Sunday, October 7, 2007

Vertical Habit #4 - "I'm Listening"

Here's the sermon from this morning.
It is quite a bit rougher than usual. I didn't get the manuscript cleaned up before I preached it. And now it seems . . . too late. So imagine the transitions smoother and the connections tighter. OK?
The Scripture was I Samuel 3:1-11

Vertical Habits . . . phrases that we use to strengthen our connection with God.
I Love You; I’m Sorry; Why, God?.
This week the habit on which we will focus is the encapsulated in the phrase “I’m Listening” In our scripture story, we heard the remarkable story of the young man, Samuel, who was coached by the Old Priest, to say to God, “Speak, Lord. For your servant is listening.”
This idea that Samuel was coached in listening has made me realize that listening is one of the communication skills I have had the least training – yet am called on to use the most. I’ll bet that it true for you, too. I was very carefully taught to read in the days of “See Spot Run”. And I learned to write, even though I wasn’t very good at it at first. I traced letters over and over again. I struggled to stay within the lines. And cursive! What a challenge that was! I still remember Mrs. Bessler and Mrs. Quail’s lessons in cursive writing.
Later, I was trained in how to organize a 5 paragraph theme. And then essays of various lengths and purposes. And sermons. Sermon writing is an ongoing training ground.
I was formally trained in public speaking as well. My mother was my first teacher. Stand up straight. Project. Enunciate. Articulate. Debate and Speech in high school. Speech classes in Seminary. Princeton was, at that time, quite different from other seminaries They left whether we had something worthwhile to say to our Biblical studies and theology teachers. in that the speech department was made up, not of preachers, but of actors and acting teachers, who schooled us on techniques that made for good communication.
They even taught communication through body language. A Princeton grad never wipes her hands after she breaks the bread.
But, and I’ve really searched my transcripts as well as my memory. I never had a course in listening.
And listening is the communication skill that most of us use most frequently. Many of us spend 70-80% of our waking hours in some form of communication. (I guess the TV counts) Of that time, we spend about 9% writing, 16% reading, 30% speaking and 45% listening. Yet most of us are not very good listeners. (U of Missouri Extension – “Listening: Our Most Used Communication Skill)

On average, we retain only half of what we hear for a brief period, and only half of that do we remember a couple of days later. 75% of what we hear, we don’t really listen to. That’s pretty poor.
I wonder if poor listening skills had something to do with the reason that in the scripture we read this morning it says that the word of the Lord was rare in those days. There weren’t a whole lot of people listening and paying attention to what God said. So maybe, he was speaking and nobody noticed. Like that puzzler, If a tree falls in a forest, does it make any noise? Maybe God’s voice had no ear in which to be received.
What is it that keeps us from listening for and hearing God’s voice?
It certainly isn’t that God is not speaking. One of our core beliefs as Presbyterians and as Christians is that God’s Word is alive and active. We believe that the Bible, God’s written word, speaks to us by the power of the Holy Spirit, communicating not only the story of God’s mighty deeds in the past, but conveying his love for us here and now.
One of the ways the Bible communicates that love is by assuring us that God is listening to us. Psalm after Psalm, like #18 affirms that “I called upon the Lord, and from his temple he heard my voice, and my cry to him reached his ears.” Psalm 19 prays “Let the words of my mouth, and the meditation of my heart, be acceptable in thy sight, O Lord.”
Psalm 139 – before a word is on my tongue, O God, you know it already.
The New Testament, we are urged to approach the throne of grace with confidence as our prayers draw us near to the one who knows our needs before we even call his name.

Listening is a vertical habit – it is God’s habitual stance toward us.

So if God is speaking encouraging the conversation, how can we improve our vertical habit of listening in order to become better listeners for God.

