Ireland Yearly Meeting Public Lecture 1998
LISTENING AND RESPONDING
Arthur G. Chapman
The latter part of our 20th century is characterised above all by the dramatic advance in telecommunications. With modern technology we have immediate contact with individuals in any part of the world; we become familiar with events in any region almost as soon as they happen. Each year brings new advances in communications through satellite, radio, television, faxes and the Internet.
The air around us in this building is vibrant with waves which carry these messages. We are unaware of their existence unless we have the equipment to decode these messages, to turn these waves into intelligible language. Radio receivers can capture these vibrations and if we tune the set correctly we can receive meaningful messages. If we fail to do so the information goes unheeded.
"He who has ears to hear, let him hear". These cryptic words of Jesus, addressed to the disciples, need to be applied to us too in this present age, so that our sensitivity may be enhanced and we can make sense of the world around us.
The Anglican preacher and writer, John Stott, urges those who seek to communicate the Christian message at the present time to engage in an exercise of "double listening". This is the faculty of listening to two voices at the same time - the eternal word of God and also the voice of our contemporary world. In doing so we are to relate the one to the other. With humble reverence we are to discern God's word to us and also listen to the world with critical alertness, anxious to understand it, to empathize with it and seek how God's grace may be imparted to it.
One of the distinctive truths about the God of Judeo-Christian revelation is that He is a speaking God. Unlike heathen idols the living God has spoken and continues to speak. Since God speaks we must listen. We see this in the Old Testament Law, especially in the summary known as the Shema, which begins with the call "Hear. 0 Israel, the Lord our God, the Lord is one, and you shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your might". The Prophets bring the same message to both individuals and the nation to heed the word of God and express his righteousness by their lifestyle. Supremely God spoke in Jesus Christ through his life, his teaching and his death.
Friends stress the belief that God has constantly sought and still seeks to establish communication with mankind. The turning point in the experience of George Fox, which launched him into public ministry, is described in his Journal in the following terms:
"When all my hopes in man were gone, so that I had nothing outwardly to help me, then, Oh! then, I heard a voice which said: 'There is one, even Jesus Christ, that can speak to thy condition'; and when I heard it my heart did leap for joy. Then the Lord did let me see why there was none upon earth that could speak to my condition, namely, that I should give Him all the glory."
I do not come to you as one who claims any extra-sensory powers - as one who hears audible voices. In fact I consider myself as one who is practical rather than contemplative in nature who is more at home in Martha-like action than one who finds it easy to practice Mary-like devotion. However, at many times I have been aware of the presence of God and his love, forgiveness and guidance in a very real way and especially at times of particular pressure in illness and bereavement and in the work situation. It is a humbling thought that God can communicate with us in our own individual circumstances and that in the midst of all the clamour of our busy modern life we can still our hearts to perceive what he has to say to us.
The world in which we live is a noisy place. We have developed a fear of silence and aloneness which we seek to cover up by constant background sound. This loneliness is dispelled by the company of radio, recordings, television and video with their offerings of the inane trivialities of chat shows, the jingle of pop music, the blandishments of advertising and the unending vaporisings of political commentators and spin doctors.
Against this background comes the exhortation of the Psalmist "Be still and know that I am God". The value of silence has a long tradition in Christian experience - through the medieval mystics and the spirituality of the ancient Celtic Church back to the Desert Fathers. Writings such as 'The Practice of the Presence of God' by Brother Lawrence remind us that work can be blended with prayer and the reality of God's presence can be experienced not only at times of formal devotion but in all circumstances.
Out of the turmoil of the theological controversy associated with the Reformation there arose a new search for spiritual reality. The main contribution of the the Quaker movement was the dramatic claim that 'Christ has come to teach his people himself'. This teaching was not expressed merely in tradition, in the written word or formal liturgies, in sacraments administered by ordained priests, but through the living presence of the Holy Spirit who can minister directly to the needs of both the individual and the group.
As man is made in the image of God and has the capacity within himself for relationship with his creator, direct communication is possible, indeed essential, if this relationship is to be restored and maintained. It is out of this conviction that Friends distinctive mode of worship developed - unprogrammed in human terms - but allowing the Holy Spirit to speak to the needs of each individual.
