I've become fascinated by our weakened ability to listen intelligently. Many more times than I wanted to keep track of in the past cycle of elections, people, not just candidates stopped listening. I'm not sure if they ever intended on listening.

Listening can feel like a slow process. It may not be all that that slow, it is just that the pace is being determined by others. Listening feels like waiting, it feels inactive. It is especially that way when one is listening to something disagreeable, incorrect, challenging, or not fully thought through. We want to refute, correct, defend ourselves, or critique. But what if we were just to listen? What might we hear?

"Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice," Jesus said. Notice that Jesus doesn't tell us that the truth is the possession of any one. It is the other way around. Truth possesses us. We are held in truth, but perhaps only to the extend that we get ourselves tuned to its ring.

Today I was talking to one of our students who is volunteering at a senior residential facility. He is studying to become a health care administrator so he can eventually work there. As he was telling me about the pure enjoyment he receives from listening to the residents. They talk about family. They talk about trips. They tell stories of the land, its changes and the transitions in their lives and the life of the community. But these residents often feel cast off and alone. My student described the deep appreciation the residents have for those willing to spend time and just listen.

Much of this kind of listening is slow and deliberate. For those of us who keep trying to be active and get things done, this kind of listening feels like a waste of time. We know that it isn't a waste, but there is often an ambivalence that keeps us swaying between getting tasks done, stating our own opinions, and moving on to the next subject. But for the residents at this senior living center, the greatest gift seems to be listening.

Why does such listening have to be limited to such times and places? What happens when we live in a society that has placed so much value on correct answers, knowledgeable opinions, and quick responses and relinquished the responsibility of actively listening well? What all do we miss when so much of what we say and hear becomes derivative drivel lacking any insight?

We need to learn to listen again.

God in a Gorilla Suit

"One more thing"

There's an experience I often have when I preach. As soon as I get done, I often think of other things I should have said.  There have been times I have felt compelled to walk back up to the pulpit and say, "oh yeah, one more thing." But I haven't. Yet.

From this past Sunday, Advent 3A, the gospel lesson...

Matthew 11:2-3:

When John heard in prison what the Messiah was doing, he sent word by his disciples and said to him, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?”

I was impressed by the reality that humanity missed figuring out who God's messiah was the first time, reminding me of the question as to whether or not we'll figure him out at the second coming.

In psychology, there is a condition called inattentional blindness. We tend to be blind to things we don't have a category for in our experience. We can be blind to the degree we are in denial about what we don't wish to see. But most interesting, is the blindness to things we don't know we should be looking for.

The popularized version of this condition has circulated on the Internet. Daniel Simons from  the University of Illinois developed the test. His explanation of it can be found at the


. There a number of videos there to become familiar with the concept.

Theological Discernment

But in terms of theological discernment, how do we attend to God's presence? Do we see, or do we merely look at what is taking place around us? Daniel Simons mentions that those who claimed not to see the gorilla in the experiment, actually had their eye on the gorilla for up to second, but claimed not to see it. We can


at something, but if we don't


it, then is was never there. Looking at and seeing are not the same.

How can we discern our lives and culture so as to answer John's question from prison: is Jesus the one, or shall we expect someone else? If John has trouble seeing God's messiah in his own community, would there be potential difficulty for us to do any better than John? How is God showing up, in unseen ways, in our communities now?

Even if God were in a gorilla suit, we still might not see.

Blowing off Steam: Listening with Limbics

Blowing Off Steam

I wonder if there's a real connection between the ears and anger. Why else would we come up with these images of steam blowing out the ears? 

Have you ever had the experience of making a comment, or hearing someone else make a comment, which left you blank, mundane, neutral, or at least not agitated? But then, another person having heard the same thing has a volcanic reaction

Limbic Listening

Nathan Bauman, PhD, wrote to The Hearing Journal to highlight the role of the limbic system in listening. While Dr. Bauman writes about the unsettling effect of hearing aids for a person with partial hearing loss, it also makes me curious about the emotional reactions we may have to what we hear. Does communication breakdown, not because of the content, but because of the emotional reaction we have to the sounds, or perhaps the connotation we place upon what we hear?
As Dr Bauman notes,
"Part of our regulatory auditory mechanism, which tunes and de-tunes our attention process, is the limbic system. It is responsible for assigning more or less attention to a given auditory input. So, if there are multiple auditory inputs, the input most relevant to our conscious and subconscious mechanism receives top priority. When the limbic system detects new and/or more relevant information, it passes it on to the auditory cortex for processing. At the same time, a certain emotional association is assigned to it." (http://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/Fulltext/2004/07000/The_Role_of_the_Limbic_System.16.aspx)

