Hearing and Speaking – Learning the Art of Listening Again

This piece was originally posted on August 01st for Black Country Urban Industrial Mission (www.bcuim.co.uk) discussing how the pandemic is likely to result in workplace chaplains such as myself, having to re-learn the art of listening so important to our ministry. I would advocate this is something any of us whose work involves interacting with people, especially the vulnerable, may also have to consider. I reproduce the original posting below.

As the love of God begins with us listening to his Word, so the love of our sisters and brothers begins with us learning to listen to them.” So wrote German Theologian, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in his book, I Want to Live These Days with You[1] which contains a year-long series of devotions which form part of my own daily reading. Bonhoeffer elaborates further on this when he says, “As well as giving us his word, God also lends us his ear. Thus, it is his work that we do for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them.”

As workplace chaplains these are words which are etched indelibly onto our hearts and minds. Yet after months of lockdown with perhaps only sporadic contact with those we normally engaged with previously, many of us are probably faced with having to almost go back to basics. To learn the art of listening again, but to also understand the impact of Covid upon ourselves, our ministries and the challenges that will bring both to ourselves and to those we serve.

A book that should be on the reading list of anyone who wants to practice any form of ministry including that of chaplaincy, is Robert Dykstra’s Images of Pastoral Care[2], which comprises a series of essays by distinguished theologians discussing the various metaphors used to describe both classical and modern (contemporary) images of pastoral care. It is one of those works designed for both background reading by those starting out in chaplaincy or ministry in general, and for those who wish to engage in a more academic and sophisticated study of the many complexities involved with pastoral care.

So for the purposes of space I have chosen to highlight briefly two of the images from Dykstra’s book, which I feel are most appropriate for the circumstances we now find ourselves in as we learn the art of hearing, and speaking, on God’s behalf once more.

The Wounded Healer: This essay by Henri J. Nouwen (1932-1996), is often used in chaplaincy training programmes especially for those in hospital/hospice chaplaincy seeking to bring comfort and relief to the sick and dying. In it Nouwen, a Dutch catholic priest, draws on the prophet Elijah who tells a visitor that the promised messiah who will free us from hatred and oppression and who will allow peace and justice to prevail can be found sitting among the poor binding his own wounds (dealing with his own troubles) while waiting for the moment when he will be needed.[3]  Those performing pastoral ministry regardless of status (ordained, lay, employee, volunteer) are also to be found here. The one who looks after their own wounds, but at the same time, are prepared to go and heal the wounds of others.

As we slowly emerge from what for many, has been a waking nightmare, some chaplains have found the isolation enforced on them hard to deal with particularly in those areas where face to face meetings have been curtailed or suspended. While technology such as Zoom, Teams and Skype as well as social media, may have allowed us to keep in contact with our “congregations”, it can never replace that sense of intimate contact when we talk to people face to face, trying to gauge the underlying emotions present in both our verbal and non-verbal interactions. The sense of loneliness is heightened in a society where there were signs of increasing loneliness even before we went into lockdown. How does the chaplain who may have experienced their own form of loneliness either professionally or personally, seek to re-engage meaningfully using their own wounds to help with the healing process? As Nouwen also writes in his essay, no minister (or chaplain) can keep their own experience of life hidden from those they want to help. Nor should they want to keep it hidden.[4] This then perhaps is our starting point.

The Agent of Hope: In this 1996 essay American Theologian, Donald Capps (1939-2015), suggests that the role of the pastor (chaplain) is unique in that fundamentally they are an agent or bearer of hope.[5] In many cases all that such a person can offer to those they are ministering to is hope and very little else. Capps defines hope or hoping as, “the perception that what one wants to happen will happen, a perception that is fueled by desire and in response to felt deprivation.” [6] When we say our prayers either for individuals in workplace settings or corporately during prayers of intercession, we are expressing a hope that what we ask God for in his infinite mercy will happen. But we also know that God does not always respond in the way we or those we pray with or for, would want. Each of us have hopes and dreams for when this pandemic is finally behind us, but how do we express that hope in a far from certain future? How do we who are also carrying wounds from our troubles seek to listen, understand, and articulate on God’s behalf to those we serve?

Capps elaborates further in the subsequent sections of his essay how hopes and fears are created by several factors mainly based on desires, which are manifested in all of us and how giving people hope while important is not without its risks. This is perhaps best exemplified in the quote reputedly made by former New York Yankees manager, Yogi Berra, who said, “The future ain’t what it used to be.”[7] Looking into the future is always risky and as Chaplains we always have to be wary about how much hopefulness we voice in certain situations.

Capps concludes with a section called revising the past which looks at how the past far from being the source of our problems, can instead be seen as the solution and quotes various examples of how people have used past adversity to give them strength for the future. Theoretically there is nothing new in that of course, but in having to adapt to a new form of listening and speaking as we recommence our ministries, might we perhaps think that like the wounded healers that we also are, each of us can use the past to bring hope to the other that the world may yet turn out to be a better place going forward?

Capps says that the reason the world and ourselves exist at all, is because it is God’s nature to be hopeful. That it is essential for us to believe that God remains a reliable other who has not abandoned us. And why it is important that there are people who perform pastoral roles (like workplace chaplains), who assist others in their struggles to maintain hope, even though we too may have our own ambiguous relationship with that concept.[8]

I quoted from Bonhoeffer at the beginning and how God has given us the gifts of listening by lending us his ear in the service of our sisters and brothers.

As an army sergeant I once knew put it perhaps in a more worldly way, “God gave you two ears and one mouth. Use them in proportion, and you’ll go far!”

Looking at the world as it is currently, I expect God is of the same mindset.

[1] Bonhoeffer, Dietrich, I Want to Live these Days with You, translated by O.C. Dean Jr from original German (London, WJK Press, 2007)

[2] Dykstra, Robert.C (ed), Images of Pastoral Care (St Louis, Missouri, Chalice Press, 2005)

[3] Dykstra, Images of Pastoral Care, p.77

[4] Ibid, p.80

[5] Ibid, p.188

[6] Ibid, p.189

[7] Ibid, p.193

[8] Ibid, p.199