Maturity and Flourishing / Spirituality

Hearing amidst the clamor: 4 reflections

On learning to hear
A couple of years ago I published an essay on Art House America that I titled, “On Learning to Hear.” As I wrote it I realized that the theme could be my epitaph: Here lies Denis Haack, who spent a lifetime learning to hear.

Given the more than 6 decades I’ve been at it, I’m not certain how well I’ve done. How can something so simple be so elusive? Still, I’m convinced it’s a worthy task for more reasons than I have words to say. But if you want a reason, how’s this:
Let everyone with ears listen!

Jesus said that (Matthew 11:15), and it doesn’t take a lot of fancy exegesis to realize that he was convinced that some people would listen to him but not hear. Not a very comforting thought, if like me you think him worth hearing.

Besides, I suspect we’ve all met people who do not listen. They are always talking, often witty, and always inserting themselves to lead the conversation, but rarely asking questions and listening—really, actively listening—to the answers. Whenever someone tells them something their response is, “I know,” or “I’ve already thought of that.” And any negative feedback is met defensively, with excuses, or reasons why you not they are the one that is mistaken. I don’t want to be like that.

Others are never completely present, always distracted by something or other, by work or technology or by the chatter inside their own heads. Always busy, the brief moments they spend with you are tightly measured, the demands of a clock lurking in the foreground. I don’t want to be that way.

Others are knowledgeable but only versed in one side of a position so they do not give the opposing ideas a fair shake, or demonstrate that they’ve thought through things deeply enough to know how richly layered the truth actually is. They’ve heard their side, and assume that having heard it, they know what the other side is like and so do not need to listen with care. I don’t want to be like that, either.

I want to learn to hear, and to keep on learning it. In The Lost Art of Listening, psychologist Michael Nichols captures the bitter essence of what it is like not to be heard.

We think of ourselves as individuals, but we are embedded in networks of relationship that define us and sustain us. Even as the most independent adults, we have moments when we cannot clarify what we feel until we talk about it with someone who knows us, who cares about what we think, or at least is willing to listen.

Contemporary pressures have, regrettably, shrunk our attention spans and impoverished the quality of listening in our lives. We live in hurried times, when dinner is something we zap in the microwave and keeping up with the latest books and movies means reading the reviews. That’s all we’ve got time for. Running to and from our many obligations, we close ourselves off from the world around us with headphones, exercising strict control over what we allow in.

In the limited time we still preserve for family and friends, conversation is often preempted by soothing and passive distractions. Too tired to talk and listen, we settle instead for the lulling charms of electronic devices that project pictures, make music, or bleep across display screens. Is it this way of life that’s made us forget how to listen? Perhaps. But maybe the modern approach to life is the effect rather than the cause. Maybe we lead this kind of life because we’re seeking some sort of solace, something to counteract the dimming of the spirit we feel when no one is listening.

Here’s an interesting conversation starter the next time you have friends over for dinner. Describe the last time someone really, truly, fully listened to you. And then—it goes without saying—really, truly, fully listen to each other.

On too much to hear
It can be hard to hear when there is too much sound in the background, and when there is too much to which we want to listen. At first glance they seem to be the same problem, but they aren’t, really. Too much sound is the problem of noise, and too much to listen to is the problem of finitude.

Human beings tend as a species to be rather resilient when it comes to noise. In many cases we learn to listen selectively, instinctively focusing on the sounds we wish to hear from the cacophony that threatens to drown them out. My son claims he could hear the voice of his coach yelling instructions amidst the clamor of screaming parents, also issuing instructions, often contradictory to the coach’s wishes, along with the usual dose of encouragement and criticism at soccer games. People whose houses are near highways report that after getting used to it the noise of the traffic no longer registers. We shared a lovely dinner with friends one time in the urban center of St Louis, MO. A few hundred feet from their apartment building were the raised tracks of the commuter train system, and while we ate trains rumbled by in both directions. What was interesting was not that the rushing roar did not stop the lively conversation that occupied us over the meal, but that our hosts did not seem to notice the noise at all. And I remember how my wife would sleep through the siren of a police car screaming past our home and then awaken at the quiet whimper of our newborn child.

