The Listening Process

Hospitality That Listens

A lecture given by Bishop James Tengatenga the Bishop of Southern Malawi to the Partnership for World Mission conference 2006. The theme of the Conference was Hospitality – A Way Into Mission.

Introduction

I find it fascinating that a conference to do with mission is concerned about hospitality. I suppose I am less surprised that it is concerned with listening. Am I not surprised because listening is a buzz word in the Anglican Communion today or is it so because it is a Gospel word? Mission is primarily God’s mission and is carried out by and effected by God. It begins and ends with God. It is this same God who hears, who listens! It is this very God who when he listens and hears, acts. It is also this very God who hosts us in his world, in his mercy and in his love. Yes “in him we live and move and have our being”. St Augustine even said that our souls are restless until they find their rest in Him. One of Jesus’ pictures of salvation and the consummation of all things is of a grand banquet hosted by the Lord Himself. “Go to the streets and byways and bring them all in!” said the Lord. Talking about banquets, the aim of going to the ends of the earth to proclaim the Gospel is to bring people to the Lord’s banquet.

We know about “the going” and we know about the gifts of the spirit as spelt out in Isaiah and I Corinthians. However, more often than not the one gift that does not get talked about much from the Corinthian table is that of Hospitality[1]. When God gives a gift it has to be used or exercised! What I am suggesting here is that it is a gospel imperative to offer hospitality and as such there is no choice but to do it. In Acts 28:7, Romans 12:13, 1 Timothy 3:2; 5:10, Titus 1:8, Heb 13:2 and 1 Peter 4:9 it is given as an exhortation to all, a requirement for leadership, an expression of Christian values and thus a living out of the Gospel. As such it is an expected characteristic of the Christian community.

It has also been said that this choice of theme has been necessitated by the fact that the Church in England will be hosting the Lambeth Conference two summers from now. As such it was felt that there is need to prepare the ground somehow. But there have always been Lambeth Conferences hosted in England! What is so special about this one? It may have to do with the situation in the communion which requires that we go back to some basics of God’s mission in the world. Hospitality is not an easy thing in times of tension but hospitable we are called to be. With red herrings flying all over the face of the communion is it possible to really hear each other or rather is it possible to listen to each other?

In this scenario, then, hospitality is fraught with many tensions. To be hospitable may be interpreted as to curry favour or to seduce another to one side or the other. To receive hospitality from some quarters may be construed as selling out? To listen would suggest that one has not already heard that which is already being shouted from the roof tops! Hospitality and listening have become suspect. What a mess! Yes, the death of innocence! Does this suggest that there is no hope? What of the divine imperative, for which a charism has already been given? Bishop Paul Burrough (former bishop of Mashonaland in Zimbabwe), ends his rather curious but insightful book with the following words:

In some distant relationship, untroubled by political ideologies, angels must be entertained and enjoyed for themselves in a new kind of undemanding hospitality. (Angels Unawares, p 134 [my emphasis])

Those who have ears to hear let them hear!

Hospitality

The Gen 18 story of Abraham and Sarah hosting the three beings is very fascinating because it mentions the two elements together. It talks about hospitality and also about listening. Abraham and Sarah offer hospitality and they listen to their guests (Sarah does it behind the curtain!). There seems, here, to be some expectation that the guests bring some kind of news or information. Otherwise I cannot make sense of Sarah eavesdropping. She seems to me to be too virtuous for such clandestine listening! Both felt that they had to listen. They may be entertaining angels unawares and would not like to have missed a word from the Lord. As we say in Malawi, “Mlendo amabwera ndi kalumo kakutwa” (literary translated means, “A stranger brings a sharper knife” which really is idiomatic for do not underestimate the strangers solutions, abilities, etc he more often than not saves the day). In this case, then, the words of a stranger are listened to very carefully and savoured. As such listening is very important in the exercise of hospitality. Of course in this story Sarah made light of the words of the guests. Because we know the end of the story we also know what a mistake that was.

