Listen to Him
Second Sunday of Lent
I remember, when I was growing up, how my parents got on my case a lot for what according them was my habit of not listening. I didn’t understand what the big deal was since I was seldom argumentative (I reserved that honor for my siblings), I didn’t get into trouble (no fighting, no swearing, brought home straight A’s from school), I did my chores before going out to play (although I often returned home dirty, hungry and ragged, with the occasional bump, bruise or nosebleed), and relative to my siblings I think I turned out just fine. … At that time in my life, I was also known for my stubbornness, my ability to disappear when difficulties arose, my distaste for any kind of confrontation or conflict, and my mastery of highly selective listening skills. I could have driven my parents insane, but I didn’t know then I had such power. My only conscious objective was to avoid getting reprimanded or punished. So whenever there was trouble, my brothers and I went into survival mode, each looking to save his own skin. And I did my best to get out of the way. It didn’t matter that one of us would end up taking the fall, just as long as it wasn’t me. The measure of my success was that I lived to see another day. So I developed an immunity, an imperviousness to yelling, nagging and threats of punishment. I also discovered an interesting pattern in grown-up behavior. When grown-ups want you to listen, they will tell you to look them in the eye, stop talking, stop fidgeting, and then they will speak slowly and loudly just in case you have a tendency to miss really important instructions and warnings.
Then I joined the ranks of the grown-ups and became a classroom teacher. Gradually I saw my students behaving as I did when I was their age – the eyeball roll, the half-pout, the subtle smirk, the nervous fidgeting, the blank stare, the perfunctory nod, the mumbling under their breath as they walk away … déjà vu! I knew because I recall doing just that. And perhaps most grown-ups have done the same in their youth. That’s why young people have to endure a lot of yelling and nagging and repetitive reminding. They think they know how to listen, but they really don’t. We know because we were there! I am even inclined to believe you were all actual teenagers at some point. So if we knew how to really listen then, we would also have understood. And if we understood, we would have been receptive to change. That’s partly why teenagers cop an attitude, why they evade conversations that might reveal what’s in their hearts, why they have no trouble tuning out anyone they’re convinced is out of touch. They think they know how to listen, that they understand completely. Grown-ups know these young people are nowhere close to real understanding … but try telling them that. They have to arrive at real understanding on their own. And as the yelling gets louder, the deeper inside themselves they retreat, and even less listening takes place. It has taken me years to develop effective listening skills, and I know I still have lots to learn. Real listening is hard work. If you know how to do it, it will change your life.
When Jesus took Peter, James and John up the mountain with him, he wanted them to witness something profound, something life-affirming. If they paid close attention, it had potential to alter their lives. But he didn’t tell them what to look for. He provided the opportunity, the rest was up to them. He was content not to do any explaining. Then Peter opened his mouth. “Lord, this is really nice, and I mean, the view, the company, the special effects. We could just stay here a while, relax, have a couple of drinks, spend the night. We’re in no hurry to get home.” But before he could finish speaking, a cloud cast a shadow upon them, and God spoke. “This is my beloved Son, listen to him.” God interrupted Peter’s rambling because there was a good chance he would miss the point to all of this, which at that time, he in fact did.
We read in the book of Genesis how Abram heard God call him away from his family and his father’s house, to walk with God on a journey into the unknown. Did he know beforehand the extent of what God was asking of him? Probably not. But whatever God told him … He listened intently and allowed God’s message to penetrate deep into his heart, and it cost him a great deal. It altered his life forever.
St. Paul had a similar experience. God turned his life upside-down too … He listened and lived its message faithfully. In his letter to … Timothy (he tells his friend) to take Christian discipleship seriously, to accept what it means to truly follow Jesus and listen to his gospel. “Bear your share of hardship for the gospel with the strength that comes from God.” He was hinting at the presence of the cross in the lives of those who wish to be Christ’s disciples. … (And discipleship) is primarily an invitation to be transformed, then to transform the world.
Every now and then, people will come up to me and recall something I said in a homily, something that stuck in their mind. They will point out stories I told of my childhood, my family, my past, stories that are sometimes humorous, even sometimes moving or disturbing. … Now in the past, I would be impressed. Someone WAS actually paying attention. Yet when I ask what the point was to the story, they are often unable to say. “Oh, but I loved the story. You’re doing a wonderful job.” I’m not sure I get it. How good a job am I doing if they don’t remember the point I was trying to make? Then I remembered how effective Jesus was when he taught his listeners. He used stories, parables and figures of speech. He worked miracles, fed the hungry, healed the sick and raised the dead. And yet there must have been people who came away unimpressed. There may have been some who just liked his stories, some who just enjoyed the free meals he provided, some who just loved how he cured the sick and drove out demons, and some who just decided he was a very nice young man. But were they really listening? Did any transformation take place in their lives? Don’t get me wrong. I still enjoy it when people come up and tell me it was a nice homily, that they love my stories, that they can relate. You see, the transformation of your life is not my job. That’s what happens when you really listen. And if Jesus didn’t have great success, who am I to think I can do better? … Are you willing to be transformed this Lenten season? … then you will need to really listen. God has something important to say to you.