Our listening - in the silence - whether in meeting or elsewhere - needs to be in an attitude of humility and expectancy. Humility because of our dependence on God for grace and forgiveness, and expectancy because of the belief that the Holy Spirit will guide us into all Truth, that God is there and He is not silent, that He seeks to forgive and empower. We are not engaged in a pointless exercise like the tramps in Becket's play 'Waiting for Godot', but in the assurance that the one in whose presence we meet knows and understands the human situations we encounter.
Listening is not an easy exercise and we give scant attention to ways in which we can train our receptivity. Perhaps our Meetings for Worship would be times of richer spiritual depth if we addressed this issue more thoroughly. One of the problems is that we may not recognise or identify the true voice of God. There is a real danger that in our worship we dredge up from our subconscious mind our own desires and wishes and claim for them the authority of divine revelation.
We can guard against this subjective interpretation by certain checks and balances. Foremost is the general teaching of the Bible which is a sure guide to the authenticity of the direction we receive. I do not suggest that we turn to the Bible at random or seek justification for action we propose by reference to an isolated text, but rather we match our perception of God's guidance by the general revelation of the Holy Spirit through the Scriptures. This is well illustrated in what is known as Friends' Historic Peace Testimony, presented to Charles II shortly after his restoration to the throne of England. In this statement claims for divine sanction for the use of violence are dismissed because such are contrary to the express teaching of Christ. It affirms:
"The Spirit of Christ by which we are guided is not changeable, so as once to command us from anything as evil and again to move toward it; and we certainly know and testify to the world that the Spirit of Christ which leads into all truth will never move us to fight and war against any man with outward weapons, neither for the kingdom of Christ, nor for the kingdoms of this world."
For me personally the experience of involvement with ECONI The Evangelical Contribution on Northern Ireland - as a Quaker representative has been an exciting and rewarding one. This group is concerned to examine and apply rigorously and consistently Christian biblical principles to social and political issues in our land instead of following a traditional line historically accepted by Protestant churches in Ulster. It has meant relating principles concerning peace, justice, truth and forgiveness to the persistent problems of our community and in doing so has brought enrichment through new relationships.
A further test of the validity of the guidance we receive is through the shared experience of the group. Belief in personal and direct revelation of truth can lead to a dangerous individualism and even arrogance. In the early days of the Quaker movement untold harm was done by foolish and misguided actions of individuals. James Nayler caused much embarrassment to Friends by accepting Messiah-like acclaim of the crowd as he entered Bristol on horseback, so too did Solomon Eccles in Galway city when he appeared at the celebration of a Catholic mass almost naked with a dish of burning fire and brimstone on his head calling all present to repent.
Friends are encouraged to share divine insights which involve public action with the whole worshipping group in order to gain their endorsement. In this way a 'concern' which "y-be-received by an individual is taken up by the group to the immense benefit of all. The group is required to examine carefully the proposal and not give it automatic approval. For example in earlier centuries a concern by a Friend in Ulster to go to North America and minister there over a period of many months might well be queried by his local meeting. The effect of neglecting his farm and abandoning his wife and small family for a protracted period would be taken into consideration when coming to a decision.
As members of Ireland Yearly Meeting we could ask ourselves if we have been sufficiently identified with the work carried on by Jonathan Morton with street children in Mexico, by Doreen Dowd with Aids sufferers in Zambia, by Rupert Haydock with subsistence farmers in the Sahel, by Esther Davis with leprosy patients in Nigeria, or again with the work of the Ulster Service Committee in projects at the prisons and Quaker Cottage or with the delicate and demanding work of reconciliation centred on Quaker House, Belfast.
Examples abound of dramatic insights and specific commissions gained in listening to the voice of God. I should like to cite two examples both with local associations.
In 1860 Adam Davidson, a young corporal in the British Army from Tullylish, near Gilford, in Co. Down, found himself posted to China to defend British interests there. During long nights of sentry duty on the walls of the city of Beijing he became most disturbed and uneasy at the situation in which he found himself. He became alarmed at the prospect of having to open fire on the innocent and defenceless citizens of the city. So strong was this conviction that he he bought himself out of the army and returned to his native Ulster where he married and settled a few miles from here. He joined Friends and became a valued member of Hillsborough meeting. His interest in China persisted and he frequently talked to his young family about his experiences there. He would say to them "I was a soldier in China and I love the Chinese. I cannot go and tell them how Jesus loves them, but I leave it for my sons to do so in my place. Go to China and as you meet the Chinese tell them that you come with the Bible and not wit h a gun as I mistakenly did". Four of his sons joined the Friends Foreign Mission Association and pioneered this work in West China in medicine, education and the establishment of a Christian community.
