Saturday, July 11, 2009

The Freedom to Listen
A Sermon by Pamela Wat, Ministerial Candidate
Pathways Church, Southlake, TX
July 5, 2009
Video link:

As a hospice chaplain, I am often asked by friends, “how do you bear the sadness of death day after day?” There is sadness. Sometimes there is wrenching sadness. But what makes death sad or tragic for me, the hospice chaplain, is not losing people whom I have gotten to know and care for. What makes death sad or tragic for me, the hospice chaplain, isn’t even the deep grief of those left to continue on painfully aware of the absence of the one who died. As the hospice chaplain, the sadness that I find hard to resolve is the sadness that comes from the deaths of those whose hearts were never revealed. Those who lived in loneliness and alienation and died in that same fashion. Or perhaps even worse, those who lived in the company of family and friends who were never able to really listen or be present for their loved one for a variety of reasons.

I had a patient once who didn’t talk to most people unless it was to yell. She lived in a nursing home. She never got out of bed. And she was very hard to love. When she was yelling it always seemed to be about things we had no control over. She would yell, “I want to go home” and staff at the nursing home would attempt to reason with her about why she needed to stay in the nursing home and it ultimately ended with her kicking someone out of her room or with her just going silent. One day I went to see Jane. Staff had warned me before I had even gotten to the door that she was upset that she wanted to get dressed and that she was yelling and flailing at staff around this issue. The problem is that for years, when people have dressed Jane she always to rip her clothes off, so they stopped bothering with it after a time. In addition she wanted to wear a disposable brief which nursing homes have stopped using for incontinent, bedbound patients because it causes an increased risk of bedsores. I walked into Jane’s room and she said she wanted a disposable brief. Wanting to align with the nursing home staff to create a strong front, I initially made the mistake of telling her she couldn’t have one. She repeated her desire again this time louder. I asked her why she wanted a brief.

“Because I want to cover up,” she said.
I said, “you want to cover up?”
And she said, “yes.”
“Why do you want to cover up?”
“Because the paramedics are men and I don’t want them to see me like this.”
“Are the paramedics here?”
“No, but they are coming.”
“Why are they coming?”“To take me to the hospital.”
“Why are they taking you to the hospital?”“To run some tests.”
“What will they find when they run the tests.”“That I am dehydrated.”
“Jane, are you thirsty? Would you like a drink of water?”

By the end of that conversation she was completely relaxed. She didn’t need to be covered up. She needed a drink of water. She just didn’t know how to ask for it. So we worked on that and she learned how to ask for a drink of water. But we still had to have these round about conversations to get to other things that were going on for her. It was a constant process of me listening and setting aside my assumptions about her in order to follow the conversation toward the place where she revealed what was at her true heart. Truth be told sometimes I have failed her. Sometimes I got angry that she couldn’t communicate more clearly. Sometimes I resented the time she took from my day. Sometimes I judged her motivations and wondered if she did this for attention. Being present is not always easy.

I had another patient who never talked to anyone. He stared down at the floor most of the time. Never made eye contact. Never indicated in any way that he even heard us. He was very aloof. I knew he had a church background. He was African American and I asked if he would let me play some songs for him. I pressed play on the machine. {sing} Swing Low Sweet Chariot coming for to carry me home.”

And I watched him. He was listening. No longer aloof. And then the next line came. And I watched his head go back and his eyes close and he kinda’ swayed and his lips moved, “Swing Low, sweet chariot, it was coming for to carry me home…”

