Are You Listening?

James 1:16-27

So, my very dear friends, don’t get thrown off course. Every desirable and beneficial gift comes out of heaven. The gifts are rivers of light cascading down from the Father of Light. There is nothing deceitful in God, nothing two-faced, nothing fickle. He brought us to life using the true Word, showing us off as the crown of all his creatures.

Post this at all the intersections, dear friends: Lead with your ears, follow up with your tongue, and let anger straggle along in the rear. God’s righteousness doesn’t grow from human anger. So throw all spoiled virtue and cancerous evil in the garbage. In simple humility, let our gardener, God, landscape you with the Word, making a salvation-garden of your life.

But whoever catches a glimpse of the revealed counsel of God—the free life!—even out of the corner of his eye, and sticks with it, is no distracted scatterbrain but a man or woman of action. That person will find delight and affirmation in the action.

Don’t fool yourself into thinking that you are a listener when you are anything but, letting the Word go in one ear and out the other. Act on what you hear! Those who hear and don’t act are like those who glance in the mirror, walk away, and two minutes later have no idea who they are, what they look like.
Anyone who sets himself up as “religious” by talking a good game is self-deceived. This kind of religion is hot air and only hot air. Real religion, the kind that passes muster before God the Father, is this: Reach out to the homeless and loveless in their plight, and guard against corruption from the godless world.

Are You Listening?

So today’s message is about words but, when I sat to prepare this, the words wouldn’t come. I’ve been a professional wordsmith most of my life but there are times when I hit walls and I can’t find the words. To prime the pump, I started googling for quotes about words. Some that I located were very powerful:

Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “In the End, we will remember not the words of our enemies but the silence of our friends.”

From Voltaire, writing two and a half centuries ago, we have two quotes right on target for our age of spin doctors and encroachments on free speech. The first: “One great use of words is to hide our thoughts” and the second: I do not agree with a word that you say but I will defend to the death your right to say it.”

I also appreciate the warning from Wendell Johnson who reminds us that: “Always and never are two words we should always remember never to use.”

Now a word can be something said: an utterance, a remark, a comment as in: “May I say a word about that?” A word can be a command, a direction, an order as in: “He gave the word to retreat.”

A word can be a conveyor of news: “Any word on your promotion?”

A word can be a rumor as in: “Word has it they’re divorcing.” 

A word can be a favorable comment as in: “She put in a good word for me.”

We can have words as in hostile and angry remarks made back and forth. We can have no words to describe a situation or we can describe that same situation in a word. We can also summarize a situation in so many words. We may know a person who is a person of few words. We may take that person at his word because he is a person of his word.

We can be wordy or wordless and we can hear news by word of mouth or via wordplay – repartee. I’m reading these words that I’ve put on the page in the process of word processing. I’m hoping to convey some words of wisdom but what most concerns me is making certain that the words I use are faithful to THE Word -- the Scriptures, the Bible. Now I know that the only way that will happen is if I am leading first with my ears, if I am listening first to God and so I believe that before we move on to the matter of why we speak and why we use the words we do, we need to set some further groundwork on how we listen.

To live lives that honor God and bring fulfillment to our own lives, we must listen to the Word of God and do what it says. We are creating our histories today. It matters today and it will matter tomorrow how we respond to God’s Word today. The Word insists that we receive God’s Word by doing it.
Hearing the Word is absolutely essential but if our hearing does not lead to doing, if our study does not result in obedience, if our attendance in worship does not lead to a righteous life – then the Word of God has been mistreated and we are deceiving ourselves about the reality of our relationship with God.
The test of true worship is not what we do here during an hour of worship; it’s what we do all of each week. After all is said and done, may it not be said of us – as it relates to the Word -- that more is said than done.

Before we speak and do, before we act, we must listen or, as Eugene Peterson puts it in his translation of the Word: We must lead with our ears. And we must listen not only to the verbal but to the non-verbal. Then we – landscaped by the Word of God – follow up with the verbal and the non-verbal. This is true, James reminds us, not only in our relationship with God but in our relationships with human beings.

When Baseball Hall of Famer Joe Garagiola was co-host of NBC's Today Show, he told of an experience he had in a drugstore in New York City. He said he had filled his little shopping basket with a bottle of extra-strength Tylenol, 12 ounces of Kaopectate, an elastic knee support, a supply of corn plasters, Dristan, a vaporizer, a remedy for sore gums, and a tube of Preparation H. He said that after the clerk checked him out and took his money, he couldn’t believe his ears when she handed him the little plastic sack and said, "Have a nice day!"

Those are such easy words to say when we can close our eyes to all the obvious reasons why a person is not going to have a nice day. A question that might have been asked of that clerk was, “Are You Listening?” Words might not have proceeded from Joe’s mouth but, if the clerk had been paying attention, the contents of the basket and probably Joe’s general demeanor would have given her a clue that perhaps all was not right in Joe’s world.

