The Courage to Listen

Rev. David Herndon
First Unitarian Church of Pittsburgh
October 15, 2017


By David Herndon

15 October 2017

First Unitarian Church

Pittsburgh, PA

On Saturday, October 7, Cindy and I went hiking in the Allegheny National Forest north of Clarion, Pennsylvania.  We chose a trail in the Hickory Creek Wilderness.  Information we found online said this trail circled around in a loop that was eleven miles long.  In other words, after eleven miles, you came back to the place where you started.  The trail description we found online further said that some people hiked it all in one day, while others preferred to go about halfway, camp overnight, and then finish the trail the next day.

Cindy and I decided to do the entire Hickory Creek Wilderness Trail in one day.  After all, we are not inexperienced hikers. And after all, the ground was level, with no steep slopes to climb.  And after all, the weather forecast said there would be no rain.  And after all, many people walk about two miles per hour, so we figured we could cover eleven miles in just a few hours.  We thought we had a good plan.  What could possibly go wrong?

We began walking at 11:00 AM, wearing sturdy hiking boots and carrying backpacks with sandwiches and snacks and two bottles of cold water.  However, looking at the large map displayed at the trailhead, we found that we had to hike about a mile and a half just to get to the loop trail.  We were not sure whether this extra mile and a half was included in the eleven miles or not.  But off we went.

It was a pleasant day and the woods had some beautiful fall colors.  Our black Labrador dog, Harley, enjoyed being off the leash.From time to time we stopped to admire the scenery.  After a couple of hours, one of us – namely me – was huffing and puffing a bit, and instead of stopping from time to time to admire the scenery, I stopped simply to rest.  After three hours, we nearly lost the trail at a creek crossing where a beaver dam had turned the area into a wetland.  After four hours, at least one of us – namely me – would have been truly grateful to finish the hike sometime soon.  There was a campground nearby, and someone who was settled in at the campground happened to walk by the spot where Cindy and I had stopped to rest.  It was now three o’clock in the afternoon, and we asked him if he had any idea how far it was to the beginning of the trail where the south part of the loop and the north part of the loop came together.  He said, “Well, I have some good news for you.”  Our spirits instantly lifted.  “I believe you are a little past halfway around the loop.”  Our spirits instantly sank once again.In that moment, this was the worst good news we could have heard.  It meant that in addition to the four hours we had already hiked, we had another four hours to go.  The man disappeared over to his campground and then reappeared, bringing back a paper map.  He showed us on the map where we were.  A little past halfway around the loop.  Perhaps sensing our dismay, he offered to give us the map, and we gratefully accepted.

So for the next four hours we put one foot in front of the other and moved forward.  Harley helpfully located the trail when it was difficult to find.  It was seven o’clock when we arrived back at the car, and the darkness of evening was falling rapidly.

Being out in nature can restore your spirit.  Walking in the woods can bring a sense of peace and tranquility.  You can reconnect with yourself.  I had been looking forward to listening to the silence in the woods and then listening for my own inward response.

Unfortunately, it did not work out that way for me.  After the first couple of hours on the trail, what I heard inside myself was a voice telling me how tired I was, and how much I needed to stop and rest, and why didn’t you bring more water, and you really should be in better shape if you are going to attempt a trail like this.  The trail was not exactly a spiritual journey of bright radiance and deep insight.  My own internal static prevented me from listening to the silence in the woods, and my own internal static prevented me from listening to my response to the silence in the woods.

Acoustic ecologist George Hempton has said, “When we’re truly listening we have to anticipate that we might become changed by what we heard.”  Yeah, I was hungering from some of that change when I started that hike a week ago.  I was hoping I would become changed by hearing the silence in the woods.  But after the first couple of hours, my own internal dialogue was in the way.

Here at First Unitarian Church, as in many other religious communities, listening must be regarded as an essential skill, a central spiritual practice.  Because we regard diversity not only as a fact of life but also as an accomplishment, we need to engage in compassionate dialogue for mutual understanding and appreciation.  But you know how it can be in discussions and conversations!  Sometimes you are planning your next response instead of listening to what the other person is saying.Sometimes your emotions take over and you find that your entire attention gets focused on your own strong feelings.  Sometimes you are too tired to listen.  Sometimes you have already made a judgement about a person so that you automatically dismiss or discount whatever they say.  Sometimes you hear someone else’s story as a request for you to fix things for them.  Sometimes you are not prepared to listen to something because it might mean acknowledging that you need to change your understanding.  After all, as George Hempton has said, “When we’re truly listening we have to anticipate that we might become changed by what we heard.”

