Listen

Today’s Scripture:  Philippians 2:1-14

Stained Glass PaulThis letter started in prison. It was written by the apostle Paul, the missionary to the Gentiles. He’s writing to the first church he founded in Europe.

This letter was received in Philippi, a commercially important city because of nearby gold mines and its location on a major east-west trading route. It was most likely read aloud to the congregation.

What they heard, after a greeting and a few words of thanks, begins with two ways they need to improve.

Be united.

This point cannot be missed. Paul repeats it so may times that even the Philippian gazing out the window and daydreaming would still hear the message: “being united with Christ,” “being like-minded,” “having the same love,” “being one in spirit and in purpose” (2:1-2).

This doesn’t mean that Paul is asking the Philippians to lose their individual identity. Sameness and conformity are not the way to achieve unity or togetherness.* Paul knows that. He is, after all, the one who gave us that beautiful “body of Christ” metaphor where the very different hands and feet and eyes work together under the direction of Christ, the head. Paul doesn’t want the Philippians to be identical; he wants them to be united.

Then he gives another multiply-reiterated instruction:

Be united + be humble.

I count four times in two sentences that Paul asks for humility: “Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of others” (2:3-4).

Like being united, being humble can be easily confused for something it is not. Too often humility is thought to be a lifestyle of self-deprecation. Humility is not putting ourselves down; it is lifting others up. Jesus implies this in the second greatest commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself” (Matthew 22:38). Our love for our neighbor is born out of our love for ourselves.

Paul is asking the Philippians to be united and humble. These are important aspects of any community of Christians, but both of these things are difficult and frequently misunderstood. How do we do them? How do we become united in a culture that celebrates polarization? How do we live humbly in a world of selfishness and self-obsession?

Here’s my proposal:

Be united + be humble = listen.

Listening is so rare these days, it’s almost counter-cultural.

A common scene on television news is a split-screen of commentators and politicians talking over each other. If being united means working together, I see no union in this. If being humble means valuing the other person equally, I see no humility here. Television news often models division and arrogance. And it’s very easy to catch.

If we are going to resist what they are modeling – if we are going to be united and be humble – we have to learn how to listen.

Listening works us toward unity because it allows us to really know the people we want to be united with. When we listen to each other, we understand each other’s point of view. When we listen to each other, we hope to learn from each other. The point is not to win a debate, or to end in agreement every time. The point is to hear and to be heard.

Listening helps us to live humbly because, when done well, it values someone else’s experiences as much as our own. Listening acknowledges that we are not the only interesting person in the room. When we listen, we show others and remind ourselves: they are important and I am important, because we are all children of God.

In church this morning we experimented with this using a little hands-on training. If you’re interested, find a partner and try it out for yourself. For the exercises, you’ll be discussing your favorite ice cream flavor – so spend a moment deciding on yours. (If you need to do some taste-testing to decide, I support you.)

  1. Start by identifying a speaker and a “listener.” For 30 seconds, the speaker should talk his or her preferred scoop; the “listener” should do anything but listen. “Listeners,” feel free to be creative and extreme. After 30 seconds, switch sides.
    • What made for bad “listening”?
    • How did it feel when you were speaking?
    • Which role was harder?
  2. Identify your speaker and listener again. Again, the speaker should spend 30 seconds talking about his or her preference; this time, the listener should listen for real. Do everything you can to be as attentive as possible. After 30 seconds, switch sides.
    • How was this different?
    • What made for good listening?
    • Did you have to compromise your own opinion in order to actively listen?

Even if you didn’t find a partner and do a little role playing, I bet you can guess what makes for good listening:

  • Eye contact
  • Body language (not slumped down in the chair or with arms crossed looking defensive)
  • Comprehension questions (“So you like mint chocolate chip because it’s refreshing?”)
  • Follow-up questions (“When did you first have mint chocolate chip?”)

This letter started in prison and was heard by a church in Philippi, but it’s still relevant to us today. The Philippians struggled with unity and humility and many of our churches do, too. When we find ourselves failing to achieve one or both, it might be good to ask: “Are we listening to each other?”

I believe that people are hungry to be heard, really heard.
Aren’t you?
If most people feel that way,
then what if our churches became places where we actually listened to each other?
Not so that we could be identical and comformed,
but so that we could be united and humble.
Then our churches would stop declining and start growing.
Then the world would not only hear the Good News in church, they would feel it.


* Ronald Richardson, Creating a Healthier Church: Family Systems Theory, Leadership, and Congregational Life, p. 63.

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