Listening is Ministry
“Listening carefully and responding accurately to the story of another is a true ministry. To be understood and accepted by another person is a treasured dimension of human living. It is also the first movement of any kind of care.” Mighty Stories, Dangerous Rituals, Herbert Anderson & Edward Foley
Ridiculing someone’s idea or mocking their serious question are effective ways of making them feel belittled and inferior (they are also sinful, just for the record). Though these verbal offenses cause great harm they are committed frequently and enjoy fairly widespread acceptance, which is too bad.
There is a less aggressive but equally effective way to make a person feel emotionally debased and hurt: just ignore them.
Maybe you’ve had the experience of trying to speak to someone and they totally ignore you. They know you are speaking to them, but they don’t even acknowledge your presence or speech. Equally bad is when they do address you, but it is not in response to what you said or asked. Rather, it is for them to express what they want to say to you. They are controlling the agenda by ignoring you and redirecting the conversation.
Pointing out these inconsiderate ways of treating people will, I hope, make us wise and sensitive to the problem, and will encourage us to be aware of any tendencies we may have to practice them. I certainly hope no one reading this will respond with, “Oh, so that is another way I can annoy someone. Ignore them.”
Admittedly, I give too little thought to the power of listening. The first time I realized how deeply some people need to be heard was when I was 17, and a woman I met at a summer job told me about the death of her son, the same age as me, only the summer before. She began telling me about the accident, then the sense of loss, then the annoyance of legal and insurance issues, then the constant darkness of his absence, then the cancerous pain that ate at her soul everyday. She cried. I listened. I was overwhelmed. My heart ached for her, but I had no way to comfort the incredible hurt other than to listen to the flood of words that poured out of a soul desperate to be heard. After an hour the clock chimed it was time to resume work. Soon, my summer job was over and we never talked about it again.
I’ve thought about that experience many times over years. I hope I’m finally learning something from it. The power of listening. No one could bring her son back, dull the pain or ease the loneliness. But anyone could listen. A group of listeners may have saved her marriage. When her husband, also burdened with grief, could no longer bear his wife’s need to unburden her heart, he left. A group of five to ten caring friends and fellow church members, meeting regularly with both the husband and wife, taking turns listening, may have saved their marriage.
Listening is ministry. Over a kitchen table, in a hospital room, after a funeral, over a cup of coffee.
“Listening carefully and responding accurately to the story of another is a true ministry. To be understood and accepted by another person is a treasured dimension of human living. It is also the first movement of any kind of care.”
Listening is a way to honor a person’s dignity, reassure them of their value, relieve them of intense inner burdens, and possibly even save their families and lives.
What do you think Jesus must have been doing with the sinners and social outcasts of his day? We assume he was preaching.
I think he was listening.