Just before moving to Texas I helped run some programs at an organization in Philadelphia called the Arts & Spirituality Center. In one of the programs we were working with a group of about 25 teenagers most of them from a residential high school in Philadelphia and each of whom had been effected by gun violence and who were passionate about teaching others how to engage in peace. The Philadelphia Museum of Art offered us free tickets to their current featured exhibit called Tesoros / Treasures / Tesouros: The Arts in Latin America, 1492–1820. And so we went. I think I thought I was giving them some good ol’ fashioned exposure to high art. I expected them to be impressed with the realism of the paintings, with the fancy engravings, with the craft of what they were seeing. As we walked through these big, fancy doors of the Philadelphia Museum of Art, past the donor plaques and the membership opportunities, we guided this group of hardened teenagers to this exhibit of Christian art. One of the students was Kevin. Kevin was 15 years old. African American. Has never left been outside of Philadelphia. His mother was killed some years prior. His father was incarcerated. He made his way quietly through this exhibit and stopped still at a sculpture of Jesus on the cross. Of all of these large, ornate paintings and altars, this one rather modest, but very graphic sculpture caught his attention. He stood there for what seemed like forever. I began to panic inside. The longer I looked at this sculpture the more bloody and haunting it seemed. I wanted words. Part of me wanted to protect him from the violence before him. He showed no emotion. He just stared. Finally he spoke. “That happened to Jesus.” “It looks so real.” He was seeing himself in that bloody, suffering Christ figure. And that reality snapped me out of my need to try to fix things and brought me into a full presence with him. There was this teenager who knew the impact of violence first-hand. And he seemed to be almost reaching into those realistic wounds of Jesus to empathize for his God. And simultaneously this Christ figure seemed to reach out to Kevin’s wounds and brought him something of healing. And all I had to do was witness it and listen. Say nothing. And what I thought these kids had to learn from this exhibit was not at all what they had to learn. And what I understood to be my role was all wrong. I wasn’t there to teach. I was there to listen.

When I was in seminary, I took a class in the spiritual discipline of contemplative listening. Beth Liebert was my professor. Years before I met her she had been teaching Pastoral Care and Counseling to seminarians and she wrote this of that experience, “As part of the basic pastoral care course, I introduced a component of listening skills. I focused on the dynamics of pastoral dialogue—with only moderate success, I must say. It seemed that the need to interpret and fix came to the fore very quickly, no matter how I stressed the skills for the early moments of the conversation. After about one exchange, some students would inevitably launch into a program to address the issue as they barely or imperfectly understood it. A quick fix is oh, so satisfying to a busy pastor. Take care of that bit of messiness and so avoid the anxiety of being powerless to fix others lives, or so we can luxuriate in being needed.” (
So she decided that pastors needed to practice the discipline of contemplative listening. It begins with an emptying, a setting aside or bracketing of one’s own distractions prior to and during the conversation, so that the listener can really focus on what is being said. During the conversation there is no feedback. Once speaker is finished, the listener may comment on related threads within what the speaker shared, but the listener’s goal is not to interpret or judge—only to notice. The first time I was heard in this way, during a practice in the classroom, I nearly cried. I felt so heard and cared for. I could speak freely without having to adapt to their feedback or judgment. It helped me truly get at the heart of what I was sharing and their witness to that process created such safety.

I often have the experience in a group that the talkers will approach me after a group discussion and ask me why I was so quiet or encourage me out of what they perceive to be a shyness. I’m not sure I’m shy. I have however been taught that it is rude to interrupt. If I believe it is rude to interrupt or cut someone off in a conversation and I am in a group where there is never a pause in the conversation, then it is very hard to me to speak. Unless I abandon my belief. And sometimes I can do that. I can say, “this is not how this group functions, Pam, time to adapt communication styles.” But it takes a good amount of self-awareness on my part to get there and when I am following a conversation and also managing my own responses, it is hard to remember that the reason there is no break in the conversation is because I am in a group who has a different set of cultural norms and that when they interrupt each other or talk over one another they do it because that is part of how they interact with one another.

When I was in seminary I did a lot of work around inclusion and multiculturalism. One of the techniques that I taught in churches and in seminary was a process called Mutual Invitation. It was developed by a Chinese American Episcopalian priest by the name of Eric Law. Eric acknowledged that for many traditional Chinese people, the custom remains that people do not speak until invited by an elder to speak. He also acknowledged differences between other cultural groups that made communication difficult among a diverse group of people. A couple of our groups here at Pathways have been introduced to this Mutual Invitation process recently. The process involves a person responding to a question or topic and then inviting another person to then respond. Once that person has responded then they invite another person to respond. And it keeps going until everyone in the group has had an opportunity to share. While it might slow the pace of the conversation, it also broadens it. And I invite each of us in our group settings to consider which is more important especially when our groups are talking about matters of deep significance.

