This is part of my Listening in Lent series in which I reflect on my experience of practicing listening during this holy season.
There’s something about the dark paneling, brown, leather couches, paintings from local artists along with the cacophony of multiple conversations, the gurgling of steaming milk and clinking of coffee cups hitting bus bins to provide the perfect background to my work day. The quiet of home can become oppressive to this extrovert turned stay-at-home worker. The buzz of caffeine and conversation becomes my muse.
That day, I was under as much pressure as the milk being steamed into foam at the espresso machine. My insanely overbooked calendar meant that I had precious little time to write my sermon for Sunday. Late in the afternoon on that St. Patrick’s Day, instead of grabbing a green beer, I opted for decaf tea, my laptop and a leather chair in my favorite coffee shop corner. Given my frantic pace, I really had no business listening to anything but the sound of my own thoughts. But, they were loud. Those kelly-green clad young women at the table kitty corner from me practically shouted phrases like, “I was sooooo hammered,” and “she could barely stand up.” I couldn’t do anything but listen. … Well, eavesdrop, if I were being honest.
Talk of their drunken exploits was punctuated with talk of engagement rings and wedding plans. (Apparently one of them had just gotten engaged.) None of this information was any of my business and I had plenty of other things to do, but I continued to listen to their young, nasal, Midwestern voices tell of their weekend escapades.
Was this the kind of listening I was supposed to be doing during Lent? I’m not so sure. I felt the irritation and judgement rise up in my throat. I forgot to breathe. I forgot to pray. I forgot my manners and shot them a couple icy, judgmental looks. I conveniently forgot that I had strikingly similar conversations with girlfriends when I was a hipster twenty-something.
Now, as a hipster 40-something I should know better than listen to other people’s private conversations (even if they fill the room you are trying to quietly work in). I should also be able to restrain my wandering ears and dirty looks and remember that I should be kind because we are all engaged in the great human struggle. But, I didn’t. I posted my irritation on Facebook instead.
After they slipped out of the back coffee shop room, I began to wonder what it would have been like to be sitting at their table, listening as an actual participant in the conversation. What if I were a pastor to these young women? What would I have done then? I hope that I would have shut my mouth and done a better job of listening without judgement or without formulating my next response. Maybe I would have asked a question or two that delved beneath the surface of these drunken anecdotes to discover what their lives — their frustrations and insecurities, their hopes and dreams — were really like.
This must be why Jesus cautions us against judging so many times in the Bible. Well, no one said this listening thing was going to be easy.