There are things you can do or habits you can develop to become a better listener.  You can reflect back what someone has said:“If I understand correctly, what you are saying is such and so.”  You can take notes.  You can ask respectful questions.  You can resist the temptation to interrupt.

But perhaps most effective is to monitor what is going on inside yourself when you are listening.  You can keep track of your own emotional response and temporarily set it aside if it starts to get in the way.  You can try to keep yourself open and receptive and not so full of your own thoughts and feelings that you have no room for the thoughts and feelings of others.  You can count to ten, or to fifty, if you find that you are becoming defensive.

I would like to share with you a cartoon that appeared in The New Yorker magazine a few weeks ago.  In this cartoon, two people are sitting at a table engaged in conversation.  One of them has stopped the conversation to say, “Do you truly care, or are you just a good listener?”

In our context, perhaps the lesson to be learned from this comment is that at its core, good listening is not a matter of good technique but of good will.

This past week, I was putting together a Facebook event notice for “Unitarian Universalism as a Spiritual Path.  ”Facebook wanted me to supply a picture.  So I typed in the words “spiritual path” and did a search for images.  Let me share with you the common understanding of what a spiritual path is.  First, it is solitary.  Most of the images I saw were devoid of people, except for a few where there was just one person – presumably an image of yourself as the pilgrim on the spiritual path.  Second, it occurs in a beautiful rural or natural landscape.  Most of the images I saw were images of a path in the woods, or a trail in the mountains, or stepping stones in water, or footprints on a beach.  Third, it often has a dreamlike quality.  Many of the images I saw were not images of real places on the earth, but were symbolic representations of an interior process.

Eventually I found an image that I used in my Facebook event notice.  But it was not one of these unpopulated nature landscapes.For me, something important was missing from these images.

The Hindu scripture called the Bhagavad Gita speaks of three primary spiritual paths.  One of these is Knowledge, particularly the study of sacred texts.  A second path is Service, or Karma Yoga.  One writer describes Karma Yoga in this way:“Karma Yoga calls for work aimed at the welfare of the world and the promotion of justice, compassion, and peace.”  A third path is Devotion, or Bhakti Yoga.  This same writer describes Bhakti Yoga as “the path of devotion and worship of the Divine.”

What I appreciate about this set of three spiritual paths is that it includes Service.  That was entirely missing in the images that appeared when I did my online image search for “spiritual path.”  If I were in charge of spiritual path images, I would include Service images among the results  .I would include images that represent “work aimed at the welfare of the world and the promotion of justice, compassion, and peace.”  I would include images of Dr. King leading the civil rights marchers across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, in March 1965.I would include images of Harriet Tubman leading people out of slavery on the Underground Railroad.  I would include images of soldiers engaging in brave actions.I would include images of anti-war protestors seeking the safe return of those soldiers.  I would include images of people serving meals in homeless shelters.  I would include images of people building habitat for Humanity homes.  I would include images of residents of Arizona leaving jugs of water way out in the Sonoran desert so that undocumented immigrants would have a better chance at survival, even though it is illegal to leave jugs of water in the desert.  I would include images of people sustaining their voluntary associations, from their congregations to their social justice organizations to their children’s sports leagues to so many other organizations that depend on volunteers to make our society more humane.  All of these would be images of people engaged in Service, that is, “work aimed at the welfare of the world and the promotion of justice, compassion, and peace.”

Earlier in my sermon, I said that here at First Unitarian Church, as in many other religious communities, listening must be regarded as an essential skill, a central spiritual practice.  But just as Karma Yoga or Service can be a path toward spiritual growth, so listening may have a social aspect as well.

