Our preacher, Sheryl Black, has had requests for a copy of her sermon, and we're happy to share it here.
Let anyone with ears to hear listen!
Listening, and actually hearing, is probably the foundation of what we do as chaplains, no matter our setting, and I read recently that the Chinese character for listening includes the roots for eyes, ears, heart, you, and undivided attention. That sounds a lot like God in our psalm, God who answers when we seek, one who delivers from terror, God who hears when we call, God whose ears are open to the cries of God’s people. God, who chooses to be fully involved with humanity. And as chaplains I see our roles as priests, intermediaries, and, yes, even midwives assisting those in our care – by listening.
As I was reflecting on this homily, I read Bishop Steven Charleston’s post about listening on Facebook. He wrote that
"Listening is such an important spiritual practice, but perhaps hearing is even more critical. There is a difference. We can listen to others when they talk and never hear a thing. Hearing what someone is trying to tell us, even if it means listening between the lines of what they are saying, is a great skill and one that requires a deep level of empathy. Hearing is understanding. It is that moment when we enter into another person's reality. This level of trust and intimacy must be treated with great care. If we are not trained counselors we need to know our own limitations, but simply hearing what we are being told is a profound gift we all have to share."
Listening to those in our charge plants us firmly us on sacred ground, sharing holy moments of encounter with another child of God, created in God’s image. To listen is to be fully present, giving our whole attention to the Other. In his book Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote that “The first service that one owes to others . . . consists in listening to them. Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His word but also lends us His ear.” And in our hyped up and hurried world, to be truly heard is a rare commodity. In my hospital setting, there are very few disciplines who even have the time to listen – and that’s why there are chaplains. That’s why there is pastoral care. That’s our calling: to listen, to hear, to care. We are servants of the divine, listeners with the job of being attentive to God, with and for the sake of another. While our Episcopal tradition is rich in sign and symbol, church leaders don’t always do well in practice. That leaves much ministry to us: to listen to deepest yearnings and needs, to help others read the signposts that may bring them closer to God, or at least to value the deepest divinity in each person.
When I was in seminary, I had no idea that I would end up as a chaplain; however when I did my first unit of CPE at Presbyterian Hospital in Pittsburgh, I felt like this was “real ministry” – being with people where the rubber hits the road, people who are often in the midst of the worst thing in their lives, and being able to listen to their stories, to care for them, and, perhaps, offer hope. It was truly eye-opening! For you newly board certified members, and I was in your shoes just 4 years ago – I hope you have spent time in CPE learning to listen. And I don’t think we can ever stop learning, improving our skills, re-filling our tool box. We learn to listen for the real message hidden behind the words people use as they struggle perhaps with a new diagnosis, or a word like Cancer, or with dying, grief, and loss. We are called to listen -- and even more to hear and bear witness, to validate the other. Sometimes, we bring love, sometimes we bring hope. We show God’s love by listening with our entire being – fully present and attending to the patient.
It took me a while to figure out that I don’t have to have answers – and it’s honestly best if I don’t. I have 2 ears and one mouth for a reason! “Why” is not a search for answers, but a cry of pain or protest. People don’t want an answer, they want to be heard, supported, loved. Henri Nouwen wrote that “Listening is a very active and extremely alert form of caring.” He says, “Healing is the humble, but, also, very demanding task of creating and offering a friendly, empty space where strangers can reflect on their pain and suffering, without fear, and find the confidence that makes them look for new ways right in the centre of their confusion.”
Listening – to God, to ourselves, to hurting people – is a high calling! Zen Buddhist teacher Joan Halifax (book Gifts of the Spirit) said, “Listening means that we have stabilized our minds so completely that the person who is speaking can actually hear themselves through our stillness. It is a quality of radiant listening, of luminous listening, of vibrant listening, but it is also very still It is listening with attention, with openheartedness, without prejudice. We listen with our being. We offer our whole listening body”. Like that Chinese character, we engage our eyes, ears, heart, self, and our undivided attention. Fully mindful, fully present.
Pay attention to what you hear; the measure you give will be the measure you get, and still more will be given you.
The Very Rev. Sherry Black, MDiv, BCC, is Chaplain and Spiritual Care Manager
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