The Ministry of Listening

On the night Jesus was betrayed by one of his closest friends, Jesus said that his followers would be identified in the culture at large by the love they showed to each other. We often think that we show love to one another by doing things for one another, and that idea is not wrong. Just today in my church, we blessed and prayed for a small group of people who are preparing to leave for El Salvador where they will help Habitat for Humanity build houses. We are accustomed in churches to use the word “ministry” for the types of activity that show our love for one another. We expect someone who performs a ministry to be actively doing something.

In today’s world, we expect people to be very active all the time, whether in ministry, or in other activities. I hear people apologize constantly for any failure to do something, by saying, “I was just so busy.” In other words, people have way too many activities on their to-do lists to do all the activities on the list. One of the casualties of all that busyness is listening. For example, I have a friend whom I seldom actually see or talk to. She is quite busy. She almost never answers the phone when I call. I leave voice mail. If I really want her attention, I send e-mail. She is more likely to answer her e-mail with a quick sentence or two than to call me back after hearing my voice mail. When we do see each other, it always takes a while to get through her recitation of her busy schedule before we can begin to talk about the things that make us interested in each other. This state of affairs is very common these days. A real conversation is about talking and listening, but way too much of our interaction with people is about saying, or texting, or tweeting, or e-mailing, what we have to say. Not nearly enough is about listening to others.

I am starting to understand in my old age that one of the kindest, most helpful things people can do for each other is to listen. Have you ever felt completely alone in a room full of people? It happens all the time. People with the gift of hosting are attuned to the signal that somebody in the room is isolated. They find that person, engage him or her in conversation, and introduce that person to someone by saying something like, “Ellen, have you met Jody? Just wait till you hear where she went on vacation this year.” Jody, who used to be isolated and lonely, now has a cue to speak up, a topic to talk about, and a listener primed to pay attention. Jody feels a lot better about things already.

In the book, No Future Without Forgiveness, the South African bishop Desmond Tutu describes the work of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission as South Africa moved away from apartheid. He wrote that very often people said that the simple fact that the commission listened as they spoke was in itself healing. They needed to tell their stories, but they also needed attentive, respectful hearers. After the opportunity to speak the truth to someone who listened all the way to the end, they were ready to forgive the people who had done terrible things to them, or to those they loved. Simply speaking the truth to people who listened started the healing process.

It is easy to validate Bishop Tutu’s observations when you realize the value of counselors, psycho-therapists, and psychiatrists. These people provide the great service of listening to troubled people. Then they ask questions and listen again. Articles and books on the subject are full of examples of people who actually solved their own problems as they simply talked and talked and talked to someone who would listen.

It is a principle of relationship-building that people need to listen. If you want to have friends, you must be a friend, and one of the fastest ways to make a friend is to listen. As soon as you stop talking and give your full attention to the other person, that person starts to think better of you. If you are listening so attentively that you only speak to ask questions, you will endear yourself to the person speaking. It will be obvious that you are not scheming to figure out how to stop listening and start talking instead.

Good listeners don’t just sit quietly. They truly pay attention and try to get the whole story. Some of us tell our stories in a disjointed fashion, jumping forward and backward in time, making it hard for the listener to sort out the narrative. Good listeners ask questions, or even say things such as, “I think you said you went to your grandmother’s house before you went to work that day. Is that the way it was?” The dialogue in police stories on television often moves forward with the question, “And what happened next?” A good listener asks such questions and indicates to the speaker that there is plenty of time and plenty of attention for him to finish the story.

Good listeners actually look at the speaker, too. They aren’t checking the time or staring out the window. They make eye contact with the speaker, giving the non-verbal message that they value what the speaker is saying.

A good listener encourages the speaker by remaining silent when the speaker falls silent. Especially when a story is intensely personal, or when the story is about a very painful experience, the speaker may stop talking. He may be gathering his thoughts. He may be unable to speak due to emotion. He may not know how to put his real thoughts into words. A good listener won’t jump in to make comments or draw inappropriate conclusions before the story is ended. The speaker needs time, and good listeners make it seem that there is all the time in the world.

Jesus said that we should serve one another and love one another. One of the finest ways we can serve one another and show our love is to listen. We all go to God with our troubles and we expect that he will listen. If we want to be like him, we will learn how to serve family and friends by listening.

