He was sitting across from me in our small group gathering, head bowed and hands clasped in his lap. It seemed a bit unusual for him to suddenly move from an intense declaration to an attitude of prayer, but he’s a devout fellow so I was sure he’d rejoin the conversation soon. Then I realised he was doing the infamous “Apple Prayer.” He was checking messages on his phone!
There are multiple offenses that can frustrate conversation partners. Not paying attention is one, long-windedness another. Argumentative antagonism is a show stopper and meandering digression tends to muddy the waters. We can experience all of these in church meetings!
I have found Zoom meetings at home very challenging in the respect of not listening. The number of distractions around me in my study is mind boggling, at least in a cold draughty church apart from your phone or a rogue pew sheet that was missed by the stewards there is little to distract you when Mable has missed the point of the discussion and is going on and on and nobody has the courage to tell her to sit down and shut up.
The American psychologist, Carl Rogers taught about the importance of practicing “mutual curiosity.” Where we may not understand each other or necessarily agree with another’s point of view we still listen to what they have to say. That seems a promising if elusive principle for fostering genuine conversation where two or more are gathered and actually listening to each other.
There are reports about how texting and tweeting and similar digital utterances are affecting the quality of language and the character of dialogue. Think of the governments redaction of Covid response to a three phrase slogan. You may have read about theories that widespread use of these cryptic fragments is training the brains of young people with long-term consequences for their thought processes and human interactions.
Have you noticed in restaurants, in small groups, on TV, and in the blogosphere how often it appears that many are talking but far fewer are actually listening? I worry how many people are ‘listening’ when I write this updates. Is it something to skip through before getting to the important information at the end of the e-mail?
I saw a play on TV a number of years ago that dealt with themes of cross-cultural relationships where the youthful “outsider” said plaintively to his girlfriend’s father, “What good is it if I work hard to learn your language, if you still won’t listen?” That phrase stuck with me. When people start coming to church particularly younger people they have to learn the ‘language’ of Church to become part of it, but do we then listen to them when they have learned our language? Do we listen to their hopes and fears, their dreams and visions?
We might do well to count holy listening as a prerequisite for holy conversation. Listening first for “the still small voice of God,” we could pray for alertness of mind and heart so we experience the in-breaking of the Spirit and ask for the combined eagerness and patience that allow us to delight in the wisdom, naïveté, and probing questions of others.
Perhaps what helps make conversations holy is less about the talking and more about the listening.
God bless and stay safe, Alan.