Genesis 11:1-9; Psalm 46:10-11
The Rev. Tom Herbek
February 18, 2018
This is a strange story, this story about the Tower of Babel. How did this story get written down? I am not an Old Testament scholar, but I can imagine how this story came about. The Hebrew people were nomads, and in their wandering, they stopped in an area where there were other tribes who spoke other languages. One of the Hebrew children came across a child from the other tribe and asked them if they wanted to play. The other child could not understand, and she replied in her own language, which, of course, the Hebrew girl could not understand. So the Hebrew girl went home and said to her mother, “I tried to make a friend, but I could not understand a word she said, and she could not understand me either.” “If we all came from Adam and Eve, why don’t we all speak the same? Why can’t we all understand each other?” And her mother, not wanting to blame God, told her a story about why God had to make such a thing happen, the story about the Tower of Babel.
Today, there is much “babbling” and not much listening in our world. Today, even in a nation where there is a common language, the meaning is not the same in the words, depending on who is talking and who is the person who hears the words. It is ironic that religion is so often used to separate people when, actually, the root of the word religion is the Latin “re-ligio,” which means to relink, to reconnect. Therefore, the root meaning of religion is that it is something that reconnects, relinks, restores people to a relationship with one another and to God. Our stories and rituals and ceremonies and traditions come from our efforts to be “re-ligio-ed” to the people in our daily lives. Part of what it takes is stillness, as the Psalmist calls us to “Be still, and know that I am God!” In the cacophony of noise in our lives, sometimes we really need to be still. Sometimes, the most important thing we can do is to stop talking, be still, and just listen. And particularly today, stillness is a scarce resource, and we are surrounded by “babel.” Will Durant once said: “Talk is cheap because the supply always exceeds the demand. One of the lessons of history is that nothing is often a good thing to do and always a clever thing to say.”
We miss so much when we don’t listen. But listening is very hard. We take classes in writing and are carefully taught to read. If we have trouble speaking, there is speech therapy or public speaking classes. How many people get training in how to listen? We act as if listening were unimportant. The most famous people are the ones who talk, not the ones who listen.
Over 50 years after his family had moved to the U.S. from Germany, Walter Kissinger was asked why he did not have the same heavy German accent as his brother Henry, the famous member of his family. Walter Kissinger replied, “I am the Kissinger who listens.”
My grandfather Jordan was a wonderful storyteller who had this great laugh and warmth about him, but what I loved most about him was that he listened to me, a boy in elementary school, as if I were the only person in the world. We all need someone in our lives who listens like that, who stops what they are doing and really listens.
When we are in pain, we often believe that we are all alone, that no one understands or cares, sometimes not even God. When someone is in pain, they will not be able to feel anything but alone, unless someone listens.
Dr. Rachel Naomi Remen listens to people with cancer:
I suspect that the most basic and powerful way to connect to another person is to listen. Just listen. Perhaps the most important thing we ever give each other is our attention. And especially if it’s given from the heart. When people are talking, there’s no need to do anything but receive them. Just take them in. Listen to what they’re saying. Care about it. Most times caring about it is even more important than understanding it. Most of us don’t value ourselves or our love enough to know this. It has taken me a long time to believe in the power of simply saying, “I’m so sorry,” when someone is in pain. And meaning it.
One of my patients told me that when she tried to tell her story people often interrupted to tell her that they once had something just like that happen to them. Subtly her pain became a story about themselves. Eventually she stopped talking to most people. It was just too lonely. We connect through listening. When we interrupt what someone is saying to let them know that we understand, we move the focus of attention to ourselves. When we listen, they know we care. Many people with cancer talk about the relief of having someone just listen.
This simple thing has not been that easy to learn. It certainly went against everything I had been taught since I was very young. I thought people listened only because they were too timid to speak or did not know the answer. A loving silence often has far more power to heal and to connect than the most well-intentioned words.
–Kitchen Table Wisdom
Listening helps to bring healing to the one speaking, but it also is very healthy for the listener. We know that blood pressure goes up when you talk, and that blood pressure drops when you listen. But you have to be really listening, not just pretending to listen. If you are not really listening, but instead are deciding what to say next, your blood pressure stays up. Deep within us is this need to listen and to be listened to. God created this in each of us. It is this connection between people that is most healing for all of us.
