The Dog Story: Lessons on Holy Listening (Thanks to my friend Blair Braden for this title.)
My wife and I founded an interfaith wisdom school three years ago. Over the course of the two-year program we have two goals for the students. One is to help them develop spiritual practices that will sustain them in their daily living. The second goal is probably the most important and that is to teach them how to listen. It sounds so easy, but learning to listen, holy listening, deep listening, takes intention, and practice.
One of the skills in learning how listening is to hear someone’s story without responding with your own story. Try this the next time someone tells you their “dog” story. Everyone has a story about their dog or favorite pet. You’ve probably told someone a story about your dog and what does the other person always do? They respond with their story that’s even more amazing, or unbelievable then your story. So, the next time someone tells you their dog story, listen to their story, and then ask them a question about their story. But don’t respond by telling them your dog story. It might be one of the most difficult things you’ve ever done. That’s listening.
In today gospel reading (Luke 6:27-36) we hear Jesus’ most difficult teaching and he starts by telling us to listen. “Love your enemies, do good to those who hate you, bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you…Do to others as you would have them do to you…Be merciful as God is merciful.”
It is interesting that Jesus’ didn’t end his first sentence at “love your enemies.” He put some action into the commandment. He went on to say that we must “do good to those who hate us, bless those who curse us, and pray for those who abuse us.” Then Jesus took his teaching even further by saying, “Do to others as you would have them do to you.” Still Jesus ups the ante to another level. Here, he demands that we be merciful to those who show us no mercy; that we be merciful like God is merciful. The key to following Jesus’ almost impossible teaching is first, learning how to listen.
Today in the Episcopal Church, we celebrate the life and work of Martin Luther King, a man who followed Jesus and lived out his teachings, as difficult as that might have been for him to do at times. King was a defender of the poor and the marginalized. He led this country to confront racism and the injustice it caused. For his efforts, Martin Luther King, Jr. lived his life in the wake of constant death threats. His home was bombed. He was nearly stabbed to death. And then on April 4, 1968 he was shot down while standing on a hotel balcony in Memphis.
Martin Luther King taught us that racism, poverty, and militarism are intertwined. He taught us to stand strong for the weak and oppressed; to be firm in our convictions for justice and freedom for all. And while he suffered the prejudice of those who hated him for who he was and what he taught, Martin Luther King resisted oppression through peaceful non-violent resistance.
In the face of hate and violence, King would say that he had “decided to stick with love. Hate,” he said, “is too great a burden to bear. (For) hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.” King preached the words of Jesus, “love your enemies and do good to those who hate you.” The words of Jesus and King still ring in our ears today.
This past week, New Jersey Senator Cory Booker speaking at Jeff Sessions hearing to become the next Attorney General paraphrased King by saying that, “The arc of the moral universe does not just naturally curve towards justice, we must bend it.” I believe we must bend ourselves toward love instead hate, toward justice instead of injustice.
President Obama, in his farewell speech, spoke to the issue of racism. “After my election (in 2008) there was talk of a post-racial America. Such a vision, however well intended, was never realistic. Race,” Obama said, “remains a potent and often divisive force in our society.” But the President did offer Americans a way forward. He urged us to begin listening to one another. By listening to one another, together we can begin to meaningfully cross the divide of race and all other differences that divide us.
We must listen to one another by honoring our uniqueness as human beings. We must listen to one another with compassion. We must listen to one another with love and mercy. We must listen to one another like we want others to listen to us.
We can’t love someone if we don’t know them. And we can’t know someone if we don’t listen to them.
This kind of intense listening takes hard work. Recently, several of us gathered here at St Peter’s to study the writings of Howard Thurman. He was a scholar, preacher, visionary and civil rights leader. His teachings had a powerful influence on Martin Luther King, especially Thurman’s work on non-violent resistance. Our conversations were intense and, I thought, productive.
To follow up on this work, during Lent this year, we will offer an opportunity for folks to enter into “Trust Circles.” (These small groups will follow the model taught by Quaker Parker Palmer.) The goal of these circles is to create a space so that we can talk about difficult issues, like race, but also talk about our political and religious differences. We have been told that at church politics and religion don’t mix. But I think that has been a failed mistake. The church should be the place that creates safe space for people to talk about difficult topics. The church can create safe space when we follow the teachings of Jesus. Love you neighbor, love your enemies, treat others the way you want to be treated, and in the end, be as merciful as God. If we can talk about difficult issues at church, then maybe this model can spread into other places of our country. But in order for that hope to be fulfilled we must be vigilant in our efforts to listen and show mercy, and in our prayers.
I think a good place to begin is the prayer the Episcopal Church offers for our celebration of the life of Martin Luther King, Jr.
O Holy God, by the hand of Moses your servant you led your people out of slavery, and made them free at last: Grant that your Church, following the example of your prophet Martin Luther King, may resist oppression in the name of your love, and may secure for all your children the blessed liberty of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. Amen.