Part 1 of 3 originally published in Refresh Journal of Contemplative Spirituality, Summer 2015
Many years ago I heard a sermon on the prodigal son. “Who is my neighbor?” the teacher of the law asks Jesus (Luke 10:29). In response, Jesus tells the story of the Good Samaritan. At the end of the story, Jesus asks, “Which of these three, do you think, was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of the robbers?” (verse 36).
On that Sunday long ago, the preacher said that it’s helpful to think of “neighbor” in Jesus’ question as a verb rather than a noun. In other words, “Which of the three men in the story ‘neighbored’ the man who fell into the hands of robbers?”
To “neighbor” someone, then, is to act in a certain way. I want to argue that to “neighbor” people must include listening to them.
Why is listening a part of “neighboring”? Good listening conveys so many things. In the seminars I conduct on listening, I always open with the question, “Why does listening matter?” Participants usually come up with about twenty answers. Listening shows love and acceptance, they say. Listening helps people understand they are not alone in whatever issues they are facing. Listening helps people solve their own problems as they talk through an issue. Listening builds relationships. In fact, listening reflects the dance of the Triune God where each of the three Persons of the Trinity lives in love and deep communication with each other.
Listening skills – which can be learned – include those small indicators that we are listening, “hmmm” or “yes” or “I see.” Listening skills include body language and facial expressions that indicate we are paying attending. Other key skills include learning to ask open-ended questions and growing in our ability to reflect back to the person what we think they have said.
All listening skills depend on one behaviour. We must stop talking in order to listen. In this post, and the next two posts, I want to write about some of the inner forces that make it hard for us to stop talking.
- People are different and their difference makes me feel tense.
Imagine that you have a new co-worker. This new person wears a headscarf, so you wonder if she is a Muslim. Imagine that you’ve never actually had a conversation with a Muslim before. What do you say? What do you ask? What do you feel?
Use your imagination a bit more. Imagine that last week you were talking with a family member who expressed his conviction that Muslims are trying to take over the world. At the time, you disagreed with him, but now, as you want to have a conversation with the new co-worker, your family member’s words come back to you, and you begin to feel tense about what you will say.
All of us feel some degree of tension in conversations with people who are different than we are. Perhaps you’ve had lots of interesting conversations with Muslims, but maybe you get tense when you talk with people who have different political beliefs than you do. Or maybe your new colleague is a vegetarian and you are intimidated by people who don’t eat meat.
When Jesus challenges us to “neighbor” the people around us, he is asking us to make a difficult move. He is asking us to engage with people with whom we feel uneasy, perhaps because of their religious or political beliefs or their convictions about things that matter to us. Jesus is asking us to engage with interest and respect. For many of us, our knee-jerk response when we feel uneasy is to fill the air with our own words because we worry about what the other person might say that would make us uneasy. Setting aside that uneasiness so we can listen is a key listening challenge.
Continued tomorrow: Four more ways it can be hard to listen