Find Us
Css Menu List by Vista-Buttons.com v5.7
20121 Santa Maria Ave
Castro Valley, CA 94546



Sunday Message for July 30, 2023


I am going to talk about the gift of listening today and I would like to start with an excerpt from "This Day is a Blessing" by Ellen Kort
...We bless this day and start from where we are
without fear
without asking what the seasons know [...]
This day is a blessing
The moments ahead are invisible
And what we know is this
That love walks together with sorrow
Teaches us to listen
To speak from the heart
To love oneself
Because it is all we ever have to offer one another...a

It talks about listening in the Old and New Testament. In the Old Testament God was always telling the Israelites to listen to him. They didn't, but he tried. He gave them every opportunity to hear and comprehend what he was saying. They didn't, but he continued to try.

In (Matthew 11:15) Jesus says, "Let anyone with ears listen."b He often said that right before he told them a parable. So even Jesus knew that most people didn't listen. You really have to give them a 'heads up' before you say something really important.

Even God was telling them that they should listen to Jesus. In (Matthew 17:5) it says, "While Peter was speaking to Jesus, suddenly a bright cloud overshadowed them, and from the cloud a voice said, "This is my Son, the Beloved; with him I am well pleased; listen to him!" "c

So we are being told time and time again to listen, pay attention, and understand. Yet, how many of us know how to really listen.

In the book Take Off Your Shoes by Karen Hering she writes:

Take off your shoes. Bend knees. Fold hands. Bow down.d

Even though this is not our method of prayer, there is a valid teaching here. Prayer is not postures of making speeches, of claiming ground, commanding attention, or standing tall. No. Around the world and in so many religions, the practice of prayer calls upon us to fold our egos away and to make ourselves quiet and small. To pause from busy schedules and personal agendas and to point ourselves in the direction of the holy.

Take off your shoes. Bend knees. Fold hands. Bow down.

We are instructed to listen.

"All sound requires patience,"e wrote Terry Tempest Williams after sitting with her dying grandfather, leaning over him to hear his whispered words in the final days of his life. "Not just the ability to hear," she said, "but the capacity to listen, the awareness of mind to discern a story."

It can be harder than you'd think to do this. Much easier it is to listen only for the opportunities that will allow us to speak, to hear only the stories that will invite us to act. Especially in our work for justice, when there is so much that needs to be said, so much that desperately needs to be done.

Karen Hering writes, Some years ago, I was traveling in Nicaragua with a group of North Americans and we heard a lot of talk about how much was broken in that deeply impoverished nation. And our inclination was to ask, "What can we do? How can we help to fix the problems?" Whether it was a road washed out or a hospital placing patients two to a bed or the lakes thick with pollution, over and over again, we asked "What can we do?"

And then one evening, while staying with a woman named Marisol in the northern mountains, I felt a new answer stirring in my heart. We'd just spent the day hauling water in heavy string-handled buckets and patting out tortillas with our hands and frying them over a fire. And after eating dinner together by the light of a single candle, we lingered at the table in the dirt-floored room, singing songs to each other, and I listened as Marisol shared her story and her hopes and her fears with me.

When we retired that night, for the first time on that trip, I knew what to do. Or at least I had discovered where to begin. Not with roads or hospitals or wells or waterways. No. The first step, I came to understand with Marisol that night, was in taking time to listen with my whole heart, with a patient ear and the awareness of mind that would allow me to discern another's story.f

The journey of a thousand miles begins with the first stepg, Lao Tsu said in the Tao. But a better translation of this familiar passage is to say the journey begins beneath our feet. Not in the first step but in the stillness that precedes it, in the ground beneath our feet, in the ground of our being.

So I take off my shoes, standing on the holy ground of this earth. I bend my knees, making myself small, and fold my hands, pausing their habit of doing, doing, doing. I bow my head and listen for a story larger than my own, waiting for a holy word in which to root the work for justice that lies ahead. May my listening be my prayer. May my prayer be my deep listening.

Listening is a spiritual practice that is not only informative but healing. It is a gift that you give another person, a gift that costs you nothing.

I know you think you know how to listen, after all we've been using this skill all our lives. Someone talks, we listen, simple act. One person speaks words, another person takes in their meaning.

In fact, they have recently proven that babies in-utero have auditory capability. Babies react to the noises and melodies around them. They jump at loud noises and they are soothed by their mother's voice. They are listening. And listening is a way of deeply connecting with another human being.

We do so much communicating - we text, we tweet, we email, we talk, in an effort to try to communicate with other human beings. And yet, there are so many people starving to be really heard. We need to learn how to give this gift of intentional listening.

In the book Take Off Your Shoes, you heard her describe the act of deep listening as an invitation to stand on holy ground. There is a sacred place where one person shares what life looks and feels like from within his or her skin.h This is truly holy ground.

