“Exquisite Tenderness”

Luke 24: 17 – 24 – Jill A. Kirchner-Rose, MDIV, DMIN

As some of you may be aware, I am in a Spiritual Direction program. Yes, I am in the process of becoming a Spiritual Director. Many of you may be wondering, “What is a Spiritual Director?” A Spiritual Director is like a Spiritual Companion who listens deeply to the life of the directee, exploring matters of the soul, faith, and the Divine.

 In our fast-paced, harried world where there are deadlines to meet, emails to answer, to do lists to finish, and hours to track, we often don’t take time to genuinely listen to one another. Genuine listening has become a rare gift. And yet, listening helps build relationships, resolve conflicts, build friendships, and can even save marriages. So, in my training as a Spiritual Director, I am learning how to become a better listener. What makes for a good listener? It is more than simply zipping our lips, although that is part of it.

Genuine listening involves giving undivided attention to the one who is speaking. That is, putting aside our books, tv show, papers, phone, and other distractions to be fully present to the other.

Genuine listening involves listening without judgment or mental criticism.

Genuine listening refrains from interrupting the speaker or giving advice. Sometimes people may come to us seeking advice, but generally people prefer for someone to listen to them so that their own inner wisdom may emerge.

In my Spiritual Direction program, I am learning to be a better listener, listening with the heart rather than analyzing with the head, bearing witness to the struggles of others rather than judging or directing those struggles. In many ways, a Spiritual Director provides a sacred space of exquisite tenderness, a gentle place to be heard, so that the soul can emerge freely and without fear.

Parker Palmer writes, “The soul is like a wild animal—tough, resilient, savvy, self-sufficient and yet exceedingly shy. If we want to see a wild animal, the last thing we should do is to go crashing through the woods, shouting for the creature to come out. But if we are willing to walk quietly into the woods and sit silently for an hour or two at the base of a tree, the creature we are waiting for may well emerge, and out of the corner of an eye we will catch a glimpse of the precious wildness we seek.”

Listening draws the soul out of hiding with exquisite tenderness. The power of listening to one another with full attention, without judgment, with a tender heart is one of the most profoundly healing gifts one can give to another.

Parker Palmer speaks of a process in the Quaker community called “Clearness.” It is a way to sit in the presence of another person, to listen deeply, to allow them an open space to hear the wisdom of their own inner teacher, to listen to the Divine presence within them. Sometimes there is a decision to be made, but the listeners never give advise, they are only allowed to ask open honest questions. It is the kind of listening that has no agenda or judgement. It is powerful and relies upon the belief that we each have an inner teacher that can be trusted.

This kind of listening reminds me of Jesus’ ministry. Jesus preferred asking questions, rather than giving answers. Jesus was not the answer man. He was the question man. Throughout the gospels, Jesus asks 307 questions. No, I did not count all of the questions, but someone did.

In our scripture passage, this morning as he journeys with Cleopas and his companion on the road to Emmaus, he begins with a question. “What are you discussing together as you walk along?” They are grief-stricken and heartbroken.  They thought their Jesus was dead. Cleopas says to Jesus, the risen Christ, though Cleopas did not know it was Jesus (grief will do that to us, blind us from the very presence of the Divine in our midst), “Do you not know of the things that have happened these last few days?” And Jesus responds with another question, “What things?” Jesus asked.

Rather than trying to “fix” their hurt, he walks along beside them (not in front of them, not behind them, but beside them), and listens, without interruption, to their pain and heartache. He creates a space of exquisite tenderness. Jesus is truly a spiritual companion for them. The word companion, when broken down into its original Latin roots, means com for “with” and pan for “bread.” Someone with whom you break bread. And indeed, on this road to Emmaus, Jesus breaks bread with them and their eyes are opened, their hearts burn, and they discover that the Divine was with them all along.

As a companion, he listened with the heart, rather than analyzed with the head. As a companion, he bore witness to their struggles rather than judging or directing those struggles. Jesus listened with exquisite tenderness.

On this Mother’s Day, I give thanks for my own mother who listened deeply to my own pain and heartache on my personal road to Emmaus. I believe that my mother was my first Spiritual Director. I was in the 8th grade. My father and I were in conflict. We had gotten into it once again. I decided it was time to leave, to run away from home. So, I packed some clothes in my backpack and left. It was a cold and rainy evening. I wasn’t even sure where I was going. I just knew I wanted to escape from the pain and heartache. And as I traveled on the road to Emmaus, my mother pulled up in her car next to me. She rolled down the window, “Jill, where are you going?””

“I don’t know.”

“Jill, it’s cold and rainy, why don’t you get into the car and let’s go home?”

“No, I am not going home.” I said.

“Why don’t we go out to dinner and talk? I will take you to your favorite restaurant.”

My favorite restaurant was a Chinese restaurant on Redlands Blvd. across from Redlands High School. Unfortunately, it’s not there anymore, but in 1983, it was my very favorite restaurant in town. I was hungry, cold, and wet, and bursting with emotion so I took my mom up on the offer and climbed into the car.

I remember so vividly sitting at the table. We ate sweet and sour pork. It was a fitting meal for it was both a sweet and sour moment for me. I cried, lamented, cussed, raged. And my mother listened attentively with exquisite tenderness. She didn’t interrupt. She didn’t offer advice. She didn’t correct my language. She didn’t judge my feelings. She didn’t defend my father. She asked a few questions, but mostly she listened with heartfelt compassion and love. And that did more for me that day than any words she could possibly say. As we broke bread together, there on the road to Emmaus, my eyes were opened, my heart began to warm, my broken spirit started to heal and indeed, Divine Presence revealed. Amen.