Listening and hearing in Advent

Ten years ago, on a Sunday in early December, I was tucked in the choir loft of historic Greyfriars Church in Edinburgh, Scotland. The main service was over; the last of the choir members had trickled out the door. Outside the gray day promised to seep into my bones, so I found a corner by a heater, out of sight, sitting for a few more minutes in warm comfort. In my lap I held “For the Time Being”, a Christmas oratorio by poet W.H. Auden. I was a hectic student, hurtling to finals, searching for some sense of Advent spirit, so I had turned to poetry. As I began to read Auden’s chorus of biblical voices, a new worship service started below me; this time the service was for Gaelic speakers. The worshippers were “lining out” their song, threading ancient tones through guttural words. As I read on floorboards that had held four centuries of Protestant pilgrim feet, I received a flood of words, sung and written, strange and familiar, Gaelic and English. Sitting there, receiving those words, I found it: I found a holy sense of Advent. And I have been searching for that experience ever since.

This season is busy. There is nothing profound about such a statement. We are all busy, whether we work in the church or not.

However, as I reflect upon Advent, I think about the unique ways that church workers are asked to work hard. This season we are called upon to talk. A lot. We use a lot of words. We are the ones required to “say something” about this time of year, something hopeful for a shadowed people, something nourishing for a hungry world. Depending on our job description, we might produce liturgy, prayers, meditations, reflections, carols, children’s stories, children’s meditations and family-friendly games. We might plead for help with the altar guild, the decorating committee, the Advent wreath, the pageant, and, inevitably, the ever-faithful clean-up crew.

We can work so hard pouring out words and telling of God’s promises that we forget what it is to listen to these promises, to listen as if they are actually being spoken to us right now.

Recently, my pastor colleague, Jason, mentioned that he had left work in the middle of his day to go to worship. He had realized, all of a sudden, that he couldn’t remember when he last worshipped as an anonymous participant from a pew.

This need to worship is so great. It is so great — and we want to provide it for other people so much — that we easily forget to take a seat ourselves.

Poetry forces me into this listening space. For me, poetry reveals how words and lines might be stretched beyond literal meaning until they break into wonder and silence. I still read W.H. Auden each Advent, but I also turn to contemporary poets, like Malcolm Guite, an Anglican priest, and Jan Richardson, a United Methodist pastor and artist.

This Advent I wonder how we pastors might seek a few places where, instead of the Speaker, we take on the role of the Listener; instead of the Producer, we become the Receiver; instead of the Storyteller, we become the one with our feet folded pretzel-style on the floor, waiting, fidgeting, eager for the page to turn so we can discover what comes next.

Not everyone wants to start reading poetry. Instead we might hear best through music or a movie, through quietness or through a family storytelling session. Whatever it is, I hope that we each can find a place this season where we are forced to take a break from heralding the Good News, and instead, just try to hear it.

On the floor of a 400-year-old church, a decade ago, I overheard something holy — and have longed for it ever since. I know I’m not alone in this experience.

May we each be reminded that God is the One speaking. The Word is ours to behold.