God's Story, Our Story: Listening Well
Preaching: Lindsay Small
Text: James 1:19-26
19 You must understand this, my beloved: let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20 for your anger does not produce God’s righteousness. 21 Therefore rid yourselves of all sordidness and rank growth of wickedness, and welcome with meekness the implanted word that has the power to save your souls.
22 But be doers of the word, and not merely hearers who deceive themselves. 23 For if any are hearers of the word and not doers, they are like those who look at themselves in a mirror; 24 for they look at themselves and, on going away, immediately forget what they were like. 25 But those who look into the perfect law, the law of liberty, and persevere, being not hearers who forget but doers who act—they will be blessed in their doing.
26 If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. 27 Religion that is pure and undefiled before God, the Father, is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.
This morning, we continue our series of God’s Story: Our Story by continuing our journey through the later part of the New Testament.
Last week, Pastor Ken Eriks took us through the book of Hebrews.
And this morning, we turn to the book James.
This particular book, the book of James, is a bit like Cilantro…you either love it or you hate it.
Theologian Martin Luther called it the book of straw and wanted it completely removed from the Bible.
Others appreciate that James doesn’t beat around the bush…he gets right to the point.
So to the point, he is, that this letter contains 60 imperatives…in a book of 108 verses.
That’s a lot of to-do in one place!
Just a bit more background:
Now there are questions about whom the author was…really, which James it was, James being as common as the name…well, James, today…
But James, the brother of Jesus and leader of the church in Jerusalem…is most often attributed to writing this book.
We don’t know much about him as a person, only that he led the Jerusalem church through difficult times. Many of his friends had scattered… Peter to Rome, John to Ephesus, Thomas to India, and Paul as a prisoner to Rome.
But James remained, and he writes his letter from the Christian fellowship in Jerusalem.
From the Jewish historian Josephus, we know that his service to God was abruptly cut short in 62 AD. There was a break between Roman Governors at that time, and so the High Priest, Annas the Younger, ordered James’ execution, and it was carried out.
And so James writes from a place of validation and clout… He had been through many trials…and so when he says that trials produce deepening character…he knows what he is talking about. He has earned the right to say such things…all 60 imperatives.
There simply is not time to pull every thread, every theme, in the book of James…so I sought out what I thought was the hardest.
And we find it in chapter 1, verse 19, “You must understand this, my beloved, let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
“Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger…”
This morning, I want to talk about listening…which I realize sounds like an oxymoron…a bit antithetical to what James is saying (You sit there and LISTEN to what I have the SAY…about listening)…
But I want to open the discussion (one-sided) with something a little different this morning…
I want to begin this morning with an ‘audio illusion.’
In this experiment a spoken sentence is turned into complete nonsense using audio filters—at least as far as your brain is concerned the first time you hear it. But then we hear the original unprocessed version…and something amazing happens.
Let’s have a listen…
Once we’ve heard the original version, we can make sense of the distorted version.
And what’s more…we can’t go back to ‘unhearing’ the distorted version.
Listening is a skill that does not happen in a bubble…we bring our past experience, our joy, our pain, our discomfort to every encounter we have.
All of this prior knowledge and experience helps us or hurts us translate new knowledge and experience.
LISTENING IS A FULL LIFE EXPERIENCE!
And so we cannot simply hear James tell us that we must be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger…without some prior experience coming to mind.
If you’re like me you’re thinking of all the times you were exactly the opposite!
Those times I jumped into a conversation before someone had finished…those times I walked into a room and started talking…without any awareness that PERHAPS a conversation had been going on BEFORE I got there…
A long time ago in a church far, far away, my husband Kyle and I met with a couple that was having martial issues. I had assessed the situation in a good five or so minutes and thought I had a pretty good handle on what was going on: it was all the husband’s fault. As the wife told us about the woes of living with her husband, my indignation grew. My thinly veiled disgust led me to jump in after a few minutes and pour forth my extremely valuable wisdom.
And then Kyle did something I did not see coming. He had seen that the husband had not been given a chance to speak. And so Kyle said, ‘for the next 5 minutes, no one is going to speak except ‘Joe.’ And if we sit here for 5 minutes in silence, so be it. Joe, your time starts now.
We sat in silence for a good two excruciating minutes. And then Joe started speaking…slowly at first…and then the floodgates opened. He didn’t pour forth anger or indignation…but an enormous sense of sadness about being misunderstood and irrelevant.
It was the breakthrough the couple needed. Not to say that everything was perfect after this event. But for this couple, silence unlocked their communication.
I wonder if any of us relate to this couple. We have removed silence from our lives. Silence with one another…silence with ourselves…silence with God.
We have filled up the space with constant chatter and busyness to the point where silence makes us nervous. To the point that two minutes of silence can seem like a lifetime…
James makes a plea for silence in the last part of chapter one.
He begins this section by indicating these are words of some urgency…”Know this!” or “You must understand this.”
And so we think that a really important point is coming…”Listen up!”
And once we do, what follows may surprise us: we are to "be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger" (19).
What? This is our purpose as Christians? What happened to going into the world and preaching the gospel? What happened to teaching and proselytizing?
