Fingers in Our Ears Syndrome

(I was a guest at Good Shepherd Baptist Church on Sunday, 14 August and was privileged to give the sermon)

Good morning. It was good to meet many of you before the service. In case you’d like to skip the bio in our Order of Service … in short, when I self-identify I tell people my faith is Interfaith. My spiritual path is Judaism. My tribe is humanity. I feel blessed that Pastor Chris Boyer is not only a colleague but a good friend … and walking buddy.

Thank you for welcoming me to your spiritual house. It is truly a joy to be here and share some thoughts together. If there is one thing that we can all agree on – I certainly hope and trust there are many more than one – but at the very least, certainly nobody likes to hear bad news. Some of us do seem to enjoy giving bad news to others, but none of us enjoys hearing it. And if there’s one thing that Biblical scholars can agree on it’s that nobody was more obnoxious in delivering bad news than the prophet Jeremiah. Indeed, Jeremiah is the one prophet with an English word derived from his name. Jeremiad. The Oxford English dictionary defines jeremiad as a complaining tirade. Webster’s just says a prolonged complaint. In the passage we just heard, King Zedekiah reacted to Jeremiah’s tirade by turning him over to the princes who wanted him dead. Only at the last moment is Zedekiah convinced that perhaps this really isn’t such a good idea after all, and Jeremiah is rescued.

But it’s Zedekiah’s first instinct that I’d like us to begin with this morning. I call it, the fingers in our ears syndrome. You may know of it: (fingers in ears) – “La, la, la, la, la. Can’t hear you!!”

We’ve all done it – some more than others, and you know who you are! But by chance, by some chance is there a more positive and even, constructive alternative that we might have available to us other than throwing whoever has given us the bad news into a pit?

Now few of us have the power of a king, which is probably a good thing; and I certainly hope none of us is prepared to kill whoever brings us bad news. But the impulse, I think, is something we can all relate to.

And ok, I realize that this may be a little off-the-wall, but one of the things I really like about reading Scripture is that it reminds me just how little in life is actually new. As our old friend Ecclesiastes was fond of saying, “What has been will be again; what has been done will be done again. There is nothing new under the sun.” King Zedekiah indeed suffered from fingers in our ears syndrome. But boy-howdy, you may have noticed, there appears to be an epidemic of it today.

It’s everywhere. And it’s virulent.

Too many CEO’s suffer from it. They’re not kings or queens, though some may think they are. Profit is the bottom line, and any news that might impact profit negatively seems to receive either (fingers in ears) “Can’t hear you!” treatment, or the emphatic reply, “I didn’t hear that, I don’t want to hear that and don’t ever tell me that again.” It’s to be found in our auto industry where the people in charge didn’t want to hear about defects and so people have died and eventually, eventually there were massive recalls. The syndrome is to be found as well in our food industry, our hospitals, our police departments – even, “even”? – in ministry. It’s so much easier to put fingers in our ears than to hear and therefore have to deal with bad news.

Our politicians suffer from it too. Though, if you’ll forgive me, I’ll skip over politics this morning except to note that if there is any issue that is truly bi-partisan it is the fingers in our ears syndrome.

What’s worse, I believe, is that if we’re not careful we pass the syndrome on, we teach it to our children. That, for me, is one important reason to go back and read and reread Scripture, again and again. Zedekiah, at the last moment, allowed Jeremiah to be rescued. May we learn from that, and may we not wait until the last moment to act.

Of course one way that we can help each other is by learning from Jeremiah’s mistake. Perhaps the best way to talk to each other is not through an exchange of jeremiads. Angrily tossing invective at each other is rarely productive. It seems to me that one of the things we have forgotten in this day and this age is how to talk to each other civilly. Civil discussion should not be an oxymoron. And, if I may, I’d like to go off on that tangent just a little.

For the truth of it is, “Fingers in our ears syndrome” isn’t confined only to bad news. The virus has spread. It has infected almost every way we engage with one another. Have you noticed? As one example, for far too many of us the word “dialogue” seems to have lost its original give and take meaning. Today, “dialogue” seems to mean “I talk. You listen. And when you talk, you tell me how right I am. Otherwise, “I can’t hear you.”

And I’m not just talking about dialogue in the public square.