In recent years, our national discourse has included many voices which have pointed out the troubled history of the United States as well as the disparities between the promise and the reality here in this country.  This national discourse has included books by African-American such as The New Jim Crow:  Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander; Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates; and Just Mercy:  A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stephenson.  This national discourse has also included books by Native American writers such as An Indigenous People’s History of the United States by Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, published by our own Beacon Press.  This national discourse has also included the public protests in the wake of Ferguson and Baltimore, as well as the crying shame of Charlottesville.This national dialogue has included bold claims for inclusivity by transgender people; conversations about calling it Indigenous Peoples’ Day instead of Columbus Day; conversations about the public display of monuments to Confederate leaders as well as conversations about the Stephen Foster statue right here in Pittsburgh; and in recent weeks, this national dialogue has included conversations about professional football players taking a knee during the national anthem at football games.

For many white people, it can be hard to listen to this national discourse.

It can be hard to know what to do.  It can be hard to figure out the connection between how your ancestors lived and what you are responsible for nowadays.  It can be hard to be told that you have white privilege when you may not be doing so well yourself, economically speaking.  It can be hard to expand and revise your understanding of history, learning to see the “good guys” from a different perspective where they may not appear to be so good.

We have heard some people criticize the football players and say that they have no right to disrespect the flag and the national anthem by taking a knee.  We have heard other people grudgingly say that although they thoroughly disapprove of the behavior of the football players who take a knee, the Constitution for which so many people sacrificed does give them the right to engage in this wrongheaded activity.

We have also heard some people offer support for the players.  Seattle Seahawks coach Pete Carroll said:  “In this incredibly polarizing time, there’s no longer a place to sit silently.  It’s time to take a stand.  We stand for love and justice and civility.  We stand for our players and their constitutional rights, just as we stand for equality for all people. We stand against divisiveness and hate and dehumanization. We are in the midst of a tremendously challenging time, a time longing for healing.  Change needs to happen; we will stand for change.  May we all have the courage to take a stand for our beliefs while not diminishing the rights of others, as this is the beating heart of our democracy. As a team, we are united in a mission to bring people together to help create positive change.  We can no longer remain silent.  I will stand with our players.”

I would like to offer a somewhat different view.  I am thinking of a well-known quotation from Carl Schurz, who lived from 1829 to 1906 and who served as a United States Senator from Missouri from 1869 to 1875.While a Senator, he included these words in one of his speeches:  “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”

Carl Schurz saw it as a positive duty to call for social reform and to work for social reform when you see that your country is on the wrong track.  In this view, those who call attention to the injustices of our society are not unpatriotic misfits who are grudgingly tolerated by the REAL patriots.  Rather, in this view, those who call attention to the injustices of our society are being just as patriotic as anyone else by insisting that our country do better in the future than it has in the past.  For Carl Schurz, calling attention to the injustices of our society is an honorable and even necessary form of patriotism.  If Carl Schurz were alive today, I expect he would want to go right down onto the football field and take a knee along with Colin Kaepernick and all the others as an expression of the evident or manifest need to set right what has been wrong in the United States; and I expect Carl Schurz would understand this act to be an honorable form of patriotism and an admirable expression of love of country.  The response should be not to shut down the football players but to fix up the country.

Still, for many people, especially white people, listening to this more expansive and more realistic understanding of patriotism can be hard.

My daughter Rachel serves as an AmeriCorps worker at Faison Elementary School in Homewood.  Practically all of the children at this school are African-American.  A couple of weeks ago, she shared with me the story of one seven-year-old boy she encountered who seemed tired and unable to focus.  When she inquired, she learned that this seven-year-old boy did not have a bed to sleep in.  At his home, he slept on the floor.  Every night.

It was difficult for Rachel, who has experienced some modest privilege in her life, to listen to this story.  It broke her heart to think about the difference between her own childhood and the childhood of this seven-year-old boy.

My prayer for Rachel is that she will use this instance of difficult listening as an incentive:  an incentive not simply to find a way to give this one particular seven-year-old boy a bed of his own to sleep in, but to question the morality of a system that tolerates structures of racial injustice and economic inequity in the first place; and not only to question the morality of this system, but then to work for structural transformation of this system.

My prayer is that all of us will have difficult opportunities like the one Rachel had where we can show that we have the courage to listen.

© 2017 by David Herndon

Come to be moved and held in mutual embrace. Come and be made whole.
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