We are far more accustomed to thinking that our task as Christians is to speak than that it is to listen. So this command is unexpected, and makes a person like me…doing what I’m doing…a little nervous.
James calls for quick listening…and slow speech.
He calls for long ears and short tongues.
He calls on us to listen well.
This is easier said than done…with an emphasis on SAID.
It is hard to listen well. Far too often listening consists of simply waiting for someone to finish so we can talk…and we’re not so much as listening as we are figuring our what we’re going to say next while the other person is talking.
Steven Covey says, “Most people do not listen with the intent to understand, they listen with the intent to reply.”
I cannot tell you how many times I have thought about my husband, “When is he going to stop talking so I can talk?”
Have you ever done the same?
Slow to speak…eager to listen.
Let the silence fall…take a deep breath…show that you are truly listening.
This is the beginning of listening well.
But there’s more to it than that. Listening well is a forgotten quiet virtue. It is a spiritual practice that requires our attention.
If we are not attentive to our listening…we wind up writing a one-man show even though there is a whole cast around us.
But when we are attentive to listening well…the adverb can be turned into a noun.
To listen well is to have a listening well.
Let me explain what I mean…
A listening well is a deep reservoir of faith where the knowledge of Who God is and who we are in God’s eyes is kept, cultivated, and nurtured.
When we draw regularly from this well, the need for frivolous speech, nervous chatter and hurtful words diminishes. When we know who God is and who we are as a child of God…then we truly begin to listen well.
Wells in the Bible
Wells are valuable resources. In Scripture we read they were places of refuge, community, and relief.
Communities that had wells have security. They did not have to wonder where their water will come from…they know they have a constant place to draw this life giving resource.
In the same way a listening well is a valuable resource…a place of refuge and relief…and a place of security.
By naming and knowing our listening well…we know that the source of our life, our identity, our love and our very being is not generated by our own means…it means that we do not have to go out and find our security in other sources…it means that we can stop justifying our existence by talking
How many times do we speak and act out of our personal insecurity… instead of resting in the strong security of God?
How many times do we speak empty words, hollow promises, and frivolous gossip…instead of resting in the promises of God?
How many times do we engage the far-too-active verbs like ‘justify’ ‘rationalize’ and ‘defend’…instead of resting in the grace of God?
Drawing from our listening well means we can take up the right-amount-of active verbs like ‘listen’ ‘help’ ‘care’ and… ‘understand.’
We tend to think of listening as something quite passive. Intelligence is judged far more on our ability to craft an argument than on our ability to shut up…when frankly shutting up is much more difficult!
Listening is a skill…a practice that requires we give up ourselves…our impulse to speak…and our desire to be right…and actively turn our attention to another.
It is an exercise in restraint and engagement of the highest degree.
And it requires us to draw from adeep well. A well not from our own source, but from God. A well that gives us security, identity, and refreshment.
This well helps us listen well, speak well and act well.
James goes on in this passage to tell us that our actions really do matter.
22: DO NOT MERELY LISTEN TO THE WORD…AND SO DECEIVE YOURSELVES. DO WHAT IT SAYS.”
Ending in verse 28, you get a sense of what it means to do what it says, “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world.”
Our actions on behalf of Christ in the world are the best tool we have to spread to gospel. The best way for the world to know Christ is not frivolous speech what is right and what is wrong…sometimes a little too often what is wrong…but to care for orphans and widows…the vulnerable, the poor, the oppressed…
This is what we are called to do. Not to say it…but to do it.
In his wonderful book, The Screwtape Letters, C.S. Lewis documents a mock conversation between a senior demon, Screwtape, and his apprentice, Wormwood. In this particular section, they seem to fear most these words from James after a person they are referring to has become a Christian…Screwtape writes,
“It remains to consider how we can retrieve this disaster. The great thing is to prevent his doing anything. As long as he does not convert it to action, it does not matter how much he thinks about this new repentance. Let the little brute wallow in it. Let him, if he has any bent that way, write a book about it; that is often an excellent way of sterilizing the seeds which the Enemy (God) has plants in the human soul. Let him do anything but at. No amount of piety in his imagination and affections will harm us if we can keep it out of his will. As one of the humans has said, active habits are strengthened by repetition but passive ones are weakened. The more often he feels without acting, the less he will be able ever to act, and, in the long run, the less he will be able to feel.”
Let him do anything but act. I think Satan wants us to keep our faith as an intellectual exercise and that’s all. To keep a safe distance between the Bible and our lives. To learn about it, to read it…but to never have it impact anything that we do once we leave this place.
We’ve heard a lot of chatter over the last few weeks…and in this election cycle…we are bound to hear far more talking than listening…
But imagine with me…
Imagine if police officers would sit down with community leaders from Black neighborhoods and listen to one another?
Imagine if Democrats would sit down Republicans and listen to one another?
Imagine if Palestinians and Israelis would sit down together and listen to one another?
I believe we would find that there is far more than unites us than divides us.
Who do you need to listen to?
Who do you need to give 5 minutes of your undivided attention?
The chaos and distortion of this world rings in our ears…and even though we try to decipher it…quite frankly it all sounds like gibberish.
But then we hear the clear message from James.
Quick to listen…Slow to Speak…Slow to Anger…