Somehow, without necessarily planning to have it happen, the background noise in each case is filtered out so that the sounds we want and need to hear are brought into focus. It’s almost as if we can magically transform noise into quiet within our consciousness.

Still, noise matters: I may recognize a song when it comes on in a crowded restaurant, but subtle highs and lows or the delicate blend of instrumentation are usually lost in the background noise of laughter, conversation, and chefs and wait staff going about their duties. I know the song and the musicians, but something is missing in the hearing compared to what I enjoy in the quiet of my office or at a concert. Our hearing is fragmented, dimmed, perhaps even confused and garbled when the sounds we cherish or need must compete with static or urban clamor or the droning of some machine. Even voices get lost this way.

So, being 21st century human beings, to our instinctive ability to selectively hear we add the wonder of technology. We have over-ear earphones, in-ear headphones, ergonomic ear buds, and if you wait a few weeks, some new invention that isolates us in an envelop of silence so we can listen to what we want, safe from intrusive, outside noise. Human contact, human civilization, and the sounds of nature—all the background noise that had been incessantly assaulting us like an aural plague simply disappears.

It’s an incomplete and faulty solution to the problem of background noise, of course. That is true of all technologies’ fixes, though that’s no reason to despise or dismiss technologists and their projects and inventions. All technology comes at a cost. It still might be worth it, but we should be willing to do some simple calculations to be certain. Taking my iPod with me as I walk along the creek near our home allows me time to listen to new albums, but means I won’t hear the calls of the red-winged blackbirds in the reeds at the creek’s edge or the cry of the kingfishers as they careen down to the water to snatch up a minnow.

So, I must choose, and if I live by casual default, never making such calculations, my life will be poorer. But this is hardly a novel inspiration, is it? Faithfulness for the Christian means living intentionally, and that involves working enough margin into our time for a bit of reflection now and again. Being in safe community helps since it is there that the exchange of ideas can prompt some creativity, and the reassurance that we are not facing the world alone.

Still, though our solution to background noise contains both blessing and curse, we’ve at least launched some ways to try to handle it. It would be nice if the noise itself decreased but that seems unlikely. People who have moved into rural locations find that the steady sprawl of our consumerist society slowly creeps into every available space. I know of no serious study that suggests we should expect this trend to reverse itself any time soon.

The second problem, where there is far too much to which we want to listen, is both more vital and more intractable. Here the problem is how to hear what is important instead of what is merely urgent at a time when messages arrive incessantly and insistently, each appearing out of the grid with their own beep or ring or snatch of song.

I think I can say without much fear of contradiction that our technology has actually made this second problem worse. There has probably always been far too much to listen to that we would like to hear, but in the past the messages arrived slowly and singly, or in bunches small enough that we could sort through them leisurely. Now every message, no matter how trivial or vital arrives with the same intensity and with the same ability to interrupt.

The problem is that we are finite creatures and so cannot take in everything at once. If we try we stumble into what’s called stimulus overload, which I am told is not pretty. The issue is complicated because just because something is merely urgent, not important, doesn’t mean we can ignore it. A great deal, probably most—sometimes all—of what I deal with each day falls into the merely urgent category: all the mundane, ordinary things that form the practical tapestry of everyday life. This is where we live, and as Christians where we are called to live under Christ’s Lordship for God’s glory. The point is not to try to escape into some realm of the important to accomplish extraordinary things, but to be faithful in the ordinary and the routine. So the urgent may be merely urgent and not all that important, but it isn’t insignificant, if you get what I am saying.

This week we invited some friends to have dinner with us at Toad Hall. They are moving from Rochester soon and it was important to us that we have a final evening to talk and to say goodbye. It took multiple emails to arrange things, first our invitation and then some dates, and finally plans were set. I doubt that the angelic hosts held their breath as plans for the dinner materialized. This was not, as things go, exactly an event of cosmic prominence. Still, in the flow of our days, it was significant, the meeting of friends, and an attempt, no matter how small to be faithful as we live moment by moment in the presence of God, the Almighty, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.

