Over this past month we have been talking about transformation and generosity, the twin aspects of pure religion we see in the letter of James. We have specifically keyed in on 1:26-27: “If you think you are being religious, but can't control your tongue, you are fooling yourself, and everything you do is useless. Religion that pleases God the Father must be pure and spotless. You must help needy orphans and widows and not let this world make you evil.” (CEV) Now, as we move on from this series, we want to keep ourselves attentive to how transformation and generosity are actually being worked out in our lives. And to that end I want to comment briefly on one practice that can help. It is the practice of listening. James puts it this way: “be quick to listen...” (1:19)
Quick to listen. An interesting turn of phrase, don’t you think? We generally think of listening as a passive thing, but here James in saying that listening is quite active. Being “quick to listen” is the conscious decision to turn our attention towards the other, and to be quick about it. Listening is profoundly an act of love and self-forgetfulness. And it meets the criteria of pure religion: listening is personally transformative and demonstratively generous.
We have a hard time with listening, do we not? Daily life is overburdened for most of us causing a kind of spiritual deafness. In such conditions it is only the fog-horn or the jack-hammer that tends to get our attention. And even the quieter beeps, bells, and interruptive gurgles of our communication technologies push us towards distraction. It so often happens that when we are with people, half of us is somewhere else. The irony is that in an age of communication technologies, listening is becoming a lost art.
It is vital therefore that we reaffirm the way of listening as a central way of being, a way that leads to personal change and generous living. Perhaps the practice of being “quick to listen” teaches us who we really are. Listeners are not in charge of the other, but see themselves as helpers and friends, perhaps even as servants. In antiquity, the servant’s obligation was to listen to his master and respond accordingly, commonly symbolized by a pierced ear. To listen to someone is therefore a way to serve them.
The way of Jesus is the way of a servant-listener. It is not the way of frenetic activity and burdened obligation. What God wants is for us to hear him and respond to him, even as he listens to the deep cry of our own hearts. And then, whatever active engagement and service we feel called to will emerge from that sense that we are listened to as well. Our deep personhood is honored and treasured.
I realize how much further I need to travel in the practice of listening. While I affirm the practice, I have to admit that I often fail to listen well. I rush to speak. I rush to act. Sure, once in a while I stumble on the appropriate thing to say or do, but I am ashamed of my batting average in this regards. So I am carrying an intention forward, a little practice to keep pure religion before my eyes: to speak well, live well, and love well, means that I must learn to listen well. I will try to practice that every day.
This weekend is Thanksgiving. We have prepared a meaningful celebration we hope will inspire you. Bring your family and friends and remember that we are collecting food for the Interfaith Food Bank. You can drop off food donations on the landing as you enter the West Hall. See you at 9:29 or 11:11.