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Although earlids are never mentioned in any list of standard operating features for human beings, lately I’ve come to think this is probably an oversight. Although a capacity for hearing seems to come more or less naturally to those possessing all of the requisite neurological hardware, the ability to really listen appears to be strictly voluntary. As any long-suffering parent or romantic partner can attest, just because you may have two ears and enough gray matter to decode all of the linguistic cues that come riding your way on waves of sound, nobody should assume that you are actually listening to everything that you hear. For at any given moment there is probably more than enough external distraction and internal resistance to render all of us incapable of careful attention to those who are speaking with us. With this in mind, given my own peculiar tendency for selective attention I usually paraphrase the gimlet-eyed observation of the Victorian novelist, George Eliot. I guess we all need to develop a bit of deafness, she wrote, lest we go mad hearing the grass grow or the beating of a squirrel’s heart. But, quipped Eliot, most of us appear to be so well-wadded with stupidity that we seem to manage nicely on our own. Listening is apparently an act requiring great willpower and skill, and on some days even if the spirit is willing, it may still turn out that our over-saturated ears are already full.

As a case in point, little more than a week ago we came across a young man about four years of age who seemed to be more than a bit world-weary as listeners go. Carmen had joined me in taking a seat for an evening worship service with more than 10,000 Nazarene kinfolk who had gathered from more than 162 countries at our quadrennial General Assembly in Indianapolis. Not needing to be up-front and close to any of the action as designated clergy-types, we had nestled into some of the cheap seats near the back section of the packed convention center thinking that an opportunity to watch and listen leisurely to the proceedings with friends would be something of a departure from our customary role in public worship services. However, we had not anticipated that the precocious, preschool-aged gentleman of leisure seated immediately behind us would be vigorously registering his status as either an Enemy Combatant or a Conscientious Objector for the entire two hours of our worship celebration that evening. At the outset, let’s just summarize by saying that this kid was definitely not interested in making a joyful noise unto the Lord. 

To his credit, the only real demonstration of his wildly aggressive need to not be there at the time came in a series of verbal comments considerably louder than the kind of Johnny-let’s-use-our-inside-voice replies coming from an extremely even-tempered parental-unit who was attempting in vain to control his young charge with polite stage whispers from the far end of the row. But regretfully, Johnny was apparently in no mood to comply. “I am not listening to this man,” announced Johnny to the nearby crowd when our Presiding General Superintendent stepped confidently to the assembly hall microphone. Trying to stifle our own giggles as that parental-unit struggled to retain the upper-hand in this now public contest of wills, I will admit that we totally lost track of what was happening on the platform. By then the real action seemed to be taking place a few seats behind me, to the left. “Take me out of here right now,” moaned Johnny, “How many times do I have to tell you?” In the end, almost our row of seatmates just flat out lost it when Johnny began to reason with the impressively non-confrontational parental-unit who had steadfastly refused to negotiate any sort of strategic retreat from the public worship service. “You are making a very, very bad choice,” pouted Johnny in a mournful tone, clearly repeating a phrase exquisitely familiar to him from prior experience back home somewhere else in a galaxy far, far away. What was left for any of the rest of us to say? It was obvious that the kid had taken all of us hostage at “Hello.” So yes, I will admit that I have absolutely no idea what the General Superintendent might have been talking about that night. Johnny totally owned the evening.

