Recently we went birding at a local waterside park not far from home with a small group led by two ornithologists. The group wasn’t there to watch birds but to be introduced to the art of listening to them. The park is on our normal morning walk, so we’re familiar with the bird sounds there. We even recognize a few of the calls. Mostly though, the woods and water are filled with unrecognizable chatter we are unable distinguish one from another.
What we learned on the outing was no more than a basic introduction to the differences between calls, songs, and begging. the lead instructor interrupted herself in the midst of her talk several times to name a bird and its call, a call that none of the rest of us could even hear. Standing in silence for five minutes, we were asked to say how many different calls we each heard. Most of us heard four or five. The two ornithologists had their own count of almost thirty.
Learning to separate the cacophony of bird tweets into individual sounds and name the species is hard to do and takes years of practice. That practice doesn’t begin with bird names or the memorization of sounds. It begins with learning to listen in ways that one has never listened before.
I’ve always been a bird watcher, not a bird namer, so in spite of my increasing blindness it’s unlikely I will ever become an adept bird listener. For one thing, my mind kept wandering from bird calls to how learning to listen to birds was like learning to listen with understanding to God’s words, as we know God in Jesus Christ.
The Hebrew scriptures are filled with the record of stiff necked rulers and people unable and unwilling to listen to the word of God. And why their stubbornness? God spoke through the prophets with unfamiliar, unsettling calls, and songs that conflicted with the accepted norms of the day and more primary concerns about food, shelter and safety.
If the prophet messages were unfamiliar and unsettling, the words of Jesus the good shepherd were even more so. He said his sheep would hear him, know his voice, listen to his call and follow him. He implored those gathered around him to listen, but what he said was even more unfamiliar and unsettling than the prophets’ words. His challenges to the accepted norms of the day must have sounded like the indecipherable warbling of too many birds and drowned out by the even greater noise of daily life. It took his closest followers three years to get just the basics, and the rest of their lives to become adept at listening with discernment and understanding. I wonder why we expect it to be any different for us?
Jesus’ words remain as distant, upsetting, and disorienting as ever. They provoke us to hear and listen to new calls and songs that will lead us into a deeper and more profound understanding of what it means to follow him – if we are willing and able to listen.
We are surrounded daily by more noise, from more directions, with greater velocity and volume than any time in history. Voices compete regularly against each other claiming to be the better way to knowledge and wisdom. Some of them are. More than a few are the voices of other gods and false prophets.
It’s hard to find a quiet place to hear and listen to Jesus’ call to walk in the way of love. It’s all the more difficult when the words are unfamiliar and unsettling, challenging accepted norms, even those said to be Christian. It took a lifetime for the disciples and apostles to learn to hear and listen to Jesus’ voice, to separate it from all other voices, and to discern its meaning for them. Following Christ today requires the same life long work.