Monday, January 4, 2010

On Hearing in the Church

("Abraham and The Three Angels" Marc Chagall)

The most neglected organ in the life a Christian is surely the ears – that gift of hearing.  If I was told years ago that the primary activity of a Christian is found in the ear I probably would have disagreed.  The ears cannot do anything.  All they can do is hear.  I may have said the heart, which holds that inner devotion, or the head which appropriates biblical knowledge.  Otherwise it could be the arms or hands which serve the neighbor in love and charity.  The ears are hardly useful. 

Today, I think we think of hearing as merely the first of many steps involved in a communication to be followed by a process of decoding a message, and then only after a personal subjective application worked out by the hearer is there any value to that sound which is heard.  In the church today we rely much more on the head and the heart to live out our Christian life – much more interested in human production and activity than in that activity of hearing.  We are bound much more to a text and the pen, as we neglect feasting with our ears upon those sweet sounds spoken in the congregation, “How sweet are thy words unto my taste! yea, sweeter than honey to my mouth! (ps. 119:103).

This may be one of the reasons for an abundance of bible studies and lectures, at the impoverishment of singing (I have written on Listening to Music HERE), preaching, confessing (I have written about Speaking Creeds HERE), and celebration of the sacraments.  We view the biblical text more as a textbook and study than it is a prayerbook and songbook.  We must remember that Jesus’ ministry was primarily a “speaking ministry.”  Those miracles occur with the mouth that speaks and ear that hears, “let there be light!” “arise, take your bed, and go home!” and “your sins are forgiven!”  When our Lord and the disciples look for rest they pray the psalms and sing.  In this past Sunday’s Gospel reading (Lk. 2:40-52), the first place we find Jesus as a 12 year old boy is in the temple “listening.”     

There is a primacy to speaking and hearing rather than reading and studying.  This is not to say that studying has no place, but rather has a subservient role to that oral exchange.  This is why I find church bulletins or projector screens at times troubling because they can potentially detract from that spoken bodily Word – that living incarnate voice of the Gospel (viva vox evangelii).  We follow and cling to that human voice which incarnately carries the full majesty of those promises of God.  We direct our gaze to that voice, our ears, and our eyes.  It seeks and desires our full attention.

These days if you seek to start a bible study with dear fellow Christians, you will likely be met with positive responses and a great willingness to gather for study.  However, if you desire to meet weekly to sing the historic hymns and pray either Matins or Vespers and pray the litany and prayers of the church, people will run from you as if you carried the bubonic plague.  Christianity has increasingly become a ‘noetic’ activity – that which pertains only to the mind, “Well I believe Christ died for me, I believe all that.”            
We are still living on those musty fumes of rationalism and the Age of Reason, which took us away from the speaking God and toward the thinking man, redirects his reference point from the ear to that internalized subjective reference point which must create meaning for himself.  An idea of appreciating a sermon today is found in how we make it ‘applicable’ and ‘relevant’ in ‘action’ and ‘deed.’  Rather than the sermon being an effective Word that does what is says, and is and end in and of itself, it is seen only as a inspirational catalyst that demands the action of the hearer.  “How can I make use of this for my life?”  Or “How can I set myself into action?”  The best response to those speaking acts in the church is “amen” – that is “yes, yes I believe” or “let it be so according to this word” or “let it be according to thy word.”  Often times this is the result of poor preaching, which speaks in conditional sentences about the Gospel, “Christ will do this if you do that…”  Good preaching and hearing leaves nothing to chance, “it is finished” (Jn. 19:30).  That final judgment is spoken ahead of time and all is made ready.           

True Christian faith must be grounded in God’s speaking actions rather than the religious self-consciousness.  That is, we have faith in God’s word, rather than faith in our own ‘faith.’  Faith does not look at itself or analyze itself, but primarily delights in being spoken to and receiving.  Faith does not look beyond that Divine Logos – that precious Word of Christ – but believes it and rests in it, and in so doing finds heaven itself, “The flowers appear on the earth; the time of the singing of birds is come, and the voice of the turtle is heard in our land” (Song of Songs 2:12).    

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