In the 1920's, there was a philosopher named Martin Buber. He became famous for his ideas about how people relate to one another. Buber promoted his belief that the way to genuinely engage humanity - and God - was to approach all interactions from an "I-Thou" stance. He described this way of relating to others as a deep subject-to-subject relationship.

Buber contrasted this "I-Thou" attitude with the unthinking, far more common and far-less rewarding "I-it" way of relating. The first way, (I-Thou) is a reciprocal relationship of mutuality; the second (I-it) is a relationship of distance and objectification. Mindful of the "I-Thou" relationship, one listens with attention and respect. "I-it" listening misses the opportunity for profound engagement with another.i

Buber believed there was spiritual and emotional impact for those who saw the world with an I-Thou attitude. These philosophical concepts affirm the worth and dignity of every living thing. Believing in the inherent worth and dignity of every person means that we listen with respectful, open hearts.

The word for this is Namaste. One translation of this is word, Namaste, is, "the divine in me recognizes and celebrates the divine in you." Listening with this attitude of mind is truly listening to another person.

When you offer the gift of deep listening, you are inviting the other person to tell you, "This is what it feels like to be me...." And when that happens, you are, indeed, standing on very holy ground.

This opportunity to listen doesn't just happen in the big important conversations of life. Of course you listen to that stuff. But what about the every day stuff? What if someone you care about wants to tell you about where they dream of going on vacation someday? What if they just want to relate how an incident at work made them feel?

In the hurry and confusion of normal life we often miss those opportunities. We act like we are listening, we nod and make noises at all the appropriate places, but we are distracted with our thoughts. There is no awareness of the potential gift that the I-Thou exchange may hold for us. The result is that both people miss the possibilities of that moment's genuine connection.

Right now in our world of economic upheaval I'm sure that there are many opportunities to listen as our friends and family are experiencing job loss, health issues, financial fear, worries about aging parents, and so much more. Listening is one of the best forms of support possible.

So, let me offer you a couple of tools for learning how to listen. Let me give you a reminder to pay attention, to remember to mentally, take off your shoes as you stand on that holy ground.

The first tool you need is time. It is not possible to listen well if you are also looking at the newspaper, checking incoming text, watching TV, or any of the many things we do. For the other person to feel fully heard, you must be fully present. No multi-tasking allowed.

I'm sure you have had the experience of talking to someone on the phone and hearing the click-click of their keyboard going in the background. They are probably just checking their email, and they don't intend to be disrespectful or hurtful, they are just busy. But when you hear the first click, I'm sure it becomes a struggle to share anything close to your heart. This kind of communication is far from the gift of a "holy ground" exchange.

To listen well, we have to offer our full presence. And we have to be open-minded and curious. We can't be thinking of what we will say when they shut up, or thinking up a defense. Often we think we know what the other person is going to say and we are thinking up a solution to their problem.

Scientifically, the odds are not in our favor for truly listening. Research shows that the average person speaks at a rate of about 125 - 175 words per minute. We hear at a compatible rate of about 125 - 250 words per minute. But we think at a rate of 1,000 to 3,000 words per minute! It takes enormous discipline, then, to quiet our thoughts and stay present to what is being said, without those thousands of extra words floating in and around our minds enticing us away from purely attending to the person before us.

The speed of our thoughts makes it difficult to hold this attitude of genuine curiosity, of patiently waiting for the person to unfold their story before us. When someone comes to us to share some thought or reflection about his or her life, it is so very hard, but it is also monumentally beneficial for both of you if the hearer is able to hold onto that attitude of wonder.

Rather than letting our minds rush into "solving" things, holy ground listening respects the other's ability to uncover their own truth about their life, and there is an appreciation for what an enormous privilege it is if someone wants to tell you what the world looks like through their eyes. One of the biggest disciplines we have to impose on ourselves is to stop immediately trying to find a solution for the person.

This (rush to problem solving) is another of those oddly human characteristics that seems to work against good listening. When someone starts relating a personal quandary to us, our minds automatically view it as one of those Sudoku puzzles or word Jumbles - we start working on the solution.

It may be instinctive, and I believe it frequently springs from a truly caring heart, but the magic of good listening is that most frequently, the person who has come to us, really just wants to be heard so that she or he can uncover his or her own answer. In most cases, all those instant solutions that pop into our minds have already been thought of because, in most cases, that person knows their own life far better than we do, and has already been mulling the life challenge for a long time before they ever invited another person into the reflection. So, that person has probably already thought of most of the things that come so quickly to our minds.