The stranger is seen as a stranger. There is no rush or need to make them one of us. If they are one of us we may take lightly their words. We may ignore their sharper knife. If they happen to be younger or inferior in any way there is a danger that they may be treated as such and their gifts lost to the occasion. “Anything and everything you do to these little ones, do as you would do for me”, says the Lord. One of our problems both in the West and in my part of the world today is that we want to ignore difference and the strangeness of the other. It seems to me that we have treated strangeness and difference as an evil and a hindrance to relationship. We should acknowledge it and so benefit from it. It is not an evil. In fact it can become a better good than we can even imagine or think. As Pohl says “…welcome does not violate the stranger’s identity and integrity. (Pohl 153) True hospitality sees a stranger as a gift and an opportunity to exercise the charism. It would not seek to quickly graduate the stranger to being part of the family. Doing so may suggest that we do not want to host and in so doing quench the Spirit. As mentioned before, hospitality is a charism. Like all charismata it is demanding. If one adds the burden of listening it becomes even more so. I am in no way suggesting that after some time the stranger cannot graduate to being one of us. That happens in time. What I am against is short circuiting the process. If indeed we rejoiced in the charism we would wish all our guests to remain guests for us to exercise this gift of the Spirit even more!

What is more in this connecting hospitality with listening is that the same Holy Spirit eavesdrops on our prayers and in fact it is his character to complement them with sighs and groans too deep for words! (Rom.8)! The Romans to which Paul wrote were looking for more ways to make grace abound and they were saying “Why don’t we sin more so that grace may abound” (Rom 6). I would say let’s have more guests so that grace may abound! In Malawi we say “Mudzi wa bwino umadziwika ndi a lendo” or “Mudzi umakoma ndi a lendo”! (A good home is known for its hosting guests (hospitality) or A home is better when it has guests! {A home’s image is enhanced by the frequency of guests or guests make the home!})

“Jean Vanier writes that ‘Welcome is one of the signs that a community is alive. To invite others to live with us is a sign that we aren’t afraid, that we have a treasure of truth and of peace to share’ He also offers an important warning: ‘A community which refuses to welcome – whether through fear, weariness, insecurity, a desire to cling to comfort, or just because it is fed up with visitors – is dying spiritually.’ ” (Pohl p.160)

Listening

So how does hospitable listening happen? Like every virtue that a Christian lives or expresses we do it because God did it first. Thus we listen because God listens. I would like to imagine that even at the beginning of creation God listened and because he did not like what he heard he decided to bring order out of that chaos! Imagine the serenity of a big white swan floating over the waters as the Spirit hovered over the waters in the calming of that chaos at creation. So much about my hallucinations over the creation story in Genesis 1!

One more hallucination! There is also guilty listening - Listening for the footsteps of the wronged one. I imagine this was the kind of listening that Adam and Eve did when they were hiding behind those shrubs. They had no “truth and peace to share” as Jean Vanier (quoted above) reminded us of. Isn’t this similar to some of the anxiety that some of us have when we are going to receive guests we do not know or ones we are not comfortable with. What will they say about us? Will they not see what we really are and say something about it which in turn will make us very uncomfortable? “I hear that they have no inhibitions. Beware what you say in their presence,” may be what some of us feel in those times. Will they say something we do not want to hear? We may not be the only ones listening. What will our neighbours say when they hear what they say? What will our neighbours say when they hear Arabic, African or other exotic accents? Will we be defensive about our guests? I am reminded of a Queen Latifa and Steve Martin movie (Bringing the House Down) where Steve Martin’s character’s neighbour asks about the accent and language she heard. His response was “There is no Negro spoken here!”

 Listen. You may not like what you hear. Your neighbours may not like what they hear but all of you have a duty to listen for “Mlendo amabwera ndikalumo kakutwa”! It may also be the case of Psalm 95:7-9, “Today, if you hear his voice do not harden your hearts as you did at Meribah, as you did that day at Massah, in the desert, where your fathers tested and tried me, though they had seen what I did”

Listening should be liberative even as it can be confrontive. This is the experience of Sarah as she eavesdropped on her husband and their guests. She heard the Lord’s promise which sounded “out of this world” as young people say. She laughed. But the truth was shared in what she heard. The guests listened too. They heard her cynical chuckle over what she heard and they confronted her with it. In this we see listening of different kinds – physical and metaphysical. I say so because I do not believe that the guests heard her in a physical sense as I imagine that it was a discrete chuckle from the future-mother-of-nations. We have an eavesdropping God. He even takes notes! This is what we hear in Malachi 3:16, “Then those who feared the LORD talked with each other, and the LORD listened and heard. A scroll of remembrance was written in his presence concerning those who feared the LORD and honoured his name.” He does not only eavesdrop he also intentionally listens to us. When we pray he hears our prayers (e.g. Hannah prays and God hears 1Sam 1). He listens and hears the cries of his people (Exod.3). Because he listens so should we, since we are imitators of Christ.

