The Practice of Listening

Students had assembled for an October chapel service as several dozen faculty members strode to the front of the Great Hall  bearing symbols of their work — a laser in the hands of a physicist, clay in the hands of an artist, spreadsheets borne by an economist.  Each offering was placed on the stage, transforming it into an altar.  Prayers of blessing consecrated each symbol of the professors’ work and communicated a valuable lesson to the student body on that day:  All work is holy work when the worker is listening for the voice of God.

A Spirituality of Listening is Keith Anderson’s argument that listening to the voice of God, paying attention to the rhythms of obedience, discipleship, and worship, mark the beginning of “living what we hear.”  All of our spirituality is “grounded in ordinary life experiences.”  In the process of sharing from his own life and the deep well of his reading and thinking, principles of listening practice emerge that are based in the author’s understanding of spirituality: “learning to pay attention to the speaking voice of God in everything; paying attention to God’s active presence and seeking to stand in that place.”

Listening fosters spirituality in its simplest form, for God shows up in time and space.  During Old Testament times and in the time of Christ, interaction with the Word of God happened through listening.  Life in an oral culture gave weight to the words of Genesis 1:  “God said . . .”  It is not for nothing that Jesus made his point eight times in the Gospels:  “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.”  Therefore, for the one who believingly follows the speaking God, listening must be an intentional “emptying of distractions and noises that gives [the] soul space to hear what is there.”

A Spirituality of Listening was written on the fly — not in a quiet office, but in moments snatched in a crowded ferry terminal and in noisy places Keith Anderson inhabits each day.  His writing an exercise in attention itself, he offers his thoughts on filtering and classifying sounds on a continuum from white noise, through business sounds, sounds that trigger emotions, the endless chatter of one’s inner storyteller, and, finally, “meaning sounds where you are making sense out of the storyteller in your mind.”  Paul emphasizes the importance of the everyday life, urging his readers to make even our listening into a spiritual discipline, to train the ears and the heart to work together in finding the voice of God in everyday, ordinary life.

The idea that story matters is central to Anderson’s thinking.  God has given the biblical narrative as a guide for truly hearing our own life’s story, and even so, we live in the midst of an unfolding plotline that yields, at times, more questions than answers.  Keith Andersons’ wife suffers from the constant pain of idiopathic neuropathy, and so he queries:  Where is God in this?  Listening, he sees that the answer will not be an audible defense, but instead a gradual, unfolding story to which he and his wife must keep listening.

God’s “be still” in Psalm 46:10 is His invitation to persist in one’s trajectory of faith, for God is in the business of speaking —  but is also a Listener whose ears are tuned to the language of lament.  Coming down with both feet on the position that lament is an act of bold faith, Keith Anderson asserts that lament makes for good theology.  God’s Old Testament prophets reinforce that justice is a core value to God — not merely in their lament, but also in their statements about God and worship.

As Jesus listened to the words of Torah, active listeners today tune their ears to His words in the Gospels.  Listening comprises both “Remember” and “Observe,” because it will be our humble voices that carry the Divine Voice to future generations through our words and our deeds.  Both community and solitude have their impact upon the listening life today (even as they did in the earthly life of Christ), and the example of Jesus teaches that the voice of God may be heard in “unexpected voices and surprising places.”

Wendell Berry (one of the many excellent writers quoted in A Spirituality of Listening) is at his wisest when he yields the podium to Jayber Crow who said:

“Telling a story is like reaching into a granary full of wheat and drawing out only a handful. There is always more to tell than can be told.”

This is the nature of all story-telling, and is especially true when we are listening for God.  There is always more.  Keith Anderson’s writing emphasizes the absolute other-ness of God while, at the same time, exalting the truth that incarnation has made sacred every little thing.  Knowing that I am heard by the-God-who-speaks-and-the-God-who-also-hears draws me into active and expansive listening, waiting for the heart of another to be unmasked — or for whatever God might choose to reveal.

