Open Your Ears

“Open Your Ears,” Susan Ryder

Mark 7:24-35
From there he set out and went away to the region of Tyre. He entered a house and did not want anyone to know he was there. Yet a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit immediately heard about him, and she came and bowed down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, of Syrophoenician origin. She begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. He said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not fair to take the children’s food and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” Then he said to her, “For saying that, you may go—the demon has left your daughter.” So she went home, found the child lying on the bed, and the demon gone.

Then he returned from the region of Tyre, and went by way of Sidon towards the Sea of Galilee, in the region of the Decapolis. They brought to him a deaf man who had an impediment in his speech; and they begged him to lay his hand on him. He took him aside in private, away from the crowd, and put his fingers into his ears, and he spat and touched his tongue. Then looking up to heaven, he sighed and said to him, “Ephlphatha,” that is, “Be opened.” And immediately his ears were opened, his tongue was released, and he spoke plainly.

The Wise Old Owl
The wise old owl sat on the oak,
the more he listened the less he spoke,
the less he spoke the more he heard,
why can’t we be like that wise old bird?

REFLECTION
We have dealt with the healing of the foreign woman in previous Reflections, using Matthew’s version of the tale where its placement near the middle of the gospel suggests the woman and her comment about crumbs and dogs were pivotal in getting Jesus to move from an exclusive ministry with and for the Jews to opening up his gospel message to a wider, more diverse audience. So this morning I want to focus on the second half of the story – the healing of the deaf man. Peter Woods writes of this passage, “To the modern ear the linkage of the man’s deafness and a speech impediment is redundant. We all know that if you cannot hear properly, or at all, there is no way you could learn to pronounce and sound words correctly. In Jesus day the causal link was not that clear. I am however, thankful for the redundancy for it gave me pause to consider the link between having one’s ears opened, one’s tongue released and then being able to speak plainly. [Moving] from the literal story to the level of allegory and metaphor, there seems to be a wonderful pathway of spiritual experience outlined in this miracle. Jesus touches the man in ways that are quite tactile and visceral. He puts his fingers in his ears, spits, touches the man’s tongue and then tells him to be opened. I am intrigued by the sequencing of the healed response. We are specifically told that his ears were opened, his tongue released, and then he spoke. Could it be that this miracle sequence is a parable that shows that Jesus would have us first listen before we open our mouths to speak?”

Yes, I certainly think so. Jesus often compelled his followers to listen more deeply, and chastised them when they didn’t. In fact in the passage just before this one he said, “Listen to me, all of you, and understand: there is nothing outside a person that by going in can defile, but the things that come out are what defile.” Meaning listening isn’t what defiles us – but what we say certainly can. After enduring two weeks of political conventions with a whole lot of talking and not a lot of listening by politicians and political pundits on TV, people actually listening to each other would be a welcome relief. Can you imagine the relevant and healing dialog that could take place if we really listened to each other and what we are saying, rather than just contributing to the noise? And maybe, just maybe, by opening our ears and listening for the first time, much like the man whose hearing was restored, we might actually hear what others are saying – as opposed to working to come up with a retort before a person is even finished speaking.  Look what happened with the Syrophoenician woman. She came to Jesus wanting something, needing to be heard so that she could acquire healing for her daughter. And when Jesus at first rebuked her, she stayed and demanded the crumbs from the table that even the dogs received during a meal. Jesus didn’t truly hear her the first time and responded with a cruel retort; but the second time, when she mentioned crumbs and dogs, he opened his ears and heard her before he spoke, and granted her request.

One of the things Bob and I were taught as psychology majors, and again later while doing Clinical Pastoral Education, was the practice of “active listening,” a communication technique that requires the listener to repeat back what they hear to the speaker, by way of re-stating or paraphrasing what they have heard in their own words, to confirm what they have heard and moreover, to confirm the understanding of both parties. You make a conscious effort to hear not only the words that another person is saying but, more importantly, try to understand the complete message being sent. In order to do this you must pay attention to the other person very carefully, not just their words but body language. You cannot allow yourself to become distracted by whatever else may be going on around you, or by forming counter arguments that you’ll make when the other person stops speaking or takes a breath. Nor can you allow yourself to get bored and lose focus on what the other person is saying. All of these contribute to a lack of listening and understanding. When you are actively listening to another person, you let them do all the talking. You keep quiet, except for the occasional brief affirmation that you hear what they are saying – a nod, or an “uh huh,” as you look them in the eye and give them your full attention. When the speaker is done speaking, or perhaps takes a break before continuing, you don’t offer a rebuttal or counter argument to what they’ve just shared – instead you begin with, “What I hear you saying is …” and then paraphrase back to them what you heard, without editorializing. Or you may ask a question of clarification, such as “What do you mean when you say…” or “Is this what you mean?”