A man once confided in a friend, “I find it extremely difficult to talk with my father, and it saddens me because I want to get closer to him. We don’t argue or anything,” he said. “We just care about such different things. When he starts to talk about golf, I want to scream. I have no interest in golf whatsoever. Of course,” he added, “I would never tell him that.”
“Then it’s simple,” the friend said. “You don’t need to have any interest in golf. What you’re interested in is your father. Just listen to him and not to the golf.”
It is important that we listen to the words, but it is even more important that we listen to the person. Most people don’t talk to us about anything important, until they believe that we care about them, until we listen to them, not just to their words. I will never forget what one 13-year-old boy told me when I worked in a large hospital. He said, “Chaplain Tom, you are the only one who comes into my room each day who listens to me. The others don’t really listen, or if they do, they only listen to my cancer. But you are different. You listen to me.”
Richard Rohr once wrote:
In the spiritual life it’s much more important to know how to listen than to know how to talk.
Most of us are not trained in redemptive listening. We’re trained to give answers.
In the counseling context, this listening mode is often called nondirective counseling. It is based on the premise that one can’t ultimately provide the answers for others. All one can do is walk with the other and help others rightly to hear themselves. What people long to have happen is to be somehow received, understood. When they are heard, it seems, they can begin to hear. The most redemptive thing one can do for another is just to understand.
When we are understood, when we feel another person really cares, it’s surprising how the problem, for the most part, can fade. We don’t need the answer anymore. The mere fact that someone is carrying the burden with us, walking with us on the journey (for some unbelievable reason-it’s not logical at all), takes care of much of the problem.
- What the Mystics Know
And good listeners can hear not only the words, but also what isn’t being said, what is there in the silence between the words. My grandfather gave me something that filled a hole in my heart. He took the time to listen to me, and sometimes we just sat in the big green wooden rocking chairs on the front porch and watched the traffic go by.
As Rachel Naomi Remen, M.D. writes, we all need a listening ear, a place of refuge, a lap:
Perhaps the most important thing we bring to another person is the silence in us. Not the sort of silence that is filled with unspoken criticism or hard withdrawal. The sort of silence that is a place of refuge, of rest, of acceptance of someone as they are. We are all hungry for this other silence. It is hard to find. Silence is a place of great power and healing. Silence is God’s lap.
A highly skilled AIDS doctor once told me that she keeps a picture of her grandmother in her home and sits before it for a few minutes every day before she leaves for work. Her grandmother was an Italian-born woman who held her family close. Her wisdom was of the earth. Once when Louisa was very small, her kitten was killed in an accident. It was her first experience of death and she had been devastated. Her parents had encouraged her not to be sad, telling her that the kitten was in heaven now with God. Despite these assurances, she had not been comforted. She had prayed to God, asking Him to give her kitten back. But God did not respond.
In her anguish she had turned to her grandmother and asked, “Why?” Her grandmother had not told her that her kitten was in heaven as so many of the other adults had. Instead, she had simply held her and reminded her of the time when her grandfather had died. She, too, had prayed to God, but God had not brought Grandpa back. She did not know why. Louisa had turned into the soft warmth of her grandmother’s shoulder then and sobbed. When finally she was able to look up, she saw that her grandmother was crying as well.
Although her grandmother could not answer her question, great loneliness had gone and she felt able to go on. All the assurances that Peaches was in heaven had not given her this strength or peace. “My grandmother was a lap, Rachel,” she told me, “a place of refuge. I know a great deal about AIDS, but what I really want to be for my patients is a lap. A place from which they can face what they have to face and not be alone.”
–My Grandfather’s Blessings
Especially in today’s world, there is much “babbling,” going on, so much noise and so little listening.
Joan Chittister says that those who listen, truly listen, are few and far between: “Listeners are life’s rarest breed. Parent figures, gurus, commanders, curial overlords, and nags are easy to come by.
Listeners – those who hear the pain behind the pain, allow you to probe it, and work with you to find a way beyond it – come few and far between. In all my life, I have known only two. But they have made all the difference. Thanks to them I have survived both my beginnings and my endings.” (Called to Question).
We all need to learn to listen, to become a place of refuge for the people around us in their pain. Just like I had with my grandfather, we need a lap, perhaps not physically, but at least an emotional and spiritual lap.
May God help us to listen, to be God’s ears and God’s lap for people in need. God also calls us to be a place of refuge. So let us learn to listen, and may it be said of each of us in this church family: “They are really good listeners there.”