Sermon: Spiritual Practices: Listening

“Spiritual Practices: Listening”

Rev. Leah Lyman Waldron
Park Avenue Congregational Church, UCC
September 24, 2017

Mark 5:25-34

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Immediately aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ And his disciples said to him, ‘You see the crowd pressing in on you; how can you say, “Who touched me?” ’ He looked all round to see who had done it. But the woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in fear and trembling, fell down before him, and told him the whole truth. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed of your disease.’

Today we continue our sermon series on Spiritual Practices – those internal attitudes that, as we practice them, draw us closer to God. Our focus this morning, as you may have noticed from our time with the children, is on the powerful practice of listening.

This morning’s Gospel passage seems, on the face of it, to be about healing rather than listening. A woman plagued by hemorrhages for 12 years hears about Jesus and, weak though she is, drags herself into the crowd to touch his garment, believing that this will heal her. When Jesus looks around for who it was that touched him, the woman comes forward to identify herself, and, scripture says, “She told him the whole truth.”  The Greek aletheia – here translated as truth – carries the additional meaning of “reality” – her reality as someone struggling with chronic illness. In some translations this is rendered as “she told him her whole story.”

For those of you with a chronic illness or who know and love someone with a long-term health issue, I want you to stop and think about how long it would take to tell “the whole story” of that illness. The litany of symptoms, diagnoses and misdiagnoses, all the various doctors and specialists consulted, medications prescribed and changes made… Telling “the whole story” would be quite an endeavor.

And yet Jesus stops and listens to it all, listens to her. What makes an even greater impression is that Jesus stops and listens to her in the middle of another, quite urgent errand – when the woman with the hemorrhage finds him, he is already on his way to try to save the daughter of a synagogue official who, we are told, is at death’s door.  Jesus takes so long in listening to the woman with the hemorrhage, in fact, that the official’s daughter dies and has to be brought back to life.  Now THAT is some serious listening.

When was the last time you were listened to that way? When was the last time, in this age of digital connectivity and chronic busyness, that someone took the time to be present enough to you, not checking their phone or watching the clock, to listen to your whole story?  When was the last time someone listened you into reality, into feeling like what was happening in your life was worthy of attention? When was the last time someone stopped what they were doing, postponed an important task, to really listen to what was on your heart?

Author and physician Rachel Naomi Remen tells a modern day version of our Gospel story in her wonderful book My Grandfather’s Blessings. Dr. Remen has Crohn’s disease; this particular essay describes a resurgence of strange new symptoms after a period of wellness. Test results came back normal and her team of doctors, despite many hours of investigation and effort, had no answers. She began to feel cut off from the world, isolated by her extreme symptoms and the terrifying feeling that no one, not even she, knew what was wrong. In desperation, she made an appointment with one more doctor, but immediately regretted the decision as he was part of an HMO that allotted fifteen minutes’ time for each patient visit. “What could this man possibly do to be of help in fifteen minutes,” she wondered, when others had come up empty despite giving many hours of their time?

Dr. Smith entered the office, looked over Rachel’s record, and leaned in: “Tell me why you have come.” “I looked into his face,” she writes, “and saw a genuine concern.” And from Rachel’s mouth poured a laundry list of worrisome ailments. Then, slowly, she began to tell him things she had confided in no one else. How her first doctor told her when she was diagnosed that she would die at forty. That her father had recently died and as a result her mother, suffering from severe heart disease, had just come to live with her. That she worried about being able to care for her mother and her own patients while fevers, fatigue, and bizarre symptoms plagued her at a moment’s notice. The loneliness she felt as friends went on without her. “Eventually,” she said, “I said it all and then I just cried.”

“Like the others,” she continues, “he had no diagnosis. What he offered was his caring and companionship, his willingness to face the unknown with me. In fourteen minutes he had lifted the loneliness that had separated me from others and from my own strength. Someone else knew, someone else cared” – someone else had listened, we might add – “and because of this I found I had the courage to deal with whatever was going to happen.”

Real, deep listening is a transformative, restorative act we can do for others – a life-changing ministry we provide that helps them feel validated, an act of loving service that can ease loneliness and lift heavy burdens.

