“I grew up thinking that I was a listener, except on my way to graduate school one time, I simply pulled over making the long drive from Seattle, Washington, to Madison, Wisconsin, pulled over in a field to get some rest and a thunderstorm rolled over me. While I lay there and the thunder echoed through the valley and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen. I thought that listening meant focusing my attention on what was important even before I had heard it and screening out everything that was unimportant even before I had heard it.” – Gordon Hempton, as heard on the On Being – The Last Quiet Places podcast
Gordon Hempton is an acoustic ecologist. What on earth is that? He is trying to conserve a natural resource that is rapidly diminishing without notice. He conserves quiet. Quiet places don’t mean silent, they mean quiet. There is probably no place on earth that is completely quiet, no matter how it may seem to us.
Recently my family and I were in a restaurant. It was a cavernous sort of place, high top metal tables and chairs, high ceilings, and music. Loud. Music. Given the type of space, when you add the music, the conversations of many patrons and staff, and it was SO LOUD. When dinner was over we went somewhere else for coffee. More music, more sounds, too many sounds. I felt overwhelmed by it all.
Perhaps that is why I responded to hearing about Gordon Hempton and his work of preserving quiet, which is to say, natural sounds. And I really loved his “conversion” moment that I quoted above.
It occurred to me that this was on the same continuum as Epiphany. The magi made their way to Christ because they understood him to be the king. When they arrived, they simply saw what they already believed. Something shifted when they screened out was not essential, they took in new information that changed everything. Everything.
Many of us quietly believe that we never really hear or see the manifestation of Christ. And for others among us, we may be fooled into thinking, all with the best of intentions, that we had our Epiphany, and because we are in church, not much more is needed. Of course, this is not the case, because God beckons and invites us deeper into the mystery of faith at all times. Epiphany then becomes an invitation to once again, a la Hempton, “take it all in,” and realize that perhaps we have more to listen to, to see, to know God more clearly and deeply.
It could be, not unlike our acoustic ecologist friend, that we might need to reframe what “listening,” or “seeing” truly means in Christ. So how do we do this?
Personally, I have no clue – I’m stumbling around complaining about the noise. However, these three things come to mind.
Listen to listen. First of all, we think of the Epiphany as a “seeing” event – seeing the star, following it, seeing Herod, seeing the Holy Family. Maybe what we need to do is truly open our ears, without filters. I can be so impatient, sometimes someone is talking and I want to scream and say “get to the point.” (I’m pretty sure people think that about me – maybe even now!) Yet, I know that when I do that, I am listening to hear what I think I need to hear. What might I be missing in all of this?
Second, do something new. The magi followed the star and came to Bethlehem. A change of routine and atmosphere invites new things into our lives and can broaden our perspective, shift our horizon. Maybe we can do things differently. More slowly perhaps, or with more intentionality. Drive to work a different way, challenge an almost OCD like need to fold clothes in a particular manner, or to only buy one brand of something at the same market each week. Here’s a good one – come to church and sit in a new pew! That one is the hardest for many of us, yet it might open up a door or window.
Third, be ready with your gifts. Forget frankincense, gold, and myrrh! What are your gifts? When you bring those gifts forth, sharing them not only at church, but with everyone, imagine that you are shining light. The cumulative impact of your light makes for quite a brilliant glow. And in that glow the notion that you are present before the Lord might surprise you.
One last thing – yes, I said three, but let’s go with a brief fourth. Recognize Christ in the most unlikely places. He’s everywhere, waiting to be seen.
Gordon Hempton said, “While I lay there and the thunder echoed through the valley and I could hear the crickets, I just simply took it all in. And it’s then I realized that I had a whole wrong impression of what it meant to actually listen.” Go out there, take it all in, it’s never too late to change. Go ahead – epiphany upon epiphany awaits us all!
(This is the reflection that I offered at St. Edward the Confessor tonight.)