Listening to Bonhoeffer on Listening to Others

life“The first service one owes to others in the community involves listening to them. Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either’ they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together

Listening People into Existence

The title to this post should really be:

‘Listening like a cow’ or ‘Cow like listening’ or ‘How to Listen as well as a Cow’, or some such thing!  I tried to get a cow pun in there (always better than a cow pat – tah dah!), but was thwarted because the quoted passage in question (below) has this stunning phrase – listening people into existence!

A pastor (such as I) is expected to do a lot of listening, a lot of answering, a lot of fixing and a lot of general verbal posturing – it goes with the vocation, words:  In the beginning was the word…!  Poor talkative Christianity!  Poor talkative me!

But listening is the skill.  Not merely hearing, not merely assuming what the other will or might say, but actual, deep listening.  This world is full of eyes that don’t see and ears that don’t hear!  Of course I’m guilty of it too, this is not my moment to point no finger, but the fact is, we all need to listen more deeply.

I’m not sure we can listen to others deeply until we have listened to ourselves deeply: self-awareness is the psycho-theraputic term.  It is an interesting phenominon that parents teach their children to speak…..I’ve yet to ever hear a parent teach their child to listen (including me), except in hysterical exacerbated tones, “Will you just listen to me!”  I wish now that I had done more listening to my children.

It was Mary Rose O’Reilley that sparked my attention/imagination to this.  She writes about this in Radical Presence: Teaching as Contemplative Practice:

“Pay attention…Just be there. Don’t be thinking about a solution, or how you should fix it. Just listen hard and try to be present. It’s very bad business to invite heartfelt speech and then not listen…

What I’m trying to construct here is a theory of attention that depends little on therapeutic skills and formal training: listening like a cow. Those of you who grew up in the country know that cows are good listeners…

We don’t need fixing, most of us, as much as we need a warm space and a good cow. Cows cock their big brown eyes at you and twitch their ears when you talk. This is a great antidote to the critical listening that goes on in academia, where we listen for the mistake, the flaw in the argument.

Cows, by contrast, manage at least the appearance of deep, openhearted attention. If you are listening, if you are turning your big brown eyes or blue eyes on somebody and twitching your ears at them, you are earning your silage.

You are listening people into existence. You are saving lives. You are producing Grade A.



Babbacombe, Torquay one fine day!

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