I want to start this morning by taking a very informal and unscientific poll. And my question is, how many of you have been taught, at one point in time or another, how to speak well? Just think for a moment. Think about all of those Jr and Sr High English, or Language Arts, classes that you had. Think of any business classes you may have taken that taught you how to present yourself to others. Think all the way back, if you grew up in the church, to any instruction you may have received to get up and say your lines in the Christmas pageant or how to read scripture. Now, if you have had any of these experiences or other myriad of experiences on how to speak well, please raise your hand.
Now, my second question for you is this, how many of you have had a class on listening well? How many of you can think of a teacher that spent ample time going over the pointers of how to listen, or took a listening class in college, or spent time in business or medical school on how to listen? Raise your hand.
I was at a lunch this week with someone who had been the President of the International Speakers’ Association and he made a joke about how he got up to speak to them one day, looked out at this fine group of speakers, perhaps the best in the world, and realized there was not one person in the room to listen to them all. And I thought to myself, that’s really it, isn’t it. All of the resources and mechanisms in our lives that are put in front of us, whether it be school or business or extracurricular activities or now, social media, encourage us to speak— to state an opinion, an argument, if possible a witty memorable saying that will make people laugh and think at the same time— but where are we learning how to listen? People are talking non-stop in our society, but who’s doing any listening?
Judith Glaser, a researcher who has studied communication, says that 9 out of 10 of our conversations completely miss the mark because we aren’t listening to one another. 9 out of 10. That 90% of the time, we are not listening well enough to actually understand what the other person is trying to tell us. (2)
Anyone who has ever ordered food that is different from what’s on the menu knows this to be true. One of my daughters, and I won’t mention which one, although I got permission to share this story, is fairly particular about her tastes in food. And one of the things that she orders frequently when we go into restaurants is plain pasta. No sauce, no spices, no butter— maybe just a little olive oil. And she has learned from experience to be specific about this— to state exactly what she doesn’t want. But inevitably, the chef decides that plain noodles just aren’t good enough. He or she doesn’t want to send plain noodles out of the kitchen, and so frequently those noodles show up with a sprinkling of parsley, some Parmesan, or something else. It’s not that anyone is trying to do the wrong thing, quite the opposite; but the person who heard the request decides that my daughter would actually like it better another way. Those of you who have food allergies, know exactly what I’m talking about.
So often our conversations with one another go exactly like ordering food. We take the time to share our truth in a palatable way, and then the other person, in attempting to listen to us, adds their own flavor to whatever we’ve said and hands it back to us. Sometimes this works. If we’re engaging in small talk or even to get a project done that we don’t care too much about, we might not even notice. But other times, when it’s about something that really matters to us, it can be frustrating for everyone.
In our Gospel reading this morning, we have this encounter between Nicodemus and Jesus that is far from satisfactory. Nicodemus comes to Jesus at night, and he starts off well. I don’t know if he means what he says, telling Jesus that Jesus must be from God, but I don’t have any reason to believe he doesn’t. He is offering a compliment; he is looking for a way to ease his skepticism; except that Jesus doesn’t take it as a compliment; he hears Nicodemus saying that he knows what comes from God, and Jesus responds, “No one can see the Kingdom of God without being born from above.” The problem is, Nicodemus hasn’t even asked what he came to ask him, but now he has a different question. So he asks Jesus, “How can anyone enter their mothers’ womb a second time?” As Barbara Brown Taylor points out in her book Holy Envy, this is when we know that Nicodemus doesn’t understand that he’s in John’s Gospel. Everything in the Gospel of John is metaphorical. Bread isn’t bread, it’s the bread of life and it’s another way of pointing to Jesus. Water isn’t water, it’s living water, and it’s another name for what God provides for us. Nicodemus is a literalist, but Jesus is speaking in metaphors. And Nicodemus doesn’t know what to do with these pithy sayings of Jesus. He’s trying to figure out what this has to do with the questions he wanted Jesus to answer that he hasn’t even had a chance to ask yet. But Jesus is on a roll and tells Nicodemus that the Spirit blows where it wants to. Nicodemus tries one more time by asking, “How can these things be?” But apparently he knows he is in way over his head because that’s the last question he asks. (1)
When we enter into a conversation, there are a variety of intentions that we might have for listening to someone else above and beyond small talk. The first is that we may be listening in order to convince or protect. This is when we believe that what we think represents reality and the truth, so what I’m listening for is to hear whether or not you agree with me. We might do this in a meeting when we’re trying to build consensus; we might do this with a relative to see if they want to eat at the same restaurant that we do; we might do this if we are discerning whether to join a group or hang out with someone new. Our minds want to group that person somewhere, and figuring out whether we have things in common is one way to do that.