//

This book was provided by IVP Books, an imprint of Intervarsity Press, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

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Michele Morin

Michele Morin is a teacher, blogger, reader, and gardener who finds joy in sitting at a table surrounded by women with open Bibles. She has been married to an unreasonably patient husband for over 25 years, and their four children are growing up at an alarming rate. Michele loves hot tea and well-crafted sentences, poems that stop her in her tracks and days at the ocean with the whole family. She laments biblical illiteracy and advocates for the prudent use of “little minutes.” She blogs at Living Our Days, and you can connect with her on Facebook or Twitter.

30 thoughts on “The Practice of Listening”

  1. It is so true that it takes a concentrated, intentional effort to listen. Life is so full of noise. May we ever find time to, like Mary, pause at the feet of Jesus to hear what He is wanting to say to us. Thanks for this review, Michelle. Happy Easter!!

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  2. sounds like a very interesting book! i have learned that listening is quite an art, one that is even less abounding in our cell phone world! learning to listen is great for the one speaking, but it is really great for the listener. it changes you as you are able to enter the world of the one speaking…often someone you love!

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  3. Definitely adding this book to my list of books to read! I’m always on the lookout for great books. Thank you for reviewing this and sharing it with the rest of us! 🙂
    ~Haley

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  4. I start every morning praying for ears that are attentive to God’s voice and that I hear His voice loudest — above all the noise. And while I wish I could quiet the world to listen, I love the point about listening in the middle of it all. Thank you, Michele, for sharing. : )

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  5. I didn’t even realize “listening” or “hearing” had been emphasized so many times in Scripture, but it’s true! How could we miss that most important aspect of our relationship with God? This sounds like an interesting read for anyone who desires to go deeper in their spiritual walk. Thanks for sharing, Michele!

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  6. What came to mind as reading this is we are practicing the art of presence when we lean into listen every moment of our day, instead of rushing into the next. And through this we see His opportunities to server others.

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  7. Sounds like a great read! I so appreciate your book reviews. As a result of the recent one on The Radical Pursuit of Rest, I bought it and am currently digging into it. Excellent!! Thanks, Michele!

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      1. I have finished half the book at this point. I think the book has challenged me to reconsider my view of rest on multiple levels. One of those is certainly to see it as a gift versus something I “work at” or “try to make happen” is a brand new way to see it. I also identify a great deal with what he says in the early chapters about how the church today encourages busyness and that it is not always as much about the gospel as it is about promoting the brand. After serving on a church staff for 13 years before retiring, a great deal of those first few chapters resonated loudly to me. Recognizing new understanding about sloth and false rest as well. I am still grappling with all that he is trying to help me see. One of the things I am working on is a deeper recognition that that I receive rest from Him and when I enter into Him and His grace, I get more glimpses of what is meant. Not sure if that makes sense based on your read of it.

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      2. Funny that you also were caught by the author’s reference to church “busyness.” There have been times in the past when I have felt that even my children were being pressured to show up for multiple programs just so that there would be numbers and “success” for that event. I especially loved his thoughts on prayer, and I’m still challenged by them. Thanks for letting me know what you’re gleaning. Sometimes books go by me so fast I don’t get a chance to really have good conversations with others about them.

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    1. Yes, and if we view it as a spiritual discipline, we really don’t have the option of choosing NOT to listen. I’m thinking right now about Matthew 6: WHEN you pray; WHEN you give to the needy; WHEN you fast — not IF. I think we could make a similar case for listening to God.

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  8. I love this, “Listening fosters spirituality in its simplest form, for God shows up in time and space.” I want to foster a place for God to show up in all my time and space. 🙂
    Blessings,
    Dawn

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  9. Listening is something I’m working on this year. It’s hard with so many little ones! Thanks for being a part of Booknificent Thursday this week on Mommynificent.com! Always great to have you!
    Tina

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