Listen! To Who, what, How?

There are many voices and much chatter out there right now. Opinions, attitudes, reactions, anger, fear, alarm…… are all in the mix.

This pandemic has exposed us and our lack of preparedness, our myopic worldviews, our narrow thinking, our party politics, our collective paranoia. But at the same time – our kindness and consideration, our ability to share, our caring, our lack of caring. There’s good, sweet and sour in that mix as well.

Listen to the science! Listen to politics. Listen to the marketplace. Listen to God. Listen to yourself. Don’t listen to them. Don’t listen to ‘the media’. Don’t trust TV. Form your opinion from Twitter, TikTok, or Facebook. These are some options in a volatile mix!

Seems we may be somewhat mixed up?

It’s as if our learned behavior is akin to baby birds, mouths wide, waiting to be fed, swallowing whatever happens to drop in and fill the emptiness and the hunger. Tell me something to allay my fear and worry. Give me someone to blame; anything to hold onto. Lie to me the ‘truth’ I want to hear.

Life in this increasingly complex and populated world is mixed up with all manner of people, sounds, worldviews, and interpretations. Perhaps we could do well to begin with accepting that there are seldom simplistic solutions and answers. Yes, there are some universal principles. But, having stated one, the application in diverse situations, cultures and contexts is where the challenge invariably lies.

Instead of a ‘know-it-all’ outlook – humility, in the light of the enormous limitations of our individual human capacity to know and understand, would be a helpful attribute. Humility demands a certain maturity that is comfortable with ‘not knowing’, is secure admitting ignorance in some matters. and is curious to question and to learn. Identity is not dependent upon ‘being right’.

How we listen is the key. Here are some caricatures: some of us listen to ourselves talking seldom giving air time to others. And when they speak we’re already formulating an answer without even hearing what has been said. Some of us listen, absorb, but never engage. We say we’re processing but we seldom speak out to test what we’re thinking for fear that it may reveal our ignorance. Reframe; acknowledging ignorance in order to learn is a wonderful attribute. Some of us ‘make up our minds‘ about something or someone and we’re quite deaf to having that view changed or challenged. We have become deaf, and if I wasn’t so sensitive I’d add….. and dumb. Dumb, because we’ve drawn an invisible line in the sand of our thinking and chosen to stop learning, listening, or maturing. Some of us are so open to every new idea and thought that we delight in listening; we just never stop and reflect to form an opinion or make a decision (the Bible calls it… “blown by the wind”). I probably have more than I’d like to admit of those attributes.

A popular phrase today is ‘active listening’. That means leaning into conversations, asking for clarification, demonstrating that we’re hearing by interpreting back. and so on. It combines many of the positive attributes mentioned above.

We read blogs and comments every day that attempt to take huge topics and distill them down to a memorable phrase or a few succinct paragraphs (guess this is one :-)). It may be catchy but it’s naive to think that it’s enough to contain depth, breadth, and wisdom. We can be lazy by swallowing whatever tastes good, is quickly digestible (like baby food), and easily aligns with our opinion. To raise the bar in listening why not examine the source, ask why, what does this mean, who is impacted, what’s the cost, and …?

People say, “don’t trust the media”. As they declare and pronounce – they are themselves using media platforms to make their statements. Surely it’s more constructive to stop branding all media and begin to take responsibility for listening to a variety of sources more critically? To be aware of bias in them (and me) – ‘eat the meat and leave the bones’. There’s no single source that’s going to have the whole truth and nothing but the truth. What seems true to me today may well need some refining tomorrow – particularly if my limited capacity discovers new information; and welcomes it.

I wonder whether there’s not a better word to describe listening? The best I can come up with is ‘consider’.