Government is not God

In ancient Israel, citizens were persecuted for failing to honor Baal, the patron god of the government. It was considered tantamount to treason, because the government relied on Baal for success. One of the classic confrontations between government/god and heavenly God took place on Mount Carmel when Elijah challenged the prophets of Baal to call down fire to burn their sacrifices to Baal. The fact that Elijah succeeded after they had failed did not change the government position in the matter. The government, and all its followers, continued to worship Baal and reject the God of all the earth. Serving God became a sure way to be chased into the wilderness where a person would likely starve or die of dehydration even if the government were unsuccessful in its pursuit.

 In the first century Roman empire, emperors began to claim status as deities, and that claim led to an expectation that citizens would worship the emperor. He claimed the authority and power to take care of citizens, and he expected thankful, respectful worship. Although merely an expectation or a politically correct act at first, it became a mandate and the excuse for persecution of those who did not worship the man claiming godhood. It was tantamount to treason to act as if the emperor were not a god.

 In twenty-first century USA, our government is increasingly taking on the role and expecting the worship of a god. It wants to deliver commandments, receive offerings and dole out blessings. Moreover, it wants worship, in the form of no criticism. So far, the expectation of compliance with government thinking has not progressed to the accusation of treason for those who disagree, but disagreeable speech is not well received. Historically, governments that began by suggesting that arguments against government are thoughtless progressed to actually censoring or forbidding free speech.

 There are Christian leaders, surprisingly, who seem to believe that government can, even should, be God’s agent to bring his kingdom to pass. They applaud a government role in social services for provision of food, clothing, shelter, healthcare, education and transportation. They believe that when the government guarantees to provide for all human needs, it is creating the kingdom of heaven on earth. They seem to believe that when we pray in the Lord’s Prayer, “thy kingdom come” that we are praying for the government to bring that kingdom to pass.

 The author of Revelation warns us in twenty-two riveting chapters of the futility of believing that government can replace God. John of Patmos was granted a vision that transported him into heaven where he could look back at the earth and the time/space continuum, and there he could see what becomes of a world in which people worship government instead of God. This world is full of ever-increasing chaos and destruction, all overseen by a bloated, besotted, whorish government that wants and needs the worship of the people who are being destroyed by the boulders that government oppression drags down upon them. The book of Revelation is completely relevant to our world today, not as a timeline for the end of the age, but as a real vision of what is happening right now.

 The big lesson of Revelation is that God does not call upon government to do his work on earth. He calls on his faithful followers to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, house the homeless and share his love with everyone. God rightly expects that his followers will worship him, and those who love him rejoice in the opportunity to do so. Their worship and testimony pushes back the evil that runs rampant over lives and property when government replaces God in people’s hearts.

 The sad part of it is that some Christians seem willing to pay exorbitant taxes to government under the impression that all that money will bring the kingdom of God to pass. They forget that money we give to government seldom comes back to bless anyone. All that money builds bureaucracies and builds buildings to house bureaucracies and buys computers and papers to process the rules and regulations of bureaucracies. Very little of it ever gets into the hand of poor, starving, homeless people. Those who do receive any benefit have been so thoroughly demeaned by the process that they can never do anything more than survive to apply for more aid.

 Contrast this outcome with the results of the World Hunger Project of Lutheran World Relief. People who participate in this project are the beneficiaries of giving motivated not by tax laws but by the love of God and people. Of every dollar that LWR puts into this project, 92 cents is placed in the hands of the people the project helps. That money funds deliveries of animals and plants to farmers along with water projects and training in agriculture skills that increase productivity of both plant and animal culture. Families are not simply fed three times a day; they receive livestock and training that set them on a path to self-sufficiency. The family does not become dependent on the program. Rather, the program leads them to become independent of the program. They take away skills and encouragement to help others as they themselves have been helped.

 For that matter, contrast government charity with the results achieved by the Heifer Project, a completely secular and private project that also provides livestock and training for hungry people. The people helped by Heifer Project also are led to independence and self-sufficiency, unlike the sad dependents of government charity in housing projects across the country.

 The people who are “helped” by government become defeated and dependent. The people who receive help from projects like the World Hunger Project retain their personal dignity and become independent, self-sufficient, and prosperous. It is not government that brings the kingdom of God to earth. It is God’s people following the Holy Spirit in love and service to others.

