Learning to Listen and Understand

18 January 2021

When I heard their outcry and these charges, I was very angry. I pondered them in my mind and then accused the nobles and officials. 

The Reverend Doctor Martin Luther King was headed towards the climax of his greatest speech when he uttered a simple phrase that sealed his place in history. Most people can recall what the cameras caught: King declaring “I have a dream,” but it was a moment that almost didn’t happen. King, wrestling with how to end his speech that day, heard the gospel legend Mahalia Jackson shouting at him, “Tell them about the dream, Martin! Tell them about the dream!” This moment, a moment that would change history, all made possible by a simple act in one of the most important moments of Dr. King’s life. A simple act of listening. 

As we remember Dr. King this month and as we read through Nehemiah 5, we see two men who are upset at the injustice and iniquity that they see around them and desire to effect change. In Nehemiah, people are coming to him who have sold their children into slavery and working fields that they don’t own. There are great injustices happening all around Nehemiah.  What does he do? Scripture says that he “heard their outcry” and that he “pondered them.” Ultimately, he was angry. There’s a lesson for us in here that I would implore us not to miss. As we look at just the past year and we hear the outcry over the killings of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, George Floyd, and so many others in the black community over many decades, have we truly listened to the pain felt by those in those communities? When we hear “Black Lives Matter,” what is our first response? Is it to listen and ponder? Is it to sit with things I feel uneasy or uncomfortable with and seek understanding? Nehemiah heard the cries of the oppressed and he listened and pondered. There’s a challenge here for me to ponder. To sit with things that may make me deeply uncomfortable. To listen to voices and people’s experiences that I can hardly fathom. To sit with them, listen, and weep with those who weep, as we know the Lord Jesus did. 

In his Letter from Birmingham Jail, Dr. King said this, “Shallow understanding from people of goodwill is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” My friends, we live in a cultural moment where many people are content with shallow understanding. This results in us continuing to talk past each other and not to each other. We have a desire to be heard, but not to listen. Nehemiah could have heard the cries of the people and moved on, “That’s just the way it is!” Instead, he didn’t just hear, he listened. His anger drove him to healthy action towards justice. Let’s be people that commit to listening, especially to our brothers and sisters of color, and working towards justice. May the Lord give us His heart to defend the weak and the fatherless and uphold the cause of the poor and oppressed. 

Finally, Dr. King, ends by quoting Isaiah 40: “I have a dream that one day every valley shall be exalted, every hill and mountain shall be made low, the rough places will be made plain, and the crooked places will be made straight, and the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all flesh shall see it together.” Together starts with listening. 

Pastor Seth Redden
High School Ministry