We would practice this in class in pairs, and later were filmed to be evaluated by our professor on how well we practiced active listening. Believe me, it was not easy because it’s not the norm of how we converse with someone else – we interrupt, we plan our rebuttal before the person is done speaking, or we text or play games on our cell phone. And it was hard not to laugh at first, which we did, because it felt so awkward:

“So how are you doing today?”

“Actually I’m pretty exhausted.”

Silence

“So what I hear you saying is that you are extremely tired?”

“Yeah, I’m beat.”

“Sounds like you’re saying you are worn out?”

“Yes.”

“What do you mean when you say you are beat?”

It got easier, eventually, and we got better at doing it. It was an amazing experience to be listened to so intently and carefully, as well as to focus that much attention on actually listening to someone else. It created a safe space for one person to share with someone fully attuned to them, and often resulted in our saying things we weren’t even aware we wanted or needed to share because we were heard so well. Henri Nouwen wrote in his book, Bread for the Journey, “To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept. Listening is much more than allowing another to talk while waiting for a chance to respond. Listening is paying full attention to others and welcoming them into our very beings. The beauty of listening is that, those who are listened to start feeling accepted, start taking their words more seriously and discovering their own true selves. Listening is a form of spiritual hospitality by which you invite strangers to become friends, to get to know their inner selves more fully, and even to dare to be silent with you.”

After the shooting incident at Normal Community High School on Friday morning, a freshman named Sean Kennedy told Charlie Schlenker about his experience during an interview on WGLT. Sean was in the room with the 14 year old boy who held his classmates hostage at gunpoint, and Sean said that after he took his weapons out of his backpack he said, “Now it’s time for you guys to listen to me.” Sean said the boy told them no one ever listened to him, and he had a lot of problems. Counselors would listen to him, but not his family. In fact his father would yell at him. So he was going to make this class full of people listen to him that morning. Sean said he had a gun, a hatchet, kerosene, and most telling of all, a bottle of pain killers. When one of the girls in the class wouldn’t stop crying during the ordeal, according to Sean he asked everyone in the class to go give her a hug. During the hugging several students took advantage of being permitted to leave their seats and fled the classroom, after which the boy with the gun told those who stayed to line up against the wall and give him their cell phones, while also telling them he liked them because they stayed to listen to him and didn’t run out of the room. I don’t know who this boy was, and I don’t condone what he did, certainly. But clearly, like many people who turn to violence in such a way as this young man did, it appears he was literally dying to be heard, and was willing to risk his life, and those of his peers, to do so.

It reminds me of these lines from Thich Nhat Hanh’s Call Me by My True Names

I need you to listen to me.
No one has listened to me.
No one understands my suffering,
including the ones who say they love me.
The pain inside me
is suffocating me.
It is the TNT
that makes up the bomb.

As I turn things over to you for your comments, I’m going to ask you to do some active listening to each other. Before you share what you have to say, I want you to actively listen to the person speaking before you, and acknowledge their comments before speaking your own words. And so on. We’ll do that for a few moments as you get my attention to bring the microphone to you. The question I want you to answer is – share about an experience when you were either truly listened to, or you truly listened to someone else, and what that meant to you, or to your relationship. Remember – before you speak, I want you to acknowledge and affirm that you heard and understood what the person who spoke before you said.

Comments

  1. Thanks so much for this. It was what we needed most this weekend, and it was good to listen to you. (It also made me reflect on a past reflection and my comment in church that I think many people fear sharing their inner lives but desperately wish to do so! If only someone would listen.)

  2. It was good to read your reflection, Susan. Kathleen had told us about it after we got back from Ohio on Sunday. The terrible need to be heard seems to motivate desperate measures too often. I write this eleven years to the day since the twin towers fell. Did these men wreak destruction because they needed to be heard? Does active listening mean doing something about what you hear? Is compassion alone enough?

  3. Ronald Bell says

    Susan, thank you for this excellent, helpful reflection. I “hear” you. 😉 Listening is so seminally important, yet so difficult.
    I have a friend – Linda Eve Diamond, who has written a book on listening called ‘Rule #1: Stop Talking! A Guide to Listening’ (I have a written endorsement in it). Linda also has a websiet http://listenersunite.com Here are a few quotes from the website:

    –
“Conversation: a vocal competition in which the one who is catching his breath is called the listener”  – Anonymous

    –“History repeats itself because no one listened the first time.” – Anonymous
    –
“So when you are listening to somebody, completely, attentively, then you are listening not only to the words, but also to the feeling of what is being conveyed, to the whole of it, not part of it.” – Jiddu Krishnamurti – philosopher

    –“It seems to me that very few of us ever do listen. We do not know how to listen. I wonder if you have ever really listened to your child, to your wife or husband, or to a bird? I wonder if you have ever listened to the mind as it watches a sunset, or if you have read a poem with an attitude of listening? If we know how to listen, that very listening is an action in which the miracle of understanding takes place.” – J. Krishnamurti