I was in the grocery store this past week, turned a corner into the Dinty Moore beef stew aisle, and saw a man who talks and talks and talks about the most inane, uninteresting things. I felt like a fox caught in a trap. I’d chew my leg off to get away. And there he was. I turned my cart around before he saw me, then spent the rest of my time on the lookout, peering around corners, trying to avoid him. Finally, I saw him at the checkout, so waited until he was done and out the door, then I paid for my stuff, went out to the parking lot, pleased with myself for avoiding him, and there he was, driving past in his car. He saw me, stopped, rolled down his window, began gabbing, and wouldn’t stop. Have you ever been in that situation? After a while, I noticed I was falling asleep while standing up, like a horse. I had this vacant, exhausted, slack-jawed look on my face. I began praying one of us would die. I didn’t care which one, I just wanted it to end. Which it finally, mercifully, did.
Fast forward a few days. Jim McClung, Don Adams, and I drove down to an Amish cabinetmaker’s shop to have a new countertop made for a project in our meetinghouse kitchen. Afterwards, we were eating lunch in a restaurant. I was gabbing away and happened to glance at Jim, who was looking just like I had looked in the grocery store parking lot. He was eating a chicken leg and sleeping at the same time. I swear to God. It was amazing.
The average person speaks 16,000 words a day. That’s average. My father maybe speaks a few hundred words a day, while Joan interacts with 130 small children every day, and reads to them, so likely exceeds 16,000 words a day, but only because of her profession. I probably hit 16,000 words in my lunch with Jim and Don the other day.
With Rita Goss in Tucson, we’ve had volunteers teaching the Fantastix class, so last week Matthias Beier taught the children about listening. I thought of how excited we become when our children say their first words. We laugh, we clap, we celebrate, we call the grandparents so they can hear it on the phone. But we never celebrate when our children first learn to listen.
When I was in my teens and came under the spell of evangelicalism, I was taught that being a Christian meant talking. Talking about Jesus. Talking about sin. Talking about salvation. The Christian faith was to be expressed, not so much by deeds as by words. When I confessed my uneasiness with evangelizing and proselytizing, I was told if I denied Jesus before others, Jesus would deny me before God. This led me to believe I was a bad Christian. It never occurred to me that silence in the presence of great mystery might also be holy. Nor did it occur to me that listening was every bit as important as talking, if not more so, for our world has a surplus of people eager to talk and so few eager to listen.
Today, American evangelicals, a tribe from which I sprung, are so enamored with the words of faith, they have neglected the essence of faith. Their heads turned by power, they have lost their heart for the poor, the outcast, the other. How else can we explain their mystifying silence in the face of such casual cruelty by the man they installed in the White House?
I am tired of words. I am tired of words that masquerade as Christianity, that defend the indefensible, that call good that which is clearly bad. I am tired of words. I am tired of words that exclude, that diminish, that demean. And I am mystified, truly puzzled, why some in America today would use their 16,000 words to harm the most vulnerable and unfortunate among us.
I am tired of words. I am weary of those who cry, “Lord, Lord,” but offer little evidence of knowing the Lord. This, I believe, is the consequence of a culture that elevates talking over listening. Remember, Friends, before God ever called someone to speak, God first called them to listen. Moses beside the burning bush. Samuel, in the house of Eli of priest. Elijah, in the cave on Mount Horeb. Deborah, the prophet and judge, who listened for the word of God under the date tree in the land of Ephraim. John in the desert. Jesus in the wilderness. Before God ever called someone to speak, God first called them to listen.
Listening saves us from our worst selves. I can’t count the times I have had to apologize for something I said. Just this week, something I had said got back to the person I had said it about, and I had to go to them and say, “I am sorry. Please forgive me.” But I have never, not once in all my years, had to apologize for listening.
Not long ago I was speaking with a woman who is estranged from her husband. I asked what had caused the rupture in their relationship and she said, “I always had to have the last word.” How many marriages, how many friendships, how many parent-child relationships have been irreparably harmed by “last” words? What a luxury it is to insist on having the last word.
When I was a little, we would visit my grandparents in Vincennes. My mother’s parents. Outside their back door was a large maple tree and hanging from one of its branches was a porch swing. I can still see it in my mind’s eye. When the weather permitted, my grandma would take a turn on the porch swing with each of us, one at a time, where she would listen. We could tell her anything we wished, and she would listen. She offered no advice, no admonition, no opinion of her own. She simply presented us with the gift of listening. All these years later, I can scarcely remember any of the 16,000 words my grandma said each day, but I will never forget her listening, which to me, then and now, seemed a lovely and holy thing.