I’m reminded when Jesus was talking to His disciples about their tendency to worry. They lived in a world governed and controlled by Roman occupation, food was sometimes hard to find, the mortality rate was high, taxes and financial demands from church and state pressed in hard. There was much to be worried about. They could only handle so much. Herod was as corrupt and cruel as hell, Pilate was no angel, church and state collaborated for power through expedience and self interest. Where was truth and how would ordinary people know what was really going on? Jesus helped them process the meaning of trust and faith in their context by using metaphor to convey wisdom while avoiding childish wishful thinking.

22 Then Jesus said to his disciples: “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat; or about your body, what you will wear. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothes. 24 Consider the ravens: They do not sow or reap, they have no storeroom or barn; yet God feeds them. And how much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life[a]26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

27 “Consider how the wild flowers grow. They do not labor or spin. Yet I tell you, not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 28 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today, and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, how much more will he clothe you—you of little faith! 29 And do not set your heart on what you will eat or drink; do not worry about it. 30 For the pagan world runs after all such things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 But seek his kingdom, and these things will be given to you as well.

32 “Do not be afraid, little flock, for your Father has been pleased to give you the kingdom. (Luke 12:22-32)

Consider – implies stop, look, listen, reflect. Having taken time to do all of that perhaps there are applications that can be helpful for my life and evolving perspective? Consider the life of birds and flowers and observe what they convey about the nature and character of God. When we consider the wide variety of birds and flowers we might conclude that God is extremely creative, very generous, pays attention to detail, and regards us with greater affection than our exquisite natural surroundings. Therefore, trust Him for provision – for you. Simplistic? Is complexity a yardstick for substance or truth? Maybe, maybe not.

It all sounds great until someone says, “I don’t believe in God. How can a good God make animals prey on each other? How can God create poisonous plants? How can there be earthquakes, landslides, hurricanes, floods and droughts?

These legitimate questions challenge the goodness and/or existence of God. That’s allowed and quite understandable. There’s mystery and complexity here for sure. This is when listening and considering comes into focus rather than knee-jerk contempt or rejection without substance beyond the obvious. Have we ever done something that contradicts who we really want to be? Do we perhaps express remorse or ask for time to explain how we got there?

God doesn’t make mistakes like we do but He’s certainly hard to comprehend at times. The disciples didn’t believe in God because they understood everything about Him and their world. They believed because of the portion of Him and His character they encountered in the person of Jesus. That was enough to free them to trust Him with the rest – the 99% they couldn’t wrap their heads or hearts around. The fact that He loved and cared for them more than the birds and flowers was enough to combat worry and release faith to believe.

Life is filled with paradox, mystery, grey and bewildering. As we consider the turmoil in the world right now let’s stop expecting someone else to distill and explain until it make sense to us – whatever ‘it’ is. Walk away from single party politics, reject spiritual speakeasy claims that shrink wrap God’s will to align with ours, stop making broad claims and unfounded declarations that cannot be measured, questioned, challenged or tested.

Become part of the solution by modelling something different. Then freedom, dignity and respect will arise! Let’s allow information from multiple sources and consider the whole as best we can; including the unanswered, the incomplete, the partial, and stuff that maybe wrong. We get to consider again tomorrow, and tomorrow……

Kind, brave, compassionate, humble people are desperately needed in the world today. People willing to listen and consider, to serve and to help heal. Men and women providing hope and encouragement in order to combat the fear, the fractures and the divisive spirit running wild in every nation. Those giving space and ears to listen. Those allowing for opposing views without assassinating the speaker. Those speaking wisdom without wagging a finger or inciting insult and violence to another.

Perhaps trust in character helps fill the gaps in our understanding and releases trust? Who we know and listen to? I don’t think it’s weakness to do the best I can with what I have and at the same time have my ultimate trust resting in the person and character of God. Because what I see in the window of Jesus is the most humble and truthful leader this world has ever hosted.

How much more valuable you are than birds! 25 Who of you by worrying can add a single hour to your life? 26 Since you cannot do this very little thing, why do you worry about the rest?

John Cox

Offering Pastoral Counselling to encourage, heal, transform, and give hope.

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