Active Listening

“Let your religion be less of a theory and more of a love affair.” G. K. Chesterton
I had the opportunity to visit some other faith communities this summer during my 3-month sabbatical. I found myself walking into a church worship service with my kids for the first time in a long time. One particular week, as I stood with my children, Lyla (3) and Russell (5), tears streamed down my face. I got to hear Lyla sing the words of the worship song alongside me and the others gathered in worship that day.
Being on the “attender-” rather than “pastor-” side of a Sunday morning worship gathering reminded me of some dynamics at play when we worship. Something that I have noticed in myself and others is that our culture has programmed us to listen to a sermon for information. We are conditioned to attend a church service with a bent towards “What can I get out of this?” There is nothing wrong with seeking information but I wonder if God is more interested in our formation, rather than our merely acquiring more information.
When I approach a sermon (or Scripture, or book, or event that is participatory), I tend to seek to cover as much ground as possible as quickly as I can. In this way, I may not notice God’s gentle whisper that invites me to pause and reflect, to stop and ponder, or to turn and repent.
When I approach a Bible study seeking to master the text so that I can defend it, I miss out on the invitation from God for the text to master me. When I’m all about mastering the text, I am in control and I am “in my head.” But when I allow the text to master me, I relinquish control. I allow all my heart, mind and will to be moved. Richard Rohr, of the Center of Action and Contemplation, says, “The opposite of faith is not doubt; the opposite of faith is control”
When I come to church and listen analytically, critically, and sometimes judgmentally, I am standing at a distance with my own purposes, objectives and desires driving me. I am treating God as an object to be analyzed and studied, rather than a subject, a Person, to dance with. When I come to church expectant, open, available, and willing to be surprised, sometimes God will speak to me through a song, a prayer, or another soul:
  • Informational listening keeps the experience “out there,” where I can control and manipulate it to fit my life agenda. Formational listening, allows space and silence for God to speak.
  • Informational learning is characterized by a “problem solving” approach. We are looking for a fast and easy nugget of wisdom that we can apply that will change our lives now.
  • Formational learning recognizes that faith is a process. It is not something we have or don’t have, but rather something that matures and grows, bit by bit.
So, the next time that you set aside time for prayer, Scripture, a podcast, a book, or a sermon, why not ask God to help you see Him with more than your mind alone? Ask Him to help you move from your head to your heart. Then watch Him give you the eyes to see, the ears to hear, and the courage to listen and obey His promptings in your life.
*For further reading: Richard Rohr and the Center for Action and Contemplation, Mulholland, M. Robert. 2001. Shaped by the Word: The power of Scripture in spiritual formation. Upper Room.

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