As many of you know, on June 28th, on the 40th anniversary of the Stonewall Riots, a new establishment in Fort Worth, the Rainbow Lounge, was raided by agents from the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission and officers from the Fort Worth Police Department. Seven arrests were made and one individual remains hospitalized due to a head trauma sustained while under the custody of the Texas Alcohol and Beverage Commission. The injustice of it made me angry. Last Wednesday night I attended a vigil to show support. That was my only intention—to increase the number and to see if I could be of support in some way. But I found so much more. Now I hadn’t taken the time to really empathize or consider what it might feel like to be a victim in all of this. My life is busy enough that I don’t always take the time I need to reflect on my own experiences let alone the experiences of others. But on Wednesday night, as I listened to these stories, I began to imagine. To be among a persecuted group, in what feels like a safe place to be yourself and to have that safety violated so egregiously. To fear being arrested just for being who you are. To be so vulnerable and scared. And that scared me. That is presence.

But I don’t always choose it. In the last couple of months I have been challenged by the presence of a woman in my professional life who drives me crazy. And I could tell you all the reasons why she drives me crazy. Every last reason would be her fault and not mine. And she would say all the same things about me. And each of us I am sure has been wishing for things to be different. Wishing for a new person to replace the other. But do you know that there have been times when she has listened to me. Truly listened. And there have been times when I have truly listened to her. And those moments have been transforming. I begin to resent her less and understand her more. But it is hard. Most days I want to resent her. But while we are busy resenting each other we only make ourselves more upset. While we are busy wishing for something to change, we only resent one another more. I was recently reminded of a quote by Abraham Lincoln: “If you look for the bad in people expecting to find it, you surely will.”

We pray not for a new earth or heaven.

I need to stop complaining about how upsetting it is and begin to take charge. To listen. Because as upset as I think she is making me, on the night she was born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see her and the night wind whispered, “life will never be the same.” And even though I get angry and irritable and demanding sometimes, there has never been anyone like me ever in the world and on the night I was born “from far away places the geese flew home, the moon stayed up until morning the next day, and none of the ladybugs flew away.” What she and I need is here. To be quiet in heart and in eye clear. To listen with compassion and respect.

(UUMA Ministry Days- 50 year minister) Just before General Assembly I had the opportunity to hear Rev. Clark speak following the acknowledgement of his fifty years in ministry. He talked about a survey to congregations asking which is the biggest gift one can offer their congregation. Money? Leadership? Time? Their stories? The smallest percentage of answers was their stories. But I share his argument that sharing our stories is one of the most valuable gifts we can offer our congregations.

What we need is here. And I don’t think it is just about learning listening skills. I think there is something greater that we need to embrace.

This year at General Assembly, our distinguished Ware Lecturer was Melissa Harris-Lacewell who invited us to acknowledge that the Unitarian Universalist Association has the most audacious and powerful faith claim of all: “that we can join together to make a world that recognizes the inherent worth and dignity of every single human being.” That is the first Principle our faith: We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Did you catch that?? We affirm and promote the inherent worth and dignity of every person. Bill Sinkford, the President of our Association who just finished his last term is exiting his presidency with a radical call for all of us to “stand on the side of love.” He launched a tremendous campaign toward that effort. And as one of your General Assembly delegates, I extend that invitation to each of you. To stand on the side of love. Because to be fully present, to be free to listen, you must insist on the presence of love.

And so I invite you into the practice of acknowledging that, “On the night you were born, the moon smiled with such wonder that the stars peeked in to see you and the night wind whispered, ‘Life will never be the same.’ Because there had never been anyone like you…ever in the world”…. And on the night the person next to you was born, “So enchanted with them were the wind and the rain that they whispered the sound of their wonderful name.”

And on the night your best friend was born, “When the polar bears heard, they danced until dawn.”

And even for your worst enemy, “Heaven blew every trumpet and played every horn on the wonderful, marvelous night they were born.”

You are free to listen. Do not wait until someone is slipping away. Do not dismiss those who are hard to hear. Make it a spiritual discipline. Once a day? Once a week? Listen. Listen like they hold sacred mysteries. Listen without imagining your response. Listen as if you have no idea where the story will go. Listen as if you have no where to be for a long, long while. Listen as if there is nothing for you to fix. Listen without your biases. Listen like it is the very last time your paths will cross. Listen. Listen. What we need is already here.