Imagine what would have happened had our African fore-bearers not accorded a listening ear to the first missionaries. Some of us would not have heard the Gospel. They listened. Had the missionaries not taken time to listen to our languages they would not have understood our languages. In that mutual listening the gospel was proclaimed. Accents were not barriers but challenges to be overcome. Most westerners have problems understanding some of us from exotic lands. Many a time (in the UK and the USA) I have heard people come out of a service complaining that they heard nothing for the accent! I may sound bigoted in my next statement but I do not intend to be. My intention is for you to hear us in the way we hear you. Imagine if we were as lazy as some of you are in that respect. Our African children would not pass their examinations as they hear all sorts of British, American, Japanese and even European accents in their volunteer and missionary teachers. If only one applies oneself to listening one hears and benefits. That our accents are a barrier speaks more than most of you in the West are prepared to hear. If we are to be hosts that are worth the name we have to learn to listen. Especially when your guests are making a very serious effort to speak your language and you have never even tried theirs. (This may be very embarrassing to those dioceses that have linked with some of us from exotic lands but its own people have not learnt their link diocese’s language!) The least a host can do is make an effort to hear their own language spoken strangely. It is hard. No wonder hospitality is a charism. The challenge is that both parties will be self-conscious about it and that may impede openness. My observation has been that where both parties have liberated the other in their listening they overcome the accents and many moments of laughter and mutual learning do occur. Even mutual correction ceases to be embarrassing (and a power play) for either party. I have had such experiences. Only last year I was visiting in the USA. I mixed up some idiom about being “on the run” when I meant “on the road” and was corrected by my American colleague very nicely. When there is no mutuality there is always the fear that one may be understood to be patronising or not appreciating the fact that there is a difficulty due to some deficiency or other.

Come to think of it. Mutual listening gave birth to Pidgin English or as we call it in Southern Africa, Chilapalapa! Neither English nor Afrikaans nor any African language but containing elements of all! It took a lot of listening to create it. In that environment of the gold mines in South Africa they spoke the same language and some form of mutuality (at least on the level of language) prevailed. All felt at home, South African Blacks, immigrant workers from the rest of the continent and the Afrikaner and English baas. I suppose this is why one of the charismata is speaking in tongues and the groans of the Holy Spirit too deep for words. I suppose that this was so that no one has proprietary rights and thus superiority over another in prayer! Oh the tricks and the creativity of our auditory sense!

The other side of this problem is when there is overcorrection. It may actually be more helpful to ignore some mistakes unless they would be very embarrassing. It frees the speaker to share even more. Yet another side is condescending listening. By this I mean listening as though you are listening to a child or someone with a speech disability. This usually shows in the expression of the listener and is off putting for the speaker. There are times when Africans have been made to feel like children when they are speaking. It is not good hospitality to do so.

There are also some times when discussion is affected by people demeaning the argument style of the other. Logic is not always the same everywhere. Accepting that there may be differences in our logic or debating style may go a long way in helping the hosts and the guests to get the best out of the visit. We are past the age where difference was suggestive of inferiority. However, a lot of guests to these shores have felt that because they understood things differently from their hosts their points of view were ignored or condescendingly acknowledged. We would learn a lot from each other and appreciate each other’s world views more if we listened to each others’ wisdom as equal albeit different. I would like to illustrate some of this with an example from my time at the Selly Oak Colleges (That than which none was finer in mission experience and teaching!).

I remember a remark (in one of the mission classes) from one of the lecturers when a student made a comment on his analysis of some African Custom. The lecturer, who was European, claimed superior understanding of the custom than the native who understood it differently. He claimed that his six years’ experience of African life gave him more understanding of that culture than the one who embodied and lived that culture. What audacity! I call that arrogant listening and condescension at its worst. The class was the poorer as it was denied more valuable input in the discussion. Discourse was negatively affected. If only the lecturer was willing to listen to the “inferior” his wisdom would have increased and so of the class!

