The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction
By Adam S. McHugh
IVP Books (2015)
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Listen carefully, my child…and incline the ear of your heart.
• Opening words of the Rule of Benedict
The question that drives this book is, how would our relationships change, and how would we change, if we approached every situation with the intention of listening first? What if we approached our relationship with God as listeners? What if we viewed our relationship with nature as one of listening? What if we approached our relationships using our ears rather than our mouths? What if we sought to listen to our emotions before we preached to them?
• Adam McHugh
I have come to understand, kicking and screaming, that my work as a hospice chaplain is primarily that of a listener. And, by the way, I think it might also be one of Jesus’ main callings for all of us if we want to live a Jesus-shaped life.
And — and this is important — that listening is very often enough.
The act of simply paying attention to someone and hearing her can do more than a multitude of actions. This goes against the grain for most of us. We are doers and fixers and people who like to try to control the outcome of situations. We want to “help.” Especially as Christians, we think it our job to “speak truth” into situations. We view “just sitting there and listening” as something passive and ineffective, perhaps even unloving. We even fill our relationship with God with a truckload of words as we proclaim our worship, lift up our petitions, and verbalize our witness.
Our friend Adam McHugh, who writes for us occasionally here on Internet Monk, has written a book we need: a primer on listening.
A Listening God
Adam reminds us that our God is the one who “hears our voice,” who heard the cries of his people Israel while enslaved in Egypt. Unlike Pharaoh, who would not listen to their groaning, God took heed. And God acted. One helpful reminder he gives is that in Scripture there is a great overlap between “hearing” and “responding,” whether it is speaking of God responding to us or we to him.
God also takes time to question his people, to invite them to “come and reason with him,” to show genuine interest in what they have to say. In one of the most astonishing texts in the Bible, God listens to Abraham as he intercedes for the righteous in Sodom. The original text even says, “God stood before Abraham,” as though God was taking the place of the servant before the master and listening to him for directions. Jesus is also portrayed time and again as someone who elicits responses from people, asking questions like, “What do you want me to do for you?” and listening with sympathetic attention in order to respond.
Adam McHugh is not suggesting that God is at our beck and call. He deals honestly with those times when it seems like God is not listening, when he doesn’t hear, when he fails to act. As in any relationship, these times of darkness and silence try our love and call us to work through them to listen more deeply and perhaps learn what the absence of God might signify.
Listening to Creation
Tomorrow we will post an excerpt of what, at this point, is my favorite chapter in the book, where Adam encourages us to listen to the world we live in, the creation that “speaks” all around us. As one might expect, he has chapters dealing with listening to God as a spiritual practice and ways of listening to God’s voice in Scripture, but it was so refreshing to read this quote from John Calvin: “Meanwhile let us not be ashamed to take pious delight in the works of God open and manifest in this most beautiful theater.”
I love the encouragement this book gives to take up “the spiritual discipline of the long walk.” He is calling us to find the quiet, immerse ourselves in it, and pay attention. I like that he says, “There is no pressure for our observations to be theological or spiritual; we are simply waking up to the craftsmanship of God’s handiwork around us and listening.”
I also like that he calls us to keep time with the rhythm of the seasons, to take interest in the ways humans have brought trouble and even devastation on the creation so that we might participate in its “groaning” and long for its ultimate redemption, to take the words of the prophets seriously when they anticipate a new creation of peace and wholeness.
Listening to People
The Listening Life is also filled with solid encouragement and ideas about how we might all listen to one another better. I appreciate that Adam McHugh is not content with giving us a list of rules and techniques for doing so.
You can give a person all the tools for listening, you can teach him all the right techniques, you can introduce him to the fancy words — active listening, mirroring, paraphrasing and repeating, open-ended questions — but a person’s listening ability is not determined by the techniques in his arsenal. The law does not have the capacity to give life. It is not my intention, nor my personality, to delineate a whole host of rules for effective listening. I am determined to take the “list” out of listening. We do listening a disservice, I believe, by making it overly mechanical. It doesn’t have to be plodding or boring or like eating your lima beans. It can be utterly exhilarating to listen to someone and to see their eyes light up as they discover something new about themselves and feel their emotions validated. It is one of my greatest joys. (p. 135f)
Instead, he recommends spending time around great listeners, learning to imitate them. He suggests we need to do some honest self-reflection to ask ourselves why we are entering a conversation in the first place. A listening heart is about seeking to give, to learn, to welcome, to serve, he reminds us. It is not about controlling or manipulating, but ceding all of that. It is one outworking of Paul’s admonition, “Be subject to one another out of reverence for Christ.” It is about paying focused and interested attention on the other. Imagine there is an arrow above you that swings in the direction of the person upon whom the conversation is focused, he writes. Do everything you can to keep that arrow pointing toward the other person. Push it toward their interests, their concerns, their needs as they allow.
As St. Francis prayed, “O Divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek to be consoled as to console; to be understood, as to understand; to be loved as to love.” In order to seek this prayer’s fulfillment, Adam suggests we consider each conversation a “Conversatio Divina” — a sacred interchange, a participation in a communion that goes beyond the human dialogue. Perhaps this is what Bonhoeffer meant when he said that Christians do not relate directly to other people, but always through Jesus Christ.
This is especially true when listening to people in pain. Adam has a wonderful chapter with this specific focus. I hope to write more about that, reflecting on his excellent insights, in days to come.
Listening to Your Life
The final aspect of listening that I will bring up in this review that I found most helpful in The Listening Life is the chapter on listening to one’s own life. Our heads are so full of voices! Some of them are friends, some are enemies, some are serious and others silly, but if we ever take the time to get alone and practice solitude, it becomes immediately obvious that our inner world is a a loud and crowded room.
But it’s not simply filled with conscious chosen thoughts. All kinds of random (and not-so-random) emotions are ebbing and flowing within us. Our bodies also speak to us, and we are wise to pick up on their signals. There are refined scripts that we’ve been writing since childhood that repeat themselves over and over again, which we have failed to examine and critique. There are questions we’ve been avoiding or putting off waiting to be answered.
Our inner world is filled with a continual musical score, as it were. Perhaps we’ve become so used to it we can’t really hear it. If you were to describe the music within you — its rhythms and tempos, its melodies and harmonies, its in-tuneness or out-of-tuneness, its style, its instrumentation — what would it sound like?
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What if we would learn to listen? What if the church of Jesus Christ would learn to listen? Adam encourages us to consider becoming a “society of reverse listening,” where those who are expected to speak instead invite others, who never expect to be heard, to speak to them. Without immediate judgment. Without immediate answers. Just listening. Just welcoming the questions and embracing the neighbor. Would we be willing to humble ourselves like that?
As with his earlier book, Introverts in the Church, Adam McHugh has written about a topic which, in my experience, is not often on our radar.
We live in a busy, noisy world that’s supposedly all about communication, but who’s listening?