At bedtime most nights, I read to my wife. A few nights ago I read her these words.
“Look at these woods,” said the bear, and Bubber tried to, but they wouldn’t stay still… He could hear a thousand sounds from a thousand creatures, each one with a history and a life. “Listen to me!” everything cried out. “Hear my story!” And Bubber knew that each story was crucial…. “Listen to me!” sang the trees, and the birds, and the frogs. “Hear my story!” called the crickets, and the water in the nearby stream, and the moles, and the snakes.”*
After this epiphany, Bubber, a hapless lemming in searching of life’s meaning, began seeking out other forest animals, even those who didn’t seem particularly brilliant or witty, asking to hear their stories, realizing each had real wisdom to share.
As I read those words, a light came on. “This is the most important thing I can be doing during this season—listening to people’s stories.” For me too, it felt like an epiphany.
I serve a church in a poor urban neighborhood. We are a motley crew of outsiders and misfits. Black and brown and white. Most survivors of sexual abuse. Some recovering addicts and others who need to be. Not a few struggling with mental illness. Ours is not the neighborhood where most seekers of wisdom would think to begin their search.
But as I listened to Bubber, I knew. The people with whom I live and work and worship every week all have powerful stories, real wisdom I can learn from. If I will just take time to listen.
I once attended a Christian Listeners workshop. “Think of a time you felt heard,” the leader said. “How did you feel?”
“Important.” “Valuable.” “Treasured,” people said, and a dozen more. She listed them on the whiteboard. Then she asked, “Have you ever lamented: “I didn’t know what to say. All I could do was listen’?” Yes, we’d all been there. Then the zinger: “All we can do is listen? Look at your list! Listening is the most powerful thing we can do!”
When our small group gathers, we read these words together: “I will share my own story and listen to others’ sharing…. We grow when we honestly share our struggles and victories with one another.” That reality is what makes our group life-transforming.
“Be quick to listen, slow to speak” James urges (1:19). I confess, I often do more talking than listening. And so I’m committing. Each week for the next few months, I’m going to schedule a time with someone just to hear his or her story.
I expect three things: To deepen friendships. To show others I value them. And to gain wisdom, sometimes from surprising places.
- How do you feel when someone deeply listens to you?
- When have you gained wisdom from another’s story?
- Who are four people whose stories you will ask to hear during the next few weeks?
*The Clearing by Alan Arkin (Harper & Row 1986), p. 102.