Recently someone asked me if I was going to be less busy this year. I smiled, not sure how I should answer. Where our ministry, Graceworks, is concerned, we should be more focused this year. But the year has begun with Bernice and I doing a lot of listening. It’s just the first week of 2011 and we are walking with three people in serious depression, two people contemplating divorce, at least four fighting cancer, and a number with serious family problems. Oh yes, and a pastor on the verge of burnout. And this is just the first week. Is this any indication of how the year will be like? If it is we have to carve out more time to sit at the feet of Jesus, to find refreshment, wisdom, and direction as to what He expects of us (Luke 10:38-42).
Let me make it utterly clear, especially since many of our friends are reading this, that we love our friends deeply and consider it a privilege to be allowed to walk with them. We are very clear that as we walk with them, we are blessed and transformed as well. It’s just that sometimes we wonder why there are so few involved in the ministry of spiritual friendship. If there were more maybe more can be helped and we can spread the work around. (I guess I will be part answer to his query since I will be teaching a course on Spiritual Direction and Mentoring in Singapore Bible College.)
You may also be wondering if all we do is listen. All the folks I mentioned are facing serious problems. Surely we can do more than just listen. Well, duh, of course we offer whatever help we can. For example we encouraged one of the folks facing clinical depression to see a compassionate Christian psychiatrist that we know. He has and is on the road to recovery. But yes it is true that a lot of our ministry to our friends in pain consist of listening to them. Why? For two reasons at least. One, we have learnt long ago that there is just so much we can do to fix people’s problems. The Lord has taught us a long time ago that we are not rescuing messiahs. We are often overwhelmed by the magnitude of our friends’ problems and we do what we should — we pray and refer them to the Lord (Mark 2:1-12). The second reason why we do a lot of listening is the fact that we understand the power of listening. I like the way Tomas R. Hawkins writes about the power of listening:
Listening and being listened to are basic means of feeling understood and accepted. To listen is to validate, acknowledge, and appreciate another person. People grow through this giving and returning of attention and recognition. Listening and being listened to are the fundamental ways we span the spaces that divide us. The disappointment we feel when we have not been heard reflects how much listening serves as a foundation for our sense of selfhood. Listening is so central to our lives that it often escapes notice. It appears in so many guises that we frequently overlook its importance. Being listened to is how we discover ourselves as acceptable and valuable. (Thomas R. Hawkins, Cultivating Christian Community, Nashville, TN: Discipleship Resources, 2001, 36.)
I understand what Hawkins is saying. In my darkest moments I was most frustrated with friends who quickly “diagnosed” my problems and began to give me solutions. I was most blessed by those who really listened. The primacy of listening is a biblical principle. The apostle James has this to say:
My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry . . . (James 1:19 NIV)
In Life Together, his classic book on Christian community, Dietrich Bonheoffer says that listening is the first service we owe one another in the Christian community:
The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear. So it is His work that we do for our brother when we learn to listen to him. Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.
Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. (Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, New York, NY: HarperCollins Publishers, 1954, 113.)
I am amazed that Bonhoeffer wrote this in 1938. Some things never change.
And so we begin the New Year doing a lot of listening. I sometimes wish I had more time to write. There are a few projects planned that will really help to move forward, Graceworks’ ministry of promoting spiritual friendship. As I complained to my dear wife about my frustrations, she reminded me that we are in the ministry of relationships. Therefore the relationships in our life are key. I guess it will be kind of silly to be so busy writing a book on spiritual friendship that we have no time for our friends.
Still, the magnitude of the things that some of our friends are facing are heart breaking and overwhelming. There are some things only God can do. But we can listen.