A story is told about President Theodore Roosevelt. One day he decided to find out if anyone, in the endless receiving lines he encountered, was really listening to what he had to say. So one day, with a bright smile on his face, he warmly shook hands with each person and said, "I murdered my grandmother this morning." In one version of the story no one replied to his comment. They had all been thinking so hard about their replies that they never really heard what he said. In another version the last person in line replied, "well I'm sure she deserved it." Even in that best case ending only one person heard what he said. No one else was really listening.
Out of all the tasks of a pastor listening can be the hardest of all. That can especially be true when we're fresh out of seminary. We've spent the last three years learning so many wonderful things and we want to shout them out to the world! And thus we often find ourselves planning out our reply while a parishioner is still speaking. It took me too long to figure out whoever I was speaking to was not concerned with how I had encountered a similar situation in my own life. While sometimes, especially in some moments of crisis that type of sharing can be a wonderful thing! More often, it distracts us from hearing something important; something our parishioner really needed us to hear. If we don't listen, we can't truly reply. And at times we discover our parishioner has said something to which we cannot reply. In those times pressing ahead with our planned reply can lead to disaster. In fact I find the majority of times when someone is pouring out their soul to me they don't want a reply. Instead they've come to a pastor, someone who may be the only person in this noisy world who will actually listen to what we have to say. No wonder that Saint Benedict began his rule with such an important word - "listen."
The Reverend Dr. Lowell Striker tells a story about the most dramatic example I have ever read about the need to listen. The story concerned a Lutheran pastor who was a chaplain in the German army during World War II. Chaplains in the army were volunteers; considered to be something like a Red Cross worker. There was no way they could influence anything concerning the course of the war or its accompanying atrocities. As the army advanced, the chaplain was billeted in the homes of prominent Jews. In one of the first such billets he was placed in the home of two Jewish doctors. As he unpacked they came into the room assigned to him, and asked, "Father, you will protect us, won't you?" "Protect them? One might as easily try to stop the wind! Already the rumors were spreading about the camps and the box cars. Not knowing what to say the chaplain stammered out that they had nothing to fear from such as him. The doctor's heads bowed and they turned to leave, but suddenly the chaplain was moved to say, "Sh'ma Yis'ra'eil Adonai Eloheinu Adonai echad" Hear O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One. The doctors turned again and grabbed the pastor's hand and thanked him with tears flowing from their eyes.
What could that have meant to those two men? I think it reminded them not only of their faith but also that there is One who will always hear, always listen. When we encounter someone who wishes to pour out their hearts and souls, we need to remember this story. Sh'ma! Listen! And we should remember as we listen in that moment we represent to them the One who also listens to us.