Our first calling is to listen. It is not our only calling, but without fulfilling our first calling, it is absolutely impossible to fulfill anything else. We may be full of fight and fury for the challenges we face, but to go at them without listening makes us no better than a bull charging the matador’s cape. We become a parody of our own progress. We cannot love God and neighbor.
None of us want to come up dry in the search for significance. All of us want close friends and a supreme purpose. All of us want to know a destiny higher than surviving, a fate sweeter than merely delaying death. But here is the problem. We are born into a labyrinth where the clues on the walls are mixed with lures that get us lost. Like the legend of Theseus and the minotaur, the danger is far greater than just wasting time. Going through the labyrinth is a life-or-death affair. In the same way Theseus traced his steps through the maze with a line of thread, we also have a line by which to thread the maze of possibilities before us: by listening our way through them.
How does that work? Let’s stop, look, and listen.
The Messiah told parables every time he taught. He never made a point without illustrating it with a story. And what was the signature ending to each tale? What was the mantra holding them together as one coherent library of revelation?
“He who has ears, let him hear.”Matthew 13:9 (ESV)
Risen and ascended to heaven, Christ appeared to John with messages for his circle of churches, messages he intended for all churches of all ages. (For, from where the Lord resides in heaven, He sees the whole of history that culminates in His return and speaks to all of it.) The messages are a blend of encouragement and rebuke, of comfort and warning, of delight and decree. And what is the solemn admonition at the end of these prophecies?
“He who has ears, let him hear what the Spirit says to the churches.”Revelation 2:7 (ESV)
But it is easier to be active than to be attentive. But it is easier to be busy than to be still. Just ask Martha, who, when hosting Jesus in her home, was “distracted by much serving” while her sister Mary “sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to His teaching.” (Luke 10:39-40) What was the Lord’s word to Martha? “Out of all the things you could do for me, dear friend, there is only one thing you should do. It’s what your sister is doing. She is listening.”
We can conclude, therefore, that the one thing necessary — the one thing that assures us there is hope we can be saved from all we fear — is to listen; is to have “ears to hear.”
But it takes grace to listen. It takes God Himself, the one who “awakens the ear” in the first place (Isaiah 50:4). See what He says in the psalms:
“Sacrifice and offering you did not desire — but my ears you have opened.”Psalm 40:6 (NIV)
This verse has a deeper layer, for the Greek-speaking Jews who wrote what we call the Septuagint understood the Holy Spirit to be speaking words best translated from the Hebrew in this way:
“Sacrifices and offerings you have not desired, but a body you have prepared for me.”Septuagint [“LXX”] of Psalm 40:6, ESV translation in Hebrews 10:5.
They replaced “my ears you have opened” with “a body you have prepared for me,” as if to say, “Lord, the moment you open my ears and I hear you, the first thing I will do in response to your words will be to offer myself as a living sacrifice back to you. More than ritual offerings on a physical altar, I offer myself to you in obedience to whatever you desire to say to me.”
This interpretation is the one the first Christians knew. They saw that Christ fulfilled it first (Hebrews 10:5-10), and therefore they, as “little anointed ones” imitating the Anointed One, were to follow suit in wholehearted obedience to the one whose words they had heard. (Romans 12:1)
Notwithstanding the way it leads to wholehearted sacrifice, listening is nevertheless a light and easy yoke. It requires no formula, no ritual per se, but rather, an open heart. It requires the gentle discipline of commanding the traffic jam of our thoughts to halt, and, like watching a traffic cop at the center of the crossroads, taking our cues from one director only. In the same way a traffic cop will only permit a single, non-conflicting flow of traffic through an intersection at a time, even so listening limits our potential courses of action down to one single flow.
It is in this way that listening lightens the load. It limits our options down to one thing at a time. We are no longer in a labyrinth. We are on a straight and narrow path that leads to life.
Take the maze of praying for others, for example. There are a multitude of things to intercede about. The sheer volume of names and needs can quench the desire to pray, let alone the fatigue of daily news, where burning issues burn out our feelings and brown out our brain until we can “barely whisper a prayer.” (Isaiah 26:16)
But what if we listened our way through intercession? What if prayer became, as church reformer Ralph W. Neighbour Jr. calls it, “the listening room”* ? What if we understood the English word “list” in the phrase “prayer list” to be a holy pun? For “list” comes from the words in Middle English and Anglo-Saxon means “to hearken,” that is, to listen. The word also means “desire,” “wish,” and “inclination” in those old tongues — the moving of the heart when it has hearkened. Here (at least in the English) we have an intriguing clue to a way to pray that is light and easy:
What if we listened our way through our prayer list?
