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The Church can be a model for listening in these times

The Listening Reflection event on June 3, 2017. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

The Listening Reflection event on June 3, 2017. NINA NICHOLSON PHOTO

“The Church can be a model for listening in these times.”

That was a comment made by a participant at the diocesan Listening Reflection event, when people from 23 congregations met on June 3rd to tell stories about their experience with listening over the past several months.

Some said it was hard to listen to scripture. Others said it was an enormous gift. Some found it difficult to interview people in the congregation; others found that it worked better if they called it a conversation rather than an interview. Some found that deep listening was a window into someone’s soul; some found it difficult to even crack open a listening window.

Listening is a gateway to a deeper understanding of God, and the presence of Christ in someone else. But it can be hard.

As some of you know, I have been engaging in conversations with various leaders on an NJTV show called Faith Matters, with a Bishop, and Imam and a Rabbi. My friends Imam Deen Shareef and Rabbi Matthew Gewirtz and I have spent a decade listening to one another. Now we are listening to guests in the TV studio. Over the past three months we have listened to leaders who presented different perspectives the sanctuary cities movement in New Jersey. We listened to some courageous people recount their harrowing experiences with opioid addiction, and their commitment to recovery. We listened to a pastor talk about the juvenile criminal justice system in the state, and how black kids are 24 times (yes, 24 times) more likely to be locked up than white kids. We listened to a former NJ Attorney General talk about his formal role in providing more justice in the criminal justice system and in holding police departments accountable to proper procedure.

I tried to listen to the President of the NJ Second Amendment society. But I really didn’t. He is a champion of the right to bear arms, and his statistics indicate that crime goes down when gun purchases go up. People are safer, he said, when people have more guns. Now I have data that suggests just the opposite. It is well documented that crime rates have been going down, but the perception in some quarters is that the crime rate is climbing; and those who believe that tend to be the most opposed to any sort of gun restriction. And who feel the need to have more guns at the ready.

We went back and forth with our respective arguments, and my listening became an exercise of finding holes in his argument so I could prepare the most effective response. Real listening got lost.

Many of us have had moments when someone points a finger in our face and says – with anger, if not contempt, “LISTEN TO ME.” Most of us can admit to having done that ourselves to someone else. In either case, it is a guarantee that there will be no real listening. And those experiences make us gun-shy (an ironic metaphor) about holding out hope for listening as a worthwhile enterprise.

You can’t make someone else listen. We often complain mightily about someone else’s refusal or inability to listen. Or to listen only to what they want to hear. And spend hours, if not days, cursing people under our breath. And then accuse, convict and remand them to the scrap heap of otherness.

And yet – we can listen.

Listen for the joy, and the fear and the hope and the despair. Listen for the voice of God in someone else. And resist the temptation to accuse, which can often be a demonic energy that virtually shuts down listening. Yes, there does need to be some discernment to determine if it is worth listening to people who are not ready to listen back. (“Shake the dust off your feet,” Luke 10:11.)

And yes, there are actions we will need to take, and positions we need to adopt and advocate.

Real listening is becoming a scarce commodity these days. More and more I believe we are called to work through anxiety and anger – and learn to really listen. Listening can create a space for relationship building and reconciliation.

“The church can be a model for listening in these times.”


There is a behavioral science phrase "starting position bias" that states that depending on where you start your analysis, a win or a loss can be found and seem the only logical rational conclusion. The opinion of "too many" or "not enough" guns (substitute taxes, education …) is a judgement, not a fact. While I share the opinion that there are too many guns, and several of my friends will never agree, I find it helpful to imagine standing where they stand and listening to their words again. At that hard to reach moment I can occasionally find the root motivation (fear, poverty, history, pain), rarely a fact and more often an emotion, that once spoken can move the conversation forward. Then again, these opinions took decades to build and will not be remodeled in 137 words.

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