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Listening Incarnationally

Updated: Feb 9, 2022

Sermon by Pastor Megan Collins

We are going to talk about listening. I’ll admit when we got to this week and I saw the topic was listening, I wasn’t sure how much there is to say. We’re in a series on Emotionally Healthy Relationships here at church and we’ve tackled some meaty topics like generational curses, expectations, and the iceburg of feeling you have hidden below the surface. The topic of listening seems more mundane. You know you should listen better. You know you are distracted sometimes and don’t listen as well as you should. But is it really that important? Even if you aren’t a great listener, it doesn’t mean you don’t care about people. But then I read this quote from David Augsburger:

"Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable."

That sure puts it in perspective. Listening isn’t just another relationship tool for you to work on when you have time. It’s a critical piece of showing someone you love them. You know this is true from being on the other side of it. Think about a time when you were talking to someone and you realized they weren’t listening to you. Maybe it was something important to you, or something you have struggled to put into words. You were all caught up in what you were saying then you looked at them and you saw it. They weren’t listening. They were distracted and looking at their phone or something else in the room. Or you could tell they didn’t agree with you and were already building an argument in their head against what you were saying. Or maybe you could sense a subtle shift in their body - their eyes had glazed over a bit, or they were fidgeting and shifting around and you could tell they wanted to leave. Hurts, doesn’t it?

But now think about a time when you felt truly heard. You were talking to someone and something about the way they looked at you while you were talking, it felt like you were the only person that mattered. When they reflected back what you had said, you knew they really got it. You felt seen. You felt this connection with them, that they really cared about you.

To be heard is to be loved.

The way you listen to people in your life shows them how much you love them. Listening is important. But before we talk about some of the ways we can do this well, let’s look at what gets in our way. In our devotional this week, one writer described listening using an image of holding a small, baby bird in your hands, like this.

Picture yourself holding this young bird, and the bird is the person you are listening to. But as you are holding the bird up, your arms start to get tired. They sink lower and lower. You become tempted to lay the bird down. They are talking to you and your mind wanders. You start to feel fidgety or rushed. You get impatient and start interrupting them to speed the conversation along. You aren’t listening well because you are distracted.

Maybe instead as you are holding the bird you notice you have started moving your hands upward to try and make the bird fly. Some of you are fixers. Someone starts to tell you their problems and you jump in and offer a solution. You think you are helping them. You think that encouraging them to move through this talking phase and get to solutions is a good thing. Then you don’t understand why they seem hurt. You aren’t listening well because you are trying to fix them.

You might also start to close your hands around the bird a bit. You feel this desire to poke and prod the bird, figure out what makes it tick. This usually happens when the person talking is saying something you disagree with. As you listen you find yourself wanting to figure out their argument so you can argue back. You aren’t listening well because instead of focusing on the person, you want to be right, to win the conversation.

It’s not hard to see how we have become bad listeners. We know it is important that the people in our lives feel loved. But what does this have to do with our faith? Let’s take a look. Today we will be looking at Philippians 2:1-11. We looked at this passage a few months ago. But today we’ll be coming at it from a different perspective. The letter says:

If then there is any encouragement in Christ, any consolation from love, any sharing in the Spirit, any compassion and sympathy, 2 make my joy complete: be of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. 3 Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. 4 Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.

All three of the ways we fail to listen that we just talked about point to one sin: our selfishness. We would rather be entertained than listen without distraction. We would be comfortable with easy solutions than let someone find their way as we listen to them. We would rather be right than listen to someone we disagree with. To our selfishness, Philippians counters “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves.”

And then it says this:

5 Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,

That’s how our NRSV Bible translates it from the Greek. Another translation called the NIV says it this way:

“In your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus” (NIV)

In your relationships, have the mind of Jesus. Fight against your selfishness, all that sin, and to try to have a little more Jesus and a little less you in the way you love other people. In case there was any confusion on our part of just what the mind of Jesus means, Philippians goes on:

6 who, though he was in the form of God, did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited, 7 but emptied himself, taking the form of a slave, being born in human likeness. And being found in human form, 8 he humbled himself and became obedient to the point of death—even death on a cross. 9 Therefore God also highly exalted him and gave him the name that is above every name, 10 so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bend, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, 11 and every tongue should confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

We know Jesus is the Son of God. Jesus could have done anything with that power. He could have been comfortable, He could have had everything he ever wanted. But instead he gave up that power, emptied it all out, to become human. He became one of us. He lived as one of us. He used his power to heal people. He fed people. He listened to people. Then he died for all of us. When we were selfish and full of sin, Jesus died, so that we could be saved, and so that we could live a life that looked different, one where you love other people the way Jesus has loved you.

