In our noisy world, we are stimulated, it seems by all of our senses so much that we may not be able to really hear what we need to hear—what we want to hear. The sounds of traffic, the beeps of technology, the rings on our phones always interrupt almost any attempt to find quiet—even for a nano second it seems. Then we hear our inner voices—the inner critic who seems to always be nagging about what we just did wrong; the voices of shame that seem to whisper or shout at us about how messed up we are. One friend told me he always has a “committee meeting” going on in his head. His mind seems to always filled with multiple and conflicting voices saying one thing—then another. He is not mentally ill. He is not schizophrenic . He is voicing my inner world and perhaps yours.
So much talking. So many words. So many meetings. So much information. How can we ever take in what we really need to receive to make sense of our lives, our days and most importantly, one another.
It is hard to listen.
We actually might think that we are listening but our attention may be divided. Our minds are distracted. Many times we are already formulating our responses; our disagreements and forming our opinions while our spouse or a friend is talking with us. We miss much of what is being said. We can’t hear. They are not making much sense and we are not understanding or showing compassion.
Perhaps, we may all have an un- diagnosed conditions called, “Attention Deficit Disorder.” We are in such a deficit of giving attention because our outer world is so noisy and our inner words are shouting to us about what we should have done; should have accomplished; should have already become in this world. Perhaps rather than taking a new medication, we can learn to listen deeply. Even at the Staff meetings of our ministry, Potter’s Inn, I find myself beginning most of our times together saying, “Can everyone please power down your phones?” It is an invitation which means, “Hey, we have important work to do here. Let’s be fully present with each other.” When our kids all come home, I try to muster the courage to say the same thing: Can we turn our phones off and no one post pictures of our food while we eat to Facebook?” Perhaps it is as simple as this –as I age, I see our times so sacred and sadly so rare–I don’t want any of us to miss out by being distracted to our table–to each other.
Most of us are familiar with the story (See Luke 10:38-42) about the two sisters, Mary and Martha in the presence of Jesus. Martha was overly busy and pre-occupied with “so many things” and Mary got the praise for being so attentive to Jesus by listening so well—so deeply to him. We have heard this preached about for years thinking that there are two different kinds of people and how we all need to become even more like Mary. But when you study the teaching methods of Jesus, we realize that each of us actually has a little bit of Mary and a little bit of Martha in our hearts. A part of us wants the deeper, more intimate things of God while another part of us is distracted, busy and living a life out of being ‘attention deficit” to spiritual things of life. This really is a story about learning to experience the Presence of God—and how we need this story to come alive today to us with all of our inner and outward distractions.
To listen—to listen deeply is really a challenge.
I’ve been listening to people all of my vocational life. I’ve listened to problems. I’ve listened to couples argue about their dying marriage. I’ve listened to children lament about their emotionally absent parents. I’ve listened to team members complain about another team member. I’ve listened to staff complain about their senior leader. I’ve listened to so many leaders, that listening always presents me with a huge challenge. Will I really listen? Or, will I be distracted, unfocused, pre-occupied with the last conversation and not THIS particular person? Sometimes, I can think to myself, “Here we go again, another couple on the brink.” Or, “Here’s the latest staff team in conflict.” I am editing. I can be pre-occupied. I can miss them and what they need to say and want to say because I am so much like Martha.
In my marriage with Gwen, I have found the challenge of really listening to her, a huge challenge. Sometimes, I feel a growing impatience within me as she is talking. One time as she was sharing with me about her day, I was feeling anxious, frustrated and annoyed. I remember thinking—but thankfully not saying—“Can you just give me the bullet points of your day. Spare me the details. Get on with it.” Maybe you can relate? Have you ever felt frustrated as someone you actually love is talking and you can’t really hear them because you are so preoccupied with your own inner noise? Many of us can identify with this conundrum. We want to listen but find it hard to really listen well—to listen deeply.
We are often deaf or hard of hearing it seems. One couple I counseled came in one week and the wife began. “He’s totally deaf to me. He doesn’t hear me any more.” We can be this way with our families; at work and even with God. We can’t seem to hear one another well. We hear the buzz of noisy words but we are really missing each other. Life becomes absurd for us when we can’t listen. In the Latin, the root word ‘absurd’ comes from the word—deaf. When things in marriage, work and with life feel absurd—I am experiencing a deafness—a missing of what is being spoken. It makes no sense. She makes no sense. You make no sense. Life makes no sense. Even God makes no sense.
When Luke describes the encounter of Mary and Martha and Martha’s ADD, we’re told that Mary “listened to what he was saying.” It was Mary’s ability to focus, to give attention to the words of Jesus that Jesus noticed. Mary listened first to his words but then the words gave way to the experience of the presence of Jesus. Mary was in the presence of Jesus while Martha was not. She moved beyond the content of the actual words of what Jesus was saying to experiencing the Presence of Jesus.
Gwen has told me for years that she wants me, needs me to really listen to her. When she says this, I am finally able to figure out that she is wanting my full presence—not just my ears. She wants me; needs me to be present—to be with her. She wants my focus, my attention. She doesn’t want me to be a busy Martha solving her problems before she even finishes telling me about her problems.
A Message in the Chinese Character: Listen
In my efforts to become a better listener in my marriage and in my work, I was introduced to the Chinese word for “listen.” Remember how sometimes a foreign word can help shed light on our own mono way of understanding? The Chinese characters which make up the word “listen” have each of these parts to make the one word—the whole word listen: One character depicts the ears. Another depicts the mind. One reveals the eyes and another shows the heart. In Chinese, the word for “listen” involves the ears, the mind, eyes, and heart. There is also a horizontal line in the midst of all these characters which means undivided attention. Listening requires focus.
Look carefully at the Chinese word for “listening”
Mary’s listening to Jesus involved her mind being present—not rifling through her lists of things that needed to get accomplished. Listening for Mary meant using her ears to really lean into the presence of the words to hear and to experience a deeper meaning. Her eyes were laser focus on the One who was speaking. She offered her undivided attention and her heart was present to experience the true presence of Jesus.
At our retreat, we help people listen to the Scriptures. Most of us have heard so much preaching and teaching that we assume we know so much. Our attitudes about even hearing the Scripture stir up feelings of “Yeah, tell me something new. Tell me something I don’t already know. I’m numb to this even before you start reading.” This is what I mean by spiritual absurdity. Nothing seems to ever make any sense because we simply becoming deaf.
Don’t just hear. Experience presence.
In the ancient method of listening to Scriptures known as ‘Lectio Divina’, we practice listening by hearing a simple passage read slowly repeatedly and softly. We encourage people to imagine their ears as being the giant ears an elephant wrapping around each word to find the deeper meaning. We are helping the Marthas of today to become the Marys. We are helping each other move from just hearing words—to experiencing the presence.
Every lectio reading becomes truly sacred in this way because we move from just hearing to experiencing the Presence. Like Gwen has coached me so well through the years, my lectio in our conversations moves me towards her—moves me to be present with her—moves me to experience her heart and not just hear her words.
How can you move from hearing the words to being in the true presence of your spouse, friend, team and into the very Presence of God today?