Leaving Space to Listen
“So, who are you listening to?” The questtion caught me a little bit off guard. I was squeezed into a folding seat in a 15 passenger van with musicians at the Panama City Jazz Festival, where I was externing. “Right now, a lot of Nina Simone,” I answered, and soon everyone was chiming in. We discussed particular tunes and suggested artists who were similar while universally affirming that while there were comparable singers, and there might be comparable pianists, there was definitely no one else who could do both in the way that she did. After a few days of very similar occurrences, I realized that I would have to be ready to answer, “Who are you listening to?” at the Panama City Jazz Festival as readily as I answer, “What do you study?” at Swarthmore. I also realized that talking coherently and competently about jazz required informing speech with listening to a deeper extent than I had first thought.
Over the course of my extern week, I listened in ways that I never had before. This was because I was interacting with people in my second language and listening to, and sometimes playing, jazz with professional jazz musicians. When I heard what sounded like some sort of harmonic alchemy, one of them might turn to another and name the chord progression with an intrigued smile.
What also became clear was that when other musicians asked, “Who are you listening to?” they were referring to a very intense kind of listening that could be just as accurately described as studying. If I said I listened to a particular artist, I would have to be able to talk about particular chord progressions, what made a certain melody so interesting, a singer’s tone quality, or other very specific musical details that I wouldn’t really pick up if I simply “listened” in the way that I “listen” to music while I write. The goal of listening to a particular artist was usually some combination of imitation and understanding. Similarly, when I was interacting in combinations of English and Spanish, I had to listen with that same level of focus in order to actually understand what people were telling me, as well as to, then, use the phrases that would most effectively communicate what I was trying to say.
Looking at the Bible, various writers frequently exhort their readers to listen. James 1:19 says, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.” Proverbs is full of statements like, “If one gives answer before hearing, it is folly and shame.” And most compellingly, Jesus frequently begins or ends parables by declaring variations of, “Let anyone with ears to hear listen.” When Jesus tells me to listen, I believe that what is being asked of me is at least as intense as what I had to do in Panama and what I have to do as a musician. I also believe that a deep level of listening is a necessary element of both the Christian faith and the kind of dialogue and community life that Swarthmore has so emphasized.
When asked to name the greatest commandment, Jesus responds, “You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your strength and with all your mind, and your neighbor as yourself.” Imagine trying to love someone without listening to them. Showing love to someone requires an understanding of their desires and needs. It entails a level of emotional involvement and interaction that cannot occur without listening. Trying to love without listening is awkward at best and can even be harmful at worst. As George Bernard Shaw somewhat humorously put it, “Do not do unto others as you would that they should do unto you. Their tastes may not be the same.” For instance, a freshly baked apple crumble would make my brother very happy, but it would make me sick because I’m allergic to apples.
Loving God, therefore, requires listening to God. The more time I’ve spent both pondering and practicing prayer, the more it has struck me as strange that it is described as a conversation in theory, and often looks like a one-sided conversation in practice. I’ve spent a lot of time in Christian communities, and I’ve seen an emphasis on praising God, on serving God and on praying to God. All of these things are implicitly rooted in and require listening to God. Without listening, it’s not possible to know how God wants to be praised or what kind of service pleases God. Frequently, I’ve heard it said that we read the Bible in order to know what God says. In other words, we listen by reading. I believe that reading the Word is a necessary but not sufficient component of listening to God. Seriously listening to God isn’t something that can be done while reading the Bible any more than it would be possible to seriously listen to lectures while doing my readings. Listening requires an exclusive focus on the speaker and their words. In that respect, I don’t believe that listening to God is fundamentally different from listening to anyone else. As such, listening to God requires listening in the most literal sense of the word. When I listen to God, what I do is very similar to what I do before a jazz concert. I clear some mental space and I focus on the “sound” that I’m trying to hear, then I wait.