Emotions and Discernment

By connection, I've lately been wondering about the role of the limbic system in discernment and if we are led by the emotional responses that are processed in the limbic system by what we hear, and the emotional connotation we attach to it. One of the primary roles the limbic system provides is the fight, flight, and freeze reactions, i.e., fear-based reactions. For instance, the limbic system is the system that creates the feeling in us that the roller-coaster ride will kill us. But the process of having the same or similar set of reactions on subsequent trips on the roller coaster may result in "fun" (not me, though). 

Why are the two reactions different? The first is pure emotion and a panic response for survival. The second response engages in "cognitive appraisal" and uses the higher thinking portions of the frontal cortex. 
  • What if we are working with people for whom fear, panic, or anxiety is a present reality?
  • What does hope do to engage more critical thinking and less emotional reactions?
  • How does an anxious church or organization "hear"? 
In my work with congregations experiencing anxiety, I've been impressed by the predisposition they have had toward fear. My immediate role has always been to allay fears. One of the questions that usually emerges in one way or another is, "is there any hope for us?" I always have to say "yes." But I also have to realistically prepare them for difficulty and change. Hope is always a gift. Especially to those with steam coming out of the ears. 

Listening to an Ass

There are times when I just don't want to listen anymore. Some bozo is blathering on about some issue, some hot topic, some rumor, some half-digested gristle of a bone-headed idea. Not only that, but this individual is passionate about it. And there are few things as irritating as the passionate pontificating of an an annoying ass.

I decided to look up on Google the answer to the question, "how do you spell the sound a donkey makes?" I was surprised to find the wiki.answers.com had the answer in over 20 languages. I guess there are pronunciations in other languages that just don't transliterate well.

For the Danish, the donkey says, "aeslet skryder" which would actually be pretty amazing. Apparently though, to most languages donkey's say something like "hee-haw".  The inverted sounds of Ukrainian and Turkish donkey's undoubtedly make for some lame arguments as Turkish donkeys bray "a-iii, a-iii" while the contrary Ukrainian donkeys counter with "ii-aa, ii-aa." However the Hindi donkeys may be my favorite with their unique "si-po, si-po" (see wiki.answers for more).

Perhaps the best way to listen to an ass, is to figure out where it is from. Maybe Ukrainian donkeys pronounce things differently because of their experiences. The Scandinavian donkeys with their complex sounds may be some evolutionary derivation from long dark winter nights and the desire to talk about something else other than the same old same old.

Even an Ass Needs to be Heard

Somewhere along the way, we have to realize the ass will keep braying loudly, just so it can be heard. Even an ass needs to have a voice. But even more, maybe the lone voice of the one ass is actually the one voice that is most needed.

Several years ago I learned a consulting technique from Pat Taylor Ellison of Church Innovations. We had a process of gathering stories from a local congregation or parish. It was a form of local ethnography. We listened to the storied responses to key questions from which the congregation wanted to gain insight. The questions were always framed with appreciative inquiry in mind, so the "answers" were actually responses to prompts asking for stories.

In democratic societies, we tend to to think that which ever story or opinion is provided most often must be the correct answer, the most insightful answer. We tend to conflate the prevailing narrative into being the correct, important, or key narrative. But what I learned from Pat and the process she taught was that the lone voice with a unique story was important as well, and could actually be the most important voice to listen to.

That Braying Ass

In the story of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, we learn that he rides upon an unnamed donkey. It is the donkey here that is the hero of the story. In The Message, the story is told from Numbers 22:21-33

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went off with the noblemen from Moab. As he was going, though, God’s anger flared. The angel of God stood in the road to block his way. Balaam was riding his donkey, accompanied by his two servants. When the donkey saw the angel blocking the road and brandishing a sword, she veered off the road into the ditch. Balaam beat the donkey and got her back on the road.

But as they were going through a vineyard, with a fence on either side, the donkey again saw God’s angel blocking the way and veered into the fence, crushing Balaam’s foot against the fence. Balaam hit her again.

God’s angel blocked the way yet again—a very narrow passage this time; there was no getting through on the right or left. Seeing the angel, Balaam’s donkey sat down under him. Balaam lost his temper; he beat the donkey with his stick.