The second intention we may bring to a conversation is the intention to listen in order to judge or reject. We often listen in this way to a political candidate or a leader that we want to take a class from, or someone we may want to disagree with for one reason or another. So with everything they say, we critique their position, their actions, or their thoughts, and then we use what they said to categorize them a certain way so we know how to interact with them. We may even use what they said to build our own argument against them.
But there is a third intention when we come to a conversation, which is to engage and connect. In this interaction we recognize that we are listening to learn. We want to understand the other person. And in doing so, we realize that by listening we may be challenged in the ideas and opinions that we currently hold. Sometimes, depending on your personality, you may start with this intention, and then as the conversation goes on, switch to one of the first two; or you may start with one of the first two, and find that you switch to this intention of engagement as you get to know someone or as they spark your interest in a new way. The first two intentions are about how we will either stand our ground or change the other person; but this last one is a stance that is vulnerable because it means that we may change in our interaction with the other person. We may have to reassess some of our thoughts and understandings; and by doing so, oftentimes both people come to a deeper place of engaging with each other, with God, and with the world. (2)
Nicodemus comes to Jesus, and by his initial statements and his responses to Jesus’ questions, he seems to have one of the first two intentions in mind. He knows the ground he firmly stands on and while he may not be there to convince Jesus of something else, he is going to protect what he has. But because Nicodemus has that intention, he assumes Jesus does too. Jesus, however, seems to be trying to engage Nicodemus in deeper thinking. If we step back for a moment and see this conversation as one between two 1st century rabbis, we may hear the dialogue differently. Nicodemus comes telling Jesus what he knows; Jesus tells him he doesn’t know. Nicodemus asks how these things can be true, and Jesus tells him that the Spirit blows where it wants to; that no one knows where the Spirit comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who comes from the Spirit. Jesus seems to be implying that everyone does come from the Spirit, even Nicodemus, but Nicodemus doesn’t notice that. You see Nicodemus’ problem isn’t that he’s stupid or ignorant or even opposed to Jesus; the problem is Nicodemus thinks that he should be able to figure all this out; and Jesus keeps trying to tell him that it’s okay to not understand; no one understands fully; the Kingdom of God is bigger than all that. (1)
And I want so badly in that moment for Nicodemus to remember the words from Psalm 46, “Be still and know that I am God.” I want Nicodemus to still his pounding head; to let go of his need to fit Jesus into what he already knows; and to lean in instead of away from Jesus. I want him to pause for a moment, to let go of his convincing, protecting, judging, and rejecting brain and instead to lean in and listen to what Jesus is saying. How might this conversation have gone differently, how might Nicodemus’ life have been changed, if he could truly listen to engage and connect in that moment?
Deep listening requires vulnerability. Perhaps that’s why it’s not taught very often. Deep listening means that we open ourselves up to be changed; to question our assumptions; to recognize that there are stories in this world that are different from ours and to sit there listening rather than denying others’ reality. It requires skills of patience; resources of how to process other peoples’ experiences, and community to hold us when our assumptions come crashing in around us. But underlying all of it, what it requires is putting love first and humbly opening ourselves up to one another. Deep listening doesn’t mean we are condoning what we are hearing, or that we agree with the one speaking; it just means we are open to hearing what they are truly saying.
