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Humble Listening: A Courageous Act


Several brave people received their moments of fame in 2016. The film Sully was about Chesley Sullenberger, the pilot who landed a jet on the Hudson River in 2009 and saved all 155 people on board. I cried at the theatre as I watched Tom Hanks portray Sully’s methodical completion of the feat, and I marveled at his resolve not to leave the sinking plane until all passengers were evacuated.

Then, in recognition of the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Tom Rinaldi’s book, The Red Bandanna, caught a bit of attention. The book tells of a Wall Street broker, Welles Crowther, who died in the South Tower of the World Trade Center. The book title comes from a red bandanna that had been a gift from his father, a volunteer fireman. Once when the family was heading to church, Mr. Crowther had given young Welles two handkerchiefs to use in his wardrobe: a white handkerchief to put in his church blazer pocket for show and a red bandanna for blow. As an adult, Welles Crowther made the red bandanna a talisman to remind him of the practical side of life. Friends had heard him brag that with it he would change the world. Several 9/11 survivors testified that a man with a red bandanna had stayed in the building, guiding people to escape routes. Welles lost his life that day, but his fearless tenacity saved the lives of others.

Most recently, Mel Gibson’s Hacksaw Ridge introduced Adventist hero, Desmond Doss, to a wider audience. Several of my friends have told me that if people in my church are like Doss, then that is the type of church to which they want to belong.

Self-sacrifice is the essence of a hero. Probably no one who reads this will have an opportunity to demonstrate the sacrifice shown by Sully, Crowther, and Doss, but all of us can do one act of courage that involves self-sacrifice. May I suggest one small gesture that could have a big impact for society?

Listening with humility.

Last week as she broadcast her final show, NPR talk show personality Diane Rehm continued her routine of taking phone calls from listeners. One caller asked Rehm how she managed to curate a program with such varied viewpoints. Rehm replied that she chose to practice attentive listening. In order to truly listen, a person has to release her agenda, and refuse to let the mind race ahead in planning what to say next. Attentive listening requires a measure of humility — a sense that the other person speaks with a valuable voice. This is difficult when a speaker challenges the listener’s core beliefs. Yet, a true listener knows that reality and truth are larger than one viewpoint.

Listening can be particularly difficult for believers with a unique truth to distribute. Even though a person chooses economic and physical sacrifice to “witness,” an unchecked certainty can crowd out a person’s humility. One strategy to cultivate a healthy tension between certainty and humility is to consider the limitations of words. If words are not sacred ends of themselves, then one does not have to defend them with holy zeal. Language is a mere approximation of God’s mystery. There are limitations to any theological proposition that has been distilled to words, especially ones that come with a demand for another to acquiesce and acknowledge. Jesus Himself realized the limitations of language to describe God as evidenced by the numerous times when He said His kingdom was “like” or “similar to.” His kingdom was like a garden or a wedding or salt. Moreover, the incarnation must be viewed as an endorsement that truth is bigger than an argument or systematic theology or treatise. God chose to come in the flesh, and this decision revealed something that words could not. Religion worships itself when it fails to allow for the absolute mystery of a great God who says His ways are not our ways. False religion can worship words instead of God.

“Humility is probably the least sought-after virtue in America. Mostly, it is despised,” writes Eugene Peterson. Yet, to be humble is to understand where we came from and where we must go for our very life. “The Latin words humus, soil/earth, and homo, human being, have a common derivation, from which we also get our word ‘humble.’ This is the Genesis origin of who we are: dust — dust that the Lord God used to make a human being.”1 Humility demands the acknowledgement of the limitations of one’s assertions.

By one count, scripture mentions humility 72 times. Yet, are Jesus followers known for humility? Paul urges us to copy Jesus’ kenosis — self-emptying — self-sacrifice.

Think of yourselves the way Christ Jesus thought of himself. He had equal status with God but didn’t think so much of himself that he had to cling to the advantages of that status no matter what. Not at all. When the time came, he set aside the privileges of deity and took on the status of a slave, became human!  Having become human, he stayed human. It was an incredibly humbling process. He didn’t claim special privileges. Instead, he lived a selfless, obedient life and then died a selfless, obedient death — and the worst kind of death at that — a crucifixion.” Philippians 2:5-8, The Message

Listening is a courageous act that can put a person in a position of vulnerability. A listener could be offended, hurt, and insulted. A listener might hear data that refutes a long-held assumption. A listener will lose the opportunity for a quick debate win.

Listening is a courageous act of self-sacrifice and connection. A listener will be in the midst of different voices. Placing ego at risk, a listener conveys love and respect to the one who speaks — a rarity. A listener might experience unexpected transformation. A listener might encounter God in another.

Clinging to a headstrong conviction that integrity means to speak truth, a person will miss opportunities for learning and for connection. After all,“For now we see in a mirror dimly, but then face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall understand fully, even as I have been fully understood.” 1 Corinthians 13:12, RSV

Mother Teresa said, “We can do no great things, only small things with great love.” Anyone can choose to develop the habit of listening with love and humility. This small thing could lead to something big.



1.      Peterson, Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places [Eerdmans, 2008], 76


Carmen Lau is a board member of Adventist Forum, the organization that publishes Spectrum. She lives and writes in Birmingham, Alabama.


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