Good communication is in the ear of the listener
Communication is a universal issue and one that has challenged humanity for as long as there has been humanity. I don’t know whether cavemen and women traipsed off to the local marriage counsellor for lessons in how to communicate better, but I’m sure the problem existed. One distinctive of the era in which we live is the incredible means of communication we have developed. My own lifetime has seen unbelievable change. I can remember the time when our fragile phone lines would go down, and we would have to hop in the truck and go over to the neighbour’s house if we wanted to talk to them.
Now we have so many options: mobile phones, wifi, computers, television that enables you to look through the window of a house in Syria where a rocket has just exploded. The fact is that more and more people don’t even have regular phones anymore. They are fast becoming outdated technology. It doesn’t mean we are better at communicating of course. It proves the point that the “medium is not the message” (cp 1964 book by Marshall McLuhan) That is as much a problem now as it was for the cave men and women.
I had a funny experience of this a few years ago when I was travelling on the tram that links Glenelg with the Adelaide CBD. I was involved in a conference held in the city. I used to catch the tram during the early part of the peak hour. The first day I found myself sitting in a carriage with people sitting with their backs to the wall of the carriage looking inward at each other as they travelled. Then I noticed that every single passenger had earphones in their ear and was listening to music (or something) on their mobile phones. Lots of people but not the sound of a human voice could be heard. Only the rattle of the tram on the tracks. Now I am a country boy. It was, and remains part of my personal culture. I like talking with people. Not so much talking as listening. I like engaging with other people and listening to their stories. I became slightly annoyed. Here I was in a small temporary pocket of humanity and everyone entering the carriage had already or immediately built walls to avoid communicating with anyone.
Eventually, I decided to take a preemptive strike in the cause of maintaining the dignity of basic human recognition. I bumped the man next to me on the arm and said in a sufficiently loud voice, “Hey mate, would you mind giving me your phone number so we can have a conversation?” Fortunately, he had a good sense of humour. He pulled out his earphones, and we laughed together and then had a great conversation for the rest of our journey. I still remember that journey, just because I had a conversation rather than it being just another soul-numbing example of the pathetic individualism spawned by Western cultural values.
Our culture has created another communication problem. It comes from the fact that we have made a virtue out of self-centeredness. The challenge for anyone who would venture to communicate in our society is that we have loaded up either the communicator or their means of communication with the largest part of the responsibility. If some communication happens, it is because the communicator has said something creative and interesting enough to grab our attention or has used a method of communication that has caught our attention. I am told that people in western societies like mine will be attacked by between 4,000 and up to 10,000 messages each day. It seems that we will notice less than a hundred of these. It is the primary challenge of marketing companies to offer people wanting us to identify their products to attract our attention. That problem is escalated by our growing capacity to build an “attention wall.”
In the light of all this modernity, it is interesting to hear something that Jesus said. It is a funny statement when translated literally from the original Greek. In Mark 4:24 he says, “See what you hear.” He is saying, “pay careful attention to what you hear.” Instead of laying all of the responsibility for communication on the speaker or the medium of communication, he is challenging those listening to take responsibility for what they have heard. In the twenty-first century context, he could well have said, “Make sure you pull down your attention wall and, among the four or five thousand messages you year today, make sure you listen and think carefully about what you are hearing from me.”
As much as at any time in history we need to step out of the mainstream of our culture and make some deliberate choices about what we hear. There are so many options. It is so easy to opt for the message that entertains us when we should be opting for the one that produces quality of life. There is a crisis in the church and therefore an even greater crisis in our community. People inside churches have made the mistake of being passive hearers. We only hear things that grab our ever changing palate for passive entertainment. We sit like blobs in front of TV screens and allow unworthy messages to sate our appetite. We hear everything that won’t matter tomorrow and won’t build anything of value for anybody. We similarly set aside the opportunity to hear from Jesus – not only hear but be careful to think and consider what we have heard. We can also treat what we hear from God in the same way as we treat rubbish that comes to us through mass media. It becomes the next fix in a dependence that will ever be wanting to hear but never receiving anything of value.
Here is the full text from Mark 4.
He said to them, “Do you bring in a lamp to put it under a bowl or a bed? Instead, don’t you put it on its stand? For whatever is hidden is meant to be disclosed, and whatever is concealed is meant to be brought out into the open. If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear.”
“Consider carefully what you hear,” he continued. “With the measure you use, it will be measured to you—and even more. Whoever has will be given more; whoever does not have, even what they have will be taken from them.”