The Spiritual Practice of Shutting Up

The most critical skill for building coalition is to shut up and listen. —Jonathan Santos Silva, Bridge Fellow for TNTP

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.—Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together  

“Listen” is my word for 2019.

I’m a worder. A single word can make my day or do me in. So, the Choose One Word craze was perhaps an attainable new year’s resolution for me. And yet, I did not choose it lightly. I have a lot to say. A therapist told me once that I was good with words. I don’t think she meant it as a compliment, but inside I smiled, “You’re darn right I am.”

The need for a whole year’s concentration on the word “listen” was born out of a few years of realizing that I don’t listen well. To listen better is a broad goal, so for 2019, I decided to concentrate on my relationships with people of color—specifically my Black friends.

As Christians, we practice the spiritual discipline of prayer which some call listening to God. One scholar cited over 2,000 times that the words listen, listening, hear, or hearing were mentioned in the Bible. What if we applied the obviously important biblical concept of “listening to God” to listening to our fellow human beings?

In 1939. during the horrendous Nazi rule when hatred was the norm, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote a provocative little book, Life Together, proposing a life of love and living in harmony. As I reread the section toward the end of the book, The Ministry of Listening, it was disturbing to see how little progress we have made in the past 80 years.

Bonhoeffer wrote,  

Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for the brethren is learning to listen to them …

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening. But 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.

Here are five lessons I’m learning about the spiritual practice of “shutting up.”

5 Steps for Listening Well in Conversations on Race

1. Do your homework.  

My city of residence is very diverse, making it possible for me to grab a coffee and listen to people that I know, or want to know. But it still requires intentionality. I’ve learned that it is best to physically get together, face-to-face. For those who live in a predominantly white community, a face-to-face conversation may not be possible, but there is nothing to prevent you from taking the time to seek out and learn from authors and speakers of color.

Jarie Bradley, Chief People Officer at City Square, listens for a living. Bradley is a Black woman in Dallas, Texas, which brings double challenges. Over coffee, I asked Jarie about listening better in conversations about race. She said:

Listening includes doing your own research. Do the work! Then, let’s have some real discourse about it.

It was not the first time I’d been told that listening included doing the homework to learn about other cultures. A few years ago, my friend, author, and activist Natasha Sistrunk Robinson challenged me to read more female authors of color. What Jarie helped me understand is that I should read a lot more before I go for coffee.

What I can tell you about my beginner level reading quest is that the more I read, the more I realized how little I knew. I acknowledge my list is still limited, but I offer it here in case you want to do some homework. Here are a few titles on my bookshelf through which I have learned from Black women:

2. Utilize these phrases.

I am a One on the Enneagram. We One’s have a lot to protest and protect—which in my humble opinion requires a lot of words. 

And sometimes listening does need to begin with saying something, just perhaps not as much as we think we need to say. My colleague Kezia Stegemoeller, the Executive Director of Friends of BOMLA, said that her best advice about listening is simply this: “Stop talking.”

When I stop and remember to use them, here are three short sentences that have served me well,

“I don’t know.”

“What do you think?”

“How does that make you feel?” Listening well involves limiting your own talking to phrases such as: I don't know? What do you think? and How does that make you feel? Click To Tweet

3. Instead of talking, do something.

Thankfully, listening is not doing nothing. It takes action and it is definitely intentional.

So once you have listened, do what you heard needs doing. It can be small, or it can be risky big, but do something.

One small example for me, on MLK day this year, some of the Black activists that I follow on social media advised that folks stop quoting Dr. King and instead fund or promote leaders or organizations that work on behalf of the Black community. I’m sure that it had been said before, but as I was trying hard to actually practice my “listen” word (it was still January, so I was fresh with resolve!) it was the first time that I had thought of it this way.

To quote Dr. King could be just another example of what the Bible refers to as the emptiness of words without deeds. I resisted quoting the quintessential worder himself, the Reverend Dr, King, and instead made a donation.