Rather than jumping into believing that somehow our superb problem-solving skills will quickly move them to their solution, a far greater gift is to simply be with the person, fully present to them, listening with a genuinely open heart and a true curiosity about their experience of life. I believe strongly that many, many times it is in THAT space, that the person's own answers can emerge.

To do this, we need patience, and we need to be okay, even welcoming of, the silence. Good listening cannot be rushed!

This also takes a certain kind of humility. Humility is what helps us listen with an open heart and not jumping to our own supposedly great solutions. There is a story of a minister who learned a remarkably wonderful lesson in humility. She was working as a chaplain at a facility. She thought that she was pretty good at listening.

She came across a patient, we'll call her Betty. Betty was a long time resident of this facility who had impaired mobility and regularly her thoughts got stuck in a loop. Betty would sit in a wheelchair outside her room greeting people who passed by. But when her loop occurred, she'd just repeat over and over again in a high pitched voice, "I don't know what to do!" You could hear the distress in her voice.

The staff and her visitors had grown accustomed to this difficult symptom and most people paid little or no attention to it anymore; but the new chaplain wanted to do a good job. So as she passed Betty one day, and Betty looked at her and said, "I don't know what to do!" The chaplain got down to her level and held her eyes, and said, "Betty, that sounds so frightening!" She nodded with relief, and the chaplain congratulated herself on being a good listener. Believing that she had interrupted her loop adequately, she said, "Betty, would you like to go see the aviary?" (they had one of those large glass bird houses in the lobby). She nodded again and the chaplain felt even better. She wheeled her over to where she had good eyeshot of the birds and for a short while she got lost in their play; and again, the chaplain was feeling pretty self-satisfied. But suddenly, sadly, the loop demon descended again: "I don't know what to do!" she cried.

The chaplain got down close to her. "Betty, would you like to go outside for a while?"

"No, I don't know what to do!"

"Well, would you like to go see the gift shop?"

"No, I don't know what to do!"

"Would you like to go listen to music?"

Betty angrily shook her head and said, "Would you like to shut up?" ... and the chaplain did!

Even, and maybe most especially, with her dementia, Betty just needed her to listen.

So, to be a good listener, we have to be undistracted and focused on the person. We need to get our egos out of the way and give them the gift of our presence. We need to let go of our solution-finding and become curious about their experience of life. When another person tries to tell us, "This is what it's like to be me" they are offering us an opportunity to join them on sacred and holy ground.

But there will be times when the other person is trying to tell you something that you don't want to hear. As a parent, this can come up. Kids can come to us with some expression of their life experience that can bring up a lot of anxiety in their parents - in fact they are good at this.

Here is what can happen. Your kid comes to you to tell you about a conflict with his employer. Here is what can happen. As soon as he starts his story you may have some success in making your face look calm and attentive, but your thoughts are jumping to all kinds of conclusions.

Your kid is casually describing this conflict, and your mind has leapt into seeing him standing in the line at the unemployment office! Your stomach tightens with worry over how he'll make his car payments and rent and what you will say when he asks you for a loan. And then you remember that all you need to do is listen. He's telling you about his life. At the current moment, he has not asked you to fix anything or change anything - he's just relating his experience.

If you can stay present and remain curious, you have a much better chance of getting to a place where you and he might sincerely discuss the inadvisability of engaging in conflict with his supervisor. But, if you let your anxiety fly and you react to him and dive into all the corrections and solutions, inevitably, he will shut down or argue back. You will never get to the constructive conversation where he might actually seek out your parental wisdom which might truly be helpful to him.

Of course there are all things we have heard before, but they seem to fall into that category of things we accept as true and worthy but we seem to suffer from some sort of amnesia over and over again.

We need to be reminded day after day, repeatedly, that if we want our loved ones to feel truly loved by us, one surefire way to do that is to listen well when they speak to us. Just stay present; just open your heart and hear what's being said. By your eyes, by your body, by your energy, let this person know that you truly do hear what they're saying.

This gift of offering holy-ground listening to our loved ones is one of the best gifts you can offer. It is a gift that costs nothing, and yet it is priceless! It is a spiritual practice to do this - much like meditation. The rewards are so great for the listener - not just the other person.

What is more important than the loving relationships we have in our lives? And what better thing might we do to make our loved ones feel cherished by us? Because as Ellen Kort reminded us in This Day is a Blessing -

The moments ahead are invisible
and what we know is this:
that love walks together with sorrow,
it teaches us to listen,
to speak from the heart,
to love oneself. Because it is all we ever have to offer one another...


a"This Day is a Blessing" Ellen Kort
bMatthew 11:15
cMatthew 17:5
dTake Off Your Shoes Karen Hering
eTerry Tempest Williams
fTake Off Your Shoes Karen Hering
gLao Tsu the Tao
hTake Off Your Shoes Karen Hering
iMartin Buber

Top of      page