrath. None of these are productive. None of these move us forward to action. None of these instill hope. Let us instead use our anger to point towards our convictions, what we really want to be different, what we are willing to seriously pay attention to and give of ourselves toward. Whether in personal matters and relationships or in challenging the status quo, let us use our righteous anger to power our motivation to make things different. Anger may be complicated, and it is necessary.

That is all true, important and excellently said. I began to wonder: but what if no one is listening to you? What happens if we stop listening to each other’s necessary feelings of anger? If we don’t feel listened to, then what?

Journalist Kate Murphy has written a truly excellent book called You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters (thanks to our friend Dan Dressen for lifting this book up!). She says, “To listen well is to figure out what’s on someone’s mind and demonstrate that you want to know. It’s what we all crave; to be understood as a person with thoughts, emotions, and intentions that are unique and valuable and deserving of attention.”[2]

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.

We all deserve to be listened to. Not just heard but listened to and it can feel like a rare occurrence. To be listened to is a validation of your inherent holiness, that the presence of God resides in you and can be recognized and experienced. There is so much standing in the way of this authentic connection though. We reside in a nation that is incredibly noisy with near constant content being blared at us from the airwaves, in our pockets, and written on every surface that can be purchased for advertising. Compound that with the fact that our society doesn’t value listening nearly as much as we value proclamation or getting the last word. Add to that a lack of practice, concerns about feeling vulnerable and anxiety about saying the “right thing” and we typically spend so much more energy on crafting and anticipating our words than we do on listening to what is being given.

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.

To listen to someone else, to pay attention to the sacredness of their being and the stories they are telling can be an act of collaboration with the divine source. To listen to another’s anger and joys, hopes, loves, concerns, desires, etc is an act of love, an act of relationship. You don’t need to agree with someone to listen to them, you don’t need to even like the person to listen. Listening is an act of recognition and validation. Kate Murphy writes: “Listening is about the experience of being experienced. It’s when someone takes an interest in who you are and what you are doing.”[3]

To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.

We all deserve to be seen and heard. We can rest in the knowledge that God is always listening and is always experiencing us with ceaseless love. God always recognizes us and validates us. And sometimes this can still feel remote or forgotten. When something is always there, it can be easy to take it for granted or overlook it. When God is in our very beings and constantly surrounds us, we can often forget about God. So, it’s important to find the experience of being experienced from others.

Who listens to you?

I can imagine that much of our experience is the folly that Proverbs names, that others answer before listening to us.

Who listens deeply to you?

Part of the gift of being a church community together is that we can practice things in here that are hard to find out there. We can together push against a culture of noise by practicing listening. We can work together to be a community that practices listening deeply together. We can be a place where we are comfortable speaking about our anger because we believe we can be listened to, validated and experienced as the God-loved being that we are. How can we be a community that listens and trusts that others listen to us? How can we practice this together?

On Friday, I had an experience of someone from this community listening deeply to me. They noticed a hole in an answer I gave them and they gently asked about what was left unsaid. They were listening carefully and then listened deeply afterwards. It was an enlivening experience for me and I am grateful for the gift.

I can volunteer myself as someone who will practice deep listening with you. And I am no more equipped at this than anyone else, other than my own commitment to continue practicing deep listening. We can do this together and give each other gifts that are rarely found in our larger communities.

As we land this sermon plane, I invite you to a moment of practice together. In a moment, please turn to the person sitting near you and you will both have a moment to speak and to listen. This can be a new person in your life or it can be someone you have known for decades (sometimes we actually stop listening deeply to those we know best, instead assuming that we already know what they think and feel).

The invitation is to say “Good morning, my name is _______ and today I am feeling…” and you will insert a color to represent how you are feeling. My name is Seth and today I am feeling lime green. Go ahead and think of your color—there are no right answers—so you can listen to your partner without working on your own answer. Let’s practice a moment of listening together.

Did you listen? Did you feel listened to?

The hope is that you find your partner after service and continue this listening practice and ask them why they feel that particular color today. Practice listening and practice being listened to.

May we be the community for each other that we need to be. May we listen deeply together.

[1]You’re Not Listening: What You’re Missing and Why It Matters, Kate Murphy, p. 23

[2]Ibid. p. 32

[3]Ibid. p. 32

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