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Listening our Way into Another’s Heart, Pentecost VIII, July 17, 1983

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Eighth Sunday after Pentecost, July 17, 1983

St. Paul’s Ev. Lutheran Church in Coney Island, New York during Vacation Church School and Day Camp

(We were learning active listening in our Leadership Training Laboratory.)

Deuteronomy 30:9-14 – Colossians 1:1-14 – Luke 10: 25-37

Listening our Way into Another’s Heart

When we see through the eyes of our heart, there are many more people mugged and beaten, fallen by the wayside in life, than those we find who have been mugged  – like the poor fellow in our story. But because we do not have this precious kind of seeing added to our eyes, which we have talked about in active listening[1]– so that seeing takes place by hearing – we just walk by, oblivious to a person lying there, hurt, bleeding, dying.

This seeing comes through the ears. Two clowns were doing a comedy routine:  “What would happen if I cut one of your ears off?”

“Why, I couldn’t hear out of that ear.”

“What would happen if I cut both of your ears off?”

“Then I couldn’t see.”

“Why couldn’t you see?”

“Because my hat would fall down over my eyes and I couldn’t see.”

This is a joke, of course, but we really see a person as they are by hearing them.

There is a whole “nother-world” into which we gain entrance, when we learn the radical, deep listening that becomes obedience to God. But because we are so caught up in the visual dimension, we are shut out of this world. we can’t penetrate the surface image.

When we were doing multi-media presentations back in the sixties, we found that if a recorded voice played with slides being shown, the audience picked up the visual images much better than the recorded voice. We are a more visually oriented society than an auditory one.

Ask yourself: what would be worse if you lost your eyes or your ears? If you answer your hearing, then I believe you would be right – although most of us are much more attached to our vision. When, however, studying the blind versus the deaf, an important distinction comes to light. With blind people we can still share our experiences in the same culture, whereas the deaf leave our culture and form a sub-culture. Their inability to hear shuts them out of our world in a more substantial way, than the disability of the blind.

Now “faith comes by hearing.” Thus with this radical and deep listening that we achieve through more highly developed listening skills, we enter the sub-culture of faith.[2] Yes, and because faith comes by hearing. The Kingdom of Heaven is near at hand and entrance can be gained by good listening.

As Deuteronomy says, “If you obey the voice of the Lord your God… with all your heart and soul…” or “if you hear the voice of the Lord your God… with all your heart and soul…,” then you are taken out of the power of the darkness into the place of the Kingdom of the Son (to allude to Colossians).

Our commentaries state that the Hebrew and Greek roots for “to hear” and “obey” were the same. In English we also find that this same word also has a double meaning. “That child does not listen!” In this sense “listening” means obeying. There is a real issue being fought out between what it means to listen and what we mean by listening. Our focus in this sermon is radical and deep hearing and not listening in the sense of doing what we are told to do, that is, obeying.

I was reading my commentary in the car while waiting for my wife and son to come out of the flower store. Ashley came back to the car first, pretty downcast. Nora, my wife, followed exasperated. “Ashley just doesn’t listen!” she exclaimed.

“Do you mean in the sense of his ability to hear or in the sense that he does not obey” I asked.

“I mean he does not obey.”

So that was that. But by the ability to listen we come to understand, we become convinced, and then our wills become unified. Our listening goes to the heart, as it were, and the person responds from the heart, because both have to be “at one.”

We seem to be forever short-circuiting this process of listening which becomes deepened into understanding, agreement, and obedience. To a child we’ll say, “If you don’t listen, I’ll warm your behind!” Or a boss might say, “You won’t listen? Then you’re fired!” We turn to threats or force or coercion to bring about obedience apart from listening.

When my father used to say to me: “You don’t listen,” I thought he was being cruel and wrong to boot, because he was a non-stop talker and all I ever did was listen to him. He did not listen to me, so I did not obey him. If I had felt heard by him and could trust that he knew and could account for my needs, then I would have obeyed him. But he never listened to me. This listening that penetrates to the heart and brings about obedient responses from the heart, depends upon mutuality. Obedience first needs to come as a response from the heart through the work of the soul, in the “doing” of relationships, in the becoming “at one,” and then the other obedience falls into place.

