At first, she just starred at us as she walked by. But as the days progressed, she began to stop, and tell us about her life.
It was 1980, and our family had traveled to Tennessee for the World’s Fair in Knoxville and to visit the Smokey Mountains. My dad knew someone who owned a cabin in the mountains, and that became our home base for the week. It’s also where we encountered the “Woman on the Mountain.”
On the initial day of our arrival, we noticed an older woman, dressed in ragged clothing, slowing walking up the hilly road with a walking stick. As she passed by, she literally stopped, glared at us, mumbled a few words and walked along. In fact, this exercise occurred daily until one day, she stopped for a few minutes, and began to share with us about her life on the mountain.
I’m not sure if she became more comfortable with us, or we were more open after suspicion had left our bodies. Clearly, things changed as we began to listen for understanding. A novel concept, right? Taking the time to listen to another, to gain at least a basic understanding of what is going on in their lives. Something that we are sorely lacking in our country today.
I realize that we are all very different in some respects. I realize that we come from opposite ideologies. I realize that we have entrenched political views. But do we really believe that yelling, negativity, and forcing our “polarized” attitudes upon another will be effective, if we fail to take the time to listen, show respect and understand their journey?
When I worked in the small-town grocery store as a teen I had, on occasion, the opportunity to wait on customers who spoke different languages then myself. I distinctly remember one instance where I was loudly trying to explain something to a customer at the cash register. After this futile, frustrating attempt at communicating, another waiting customer looked at me and said, “Why are you speaking to her in a loud tone? Can’t you tell that she does not understand?” What a powerful life lesson I learned that evening.
I’m not saying that we need to throw our core beliefs out the window. I’m saying that we need to strive to listen, to gain understanding, instead of quickly passing judgment. I guess there’s a reason why my father always told me, “God gave us two ears and one mouth.”
One of the most significant things we can do is to listen to another. I know that we’ve been taught to politely listen and give someone our full attention. But honestly, while others are speaking, how often our we surfing the electronics, or already formulating a response, even before the other individual is finished talking? In James 1:19 it is written, “Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger.”
Trying to understand fellow human beings and their circumstances is still another important step for recognition and dialogue. Obviously, we can never truly grasp a person’s situation, unless we “walk in their shoes.” However, this should not prevent us from seeking knowledge about another’s wants and needs. As it says in Psalm 119:130, “The unfolding of your words gives light; it imparts understanding to the simple.”
Almost three years ago, I had the privilege of visiting one of the poorest countries in the world, Haiti. Part of our travels included spending time in an orphanage in Port au Prince, Haiti’s capital. I had absolutely no understanding what it meant to be an orphan. None. But as we walked into the building, I saw these smiling, anxious, and excited children running towards the group, seeking hugs, seeking connection, seeking acceptance, seeking time and seeking love. These are certainly things that other humans can understand.
Because of sin, we live in a broken world. This means that the set ideas and opinions which we possess, right or wrong, will most likely trump the values of others. But even in this sometimes, hostile environment, would we ever be willing to listen, trying to understand the hopes and dreams of others? I sure hope so. Our culture is depending on it.
Brad Hales is the pastor of Reformation Lutheran Church in Culpeper. He is also the Director of Domestic Mission for the North American Lutheran Church. You can contact Pastor Hales at firstname.lastname@example.org.