Saturday, February 4, 2012

'Listening' has more to do than listening with the ears

By Father Perry D. Leiker

You had to admire the Jews. They had no problem speaking up to God, telling him exactly what they thought: "We don't like hearing your voice anymore! Don't lead us with fire!" They were scared to death where that fire would lead them. They believed — it's written especially through the Exodus — if you ever saw God's face, you would die; he's too great. In fact, you recall when Moses coming down from the mountain after getting the tablets he had apparently on the mountain spoken to God face to face. And so when he came down, the scriptures say his face was glowing but from the inside. People were afraid to look at the face that looked at the face. That's how awesome God was to them. So today they tell him, "Don't speak to us anymore!" They had their nerve talking to God like that. But their problem wasn't speaking up to God; their problem was listening. So we hear and sang that response that's very common in our liturgy, especially during Lent: "If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts."

Now, I don't know the original Semitic languages, and I'm sure that in this text that it's important — and probably with commentaries you get differing opinions — but "If today you hear his voice" does that mean if by chance you should hear it, or does it mean "If today you hear his voice" because today he's speaking? But in any case, whatever that means, if today you hear his voice, the psalmist doesn't say "Listen with your ears," he says, "Harden not your hearts." So it's not even an implication; it is straight out there. Listening has more to do than listening with the ears.

I remember in my first assignment as a priest. I was just 26 years old, there just for a few months, and this man would come to see me a few times, younger than me. And this one time he came in, he was visibly very nervous and upset.

He came in and sat down. I said, "Paul? What's going on? How are you?"

He says, "I'm fine, father." But he had these nervous twitches, just real obvious. Just nervous as could be.

I said, "Well, how are you, Paul?"

"Oh, I'm fine, father." Twitching.

I said, "Really? What's going on in your life?"

"Oh, you know, the same."

I said, "Paul, what the matter with you? Look at you, you're shaking." And then he opened up and shared his big problem. If I hadn't listened with my eyes (and I know I'm mixing metaphors here), but I had to listen with my eyes, see that this man was disturbed. And if I hadn't seen and heard with my eyes, I'd have never asked him and perchance he would have never opened up.

Isn't this a big complaint in marriage? How many women say, "He never listens to me! He doesn't know what I'm really saying!"

And how often men say, "She never listens. I keep telling her we can't afford it, she buys it anyway! She doesn't listen!"

Well, the truth is we can listen we can listen with our ears and hear the words. But that doesn't mean we "hear." And this is where people want to be heard. They want to hear the other person, and be heard by the other person, in their hears. But the truth is, just listening with our ears is difficult. I heard it said by a preacher once, and I've taken this on in my own life: I will take responsibility for every word I say. I will take responsibility for every word that comes out of my mouth. I take less responsibility for what you hear. And I take almost no responsibility for what you think you heard. Because by the time we get to that — "Well, I think he said this." Oh, my God. Nothing like that. But it's true that people can actually hear the words and think you meant something else and didn't get the meaning.

Two weeks ago I wasn't here at the 9:30 [a.m.] Mass. I'm so sorry. Some people thought I had an accident or died. I simply put it in my own personal calendar wrong, and I had the dates mixed up. So as often happens in our church these days, there are so many churches in the diocese that don't have a priest for Mass. I was called and asked to take a Mass. I had scheduled it and I just scheduled it wrong in my book. Now people saw and heard there was no priest. Thank you. They took over and did a celebration. And I appreciate the fact that you were able to receive communion and hear the word because that's really most important. But if we listen to what happened with our hearts, then we begin to understand how much more fervently we need to pray that prayer for vocations.

Now, I don't know when our church is going to wake up, either to ordain women — which I'm in favor of — or to permit married clergy. We already have them, actually. We welcome in Anglican priests and we re-ordain them and now we have married clergy, but not originating from our church. Or people will begin to say, "Oh, my God. The mission is calling." The mission of the church is calling. We need sisters, we need priests, we need brothers, we need deacons. Are you hearing me? Let the church say amen! That's what we should have heard when there was an absence of a priest. Not, "We've been undone! This is an injustice! Where was our priest?!" And I understand that, but there's something even deeper to listen to: We are in crisis. We need priests like we've never needed them before. We had many more priests 20 years ago and fewer Catholics. The church is bursting at the seams with Catholics, and we don't have the priests to serve them. So when do we wake up and hear the mission, the call, deep within our heart? And how many say, "Here I am, Lord. I come to do your will. Here I am"? Listening with the heart is another experience.

Today, in that first reading, we hear the tension. The people said they didn't want to listen to God speak, so God said, "OK, I'll stop speaking to you directly, but then I'll send prophets." And so "I will call a prophet. Name them prophet, and they will speak in my name. And if you don't listen to them, I'll take care of you. And if they don't say what I tell them, I'll kill them." You still want to be a prophet? And the prophets didn't want to be prophets. We hear in Joel, God says, "Before you were born, I knew you in the womb. And I called you to be a prophet to the nations." And his response? "No, Lord. I'm too young. Don't call me; call my neighbor." They didn't want the responsibility to bear the word and pronounce the word of God, I mean, after he says what he says in Deuteronomy.

In that second reading, what was proclaimed was, Paul who's going to make a further point, he's making this case: Jesus Christ is coming any day, we better be ready. So he says, if you're not married, don't get married; you can devote yourself to the Lord. If you're married you have to be responsible. But if you're not, don't get married because the Lord is coming any day. That's listening with the heart — I need to focus only on the Lord.

But the Gospel makes the point, kind of indirectly but most profoundly: Jesus went about preaching, and there's no question people heard him (well, not everybody). The ones who heard him best were the sinners, the outcasts, the people that were no longer in the community because they had sinned or whatever. The inner circle didn't see them as fit. They had broken the laws. And so they were outcasts. So Jesus spoke and they heard him, and their comment was, "He speaks with authority." Not like the scribes and Pharisees. The scribed and Pharisees say things but they're hypocrites; they don't live what they say. The black community has this phrase, I learned it when I was in South Central: "Baby, he walks the talk." He doesn't just talk it, he actually walks it, he lives it. And that was Jesus. He told us, forgive everyone no matter what; and on the cross he says, "Father, forgive them all, the know not what they do." That's walking the talk. And so when they heard Jesus speak, they said, "He's different. He's the author of his words. They are him, and that's what comes out of his mouth." So they listened. And even — and this is the most profound thing about this Gospel — an unclean spirit, an evil spirit was in this man; and even the unclean spirits recognized Jesus. "What are you doing here?! You came to destroy me! I know who you are! You're the Son of God." And then he was cast out. Even the evil spirits got it, but not the Pharisees and the scribes. He would heal people right in front of their eyes. The reports from the people were, "He raised a man from the dead." And they didn't listen, they didn't see, and they put him to death.

"If today you hear his voice, harden not your hearts." If today we heard all of the scriptures intellectually, we might be able to explain them perfectly: This is what it means, this is what he said, this is what we should do. And it ain't enough. We got to go deeper. Because hearing with the ears and hearing with the brain, although it can bring us understanding, it's hearing with the heart that actually changes and transforms our lives.

So today, we sang it — several times. But I would propose to you and to myself that the most important sentence, perhaps, in the scripture today is that simple line: "If today you hear his voice" — if you do, if, if — "harden not your hearts." And it's here, in the hearing of the heart, that our lives would be made anew.

Father Perry D. Leiker is St. Bernard parish administrator. Reach him at (323) 255-6142, Ext. 112.

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