To follow Christ, I believe, we have to become good listeners. We have to learn listening skills. We fool ourselves thinking that speaking is active and listening is passive. But listening is also active; it’s the active work of the soul. Listening requires a great deal of work, real concentrated effort to make inferences and observations, integrating what is being said and what cannot be said and that, with non-verbal communication. It takes a great deal of skill to be able to hear and be able to see a person as they are and with all their needs in bold relief.

I remember how Pastor Leslie C. Schulz of First Lutheran Church in Cincinnati put me through his listening. He would take us upstairs into his study to make sure there would be no interruptions and listen with his whole heart and soul to us. What intense listening he was capable of! He took seriously everything I said and tried to understand me as no one had ever done before. For me it was frightening, it was threatening. My tears flowed. Here the struggle began as he did the mid-wifery for a new person trying to come out. Faith comes by hearing. The new life in Christ comes by having experienced the grace of having been heard and there – through being seen as we are. But what grueling sessions these were! At the time, I too was a non-stop talker and his listening was making me see myself as I was – as if in a mirror – and that was a harrowing experience. I wanted to see myself in my kind of way – but not as I was.

What courage it takes to listen! To venture into the world of sorrows, the jungle, the despair that is below the surface in the heart. In there is the darkness and courageous listening goes into the darkness where a person is and brings the person out into the Kingdom of the Son.

That is what I mean by radical listening, the deep listening that becomes obedience from the heart – not from outward surface things.

Look at the story of the compassionate Samaritan. With eyes that see only the surface, the priest and the temple worker should have helped the victim. They should have had compassionate hearts. But their hearts were hardened. They allowed no stirrings to take place in their hearts, only annoyance. Thus they go by on the other side without helping. The Samaritan, on the other hand, should have had the hardened heart, but he doesn’t. Although he is the one outcast and despised, his heart is stirred by compassion. Those who stay on the surface, who do not penetrate to the heart, will be betrayed by outward appearances. Often, for example, a minister will be considered a desirable lamb by many a young woman in the congregation and they can’t see that he is a wolf ready to tear them up. You have heard of lost sheep. There are also lost shepherds.  A respectable married woman may not have one tender bone in her body. A gay person turns around to help a victim. A prostitute suddenly feels her heart stirring with compassion. Then an organist and choir director of an illustrious church turn away without even feeling anything for a mugged and beaten person lying in the road on their way to work. “I’d help him and then he’d sue me!” the one says to the other.

Behold a gorgeous woman, wonderful to look at, a prize because her image is so pleasing to the eye. Tell me how it is that inside her shell she is filled with bigotry, prejudice, and hate. With the eyes of the heart an ugly, miserable wretch can be seen in her outwardly beautiful exterior. She comes to our Sunday School and makes the cutting remarks: “Is everyone in this program colored? My children won’t mix with them!” I could also have spoken about some handsome, clean-cut, well-dressed men, who spouted their bigotry in words that are unspeakable in a sermon. In the words of Jesus, we can call them “white washed tombs filled with dead bones, filth, and corruption” (Mat 23:27).

What we do in the end is what we have in our hearts, what we are in our hearts. Who will listen into the heart of a miserable and sinful wretch – in the darkness of the world of the shut-outs and bring them into the light of the Kingdom of the Son?

If someone with a radical obedience does not listen a person into a change of heart and being, then they can be hypocrites only so long – then the truth comes out, then such people lash out. They can even start a war.

So we need a compassionate person, who listens to us, helps us sort out the awful mess our thoughts and our feelings are in; who dares the radical listening that goes deep into the heart, where all the trouble is. And when we sort them out and finally begin to see clearly, we too, find that our Lord Jesus Christ, the good listener, pours oil and wine into our wounds – and we are healed.


[1] See Positive “I” Messages and Active Listening in Communication here in my website.

[2]By a greater sense of hearing we also enter the sub-culture of faith that we call the church .

Note: I’m reading Susan K. Hedahl’s Listening Ministry, (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2001). Her book brought this Coney Island sermon of mine once again to mind. It was preached in 1983.


Written by peterkrey

March 6, 2011 at 6:34 am

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  1. […] preached in 1983 grappled with active listening and deepened it theologically. It is called “Listening Our Way into Another’s Heart.” Like this:LikeBe the first to like […]

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