too preoccupied to listen

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					                              Too Preoccupied to Listen
                                     Mark 10: 46-49a

I would like to share with you a parable.
Not one from the Bible, but one that comes from my own life.
I know that I have shared this story with you before, but maybe it is worth hearing again.
    It was probably eleven or twelve years ago now… We were adding a two-room
    addition to a two-room shack on Brushing Fork in the Appalachian Mountains that
    surrounded Hurley, Virginia. Doubling the space for a family of four…a father, a
    mother and two young daughters. The husband was seldom there while we were
    working. When he was he sat in a chair in the front yard and watched and his wife
    stood silently behind him. When he was not there, which was most of the time, she
    helped in whatever way she could. She and her daughters were always around. The
    only time that they weren’t is when we stopped for lunch. We would get our lunch
    bag out of the van and sit under a tree in the front yard and the family would
    disappear. When we started work again they would reappear to hand us nails, hold
    pieces of wood, or help to hammer. Maybe to the surprise of some high school kids
    and adults who go with me now to those mountains in order to repair homes, I have
    become less “driven” than I once was. But that week I was determined to finish that
    addition…to have the walls up and the roof on and the siding and dry wall completed
    before we left on Friday. So I usually ate my lunch walking around the house
    planning what needed to be done next. I barely noticed what the family was doing.
    On Friday, our last day of work, we stopped for lunch as we usually did. Only this
    time instead of disappearing, the family went into the house and came out a few
    minutes later with peanut butter sandwiches on pieces of white bread. The children
    sat on the grass with the rest of the kids, excited to be a part of our lunch. I
    continued to walk and eat. Towards the end of lunch one of the children ran up to
    me with a package of cookies to offer me one. “No thank you,” I said, too distracted
    and too preoccupied to really listen or to notice what was being offered.
    I still regret that moment. Later that day I realized what had happened. The reason
    that the family disappeared when we ate lunch was that they did not have enough
    food to eat. It was easier for them to go into their house than to watch us have lunch
    when they could not. Friday was different. Probably because it was our last day.
    Probably because it was a way…maybe the only way…they could say thank you.
    They came out of their house with their peanut butter sandwiches on white bread to
    eat with us and to offer us cookies. And I was too preoccupied to notice.
In the end this parable is not about peanut butter sandwiches on white bread and a
package of cookies. It is a parable about how many of us live each day. It is about the
million and one details that seem to demand our attention so much so that we fail to
notice what is happening around us. Fail to understand what is being said to us. We hear
the words that others say, but most of the time we really don’t listen to what is being said.
Listening is hard work. Maybe some of the hardest work that we have to do.
Listening…really listening…to not only the words, but to the silence between the words
and the hopes and fears behind the words.

       Listening to our children.
       Listening to our partners.
       Listening to our friends.
       Listening to our neighbors.
       Listening to the deepest and best part of ourselves.
       Listening to our God.

I don’t know about you, but in my life it seems like the times that I need most to listen
are often the very times when I think I have the least time and energy to listen.
      Why do children always seem to begin that conversation that you have wanted to
         have with them just when it is time for them to go to bed and we want to go to
      Why does the phone call come just when you began that other project that just
         has to be done?
      Why do we have to type on our computer while we talk on the phone?
      Why do I step past the person in front of me like they were not even present
         focused more on where I was going rather than the person right in front of me?
And those are just the times that I am aware of (at least some of the time aware of). How
often in my own busyness and my own preoccupation have I missed all the other
opportunities? Missed the requests that have been made of me to be present and to

You know how it is. You have lived there, too, I’m sure.
If we are to learn to listen we must be prepared to do, at least, two things (and this is
where the story from the Bible comes in). First, we must be willing to stop what we are
doing, if even for a moment, no matter how important we think it is. Second, we must be
ready to focus our attention at the person in front of us. With the crowd milling around
and everyone talking at once Jesus stopped what he was doing and paid attention to a
blind man who everyone else was content to ignore. In that act of stopping and paying
attention the blind man was healed. I find myself wondering… What is the real miracle
here? The blind man gaining his sight or that someone who was extremely important and
very busy took the time to stop and to listen? Have you ever noticed that the words
communication and community share the same root?
So, this Lent…
In these few days between now and Easter…
Can we break through our own suffocating preoccupation with what we think is the
meaning of it all and the importance of it all, and at least once each day set it all aside and
stop long enough and pay attention closely enough that we listen…really listen?
      Listen to the words being spoken…
      Listen to the silence between the words…
      Listen to the hopes and fears behind the words…
Listen to someone who steps for a moment into the circle of our lives?
Listen to that deepest and best part of ourselves?
Or, will we continue to live too preoccupied to listen?

One final note…
What is true in our relationships with those whom we love the most is also true of that
which we know and name as God.
Can you…
Will you…
In these days that you have to live now, but never again…
Stop long enough to listen?
To listen for that heartbeat of the Holy that beats deeply within you.
Or will you live too preoccupied to listen?

Paul D. Alcorn        Bedford Presbyterian Church    Bedford, NY              March 9, 2003