Simple Presence

By Pastor Rob Bloss

The Emmaus Road narrative (Luke 24:13-35) invites us to consider the practice of Christlike listening as one aspect of our commitment to building community at Covenant. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a pastor and theologian who was executed in a Nazi concentration camp, points out,

The first service one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them…. It is God's love to us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends His ear…. Christians so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

While the practice of listening might seem a little "soft" and ill-defined when compared with more traditional spiritual habits such as study, prayer and service, it helps to remember that the context for Bonhoeffer's observation was Christian sisters and brothers suffering together in a German concentration camp. Clearly this was a place where easy answers and superficial sentimentality didn’t cut it, but the "greater service" of true listening was most highly valued. Bonhoeffer drives the point home even further:

He who can no longer listen to his brother will soon be no longer listening to God either; he will be doing nothing but prattle in the presence of God, too…. One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it.

Creating an environment where the soil is rich and produces the fruit of transformation, is cultivated when we are present to the person we are listening to, but even more importantly, as we are being present to God on the other's behalf. We can lead by listening, listening for what God's desire or guidance for that person might be, not what our best advice might be or how we can be most helpful. We need to work at being aware of what is going on within ourselves so that our own inner urges don't get in the way of what God wants to do in the moment.

This suggests that I should be willing to set aside anything that might keep me from being fully present to God on the other's behalf. This is very different from the problem solving, advice giving, and attempts at bringing human comfort that often happen. This kind of listening creates and protects a space between us —a place where it becomes safe enough to speak of our hopes and dreams, our longings, and desires. In his book A Hidden Wholeness, Parker Palmer shares about a time when he was going through depression. He says, "When I went into a deadly darkness that I had to walk alone, I took comfort and drew strength from those few people who neither fled from me nor tried to save me but were simply present to me."

Palmer's comments highlight one of the great paradoxes of human experience: in the deepest experiences of our lives—birth, death, depression, loss, spiritual longing, and desire—we are profoundly alone. And yet there is something we as human beings can offer one another during that existential loneliness—the gift of our presence. Perhaps one of the reasons "simple presence" is so powerful is that it creates space in which God’s presence can be experienced as the Voice that speaks, the Love that comforts, and the Fullness that fills all emptiness. I have often described this as the ministry of incarnational presence, of allowing His presence to be felt through our presence.

On the Emmaus Road, even though Jesus certainly had his perspective on the situation, his initial invitation to the disciples was the complete freedom to tell it like it was for them. Jesus invited them into the fresh air and light of unjudged and unafraid expressions of who they are in God. I pray we strive to provide this kind of space for each person He brings into our lives.

I’ll close with a relevant and challenging application of the art of active listening:

There are some clearly divisive issues that continue to break unity and undermine community, pulling families, friends, and churches apart at the seams. In an article posted by The Gospel Coalition this week, George Yancey, a sociologist and professor of sociology at Baylor University, wrote:

If we stop talking past each other and instead start talking to each other, we might be able to devise solutions that are accepted across the racial and political spectrum. All of us need to learn to listen to the perspectives of others, and to work at fashioning solutions that try to meet everyone’s needs. Considering the needs of others is an awful lot like dying to self—a key Christian value often missing in our discussions.  The church should be the place where we’re known for conversations that heal rather than divide.

I believe this to be a key to bringing about the fulfillment of the vision God has laid upon our church, to Building a Community…to Reach a Community?!!