Listening is essential in community as well as for individuals – in a church or a neighborhood or even on Facebook – particularly in this day and age, when we are tempted to communicate in sound bites, to jump to conclusions, to tune out the other as soon as we think we know their position. It is so, so easy to be formulating our response while the other person talks instead of simply listening. To stay attentive, listening not just to their words but to what they are trying to tell us is important to them, is much harder.

Yet listening like this, to someone with whom you are in disagreement, can completely change the tenor of the conversation.  My friend Leslie, a member of a UCC church in Knoxville, TN, is a little bit of a hippie and keeps chickens in her residential backyard. She tells the story of how her neighbor, we’ll call him Frank, came over one day positively irate, glowing with rage that a chicken had somehow ended up on his property despite Leslie’s attempts to corral her hens. “You need to keep those gosh darn chickens” – only he didn’t say “gosh darn” – “on your property, and don’t even try to tell me one didn’t come over here and poop in my yard” – only he didn’t say “poop” – “because I saw it with my own eyes!”

“Frank,” Leslie said as she met his gaze, “I care about how you feel. Tell me what’s gone wrong and I’ll work with you on how I can fix it.”

Frank stopped, mid-rant, with a look of utter surprise on his face. He had been geared up for a fight, had presupposed Leslie would dispute his claims and was ready with counterarguments and evidence, but what he found instead was someone willing to listen, someone who cared about his experience and his frustration. It utterly defused his anger, and they were able to work towards a solution together. There’s a reason that James the letter writer connects being “quick to listen” with being “slow to speak, and slow to anger” – listening to the other is a powerful tool to help us stay connected in conflict.

Listening is also something we ourselves need to receive in order to find our wholeness.  Growing up, I struggled with this. The ability to listen that would one day be such an asset in my pastoral ministry was a boon to my friends, but somewhat of a burden to me. Maybe you’ll identify with this – being the one strong enough to hear others’ pain and receive their struggles without judgment equated, in my mind, to keeping my own struggles to myself. How could I be seen as a solid, secure place for others to be vulnerable if it seemed like I was falling apart?  And if my friends were having such a hard time, how could they possibly have the bandwidth to listen to my difficulties? So I told my fears and worries to my beloved stuffed kangaroo Johnny and called it good.

But I have learned, through the years, that if we cannot find a way to share openly, to speak as though we will be deeply listened to – and not just by a stuffed animal – we become stagnant and stale, bitter, even depressed. Like Rachel, we shut ourselves off from others and, as a result, come to resent those who seem freely able to share, those who ask for our attentive listening.

Receiving listening from another – their engaged, present, attention – can help us to hear our own truths, to access what lies buried beneath the noise of our busy lives and the machinations of our own minds.

Quaker author and professor Douglas Steere wrote an entire book on the art of listening. On Listening to Another also contains beautiful passages on the power of listening, a few of which I’ll paraphrase here:

“Have you ever talked with someone who listened with such utter abandon to what you were trying to tell [them] that you were yourself made clear in what you were trying to express by the very quality of [their] listening?” If you’ve ever had this experience, you’ll know that it feels almost magical – the other person did nothing but give his or her attention, and suddenly a thorny problem or existential angst resolves itself and you find a measure of peace.

Or perhaps, Steere continues, in being listened to as you railed about some slight you had suffered or complaint you had, looking for sympathy and a chorus or two of “I can’t believe they did that!”, your listener simply keeps silent as “it begins to dawn upon you that you were describing not so much the situation of [the person or group irritating you] as the condition of your own heart.” Through another’s listening, suddenly complaint and inner turmoil are transformed into perspective, humility, and repentance – the desire to change your own way of being instead of others’.

Or maybe, to continue paraphrasing Steere, “you had sought out a friend to confess something you could no longer keep in the solitary confinement of your own heart. You were not sure you would have the courage to admit how low you had fallen, and you began in evasively safe regions, not sure either of yourself or of your friend. But the utter and easy attentiveness, the free and open listening of your friend lifted the latch on the gate; it swung open effortlessly and all that you had held back tumbled out. Now it was out and you had died a little death, but in the patient eyes of the friend which you scarcely dared to lift your own to look into, you discovered that you were still in the land of the living.”