In the early thirties of this century Stanley Benington, a member of a family who gave great service to Quaker education in Ulster, felt a call to leave the work he was doing in Nigeria in the Qua Iboe Mission and to travel to an unknown destination in what was then French West Africa. Accordingly he set out in an old model T Ford accompanied by a young Nigerian lad and they travelled thousands of miles north and west to a very remote area. Ultimately they came to a tribe called the Lobi, animists like most of the people in the area. To Stanley's surprise he found a man there who no longer practiced these rites. This man told him that, as he was preparing to be initiated as a witchdoctor, God had spoken to him in a vision and told him to burn his idols and fetishes. He further said that God had revealed to him that the true way would be explained by a white man who would visit the area. For eleven long years he had waited, but now he was ready and eager to accept the Christian way. By a remarkable c oincid ence one of the Rural Information Centres, funded by our own Irish Quaker Faith in Action, is located in the village of Bouroum Bouroum where this man lived. Two weeks ago I attended a Church conference there with 1500 present and was moved by the welcome I received as an Irish Friend both on account of the work of the Beningtons over sixty years ago and also the present development projects carried out by Rupert Haydock of Grange Meeting, with the support of this Yearly Meeting.
Whilst we may not all experience dramatic revelations of this nature, the exercise of listening will always produce a heightened sensitivity and new apprehension of Biblical truth. We are challenged to put into practice those principles we profess, to confess our sin and inadequacy and to renew our dependence on Christ. The still small voice may urge us with persistence to seek forgiveness with those from whom we are estranged, to renew relationships which are damaged, to take action from which we shrink either through laziness or embarrassment, to write a letter, to pay a visit, to bring in some form a sense of the love and care of God to those we meet.
In a culture which places much emphasis on professionalism we need to stress continually 'the priesthood of all believers', the fact that God works through the individual who is prepared to heed his voice. We must not rely on the expectation that someone better qualified will be His agent. There is a place for the true 'amateur' - the one who loves and is enthusiastic about what he undertakes, who is prepared to respond to the gentle urging of the Holy Spirit.
We are, however, citizens of the world as well as of the Kingdom of Heaven. We cannot indulge ourselves in a cosy, selfish, personal devotion and isolate ourselves from the events and ideas which surround us. We are dependent upon others as in no previous age for our life and well-being. To understand the relationships which enfold us we must be aware of contemporary thought patterns and attitudes. The role of the hermit or recluse was not one assumed by the early Quaker Publishers of Truth. They were very much aware of the interests and concerns of their fellows and understood the political and social aspirations of their fellow-citizens. In a curious passage in his journal George Fox tells how 'the Lord showed me that the nature of those things which were hurtful without, were within., in the hearts and minds of wicked men. I cried to the Lord saying "Why should I be thus. seeing I was never addicted to commit these evils?" And the Lord answered that it was needful that I should have a sense o f a ll conditions, how else could I speak to all conditions, and in this I saw the infinite love of God.' He continues with the well-known image of evil in the form of an ocean of darkness and death, which was overflowed by the infinite ocean of God's light and love.
The late 20th century is characterised by a pessimism and lack of purpose, which manifests itself in modern literature, art and music. In all these cultural forms the meaningless nature of life is portrayed by the representation of the absurd. The future is no longer viewed with any confidence, for all is vanity. The full horror of this situation was demonstrated a few years ago in a national essay competition for school children on the topic "What life will be like in the 21st century". The judges expected the children to present an exciting and hopeful prospect, but to their dismay the picture envisaged by the majority of entrants was not of a 'Brave new world', but a universe plagued by conflict, famine, disease, overpopulation, nuclear and environmental disasters and other ills.
A friend of mine who had been working in India for a number of years returned to this country in the 60s and took up a teaching post in a Further Education College. He was baffled by his inability to understand and relate to the young people in his classes, because of the difference in thought patterns, interests and values since he left Northern Ireland some 15 years earlier. How he came to understand and appreciate these values was by watching all TV programmes he could manage for a period of three months, because he realized that they mirrored the ideals which the young people adopted. If we wish to understand our modern society with all its ills. its fears and its hopes, we need to listen carefully and critically - however much we loathe doing so - to such messages as those contained in the TV soaps and the tabloid press, because these are the formative influences in so many people's thinking. Our call to 'double listening' requires receptivity to such forces.
