The Forgotten Act of Listening


My husband and I agreed at the beginning of the year that we would each the other to read one novel this year that we have enjoyed and felt was worth the read. I have asked him to read “Cry, the beloved country” by Alan Paton (which for the record, he still has to finish…ahem ahem). To his credit I had a hard time making up my mind which one to choose… He asked me to read “Poisonwood Bible” by Barbara Kingsolver which I have done (tap on the shoulder…). I enjoyed the book tremendously and can highly recommend it. It is brilliant. Without giving away too much of the plot, I want to explain a particular scene in the book that got me thinking…

The story is basically about a very driven single-tracked preacher who takes his wife and four daughters to the Congo in an attempt to evangelise a small rural village. He preached his heart out week after week, but failed to understand many of the cultural imperatives that were hindering him from having a transformative impact in the community. Some of his daughters befriended the villagers and learned from them how and why their father’s efforts had failed. For instance they learnt that nobody wanted to get baptised in the river, because a crocodile had recently devoured a member of the village who stepped into the river…Also the nuances of the language could lend itself to terrible misinterpretation..and mean quite the opposite of what it was intended to mean. She could have only learnt that by spending time with the villagers, befriending them and listening to what they were saying, and in that way learning from their experiences and cultural beliefs. It dawned on me then that the first act of evangelism for the preachers should have been listening…

Evangelism is having influence over someone’s life. In Christian belief we equate the correct application of this influence to love. In other words, we can deduce that the first act of love should be to listen. So that made me wonder, “How well are we doing with listening to the world?” “How well are we listening to the pain and the suffering around us?” Because, you see, to be truly listening (not the kind of listening we mostly do – pretending to listen, but in fact already thinking of a response…or even worse…something else we need to be doing), we need to be patient. We need to make time…But more than that, we need to be present. We need to be there with all of who we are… and listen.

I recently watched a video clip in which Stanley Hauerwas speaks about suffering and death and being with those who are dying. He says that we need to be present with those dying. Our prayers when we are with those dying should not be petitions trying to manipulate God into doing something for them. Our prayers should be acts of listening, because when we listen prayerfully, we make God present. We make God present to those who are dying, those in pain and those who are suffering. 

When we listen to those suffering and in pain in the world around us, not only do we make ourselves present to them, but we make them present in our lives…and more than that, we make God present in the situation.

I watched a Ted Talk by Julian Treasure recently about communication and how we can use our voices to communicate. He is a great steward of his voice and of communication! He ended the talk by asking some questions, including, “What would the world look like if we listened consciously?” He answered by saying that it would be a world where understanding would be the norm. I most definitely think that we can do with understanding each other a little better in this world!

So may our prayers be acts of ¬†listening…and may our listening make us truly, vulnerably, powerfully present as we become praying, listening curators of God’s presence in the world.