The Gift of Listening

In the moments just before dawn this morning, I sat on my back porch, soaking up the sounds that God made. It was still too dark to see anything, so my sense of hearing was more finely tuned to the cardinal’s song greeting the coming light, the rasping of the crickets, the scratching of the squirrels as they ventured down the oak tree to drink from the bird bath… I could even hear the whir of hummingbird wings as the tiny bird neared the feeder beside the porch. It was a feast for my ears, and for my soul!

Listening is a gift…It is a gift that God offers–in the staggering discovery that God actually listens to us–and it is a gift that we offer others…  -Adam S. McHugh, The Listening Life

I’ve spent the last week studying and pondering the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A leader of the Pharisees invites Jesus to join him and his guests (more Pharisees) for Sabbath dinner so that they can observe him. They’ve heard that his Sabbath behavior can be inappropriate, so they test him. Jesus, of course, sees it as the perfect opportunity to challenge their perverted understanding of humility, compassion, generosity and hospitality and to teach them God’s perspective about these virtues.

Jesus is quite clear that we are to cultivate and practice these virtues now if we want to sit at God’s dinner table when the Kingdom comes in the fullness of time. I am challenged by this. I am not by nature consistently humble, compassionate, generous, or hospitable. And from what I observe of human nature, I’m not alone.

As I listened to the sounds of creation this morning, Jesus’ words from Luke 14 echoed in my mind, as well as McHugh’s proclamation that listening is a gift. Jesus always listened. (And he still does!) He was never too rushed, too busy to stop and listen to someone’s need. And I sensed the Spirit saying that listening is critical to developing the virtues of humility, compassion, generosity, and hospitality.

Listening requires humility, first and foremost. I have to be humble enough to set aside my thoughts, my desire to speak, in order to truly listen to another. Deep listening reflects compassionate concern for others. Listening prompts generosity and is, in and of itself, an offer of hospitality.

Listening is a gift–first from God to us in that he listens to us continually, and then from us to others as we freely, humbly, compassionately, generously and hospitably give what we have been given.

In our lives, Lord, let this be so. Amen and amen.

Grace, Gift, and Generosity

This week is about grace, gift, and generosity…

Those words spoken by Rev. Peter Matthews during his Palm Sunday sermon settled into my heart yesterday with an intensity that surprised me! For the past few days I have been pondering the irony of Palm Sunday: Jesus riding on a colt, nearing Jerusalem amidst cheers of “Hosanna! Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”, all the while knowing that he was riding towards a gruesome death, called for by the very people who were now singing his praises. I have imagined the anguish he must have felt as he tried to reconcile this praise that was rightly his with the coming crucifixion that was certainly not.

Holy Week of 1988 forever changed my experience of Easter. My life commitment to Christ was still relatively new. We had just moved far from our Kentucky roots, settling in a little town in southern Alabama. In our search for a new church home, we were led to an Episcopal church which was a far cry from what I was used to. I decided to participate in all the events of Holy Week, curious to experience fully the traditions of this new denomination. As I journeyed from the palm-waving praise of Palm Sunday to the somber reflection of Maundy Thursday–kneeling in the dimly-lit sanctuary, listening to the haunting words and melody of “Were You There When They Crucified my Lord” softly sung acapella which provided an apt backdrop for the stripping of the altar and the draping of the cross–I wept with an awareness of Christ’s suffering that I had never before experienced.

As painful as the anticipation I felt in that Maundy Thursday service was, returning to the darkened sanctuary with the black-draped cross for Good Friday itself was heart-wrenching. By this time, I had so entered into Christ’s passion that I was simply wrecked…or so I thought. I grieved and wept, and for the first time I could understood that ancient Jewish practice of putting on sackcloth and pouring ashes over one’s head in an expression of unbearable grief. Saturday’s Easter Vigil brought little relief. That black-draped cross and bare altar overshadowed the baptism of a young woman that evening.

Finally, Easter morning dawned! We headed to church with an anticipation the likes of which I had never before felt for Easter Sunday! I was not disappointed… We entered into a sanctuary resplendent with beautiful flowers and freshly polished brass, the black drape happily missing and the altar covered in starched white linen, the candles lit in welcome. The choir sang a beautiful anthem as the little children in their Easter finery (and I do mean finery–no one does this like southern mommas!) processed into the sanctuary, each with a flower to place on a styrofoam cross wrapped in chicken wire–something quite ugly to start with and absolutely beautiful when the children were finshed with it! The joyful praise, so much richer than those Palm Sunday hosannas, reverberated as we worshiped our Risen Lord. It was then that I was totally wrecked!

Long story, I know. But I needed to relive it in order to see clearly why those words spoken by Fr. Peter yesterday captured my heart. For the past 30 years I have experienced Easter in much the same way as in 1988. Each year I recall the memory of that particular Easter and how it changed my perception of that final agonizing week of Jesus’ earthly life…how it changed me. I’ve entered into the darkness of it in order to fully experience the unsurpassing joy of Easter.

But this year I want to embrace Holy Week differently. I’ve pondered and lamented my sin and the world’s sin and the darkness that Jesus came to illuminate, as any Christian must! But today I want to lay all that aside to remember what this week is really about: God’s incredibly generous gift of absolutely amazing grace! I want to experience all week that unsurpassing joy I typically save for Easter morning!

My prayer for you is that you will open wide your arms, unclench your hands from whatever you are holding so tight, and simply receive the deeper truth that this week–of all weeks–is about grace, gift, and generosity. Amen and amen!