Does that make sense? I hope so because it’s at this point that there is an interesting twist in the path to understanding.

The twist is this: I will comprehend the significance of ordinary things and be able to practically and meaningfully find my way through the myriad details of everyday life only as I am increasingly rooted in the important things that matter most. Which means—going back to the problem I am discussing—there is far too much to which we need to listen, and if we don’t hear what is truly, really important, we will eventually fail in our hearing of the merely urgent and mundane. The urgent will begin to crowd out the important, and soon we will lose our way. We won’t necessarily realize we are lost, because we’ll be busy and productive and efficient, but lost is definitely what we’ll be. The only thing that keeps us from wandering off the path of faithfulness in the face of urgent, routine demands are ears keenly tuned to what is actually fully important.

This is why the problem I have identified—that there is far too much to which we want to listen—is so crucial. We cannot and should not stop listening to what is urgent, but we must not miss the important, the things that matter most. Make that mistake, and as the postmodern generation would put it, you are screwed. Actually, that’s not precisely the term most of them would use, but you get my drift—and mentioning this made you think of that term, so there it is.

The biblical documents of the first century are rightly called ancient, but that is a measure of time not relevance. When Jesus challenged his listeners to be certain they were hearing rightly he could have been speaking to us all these centuries later. Sorting out what needs to be heard from the background noise, and being certain we have heard what is important so that we can discern the meaning of the merely urgent remain essential tasks.

Speaking of the important, one other fact is worth noting. In our world, one solution to the problem of the important versus the urgent has been the promotion of something called experts. They are specialized, narrowly focused, with expertise in some field that enables them to issue guidance to the rest of us. You might guess from my rhetoric that I am not much impressed by the claims of experts. That is true. Not because I don’t believe in them, but because today they are believed in too much. In narrow—very narrow—areas of technical skill, say surgery, or plumbing, experts are very helpful. In the rest of life—in all the parts most essential to our humanness—we need not experts but wise mentors, and that is an entirely different thing. It is true that expertise can be packaged to look like wisdom, but once you know the difference, listening to the opinion of an expert is nothing like hearing the teaching of a master. For the Christian, life and death can hang, literally, in the balance.

On not hearing
My assumptions and prejudices, bubbling just below my consciousness can close my ears to voices and messages because I dismiss them before receiving them. Conservatives do this to liberals, and vice versa, all the time. Believers do it to unbelievers; unbelievers do it to believers, and so it goes. I assume I know the right way to think about this topic, am confident you are wrong, and so only half listen (at best) while figuring out what killer argument I’ll use to take you down. Or maybe I’m a bit uncertain of what I think myself, and so find ways to keep the encounter from ever occurring—I don’t want you naming my uncertainty publicly. My view of things then becomes a sound proof barrier behind which I isolate myself from you and from what you have to say.

It can become so bad that we don’t ever realize how isolated and unwise we have become, or how many possibilities for learning and growing we have spurned without knowing it. Even the voice of our master can be missed in this way. We assume we know what he will say, assume we are well enough informed to distinguish between his word and that of some foolish myth from the pit, and so decline to hear. We forget that his word is always new, always surprising, often discomfiting, and always to be heard afresh.

The prophet Isaiah spoke the word of the Lord to the ancient Hebrews in such terms:

Hear, you deaf;
and look, you blind, that you may see!
Who is blind but my servant,
or deaf as my messenger whom I send?
Who is blind as my dedicated one,
or blind as the servant of the Lord?
He sees many things, but does not observe them;
his ears are open, but he does not hear.
The Lord was pleased, for his righteousness’ sake,
to magnify his law and make it glorious.
But this is a people robbed and plundered,
they are all of them trapped in holes
and hidden in prisons;
they have become a prey with none to rescue,
a spoil with none to say, “Restore!”
Who among you will give ear to this,
will attend and listen for the time to come?
[Isaiah 42:18-23]

At the time Isaiah (c. 740 BC) spoke these words, the people of Judah were not bound in jails or robbed by plundering marauders. Rather they were bound within their own refusal to listen and robbed of flourishing because they were dismissive of listening to God’s word. Isaiah’s prophetic ministry spanned the final years of the eighth century BC, the years leading up to the invasion of Judah that would result in the fall of Jerusalem (586 BC) and the period of exile in Babylon.

