Several years ago an article came out in Time magazine about the importance of siblings and birth order in shaping our personalities. Of course, the article could only deal with generalities, and there are always exceptions to every rule, but many of their assertions rang true for me. In general, the article said, the eldest child (or in some cases the only child) grows up to be a high achiever. Middle children are often peacemakers, and youngest children are often laid back, easy going and creative.
In my own family I am the youngest of four children. My siblings and I don’t fit into all the neat categories that the Time article predicted, but I do think the birth order in our family shaped each of us. Don’t worry, I’m not about to launch into the psychological inner workings of my nuclear family, but I do want to reflect on one aspect of my growing up years that has shaped me because it has to do with Sabbath-keeping.
As the youngest in a big family, I arrived in the middle of a story that had been going on for a long time. I was born into a crowd that already had its patterns, its schedule and its dynamics. To put it another way, I was born into a noisy family. I don’t mean that everyone was yelling or that the noisiness was a bad thing, but with five people already established in the home there was just a lot going on. My job, at least early on, was to adapt and roll with it.Somewhere along the way in my growing up years, as crazy as it may sound, I actually made a conscious decision to be a good listener. And that one decision has shaped me my whole life. In fact, I remember writing one of my college essays on listening. (I’d give anything to find that old essay, written by my 18-year-old self, but it was typed on an Olivetti typewriter before the days of hard drives and The Cloud.)
All of this is to just to share with you how important to me the practice of listening has always been. Listening deeply to someone is the best way I know how to show love. As I shared in the benediction on Sunday morning, “Truly listening to someone is so close to love that most people can’t tell the difference” (Dr. Jan Love).
If you were here on Sunday, you know that listening was the focus of our worship together. What I didn’t address in the sermon were some tools that we can use to help us listen to God and to each other. One of the best ways I know to listen for God is to read scripture. Do what Bishop Pennel suggested when he was with us this fall: pick a passage and read it slowly. (Psalms or parables of Jesus are good places to start.) When a word or a phrase jumps out at you, stop. Ponder it. Ask God what that word or phrase has to teach you. Try going to the scriptures without an agenda, without expectation, and see what speaks to you.
Another practice is to try carefully to listen to other people in your daily life. When you are in conversation, pay attention to what the other person is saying. Do you feel yourself thinking ahead to what you’re going to say next? Notice that, but then let it go. Take a deep breath and let the other person speak, even if you react to or disagree with them.
Listening is not a gift that some people have and others don’t. I really believe it’s a skill that we can all learn and practice. The world needs more people who know how to listen. May that be just one more way that we show God’s love to a hurting world.