Friendship, listening, and empathy: A Prayer GuideTwo Hands: Grief and Gratitude in the Christian LifeSabbath Keeping FastingA Renewed SpiritualityNurturing Hope: Christian Pastoral Care in the Twenty-First CenturyThe Power of ListeningJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationPersonality Type in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathFriendingA Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthDeath in Dunedin: A NovelDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelBeating Burnout in CongregationsReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeAdvent DevotionalDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for “holy listening”

Lynne Baab • Tuesday January 9 2024

Friendship, loneliness, and prayer: Praying for “holy listening”

Lutheran Bishop Craig Satterlee uses the term “holy listening” to describe the kind of listening that seeks to discern “the presence and activity of God in the joys, struggles, and hopes of the ordinary activities of congregational life, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition.” [1]

Bishop Satterlee is referring to congregational life, but listening in any setting can be holy when we hope and expect to encounter God. Bishop Satterlee believes holy listening is indispensable because it builds intimacy and helps people connect with each other in a way that goes beyond the superficial, resulting in powerful bonds between people.

Satterlee notes that our listening is imperfect because we are flawed people with our own agendas. Still, we can try to listen attentively and carefully. He writes:

“Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us.” [2]

I love the idea that holy listening takes the incarnation seriously. My understanding of God’s call to ministry is rooted in a commitment to honor the incarnation of Jesus by responding to Jesus’ words that we are sent into the world as he was sent (John 17:18). As we do that, the Holy Spirit enables us to perceive the presence of Jesus in wildly diverse people and places, and our listening becomes holy. This relates to strangers we encounter as well as conversations with friends and family members.

What makes listening holy? The word “holy” means set apart, consecrated to God, or to a religious purpose. The kind of listening I have been advocating in this series of blog posts has several purposes, all of which seem to me to be holy:

  • understanding the viewpoints of others in order to serve them, respect them, pray for them, or respond appropriately and lovingly to what they have said
  • allowing people to talk through the events and concerns of their life so they can articulate the way their faith has intersected with those events and concerns
  • paying attention to God’s voice in order to draw near in love and obedience, for individuals and for groups

Celia, a Baptist pastor and spiritual director who I interviewed for my book on listening, discussed the way good listening helps the speaker — and sometimes the listener as well — get in touch with what they themselves believe, another form of holy listening that involves paying attention to multiple layers of meaning. She reflected,

“Listening often helps people become conscious of what they’re saying. It helps them make connections they haven’t seen before. People say, ‘I’ve never said that before. I wonder if that’s right.’ We can journal or talk to ourselves, and things come up. Why is it so different, so much richer, when we talk to others, and they listen?”

When I have taught listening skills to my students, they have expressed surprise at two things: first, that listening skills are actually fairly simple to describe, and second, that it’s so easy to fall into a rut of using certain listening skills but not others. Many students have said that some straightforward instruction on listening skills made a quantum difference in their ability to listen because they gained confidence in using a variety of listening skills. All of the listening skills I have discussed in the past few months in my blog posts are building blocks for holy listening.

Loving Jesus, when we interact with friends, family members, and others, we pray for vigilance, alertness, openness, and the expectation that you will speak through the people we are listening to. We ask for trust that the Holy Spirit will act in and through our listening. Open our eyes to your presence and activity in the joys, struggles, and hopes we hear from others, as well as the uncertainty and opportunity of change and transition.

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Next week: When thanking friends isn't enough. Illustration by Dave Baab: Unicol garden, University of Otago, Dunedin, New Zealand. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up below under “subscribe.” This post is adapted from my book, The Power of Listening.

Listening skills covered thus far in this blog series, building blocks for holy listening:

[1] and [2] “Holy and Active Listening” by Craig Satterlee, Alban at Duke Divinity School. Adapted from Bishop Satterlee’s book,When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transformation (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2005).

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