I suppose we could try to finish with such matters quickly by saying that listening will be difficult at times and distractions can be many, but that still seems to leave too many things of importance unsaid if you ask me. Part of what may be missing is an honest assessment of what it will cost if you intend to keep your ears open to what God wishes to say. Years ago, I learned from Fred Craddock that the prophet used a fascinating verbal image in the Hebrew text of Isaiah 50 which speaks about the way the Lord God awakens our ears, morning by morning. “The Lord God has opened my ear, and I was not rebellious,” explained the prophet in a verbal phrase suggesting that God actually digs out the human ear, as if with a sharpened knife. And this makes a certain sense, Dr. Craddock told us, for it is quite often the case that honest, attentive listening can be very painful. Or perhaps, said Fred, we only tend to listen carefully and well when we are experiencing pain. So, go ask of the grieving, the lonely, those burdened by sadness or disappointment or heartbreak, and they will tell you. There is often a terrible and terrifying price tag to be taken into consideration if you are going to let God wield the divine knife blade until you are able to listen once again. But perhaps this also explains why the Creation story of Genesis begins with the Creator speaking the universe into existence, calling out with one magisterial and exuberant word after another an Earth, the Sun and Moon, an Adam and Eve, the ants and aardvarks and zebras and porcupines. What does it all mean, all of this creative verbosity that might just as easily serve as a 5th grade vocabulary test? How about this? Ours is a God who wishes to have conversation with each and every being in Creation. Until you hear yourself addressed by God, and until you choose to speak back in response, you may not actually have an good idea regarding who you really are. Maybe it really is like morning roll call back in the 5th grade: We only become who we are when our name has been sounded.

Here is an interesting thing: Daily the ancient Hebrews recited the quintessentially Jewish prayer, the Shema of Deuteronomy 6 as their unique way of identifying and locating themselves in obedience before Yahweh their God. “Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.” Hear, not see is the decisively important verb that accomplishes both the fact that we are present before God and that we will in fact obey our God. Frankly, this should come as no surprise to any of us. I know, for example, that it is theoretically possible for me to watch cable news programs for hour after hour without raising so much as a finger to actually do anything to improve the general quality of the society in which I reside. In other words, when I watch or see, it is entirely possible for me to remain merely a casual spectator. But on the other hand, if Carmen calls out to me by name, it does me absolutely no good to protest that I did not hear her. Even if I wish to pretend that I did not hear my spouse calling for my attention, there is something about being addressed that has already burrowed into my consciousness, a covenantal awareness that I cannot ignore apart from peril to the health of my own soul. Listening requires obedience. Or maybe we can put it this way: Listening is the first form that obedience takes. And this is what our Hebrew ancestors were learning every morning and evening as they prayed their Shema. They were being formed for obedience by listening: Hear O Israel: The LORD is our God, the LORD alone.

We were vacationing on Vancouver Island one summer with good friends, a couple who had served with us on the ministry team of our church. Over dinner one night, the four of us entered into discussion regarding our options for the following day. As it turned out, two wives seemed to be interested in spending all day strolling leisurely among the landscaped beauty of Butchart Gardens, an option which, at the time, struck the two husbands of our party as completely counterintuitive. I mean, really, spend a day of vacation touring a garden? So we took a vote. The vote was 2-2, which meant that those of us who were husbands had clearly lost! And when the morning came, behold: We packed up all of our gear and made our way across the island to spend a perfectly lovely, girly-girl day with all of our parasols twirling while we strolled through Butchart Gardens. Did I mention that the vote was 2-2, meaning that the whole election was rigged? 

Because that was long ago . . . and because I do not want to be grounded for the rest of the summer for having a bad attitude, let me simply finish off the story by telling you what happened to the two preacher boys who finally found themselves stomping around the Japanese section of Butchart Gardens one summer afternoon. Both of us had by that time fallen largely silent, enjoying the cool shade of Lace Leaf Maple trees and a gentle breeze blowing in off a quiet pond. I don’t recall any more who thought of it first, but eventually it dawned on one and then both of us that we had seen this movie before: Human beings walking in the midst of a beautiful Garden, amid the cool whisper of an early evening breeze. And it was Genesis 3 all over again, with the voice of the Creator asking of those wayward creatures, “Where are you?” Isn’t that, after all, the question God is always asking of us? Where are you? 

I don’t know how you see it, but I suspect that if we are listening carefully to that question, eventually we will come to understand that when God asks a question, God is not primarily seeking new information. Maybe it is merely a way of getting at the issue that has always been on God’s heart. “God has everyone’s number,” I heard a friend say not long ago, “so God just keeps calling day after day, hoping that eventually you will pick up.” 

Jeff Crosno