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Friday, September 18, 2015

Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear

I was struck this week by two passages we read in my Education for Ministry seminar, both quotes of Lloyd Steffen, Chaplain at Lehigh University in Philadelphia.

The first is to do with listening.  How often have we been speaking to someone and realized from their body language or their response that they were not so much listening as waiting for their turn to talk? How often have we realized someone has asked us something and we don't know what it was because our mind was somewhere else?  Steffen suggests there is more to this than laziness or narcissism:
“The ability to listen depends not in the first place on any particular skill or technique, but on a fundamental respect for one’s partner in conversation. Listening is thus a moral act. Listening is an act of attending to the other that discloses the strangeness of otherness, disrupting our comfortable self-images and threatening to undo our everyday experience of ourselves (and others) as familiar and basically unified personalities. Not listening becomes a way of securing ourselves from encounter with the mystery of otherness. Listening exposes us to our own desires not to want to share of ourselves. Listeners are required not only to welcome the strangeness of the other but to risk self-disclosure in the act of listening, for the listener must at some point recognize and then expose to the other his or her own strangeness—and not only to the other but to one’s own self.”
This can be damaging enough on the interpersonal level, but what about what is going on in the universal church? The recent discourse around what constitutes "religious freedom" in a pluralistic society demonstrates what happens when Christians can no longer count on the privilege of assuming the political and social norms are in line with their own... or even that their fellow Christians will agree with them on what those norms should be.  How do we find a way forward when we can't even hear one another above the noise in our own heads?
“We are in need of a theology of listening, for a willingness to listen ultimately expresses an attitude of love. Christians believe that Jesus listened to God and to those he encountered in his daily life. We do neither. If we listened to one another we should be inviting one another into new forms of relationship based on openness and respect and a willingness to share ourselves. If we listened for God, we should spend our time not praying for ourselves but listening to our prayers to see what we are saying not to God but to ourselves. The heart is a great mystery. Christians believe that God knows the human heart (and we do not), for that heart is where God’s omniscience lies. God does not need to be informed about our wants and needs. It is we who need to know what we want, what we fear, what we love.
The bolded bits struck me particularly. We have all been the recipient of mass prayer requests for this or that cause, generally with a specific requested outcome. Pope Francis recently decried the notion of God as magician... how is one left to feel when one's request is not granted?

When you agree to pray for a third party, what are you really doing beyond repeating the obvious desired result (wellness, a job offer, etc.)? Is it like opening multiple trouble tickets for the same problem, where your wish might get granted because it seems to be popular?  If non-believers see our notion of God as a cosmic suggestion box, for which we'd have only ourselves to blame, it is small wonder that they don't take people of faith seriously; it would be a very simplistic, childish view of a god, and difficult to defend when things don't turn out according to the script.

So should we stop praying for those people?  Certainly not. We agreed that a more beneficial form of prayer is to reflect on the situation and our own response to it... how can we "be Christ" in the situation for the people affected?  Knowing that giant unseen cheering squad is out there certainly can have a positive effect on a person's state of mind, the impact of which in situations requiring confidence and healing should not be understated.

If nothing else, we can pray to become better listeners.