We should, however, turn a deaf ear to all forms of evil and untruth, such as rumour, gossip, slander and propaganda, and refuse to allow them to influence our thinking. We should also guard against accepting opinions as valid, simply because they are the view of the majority. Something which is accepted by 70% of the population in a Gallup Poll is not necessarily right, although in this present age it can acquire respectability because of the absence of absolute moral values. The true disciple of Christ is not to be a follower of the crowd, but is to march to the beat of a distant drum.
Our present age is well equipped with factual knowledge. Accessibility to information has never been easier, but sadly the skill that we lack is in our relationships one to another. My recent weeks in francophone Africa have reminded me that people matter more than things. There if one wishes to discuss any business the lead-in is leisurely and relaxed with respect and consideration shown for the individual. One begins with handshakes all round, a chair or stool is found in which the visitor is comfortably installed, enquiries are made about one's well-being, about one's health, that of one's family before one would ever think of broaching the real purpose of the visit. In our culture perhaps we devote too great effort to the access and delivery of information, but too little to competence in listening. In business and professional life the buzz words are efficiency, productivity, achievement targets and proactive initiative, all aggressive concepts, which teach us little of the gentle art of recepti vity. Misunderstandings and breakdown of relationships can almost always be traced to faulty listening.
In the family setting marital troubles come about chiefly through lack of real communication between husband and wife. Love and affection suffer when time is not made for sensitive listening to the emotional and spiritual needs of each partner. The generation gap, too, widens to alarming proportions when parents and children do not try to understand the different worlds in which each lives. Within our own family of Friends in Ireland tensions rise and suspicions grow because we assume we know what the other stands for and do not listen carefully to what is actually said and meant.
In the workplace conflict arises often over minor matters which could be resolved with little difficulty if each side were prepared to listen carefully and to put themselves by a leap of imagination in the situation of the other. Uncompromising loyalty to a principle or a group often prevents a true
assessment of the issue and a confrontational stance is adopted which permits of no half measures.
In the present deliberations among political leaders to bring peace to our country we see clearly the failure to listen to one another. Even where parties are prepared to meet face to face, the encounter is unproductive if they are unreceptive to opinions foreign to their own. Statements made often do not appear to be in direct response to those of fellow negotiators, but rather for the benefit and applause of political supporters. We cannot solely condemn our political leaders; we all are guilty in some degree of this failure to listen to and understand the aspirations of each community. Some time ago I noted the wise words of the Bishop of Down and Dromore, Harold Miller, who said:
"If every person in Northern Ireland spent just 15 minutes listening to someone from 'the other side' and trying to understand, it would be a great step forward in the process of peace."
Many of the voices which clamour for attention arise from the evil, the suffering, injustice and cruelty in our fallen world. We must not be deaf to the plight of the poor and hungry, the homeless and oppressed; we cannot ignore the anger and frustration of the marginalised in our society or the despair of the lonely and bereaved. To fail to listen to such is a signal mark of disrespect. As Dietrich Bonhoeffer has said "He who no longer listens to his brother will soon not be listening to God". Each human being, made in the image of God, is of profound value and potential and deserves a response.
The nature of the response to suffering is a topic which has exercised mankind in every age. We long to sort out another's problem, for unconsciously we feel we can do that better than handle our own. However, the exercise of listening is generally sufficient therapy in itself. It implies acceptance, a quality which the sufferer needs for healing and restoration to take place. One's offering of time and availability to patiently hear out the problem brings with it a sense of soothing and well-being. Job's comforters did little good to the poor man who was crying out in distress and bewilderment at the sudden transformation in his circumstances and our efforts to prescribe a remedy for other people's woes are generally illjudged. Worthwhile counselling is non-directive and consists of gently encouraging the sufferer to make decisions on his or her own behalf. Empathy is the quality we need above all as we enter into the feelings of others and assure them of our silent presence as we respect their ind ividua l personality.