Then God gave speech to the donkey. She said to Balaam: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?”

Balaam said, “Because you've been playing games with me! If I had a sword I would have killed you by now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years right up until now? Have I ever done anything like this to you before? Have I?”He said, “No.”

Then God helped Balaam see what was going on: He saw God’s angel blocking the way, brandishing a sword. Balaam fell to the ground, his face in the dirt.

God’s angel said to him: “Why have you beaten your poor donkey these three times? I have come here to block your way because you’re getting way ahead of yourself. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she hadn’t, I would have killed you by this time, but not the donkey. I would have let her off.”

How do You Listen to an Ass?

1. Where's that sound coming from, part 1?

Most likely that braying sound is not coming from your ride, or from the sound of those with whom you travel through your days. More likely, it is from beside the path or at a distance. It might be coming from the places others don't usually visit, aside from the crowd, from the outlier. The outlier is one who is not reflected in the prevailing statistical averages. They are the anomaly, the odd ball. As a result, they are sometimes in social isolation. I'm reminded of a church marquee during a national election week. The message on the sign stated, "The majority is rarely correct." There are times that those who are not enmeshed with the staus quo actually see things with greater clarity. Who are those who are alone, isolated, odd-ball characters in your life? What are they saying? Might there be a kernel of wisdom worthy of of consideration from their unique perspective?

2. Where's that sound coming from, part 2?

As listening skills atrophy in our overly connected culture (see Together Alone, Sherry Turkle) our ability to "attend to" another person is correspondingly weakened. Attentional listening not only listens to denotative content (attentive listening, as it has been taught), but attends to the humanity of the person communicating. What is said from the history, perspective, the emotional center of the person is not always reflected in the words. Attentional listening forces the exercise of empathy and careful attention to the non-verbals, the context, and the timing. Where, then in the life of the person, is this sound emerging?

3. Learning the languages of asses (see above wiki reference)

Not everyone means the same thing when they use familiar words. I recall learning the difference between conversational questions, and rhetorical statements intended to hide criticism. Once I was asked if I thought my preaching was satisfactory. When I answered, I thought with humility, stating that I believed I knew the congregation, I believed I had studied the texts well, and that the applications and illustrations were helpful. I also stated that I wasn't used to preaching so infrequently and that I felt as if I was not in rhythm, was a little out of sorts. It was a couple years later that I was told that was an argumentative answer. That I had been criticized for not preaching well and I argued back. I was told I should have known that the question to me was not a question, but a statement; and, I should have been aware of the passive aggressive habit of the questioner and the culture.

Learn the language of the culture!

4. Some asses are quieter than other

Isaiah describes the quiet voice of the suffering servant (Isa 42), as one who "will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street".  This simply make me wonder if there are important promptings we are just missing. 

Listen closely. Maybe the next ass you hear might be braying in Danish, "aeslet skryder, aeslet skryder!"

Listening for Fuzzy Brown Squirels

Jesus may be the answer, but seriously, listen closely to the question.

A dear brother who passed away this past summer, Richard Regier told me the following story.  Richard had a gift for not allowing shallow piety to stay around long. His piety was deep and a bit wry, and more than a little rough around the edges. When we would laugh about the church trying to give shallow but pious answers to difficult questions, we would call those "fuzzy brown squirrel" answers. Answers like, "we just need to pray more," "we just need to study the Bible more," or, "we just need to let them know Jesus is the answer." Now those aren't bad things, it's just that they don't often get to the real issues at hand.  So here's a brief rendition of the story Richard told me....

The preacher asks all the kids to come forward during the service for the "children's sermon." He begins, "Good morning, kids. I'm going to describe something to you and I'm going to ask you what I'm describing." The children remain quiet, wanting to hear the details so they can get the answer right.

The preacher goes on to describe the mystery creature. "What is small and has little pointed ears? It also gathers food in the summer and fall and buries it around the yard. In the winter it goes to find its buried food to help it survive through the cold months. It has tiny black eyes, a fuzzy brown tail, and easily climbs trees. What is it?

As this point the children are quiet, and looking a bit uncomfortable. Then one child raises his hand and answers without conviction, and a confused look on his face, saying, "I know that the answer is Jesus, but it sounded like a fuzzy brown squirrel."

