“Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.” Dietrich Bonhoeffer
I am a man of words sometimes many but mostly in writing but when I am in the company of others, unless I know them well or feel an exceptional need to add to a conversation I tend not to say much. In fact many times what I contribute is nothing more than something funny or witty to break tension or point out irony, speaking of which I need to do my Summer White uniform shirt in the next couple of days because we have an inspection next week but I digress.
Since I happen to be a minister I often get to experience the incessant droning and chatter of many Christians especially ministers who seem to believe that God would have them pounce on every opportunity to prattle on feeling that they must contribute something even if they have nothing to say. Since I have on occasion been guilty of this myself I must always remember to take the Lincoln Log out of my eye before I go pointing out the Sequoia in someone else’s eye. But we Christians and especially those of the ministerial type can really be a pain in the ass about this and I speak from experience on both the giving and receiving end of this proposition. What I fin amazing is for some ministers, especially the really popular ones on television or the mega-mart, I mean mega-church variety can take a small section of the Bible, usually the most insignificant ones like The Prayer of Jabez and turn them into a series of sermons each lasting nearly an hour complete with the DVD and the book, or series of books on the subject.
I remember a pastor of a mega-church that would begin sermon series on various topics and never complete them. He had one that was on “mission, vision and passion” which died somewhere around the eighth week of hour-long sermons into the mission section. The sad thing is I can’t even remember what his primary Scriptural texts for this. Likewise I have endured many other sermon series to nowhere by various pastors or simply been held hostage by pastors that won’t shut up even when they know that they are beating a dead horse. As for me I try to spend no more than 15 minutes on a sermon and usually shoot for about 12 minutes and focus on one thing either from the Gospel lesson or tying that lesson in with either the Old Testament or Epistle reading. I just hope that in that time I don’t put anyone to sleep and that somehow by the miraculous work of the Holy Spirit that at least someone in the congregation takes a nugget from the message and that it is helpful.
Judy helped me in this when I was the Base Chaplain at Fort Indiantown Gap Pennsylvania. The congregation had an unwritten rule that the service would begin promptly at 1100 and end promptly at 1200. Judy and I know some American Sign Language since she went to California State University at Northridge because of her rather significant hearing loss and as any boyfriend who was passionately in love and lust would do I followed her. As a result I became fairly well versed in sign language though I have lost most of that capability over time. However she was good to let me know during a sermon how much time that I had before I had to be done and if I waxed too poetically she would let me know that I was boring something that I should have figured out by the sleeping members of the congregation. But what the heck, none of them were sitting on a window ceil. No harm no foul.
I have found in the ministry of Priest and Chaplain that more often than not people don’t really want me to pontificate about everything that I know and would much rather that I take the time to listen to them. I actually try hard to notice the words as well as the inflection and the non-verbal aspects of communication when I spend time with people because it is all a part of listening. I don’t always do it well and many times I have to catch myself before I interject a comment, idea or suggestion that might not be what the person needs at all in order to ensure the sanctity of the moment. I know that when I am not doing well, which I spent the better part of the past three years not doing after my return from Iraq that the last thing that I want is someone who spouts “answers” and pushes their agenda without ever taking the time to care for or listen to what I am actually saying. I think that I am not alone in this.
Bonhoeffer made this amazingly succinct comment about just what I am saying here and he does it far better than I could have done. “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.” Therein lays the danger for both the person seeking someone that will listen to them as well as the one with all the answers. The danger is that when we are in constant transmission mode we not only fail to listen or to really hear the other but also become deaf to the still small voice of God. Bonhoeffer noted this danger saying “he who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God too.” I figured due to the wisdom of my long-suffering wife Judy that God stopped taking theology lessons from me a long time ago, if indeed the Deity Herself ever took them from me. Of course back in my younger days I knew everything but since I have learned that I really know very little but I am definitely sure that I prattle in the presence of God as much as anyone else, and that is reality. Taking the time in the Daily Office and Scripture is something that I struggled with on my return from Iraq when I even struggled with the existence of God. I am aware of this and I am trying to take some time every day to “be still and know.”
Unfortunately our media and information obsessed culture beats us senseless throwing more information, much of which is useless, deceptive or destructive in terms of content that it dulls our senses to the reality of others around us and keeps us from listening and seeing those who cry out for someone that will just take the time to listen even if they cannot “fix” the problem. You see in much of Christianity we suffer the same ailment of the culture around us in that we would rather “fix” someone than care for them. You see care takes loving nurture and patience especially the latter. Fixing is a “fire and forget” kind of thing, the kind of thing that “miracle workers” do for a living even if they are miracles faux no miracles at all. However the real act of care by a minister appropriately called “pastoral care” or the spiritual care of souls by a lay person takes time and involves a relationship and that requires listening when the answers are not apparent. It is standing near the cross and not abandoning Jesus in the crisis something that nearing Good Friday we should remember with fear and trembling. I’m no fool when it comes to knowing my limitations especially when it comes to something like survival and I would have probably much more like Peter who went into hiding after denying Jesus than John on that day when the sky turned black.
You see to care involves love and as the Apostle Paul so aptly described love and what it is not in 1 Corinthians 13: “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing.”
Paul got it, even though he put a young man to sleep when preaching. The man fell out a window and died but thankfully the Holy Spirit wrought a miracle and raised the young man from the dead as he does so many weeks for so many of the faithful who suffer injury when passing out in the middle of a tedious sermon. Maybe Paul wrote the epistle after that incident.
But simply to preach with no end is one thing but to fail to care or fail to really listen is worse. Providing “answers” without understanding the question and to impatiently wait our opportunity to jump in and push our agenda no matter how noble or even “Biblical” it is is not faith nor is it Christian, insofar as Jesus would have understood it to be.
I remember an associate pastor of a mega-church that we attended in the late 1980s as I was getting ready to begin seminary. This pastor who was very charismatic and a wonderful preacher could not be bothered to care for or listen to the questions and struggles of a budding seminarian. He would cross his arms and tap his foot to signal that his time was better spent doing anything other than listening to someone else. I had another senior pastor at a different mega-church who was one of my ordaining pastors back in my Evangelical Protestant days who told the congregation that someone asked him how sick that he would have to be for him to visit them in hospital he said “you don’t want to be that sick.” Of course he told the story during a sermon so the clear message was “if you are sick don’t expect a visit and don’t even bother calling me.”
Unfortunately this attitude has been all too common throughout the history of the Church and today it almost seems epidemic among pampered pastors who appear to be more intent on their personal gain than on caring for the flock that God has given them. Likewise it is all too common in church life. To again quote from Bonhoeffer “This is the beginning of the death of the spiritual life, and in the end there is nothing left but spiritual chatter and clerical condescension arrayed in pious words. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.”
This is a much bigger danger to Christians and the Christian faith than many if not most active clergy and laity alike across the denominational spectrum imagine. The fact is if people don’t believe that we care about them and fail to show them the unconditional love that God shows us instead seeking to provide fixes that gel with our agenda then we will lose a generation. Perhaps we are already well on the way to this and it will be our fault.