Samuel – or Samuel’s listening coach Eli – gives the first clue: He says, to say you are interested. Say, Speak, Lord. I’m listening. That sounds so simple, you can’t believe it would make any difference. But there it is. And what the Bible tells us, studies by university communication researchers confirm: Saying that you are interested in something helps you to pay better attention and listen more effectively. Clearly, they didn’t do an experiment with God. But they did study what difference it made if listeners to human speakers expressed a willingness to listen and be interested. People who came to a speech with the attitude, “This is going to be dull” heard much less of what was said than those whose attitude was “Let’s see if there’s anything I can take away from this” They listened to the same speech. But listeners who said they’d listen found their time more interesting, and more useful.
Can we apply that to reading the Bible, or even, now I’m blue skying – sermons? Could we banish even the thought that “Boy, is this going to be dull!” And could we quit saying it to our children? That they’ll find church boring? Jesus said, Let children come to me and hinder them not. It might be that we are hindering them by conveying that they won’t get anything out of the service or worship. And by and large that is wrong.
Ask anyone whose cut their teeth on children’s worship. Jan Siders and I led chapel together for years. The kids did not expect it to be dull. And they were a fabulous congregation! You know why? Because kids listen better than adults. Yes, they do!
A University of Minnesota professor conducted an experiment which tested the attentiveness of students in grades 1-12. These showed that 90% of 1st and 2nd graders were listening attentively. By junior high, 44% of the students were paying attention at any given time. By the upper levels of high school, the average had dropped to 28%, which is almost as bad as the level of adults. Maybe that’s why Jesus says that we have to enter the kingdom like a little child. Cause they are the ones paying attention!!!
God’s Word is exciting. Life changing. Challenging. Surely it is not too much to ask that we open the Bible, and even listen to the sermon with the expectation that there will be something interesting for us there.

When he does speak to Samuel, God says, “I’m going to tell you something that’s going to make the whole country’s ears tingle.”
Which brings us to the second reason that it’s sometimes difficult to listen to God. Tingling ears doesn’t really sound all that good. God is going to say something difficult to Samuel. And God often says difficult things to us. It’s hard to listen when something difficult is being said.
This is what psychologists call becoming too stimulated. When we hear a speaker say something with which we disagree, we begin to use our active brain to develop counter arguments, so that we pay little attention to the next thing that is said. We are busy formulating questions we can ask to expose the error. Or formulating arguments to rebut what’s been said. In cases like this, our listening efficiency drops to near zero. (U of Missouri Extension, again).
I know this is true because I listened to sermons this way for years. I’d hear some mistake in Biblical scholarship, or some sloppy theology, and BOOM! My frustrated inner preacher would be going OFF. I’d never be mentally present for God to speak to through those services. What a waste!
The Bible is full of difficult passages. God rarely has easy answers for our personal problems, our church controversies, our real world dilemmas. The Word of God comforts the afflicted and afflicts the comfortable. And we are going to be afflicted sometimes. The Word of God evokes not just thoughts, but emotions. And some of them are uncomfortable. It is an act of faith and a practice of self - discipline to note where you disagree, or want to argue, but then NOT TO DO IT! Listening coaches say, jot down the sticking point, but then listen to the rest before you start to figure out how to argue your case To keep listening, and postpone acceptance or rejection of the message until you really get the whole thing. Until you are sure that you understand, and have tried to figure out how what you have heard could possibly be. .
Samuel said “Speak, Lord” and then he didn’t say another word until he had heard God out. Is that easy? Not for me. But I’m going to try to get better at it, because I long to be a better listener. I want to strengthen this vertical habit.
But the real good news, the amazing thing about God that the story of Samuel tells us has little to do with developing our skills for listening to God. Hopefully we can express interest. Hopefully, we can learn to hear God out. But the best thing, the most important thing about this story is that God lovingly, insistently and repeatedly initiates the vertical contact with Samuel.
We worship a God who, not once, not twice, but over and over again speaks our name and calls out to us in the night. This is a God who does not give up when we misunderstand, or get up and go in the wrong direction. God patiently tries again and again to open a conversation, to hear and to be heard.
Today we celebrate, with Christians around the world, the meal in which Jesus Christ spoke to his disciples about the lengths to which we would go to show his love and his connection to us. He said, “This bread is my body, given for you. This cup is the new covenant poured out in my blood.” They didn’t understand. Not right away. And neither do we. But God just keeps inviting us to conversation with him, inviting us to the table, until finally by the grace of his Holy Spirit we respond, “Speak, Lord. Your servants are listening. We’re listening to You.”

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