In his dealings with others Jesus displayed consummate skill. When he encountered the woman at the well, when he visited the grieving sisters, Martha and Mary, when he met Nicodemus under cover of darkness we sense his understanding and his ability to allow them to express their most personal doubts, fears and hopes. Frank Lake, the great exponent of Christian couselling, has written of Jesus's own experience of silent suffering: "Christ's saving work cost him most in his speechless passivity of dereliction. It is this which gives him the right to be the greatest listener of all suffering".
By our attitude we should reflect the love and care of our Heavenly Father. Our own experiences of life through pain and suffering and also the grace of God can be useful in relating to the condition of others, but we must beware of imposing these particular and personal experiences in all cases and expecting a simple solution to every problem. In humility we should acknowledge that God can act in His own way and through prayer bring the healing power of His love to the problem situation.
On a visit to California in 1993 I was in a Friends' Church in South Western Yearly Meeting where I learned of an imaginative and valuable initiative which they offered to the general community. Among 'Care Groups' which they set up in the neighbourhood was a Cancer Support Group. They did not claim dramatic healing for those who suffered from the disease, but sought to bring comfort and encouragement to patients, relatives and friends in their time of trauma. I can well appreciate the contribution such a service must have made.
Given the present suffering in our world our own lifestyle should reflect our solidarity with the multitudes who are starving, who are homeless, who are refugees, who are in chronic ill health. As stewards of what we call our possessions we can respond to these needs by our use of money and by our efforts to influence public opinion so that action may be taken to eradicate the underlying causes of these conditions. In the struggle for the abolition of slavery Friends bore witness against that evil system by refusing to use goods, such as sugar and cotton, produced by slave labour and we do well in our own age to consider the nature of our investments, the origin of the goods we purchase and the organisations we support.
One of the main reasons for our failure to listen, both to God and our fellows, is that we do not make time to do so, yet we have never had at our disposal such an array of time- and labour-saving devices. The apparently passive act of listening does not seem to bring results in our achievement orientated culture. We concentrate effort on analysing our perception of a particular situation and on recommending positive action to be taken. In our modern religious structures I would suggest we are over dependent on the committee pattern, where we are happy to discuss a problem, draw up a report and feel we have satisfactorily dealt with the matter. Behind every problem are individuals and unless we have dealt with their needs we have accomplished very little. It is easier to respond to a notice to attend a committee meeting at a given hour and place than to carve out time for both private devotion and for visiting individuals who need our company and care.
The sheer magnitude of need in our world can be so daunting that we hardly know how to respond to it. In the face of global disasters which are now graphically reported to us without delay we feel that nothing we can do can be of any significant effect. However, the Chinese proverb "It is better to light a candle than curse the darkness" is a challenge to us to take positive action. We do well to concentrate on doing one thing thoroughly rather than to flit ineffectually from one interest to another. In this respect I am reminded of our late Friend, Gwen Greeves, a member of my own meeting in Portadown, who had great gifts which many would have liked to have seen used more widely. However, she devoted her total energies on a one-hour Sunday afternoon Bible class for girls and built her entire week's programme around it. The tributes from former members at her funeral service left one in no doubt of her wise investment of time.
At this season of the year I often think of the opening scene of the drama of Faust by the German playwright, Goethe. In a moving soliloquy we see the scholar, Faust, who has studied in depth in the four main areas of medieval learning, Philosophy, Law, Medicine and Theology and who has also dabbled in the magic arts. He is in a mood of deep pessimism and depression at his inability to comprehend the world in which he lives. He has wrestled with these intellectual problems all night long and finds no answer. In blank despair he prepares for himself a draught of poison. Just as he raises the fatal potion to his lips he pauses, for through the morning air he hears noises in the street outside. He listens. It is the voices of children singing. He strains to make out their words: "Jesus Christ is risen to-day, Hallelujah." Suddenly he realizes that it is Easter morning. He lets his glass slip from his hands, remembering the divine intervention of Christ into our human condition and the hope which it b rings to the world.
Listening is not an end in itself. James in his Epistle urges us to be "doers of the word and not hearers only". God's call implies action on our part; the cry of our neighbours demands a response from us. Our 'double listening' to these voices should result in unified action. We are to be the catalyst which enables the power of God to minister to the needs of the world. Often in our religious life there is a dichotomy between faith and works, between devotion and service. This should not be. We cannot adequately respond to the enormous needs of our fellows, if we do not avail of the vast resource of the love of God. Similarly we cannot contain for our own selfish satisfaction the immensity of divine love; it must overflow to the benefit and healing of the world around.