Sunday, March 5, 2017

Lent One: Listen

We often have a day or two of “midwinter spring” -  welcome days of warmth that melt frozen lakes and remind us that winter won’t last forever. This year, though, it’s been more like a midwinter summer.

I've been spending recent Sunday afternoons at Marsh Creek Lake, not far from our home, looking for winter ducks. Normally most of the lake is frozen by this point in the year, but this month I've sometimes seen kayaks dancing in the bright little waves and fishermen out in their flat-bottomed boats, scattering the resident flock of coots. 

Today, pausing on the shore between a sleek mink out for an afternoon swim and a beaver inspecting lakeside trees, I found myself celebrating and grieving. 

I have never been so close to a mink in the wild.

We have never seen such warm winter weather.

I'm reminded of Scot McKnight's question, asked in a climate change debate in The Spectator several years ago: “what would it take to change your mind?”  
“Put on the table one of your most cherished theological ideas — say creationism, the historicity of Jonah surviving in a big fish, Calvinism or Arminianism, penal substitution, the gospel as social justice, progressive ideas on the gay/lesbian debates… just put your major idea on the table and ask yourself one question:
What would it take to change your mind?”
McKnight’s book, The Blue Parakeet: Rethinking How You Read the Bible, documents his own change of mind on the topic of women in church leadership, but his question has far-reaching importance as our president insists all climate change   How do we know what’s true? What kind of evidence are we looking for? Whose voices do we listen to? What are we willing to question?

The Pharisees were sure of a long list of things, which made it impossible for most of them to hear what Jesus had to say. They started from a position of theological certainty and spent their energy looking for ways to discredit their opposition, rather than taking time to listen to see what truth they could learn from a very new perspective.

Ah, but isn’t it dangerous to listen to voices you’re not sure of, to consider ideas that don’t fit the currently accepted grid?

Standing still in the late afternoon sunlight, I hear the cry of the killdeer, the honk of the geese far down the lake. Their insistent voices are hard to miss. Less easy to hear are the coots, feeding nearby. They are almost silent, yet as I watch and listen, I can hear their odd little clucks. 

Sometimes, birding with friends, I'll hear an even softer sound: the high pitched tsip of a gnatcatcher, or the faint, wheezy tsee of a golden-crowned kinglet. 

Hear that? I'll ask. 

Hear what? 

No. Nothing.

There are sounds young ears hear that older ears can't.

And sounds it takes training and patience to hear.

And sounds no human can hear without help: Whale calls. Elephant rumbles. High-pitched cries of bats and tiny monkeys.

What happens when we shut out too quickly voices that are new, or difficult, or threatening? What happens when we refuse to hear those whose message doesn’t fit our own?

In Soul of a Citizen, Paul Loeb talks of an “ethic of listening,” learning to act from an awareness “that our knowledge and perception will always be partial, and that we learn best from dialogue with others.” Loeb notes the need “to cultivate a bit of humility. To hear the souls of others requires silencing the clamor of our own obsessions about how the world should be.” 

Humility is one of those words we don’t spend much time with. We like to be people who know the answers, who have firm opinions, who are quick to make those opinions known.  We like to know which voices are approved, who is on “our side,” and who is not. 

Discussions move quickly from ideas offered to ad hominem attack. Once we’ve labeled someone a communist, fascist, racist, heretic, we can stop pretending to listen and go back to celebrating our own strong opinions.

I grew up in a household where argument was plentiful, in a church tradition where the stronger your opinion, the more you were admired. I realized early on that the motivation in most arguments had little to do with the point being offered. What I heard loud and strong in most discussions I witnessed was power, pride, and a deep disregard for the people most affected. 

Solomon's wisdom was attributed to his request that God give him "a listening heart to judge your people, to discern between good and bad."

I've been thinking about the danger when leaders refuse to listen.

Thinking about the harm to Christian witness when churches lose the ethic of listening. 

This week, our president announced plans to cut the EPA's Office of Research and Development by 40%, a move explicitly directed at climate change research, air and water protection and research on sustainability. 

Global Mean Estimates based on Land and Water Data
This week, scores of US cities reported record-breaking highs, while the World Meteorological Organization announced the highest temperatures on record in Antartica.

In Old Testament and New, God warns of willful deafness: ever hearing but never understanding. 

"You have seen many things, but you pay not attention .Your ears are open, but you do not listen." (Isaiah 42:20).

"You are living in the midst of a rebellious people. They have eyes to see but do not see and ears to hear but do not hear." (Ezekiel 12:2)

Sometimes in Lent I focus on repentance, sometimes on spiritual disciplines.

This Lent I find myself longing for a listening heart, a listening church, a listening nation.

My prayer is to move deeper into an ethic of listening and to invite others to listen with me.

To voices not heard.

To wisdom not wanted.

To the poor, the hungry, the broken.

To this weary, warming, beautiful world.

(Parts of this were taken from an earlier post, Midwinter Wisdom, January 12, 2012. The record high that week was 63 degrees. This week we've had multiple days in the 70s).