Listening with Wide Open Hearts

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We are all implicated when we allow other people to be mistreated. An absence of compassion can corrupt the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Fear and anger can make us vindictive and abusive, unjust and unfair, until we all suffer from the absence of mercy and we condemn ourselves as much as we victimize others.             -Bryan Stevenson, Just Mercy

Observing the political climate, both in the U.S. and around the world, I’ve been thinking a lot about fear and anger and the absence of compassion. I’ve seen these at play, usually aggressive play, in both far-off places and close to home.

In the Bible we read the oft-repeated message: “Be not afraid.” Do we trust these words? Do we heed them?

The message we receive from the media, which many of us see and hear more often than the Bible is “Be afraid. Be afraid! Be very afraid!” These words cater to our basest instincts. When should we trust them?

Too often, we judge other groups by their worst examples, while judging ourselves by our best intentions.      – George W. Bush

When we fear – the “other,” terror, pain, loss, death – we judge unequally and act defensively, assuming the worst of people and situations; our fight, flight, or freeze response kicks in. Instead of seeing other beloved children of God, we see threats and we act accordingly.

I won’t deny that many scary things are happening around us; our world is broken and continues to break into pieces.

But we have a choice about how to approach broken places and broken people.

We can choose fear.

Or we can choose love.

We can choose to close ourselves off or open ourselves wider.

Ever since I heard about it, I’ve been fascinated by the Urban Confessional, a loosely connected group of people from thirteen countries whose sole purpose is to listen to other people, strangers on the street. Participants in the project go to public places and stand with signs that say “Free Listening.” When someone approaches a listener, the listener puts the sign down, focuses attention on the person who wants to be heard, and listens to whatever he or she might offer. The listener may ask questions, but gives no advice or critique. Only the gift of listening. “Only” the gift of open-hearted time.

I want to join the Urban Confessional. I plan to. I need to practice listening… a lot. I preach the importance of listening much better than I practice the skill.

A few people in my life know how to push my buttons. Though most of the time I am able to heed my better senses, sometimes I allow myself to get caught up in heated exchanges, too often in the online sphere (mistake #1). When I do it, I feel my body tense, my heartrate speed up, and my sense of self-righteousness swell. These are not moments I’m proud of. My goal in “listening” then is only to form a better argument: why I’m right and how they’re wrong.

I was telling this story to someone who responded, “If you have to be right, you’ve already lost.”

I’ve lost many times. I’m sure I’ll lose many more. But I’m trying.

“I will give you a new heart,” the Lord says, “and put a new spirit in you. I will remove from you your heart of stone, and give you a heart of flesh” (Ezekiel 36:26). That’s what we must pray for… a heart open to the fears and hopes and challenges of our fellow citizens.    – President Barack Obama

Recently a local visionary led a workshop in which he spoke about the year he spent listening to talk radio that didn’t align with his belief system. In doing so, he hoped to diminish the power of ideas and words that triggered his ire. He wanted to learn to listen in a way that always honored the common kinship of humanity and always recognized the inherent dignity of the other person, even when they saw the world through very different lenses.  He wanted to  honor relationship over ideology.

Maybe listening to strangers will help me listen better to people I know and help me to honor relationship over ideology. Maybe listening to strangers will slowly pry open my heart, so there is space for the fears and hopes and challenges of anyone I may encounter.

Then Abraham came near and said, “Will you indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will you then sweep away the place and not forgive it for the fifty righteous who are in it? Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do what is just?”  And the Lord said, “If I find at Sodom fifty righteous in the city, I will forgive the whole place for their sake.” [Abraham] said, “Let me take it upon myself to speak to the Lord. Suppose twenty are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of twenty I will not destroy it.” Then he said, “Oh do not let the Lord be angry if I speak just once more. Suppose ten are found there.” He answered, “For the sake of ten I will not destroy it.”  Genesis 18:23-26, 31-33

We are all affected when one person treats others with compassion. The goodness, while perhaps seemingly insignificant, ripples and magnifies, bonding pieces once broken apart. Through listening, wide-open-hearted listening, we walk through fear and anger, towards compassion. Through listening we create an abundance of mercy. This abundance can sustain the decency of a community, a state, a nation. Through deep listening, love and understanding can make us forgiving and caring, just and fair. As we grow in the presence of mercy, we free ourselves as much as we empower others.

By Cory Lockhart. Article originally written on August 4, 2016 for use by JustFaith Ministries (www.justfaith.org). Copyright 2019-2020 JustFaith Ministries. Do not copy, share, or forward without permission.

