I’ve been doing some preliminary work the past few days on my year-end practices, specifically looking at what I’ve written here on the blog in 2021. I was surprised by how often the theme of listening has come up here. It’s come up in posts on Black Theology and repentance, and in the series on dismantling Settler theology, what spiritual growth looks like, and sin and salvation. And maybe I shouldn’t have been surprised about this; after all, listening is an important skill, in life and in faith alike. And, with its call to ‘Stop. Look. and Listen,’ Advent offers us an opportunity to reflect on how we can listen well.
Of all the advice I’ve come across over the years about how to listen well, it seems that it boils down to three things, which are well worth considering.
First of all, we must be present to what we are trying to hear. We have to stop what we’re doing and remove ourselves from distractions. We have to bring our minds and hearts, as well as our ears, to what we are trying to hear and not be concerned with the last thing we did or the next item on our to-do list.
Second, we must be curious: We have to want to know what it is we are listening to. We can’t listen well if we are uninterested or trying to formulate a rebuttal. Even if we know we aren’t going to like what we’re hearing, we need to be curious about it in order at the very least to disagree honestly.
Third, we must be attuned. We need to have our ears and hearts set to the right frequency, be well-maintained, and renewed by God’s grace. This is what Jesus was talking about when he referred to those who have “ears to hear,” and is what Paul was writing about when he referred to “the renewal of the mind,” the nous — that Greek word referring to the human capacity to discern and understand what we perceive through the senses.
These three traits are crucial to listening well, and they are true whether we’re talking about listening to the rattle of a car engine, the call of a songbird, the perspectives of a political adversary or beloved friend, to the environment, or to God.
Since I’m writing here about Advent, let’s think more about this last aspect of listening: How can we listen to God well? What do the three traits discussed above look like when applied to the life of faith, or to spirituality?
Presence looks like stopping and being intentional about listening. This could in practice involve meditation, prayer, spiritual reading, dream work, or Bible study, or any number of other practices. The point isn’t so much the ‘what’ but the ‘why’ and the ‘who’ — taking time out of our day or week specifically for listening to God. To use an example from my own life, when I discerned my way out of ordination track a few years ago, I likely wouldn’t have been able to hear what God was saying had I not been intentional about setting aside time to sort things out with God. Specifically, I set aside a long weekend for a ‘discernment boot camp’ and it was then that I noticed the depth of my discomfort about the process.
Curiosity means that we actually have to want to know what God is saying to us — even if, and especially if, we don’t like it. We have so many ideas about how our life should go. It can be hard for us not even to let go of them, but even to hold on to them loosely enough to be able to catch what else God might be offering us. Going back to that same example, I had thought that, in ordination, God was offering me a natural fulfillment of my journey of faith; but by staying curious enough to really listen, I discovered that God was instead offering me the healing of some old wounds and that elusive psychological state we call ‘closure’. It wasn’t even that I was ‘wrong’ in what I thought God was doing — God was just going about it in a different way than I expected. It was a fulfillment, but one that involved closing the door I’d been dancing around for so long, not going through it.
Attuning involves ensuring we’re on the right frequency, in order to remove the static that might prevent us from hearing the signal properly. This can sometimes involve a lot of fiddling with the dials, by trial and error. (I realize this is a dated and very analog metaphor!) The nous is compromised in our world, by what we call ‘sin’. It takes active maintenance — clarity about the messages the world sends us, learning the language of the Scriptures and the ways God speaks to us personally, running our interpretations by trusted advisors and friends, and repentance — to work properly. In my own discernment process, while that ‘discernment boot camp’ weekend was the major turning point, it was actually a couple weeks before I could interpret it properly. Initially, I twisted what I was hearing in order to fit my presupposition that I was to follow through with ordination. I’d come in with the right intention and genuinely wanted to hear God, but there was too much static to hear properly. It was only later, after realizing that my discomfort wasn’t going away, that I revisited the exercises from that weekend and got a clearer picture of what God was really telling me.
This Advent series has revolved around this idea of discernment. I began by asking, ‘When I wake up Christmas morning, how will I be different?’ And then, over the past three weeks, I’ve tried, not to answer this question, but to offer some reflections on how we might discern how to answer it, through the framework of ‘Stop. Look. and Listen.’ STOP: Stop the running around and mental gymnastics of life for even just a few minutes to catch your breath. LOOK: Look around you at what is really happening; discern the signs of the times. And, today, LISTEN: Make yourself fully present in the moment, be curious about what God — and the world around you — is telling you, and tune the ears of your heart to really hear, and listen up.
As we approach Christmas, my prayer is that we would all have ears to hear.
Let every heart prepare him room
And heaven and nature sing!