In 1935 Dietrich Bonhoeffer was called by the Confessing Church to leave the safety of London to return to Nazi Germany. He was asked to lead a community of men who had formed an underground seminary. It was out of this experience that he wrote Life Together (1938). Ten years later, on April 9, 1945, he was hanged in the Gestapo prison camp at Flossenburg, exactly two weeks before it was liberated by U.S. Army troops. Every time I reread this classic study of Christian community, I remind myself that it was not written in leisure but under a level of duress I cannot even imagine. His is a witness I want to take seriously.
The fourth chapter in Life Together is titled, “Ministry,” what it looks like to care for and support one another within Christian community. Notice how Bonhoeffer begins this topic. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.”
Read that sentence again. “The first service that one owes to others in the fellowship consists in listening to them.”
Listening. Really? Was there even time for listening in an underground seminary outlawed by the Nazis? Apparently so. “Just as love to God begins with listening to His Word, so the beginning of love for [other members of the community] is learning to listen to them. It is God’s love for us that He not only gives us His Word but also lends us His ear.” And if this is so in Bonhoeffer’s setting in Pomerania, surely it is equally true in mine. And yours.
It’s difficult to capture listening in a film because it looks passive (though it’s actually a very active skill), and to make movies exciting directors prefer action. One film that captures listening well is Paterson (2016). Starring Adam Driver as the bus driver poet, Paterson, and directed by Jim Jarmusch, it is a sensitive movie in which Paterson listens well and finds that beauty and love flourish as a result. This isn’t all that Paterson is about, but listening is at the heart of it. It’s mostly about poetry and could be said to be a poem itself. The film makes me suspect that many of us have precious little poetry in our lives because we are poor listeners.
Bonhoeffer notes that often Christians “think they must always contribute something,” say something, share a truth or a Scripture, but this must not be our first priority. “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking where they should be listening.” This kills the life of the spirit, Bonhoeffer insists, and leads to what he calls “spiritual chatter.” I’m sure we’ve all experienced it. I’ve contributed to it far more often than I care to admit.
One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.
Beware “listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say.” This “impatient, inattentive listening,” only masks the fact we are not taking the person as seriously as we should. Such listening is, finally, Bonhoeffer says, a reflection of our relationship with God, “who is himself the great listener and whose work we should share” (p. 97-99).
In reading these words I am convicted of my failure to listen with quiet patience, of my urge to fill every silence with my words, even a momentary silence as you pause to think before you resume your story. And even if I resist the urge and keep my mouth shut, the urge remains.
Anyone who says listening is not hard has not tried it. And all of us who have tried it know we need to work hard to learn to be a better listener.