“We have two ears and one mouth so that we can listen twice as much as we speak.”
This proverb, attributed to the first-century Greek philosopher Epictetus, is still good advice. In a time where there is no lack of speaking—whether with actual voices, through written words or even with visual symbols—the art of listening is one we need to continually cultivate.
Several years ago, members of Mennonite Church Canada had the opportunity to practice listening skills through the extended process called “Being A Faithful Church.” Through written words and in-person encounters, the nationwide church sought to have productive conversation around questions of sexuality and biblical interpretation. We sought to express our thoughts and feelings well and, in the best encounters, to listen to those with whom we differed. We were invited to “create space” for those with different understandings and experiences. We were urged to pay attention to the “prophetic nudging of the Spirit of God.” To listen.
How do we listen well to others? Recently I revisited the editorial in the Sept. 25, 2017, issue of Canadian Mennonite and was reminded of the need for a special kind of listening. I wrote:
“The challenge is to not get so entrenched in our own corner that we are unable to provide ‘gracious space for “the other,” ’ as one of my colleagues put it. This means moving beyond judgment to a posture of listening and caring. It means changing our speech and attitudes toward those we are tempted to chastise or belittle. Paying attention to how we care for each other.”
The feature in this issue, provides an opportunity for listening and caring. In it five transgender Mennonites share some of their stories and perspectives. They are part of our church family, and we gratefully acknowledge the gift they offer by sharing these aspects of their lives. Canadian Mennonite invites their siblings in the faith to listen and learn about who they are and how they experience the world.
Good listeners show their care by their posture of openness to the one speaking. That might be expressed through a nod or a simple “I hear you.” Sometimes listening well means simply sitting in silence, with the one who has spoken.
After both ears and heart have been engaged, the mouth and hands might have a turn. If we have heard well, we might offer a concrete action of caring, like words of love or an apology. The temptation might come to toss Bible verses or theological arguments at the person who has spoken. But good conversation—the kind that builds up Christ’s community—is not a debate.
As we listen to the stories of other people, we tune our ears to how the Spirit of God might be speaking to us. This is an opportunity to consider our own beliefs and actions, with an attitude of humility. We can pay attention to our own fears and anxieties; we can acknowledge our own questions. How might our own perspective be limiting us from truly hearing others? Have our plugged ears kept us from acting out Christ’s love?
In the book Heavy Burdens: Seven Ways LGBTQ Christians Experience Harm in the Church, Bridget Eileen Rivera points to Matthew 23:4 where Jesus speaks of religious people who “tie up heavy burdens, hard to bear, and…lay them on people’s shoulders.”
The stories and statistics point to a church that has often made life difficult for those who don’t fit the accepted patterns. Rivera writes, “Countless LGBTQ believers find themselves struggling under the weight of burdens that no Christian should ever bear, burdens given to them not by Christ but by stigma, prejudice, and discrimination.”
A hopeful word comes from author Wendy VanderWal-Gritter: “When we tell our own stories, sharing the brokenness of our lives, or when we listen to the stories of others, we take a step toward more fully becoming the body of Christ, a body that rejoices when a member rejoices and mourns when a member mourns. In stories we can also testify to the inner healing and new life we’ve received from the Holy Spirit” (Generous spaciousness: Responding to Gay Christians in the Church).
It’s time to listen.