Listen Up!

It was printed in the church bulletin: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” Ditto in the Sunday handout: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” Before beginning his sermon the minister tossed out this reminder: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” And again in the closing announcements: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.”

“Good sermon this morning, preacher,” said Billy Bob, shaking the minister’s hand. “By the way, will we be having service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving?” It’s hard to get a message across, because we don’t listen well.

Maybe we tune out at church because we have a sneaking suspicion that if we listen we might be confronted with our relationships, our stewardship, our discipleship. A weak pulpit provides two benefits: a Sunday morning nap and a reason to complain about the poor preaching. When the pulpit is strong, challenging us to live up to the high standards of the Gospel, we may opt for an escape—count the ceiling tiles; make faces at the baby peeping over mom’s shoulder two rows up; mentally draw up this week’s to-do list.

Who wants to have a nice day ruined by Jesus? If you have two coats, give one of them to someone who doesn’t have one; turn the other cheek; if you love only those who love you, you’re a run-of-the-mill sinner; forgive seventy times seven; love your enemies; take up your cross. Whew! No wonder we’ve got cotton in our ears.

Then take it out of the church house into the rest-of-the-week grind. The bumper sticker caught my eye: “My wife says I never listen to her—or something like that.”

We learn to tune out repeated racket (no intended reference to the previous paragraph). There’s a railroad crossing a block from my front door. Engineers give the air horn the mandated two long, one short, and one long blast when approaching the crossing. When I first moved in it brought me out of my chair with back spasms several times every day and jarred me from deep-snooze to wide-eyed panic a couple of times every night. Now I’ve gotten so use to it that I rarely hear it.

Another thing is that we start out listening, but get derailed. Something is said that brings back a memory, and off we go, reliving an experience, a conversation, a relationship.

Then there is preoccupation—a tangle of appointments, demands, promises, responsibilities, or regrets running around in our noggin, refusing to sit down and listen.

Worst of all, perhaps, is fixation on self—like the lady who blabbed for an hour about herself, then said to her dinner companion, “But enough about me, let’s talk about you—what do you think about me?”

What do we hear? Or do we hear at all? At the church door I asked her the same old question, “How are you?” expecting the same old answer, “I’m fine.” She looked at me with tired old eyes, sunk in a tired old face, and said, “As well as can be expected”—then stepped out the door into the cold. In my insensitive detachment I didn’t pick up on it then, but in hindsight I suspect she was saying, “I’m not doing so well. I’m lonely. I need someone to talk to. I need a friend” We hear the words, but not the cry.

Her grocery cart was loaded with goodies packing enough cholesterol to clog the arteries of half the population of Chicago. Seeing the shopper behind her in the checkout line eyeing her heart-attack-waiting-to-happen grub, she laughed and said, “You only live once.” The bedraggled woman working the checkout counter said, “Once is enough.” Did she say it in jest? Perhaps. But I doubt it. I think she was saying, “I’ve been here all day without a break. I’m sick of this job, and sick of pampered people. They buy high-priced stuff that I can’t afford, and drive away in high-priced cars that I’ll never be able to own. When I finish here I’ll take the bus home, fix dinner for five, wash the dishes, do the laundry, iron the shirts. And tomorrow I’ll be back here and then back there, doing it all over again.” I think she was saying, “I’ll live my life out like this, and when the end comes I won’t complain—once is more than enough.”

Do we feel her pain; see her and hear her as the special person she really is? Probably not. To borrow a phrase from Jesus: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear.” Let us pray for a tap-on-the-shoulder by that fine line from Isaiah: “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen …”

Dear God, open our ears today, first to hear you; then to hear those you put in our path. Help us to listen, to hear, and to respond.