Had the conversation taken place anywhere else, I suppose the kids would have mentioned the squirrel first of all. But since the story takes place in a church, the range of correct answers is limited. In congregations, there seems to be sets of answers that are always "appropriate" regardless of the questions.

But the old answers don't work.

Six years ago, I was among a group of people working with church leaders. One of our group was Alan Roxburgh. Alan had just published the book, The Sky is Falling: Leaders Lost in Transition. In this book, Alan describes how Christian leaders were lost in contemporary culture for lack of clear maps, misunderstanding the different terrain of cultural connection, and the loss of a satisfactory and effective Christian-centered world.

This past week, Al posted on his blog, at The Missional Network, that the disconnect Christian leaders experienced six years ago appears to be alive and well. Al was working with a congregation and wrote about them,
"The people of this church are currently looking for another way of reaching the people around them. One idea was to place a box on the wall were people in the community could place their prayer requests so that the people of the church (most of whom drove in to the 150 year old church building) could pray for them. These and other ideas where shared. These are good people. They know the world has changed, that their church is not connected to the neighborhood and that the Spirit is calling them into the neighborhood. But their focus remains stuck in the narratives of how to help people and meet their needs. Such actions are not wrong. Indeed, this is a part of the calling of God’s people. That’s not the point! What I am observing is that these long established defaults are so deep and so powerful that good people in our churches simply don’t know what else to do."

Shifting from Default

There are "long established defaults" that limit our thinking, and above all, our imagination. The limited imagination of the church is reflected in the little story about the fuzzy brown squirrel. How can congregations begin to hear differently so that the old defaults don't become first responses? Or, how do the default responses actually become the imaginative applications of being church?

1. Change the question

The church doesn't have to respond out of habit. Rather than asking how do we reach new people, perhaps the question how do we let new people reach us. What would it be like if we entered our neighborhoods and communities as aliens, seeking the hospitality of strangers?

2. Eavesdrop

It doesn't take long to realize we have sheltered lives once we spend some time in other places. We don't have to go far out of our way - to a hospital, a prison, a shorter-term mission, we can just hang out in the neighborhood. A few years ago I was a substitute teacher at our local high school. I heard sarcasm, swearing, laughter, anger, mostly in the form of stories. Stories about others, about the weekend experiences, and occasionally about the assigned homework. But in hearing stories, you hear the values, hopes, and expectations of others.

3. Learn a new language

I am still surprised when I meet grow up, mature people, who do not know what a "tweet" is, our how to "update their status". The landscape of social networking has altered the ways in which people relate. Certainly, there are drawbacks from the habitual dependence on smartphones to manage our relationships. But not engaging it it does not improve our connections either.

4. Tell some stories

There are lots of people who want to inform me. They want to define things. There are some things that are best described that way, but wikipedia might actually do a better job of explaining some things to me. There are lots of places to go for definitions, news, instructions and directions. But there is no other place to go to find what has shaped a person's values, what has touched them deeply, or how they became the people they have become other than to hear them out. In listening to the stories of others, offering our own stories as an interface, the two stories acknowledge the meeting and the creation of a new story, a shared story.

I Want a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel to be a Fuzzy Brown Squirrel 

The only reason the story about the children with their piously correct answers is because default happens. It happens when churches try to do what others have done because it worked elsewhere. It happens when the same methods of searching out answers are used decade after decade. It happens when answers re-tread previously journeyed paths.

When Isaiah spoke for God, asking, "See, I am doing a new thing! Now it springs up. Do you not perceive it?" (Is 43:19). It is not God that is restrained into the default answers. If we keep discerning the same things over and again, it is we who need to change. God is already doing a new things, along with our communities, our neighborhoods, the larger world. Why would the church expect itself to be the only things static and unmoved?

Listening to Lifehouse

Working out at the gym, I usually scan Rhapsody for new songs that are good for working out. Sometimes I give up a strong cadence in the music for music that makes me think. Getting lost in thought sometimes is just as good as getting lost in the beat.

One song that caught my attention is by Lifehouse on their newest release, Almeria. The third cut on the album is Nobody Listen. Beginning with a variety of news reports in the background, just being noise, just being talking heads, sets the stage for one of the problems that bothered has me about the way our society ineffectively tries to talk. Over time, we become cynical, numb, and eventually disengaged from too many voices and not enough conversation, not enough thought.

So, take a listen and read along. I hope you like it.

Here's the link to Youtube video: