Last Sunday our dynamic and creative children’s coordinator, who is also organizing the upcoming Fall Festival, took a moment after the children’s sermon to make a plea to the congregation. Here’s what I heard come out of her mouth: “I need dumb-dumbs!” In the millisecond before my mouth let loose a shocked gasp at her audacity, my brain engaged and made sense of what she had actually said: “I need Dum-Dums!” Ah, those little lollipops! She wasn’t insulting our intelligence, she was asking for donations of candy for a festival game.
That little incident provided fodder for giggles, but it also set me to pondering the deep wisdom of the Apostle James when he addresses the power of active, intentional listening as our communicative priority. James says it this way: “Know this, my dear brothers and sisters: everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to grow angry” (1:19, CEB). The decision to be “quick to listen” is perhaps the most important thing we can bring to the table when it comes to the complexities of human interaction. Listening—active listening that seeks understanding—is the number one defense against making quick, erroneous judgments and assumptions about the meaning and intent of the other person’s message. Listening with patience that allows the other person the time and space to fully express his message; listening with humility that allows the other person to be “the expert” on her aims, feelings, objectives, and meaning; listening with a firm commitment to responding rather than reacting—this is the kind of listening that keeps us from snap judgments, from assigning sinister motives where none exist, and from quick, unwarranted anger. It is the kind of listening that not only allows us to correctly translate messages like “dumb dumbs” (what I heard) into “Dum-Dums” (what was meant); it also makes us more likely to translate correctly much bigger, weightier messages like “that was an insult or a threat” (what we hear) into “that person is really fearful or hurting, and I just happen to be the closest target” (the reality behind the message). Not being “quick to listen” means we will likely reactto what we hear—probably in anger—rather than respondingto the deeper issue that has prompted the message. And James is really clear: “An angry person doesn’t produce God’s righteousness” (1:20).
I’m looking forward to our Fall Festival and discovering what a “Dum-Dum Tree” is and how the game works. I plan to take a picture of it to keep near my desk, as a reminder to be “quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to anger.”