Hearing and Listening

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Walter Cronkite, the long-time CBS anchor who became “America’s most trusted voice,” lived into his early 90s.

His affable spirit, commitment to journalistic integrity, and deep love for his wife Betsy never faltered. 

His hearing was a different matter. 

Betsy was fond of telling about the time when the two of them, late in life, walked into a little grocery store on Martha’s Vineyard.  Some guests were coming to their place and they needed to pick up a few items.  Because it was Saturday afternoon, the store was crowded.  That meant that the easily-recognizable Cronkite would be mobbed. 

He was unfailingly polite in such situations.

Oh, Mr. Cronkite, I started watching you when I was six years old.  And, Do you know So-and-So?  And, Do remember meeting the Johnsons?  Even though his hearing was compromised, he smiled and personally engaged every inquirer. 

Betsy was relieved when they finally reached the cash register.  That’s when a gentleman seemed to come out of the shadows.  He approached the retired anchor and said, “Do you know So-and-So?”

Cronkite pulled himself up to his full height and replied, “Well, I can’t say that I know him.  But I have met him, and he seems to be a very nice fellow.”

After the Cronkites stepped outside, Betsy sighed and said, “Walter, you have to listen more carefully.  That man just asked you, ‘Do you know Jesus?’”

There’s hearing and there’s listening.  They’re not the same thing.

Our auditory capacity may falter as we grow older.  We may be sincerely interested in what someone has to say, but won’t be able to connect if we can’t discern their message.

Likewise, we may hear perfectly well someone’s words (or shouts, or warnings, or curses) in a moment of political passion.  But unless we ratchet up our ability to listen, we may be unable to grasp the points they are making.  Or the roots of their anger.  Or the reason they feel threatened by things that, from our perspective, seem entirely benign. 

As a closing flourish to some of his teaching and his parables, Jesus added this catchphrase:  “Whoever has ears to hear, let them hear.” (Mark 4:9 and Matthew 11:15, among others)

Commentators agree that Jesus is saying, “I know you just heard my words.  But are you ready and willing to take them to heart?  Do you want to do business with me or not?”  As Eugene Peterson renders Jesus’ challenge in the paraphrase called The Message:  “Are you listening?  Really listening?” 

Author and educator Parker Palmer once said, concerning a man who seemed to have all of life’s mysteries figured out, “He got straight A’s but flunked life.” 

The difference between hearing and listening is whether we’re ready to do more than just pass a theological pop quiz. 

Are we willing to let Jesus take the wheel?

Until then, he’ll just be a really nice fellow we once met.