Language of Listening

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I’ve been wondering what my language is recently. And also who do I think this “God” is that is speaking to me! It’s ponderous to think how that image of God was given to me in childhood and to my surprise can sometimes still be my default.  It seems to be a conglomerate image of a severe judge sitting on a throne waiting for me to die and let me know if I get in, an powerful man with a long white beard who loves me but who sees me as falling short in so many ways, a mystical person who is in heavenly clouds, wearing a white robe, surrounded by angels, peering down at me on earth to see what I am doing.

Yet, none of that is my actual experience of God. If I was to tell you of God, I could tell you a story of voice that spoke to me at 9 years old, telling me all is well, despite the news that my baby brother would die.  (and he didn’t). I could tell you of the raw awe that boiled up in me when I reached the peak of Igloo Mountain and let my soul lay down with the Dall rams there– in pure joy. I could tell you of the fierce strength that arose when I needed to talk to a family whose father just committed suicide. Or I could relate this soft love that came unbidden seeing a baby look me deeply in the eyes while standing in line at Walmart, as if we were  sharing a secret of where she had so recently come from. I could recount the deep will it took to not go rescue my son when he was depressed. Or whisper to you of that peace that truly passes understanding when I listened to Pastorale by Secret Garden driving through Capital Reefs National Park. Those are just a few ways God has been in every small detail of my life, in the consciousness of my very being, in the motivation of my every doing. In all I would call good or bad, wrong or right, happy or sad. God just is with what is.

The name “God” almost has too much old-angry-judge baggage for me to use for referring to my actual  experience. I use The Divine, the Source, Love, the Real, True Nature, Truth at times instead. But I’m reluctant to give up on the name “God”. Even if the image wasn’t the reality as a child, and even though the name of God has been used to propose and purpose the most horrendous acts of mankind, I don’t want that to take away the fact that this name is sacred. God has always been Present with me, and within me. A metaphor I’ve heard is that God is the ocean and I am a wave in it. I am particular and distinct and yet never separate from or different from that vast ocean. God is not “he” or “she” or “it”.  I would say, God is a sense that I carry with me, a basic trust, a Presence that includes all, free of judgment, full of unconditional love, and yes a mystery. I like that. I like not knowing it all. If the scientific truth is that the Universe is still expanding, then the Force behind it truly “blows my mind”–I can’t grasp it and I do not want to. I want to be in it.

God no longer speaks to me in the language of sin and sinner that I grew up with. I know that theology backwards and forwards and for a while it worked for me. But then I learned a new language that didn’t have “sin” in the  vocabulary. No it’s not New Age; it’s My Age. It’s my experience of a Creator that isn’t out to condemn or straighten out. Only to invite me into the More of this life.  This new listening is fascinating. That “God” speaks to me now in a new language that I can hear better. And yet, all the other ways God to speaks to people–are valid too. It’s all so finely attuned to where we are. That is the kind of Love I’m getting used to now. A Love that meets us. A God not of distance or time or behind some pearly gates. (A captivating  image to have Peter and the Book for cartoons, not reality.)

Gandhi advises me to have listening ears– not ears that already know how God will speak to me or assume to know God’s language.

I want to just be curious now. What will I hear next?

If I Listen Long Enough

I was born when all I once feared–I could love.  Rabia

Someone once asked why I listen and I heard myself say, “If I listen long enough to a person, I can learn to love them.”  The key to that sentence is “long enough”.  What I’ve learned is that most of the time, people listen only long enough to gather the inner ammunition to defend their own position. Or if not that, to think of a witty reply, funny comeback or intellectual response that reflects favorably on who they believe they are. I know this, because, of course, I’ve discovered that is what I’ve done. We rarely wait until a person has even finished a sentence to interrupt with our response, or if there is a pause, to even fill in the word we think should be next in the sentence.  It can become a conversation of oneupmanship, sometimes aggressively so, sometimes more subtle. This kind of abbreviated listening can still be interesting and enjoyable, but it doesn’t take the relationship deeper.

When I first came to Alaska in the 70’s, a pastor friend told me he had gone to visit a congregation in a village in the bush. There was a contentious issue and the Native community had met to discuss it. He told me that the meeting went on and on. One speaker alone had talked for hours and it was approaching 3:00 a.m. He turned to the friend who had brought him and asked, “When will he be asked to stop?”  The friend turned to him and said, “We listen all the way to the very end.”

I believe it was that statement that began to turn around my own listening and to imagine a way of paying attention that I had never known in my own culture. Had I ever listened all the way to the very end? What had this Native community learned about listening that I never had? I felt the integrity of it, the patience, the desire to honor that person and also to preserve harmony in the village.  It was shocking to me and humbling. I realized it was a way of loving.image.png

It’s easy to love people who are nice, easy-going, agreeable and have the same views on life as I do.  The test of my own integrity, patience and desire for community then comes with those that I contend with. Those are the ones that actually hone me into being human. I remember one conversation with a man who was ranting about what the Bible says about homosexuality and how we couldn’t allow that in our society. It was hard to listen to his judgment and his anger. Then I knew I wasn’t really listening anymore. I was judging him! So I asked him a question that I hoped would change our relationship– “So what is YOUR story in all that?”  He stopped, surprised. “My story?”  Then tears came up in his eyes and he said, “Well, no one has ever loved me.”  And then I heard of his losses of the heart, and the more he talked, the more I loved him.