Philippians tells us all of this right after the letter said "in your relationships with one another, have the same mindset as Christ Jesus." Your natural mindset, the one you walk around with when you aren’t thinking about it, is going to want you to stay comfortable, to do what you want to do. And listening to someone isn’t always comfortable. You might feel something they are feeling, and that is hard. You might get frustrated with them or you might just get bored. But the mindset of Jesus means to empty yourself for someone else. Listening means people feel loved, and loving like Jesus means having the mindset of Jesus. When you listen . . . It’s not about you. It’s about them.

There is one specific kind of listening where it is critical we get this right. There are going to be times when you find yourself listening to someone who is hurting. They have been through something difficult and now they are talking to you about it. Keep in mind before we go any further what a tremendous risk this is for them. They are being vulnerable and open, which is hard to do, and they have chosen you to do this with. And you know you. You know you are tempted by all those things we talked about, and that you might not naturally be a good listener. So just talking to you is a risk for them.

But let’s say you are really trying. You aren’t distracted. You are biting your tongue so that you don’t jump in and fix their problems. There is one more way we make listening about us, instead of about them. It’s called dumping in. And this last one is especially sneaky because we think we are just trying to connect.

To illustrate dumping in, think about a diagram of concentric circles.

Imagine with me that there is a person in the hospital, we’ll call her Bridget. Bridget is in the center circle.

Bridget’s spouse is there with her, and worried about her prognosis. Her spouse is in the next circle out.

Her kids don’t live in town but they are calling everyday, they are so worried. They are in the next biggest circle.

Bridget’s friend Sue decides to go visit them. She wants to go provide support, to show her love for them by listening. Good job Sue.We’ll put Sue in the next circle farthest from the center.

Sue gets to the hospital, goes into the room, and asks Bridget how she is doing. She is off to a good start. Bridget shares a bit about her tests and the procedure she has coming up. But then Sue talks about how hard it is to see Bridget like this, how shocked she was to hear the diagnosis, how she can’t possibly imagine life without her friend. She gets teary and Bridget’s spouse gives her a hug. Bridget puts on a brave face and assures her friend that she will be okay.

What went wrong? Sue went against the rules of something called ring theory. There are two simple rules for listening well in ring theory. When someone is hurting, you comfort in and dump out. With ring theory, the person in the center of our circles is the one going through the crisis. The next circle out is the person most closely affected, in this case, Bridget’s spouse. One more circle out are those next closest, for this one, Bridget’s kids. Perhaps Sue is the next closest friend to them, so we put her there. Moving out another circle there might be Bridget’s church family, then her neighbors, then outward until it is a stranger who doesn’t know Bridget at all.

Sue wasn’t trying to to hurt Bridget. She was trying to show how much she cares. But to be a good listener to someone who is hurting, you comfort in and dump out. This means you comfort and listen to those closer to the situation than you are, and dump any feelings you may be having out to people less impacted than you are.

Let’s imagine Sue learns about ring theory and comes to visit her friend again. This time she does one thing - she listens. She asks how Bridget is feeling and reflects back what she is hearing. She says things like “it sounds like this is a really tough time” or “tell me more about what the doctor said.” Sue sits quietly while her friend talks. Before she leaves she asks Bridget’s husband how he is doing too, and listens. She checks in with Sue’s kids. Then when she leaves she calls another friend who doesn’t know Bridget and shares how hard it was on her to see a friend hurting. This is when Sue lets herself cry and share how hard this all is for her. So it’s not that Bridget doesn’t get to share too, it’s that she doesn’t put the burden of listening and care on someone struggling more than she is.

Listening to someone who is hurting is one of the most important ways you will show love by listening. Most of the time you can’t fix the problems of the people in your life. But if you can listen well, they will feel loved. This will be especially hard with the people closest to you. You may not even realize they are struggling because you are so caught up in the day to day with them. Or if they do start sharing about their hurt, it will be especially hard to set aside your own feelings about it. But even if you are only one circle out from the person at the center, you comfort in and dump out.

To be a good listener you: - Avoid distraction, fixing and arguing (just hold the bird in your hands)

-You remember that it's not about you - You comfort in, dump out This isn’t easy to do. But remember where we started, when we read this quote: "Being heard is so close to being loved that for the average person, they are almost indistinguishable." To listen well is to love well, and you are called to love like Jesus.


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