Do you struggle with all the recent reporting about food banks and delays in benefit payments? I certainly have mixed feelings about what I hear. Somehow the reports never seem to reflect the sheer complexity and difficulty that many of the people we know have to struggle with on a daily basis. Perhaps I’m being cynical, but the impression I get is that the real aim of many reports is to convey an interesting news story or to defend (or attack) a political policy. It rarely seems however that those who are on the wrong end of these stories are truly heard.
In my experience true listening comes from a sense of vulnerability that happens in a face to face conversation; it happens in the context of solidarity, the sense that ‘we are in this together’ (though the value of this phrase has been so profoundly undermined in recent years!). True listening seeks to understand people, not to change them or seek to fix them, but to stay around and be a good neighbour.
It is in such conversations that we might sense the Spirit at work or (perhaps to our surprise) find ourselves touched and changed by the presence of God who we encounter through the other person. I very much like the way that Terry Veling describes this in his book Practical Theology (though I’m taking the phrase somewhat out of context) – he says that “between the two there is a third’. That is, when we make ourselves present, or available, to the other person and give our whole attention to them, then we find that the space between us is exactly the kind of space in which the Spirit is likely to dwell. The Spirit is neither in the self nor in the other person, but is present in the conversation as the “third” person who inhabits the place between them. In these circumstances true hearing takes place and things are understood that neither person could have perceived by themselves. This, I believe, is true hearing, and the kind of hearing that can transform lives.
Perhaps another helpful way of reflecting on the place of food banks is offered to us through the book by Sam Wells and Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies. They propose four models of engaging with people: working for, working with, being for and being with. Their discussion does not provide easy answers, but it does offer a helpful insights about building fruitful rather than undermining relationships. Andrew Grinnell presents some very helpful thoughts on this in his webinar.
So, can I point you in the direction of two really helpful reads:
- Samuel Wells and Marcia Owen, Living Without Enemies: Being Present in the Midst of Violence (Downers Grove: IVP, 2011)
- Terry Veling, Practical Theology: On Earth as it is in Heaven (New York: Orbis, 2005)