To My Muslim Brothers and Sisters

Dear Muslim brothers and sisters,

I see you.

I honor you.

I value you.

I thank you.

“For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat,

I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,

I was a stranger and you welcomed me” (Matthew 25:35)

I was in danger and you protected me.

These have been my experiences with you over and over again.

Sometimes I knew you and sometimes I came to know you

through the love you extended to me.

Sometimes even though you cared for me, I never learned your name.

Even if those weren’t my experiences,

still

I see you.

I honor you.

I value you.

I thank you.

Because you are worthy of all of these things simply because you are human.

After the massacre in Christchurch, I recommit myself to speaking up,

working for peace and justice for all people, including you,

saying no to hate by

saying yes to love.

I will do my part.

I will humbly do my part.

In response to the Mosque Shootings in Christchurch, New Zealand

Friday, March 15, 2019 evening

Twisty-turn stomach. I’m exhausted today because some part of my body wants to cry , to shake with grief over 49 dead and more injured in Christchurch, New Zealand, Facebook live video footage of the attack, manifesto of hate, praise for the president of my country by the shooter. The weight of it all is too heavy.

Another part of my body says, “No, it’s too risky. If you start to grieve, you may never stop. There’s too much. Too much. Too much to grieve. You will drown in it.”

And so I’m tired. My head hurts. My back aches. My throat feels a shrill scream stuck and waiting to escape whenever, however, it can.


This morning I led a Nonviolent Communication practice group session in which we practiced empathetic listening. This was a practice of receiving difficult-to-hear messages and reflecting back with care. Nonviolent Communication invites us, when we hear a message that is difficult, into four steps:

1) to reflect back observations that the speaker may be referring to in order to understand what is evoking the person’s feelings

2) to reflect back what stated or unstated feelings the speaker is expressing

3) to reflect back what needs or values are at the heart of the speaker’s experience, and

4) to seek strategies to meet the need(s) that are causing the speaker pain.

A seemingly simple process.

However, humans are not simple and our actions and the needs beneath them are often unclear. We’ve been taught that our needs aren’t important or that we should ignore them or deny them. We’ve been taught that we “need” a new car or the latest phone or to go to that one restaurant. Those aren’t needs. They’re strategies to meet needs for… autonomy or reliability? Communication or clarity? Adventure or health? Some other needs that every human being experiences?

We are trained not to go deep into our (or others’) feelings. If, by chance, we’ve been taught that we’re “allowed” to have feelings, we are very rarely taught to take the next step, to unearth the needs that are calling for our attention. Instead, we place blame on someone (including possibly ourselves), heap shame, deepen disconnection and discord, while the unspoken and unknown needs remain unspoken, unknown, and unanswered.

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Marshall Rosenberg, developed of Nonviolent Communication, said that everything we do is an expression of gratitude for a need met or a “tragic expression of unmet needs.”

Tragic.

Tragic.

Tragic.

What happened in Christchurch was tragic. And my head entertains a question that my heart, holding all its grief for the deceased and their families and friends and for Muslims around the world, is not ready to allow in yet: What were the feelings of a 28-year-old man that led him to enter into two mosques on a Friday afternoon during prayers and shoot dozens of people? What needs was he trying to meet?

I’m not ready to think about what was in that killer’s heart. I’m not ready to wonder what may lie beneath the rage that led to so many deaths. What may lie beneath the rage of others like him.

But after I have grieved with others, felt the love through our collective grief, filled myself with that love that buoys and gives strength to all of us as we live into our interconnection, I will share what I have received by considering these questions that are achingly difficult to consider:

How do we reach those hearts? How do we shower with love those people whose brokenness is so deep or whose shell of protection is so impermeable that they believe breaking others will somehow lead to their own well-being? Can our torrents of gushing tears find them, cleanse them, mend them? How do we even find the will to try when they have caused such destruction?

I hope that the will comes from a desire to express love unconditionally. Hope unconditionally. Curiosity unconditionally. When I am ready, I want to step into these challenging questions that a wise teacher of mine shared:

How much pain would I have to be in in order to do what he or they did? If I walked in his/their shoes, lived his/their life, would I have done exactly the same thing?

Deep within, we are not so different.

How do we honor interconnection not only with the victims, survivors, loved ones, but also the perpetrators?

How do we love them, too?


These questions reside within me and wait for my heart to be open up enough to let them in.