There is poetry – and power – in listening like that!

Steere is, of course, describing what happens when we find ourselves in the company of that rare treasure, a deep and true listener. But I think he is also describing something else – prayer.

I think the practice of confession, and even the Quaker practice of a clearness committee, developed because it can be difficult to feel heard, to feel listened to, by an invisible, intangible God. As we talked about last week, it can be enormously helpful to put a human face on the divine work God is doing through those who practice such holy listening with us.
Yet if the power of a friend listening to us is as we’ve just described, how much more powerful is the act of God listening to us, the feeling that we have been attended to with infinite compassion and openness by the Creator of the universe? Even the best, most gifted listeners among us will sometimes be too busy, too burdened themselves, to be present to our outpourings.  But the prophet Jeremiah reminds us that there is One who will never be too busy, who will put down even urgent matters in order to hear what is on our hearts: “When you call on me and come and pray to me, I will listen to you.” Practice this kind of sharing with the expectation of being listened to – through silent or spoken prayer, through journaling, through simple conversation with God – and your inner landscape will be transformed.

I want to commend to you one more kind of listening. It, too, is prayer – but it is the praying we do after we have poured it all out for God to hear. It comes in the silence, as we attempt to listen to God speaking to us, with words of reassurance or with a nudge to forgive or with a call in some new direction. This kind of listening may not result in us hearing actual words – it rarely does for me! It may instead look like recognizing a quiet truth God has planted deep in our souls. Or sometimes it will help us notice a situation or person that needs our attention. Sometimes this listening opens in us a feeling of peace about the path we have chosen, or a feeling of uneasiness that means we need to reconsider a decision we’ve made. Sometimes our listening will feel like contentment as we simply rest in God’s love for us. And sometimes, it will feel like nothing – like silence. The point isn’t that we will always get an answer, but that we practice being open to how God might move as we become totally present to and focus our attention on the Divine.

(PS The point also isn’t to listen perfectly every time – I often get distracted or feel uncomfortable or can’t seem to hear anything when I’m trying to listen to God. And that’s alright – I just remind myself that a spiritual practice like listening is just that – something we practice!)

One of my favorite ways to listen is through lectio divina, something we explored in Bible study a few weeks ago. Literally “divine reading,” it’s an ancient form of engaging the Bible by listening, so that we can free our eyes from the page and listen with our hearts rather than just our minds. Monastic communities used to practice lectio divina as part of worship or even while they ate.  It involves listening to a passage three times, each time with a different aim; but this morning for time’s sake we’ll focus on just one reading, using a shortened version of the text. I invite you to get comfortable in your pew, close your eyes or soften their focus, and try it with me!

Listen for a phrase or a word that jumps out at you, that grabs your heart.

Now there was a woman who had been suffering from hemorrhages for twelve years. She had endured much under many physicians, and had spent all that she had; and she was no better, but rather grew worse. She had heard about Jesus, and came up behind him in the crowd and touched his cloak, for she said, ‘If I but touch his clothes, I will be made well.’ Immediately her hemorrhage stopped; and she felt in her body that she was healed of her disease. Aware that power had gone forth from him, Jesus turned about in the crowd and said, ‘Who touched my clothes?’ The woman, knowing what had happened to her, came in awe and trembling, fell down before him, and told him her whole story. He said to her, ‘Daughter, your faith has made you well; go in peace, and be healed.’

Does anyone want to share what word or phrase caught their attention?

Now think, for a moment, about how God might be speaking to you through that phrase or word, through the story of the woman and Jesus’ act of radical listening.

Listening is an act of healing we can do for others. Listening is an act of valuing someone else’s experience, a way to defuse conflict and to communicate that we care even when we disagree.  Sharing as though we will be listened to, by God or by a friend, is an act we can do for our own wholeness.  And listening to God with an ear and a heart for what God is saying to us is an act of worship – an act that says we are open to following God’s lead, an act that will help us feel God’s inspiring, inviting presence in every crack and cranny of our lives.

And oh my friends, when we can feel that presence, when we can attend to it and learn to offer it to others – life suddenly becomes infinitely more vibrant and suffused with meaning.  Try it sometime – just practice.