The Gift of Listening

The Gift of Listening

Attentive listening is hard work, but it's necessary for healthy community.
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Listening Like Jesus

Spiritual friendship and companionship characterized by this kind of intercessory prayer stance is at the heart of transforming community precisely because it creates so much space for listening to God in Christ through the ministry of the Holy Spirit. One writer describes this kind of companionship as "listening the other into free speech." I have pondered this phrase for a long time, for it strikes me as being so true and yet so hard to come by in the circles in which most of us live and work and fellowship. The author, Mary Sharon Moore, defines free speech not so much as a human right but as "an abiding interior freedom to speak the truth of one's being … freedom to be heard and received, freedom to hear and receive God's calling in my life." She distinguishes free speech from empty speech (endless, mindless chatter that fills every pocket of silence), false speech (which reveals a disconnection between one's inner self and outer response and betrays one's inner truth), and unfree speech (which reveals a sense of victimhood with phrases like "I can't …," "I should …," "I ought …," "I have no choice …").

Conversely, free speech

reveals the authentic self-in-God. Spiritually free speech honors the complexity and mystery of one's self and circumstances in life. In the presence of deep listening, the spiritually free person can speak the incongruence between one's poverties and God's love, one's sinfulness and divine mercy, one's small-heartedness and God's persistent generosity. Free speech is the hallmark of the spiritually mature and maturing person in the midst of spiritual paradox. Free speech reveals an interior centeredness in God and freedom to participate in the divine mystery as it unfolds in the course of one's life.

This may be at least one aspect of the kind of speech Paul refers to in Ephesians when he says, "Speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way" (4:15).

The description of one who is free to speak authentically of one's experience of God's presence (or seeming absence!) in the midst of one's real-life situation strikes me as an apt reflection of how Jesus listened the disciples into speech on the Emmaus Road. Even though he certainly had his perspective on the situation (which he shared fruitfully later on), his initial invitation to them was the complete freedom to tell it like it was for them. The goal of such listening is to lovingly and humbly evoke the freedom of others, to invite them into the fresh air and light of unjudged and unafraid expressions of who they are in God. Indeed, spiritual companionship begins as together we embrace basic guidelines for the particular kind of listening rather than assuming that we each know how.

Listening that evokes spiritually free speech in the other:

  • Does not interrupt but rather creates space for the person to discover and express what they need to say
  • Refrains from using evaluative phrases such as "Oh, that's good" or "How terrible!"—responses that merely communicate how we feel about what they are sharing, rather than giving them the opportunity to describe in depth how they are responding

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