Try this and see if the petitions become more fluent even as the event of prayer itself becomes quieter, less wordy. (The word “listen” and the word “silent” are comprised of the same letters, after all.) Try this and see if the sense of collaboration with the Holy Spirit increases
This is not the only way to pray, but perhaps this way might cause you to discover that you are praying more than you used to, for you are not limited to what your mind can remember and what your heart — that logjam of cares — presses upon you. Perhaps this is because through listening you are yoked to another. You are picking up on the prayers He himself is praying.
“We don’t know what God wants us to pray for. But the Holy Spirit prays for us with groanings that cannot be expressed in words. And the Father who knows all hearts knows what the Spirit is saying, for the Spirit pleads for us believers in harmony with God’s own will.”Romans 8:26-27 (NLT)
All forms of listening are not equal in the same way that all the responses to Christ’s parables were not equal. I experienced a dynamic equivalent of this when I lived in Afghanistan, where I often told the parables of Christ to Afghan friends, and sometimes foes. (For in Afghanistan foes were as hospitable as friends. Both kinds enjoyed a good meal of qabel-e-palao and a cup of tea with you before they got down to business.) I spoke these parables in Dari, one of the nation’s primary languages. The parables I told were those of the kind that Jesus told, but I would tailor for them Afghan clothing, so to speak.
Here is one such parable.
A poor farmer was traveling across a field in the hill country with his donkey when the animal stumbled upon a stone protruding from the ground. Checking the hoof of his beast to make sure it was not injured, the farmer’s eyes fell upon the stone. He realized it was not a stone at all; it was the corner of an iron box. Taking his spade, he unearthed the box, and behold, it was filled with gold! Not having sufficient strength in his donkey for the great weight of the wealth, and being far from home in danger of bandits, he hastily buried the treasure and concealed the spot with gravel.
He went to the uluswali [district government office] and learned the name of the owner of that field. Over tea with the owner, he offered to buy it, not telling him what he had found there. Having learned of the price, the farmer returned to his village and sold everything he had, even his land and his house, to acquire the money for the purchase. “You’ve gone mad!” his wife protested. “You’ll thank me later,” he insisted and sent his wife to live with his parents.
He returned to the owner, and, from a paper parcel hidden in a sack of barley, he set before him the full cash price. The owner was delighted and sold it at once, giving to the farmer the sanat [official certificate of purchase], stamped with the seal of the uluswali.
Immediately the farmer took the halter off his donkey, threw off the saddlebags and, with a joyful shout, slapped the beast of burden on the rump, setting him free. “Go your way, old friend,” he said with laughter. “Go enjoy the high mountain pastures God has given you! Great is your reward for stumbling. Soon I will own seven horses in your place!”
The response to telling this parable was threefold. It would look something like this:
One would turn to another and say, “This foreigner is crazy! What kind of tale is he making up? Does he think we’re stupid? It’s a pity a good man like this one would be subject to such wild hallucinations. The devil’s work, I reckon. Let’s leave before we catch whatever spirit he’s got.”
Another would lean excitedly into the ear of his friend and say, “Wait! I know the field that foreigner is talking about! Don’t you remember the tales our grandfathers used to tell when we were children? The stories about how our forefathers conquered the British and sent them scurrying like dogs back to India? All the tales speak of a moment when the British, running out of time with our forefathers in hot pursuit, buried Queen Victoria’s treasure in the hill country to hasten their escape. One of those hills is just outside of Wazir Akbar Khan on the north side of town. It is beyond Tap-e-Bibi Maru where the abandoned Russian swimming pools are. Deh Sabz, they call it. My uncle owns a field there! Rise! Let’s go buy it before someone else does!”
But a third one would be silent. He would lean back and stroke his beard, his eyes gradually narrowing upon something only he could see. Then he would lean forward close to my face like a prospector carefully considering every last grain of sand in the pan until the treasure winked at him.
“Wait a minute…you are saying something, aren’t you? There is a message in your tale. A secret.”
“Yes, there is.”
“What is that secret?”
And the conversation would continue with the one who had ears to hear. The one who had found his first calling.
Can you see why it is important to discover how you are listening?
Let us therefore take care how we listen. Let us not jump to conclusions. Let us not typecast the speaker. Let us not ransack the words. Let us take it all in until we stumble upon the treasure hidden there, the line that leads us out of the labyrinth and into the full light of day.
© Kurt Mahler
* “Listening room” epithet taken from The Shepherd’s Guidebook by Ralph W. Neighbour, Jr. (Touch Ministries, 1986). Ralph, age 91 as of this writing, is a personal acquaintance. To this day he continues to equip Christ-following communities with life-giving words and practical training.
Hedge labyrinth is from the gardens of Ogrody Hortulus Spectabilis, in Dobrzyca, Poland.
Pasture with wild donkey is in Lar National Park, Mazandaran Province/Tehran Province. Photo by Mohammad Reza Tavajjoh, 2007.Tagged as: Holy Spirit, listening, prayer, revelation, wisdom