Living in Germany, this is my third experience of working in a country where a different language from my native Swedish is used.
I understand some of what I hear and read, but not all. It can cause some misunderstanding. At a tram station I heard regular announcements about something being closed. My understanding was that the station would be closed for a month or so. But I learned finally that the escalators were going to be closed for repair.
In various board meetings I attend, I can understand the big picture but sometimes draw the wrong conclusions. My preconceptions of an issue sometimes turn a yes into a no.
There are messages all around us. It is reasonable to believe that if we understand the language we will also understand the message. However, the problem doesn’t lie so much in making sense of the words, it’s more about catching the meaning.
Rhetoric and propaganda use words to engage our emotions, not to awaken critical thinking. Simple solutions to complex issues are sweet to the ear but often bitter in their relevance to reality.
We all have a responsibility for what we say. In the coffee room at work, in front of the children, from the pulpit or a prime minister’s podium. ‘Let your yes be yes and your no be no.’ But we also have a responsibility for how we listen. And that is my main point in this blog.
If I don’t understand what is said in German, I have to ask. It is my responsibility to be well informed.
Even if we understand the words of a speech, we still have a responsibility to listen closely to what the message really is. Is our understanding, our interpretation of key ‘value words’ the same as the speaker’s? Do we have the same context of reference? Do we mean the same thing by freedom, equality, human value, etc.?
There are, for example, preachers in the world who promise prosperity if you give generously to the church. But most often, the only one who benefits is the preacher himself.
How can we learn to hear, to discern, all that is meant in what is said?
My main help comes from the wisdom and example from God’s word.
Look at the rock the messengers are cut from. Were they previously wolves who now walk around looking like sheep? Are they leaders who have an attitude of loving and serving people in what they do?
A criterion that Jesus often comes back to is that words and actions go hand in hand. Messages that are born out of hate and envy will lead to hate and envy. Messages that grow out of love, respect and dialogue, will create love, respect and dialogue.
Several times Jesus comes back to this theme of hearing and seeing but not yet understanding (e.g., the parable of the sower, where the message can end up in many different contexts). And, on another occasion, Jesus asks his disciples: ‘Do you still not see or understand? Are your hearts hardened? Do you have eyes but fail to see, and ears but fail to hear? (Mark 8:17-18).
In the Book of Revelation, the letters to the churches repeat a statement about how to listen to the message: ‘Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says.’ Don’t be content with your first emotional impression of the message. Listen to how this fits in with the realities of God’s Kingdom coming to earth.
May we do just that: listen to the spirit behind the words, so we understand both the language and the message of what we see and hear.