There is also red herring listening. This is when one listens to the other and picks out the buzz words and takes offence at them. In that situation what the speaker was saying is lost to the listener. All of us have stereo-types of the other. In these times of tension in the Communion some people listen to the other in this way. They will boycott a talk because they heard that the speaker was African from a particular part of the continent. If they go they will refrain from participating in the discussion. There is a tendency to imagine that we have heard it all. Being African, they are going to say this and that, and they will say it this way. Even if that were to be the case, would it make you less of who you are to hear it again? Who knows, second time round you may hear it differently! But more importantly you have acknowledged the other’s presence and also their humanity. Recognition of the other’s humanity is very important for us. It goes beyond curiosity at the exotic.

In Malawi, a greeting is more than just an exchange of pleasantries. In this (Western) culture one waits to be introduced before they can greet someone in the company of their friend. In Malawi you greet everyone in the round. You do not wait to be introduced. Introductions come later and after that another greeting! When you visit someone’s home, you are greeted outside the house with a handshake and will be greeted again when you are seated inside the house (or even outside). The first greeting acknowledges your humanity. The second one is a welcome and enquires about your wellbeing. After the second greeting, if there is a stranger, the stranger will be introduced and will be greeted a third time as a sign of welcome with the gained knowledge. You can never have enough of the good thing!

Greeting, apart from enquiring about the other’s wellbeing and wishing them well also denotes recognition of mutual humanity, respect and peace. My enemy will not greet me or greet me back. When people pass each other on the road, they greet, “Wawa!” (if they are Ngoni like me) and the other will respond “Wawa!”. If they do not respond, they have signalled that they are neither friendly nor human (and humane). They are a “chirombo”: a dangerous beast and they mean no peace.

Conclusion

St. Paul (Rom .10) says, “How can they hear if it has not been told them? How can they tell if they have not been sent? Faith comes by hearing: hearing the Word of God.” I would suggest, for our purposes, “How can one hear and listen if one has not offered hospitality? How can they tell if they have not been invited in?”

Karen Mains observes:

What a sin it is that many Christians know so little about this broken world. They have isolated themselves from the starvation of nations, turned their backs on battered and abandoned babies. Little do they care that children grow without a gentle touch, that old men haunt park benches dying from loneliness rather than age. This world to many believers is one large, silent scream. We refuse to hear the agony – of children too hungry to cry, of mothers with breasts gone dry, without energy to moan, of impoverished peoples numbed with outrage, of Indian youths suicided by despair. (Open Heart – Open Home p.140)

Taking off from this, I would like to conclude with another Malawian hospitality and listening illustration between a missionary and locals. In Malawi one shows that one is welcoming when one invites people into one’s home when they come. It does not matter whether it is a very short visit or a long one. Being let into one’s home demonstrates hospitality. Speaking to someone standing at one’s door suggests no welcome. In many cases when one is spoken to only at the door and not invited in, the person would not say what they had come to say. They go back with their message or problem unresolved (if that is what brought them there).

One of our lecturers in theological college (over twenty years ago) was wondering why some of us were very cold to him and why some of us stopped visiting him. What he did not realise was that his speaking to students at the door and not letting them in was interpreted by them as non-welcome. The students would not intend to stay for long and he understood that. However, his cultural sensitivities had not yet matured to the extent of being able to catch on to what he was doing wrong. Because the students felt unwelcome they stopped visiting him. They stopped confiding in him. Offering hospitality by letting them through the door and sitting down with them (and even offering a drink of water) would have accorded him an opportunity to hear, listen and help, and so make friends with consequent development of mutuality. He learnt his lesson and all ended well.

I have said a mouthful on Hospitality and Listening. The question then, is “To what end?” The answer to that question I leave to the next speaker, to my second talk and to the discussions we are going to have in this time together. Suffice it to say that the hint given here is that when hospitality has opened doors for listening we all get a chance to hear the other’s story as it is. We hear it not as the news media tell it. We hear it from those who live the news. It is through this hospitable listening that our mission takes direction and responds to the challenges and opportunities expressed therein as we participate in God’s mission.

Bibliography

Burrough, P., Angels Unawares, Worthing: Churchman Publishing Ltd, 1988
Mains, K.B., Open Heart, Open Home, New York: Signet, New American Library, Inc.,
1980
Pohl, C., Making Room, Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1999, Chapters 4,5,8.
Presler, T., Horizons of Mission, Boston: Cowley Publications, 2001
Von Rad, G., Genesis: A Commentary, Philadelphia: Westminster Press, 1972

[1] This is not mentioned directly but it is inferred by most commentators as part of the different administration and services in 1 Cor. 12:5 and 6