 Government has an important role on earth, a role ordained by God. It provides security and good order to allow free people to thrive and to serve God in safety. Government clears the playing field for free commerce, providing opportunity, not benefits. Government has no God-given right to supersede the work of bringing God’s kingdom to earth. When we try to make government an agent of charity we only beggar both the taxpayer and the recipient. As Christians, we all need to work very hard to reverse the trend of trying to replace God with government by means of social programs. We should not put our faith in government. We must  put our faith in God and serve him obediently and faithfully, doing the work he calls us to do, “love your neighbor as yourself.”

Judas and Peter – I wonder

Jesus, the son of God, needed nobody to tell him about people because he knew what was inside them. When he began his work, he chose twelve men to be his closest friends for three years. He talked with them, traveled with them, corrected them, forgave them, and died for them. Yes, for all twelve.

Jesus knew all about Judas. He knew who Judas was. He knew what Judas was. Judas was Everyman. It is popular to view Judas as the supreme traitor of all time, but the fact is that he was no different than the rest of us. He was no different really than Peter, who denied Christ three times during the trial initiated by the betrayal of Judas. We point the finger of scorn at Judas, but all the disciples ran away when Jesus was arrested. We are all alike. When Jesus prayed “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do,” I don’t think he muttered under his breath, “except for Judas.”

There are two different stories in the Bible about the death of Judas. The differences in detail matter little. The common thread is that Judas clearly regretted his actions and fell into deep despair when he realized what he had actually done. His story is a lot like many other human stories. People sell out and then realize that the price they were paid didn’t touch the value of what they sold.

I think most people assume that there is a particularly gruesome, painful, overheated spot in a dark corner of hell where Judas suffers for eternity in an agony that is still not painful enough to wipe out his memory of Jesus’ face. If human beings were in charge of the universe of time and eternity that would certainly be the case. Humans love retributive justice. They like to see people get what is coming to them. Most people applaud when a righteous fake is exposed and punished. That was Judas – a righteous fake. We would not be human if we did not think he deserved and thoroughly earned his place in hell.

We are human, however, not God, and God is not so much about retributive justice. God is about forgiveness. If he were about retribution, Jesus would never have died on the cross. Jesus himself said that his life, death and resurrection happened because God loved the whole world. On the cross, one of the thieves suffering beside him was promised paradise, even though he had already confessed that he deserved to die that terrible death.

I won’t pretend that I know what became of Judas in eternity. I do know that when Jesus met Peter after the resurrection, Peter was forgiven. It seems pretty obvious to me that Judas repented of his betrayal with just as much bitterness as Peter, who burst into tears when that rooster crowed. Jesus loved both of these men and knew their weaknesses as well as he knew their strengths.

I have always treasured Peter’s life story, because Peter seems to be a lot like me. Like most people, I don’t even try to delve into the life of Judas, because he is the bad apple. Still, when I think about it now, I wonder if we know as much as we think we do.

Some people say that Jesus chose Judas specifically for his role as a traitor. I don’t believe that is the way God works. God can accomplish his purposes without the necessity of evil. However, Satan is at work in the world, and Satan works deftly in the human heart. In the heart of Judas, Satan apparently found ready material for his work. Judas made a choice that led directly to Jesus’ crucifixion. Yet I believe that Jesus did not exclude Judas when he prayed for the forgiveness of all who took part in his execution. On the day Jesus met Judas, he knew all about him, yet he brought Judas near. He touched Judas and loved Judas.

Here is what catches my attention and makes me pause in my judgment of Judas. I have lived a long time and I have claimed the name of Christ for a long time, yet when I examine myself honestly, I know that I have betrayed Christ many times. Every time I am aware of it, I ask for forgiveness. Knowing that I don’t recognize all the betrayals, I often ask for forgiveness for all the times I “knew not” what I did. I trust that as a baptized believer, marked with the cross of Christ forever, that God will forgive me and that my salvation is sure. I trust that Jesus won’t throw me out in retribution for all my sins. I trust that Christ died on the cross and rose again from the dead for me. He forgave Peter for betraying him, and I believe he forgives me as well.

So I wonder – what about Judas?

Oceans of Love

If you haven’t seen a copy of my book “Oceans of Love” then you might want to check here A month of meditations on God’s love as revealed in texts that reference oceans and water. As we sail the oceans, I see more and more how God reveals himself in the things he has created. I hope you will take a few minutes to preview this book. Let me know what you think.

With the Holy Spirit as the wind in your sails, you may look tilted to contemporary culture.

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