Listening Love was the title of a booklet I read and lost many years ago. I was unable to track it down, but I remember the message: there is a time to speak only after a time to listen. Christians need bigger ears and smaller mouths.
During my chaplaincy training, a doctor became my pastoral mentor. He shared that the best tools in diagnosing medical or spiritual problems are two ears. He may have read the scripture “Everyone must be quick to listen, but slow to speak” (James 1:19, TEV).
It is a sacrifice to listen; good listening is caring. Anyone with a friend who will sit with them and listen without judging, blaming, giving advice, interpreting, approving, or disapproving—who will just listen and understand—is very fortunate. Reflective listening is to give all your attention and energy to the process of understanding what the person means and reflect that meaning back to the person accurately. To do this is to be a window to God’s unconditional love.*
I attended a clergy conference where Henri J. M. Nouwen was the presenter. The announcer told the 600 attendees that Dr. Nouwen would speak when all talking ceased and the doors were closed. Nouwen carried a folding chair onto the empty stage, sat down, and quietly read his New Testament. Ten minutes later, silence settled on the auditorium and Nouwen began his 45-minute lecture, “Compassion,” without a single note. He politely scolded the audience by saying that some people are afraid of the noise of silence. I felt his gentle rebuke because I was guilty of filling all the quiet spaces. By God’s grace I applied his counsel; I call it listening love, or evangelism of the unspoken word. Jesus modeled this style of ministry when he met Bartimaeus.
Bartimaeus heard words of condemnation from his spiritual leaders, for people were uncomfortable conversing with a blind man. Unable to share the pain and despair of his dark world, he carried it down the inevitable road to loneliness. That is, until he met Jesus.
A gathering crowd noisily spread the word that Jesus was approaching. Bartimaeus began calling to Jesus because he could not miss this chance to meet the healer. The crowd that never listened to Bartimaeus ordered him to be quiet. They let him know that the Master had no time for the likes of him, but Bartimaeus called all the louder. To the amazement of the crowd, Jesus stopped and called the sightless one to His side. Jesus took time for him; Jesus listened as Bartimaeus wept and poured out his story. The Scripture gives a very brief account, but I have to believe that Bartimaeus spoke many words. At last Someone was willing to listen! Only after taking time to listen did Jesus cure because to cure before listening would have been to dehumanize the lonely man at his feet. I like to think that Jesus practiced TLC (tender loving care) via taking time to listen,
and then curing.
The shape of listening love
Listening love is a gift from God—selfless interest in the well-being of another is its heart. Listening love is patient and perceptive, always desiring to help a person feel valued. It is knowing the heart of a troubled soul not by interrogation but by opening to words, body language, and feelings. You give 100 percent of your attention as a person shares his or her experience; only then can a plan or solution be implemented.
A Texas rancher proved this to be true. Ned was a terminally ill patient in hospice care; twice a week I visited. For months, we played dominoes without uttering many words. Occasionally we laughed at his jokes, for he would always say, “If I couldn’t laugh I’d die.”
When Ned became bedridden, he and I shared silence together. When he spoke, I listened. One day he told me his plans to end his life: his pistol was under his pillow and he had a supply of bullets. After a brief exchange of ideas and quiet reflection, Ned concluded that his plan would cause never-ending pain to his wife and family. He gave his gun and bullets to his wife with the order to hide them.
Listening love, as I have experienced it, may violate all the workshop concepts of soul winning, but it builds a framework in which the Spirit of
God can operate. My friendship with Ned taught me that God often speaks through my silence, and this happens in the least expected places.
The mall in our town has trees and benches between stores. When I see a person occupying a bench, I ask permission to share their bench. After a few comments, many people will share. Here is one example.
A man in his 80s was waiting as his wife tried to find a modest dress in a department store. He told me it had been a rough month, for his daughter had fought cancer for years, and two weeks earlier she had died. He and his Arthur, a local newspaper editor, is another example. His son asked me to visit his father, and he said, “I’d like to know that he is ready to meet the Lord.” I simply commented that I had always enjoyed his editorials in the local newspaper. For the next hour, Arthur told his life story, and during a long silence he looked out the window. Turning to me he said, “You know something? God and I don’t have any arguments.” Then his son winked and a lot of pain it would cause my family. So, I decided to destroy that letter. Would you be willing to help me and Judy come up with a plan?” Matt told me later, “We came up with a plan that worked. John now has a great job with a well-known company making $80,000 a year. Larry, what if I had not been there to listen? I can’t explain to you how I feel knowing that my listening saved a life and spared a family from deep sorrow. God used wife were very sad, and they believed that they should have preceded their child in death. He was struggling with the question, “WHY?” Is God punishing me for some wrongdoing? Is God trying to teach me a lesson? He concluded that even though he could not understand, God still loved him. After listening for 15 minutes, I talked with him about God’s plan to reunite families. When his wife arrived from her shopping, he thanked me for being a good listener. He had not had anyone to talk to, and he was grateful for the chance to get things off his chest.