I truly believe that fingers in our ears syndrome is one of the most destructive viruses that afflict our relationships. Not listening can destroy a marriage. It can end a friendship. I think we’ve all been there. There is something bothering us, something important on our mind and heart, and we try to explain it: to our spouse, to a friend, a family member, a co-worker; and they just can’t hear. And let’s be honest, sometimes someone close to us, or just someone talking to us tries to explain something important on their mind and we don’t hear it. Our mind is somewhere else. Or we’re just not listening. It is a virus. It is contagious. And there is no quick and easy remedy. So what can we do? What can we … do?

There is hope. Truly. I would like to propose this morning a modestly revolutionary thought. I believe that an effective antidote to fingers in our ears syndrome just might be to recapture an ancient ideal that pops up in Scripture from time to time. It’s called … listening.

In Judaism, my spiritual tradition, one of the most important lines in Scripture comes in Deuteronomy, 6:4. It is traditionally translated as “Hear, O Israel the Lord thy God, the Lord is one.” But I take issue with tradition here. I believe that a better translation would be “Listen, O Israel” rather than “Hear, O Israel.” The Hebrews were being called not simply to hear the words of the Lord but to listen to them. Now even today those words can mean the same thing. When we’ve listened carefully to someone we will sometimes say, “I hear you.” What we mean is “I’ve listened carefully and heard what you said.” But these days, much too often, we hear someone but we haven’t really listened.

And it’s not easy to listen. It is not easy to listen. That’s the truth of it. It never has been – not in Zedekiah’s time, and not in ours. That’s what’s important to understand. Listening, I believe must be taught – yet it is absent from our cultural curriculum. Indeed, for anyone who might be interested I would urge you to check out There are some wonderful people there who spend their time and efforts teaching people … well, how to listen. And they are very much needed because it’s something our culture for too long just hasn’t considered all that important.

If I may, let me share a few famous thoughts on listening. The first is from an American author I greatly admire. His novel “For Whom the Bell Tolls” is to this day one of my favorites. Ernest Hemingway wrote, “I like to listen. I have learned a great deal by listening carefully. Most people never listen.” Being a writer, Hemingway couldn’t leave well enough alone and he revised this a few years later from a gripe to words of advice. He wrote, “When people talk, listen completely. Most people never listen.”

Another American writer, William Arthur Ward, suggested a revolutionary idea: “Before you act, listen.”

British writer and artist David Hockney put it a little differently. He wrote, “Listening is a positive act: you have to put yourself out to do it.”

Or, if we’d like to return to the Psalms of Scripture, from the first Psalm: “Listening is the beginning of understanding.”

So, we’re all going to listen better, right? What could be easier? Case closed. Problem solved.

There’s a Cuban proverb I love. “Listening looks easy, but it’s not simple. Every head is a world.”

I love that. It’s so true. “Every head is a world.” Ok then, listening is going to take some effort. So where do we begin?

As psychologist and writer M. Scott Peck put it, “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.” That’s worth repeating. “You cannot truly listen to anyone and do anything else at the same time.”

Well, bummer! So much for multi-tasking! What our culture has taught us is that when someone else is speaking, that’s the time to thinking about what we’re going to say in response. Right? And now Peck is telling us that we can’t truly listen and be thinking about how we’re going to respond at the same time?

And it gets worse! Particularly today, particularly with smart phones. Have you ever … well, I have a feeling all of us have had the experience of talking with someone and realizing that they are either sending or receiving a text message while we’re talking. As Mr. Peck would put it, they are not truly listening. So one of the things we’re going to need to do if we are to recapture the art of listening is to put the phone down.

The Turks have a proverb. “If speaking is silver, then listening is gold.” With the Olympics going on … maybe it’s time to try for some gold.

Or, if you will, an old adage – and if it isn’t an old adage it should be! If you truly wish to show someone respect, listen to them – truly hear them, and be sure to let them know that you have listened.

Listening, truly listening to one another is a positive alternative to sticking our fingers in our ears. It can be an important path forward, helping us to answer the call to be loving and in community with one another. Maybe it is time not only to let Jeremiah out of the pit, but ourselves, and our families, and our friends.

If we can learn to listen, we can answer the call of our final hymn, not simply to lift my voice, nor simply to lift your voice, but to lift every voice. Every voice … and sing!


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