4. Build up your white stamina.

I am a lightweight when it comes to harsh things. My movie-going friends make fun of me for not being able to see violent movies. Back in the day, I walked out of The Color Purple, Schindler’s List, and I would have walked out of The Passion of the Christ if I hadn’t have been sitting with my whole church. I confess: listening to someone’s story of abuse or racial oppression does not come easy.

For several years, I had prayed for God to help me understand better what people of color experience. Then in an interview with poet and playwright Claudia Rankine on Krista Tippett’s On Being podcast, I heard God speak. Rankine said that white people need what she calls “white stamina,” specifically to build up stamina for racial content. She said, “So I think the more one … listen[s], it will not seem so foreign … Then when you see it, it won’t be like, ‘Oh, my God. Oh, my God. Oh, my God.’”

After the interview ended, I sighed. It was as if Rankine had been listening in on my whining, “I tried to read that book but it was too dark so I stopped!” Or “I can’t see that movie, I would have nightmares.”

I needed to build up my scaredy-cat white girl listening stamina. The only way for me to do this is by simply diving in, trusting each time my stamina will increase, enabling me to choose again and again to listen rather than avoid the pain of my sisters and brothers of color. As a white person, I confess: listening to someone’s story of abuse or racial oppression does not come easy. I need to build up my white stamina so I can stop avoiding the pain of my sisters and brothers of color. Click To Tweet

5. Be willing to be wrong.

Be willing to make the mistakes … be willing to do it wrong because if you won’t, then who will? Jonathan Santos Silva, Bridge Fellow for  TNTP

I asked Jonathan Santo Silva to explain what he meant by his statement on making mistakes. He said, “It was really about getting to the bottom of the perfectionism that hinders so many from making efforts to communicate across lines of difference.” He continued, “We need to be humble enough to take risk and make mistakes because, if we do not make that effort, who will?”

When I have not listened well and have the common sense to realize it, I need to apologize. In my relationships with people of color, I have begun to ask God to give me ears to hear what is really happening in my own city and the world. It has changed who and what I listen to. The bible calls this repentance—to turn and go another way.

But there is no way to do this without making mistakes.

For example, last year, in an effort to gain an introduction into an organization, without first asking my colleague April Bowman (CEO of Bold Believers United, an organization that resources youth from low income families), I “dropped” her name. I even copied April in my email, assuming that she would highly recommend me. It did not go as I had hoped. April called me out with the specific ways that I had misused her name without asking—and more importantly, the possibility of her reputation being negatively misinterpreted. 

I have been told before that I move too fast without considering others feelings, but I don’t always listen. After I realized my error, I figured my relationship with April was probably over and did nothing to try to repair it until I started thinking about my 2019 word Listen. Nervously, I dialed April’s cell and left a voice message asking if we could talk. April texted and said that she appreciated my words and that we could schedule a call. (When I asked April if I could refer to this incident, she said, “Sure. God is good! And we are to extend grace because we are recipients of grace.” It was the beginning of a way back).

Listening well and learning from people different from ourselves necessitates that we be open to blunders—and to the work of listening so we can understand what we’ve done and ask forgiveness. If we wait until we think we won’t make a mistake, we’ll never take action.

Recently over coffee, I confessed to Jarie Bradley that I had blown it many times in my friendships with people of color. She smiled and said, “Reject the shame of being wrong. Allow yourself a new way of being and thinking.” Her words hit deep inside me. I left our time empowered to begin anew the spiritual practice of shutting up. To listen better in 2019.

For Further Study

  • Join us at the Missio Alliance Gathering in March. We can listen together. If you can’t attend, look up the speakers you don’t recognize and follow them.
  • Often after Jesus told a parable, he said to the crowd, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” Pray for ears to hear the people around you.
  • Meditate on “listening” verses from the Proverbs: (ESV)
    • “Let the wise hear and increase in learning, and the one who understands obtain guidance.” (1:5)
    • “The way of a fool is right in his own eyes, but a wise man listens to advice.” (12:15)
    • “The ear that listens to life-giving reproof will dwell among the wise.” (15:31)
    • “Listen to advice and accept instruction, that you may gain wisdom in the future.” (19:20)
  • On this post, tag the folks that you are listening to and learning from today.