The Israelites didn’t hear God’s word because, ironically, they had heard and trusted God’s word. They knew the promises in the Scriptures: that God would fight their battles for them so they need not fear foreign armies (1 Samuel 17:47; Ecclesiastes 9:11), that God gave them the land by his might not theirs (Deuteronomy 3:18-22), and that the royal line established in Israel was to last forever. They had heard that when David was anointed king, God’s promise spoken through the prophet Nathan was clear. Your house and your kingdom shall be made sure forever before me. Your throne shall be established forever (2 Samuel 7:16). So certain were they that God had spoken these things—and that they knew the meaning of his words—that the words of seers like Isaiah that foretold destruction and exile and the overthrow of the kingdom by invading warriors hardly seemed worth listening to, and so they didn’t. They were, after all, believers, and probably busy besides. I wonder if history ever repeats itself for the people of God.

Our systems of thought, our worldview commitments, our theological and philosophical convictions are all important and helpful and needful. But if not kept fresh and alive, they can make us deaf.

On hearing the silence
Be still, the Almighty says. Be still, and know that I am God (Psalm 46:10). Not hard, yet so difficult. It’s the sort of silence I need if I am to hear rightly and fully.

Outside one of my childhood homes was a large pine tree. We were living in a duplex in the second story of a house with no yard to speak of but right across the street from a city park. My memory suggests the tree in our backyard was a blue spruce but I don’t trust that. That memory may be a later accretion, since I’ve long thought blue spruce to be one of God’s better creations. In any case, the lowest branches of this tree hadn’t been trimmed back, and so formed a tent over a patch of ground covered by a soft if slightly prickly carpet of pine needles. I found I could push through the wall of branches and be in a place where I could hear clearly yet remain hidden. It was not that I wished to spy, though there were times I did that, as all boys do. In this case, however, nothing ever happened in our backyard and I don’t remember ever slipping under the tree to spy on anyone or anything. It was, rather, a place to which I could retreat and feel safe from being judged. The reason I loved that quiet place under that pine tree was that there I was hidden from the prying eyes of others.

I could hear but not be seen. In a world in which “Children should be seen but not heard,” was said repeatedly, my place under the tree helped right the balance.

It was there I learned to love the song of birds. Even the chirping of sparrows was not discordant to me, but singular cries to be heard, to be noticed. They would take dust baths a few feet from me, and as long as I was still they never noticed and took alarm. The robins were mostly silent while I watched, running along the ground to suddenly stop, head tilted, pouncing and snatching up an earthworm from the soil. When two robins met, there would be sharp calls of displeasure and they would part. Blue jays, always ready to give alarm, didn’t seem to notice me beneath the branches but would let me know when the dogs from down the block, nasty untrustworthy creatures, were on the prowl.

Beyond the birdsongs, I never heard anything of significance from my secret hiding place beneath that pine tree, but something far more significant occurred. Sitting there alone, away from the watchful eyes that constantly scanned my existence to identify my next failure, my next sin, I discovered and learned to hear silence.

Silence is not merely an absence of sound. A person can be quiet but not be silent. True silence is a state of soul that is so antithetical to 21st century life and culture that relatively few ever make the journey. It requires a willingness to be unproductive, in the consumerist sense of that term, in order to be, for a few moments at least, content. It is a deeper productivity, a place where being is its own justification, and where possibility seems to hum in a melody that is distinct and hopeful but unheard.

As I learned to hear the silence, I learned to hear so much that is usually drowned out by strife, and busyness, and the noise in the background. The songs of birds were one, and the stories and questions in my own heart and head were another. It was there under that tree that I first wondered, since I believed in God, whether I would ever hear him.

