The Importance of Listening

I once read the true story of a young Irish woman taking her first flight from Shannon. At the check-in desk she asked for the Manx flight. In the noisy terminal, the clerk thought she said the Minsk flight and soon she was on her way to Russia. A day later, after a night in a cell and a rescue by another airline she arrived at her correct destination: Manchester! If only the clerk had listened carefully to her. 

I was reminded of an experience my father in law had as vicar of a parish. One day he preached his heart out on justification by faith. He stressed repeatedly that we are not saved by our own efforts or good deeds but only through the death of Christ. After the service one grateful churchmember shook his hand and said: “I do agree with your sermon vicar: we have to try our best.”  She had totally misheard everything he had said.

Quite a number of the letters I get prove the same thing. When I wrote an article about taking up astronomy one reader wrote discouraging me from indulgence in horoscopes and the like. She thought I meant astrology not astronomy. Another thought I believed denominations were a good thing, when I have stressed the unity of the whole body of Christ.

The same thing happened over an article I wrote on baptism. Judging by published and private letters, readers “heard” me say circumcision was as good as baptism; or water baptism regenerated a child; or baptism was a secondary issue. I said and believe none of those things. Some thought I wrote against baptism by immersion. Actually I think it is the best method and, believe it or not, it is the first alternative in the Church of England. I was baptised as a believer by immersion and I have led numerous services of believers’ baptism by immersion in my church in the past.

Others manifestly thought I was trying to turn all Christians into paedobaptists (people who favour infant baptism). Frankly, I’ve got far more important things to do. No, as I stated, I was simply and solely asking that those who disagree with infant baptism would have the courtesy to respect those of us who are (still!) more convinced by biblical arguments for it than against it. You may think paedobaptists are wrong, but it is important to acknowledge that we believe there is a sound biblical basis for our view. In other words we are seeking  to interpret and submit to the Word of God. And we must show the same respect in return. If we don’t respect one another we’re wrong even if our doctrine is correct.

The important thing is that we listen carefully to one another. I reckon that most disputes caused in life and in the church are based on misunderstanding. The number of times I have been given a completely convincing story by one person, only to discover it was based on total misunderstanding when I’ve heard the other side. 

The problem is we jump to conclusions – often because we react to buzz-words. So, if I said (like the creed) I believe in the “catholic church” many Protestant hackles would rise. But the way the creed uses the term it simply means universal and has no reference to the Roman Catholic Church. It comes from a Greek word – “katholikos”.

Another good example is the word “myth” when applied to the Bible. That really gets Evangelicals going but often theologians mean quite acceptable things by it. For example they would use the word to describe non-literal passages. So, they would say, describing God as a rock is myth. They mean it is not literally true but it nevertheless conveys truth about God’s power and reliability.

We could do worse than follow The Green Cross Code: “Stand on the pavement near the kerb”: don’t be hasty but patient. “Look all around … and listen”: listen carefully to both sides of the argument. “Look all around again”: double-check you’ve understood what the other side is saying. “Keep looking and listening…”: continue to listen patiently and carefully to the other side.

Now, I wonder what you heard me say in this article?!

© Tony Higton: see conditions for reproduction