SCRIPTURE – James 1:19-21
My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteous life that God desires. Therefore, get rid of all moral filth and the evil that is so prevalent and humbly accept the word planted in you, which can save you.
Body Building: Big Ears
February 21, 2010
Well, have you had your makeover yet? From here it looks like some of you have…and some of you are still on the waiting list. I’m surprised if you haven’t, because if you watch TV, you get the impression that everyone is getting a makeover these days. This trend started on the daytime talk shows, when an overworked housewife or sloppy businessman would be “made over,” given a new haircut and a hip wardrobe and taught the difference between the dinner fork and the salad fork. As these makeovers become popular, more and more shows began to air “makeover” episodes. People were attracted to the idea of a dramatic change, a new start as someone other than their old selves. We’ve seen the “before”; what will the “after” look like?
This makeover frenzy exploded with shows like “The Swan,” where female recipients of massive makeovers compete in a beauty pageant, and “Extreme Makeover: Home Edition,” where entire houses are torn down and rebuilt for deserving families. I admit to watching this one; it seems to be the only one with any redeeming value. And yes, I do cry when Ty yells “Move that bus!” finally show the new house to the family.
But here’s the interesting thing about all of this attention on makeovers: this is not a new phenomenon. It doesn’t go back just years or even decades. It goes back to biblical times. Our God is a God of makeovers. Paul knew about this when he wrote in Romans, “Do not be conformed any longer to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” He reminded people of God’s makeover skills when he wrote in 2 Corinthians, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has gone, the new has come!”
The difference between the current form of makeovers and God’s makeover is the focus. Our society tells us we need to be made over on the outside: our houses, our bodies, our clothes. It makes me wonder if people so willingly change what’s on the outside to avoid facing what needs to be changed within. God, on the other hand, works from the inside out. God desires for us to be made over in such a way that helps us claim who we are and who we were created to be, a child of God made in God’s image. If we work to remodel ourselves in that image on the inside, we can’t help but be changed on the outside, in the way we act and how others see us. So for the next five weeks, we are going to do some body-building, not in the physical sense but in the spiritual sense. And as we build up our bodies to be more Christ-like, we are building up the body of Christ to continue doing God’s work in this world.
Our personal trainer for this exercise will be James, who first tells us that we need to have big ears. Not just slightly-larger-than-average ears, James says. We’re talking Big Bad Wolf ears here. You remember what Little Red Riding Hood says when she sees the Wolf dressed up as her grandma? “My, Grandma, what big ears you have!” And the wolf responds, “The better to hear you with, my dear.” We need big ears.
James tells us the importance of being “quick to listen and slow to speak.” Oh my. How many embarrassing situations could I have saved myself from by following this simple rule. I can remember many times where, even as the words are coming out of my mouth, I want to grab them and stuff them back in. But we can’t un-communicate. That’s why we listen first and speak next. As they say, A closed mouth gathers no foot,” and yet how often do we jump in with our words before hearing the words of others?
The biblical translation The Message says it this way: “Lead with your ears, and follow up with your tongue.” That’s a marriage counseling session in one sentence. How many conflicts could be avoided by taking this advice? It not only applies to our relationships with others, but with God, as well. Author Jan Linn says one of the most reliable indicators of spiritual growth is when our desire to listen exceeds our desire to speak.
When I taught Public Speaking in college, the first lecture was always about the importance of listening. The number one rule of being an effective communicator is not being a good speaker, but a good listener. I would tell the class that there are several myths about listening that must be debunked.
One of those myths is that listening and hearing are the same. We hear all the time. We are physically unable to close our ears and stop the intake of sound waves. Even if you didn’t want to hear me right now, you don’t have a choice, short of getting up and leaving. But there’s a difference between faking interest and taking interest. We choose whether to listen or not. Listening is a selective activity where we purposely focus on something with the intention of actively taking it in and processing it. Have you ever said to your children, “Are you listening to me?” Some of us may have said that at some point this morning. Hearing and listening are not the same.
Of course, our ability to listen goes far beyond the size of our ears; it centers on the focus of our attention. Research says people only remember 50% of what they hear immediately after hearing it. Therefore, I am going to preach this sermon twice during this service and pray that you’ll remember 50% of it each time. If we really want to hear something, we have to be listening for it, we have to be paying attention. In class we would talk about the technique of faking attention, where we nod our heads and say our “um-hums” in all the right places, but aren’t really paying attention. We’re faking attention. Too many of our conversations lack the rich connectedness of a relationship because we simply don’t listen. Our minds are too preoccupied.
How would our conversations changed if we approached each one with the goal of completely and fully listening to the other person? We come to interactions with our own thoughts, our own opinions, our own agendas, all ready to be voiced. Dr. Michael Nichols, in his book “The Lost Art of Listening,” says, “Listening is a strenuous but silent activity. Holding your tongue doesn’t count as listening.” As we approach someone to talk, what if we made a conscious effort, as Henri Nouwen put it, “to withdraw into our selves out of humility, so that we create the space for the other person to be themselves?”
In the training for Stephen Ministers, we spend a whole 2 ½ hour session on listening skills. Listening to others is a ministry. In fact, it is often times the most important thing we can do. I’ve left many counseling sessions where the other person has thanked me profusely for all my help. The funny thing is, I didn’t do anything! I just listened. If we take the time to truly listen to someone else, we send them the message that they are important to us, that they matter to us. The greatest gift we can give to someone else is the attention of our big ears.
Of course, listening well to others is good practice for our most important listening, which is listening to God. We should take time to listen to God for the simple reason that God takes time to listen to us. The Bible is full of examples of God listening to his people. Psalm 66 says, “God has surely listened and heard my voice in prayer.” As Jesus is about to raise Lazarus from the dead, he looks up and says, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.” God is always listening. He says through the prophet Isaiah, “Before my people call I will answer; while they are still speaking, I will hear.”
And God call us to listen, as well. One of my favorite Psalm passages says, “Be still and know that I am God.” Sometimes when I read that I hear it as a word of comfort, but most often I hear it as a corrective to my current behavior. “Be still! I’m trying tell you something. I’m God. You’re not. I have something to say. Be still and listen.”
I had a great visit with my friend Kevin last weekend. After church we went to Steak N Shake, our fine dining establishment of choice, and spent a couple hours swapping stories, catching up, sharing hopes and fears. Sometimes he talked, sometimes I talked. That’s why we’re such good friends; we make room for each other. Relationships grow through the give and take of communication, as we each talk and listen. God listens to us, and God has a word of comfort, a word of hope, a word of good news with which to respond. But do we give God the space to speak to us, or is God’s voice crowded out by all the other noise? We are so good at faking attention with God, bowing our heads in all the right places, but letting other responsibilities and distractions take priority over our time with God. Our growth as a person of faith depends upon our paying attention to God, our dialogue with our Creator, our ability to listen for what God is saying to us. God speaks to us through our prayers, through other people, through scripture. But we’ll never hear God if we don’t pay attention and take the time to listen. Our relationship with God will only develop as a dialogue, not a monologue, and Lent is a wonderful time to make the commitment to that.
Lead with your ears. Be quick to listen. There is so much need around us, but I believe the greatest need people have is a need to be heard, a need to be acknowledged and accepted and validated as a valuable human being. To be able to answer that need, we first have to create a space for God’s word in our lives, we have to listen to what God is saying to us. May God give us all big ears for listening, and may everyone we meet greet us with, “My, what big ears you have!” The better to hear you with, my friend.