2020 has been quite the year! It’s hard to believe that in just a few short weeks, the year will be over and we will be on to 2021. While there is always some excitement and anticipation for a new year, I sense that people are looking forward to 2021, and, as importantly, to an end to 2020, more than in past years. I know I am ready for a fresh start and the hope of brighter days for our families, our churches and our communities in the year ahead.
But as we approach the new year, brothers and sisters, let us pause to consider how to make the world a better place in 2021. It’s easy to pin our hopes for a better year on the COVID-19 vaccines that are now being administered. Yet we would be naïve to think that the challenges we’ve faced this year are simply a result of the pandemic. Many of the issues we face as a church, as a nation and as a world cannot be blamed on this virus. This is why Pope Francis has often spoken, during the pandemic, of two viruses: the coronavirus and the virus that comes from within the human heart when we value ourselves above other people.
One of the main ways we have seen this other virus this past year is in the growing division in society. This division exists on a variety of issues, but, regardless of the issue, it seems to have infected all areas of society including families, communities, government and, sadly, even the church. So as we approach 2021, I am suggesting a New Year’s resolution for all of us: We need to develop skills in deep listening.
Deep listening is a way of connecting with another person that recognizes their sacred dignity as a child of God. Too often these days, we see other people, especially those with whom we disagree, as a threat. But God calls us to regard each person as a gift, and deep listening allows us to do this. When we slow ourselves down to hear a person’s perspective and to understand their point of view, and when they offer that same grace to us, we have entered a place of safe and authentic dialogue.
Deep listening does not necessarily mean that two people will agree on everything. But when they disagree, rather than framing each other in either/or terms — you are either with me or against me — we see each other in both/and terms, recognizing that both people desire good even if they see things differently. This becomes the means for fostering unity in our relationships built on a foundation of love and truth.
Not only will the practice of deep listening help us build unity as a nation, it is also essential to our work as a church because it is how we build a culture of discipleship. When we read the Gospels, we see that Jesus practiced deep listening by engaging people, asking them what they desired and speaking to their hearts. Sometimes he had difficult truths that he needed to share with people, as when he encountered the Samaritan woman at the well and told her the truth about her lifestyle to that point. But he spoke that truth in love because he listened deeply and knew the deep desires of her heart.
The healing that Jesus brought in this encounter was transformative, not only for the woman, but for others in her community. She was so overcome that someone could know the truth about her past and yet love her anyway that she went to the entire town and proclaimed Jesus as the messiah. Talk about a missionary disciple!
Friends, if there is one key to making 2021 a better year for all of us, it will be following the example of Jesus and committing ourselves to the work of deep listening. Let this be the vaccination against the virus of division that is plaguing our society. As Christians, we have an opportunity to lead the way in this effort and truly make Christ’s love present in the world. Let’s be the example that the world can follow of deep listening and respectful dialogue. May each of us receive the grace to listen deeply to our brothers and sisters so as to bring healing and restore unity in our world.
Follow Bishop Ricken on Twitter, @BpDavidRicken.