Seriously listening to anyone entails prioritizing that person and implicitly states that you value them, their perspective, or some combination thereof, enough to invest energy in trying to understand what they are saying. Put more succinctly, listening is an act of love. Therefore, choosing whom or what to listen to is a decision about whom to love. As a Christian, I believe that God loves everyone and that any expression of my faith would be hideously incomplete without love. In the words of Paul, “If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” Consequently, I believe that I cannot dismiss anyone as unworthy of the level of listening I have described above. This isn’t to say that I agree with or support everything that I’ve listened to. I don’t. But, returning to my analogy to music, when I truly listen to something that I don’t really like, I know why I don’t like it. I can point to the spots where I’d like to have rewritten the melody or changed a lyric.
When Jesus was twelve, He was in the temple “sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions.” This is the first time in the Gospel of Luke that Jesus is acting as an independent person and the first even remotely mental task that Jesus does is listen. That’s a powerful statement. About twenty years later, Jesus would proclaim, “Woe unto you, teachers of the law!” but before He denounced them, He listened to them. A similar pattern, compressed into a few minutes, occurs over and over in Jesus’ interactions: someone asks Him a question, He responds with a question, He listens, and then He exposes what’s going on beneath the surface. This pattern shows up in the introduction to the story of the Good Samaritan, the question about paying taxes to Caesar, and the question of whether the baptism of John was from heaven. Jesus knows God and the word of God in an incredibly intimate way, and not just because He is God. On the occasions when Jesus actually critiques the theology of the Pharisees and Sadducees, He points to specific practices and the specific commandments that they are violating.12 In other words, Jesus has studied the Word of God and he has listened to those around him. That same model, studying the Word, listening, and looking at what does and doesn’t line up, is still the best model I can find for the process of discerning how to respond to what I listen to.
Reflecting on my experiences as a member of the Swarthmore community and various Christian communities on and off campus, I have been on both ends of good and bad listening. Weeks or even months after a conversation and usually in the light of some additional piece of information, I have realized what someone was trying to tell me. I have waited until I had what seemed like enough information, drawn conclusions, and stopped trying to listen in the way I’ve described above. I’ve then found out later that my conclusions were wrong, and that occasionally my assumptions could not have been further from the truth. This has happened with relatively small things like suggestions for essay revisions and more important things like understanding why people felt excluded by some of the many groups of which I am a part. At times, my own bad listening has caused unnecessary pain to people that I care about. The only way that I’ve found to make up for bad listening is through a significantly larger amount of good – at least much better – listening.
Listening requires leaving space for speech.
Sometimes listening to the silence and what isn’t said is as important as listening to anything that is said. It can be awkward. But, I’ve often heard people talk about being able to have a wonderful conversation with a close friend without saying a word. Furthermore, as a musician I have learned that the rests are as important as the notes. Great pieces of music often sound comically bad if you play them without the rests – for fun, try this with the “Lacrimosa” from the Mozart Requiem. Listening is a serious endeavor. It takes work, time, and energy. Even so, I have regretted listening poorly but never regretted trying to listen in the way I’ve outlined. Now, since I appreciate the irony of writing about listening, I’m going to stop talking and listen.
Thank you for listening.
1. James 1:19 (NRSV)
2. Proverbs 18:13, (NRSV)
3. Mark 4:9 and 4:23, Matthew 11:15 and 13:9, to name a few.
4. Luke 10:27 (NRSV)
6. 1st Corinthians 13:1, NRSV verses 2 and 3 also elaborate on the idea.
7. Luke 2:46 (NRSV)
8. Luke 11:46-52 (NRSV)
9. Luke 10:25-37 (NRSV)
10. Luke 20:20-26 (NRSV)
11. Luke 20:1-8 (NRSV)
12. Mark 7:9-13 (NRSV)
Nathan Scalise ’16
Nathan is from Brewster, Massachusetts and is currently searching for the 25th hour of the day. When not running or eating, he basically lives in the Lang Music Building.Tags: art, beauty, George Bernard Shaw, love, music, Nina Simone, Swarthmore College