Saturday, September 1, 2012

A Ministry of Listening
by Fred & Gloria Strickert

This last Thursday I (Fred)  had the opportunity to lead the regular Thursday noon Eucharist service at Sabeel, something I’ve been invited to do occasionally when Anglican priest Naim Ateek is traveling out of the country.  It’s a good opportunity to go over the Sunday texts in advance  with a small group of individuals committed to peace and justice issues. 
Now it is the custom at Sabeel that following the sermon, we pause for a few moments for those dozen or so persons present to discuss the sermon.   Sometimes this elicits a long moment of silence.  Sometimes a few short comments.  But this week was different, my words on the Gospel from Mark 7 about the law, its misuse, and the contrast between externals and what comes from heart, had struck a chord with an older Palestinian woman, who began to express her concerns about many current events that reflected how the law today is used against the powerless while protecting the powerful.  And you can easily imagine some of the things she mentioned. 
And perhaps you’ve been in situations like this where you can only listen and nod your head in agreement.  "Yes I understand" —but you feel helpless, powerless about what can be done to change things.  What words can I say to help her feel better, or more hopeful—Except, “I understand.” 

Later. on the way back to the Old City, it dawned on me.  While my sermon focused on Mark 7, in reality, we had been acting out the James 1 text assigned as the epistle for Pentecost 14. 
“Be quick to listen, slow to talk, slow to anger.”  (James 1:19)

 Listening can be the most difficult thing to do. 
Listening is difficult, because we feel like we should be able to say something to make things better. 
Listening is difficult because we would prefer to be in control, and if we can monopolize the talking, we may keep our place of power. 
Listening is  difficult because so often we are so occupied by our own concerns.   We have our own issues, so do we want to surrender our place at center stage to give way to another?
Listening is difficult because when we are silently listening, we often find ourselves feeling vulnerable and powerless, no different from the person speaking to us.

Yet note how James holds up listening as a very important ministry that all of us can offer.

“Every generous act of giving is from above,” James begins this passage (James 1:17). The faith that God creates in us,  faith in a God who gives of himself through his Son, generates every act of giving.  That word Every should capture our attention-- 
It’s not just the heroic actions—like a Rachel Corrie giving her life for what she believed, or a Mitri Raheb, risking his reputation for his courageous prophetic speech. 
Every act of giving is from above.  And in our acts of accompaniment, James would place listening right there among the most needed.

At the end of this section, James explains the essence of religion, "To care for widows and orphans in their distress" (James 1:27),  (the powerless of our societies, those forgotten by our politics and our ecclesiastical smugness).  And here listening fits right in because listening offers them dignity, listening recognizes their humanity, listening gives them voice when no one else hears their cry for help. 
And when we feel vulnerable and powerless in those situations of listening, then we find ourselves on the same level, we really understand what accompaniment is all about.  It may be the greatest gift of all.


Early in the week, when meeting with our new YAGMs, one asked the question how they could keep from becoming a burden to the people they befriend.  They had all heard about the generosity of Palestinians, and their hospitality especially when it comes to meals and visits to their homes.  It’s difficult for those of us from privileged backgrounds, from comfortable lifestyles, with more pocket money than some people’s monthly salaries.  How not to become a burden? 
Be slow to talk, be slow to anger, but quick to listen. 
Listening can be to most generous gift you can offer,
to the teenagers whose young mother  has just been diagnosed with cancer.
to a mother whose children have never seen the Mediterranean or Galilee,

to the husband and father who has been out of work for longer than he can remember,
to the child whose uncle is in prison,
to one of our pastors delayed at the checkpoint for three and a half hours,
to the family that has received demolition orders for their home and confiscation orders for their land,

 to the young grandmother whose daughter has married a husband from Jerusalem and now The Wall separates her from seeing her new granddaughter,
to one who simply can’t understand how life could have dealt them such a bad hand of cards.
Be Quick to Listen. 
 This is accompaniment. 
Sometimes a passage like this one from James 1, gives us new eyes to understand more familiar Bible stories.  Such is the case with Luke 10's story of Mary and Martha.
"Martha had a sister, Mary,
who sat at the Lord's feet, listening. . . ." Luke 10:39

Traditionally we have assumed that Jesus has been giving her private biblical tutoring sessions.  But just maybe it's another kind of listening.  Perhaps Jesus was confiding in her  his frustrations over the fading crowds, or his fears over what might befall him in Jerusalem, or his concern about one wayward disciple, or about Jesus’s own good friend Lazarus, her brother, who hasn’t been looking well lately, and about Martha who seems so preoccupied in doing something, that she can’t just sit there and listen.  “You have chosen the better part.” says Jesus.

 Every generous gift comes from above, and that includes listening.

 And so last Thursday, after returning to the Old City, I had to make a stop at the money changer on Christian Quarter Road, and after responding with a "Next time" to his last forty invitations for a cold drink, I finally sat down and learned that his son was just returning from Germany to begin his residency in cardiac care.  And, even though I had plenty of things I needed to do,  I paused to chat with Rami at his  jewelry shop to hear about his new born daughter Pearla, born just last Sunday--mother and daughter are doing just fine   Then a final stop at Shawar’s Bakery and Coffee Shop, where I felt a bit of an obligation to give him business on this slow day, even though I had plenty of coffee already at the office.
Only then did I realize that slow business never bothered him and that his selling coffee was just an excuse for him to listen to people like me.  And as he listened to me describing my day, I understood James’ words.
Every generous gift comes from above.
by Fred & Gloria Strickert