Former actor, humorist and social commentator Will Rogers once said, “Congress is so strange. A man gets up to speak and says nothing, nobody listens, and then everybody disagrees.”
Of course politicians are not the only people prone to being bad listeners. As Pastor Leah asked in the title of her article in the May Courier, “Is listening becoming a lost art?”
It does seem that finding a good listener is an increasingly rare gift. Perhaps that explains why there is such a growing need for therapists and counselors who spend the bulk of their time being paid to listen. As a little plaque that sits in my office where I do my work as a therapist puts it, “A good therapist is one who lets their clients talk themselves out.”
But good listening involves more than simply letting someone else talk. There are many aspects to being a good and compassionate listener. When we turn to our Scripture readings this morning we can find in our God an example from whom we can learn to become compassionate listeners.
God as a model of compassionate listening is clearly seen in the way God hears the laments or cries of the Hebrew people. As we read in Exodus, when the people cried out with heavy groans God heard their groaning.
This is not the last time that God hears the cries of the people. In fact, God is so compassionate that when the Hebrew people are freed from Egypt and the community of faith is established in Israel, God instructs the leaders to on a regular basis call all the people together for the practice of lamentation. This social and spiritual practice was an intentional and public way of making visible the reality of grief and suffering. Lamentation became a way of deepening the sense of belonging within the faith community as the people shared their feelings and supported each other in their grief and pain. To lament was to acknowledge that while suffering is personal it is also communal – something to be shared with God and with one another as God’s people. So it should not surprise us that over forty percent of the Psalms are Psalms of lament and others remind the people that God is eager to hear their lamentation as the Psalm we read today declares: “The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, the ears of the Lord hear their cry…”
Following God’s example in creating a compassionate community of faith through encouraging people to share and listen to one another’s stories of grief and pain is part of what we here are doing as we intentionally choose to become a trauma-responsive church. And it all begins with providing opportunities for people like you and me to have our stories heard. As we hear one another’s stories our hearts are touched and we enter into relationships that deepen our compassion for one another.
But hearing one another is just the beginning. When we look to the model God provides for us we see that along with hearing comes remembering – specifically remembering our commitment to put relationships first in our lives. In Exodus we read that God heard the peoples’ groaning and God remembered His covenant with the Hebrew people. As we know a covenant is a promise, a commitment to act or behave in certain ways in relationship with other people. God made a covenant with the Hebrew people to be in relationship with them by supporting them, guiding them, protecting them, hearing their pain and prayers and showing them compassion.
In Jesus God made a new covenant and now promises the same kind of commitment to us that God made centuries ago to the Hebrew people. We can be assured that when God hears us, like with God’s people of old, God remembers and honors the covenant to support us and guide us and protect us, starting with inviting us to share our grief and pain.
Jesus took this covenant idea even one step further. He said that in his love for us he would no longer regard us as servants but rather as friends. The image that this idea connected to back in the time of Jesus is that of the friends of the king. The king’s friends were the people who could count on the privilege of having the king’s ear when they wanted to bring a concern. These official friends were the select group of people who the king knew by name and whose interests mattered most to the king.
When God remembers the covenant and when Jesus calls us friends, we can be assured that we have the ear of God to whom we can bring our concerns. God not only hears us but God has made a covenant with us – befriending us, knowing us by name, making our relationship the priority which God will always remember and honor.
This idea of making relationships the priority can be a helpful tool for us to become more compassionate listeners. One way I try to use it is when I find myself feeling distracted by my own concerns or ideas when someone is talking to me and I simply say to myself, “Remember, Randy, right now this relationship is what most matters.”
Returning to the Scripture we see that in addition to hearing and remembering, God was personally looking upon the people: in Exodus we read, “God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant and God looked upon the people of Israel.”
One of the articles I read about the topic of listening in preparation for today suggested that most people, like myself, sometimes lose focus on the person who is talking. There are so many distractions in our world today. I will never forget how shocked my mother was when I pointed out to her with a living illustration how often people today appear to be together and connecting with one another but actually are just occupying common space. A couple years ago we were sitting at a booth having lunch in a Perkins restaurant and in the booth across from us were two college-aged young people. While they seemingly were there to spend time with one other it was clear that each was preoccupied, busy on their own cell phones. My mother, who finds life’s greatest joy and meaning in conversation with others, observed this for-her-unfamiliar scene of our new world with utter disbelief and dismay!
I suspect most of us have had experiences of talking with someone who was not really looking at us but was distracted by things around them or inside of them such as just waiting for us to finish for their turn to talk.
Following the model which God provides for us means that good listening involves actually looking at the person who is talking.
This leads us to the final way that God models for us how to be compassionate listeners. Returning one last time to the Scripture in Exodus, we read: “So God heard their groaning, and God remembered His covenant, and God looked upon the people and God noticed or acknowledged them.”
God teaches us that compassionate listening means giving attention to the other- not just looking at them but showing them by the way we listen and act that they are worthy of our respect and attention. This gift of attention is illustrated in the story of Hagar found in the book of Genesis chapter 16. Hagar was the woman who was a servant to Abraham and Sarah. When they were unsuccessful in conceiving a child, Sarah urged Abraham to take Hagar as a second wife with whom he could conceive a child, a common practice of that time. But after Hagar became pregnant Sarah grew bitterly jealous and tensions flared until Hagar fled into the wilderness with her child to escape Sarah’s harsh treatment. But Hagar’s troubles – being a “nobody” in her culture and finding herself alone and pregnant in a harsh desert- did not escape the ears and eyes of God. After receiving a personal covenant from God to protect her and her child, she called her newborn son the name, “Ishmael,” which means “You are the God who sees,” in honor of the God who heard her affliction, noticed her in the desert and gave her the attention and care needed by her and her child.
This same God who demonstrates compassionate attention for people who are hurting we see in Jesus who, as we read in the gospel of Matthew, “saw the crowds and was moved with compassion for them.” Like a good shepherd with his sheep, when Jesus saw people who looked lost and distressed, he saw them with the eyes of love and paid attention to their needs. His whole ministry revolved around bringing healing and hope to those who found themselves overwhelmed by life and feeling unloved or uncared for by others. In contrast, Jesus paid attention and offered them the gift of himself, his presence, his compassion.
In each of these Scripture readings today we see that one of the greatest gifts we can give to another person is the gift of caring, undivided attention. Most of us have had the experience of being with someone who when we are with them makes us feel like we are the only thing that matters to them. Undivided attention is one of the gifts of good listening that affirms the value of another person. We don’t have to agree with other people to show them their value as children of God. Listening with attention shows any person we meet that they are worthy of our respect and time.
As we listen to others we help them remember and express both the joys and suffering of their lives. Being present with them at these times is the gift of compassionate listening.
Two years ago on Memorial Day, May 28th, 2017 my Dad died on his 92nd birthday. My Dad was a veteran of World War II. He had learned to endure suffering at a young age, as he entered the United States Navy as a seventeen-year-old and spent the next four years on a ship in the Pacific Ocean taking in images of war and suffering beyond the imagination of a boy raised in Grundy Center, Iowa. Dad never did share many memories from those war years. But, when he did, I realized that there was nothing I could do but sit and listen. I could not change those images of indescribable suffering that still caused him pain. But what I could do was respectfully listen with compassion. For I know now what I did not realize then, that what is most life-saving to those who have been victims of trauma is not forgetting the past, but having relationships with others who love them, accept them, and are willing to listen when it is their time to unload.
God has always known this, for God created us the way we are. And so may we be assured that we can always come to God just as we are, with whatever we carry inside us and may we also follow God’s wisdom and example in being present as compassionate listeners for one another. Amen!