He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame, we’re told in Proverbs 18:13. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. We should lead with our ears, then follow up with our tongue, letting anger straggle along or get lost in the rear.

Some years ago, Erma Bombeck began one of her columns: "It was one of those days in which I wanted my own apartment--unlisted! I was not in the mood for small talk. However, it was on that day that my son chose to describe down to the very last detail a movie he had just seen. He punctuated his monologue with a constant flow of 'you know.'"

Later, on the way to the airport, Erma was forced to listen to still another monologue. This time it was the taxi driver talking about his son who was away at college. Finally, at the airport, she realized that she had thirty beautiful minutes before her plane took off, leaving her time to be alone and to begin reading the novel that she’d brought.

As she opened her book, a voice next to her belonging to an elderly woman said, "I'll bet it's cold today in Chicago." Stone faced, Erma Bombeck replied, "Probably." The woman persisted, "I've not been to Chicago for nearly three years. My son lives there, you know.'" "That's nice," said Bombeck, with her eyes intent on her book. And again the elderly woman spoke, "My husband's body is on this plane. We've been married for 53 years. I don't drive, and when he died, a nun drove me home from the hospital. The funeral director let me come to the airport with him."

Erma Bombeck wrote, "I don't think I've ever detested myself more than I did at that moment. Another human being was screaming to be heard, and in desperation had turned to a cold stranger, who was more interested in the novel in her hand than in the real-life drama at her elbow. The woman needed no advice or money or assistance; all she needed was someone to listen. She talked numbly and steadily until it was time to board the plane."

Erma said, "As I put my things in the overhead compartment, I saw her sitting three rows back and I heard her plaintive voice say to her new seat companion, 'I'll bet it's cold today in Chicago.' And I prayed, 'Please, God, let that stranger listen. Listen.'"

He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry, leading with our ears, follow up with our tongues, let anger straggle along in the rear.

As Joy Mounts noted, listening for God in our lives is something that we have a hard time doing. God may be presenting us with answers to prayer and we dismiss those answers because we are expecting something else. We forget that God is unexpected, mysterious, eternal, and intimate. We forget that God may be standing right in front of us and we don’t see God because we’re looking up or down or sideways, everywhere but where we should be looking.

You may be familiar with the story of the man who heard that his neighborhood was flooding due to a heavy rain storm. He got down on his knees and prayed to God: “Dear God, save me from the coming flood!” The waters began to rise and a truck came by and the driver said, “Get in and I’ll drive you to higher ground.” The man said no, God would save him. The waters continued to rise. A woman in a boat rowed by. She called, “Jump into the boat and I’ll row you to safety.” The man said no, God would save him. The floodwaters continued to rise. The man was now perched on the roof of his house. A helicopter flew by and let down a rope for the man to grab onto. “I’ll fly you to safety,” yelled the pilot. “No.” the man said, “I’m waiting for God to save me.” The man drowned. When he got to heaven he was furious and he took God to task: “I asked you to save me from the flood and you didn’t!” And God said, “I sent you a truck, a boat and a helicopter. How much more saving did you need?”

He who answers before listening – that is his folly and his shame. Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. Leading with our ears, following up with our tongues, letting anger straggle along in the rear.

On, of all places, a business website, I found “The Seven Deadly Sins of (Not) Listening”:

Sin #1, according to the article’s author Dan Bobinski, is filtering. This is when a person's mind is sifting through another's words and tuning in only when he or she hears agreement. Commonly, a Filterer replies to someone else's statements with "yeah, but…."

Sin #2: Second Guessing. Someone who is second guessing usually misses important details because they are too busy (a) imagining someone has hidden motives for saying what they're saying, and (b) trying to figure out what those hidden motives might be.

Sin #3: Discounting. This sin occurs when a listener lacks respect for a speaker. What the speaker is saying could be 100% dead on correct, but a Discounter will either internally or publicly scoff at what's being said, for any number of reasons. The sad thing about Discounters is that they often miss the solutions to the problems before them, simply because they don't like the source. A milder form of discounting occurs when content is brushed off just because the person speaking is not a good speaker.

Sin #4: Relating. A Relater is someone who continually finds references from his or her own background and compares them to what the speaker is saying. Relaters often appear self-centered, as everything they hear is publicly compared or contrasted to his or her own experiences.

Sin #5: Rehearsing. This sin blocks much listening as it is simply waiting for the other speaker to finish what he or she is saying so the Rehearser can start talking again. While someone else is talking, the Rehearser is thinking about how to say the next sentence. Different from the Filterer in that the other party may actually be agreeing with the Rehearser, but any words other than the Rehearser's own are just noise.