Last fall I went to an ISAIAH CARE event at one of the Mosques in St. Cloud. It was on Sunday afternoon when they have religion classes, so as I walked through the halls trying to find the room where the press conference was going to be, I surprised a few small boys who giggled to see me, a white woman, clearly out of place. I found the room and began to talk with others who had gathered for the same reason I had come— to share stories with the political leaders in our community about the ways that our support systems of care are failing us. There were childcare workers; nurses; teachers; and people who want to see more affordable housing; as well as politicians, the mayor, the school board members, and many others. The room was packed. The regular introductions were made, thank you’s to those who came, and then people were invited to speak about what concerns they have in this community. And person after person spoke. I heard stories from people who were frustrated at not being able to take care of elderly parents; stories of losing jobs because of inadequate childcare; one man stood up with a translator and shared his story of watching ICE take his family away and not being able to do anything about it; and as each person told their story, there were murmurs in the room of thanking the person for sharing; there was affirmation that what was being said was difficult. And as time went on, I found that instead of becoming more and more sad or angry or scared, I felt more hope and connection and strength than I had felt in a long time. And I realized that by listening, really listening, to peoples’ stories, by feeling connected to the people that I sat in that room with, by listening to all of these really brave people share their stories and choose to be vulnerable, we were all participating in a small part of the healing of our St. Cloud world. Sometimes it feels like if we truly listen to one another, we might all break because there is so much pain and loss in the world. That if we truly hear one another in ways that allow our lives to change, it will be too much because we like to cling to our assumptions and the structures that we have built our world around. But what I have found happens instead, which seems totally counter intuitive, is that repeatedly when we listen to one another, healing happens; when we dare to open ourselves up, instead of breaking apart, we find ourselves connected.
Through our Trauma Responsive Church initiative we learned about the Ms. Kendra project that has begun to be used in schools. With this project a Counselor comes into the classroom once a week and reads a story about Ms Kendra, a woman whose child died at age 10. Of course Ms. Kendra was very sad about this, and after awhile of grieving and being sad, she decided she needed to connect with kids again. So she began going to schools and asking kids questions about their day— questions like, how are you doing, what’s going on in your life, when have you been sad today, what are you afraid of? And the kids appreciated her questions and began sharing with her about their lives. After reading this book, the Counselor then goes over “Ms. Kendra’s Bill of Rights” that states that all kids have a right to eat every day, to have a safe place to go, to not be abused or neglected. Then the counselor invites the kids to write down any questions that they want to ask Ms. Kendra, and any answers that they want to write about in response to her questions. The Counselor then gathers up all of the letters the kids wrote, and within a week’s time, a counseling center writes answers back to all of the children that come “in the mail” the following week. Now this doesn’t seem like a big deal. It takes little time, really, and very few resources outside of the counselor’s expertise. But what they’ve found, is that when the kids have some way of sharing what’s happening in their lives, that misbehavior in the classroom goes down; that childrens’ ability to regulate themselves goes way up; that their impulse control is greatly increased. One teacher’s response to the program was, “I get to spend a lot more time teaching now.” All because the kids know they have someone to talk to, some place to bring the things that are going on in their lives that most people don’t want to hear about. (3 & 4)
Listening to one another, listening to engage and connect, is a way that God chooses to provide healing for us. Be still, God says; be still and know that I am God. Open your ears and listen to one another. Choose to be vulnerable with those who can be healing agents for you. Know that God’s spirit is within you, blowing where it wants, and you can hear it in one another.
1) Holy Envy, Barbara Brown Taylor 2) Handouts on listening from Lead With Agility, LLC with Debbie Okerlund 3) Resilience: The Biology of Stress and the Science of Hope (2016 Documentary) 4) Traumainformedschools.org