Perhaps one of the hardest activities of all is listening well. Miroslav Volf in his book Allah: A Christian Response writes that in every conversation of two people there are seven present. Me and You. My image of you and your image of me. My image of myself and your image of yourself. The seventh is God.
Let’s face it. My image of you is always deficient. After all, why would you reveal your past shames to me, your scattered thoughts, or your every fear and anxiety. Less obvious is the deficiency of my self-image. Yet as a pastor, I have noticed our ability to deceive ourselves. I have seen liars who believe their own lies. I have often wondered what parts of my story I have re-written to appear better in my own eyes. I especially wonder this when I hear how as siblings we can gather and remember different versions of the same story. My memory is not just shaped by events but by my own emotional life. It is not always the full truth about myself or the events. While we seldom think about it, the complex mix is present every time I show up for a conversation. Naming them and knowing them is necessary for good listening.
Good listening allows us to pay attention to the complexity of ourselves in the midst of conversation. We can’t always do it. It is too mentally exhausting. But sometimes it is the only way to break through the preconceptions, prejudices and harboured anxieties that divide one person from another. A debate about ideas is not just about ideas. It is also about judgments that are rooted in our fears, anxieties and loves. (the debate about LOVE WINS should tell us that). A conversation is a dance that includes judgments about if this is a place safe enough to open up and share. Without good listening, we shut each other down to the safe conversations.
Yesterday, as a couple of guys were talking about the job site, one said that a co-worker advised him not to talk about religion to him. Wanted nothing to do with it. The co-worker was afraid. He had some very bad experiences. Such conversations were not safe. Good listening creates the safe place to open up the story.
But it is the seventh in the conversation that is a really healing blessing. The very fact that God is listening when I am talking reminds me that dishonesty will be observed. So I need to be honest. The God who is present is the one who does not show disdain, does not show prejudicial dismissal or self-absorbed interest. Neither should I. God loves. God is truthful. God is faithful. God is generous. God is good. God is holy. These should be qualities of our conversations as well. The presence of God in every conversation can keep us honest, true and loving as we pay attention to the other. Such loving attention to the other is part of the healing redemptive presence of God.
Good listening is never easy. But it is part of God’s redemptive project. It is a way of loving.