DEVELOPING DEEP LISTENING SKILLS

The gospel passage from Matthew reminds us of the importance of learning how to listen deeply, and in that listening, planting the seeds of God’s truths deep within our heart. Planted deeply in enriched soil, well cultivated, well-watered, and well-tended.

The parable begins with a farmer who goes out to plant seeds. But before Jesus tells the parable, his first word is Listen! Listen-up! As the farmer throws out the seed, some fell on the path, and the birds flew in and devoured them. Other seeds fell on rocky ground with little soil. They sprang up quickly in shallow soil. When the sun rose, they were scorched since they had no root and withered away. Other seed s fell among quickly growing thorns and choked them. Other seeds fell on good soil and brought forth grain. Some multipled a hundred times, some sixty times, some thirty thimes. And, here comes the formula for a fruitful harvest: Let anyone with ears, listen! Listen! (Matthew 13:1-9)

Let anyone with ears, listen! The next word we have after Listen, is hear. Hear! The parable of the farmer planting seeds is about listening deeply and applying what is heard carefully. Perhaps we can refer to this as a long serious listening, a deep listening. As the Psalmist says: “As deep calls to deep” (Psalm 42:7a).

“Hear then the parable of the sower. When anyone hears the word of the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what is sown in the heart; this is what was sown on the path. As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy; yet such a person has no root, but endures only for a while, and when trouble or persecution arises because the word, that person immediately falls away. As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the lure of wealth choke the word, and it yields nothing. But as for what was sown on good soil, this is the one who hears the word and understands it, who indeed bears fruit and yields, in one case a hundredfold, in another sixty, and in another thirty.” (Matthew 13:18-23)

As for the seed that falls on shallow ground, there is no opportunity for that seed to develop a root system and to grow. It quickly disappears and is forgotten when something different comes along and replaces it, or as the passage says, is taken away and replaced with something else—and not missed, because the heart of what was being said vanishes away like seeds eaten by birds. The seed that falls on rocky ground is also destined to a short life span. When I read this, it makes me think about the times in my middle-school years as a preacher’s kid. I had to be in church almost every time the doors were open for service, and most of the time I didn’t even try to listen. To pass the time, my friends and I would make up games to play during the service. I remember in the sanctuary of one of the churches my father was pastor of, there was a clock on a wall near the front of the church. One of the on-going contests we had was to see who could hold their breath the longest. I once held my breath for three and a half minutes. My friends and I were quite impressed at such an accomplishment. And, I am quite sure that I did not listen very carefully, if at all, to the Bible passages being read and expounded upon.

My behavior in church as a child was problematic, to say the least. The Apostle Paul encourages us to put away childish things and to start listening, and growing as a well nurtured plant would grow, if the seed is planted deep. “When I was a child, I spoke as a child, I understood as a child, I thought as a child; but when I became more mature, I put away childish things. For now, we see in a mirror, dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part, but then I shall know just as I also am known”. (1 Corinthians 13:11-12) Children usually have a short attention span, but that does not mean they cannot listen. I am always impressed about how deeply our children listen to the stories they learn about in Sunday School. But, this passage is geared to those that have put away childish things and are wanting to have the seeds of truth planted deep within their souls.

In the epistle of James, we are encouraged to look and listen attentively: “Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like”. (James 1:24)

One of my favorite books concerning the art of listening and applying specific truths to my life is from the Rev. Dr. James Jones, a professor of religion, an Episcopal priest and a practicing psychologist. In the Mirror of God, the theme is “Christian faith as spiritual practice”. “Understanding requires doing. And, understanding something new requires doing something new. A deeper spirituality requires a deeper spiritual practice”. (The Mirror of God, page 2)

The formula for a healthy spiritual and mature faith is to listen, and to continue listening, and to apply that truth to your life. To make it your own, to own it. To live it and to allow the Word to transform your lifestyle, from the inside out. That is the personal application, but it goes deeper than that. How does this seed of truth apply to the way I relate to others? The two-sided coin is to love God, and to love others. We really are out of balance if we do the first, but fail to embrace the second. Let anyone with ears, listen!

Listening for the guidance of the Spirit is an art that improves with practice. In the parable of the sower, hearing is doing, putting into practice the directive Word of God. This is how we measure our listening skills, by our degree of interaction with that word, and the ratio is equivalent to the interactive listening, to the tune of thirty, sixty or a hundred-fold return on the farmer’s investment.

In the past few weeks the Lectionary readings have emphasized the theme of relationships, specifically our relationship with God and our relationship with others, ‘loving God and loving others’. The ministry of the farmer sowing seeds is about a personal responsibility to hear the word, to listen deeply and in the interaction of that listening to bear fruit and yield an observable outcome. Our relationship with a loving God is intended to motivate us to share that love with others. Let anyone with ears, listen!

Throughout the Episcopal Diocese of San Diego, St. Alban’s is well known and recognized for our ministry with refugees and our ministry with the homeless and marginalized. We know that we have done some very good things in these ministries, and we know we can do better. But, is this enough? Jesus reminds us that when we minister to those in need, we minister to Him. If we do not minister to the pressing needs of others, we do not minister to Jesus. (Matthew 25:27-30) My challenge to all in this church focuses on two questions. The first is  “How are you doing in your caring for others in this church?” And the second question is like the first: “How are you doing in caring for the needs of those in your social structures, your friends, colleagues and neighbors?”  Everyone has problems in daily life.  You and all other people that cross paths on a daily or routine basis in your life face problems and challenges.

In the Mirror of God, the Rev. Dr. James Jones talks about his career as both a priest and a practicing psychologist. He recalled the early years of his practice in downtown Newark wth the many poor and marginalized individuals and families. Most had problems with depression, substance abuse, mental disorders, strained relationships among adults, and problems between children and parents. He later moved his practice to the Jersey Shores to work with the more affluent. He soon discovered the affluent had similar problems with depression, substance abuse, mental disorders, strained relationships among adults, and problems between children and parents.

Our work with refugees and things that have to do with those living on the street and the marginalized continuese to grow. It is meaningful work, but we as a church and as individuals are challenged this year to reach out to friends, neighbors and strangers, both rich and poor, the lovable, and those harder to love, the Christian brothers and sisters of St. Alban’s, and to all those in our community with needs, and that includes all of us and all of them.

Let anyone with ears, listen!

 

Amen

The Reverend Dr. David Madsen