Emilie Townes: Hearing God's Whispers

In this video encounter, Dr. Emilie Townes tells of her experience finding the holy outside the walls of her home church as a young girl.


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Listening to the World

This reflection considers Krista Tippett's On Being episode with Mary Oliver, "Listening to the World." Oliver's words can be used with Dr. Emilie Townes's video, "Finding the Holy, Hearing God's Whispers," in group settings or individually to consider where we find the holy in our own lives.


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"What does it mean that the earth is so beautiful, and what shall I do about it?"

Mary Oliver, Long Life


In Krista Tippett's interview with Mary Oliver, we get to hear about the ways that Mary Oliver listens to the world, considers attention the beginning of devotion, and thinks of poetry as prayer. When asked about her spiritual background, Mary Oliver shares, "I got saved by poetry, and I got saved by the beauty of the world."

As you listen to this ten minute segment, consider the ways that Mary Oliver's idea of listening convivially and Emilie Townes' idea of holy listening can encourage us to seek out the holy in our own lives.

 

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Listening as a Spiritual Discipline

This action draws on Emilie Townes' video, "Finding the Holy, Hearing God's Whispers" and Krista Tippett's interview with Mary Oliver to find the ways we can seek out the holy in our own lives.


Not only can we listen for God in creation, we can also listen for God in our communities and in our neighbors' stories. In fact, we can even consider listening a spiritual discipline. As David Mathis says, "True, sustained, active listening is a great act of faith, and a great means of grace, both for ourselves and for others in the fellowship."

Learning to listen well requires discipline, effort, and intentionality. These steps towards good listening, adapted from this article, draw on the section on “the ministry of listening” in Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s Life Together and Janet Dunn’s classic Discipleship Journal article, “How to Become a Good Listener.”

 

1. Good listening requires patience.


Good listening requires concentration and means that we hear the other person out until they’re done speaking. Rarely will the speaker begin with what’s most important. It takes energy to block out the distractions that keep bombarding us. When we are people quick to speak, it takes Spirit-powered patience to not only be quick to hear, but to keep on hearing.

 

2. Good listening is an act of love.


Poor listening rejects, good listening embraces. Poor listening diminishes the other person, while good listening invites them to exist, and to matter. Bonhoeffer writes, “Just as love to God begins with listening to his Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them.”

Good listening goes hand in hand with the mindset of Christ. It flows from a humble heart that counts others more significant than ourselves. It looks not only to its own interests, but also the interests of others (Philippians 2:3-5). It is patient and kind (1 Corinthians 13:4).

 

3. Good listening asks perceptive questions.


Good listening asks perceptive, open-ended questions. Good listening draws out details and helps point the speaker to fresh perspectives through careful, genuine questions. As is written in Proverbs, it is the fool who “takes no pleasure in understanding, but only in exercising his opinions” (Proverbs 18:2), and thus “gives an answer before he hears” (Proverbs 18:13). “The purpose in a man’s heart is like deep water, but a man of understanding will draw it out” (Proverbs 20:5).

 

4. Good listening is ministry.


According to Bonhoeffer, there are many times when “listening can be a greater service than speaking.” There will be days when the most important ministry we do is hear a hurting person's pain all the way to the bottom.

One of Dunn’s counsels for cultivating good listening is: “put more emphasis on affirmation than on answers.” At times what our neighbor needs most is for someone else to know.

 

5. Good listening prepares us to speak well.


Sometimes good listening only listens, and ministers best by keeping quiet, but typically good listening readies us to minister words of grace to precisely the place where the other is in need. As Bonhoeffer writes, “We should listen with the ears of God that we may speak the Word of God.”

While the fool “gives an answer before he hears” (Proverbs 18:13), the wise person tries to resist defensiveness, and to listen from a non-judgmental stance, training himself not to formulate opinions or responses until the whole story has been heard.

 

6. Good listening reflects our relationship with God.


Our inability to listen well to others may be symptomatic of a chatty spirit that is droning out the voice of God. Bonhoeffer warns, "Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies."


Good listening is a great means of grace in the dynamic of true Christian fellowship.


Not only is it a channel through which God continues to pour his grace into our lives, but it’s also his way of using us as his means of grace in the lives of others. It may be one of the hardest things we learn to do, but we will find it worth every ounce of effort.

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