In the 30 years I worked for hospices, I have listened to people get things off their chests. We hospice staff called it “life review.” When people realize they have a life-threatening illness, they evaluate their life to determine whether it counted.
Arthur, a local newspaper editor, is another example. His son asked me to visit his father, and he said, “I’d like to know that he is ready to meet the Lord.” I simply commented that I had always enjoyed his editorials in the local newspaper. For the next hour, Arthur told his life story, and during a long silence he looked out the window. Turning to me he said, “You know something? God and I don’t have any arguments.” Then his son winked and smiled at me, and I realized that listening had a reward.
Matt, my dear friend of the Amish faith, told me his experience with listening love. John, a close friend from boyhood, called him.
“Matt,” he said, “I have to talk. Can we take a ride and talk?” For the next hour John talked while Matt listened.
“Matt,” he continued, “I’m so deeply in debt that I will never see the light of day. Foolishly I did not take my wife into my financial affairs. She doesn’t know how close we are to losing everything. How can I ever tell her I betrayed her trust? I see no way out. I wrote her a letter and put it in the glove box of this car. I planned to drive in front of the fast freight train and hopefully she’d find the letter. Matt, while we’ve been talking, I thought what a sad way out of my predicament, my listening, and you know, we don’t have enough listeners in this old world. Everyone is doing their own things and don’t take the time.”
The tragedy of not listening
Programs, projects, techniques, and formulas have wasted countless hours and dollars only to be discarded. I have tried some of them, but nothing has been as rewarding as being with another person. Giving the gift of myself and listening with all my soul has created bonds unbroken by time or space. Working in the third largest city in New England proved this to be true.
I was invited to give the invocation at a city council meeting. Before the meeting began, the chairman asked my name and church. His response was a jolt to my system. “I don’t mean to be unkind, Reverend, but I must say this. If your church burned to the ground, nobody in this city would know the difference.” His comment made me rethink my approach to ministry; I had to feed the church members, but I also had to move beyond the four walls of the church.
Once a week I spent a day visiting people in the tenements while I listened to their stories of poverty, loneliness, and sorrow. I visited storefront churches full of youth who had left the organized church. With the help of professionals, we helped 3,000 smokers quit within a two-year span. Women from the church spent time tutoring single mothers who had children in the Head Start program. Nutrition classes were taught in churches and a local university. A large part of all these ventures involved listening.
The glitzy advertising of public meetings does not substitute for personal friendship and willingness to listen, and media programming is no substitute either. Like Jesus, we must go beyond the edifices of the organized church into the places where people live, love, suffer, and die. All the advertising in the third largest city of New England would not expose the church to the heartbeat of the residents.
With the city council member’s words ringing in my ears, I volunteered to visit patients and families in the hospices. For 30 years I stood by the beds of the dying and conducted funerals for the unchurched. I thanked God for giving me the world as my parish. He taught me that listening love is weeping with those who weep and rejoicing with those who rejoice. He taught me that listening love is the window on God’s unconditional love, a window that must always be open to all in the sphere of our influence.
Lynch, James J. 2000. A Cry Unheard. Baltimore, MD: Bancroft Books. Chapters 9–12 speak about dialogue, the elixir of life. Lynch warns of the dangers of communicative disease that may surpass the dangers of communicable disease.
Konigsberg, Ruth Davis. 2011.The Truth about Grief. New York: Simon & Schuster Paperbacks. The author shows by reliable research that the steps and stages theory made assumptions not proven by research. Understanding the truth about grief improves the ability to listen.
Miller, William R. and Jackson, Kathleen A. 1995. Practical Psychology for Pastors. 2nd edition. NJ: Prentice Hall. Chapters 4 and 5 are gold mines for developing listening skills. The authors view listening as the number one skill for effective ministry.
* William R. Miller and Kathleen A. Jackson, Practical Psychology for Pastors (NJ: Prentice Hall, 1995), 53, 154.