A Tufted Titmouse sits on a thin branch, tilting its head

The Difficult Spiritual Discipline of Listening

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These days it feels to me like everyone is packing a giant flyswatter, ready and eager to verbally whap those with whom they disagree. This is true across the theological and political spectrum. We see it daily on our Facebook and Twitter feeds. We hear it on news programs and talk shows. And we even experience it in the body of Christ.

But the desperate need to be right—and to stake a public claim to our rightness at the cost of harming others—says something about us. 

In Bread for the Journey, Henri Nouwen writes, “To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. . . .”

When our speech, whether online or in person, is filled with accusations, suspicions, rants, and arguments, we reveal much about our own “inner stability.” We reveal that our impulse is to control rather than to converse. We reveal that we care more about being understood than about understanding. More about hearing our own voice than about repairing and preventing harm. More about being right than about living at peace with everyone so far as it depends on us (Rom. 12:18). 

Hitting “post” is easy. Retweeting? Easy. But listening? Listening is hard.

The spiritual discipline of listening is just that—a discipline. It’s something we must practice with intention, curiosity, and humility. It involves bending our body, mind, and spirit toward other humans rather than away from them (Phil 2:1-4).

Listening is so important to the health of our souls, our churches, and our denomination that it’s one of the four main focuses of Our Journey 2025. So how will we become better listeners in the coming years? How will we cultivate the “inner stability” that prompts us to love and understand one another, especially before we seek to guide or correct? Here are some resources we can explore:

In my own journey, sometimes poetry and fiction sink deep truths into my bones like no book or article can. This poem that I encountered on the On Being website reminded me to view every single person I speak to, post about, and listen to as a miracle from God. Perhaps it will inspire you too.

Generous Listening
by Marilyn Nelson

A conversation can be a contest,
or a game of catch with invisible balloons.
They bounce between us, growing and shrinking,
sometimes floating like cloud medicine balls,
and sometimes bowling at us like round anvils.
You toss a phrase and understanding blooms
like an anemone of colored lights.
My mind fireworks with unasked questions.
Who is this miracle speaking to me?
And who is this miracle listening?
What amazingness are we creating?
Out of gray matter a star spark of thought
leaps between synapses into the air,
and pours through gray matter, into my heart:
how can I not listen generously?

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Fabulous poem included in this post. Such richness of images possible in a conversation. I am wondering what that kind of generous listening posture looks like between me and God. What balloons is He tossing to me and what new understanding is blooming?