I don’t mean to say that it is possible or even healthy to always listen all the way to the very end. Sometimes the words can be too toxic, too impaired by drugs or alcohol, too suggestive or abusive to allow the person to continue. At the Listening Post where we listen to the marginalized and vulnerable of the city, we have good boundaries about that. But we don’t necessarily end the relationship. We may ask them to come back another time when they are sober. We make it plain that we don’t listen to talk that is harmful or disrespectful. However if it is simply a difference in opinion, we might ask a question that takes us into relationship.  “How did you come to have that belief? Will you be willing to share that with me?”

I’ve got a lot yet to learn and even more to fully embed in my way of listening. Yet I continue to be drawn by a belief that it is never the wrong thing to do. Yes, there is a time to stand up for one’s beliefs, but the listening comes first. Not a passive not-speaking, but an active listening that in simply being present to the other, there is an unseen relationship that forms and informs. And builds community by learning to understand each other, not fear each other.

It takes time. A long time. It’s listening “all the way to the very end” in a hope of discovering the thread that connects us as human beings.

A Listening Life has words too…

I have always leaned into listening. I liked hearing the stories of my elders, and learned that if I sat quietly, they would forget I was there and tell the deeper story not always told to a child. I loved listening to the morning birds, the wind rustling the corn stalks in fall, the mews of baby kittens, and the heavy lavender silence of dusk out the back door of the barn. I listened to friends through their many different struggles with relationships, and later I listened carefully in my career at a physical therapist, learning that if I did, the patient would inevitably guide my hands in the treatment. And then I began to listen as a spiritual director to others on their spiritual path, to the dying as a hospice chaplain, to my parish members as a pastor, and then to the homeless and marginalized in a place I founded called the Listening Post. (

After 10 years of this listening, I knew my soul needed a rest, and after much hand-wringing, took a sabbatical from listening shifts. I needed time for a clearing and sharpening of my beliefs about listening and what my part was as a listener. Now in the 4th month of this sabbatical, I listened deeply within this week and heard that all the listening I’ve done needs to be balanced by speaking.. by giving voice to what I have learned. So I come to this sharing table, this blog, to listen interiorly and mine this kind of gold too– with my writing.

Today at a writer’s workshop I was asked to describe myself in 7 words. But instead of writing down the usual things, like listing what I do or what degrees I’ve achieved, my pen wrote….WHISPERING WILD, WEARING A WOLF CAPE— WARILY.

At first, I recoiled from what had been written, seeming as if it wasn’t “I” but the pen itself taking over.  What kind of answer is that? And why all these “W’s”? And yet I was secretly delighted when these words jumped out on their own and surprised me.  Skirting the usual radar of acceptability, I tapped into this new vein. (And reading Women Who Run with Wolves  surely sparked this new description).

Whispering Wild? Where is that in me? I can say this: right from the start  I live in Alaska because its wilderness tackled me to the ground, and I’ve never been able to leave its grip. It’s not the kind of wild that is out of control; it is the wild that is so natural that it is not conscious of itself–it just is. In this wild, there is no good or bad or right or wrong. A river brings life, a river brings death. A wolf kills, a wolf is killed. The mountain is beautiful. The mountain is cold. It demands that you accept it, face it, and if you can open even more, let it become part of your own being.

The first summer I came to this country from the prairies of Iowa, I watched two wolves hunting in Denali National Park. They weaved in and out in a figure 8 as they moved effortlessly and efficiently  across the tundra, alert and yet relaxed…. as if they were a river or the wind. That’s how it seems to me in the truly wild–the difference in spirit is so very slight; if  I gaze softly, I can sense I too am river, wind, mountain and even, that wolf.

I’m intrigued to describe myself as wearing a wolf cape, taking on that spirit of the wild that sings from deep in the bowels, both exciting and curdling the soul. Yet I am wary–am I ready to be my truly natural self, to step into a life where I listen past culture, old beliefs, my comfortable habits, my ways of keeping safe? A beautiful question to hold, knowing it is also unfolding right before me.

As I sit here contemplating this whispering wild part of me, I hear a shout from my husband. “Bear!” It was as if she kept that Memorial Day weekend appointment to appear. I watched this first bear of the season amble into my yard tonight, its coat so sleek and shiny, undulating as it padded confidently on its way back into the woods, it too “whispering wild”, as if inviting me as well.

“I’ve not forgotten the song of those dark years, hambre del alma, the song of the starved soul. But neither have I forgotten the joyous canto tondo, the deep song, the words of which come back to us when we do the work soulful reclamation.”

Clarissa Pinkola Estes