From about 2005 to 2010 I was invited to become part of the local chapter of Faith and Light.
Faith and Light is an ecumenical organisation that was started by Jean Vanier, a French-Canadian lay person, as a way of deliberately creating a community of faith especially for people with intellectual disabilities as well as their family and friends. He had recognized how the intellectually disabled (and the disabled in general) were often excluded from the mainstream life of the church or on the periphery. Faith and Light was formed as a faith organisation where the intellectually disabled would be placed at the center.
The group I was involved in was run by members of the Methodist Church I was minister of and included people of other denominations. In fact Faith and Light was probably one of the most inclusive groups or communities that I have been a part of. Not only did it have people of various shades of ability and disability, and various ages, it also included people from a variety of denominations, Methodist, Catholics, Greek-Orthodox and Baptist, as well as a Chinese family who were from a Daoist tradition.
At the beginning of every meeting the Faith and Light prayer would be read:
Jesus you have called us to follow you in a community of Faith and Light,
Teach us to accept our wounds, our weakness so that your power may be revealed.
Teach us to find you in all our brothers and sisters especially in those who are the weakest.
What I learned from that prayer and from being a part of that community is that all of us have wounds and weaknesses, and in that sense all of us have disabilities. For some of us our wounds, weaknesses and disabilities are that obvious or visible
I discovered that this was not a meeting of the intellectually disabled on the one side and their friends and families on the other, but in fact each of us present, with our own wounds and weaknesses were disabled. In that community I came to recognise that I too was disabled in my own way.
I still believe that it is true, that all of us in our own ways have disabilities: things we are able to do and things we are unable to do.
In our passage today, I wonder if the man who is deaf and has a speech impediment stands as a symbol and a reminder of a particular disability that many of us suffer from.
Outwardly, the story is of a man who is deaf and who cannot speak. He relies on his friends bring him to Jesus for Jesus to lay his hands on him. But inwardly the story could also be about us. It could be about the inability of many in this world to truly and deeply listen.
In Mark 4:12, Jesus quotes from Isaiah where the prophet says the people of Israel are ever hearing, but never understanding. Never truly listening.
Our ears may outwardly be perfectly fine in our ability to hear sounds, but many suffer from a listening disability, and inability to truly and deeply listen to others.
This became apparent when in 2015 I went on a 13 week narrative counselling course. In the first few weeks of the course we spent time practicing our listening skills with one another. Learning to listen and reflect back to another person what they had shared with us, without putting our own interpretation on it and trying as much as possible to use the words that they had used, rather than our own.
The majority of people in the course (and there were at least 30 of us), really struggled.
It was a sign that in most of our ordinary conversations in everyday life, very little true listening actually happens. Often we are listening with half an ear and our minds are thinking about something else. Often we’re putting our own interpretation on what we are hearing. Often, instead of listening to what is being said, we are thinking about what our next clever or funny reply is going to be, and as soon as we begin to do that, we are no longer truly listening. We become deaf to each other.
In the passage, not only is the man unable to hear. He is also unable to speak. Some translations suggest that he has a speech impediment. There is something preventing him from being able to speak properly. In the original Greek, the image that is created is of a tongue that is tied up in knots. He is tongue tied, unable to get the words out.
The order is significant. Before we can speak properly we first need to learn to listen.
If our ability to listen is disabled, if we don't know how to listen deeply to another human being, then our ability to speak with relevance, care and sensitivity is lost.
If we as Christians are to learn to have loving truthful and kind speech, then we need to engage in listening as an act of love. In the passage, Jesus puts his fingers into the man's ears and says "Be opened!". We need to allow our ears, and in fact our hearts to be truly opened to the other in order to respond with speech that is loving and kind.
Becoming a good listener is therefore not just a requirement to be a good counselor. It is a requirement to be a good Christian, and in fact simply to be a good human being.
In the passage, before Jesus lays his hands on the man, Jesus draws him aside from the crowd. Jesus creates space around the man and gives him his undivided attention. To be a good listener means creating space for another person. It means for the time we are listening, to temporarily put to one side our own thoughts, our own wants and our own desires in order to create space to hear and receive the other persons thoughts, the other persons feelings, to understand the other persons wants and the other persons desires.
True listening is therefore an act of profound selflessness, because only when there is less of self can we make space for another. In this sense, the act of deep listening is at the heart of the spiritual life. When learn to listen deeply, we become like Jesus who constantly created space for others. The phrase that Paul uses in his letter to the Philippians (2:7) is that Jesus emptied himself for others. And in the words of Charles Wesley’s hymn: "He emptied himself of all but love".
When we truly and deeply listen to others, we therefore become a little bit more like God. It has been said that before God created anything, there was only God. When God created the universe, God had to make space for that which was not God. Every time parents bring children into the world, they too are being like God. They too are having to make space for a new unique individual, who may have come from them, but is not them. Deep listening is at the heart of family life.
And so, may this Gospel story be true for us also. May Jesus draw us aside. May he put his fingers in our ears and say “Be opened” and may he put his spit on our tongues and say “Be loosed”, that we may create space for others by listening deeply, and that we may in turn learn to speak with sensitivity, care and love. AMEN.
SOME QUOTES ON LISTENING:
≈ “Be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.” James 1:19
≈ “Listen with the intent to understand, not the intent to reply.” Stephen Covey
≈ "The word listen contains the same letters as the word silent.” Alfred Brendel
≈ “Listen. People start to heal the moment they feel heard.” Cheryl Richardson
≈ “If the person you are talking to doesn’t appear to be listening, be patient. It may simply be they have a small piece of fluff in their ear.” Winnie-the-Pooh (A.A. Milne)