Listen and Learn
CU2nite. W8 4 me. The message was clear and understood, though written in the language of the text messenger. For many text messages have replaced letters, and even emails So the language is adapted accordingly, and to the mystification of we ancients, the annoyance of the pedant and despair of the traditionalist.
Not that adopted written forms to record events or transmit thoughts is something new. The journalist and the secretary (though decreasingly so in the case of the latter) use a system of dashes, lines and twirly curls to write down words in a script invented by a Mr. Pitman. Mathematics has a sign writing of its own. As well as the signs for addition and subtraction, multiplication and division, the equals, greater than, less than signs, there are Greek letters, letters of our alphabet and much else besides. Pi R squared, a squared + b squared = c squared, root of -2 says one mathematician to his colleague, and the language is clear and understood by them both. Mathematicians pride themselves on clarity of thought, of exactness when transmitting them.
The non-sighted may learn Braille, the deaf lip-reading or signing, to receive and send forth thoughts, or learn the latest news. Once sailors and others communicated by the dashes and dots of Morse code.
Spoken language, written language is in constant flux. New words are invented (supercalifragilisticexpadaliosis). The cockney rhyming slang (apples and pears for a flight of stairs), and the regional dialects wax and wane, puzzling the outsider but bringing the insiders closer together.
Much may be understood without a word being spoken. Some claim expertise in interpreting what they call body language, which is not a skill to which I lay claim, except in its simpler forms. Frowning and smiling are easy to interpret. Others will claim that folding arms, crossing or uncrossing legs, sitting forward or backward on a chair give away one’s inmost thoughts. A bit frightening to think one might be revealing unconsciously what one really thinks about the speaker, or the preacher. The turned back, or the enfolding arms, the warm handshake, the sympathetic hug I understand, but I worry that scratching my nose, or cleaning my glasses might in my ignorance inadvertently cause offence to the speaker.
Communicating effectively with others is an essential tool for harmonious living. Communicating is expressing ones own ideas, feelings, fears, aspirations and knowledge to others in such a way that they can understand the signals that you are giving. Smile awhile, and while you smile, another smiles, and soon there will be miles and miles of smiles, read the old wayside pulpit. Laugh, and the world laughs with you.
Speech is the usual, but not the sole, means of communication. Long before the baby learns to speak it will communicate its feelings to its mother. The mother will recognise hunger, contentment, discomfort, pain, tiredness – a whole range of emotions affecting the baby, who has no verbal language in which to express them.
But normal, everyday life becomes more complex, and so the need for communicating effectively, and with clarity grows. We talk on the telephone, we instruct our bank manager, we go for interviews, we complain to the supervisor or the shop assistant, we write for samples, we book a holiday, we buy tickets for the theatre, we plead for charity – in all these ways and in a thousand and one different ways, we daily communicate with others. And the satisfaction we receive or give is related to the skill with which we make known our needs, and the manner of the response.
But communicating is not merely about making known wants. It is also about understanding the needs of others. As well as a loud-hailer, a receiver is required. There are those who are skilled in the art of expressing their opinions whether in speech or writing, but whose ability to listen is impaired. Put in today’s jargon phrase, communication must be a two-way process. The mouth is not superior to the ear.
Who has not known the man or woman infected with what has been called “verbal diarrhoea”? The unbroken torrent cuts off the speaker from those who would also speak. “I keep asking, but no-one listens”, is the plaintive cry of the child or adult who looks for an answer, or simply, understanding.
The point I make is that though we may express our thoughts with perfect clarity, it is in vain if no-one listens. We have a Tower of Babel – what is sometimes referred to as the dialogue of the deaf. What is the point of asking for advice if we have already determined not to take it? Why complain if the one addressed is unprepared to listen. Cries for help are useless if all ears are firmly stopped.
Sunday by Sunday congregations gather in our churches. We come to communicate. We come to communicate with one another. Sometimes we are full of joy and we wish to express that joy. We sing with enthusiasm, we smile upon others, we greet our friends with delight, we are glad to be alive.
Other times we come in different mood. Perhaps we grieve, possibly we are perplexed, we are anxious, we are weary, conceivably we are angry, maybe we are sad. We communicate our mood, whether by word, expression or action, and we hope others are listening and responding.
