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Learning to listen

I grew up in Madison and my father worked in Huntsville and actually was a rocket scientist (aerospace engineer).  It wasn’t that big of deal though, because seemingly half of the work force there was involved in the space industry at the time (the sixties and early seventies). 

He came home one day with a test he wanted me to take.  They had been given the test at work and some of the engineers hadn’t done so well.  He explained that it was a timed test which had to be completed in three minutes.  I could see enough of the paper he was holding to tell that it was covered from top to bottom with writing, but I was eager for the challenge to match myself against the rocket scientists.

The first couple of items were standard stuff:  look over everything on the test, put your name in the right hander corner—along with a glaring reminder at the very top of the page that I had only three minutes to complete the twenty-five items.  After that, the test took a different, surprising turn.  There weren’t any complex scientific problems to be figured out by employing advanced mathematics (which was good because Algebra 1 was all I had taken).  Instead, it told me to draw five squares in the upper left hand corner.  Then I was to draw circles around the squares.  Most puzzling though was item #5, which said, “If you have followed directions carefully to this point, call out, ‘I have,’” and #17, which said, “Loudly call out, ‘I am nearly finished. I have followed directions.’”  It would be a few years before I learned about foreshadowing and irony.

When I finally arrived at the final item on the test it said, “Now that you have finished reading everything carefully, do only items 1 & 2.”  I was totally disoriented—I had been locked in serious speed mindset—not tricky test mode.  When my dad explained to me that the whole point of the test was to see how well you paid attention to directions and if you had read everything before you started (as you were instructed), you would have known to complete only the first two items.   I said something about how stupid it was and stormed off—embarrassed and humiliated!

Jesus spent a lot of time during His ministry talking about the importance of listening.  His teaching could be summarized in a couple of statements.  The first would be: the kingdom of God is built on the listening life.  As disciples, we are to always be in the listening mode, whether it’s in reference to hearing God’s word or the words someone is speaking to us (or even some sneaky test we’re taking). Listening is an important part of discernment, wisdom, and love. 

The other truth is we are to hear with our heart. That means we open ourselves up to hearing all that is actually being said.  This is not as easy as it sounds because whether it’s God’s word or a simple conversation, there are lots of things ( distractions, assumptions, prejudices), that can get in the way of understanding what is actually being said.

As I learned from my father that day many years ago, failing to listen carefully is not a good thing! 

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