Sin #6: Forecasting. Someone who takes an idea from the speaker and runs light years ahead of the topic at hand is forecasting. Forecasting can stem from being bored with the subject matter, or simply because one's mind automatically thinks ahead.

Sin #7: Placating. One of the worst of all listening sins, placating agrees with everything anyone else says, just to avoid conflict.

Management guru Stephen Covey differentiates listeners as those listening with the intent to reply, and those listening with the intent to understand. To truly understand someone requires purpose of heart.
Bobinski ends the article with suggestions for caring about what another is saying and working to understand another’s point of view. Well, no one has demonstrated that caring, that understanding better, no one is a better listener that Jesus. Jesus demonstrated the relationship between caring, understanding, and listening.

In Matthew 15, starting at the 21st verse, Jesus encounters a Canaanite woman who pleaded with him to heal her demonized daughter. The disciples urged Him to send her away but, instead, He gave her His full attention and, before healing the child, listened to the mother’s testimony of faith.

In Mark, chapter 10, a blind man named Bartimaeus shouted to Jesus as he passed by, “Son of David, have mercy on me.” We’re told that many rebuked him and told him to be quiet. But, before healing him, Jesus gave him His full attention, asked him what he wanted and carefully listened to his reply.

In Luke, chapter 18, Jesus demonstrated the need to make time for the littlest among us. He rebuked His disciples when they tried to prevent the children from coming to Him. Catherine Wallace makes an excellent point when she urges us to listen earnestly to anything [our children] want to tell us, no matter what. If you don’t listen eagerly to the little stuff when they are little, they won’t tell you the big stuff when they are big, because to them all of it has always been big stuff. Jesus honored the children by giving them his full attention.

In John, chapter 3, Nicodemus, a member of the Jewish ruling council, came to speak with Jesus one night and Jesus heard not only his spoken words. He heard what was in Nicodemus’ heart and He gave Nicodemus the beautiful words, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him shall not perish but have eternal life.”
Jesus could have spoken without first taking the time to listen to each of these. Instead, all four gospels tell us he showed care and concern by first listening and then ministering. Jesus is still listening – to you and to me. And we still need to listen to Him. He speaks to us through the written Word, through His Holy Spirit and through the natural world, oftentimes in unexpected ways.

Author Frederick Buechner tells of a time when he was terribly depressed. He parked by the roadside to pray, a car appeared and passed him. The license plate said TRUST. He says, “What do you call a moment like that? Something to laugh off like the kind of joke life plays on us every once in a while? The Word of God? I am willing to believe it is something of both but for me it was an epiphany.” The owner of the car turned out to work for a bank as a trust officer. After he read an account of Buechner’s story, he sent the man his own license plate. It sits on Buechner’s shelf, and as he says, “it is a little rusty around the edges but it’s as holy a relic as I’ve ever seen.”

Sometime back my husband, Gene, saw a movie about the magnitude of the universe. He came away thinking of himself as essentially insignificant. Then he happened to watch the movie “Bruce Almighty” wherein the character portrayed by Jim Carrey is given a glimpse of what it is like to be God. In one scene, Carrey’s head is filled with voices -- prayers – thousands, perhaps millions of them -- being lifted in just one city. Again, Gene came away feeling insignificant. Why should God pay any attention to me?

As he was processing all of this, he happened to stop in a bookstore where, he believes, he was led to a particular book that reminded him of God’s gift of free will and God’s unceasing love and concern for him. Gene is convinced God was listening to his struggles and provided what he needed at just the moment he needed it.

We all say we want such signs. But are we listening? Are we listening for what God is saying at the small crossroads as well as at the big junctures? Are we listening to the spoken and the unspoken words of those we encounter everyday? Are we listening to the heart cries of the child, the stranger, the one who mourns?

Listen as Jesus listens. Have a desire to listen. Be committed to listening. Be patient in your listening. Allow silence. Remember we are told in the book of Ecclesiastes that there is a time for speaking and a time for keeping silent. Listen to more than just words. People communicate through their eyes, their body language, their breathing, their posture, their tone of voice. And listen for God.

In Luke 8:18, we read: “Consider carefully how you listen.”

Proverbs 1: 5: “Let the wise listen and add to their learning and let the discerning get guidance.”
The little child whispered, “God, speak to me.” And a meadowlark sang. But the child did not hear. So the child yelled, “God, speak to me!” And the thunder rolled across the sky. But the child did not listen. The child looked around and said, “God let me see you.” And a star shone brightly. But the child did not notice. And the child shouted, “God show me a miracle!” And a life was born. But the child did not know. Take time to listen. Often times, the things we seek are right underneath our noses. Don’t miss out on your blessing because it isn’t packaged the way that you expect.

Are You Listening?

Are You Listening?

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