To begin I’d like everyone to breathe with me. Breathe in…and out. In through your nose and exhale through your mouth. Try not to breathe on your neighbor; they might not appreciate that. And one last time…in…and out. Well, thank you for humoring me. Whenever people gather together, they bring with them their baggage (their individual joys and sorrows and stresses) and I wanted to afford you the chance to quiet yourselves and focus. I’m going to be speaking today about listening, so you can understand my concerns about your ability to focus.
Something that I truly appreciate about being a part of the Bethel College community is the fact that we have a student population of believers, non-believers, and people who find themselves somewhere in between these two, and yet somehow we find a way to get along. Being a part of this community has challenged me in many ways and has taught me many meaningful things about the power of listening and peaceful dialogue with those who have ideas and convictions that are different than the ones I’m used to. Not only that, but my experiences in building relationships with fellow students who believe differently than I do - and some who don’t believe at all - have nurtured within me a calling toward what our scholar-in-residence, Caleb Lazaro, calls “the ministry of deep listening” - a way of life that allows me to live out my peace convictions radically and relevantly wherever I am. This morning I’d like to lead you through my experiences with deep listening, from growing up in the church to Bethel College, explain the concept of interstitial space, and, finally, reason with you as to why hearing out our brothers’ and sisters’ stories is an invaluable necessity to our lives.
In his book Slowing Down to the Speed of Love, author Joe Bailey notes that the goal of deep listening is to, “hear beyond the words of the other person and yourself, to the essence of what the words and feelings are pointing to.” It is the act of joining our hearts and minds to listen wholeheartedly (Bailey). This practice of deep listening probably started when I was much younger, growing up under the love and care of Whitestone Mennonite, my home congregation down the road in Hesston, Kan. Probably not unlike many church families, mine strongly encouraged its young people to pair up with an older and wiser congregant to form a mentor/mentee relationship. At Whitestone this relationship began when I arrived in junior high and continued through high school. And, in fact, my mentor still graces my campus mailbox with holiday cards and purposefully initiates conversation with me on the occasions when we see each other. I experienced another form of mentorship just this past summer, when I participated in the Ministry Inquiry Program in Kalispell, Mont. MIP is basically a pastoral shadowing program and a chance for college students from Mennonite schools to experience different church leadership roles. I formed many meaningful relationships while in Montana and grew so close to one couple in particular that I actually referred to them as my “adoptive parents.” In both of these mentoring examples, I had to remind myself to be humble and to listen. And, in turn, these persons listened to me carefully and thoughtfully, even when I was venting frustrations, pouting, or being silly. As it says in James 1:19, we ought to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” This is precisely what my mentors did for me.
My exposure to the practice of deep listening continued when I arrived at Bethel. As a student chaplain, but mostly as just another student, I have had opportunity upon opportunity to practice deep listening as an act of love. I am a student assistant at the library, where I staff the circulation desk, and sometimes people – who lock themselves away in some upstairs cranny studying for two tests and writing a ten-page paper all while ingesting way, way too much caffeine – need an outlet. Other times one of the girls in my dorm simply breaks down and needs someone to talk crap on stupid boys. The impact of these deep listening experiences is not always as visible as it is in my aforementioned examples. I’ve learned about how difficult listening can be, especially through my restorative justice work. Once a month I make the journey to Hutchinson Correctional Facility to visit with an inmate for about an hour and fifteen minutes. I do this through a program dubbed Match-Two, which is set up through the Offender Victim Ministries organization. Though it doesn’t always seem like my inmate appreciates my presence, I simply have to trust that my listening is welcomed; that God is working through me in our conversation. Listening, attentively and deeply listening is difficult. It requires you to let go of your ego (to suspend judgment as it commands in Romans 2) and open up to others; to be vulnerable as Christ was.
All right! I think it’s time for more breathing. I can sense our focus might be fading in and out, which is understandable but at the same time detrimental to my attempts to get my points across. So let’s all breathe in together…and out. Two more times. In…and out. And in…and out.
So another instance of my experience with deep listening here on the Bethel College campus, I’ll turn to our incredible faculty and staff. Professor Patty Shelly and others, for example, have expressed a great interest in the power of deep listening. Professor Shelly has taken students on trips to experience different kinds of religious services and cultures. Through the college, but unrelated to Professor Shelly, I had the awesome pleasure of traveling to South Africa and Lesotho for interterm this January. While in Lesotho our group attended a Catholic service in the largest church building in all of the country. And although we didn’t understand a single spoken word, the spirit of the worshippers was not lost on us. Deep listening can surmount language barriers.
All of these experiences with the practice of deep listening have taught me that listening to the “other” is what has fueled recent interfaith dialogue efforts worldview. Using deep listening, which is a fairly new concept; a new kind of peacemaking. As Douglas Steere wrote, “To ‘listen’ another’s soul into a condition of disclosure and discovery may be almost the greatest service that any human being ever performs for another” (Schrock-Shenk 66). This kind of listening can help prevent violence, warfare, collective bitterness, and instead nurture compassion, dialogue, service, unity, reconciliation and peace. Mennonite author and feminist theologian Joanna Shenk writes about this form of sacred listening in terms of being aware of interstitial space; which means the space between two bodies, or in this case, the space between two people who are having a peaceful dialogue and nurturing a relationship with one another. Shenk explores this concept further and said, during a sermon she gave at Mountain States Mennonite Conference assembly last year, that we think we carry our truth or our God wherever we go. And for many generations churches have had the notion that God can be taken from one place to another and from one country to another. But in reality, the experience of the Spirit comes to life not through our own separate understandings of God, but only in that interstitial space between relationships, in that sacred place between conversations, when we are listening one another deeply, caringly and mindfully.
There is a great level of humility and vulnerability that we must commit to in order to listen in this way; in order to truly make peace through our listening. Philosopher and theologian Peter Rollins writes that “in order to truly evangelize we must be willing to be evangelized.” There is much more for me to learn here, with my Bethel College community and beyond. Fortunately I have another year to decide what exactly that “beyond” looks like and figure out in what new capacities I’ll have the opportunity to listen to others. I will continue to learn and appreciate more and in different ways the things that bring us together; as students and as brothers and sisters, no matter where we are in our religious or non-religious convictions. We are continually united as students in our joint passion for service, in our advocacy work for those who are oppressed, in our hunger for dialogue, justice and non-violence, in the cultural and artistic events that we organize, and in the harmony of voices that I hear whenever we join to sing together at Chapel. So may we continue this practice of deep listening, here, now, during our college years and beyond, so that we may understand more and more that the world is our community. And so that we may become more familiar with the art of deep listening; a powerful and radical expression of peacemaking for today’s generation.