I did not have words to name these things as a boy, but they shaped me. Looking back on it now brings to mind the image of receiving a series of mysterious postcards that hinted at a reality beyond the here and now. They each bore a message that I strained to make sense of, could not, but occasionally brought out the cards to remind myself that something was out there.

The safety of the spot was crucial. The rest of the time I was always keenly aware of being watched, of being on trial, of being judged, and always falling short. Perhaps this is where my introversion began, or was nurtured. In safety I could be content to be, and I could hear so much in the silence that I had never dreamed was there to be listened to. For brief moments I had stopped trying to please, and instead, in my own childish way relaxed into the mystery of being. I heard nothing except a resonance in my soul that nourished flickers of hope that in a world loud with disapproval I might yet hear words of acceptance.

Many years later, after Margie and I had been married, we attended a two-week study-retreat led by John Alexander of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship. He was a gentle man, with a passion for allowing the gospel of Christ to shape one’s life, so that grace permeated every little aspect of existence. The retreat was held at a lovely, isolated camp on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan. We were surrounded by wilderness on one side and water on the other two. It was before the days of cell phones, so interruptions were few. Margie and I had arrived weary from hard work, she was pregnant and not feeling well as a result, so the good food, leisurely Bible studies, lively teaching, wonderful conversations, and the chance to catch up on sleep all were deeply refreshing.

One morning Dr. Alexander announced at breakfast that our day would be given over to a retreat of silence—he called it a ROS. When breakfast ended he asked that we refrain from talking, except where absolutely necessary. The kitchen staff had prepared bag lunches for us. We were to pick one up, and taking with us only a Bible, a hymnbook, and a notebook, we were to go off where we could see no sign of human presence and activity and spend the day alone. It was, as the name said, a retreat of silence.

Later, when we gathered for vespers in the evening, I discovered that the other participants had similar experiences to mine. The first couple of hours had been easy. Lovely surroundings in nature, the delight to have nothing expected of us for an entire day. Then we had read our Bibles and prayed. And than we ran out of things we wanted to read and pray about, and the day had only begun. So we ate early, before noon, more just to have something to do. And still there was time. Time to live in silence.

How could something so simple be so elusive?  I felt like I was in a battle. I wanted to slip into silence, but found I had trained myself to fill every moment with noisy stuff that kept blundering around loudly, insistently in my consciousness.

It was later in the day that I suddenly realized that silence had overtaken me. I could be simply content to be, and in those moments I could listen. I heard the keening cry of seagulls, the rustle of field mice scurrying through the grass, and the sound of wind in the leaves. And I heard phrases from the Scriptures I had read earlier in the day, arising unbidden in my imagination like little echoes on which I could reflect and accept as ancient wisdom, now my own.

But mostly, I simply embraced and heard the silence.

That evening Dr. Alexander encouraged us to plan at least a half-day ROS each month into our schedules. He said it would serve to keep idols at bay and allow us respite from a world that had set itself in opposition to God’s kingdom.

Over the years, I confess, I’ve followed that wise counsel only fitfully.

Quaker Thomas Kelly wrote, “Over the margins of life comes a whisper, a faint call, a premonition of richer living which we know we are passing by. We have hints that there is a way of life vastly richer and deeper than all this hurried existence, a life of unhurried serenity and peace and power. If only we could slip over into that Center! If only we could find the Silence which is the source of sound!”

In a world where so much is broken and needs to be fixed, where so many demands noisily compete for our attention, and where we have so little time, perhaps the most radical way to trust God, to honor our King’s sovereignty, and escape the clutches of own insecurities is to set aside time to simply be—and perhaps in those brief moments we will actually begin to hear both the silence and the important.


Sources: “On Learning to Hear” is available online (
The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen can Improve Relationships by Michael Nichols (New York, NY: Guilford; 1996) pp. 1-2.
Kelly quoted in Common Prayer: A Liturgy for Ordinary Radicals (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan; 2010) p. 80.