I love words. There was a time in my life, like everyone else, that words meant nothing to me. I could see them in print in a book or a newspaper but had no clue how to unlock the mystery of what they were trying to say. Once I did learn that secret, though, I was driven to fill my mind with more and more of them. Reading, spelling and vocabulary were my best subjects in elementary school. To this day, I seldom have to look up how to spell a word. If I come across a word whose meaning is unfamiliar to me, and I am unable to figure it out by context clues, I do not hesitate to look up its meaning. After all, if an author believes a certain word in his or her writing is the exact one that is needed there, it must be important enough for me to know what it means. Scientists say we need to use a new word seven times in the correct context to make it a part of our regular vocabulary.
Words are all around us. After all, we live in the digital age. Most every form of communication exchanged in today’s world is in the form of the written word. You are reading this because I sat down at my computer to type it. Major companies conduct a tremendous amount of business through written communication such as E-Mail. I seldom hear the voice of my children. Text messaging is the way to go for this generation. Just last week, my mom, who is eighty-five and has no clue how to text, send E-Mail or use Facebook, met some old friends for lunch. They asked about our family and my mom, in turn, asked how their son, my best childhood friend, was doing. They filled her in on his life and then said something to the fact that they do not hear from him, he never returns phone calls, but if they text him, they get a reply. I’ve tried to explain this fact to her on more than one occasion. Every time she calls me–remember she doesn’t text–she asks how each one of my kids is doing. She is always surprised when I tell her that I know they are alive because they updated their Facebook status or sent me a text the other day. “Don’t they call you?” she asks. “No, Mom. This generation isn’t much for talking on the telephone.” Even looking for a first job has changed. A few of my kids wouldn’t even consider a place that didn’t have an online application process. They didn’t want to have to go into a store and actually talk to someone to get an application!
The written word has killed the spoken word. So what? After all, one can accomplish so much more via E-Mail rather than taking the time to call several people. One mass message sent to a group and the job is taken care of. A text message is so much more efficient in that one can say only what needs to be said instead of running the risk of being tied up on the phone for hours talking about the weather and what grandma and grandpa are planning to do with the farm. Surely people know how busy life is and there is no time for chatting about something that isn’t of utmost importance at the moment. The problem is that this new reality has led to the loss of the skill of listening. I didn’t really think about it much. I am a modern mom and have jumped on the text messaging-Facebook-E-Mail wagon. I thought nothing of it. Until this week at least. This week, the following words jumped off the page of my Bible as I read:
“My dear brothers, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry.” (James 1:19)
I stopped reading and looked at those words again.
Quick to listen.
Slow to speak.
Quick to listen.
Slow to speak.
Let’s focus on the listening part first. Do we really know how to listen? I have been in situations where I am talking to someone and that person is nodding their head in agreement with me, yet their eyes are on their cell phone or the giant TV screen playing the football game in the restaurant. I have also been the person guilty of the latter scenario. Perhaps there are no distractions–the cell phone is not out and the restaurant has no televisions. Even then, can we honestly say that we are fully engaged to what is being said?
What about slow to speak? I know I am guilty of trying to formulate what I am going to say in response to the person before they even finish speaking. Sometimes I’m afraid I’ll forget something they said that I desperately feel needs my response so I “mentally rehearse” my reply as I wait somewhat impatiently for them to stop talking. Worse yet, I interrupt so I don’t lose my train of thought. At the least it is rude; at its best, it is narcissistic.
James, however, couldn’t be any clearer in his instructions. We are to be quick to listen and slow to speak. We often reverse the order of the two and, admittedly, it is often when we are slow to listen and quick to speak that anger flares. Remember, James’ final instruction in verse 19 is “slow to become angry”. Perhaps if we really listened to someone, really heard their heart, and we held our tongues long enough for that person to truly communicate what’s going on inside them, we would be slower to become angry. I know in our marriage, arguments ensue and escalate quicker when words are flying from the mouths of both parties at the same time!
One day this summer I was watching the old television show Little House on the Prairie. (I know–call me sappy. I love that show though.) Mary and Laura were in the one room school house with the other children from Walnut Grove. The teacher, Miss Beadle I believe was her name, was standing in the front of the class giving them a dictation. She would say a sentence and the class would in turn write it on their slates. She would then go around and see if the students had listened carefully and had written down the correct words. She would correct where necessary, return to the front of the class, and give another sentence, this one a bit longer. The students needed to pay close attention to the teacher in order to catch not just the right words, but also the pauses and inflections so they would know where to punctuate with a comma or a period or perhaps a question mark. The students were being trained in the art of listening.
In the first century when James wrote his epistle, the literacy rate was at best ten percent, and most of those were men. People didn’t go to church with their Bibles and follow along as the pastor read. The Bible as we know it didn’t exist at that time. Instead, the letters would be read aloud to those gathered. When Paul wrote each of his epistles, he wrote them as letters. They were mailed to the churches and read aloud to the people. They had to listen carefully in order to understand the message being conveyed. Even as recently as the 1940’s, programs for entertainment in the home were listened to, not watched. Can you imagine a child of the 21st century being able to only listen to Dora the Explorer rather than watch it on TV??
We live in a very different era. The spoken word has been replaced by the written word. Where I live, in the last year, two new churches have opened and have sent out mail advertisements stating things like casual dress, upbeat music, and short sermons. You can get in and out of church in less than an hour. We passed one church a while back that advertised “Sunday Express”. It was a 30 minute church service. In other words, you need to do your duty for God but we know your lives are busy with the NFL and soccer games so we won’t make you stay here very long. I wonder what the early church would have thought of such an idea? Even today, in places like China and some countries in Africa, the ability to get to church gatherings is not easy, so when the people meet, sometimes they are together for several hours. I recently read of a church in Uganda where the pastor arrives early in the morning and as people come in, they join the worship already started. He waits several hours to start preaching though because some of his congregation has to walk many miles to get to church and he wants to be sure to wait until he feels all have arrived. Church there is an all day affair and it is welcomed and held dear by these people. In America, anything over an hour in most cases has people fidgeting in their seats or browsing Facebook on their IPad while the preacher is talking. (Just for the record–this does not describe my church. Our services are at least 90 minutes and sometimes longer if our pastor or worship pastor is really fired up :) )
As far as I know, schools no longer require dictation exercises as part of the curriculum. How could they when so much learning takes place via a computer or television screen? It’s a shame though. Children today aren’t being taught to listen. They see mom and dad looking at their cell phones or a television screen and when they try to say something, they are often shushed because something important is happening–like the Vikings scoring a touchdown is the biggest miracle in the world! Okay, maybe that could be considered one of the biggest miracles in the world, but you get the idea. The Bible is a timeless book because it is the actual words of God, and since God never changes, His instructions found therein do not change either. Therefore, James’ words still apply to us today. Be quick to listen slow to speak and slow to become angry. I wonder how many relationships would be saved if everyone got back to learning how to really listen to others?