Quick to Listen

Sermon by Reverend Dr. John W. Mann | August 29, 2021

James 1:17-27

“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger.” Very sound advice that can be applied in so many ways.

Quick to listen – One time one of my grandsons who was around four years old at the time, said to me, “I’m a real person you know.” It prompted me to think about how I had been relating to him. Was I not listening or was I talking down to him?

Slow to speak – One time I was visiting with a guy to help him plan his son’s funeral; his son who committed suicide. At one point in the conversation he said, “I know that people are trying to be helpful, but people should not say, ‘I understand’ or ‘I know how you feel.’ No one knows how I feel; no one.”

Slow to anger – I can’t be responsible for other people’s behavior. So I must ask, is it my responsibility to act out in anger? There was a story once in the paper about a road rage incident. One of many such stories that always seem to end in tragedy. In the comments section, one person wrote, “My approach to driving is to always let the problem go ahead.”

We have the ability to choose how we respond to the world around us. Which means primarily, to the people around us in the world. Some emotions like anger and fear can produce a surge of adrenaline, which in turn causes tunnel vision. Chronic stress can do that too. Meaning that we literally cannot see our full range of options in a situation.

I had been at my post in Scotland for a year or so when some minor incident happened at the church one Sunday before worship. It wasn’t a huge deal, but I didn’t hear about it until after worship and I asked one of the church officers, “Why didn’t you talk to me about this before the worship service?”

The answer was interesting – “It’s a rule around here that we never say anything to the minister before worship that might be a distraction from the task at hand.”  

There were two people whose job title was “Church Officer.” They were responsible for the operation of the church building and for overseeing services of worship, including weddings and funerals.

The practice over there is that worship begins with a processional led by the church officer who carries a bible into the sanctuary and places it on a lectern. In our case, this was Ian. After placing the bible, Ian would leave the sanctuary and wander about the building and grounds to keep an eye on things. The nature of our neighborhood necessitated that. Everyone remembered the time that Ian tossed someone off the roof. It was one of the lower roofs and only about a fifteen-foot drop.

A line from our readings today bears some consideration: “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger;”

One of the useful tools I learned how to use while training to be a minister was called the “Verbatim.” Verbatim means to repeat something word for word. I learned the use of Verbatim in a program called “Clinical Pastoral Education.”

CPE as it was known was a twelve-week course on learning how to listen. Listening can be hard work – really listening, that is. There is an ebb and flow to conversation, especially when someone is in dire straits such as in hospital. In CPE we learned how to write down a conversation word for word, after the fact. You can’t have a conversation with someone if one person is taking notes. That’s called an interview.

We would gather in our group of students along with various hospital supervisors and if it was our day, we would share our verbatim. We would go over the points in the conversation and learn where we listened and where we missed the conversational cues.

Conversation is like a stream. How we listen can keep the stream moving or it can bring the movement to a halt.

Listening can be hard work, but it can also be an art – like a thing of beauty.

One time, we were visiting family in Tennessee and Lindsay and I went down to Lynchburg, Tennessee where we toured the Jack Daniels distillery. Lynchburg is a small town with one industry – Jack Daniels. Close to the distillery is a business called, “Miss Mary Bobo’s Boarding House.”

Miss Mary Bobo was the niece of Jack Daniels and she ran the place until she died in 1983 at the age of 101. When we were there, Miss Mary Bobo’s granddaughter was running the place as a restaurant. They served one meal a day – the mid-day dinner.

The Mid-Day Dinner is not just about eating a fine meal. It is also about participating in an act of “Southern Hospitality.”

You have to make reservations to get a seat. Everyone who is eating that day waits until the dinner bell is rung. Then your name is called, and you follow your hostess to a long table where a dozen people are seated. The hostess, who is one of the local “southern ladies,” sits at the head of the table. Food is brought in bowls and platters and placed on the table.

And what food it is. Southern fried chicken, meat loaf, country ham, fresh picked vegetables. No one leaves hungry. Eating is just the half of it. The hostess at the head of the table leads the diners in the art of “southern hospitality.” It is indeed an art. My wife is from Tennessee and I have sat at many of these tables. It is a wonder to behold. Like a maestro conducting an orchestra she leads the table in artful conversation.

The day we were there it seemed some people didn’t want to play. Sitting at our table I recall a couple from Seattle. They were about our age and for whatever reason they were not engaging with the conversation. They ate their food, but that was about all they did. The hostess was deft at guiding the talk. If asked a direct question they mumbled one-word answers. Nor did they reciprocate with conversation of their own. She did not force them to participate and she did not single them out for their lack of participation; that would have been rude.

By coming across as bored with the conversation, this couple in turn appeared profoundly boring.

When I come to church, to a church, to any church, I try to find my way to the heart and soul of the place, which is usually the kitchen and by extension the sermon that people relate to each other shows what the community of faith is really about.

Back in the 1600’s there was a fellow named Nicholas Herman.  He was born in France in 1611. He was poor, uneducated and by all measures a failure. He was well into his forties when he decided as a last resort to seek a religious life and become a monk. He ended up in a monastery where he was assigned kitchen duties. He had reached his peak. He could say, “Until the day I die, I will be a dishwasher.”

Nicholas, now called Brother Lawrence, gave his heart and soul to washing dishes. He had found his calling. The other monks began to notice a certain spirit in him. No matter what the mess he had to deal with, he approached it as a holy task.

Conversations took place in the kitchen and over the years the monks would listen to Brother Lawrence tell of the joy to be found in simple tasks. He spoke of how one can find God in even the most obscure, commonplace circumstances.

In time, the kitchen became the heart and soul of the monastery. Word spread of the holy dishwasher and his wisdom. Cardinals and princes visited the monastery and sat in the kitchen while the lowly monk went about his duties and talked about the nature of faith.

Brother Lawrence died at the age of 80 in 1691. Many of the people who knew him pooled the notes they had taken on their conversations. His thoughts were gathered into a slim volume and published as, “The Practice of the Presence of God.” The book has gone through hundreds of printings and you can still find it today. In the words of Brother Lawrence, the greatest dishwasher who ever lived,

“God requires no great matters of us; a little adoration; sometimes to pray for his grace, sometimes to offer him our sufferings, and sometimes to return to him thanks for favors given. Lift up your heart to God, the least little remembrance will be acceptable to him. It is not necessary for being with God to be always at church. We may praise him from our heart and converse with him in our meekness, humility and love. When God finds a soul penetrated with living faith, he pours into it his graces. There they flow in a torrent which spreads itself in abundance.”

Something I’ve learned along the way is that you cannot force people to listen. You can only make yourself listen. The better you listen the less likely you are to allow your actions to be held hostage to anger; whether it be your own anger or that of others.

And the more you listen, the more likely you are to be heard. Amen.

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