A miracle of speaking, or of hearing?

Posted: Wednesday, May 11, 2005

Pastor George Slides, Jr.

Living and Growing

This Sunday next, May 15, many Christian churches will celebrate the feast of Pentecost, the Greek name given to the Hebrew Feast of Weeks, so called because it fell on the 50th day after Passover. At this feast the first fruits of the corn harvest were presented (Deut. 16:9) and, in later times, the giving of the Law by Moses was commemorated. According to the book of Acts in the Christian New Testament, as the Holy Ghost descended upon the Apostles on this day (Acts 2:1), the name Pentecost was applied by the early Church to the feast celebrating that event. It ranks, after Easter, as the second most important festival of the Church. Supposedly, the apostles were given for a time the gift of speaking in foreign languages, to evangelize those gathered for the festival of weeks. "When they heard this sound, a crowd came together in bewilderment, because each one heard them speaking in his own language. Utterly amazed, they asked, 'are not all these men who are speaking Galileans? How is it then that each of us hears them in his own native language?'" There follows an impressive list of far-flung nations, indicating a large multitude from across the Middle Eastern world; a number great enough to allow 3,000 converts that day to the apostles' teaching (NIV Acts 2:6-11, 41).

Thank you for bearing with me this long, for the above is a preamble to a question which has, I believe, importance to us all - those in the church, and those affected by the attitude of churches. Was it a miracle of speaking, or was it a miracle of hearing? Have you who know this passage ever considered this, and what a difference it might make? As an institution which shapes the minds and hearts of its members, which instills an "attitude in and toward the world," what a fundamental difference would it make to see Pentecost as a gift of hearing, of listening, instead of speaking? Our houses of worship might look different, or at least have different furniture. Would we have such great and massive pulpits as a center of our focus? What qualities would we prize in our pastors; what qualities would we prize in ourselves, individually and communally? What would be the effect of a church which not only could get its message out, but which prized even more highly, as a sacred trust, the capacity to hear the stories of the world around it? A stance of sacred listening; a stance fearless, non-threatened and non-threatening.

M. Scott Peck, in "The Road Less Traveled," suggested this stance would build up our communities in a powerful way: "An essential part of true listening is the discipline of temporarily giving up or setting aside one's own prejudices, frames of reference and desires so as to experience as far as possible the speaker's world from the inside, inside his or her shoes. This unification of speaker and listener is actually an extension and enlargement of ourselves, and new knowledge is always gained from this. Moreover, since true listening involves bracketing, a setting aside of the self, it also temporarily involves a total acceptance of the other. Sensing this acceptance, the speaker will feel less and less vulnerable and more and more inclined to open up the inner recesses of his or her mind to the listener. As this happens, speaker and listener begin to appreciate each other more and more, and the duet dance of love is begun again."

Or as William Stringfellow puts it more simply: "Listening is a primitive act of love in which a person gives himself to another's word, making himself accessible and vulnerable to that word."

Vulnerability, acceptance, setting apart of self - these are hard qualities to foster in any one person, let alone entire institutions. But if we could? Who might we hear, what might we learn, how might we grow?

• The Rev. George Silides Jr. is pastor of Holy Trinity Episcopal Church.

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