But we come to church not only to communicate with our fellow worshippers, important as this is, but to communicate with our maker and creator. Others have spoken and written with far more scholarship and wisdom on prayer than I could hope to do, so I confine myself to pointing out that one of our means of communication with God is through prayer. But it is not the only way. Our demeanour, our unspoken thoughts, our actions are all communications with God, as is our silent meditation.
We wonder about the person who may pray day by day, Sunday by Sunday, or even only occasionally, but never pauses for meditative thought. God must experience some difficulty getting a word in edgeways with some we know, but shall not name.
If communication in everyday life is about listening as well as talking, receiving as well as giving, responding as well as reacting, then how much more is that true of effective worship.
In patience, and with invariable politeness, the congregation listen to the words that I, or whoever else occupies the pulpit, speak. As preacher I try to find the ear of the congregation. On too many occasions, I fear, less effectively than I would like. But my words are the least important part of the worship. In a place hallowed by generations of worshippers, in a peaceful setting on a quieter day of the week, we come together to communicate. We are in communion with one another and with God.
It is right that we should express our perceived needs, our fears and worries, our joys and our disappointments. But if we are in true communion, our inner ears are alert, our internal hearing aids are switched on, we are listening to what the old cliché calls, “the still small voice”.
Just as in life in the everyday world, what we hear is maybe not to our taste. As the businessman or woman may not want to hear a complaint, or the preacher receive a criticism, so may we prefer to drown out the message of God, or the pleas of those in need.
The world of business and commerce, the world of everyday living, has accepted that communications are all important. Wars are fomented, businesses go bankrupt, neighbours fall out, so hatred thrives, where communication is faulty. We have to learn to better express our thoughts; we must stop and listen to what others are saying to us. The world of politics and business, of diplomacy and international relations is learning that lesson. So must we not only in our worship, but in the practice of our faith in everyday social life.
The most important communications are those between the individual and God, followed closely by exchanges between ourselves and those referred to in that omnibus word as, neighbours. It is the way in which we conduct our lives individually which will determine if and when what Jesus called the Kingdom of God will arrive. Too often we learn half the lesson; the part that is about asking and expressing our needs and thoughts. But we need to brush up on the complementary skill of listening and observing, and then reacting to what we hear.
As I have said often before, one of the most used books on my bookshelf is the dictionary. That is partly because I am not a very good speller, partly because of an addiction to crosswords, but also through curiosity about what words actually mean as opposed to what I think they mean. My dictionary defines communication as giving and receiving information. It also mentions a door or passage through which goods and information can pass.
We live in a world given to express needs, views and opinions loudly, in large black headlines and through powerful loud-speakers. The communication passage is in danger of becoming a one-way street leading outward, rather than a dual carriage way with free access in both directions. Too often the message most often portrayed goes:- my needs are greater than yours; my views and opinions are more important than yours; my status is superior to yours; my mouth has priority over my ears.
There is an old nursery rhyme which reads;-
The Wise Old Owl sat on an oak
The more he heard the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that Wise Old Bird
I suspect that it was first penned to reinforce that Victorian injunction, children should be seen and not heard. But whether that is so or not, it contains more than a grain of truth. Telephones sensibly have both a mouthpiece and an ear-piece. Communication may be the fashionable word in a modern world, but in its true meaning it is an old-fashioned word. It forms a blue-print for a full, complete life. Can I conclude with a verse from one of our hymns which goes,
“For eyes to see, and ears to hear,
For hands to serve, and arms to lift
For shoulders broad and strong to bear
For feet to run on errands swift”
Surely that is what we all request and give thanks for, or ought to, eyes and ears. But to make use of them eyes must be opened, and ears unstopped. Constant shouting of our own needs renders impotent our sense of hearing. One way traffic is not communication, nor is it being in communion.
There is a road sign which shows a small arrow pointing in the direction we are travelling, next to a large arrow pointing towards us. Give priority to on-coming traffic is the message. I reckon if Jesus was preaching today he would build a parable round that.
Whether the message is sent by text or sign, speech or mathematical formula, a smile or a hand round the shoulder, it ought to go with clarity and sincerity. But arguably as important, or even more important, is having ears to hear, and allowing them time to do their job.
I know, physician heal thyself. But I am trying. I hope you are too.
C.J. Rosling 14 January 2006
Hucklow 16 January 2006