Recently, as I was driving to the Bible school where I was teaching, I had to drop Paula off at another Bible school where she was teaching, and we drove past a large, dirt football (soccer) field and a large dumpster that sits next to it. The area around the dumpster was strewn with litter and debris, and almost every day a half dozen children could be seen digging through the waste, looking for, who knows exactly what; possibly the makings of their next toy, or used plastic bags that can be wound together for a football, or maybe nothing at all. Maybe they were just looking because its what they see everyday, and their curiosity got the best of them.
These days, a good five months since the last rain, the ground in Zambia is as hard as concrete, and the winds are blowing up dust to almost blinding degrees.
Being in the shanty compounds of Lusaka always leaves me with an odd mixture of emotions. On the one hand, I can’t help but think how glad I am that I grew up in America, in a neighborhood that had clean sidewalks, and where all the houses had lawns that, if not pristine, were at least fairly well kept and quite usable for a game of tag, or hide–and–seek. Yet, at the same time, as soon as I think that thought, I find myself feeling guilty that things were so easy for us growing up, compared to what life is like here.
I try to imagine what it would be like to have lived in a neighborhood like these shanty compounds, my whole life; and yet, honestly, I find myself unable to do so. I find it hard to really imagine what its like to have always only ever known dusty, dirt roads, never paved ones, to have only ever had makeshift toys, never the store bought variety, to have pushed around old tires, rather than being able to ride bicycles. It seems that I just completely lack any common point of reference. There is no framework within my own experiences for such an existence.
And I’ve come to think that even though we can get in our 4x4’s and go where people are here, we can seldom, by ourselves, really be where they are at. We can drive the same roads they drive, we can walk across the same trash strewn streets, we can go to their churches, and we can teach in their schools, but it takes much more than being where people are, to understand who they are.
That, only happens when we pause long enough to listen.
Listening, has not always been my greatest strength. Maybe it’s ADD. I don’t know. And the thing is, I really do try to listen (most of the time), but somewhere between a person opening their mouth to speak, and those words actually reaching my ears, there are roughly 40,000 other things that are equally vying for my attention.
Now, in all honesty, I don’t think I am entirely to blame for that. Yes, its partly my fault, in that I have an attention span about as long as this sentence. But, that aside, many people seem to think that the point of a conversation is to win, and that one wins by saying the most consecutive words without pausing. Sort of the machine gun approach. What I can’t quite figure out, is why those of us who struggle to pay attention are often put on medication, while our rambling counterparts are left alone. But, that’s getting off the subject.
Truthfully, I think the ability to really listen is genuinely a human malady, something that few of us are really good at. I mean, think about your friends who are good listeners. Those that are, stand out! And the reason that person stands out, is because that quality is so rare!
I mean let’s be honest. The question, “How are you doing?” is most often simply a launching pad for “Let me tell you how I’m doing.”
And yet, listening is a crucial part of the Christian life. Our ability to know God, and to be transformed by him, begins with our ability to listen to Him. And our ability to serve God, is directly related to our ability to listen to others. John’s Gospel quotes Jesus as saying, “ It is written in the Prophets: ‘They will all be taught by God.’ Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.” (John 6:45). And one of the first things we see in the life of Jesus, is him, sitting at the feet of others, and listening (Luke 2:46).
The degree to which we have listened to God, will directly determine the degree to which we become like him. Unless the word of God penetrates our hearts, unless we allow ourselves to believe it, not because we like it, or because it sounds nice, but because it flows from Eternal Truth, then we can never participate in a relationship with God. And unless we have begun to know God, then our own listening will always be filtered through our own agenda. We will listen, in order to have a chance to speak. Our objective will be to display our wit, or wisdom, to gun down the other person with our vast amount of knowledge and expertise.
But when we have listened to God, when we have, like Mary, sat at the feet of Jesus because we’ve understood the inherent value in doing so, then we become empowered to truly listen to others. Because then, and only then, are we able to hear, not with our own ears, or even our own heart, but with the heart of God, whose Spirit has come to reside within us (Rom. 8:9).
And even if we can’t fully relate to growing up in a shanty compound, we can hear the cry of those who have grown up there, a cry that longs to be heard, because we ourselves have heard from the One who really has something worthwhile to say.