Whoever shouts loudest...
For me personally one of the hardest skills to learn has been – and still is – listening. When people talk to me I find it hard not to jump to conclusions, finish their sentences, and decide what they mean before they’ve finished speaking.
But there’s another aspect to listening which is making sure the loudest voice isn’t the only one that gets heard. In churches – as in many families and groups of people – there are as many ideas and hopes and dreams as there are people. As a church leader it’s easy to focus on the loudest and most frequent voices – if only for a break and a bit of peace and quiet!
Listening for the whisper
I’d like to look at two verses in the Bible that relate to this . The first is perhaps obvious:
The Lord said [to Elijah], ‘Go out and stand on the mountain in the presence of the Lord, for the Lord is about to pass by.’
Then a great and powerful wind tore the mountains apart and shattered the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. After the wind there was an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. After the earthquake came a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire came a gentle whisper. When Elijah heard it, he pulled his cloak over his face and went out and stood at the mouth of the cave.1 Kings 19.11-13a (NIV)
Elijah was wise: he only went out of his cave, ready to hear God, when he heard the whisper. This is so often the way God speaks.
There are two equal and opposite errors here. The first is active: looking for God only in loudness and excitement and noise and fanfare – in my tradition, this is often manifested in constantly praying for revival while ignoring (deliberately or not) how God is at work in and through everyday events.
The second is passive: failing to be still and quiet, failing to learn how to listen to God’s voice. I learned quite recently how important it is for me to build times and days of retreat and stillness into my life, to force myself to stop and listen.
Ignoring the clamour
The next verse is very different. It comes towards the end of Luke’s gospel, during Jesus’ ‘trial’ and examination by Pilate. He finds nothing wrong, no crime committed, and wants to set Jesus free.
But with loud shouts [the crowd] insistently demanded that he be crucified, and their shouts prevailed.
Luke 23.23 (NIV)
The little phrase ‘their shouts prevailed’ is one of the most damning in Scripture, and one of the most dangerous in leadership.
Now, I’m not comparing the clamours of local churches to the demands of the crowd that Jesus be crucified – instead I am making a point about (bad) leadership. Pilate knew what the right and just course of action was. He’d done everything right, he had listened to both Jesus and his accusers, and made the correct judgement that Jesus should be set free.
But, in the face of the insistent demands of the crowd, he caved.
All the retreats, all the stillness, all the listening in the world, are meaningless if we then lose heart and give in to the loudest voices. Of course we need to be careful – sometimes the loud voices are a warning we need to heed – but here I think is the task of the (church) leader.
Do we listen?
Do we listen to God? Do we listen to one another? Do we have the wisdom and the depth of the knowledge of God’s love for us as his children, to withstand the noise and be courageous?