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Hearing the Unheard

By T. Ray Rachels

There is a little dog in our neighborhood that anxiously waits for Judy and me to walk by each night. After work and supper, we put our coats on and walk and talk through our streets.

That mutt can hear us coming. How, I do not know. But he can. He’s inside, standing on the family’s sofa, every night, listening for us. We’ve learned to creep by, tiptoe, no talking. No matter. He begins a ferocious barking, running from window to window as we pass, then out the doggie door into the backyard, clawing the fence.

We go around the block five or six times and he gets us every time we round his corner, without fail. He hears things you and I would miss, like picking up our breathing, hearing our eyelids blink, anticipating sounds, or even nonsounds.

In Franklin Covey’s book, The Nature of Leadership, Covey cites a Harvard Business Review article on “Parables of Leadership,” by W. Chan Kim and Renee Mauborgue that brings this “hearing gift” into sharper focus.

Back in the 3 century A.D., King Ts’ao sent his son, Prince T’ai, to the temple to study under the great master Pan Ku. Because T’ai was to succeed his father as king, Pan Ku was to teach the boy the basics of being a good ruler.

When the prince arrived at the temple, the master sent him alone to the Ming-Li Forest. After one year, the prince was to return to the temple to describe the sound of the forest.

When Prince T’ai returned, Pan Ku asked the boy to describe all that he could hear. “Master,” replied the prince, “I could hear the cuckoos sing, the leaves rustle, the hummingbirds hum, the crickets chirp, the grass blow, the bees buzz, and the wind whisper and holler.”

When the prince had finished, the master told him to go back to the forest to listen what more he could hear. The prince was puzzled by the master’s request. Had he not discerned every sound already?

For days and nights on end, the young prince sat alone in the forest listening. But he heard no sounds other than those he had already heard.

Then one morning as the prince sat silently beneath the trees, he started to discern faint sounds unlike those he had ever heard before. The more acutely he listened, the clearer the sounds became. A feeling of enlightenment enveloped the boy. These must be the sounds the master wished me to discern, he reflected.

When Prince T’ai returned to the temple, the master asked him what more he had heard. “Master,” responded the prince reverently, “when I listened most closely, I could hear the unheard — the sound of flowers opening, the sound of the sun warming the earth, and the sound of the grass drinking the morning dew.”

The master nodded approvingly. “To hear the unheard,” remarked Pan Ku, “is a necessary discipline to be a good ruler. For only when a ruler has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing the feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his citizens. The demise of states comes when leaders listen only to superficial words and do not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.”

I find profound truth in this parable for people in pastoral leadership — this hearing the unheard. For, in one sense, leadership success comes through sensitivity. “Insensitivity” is one of the most common ideas used in complaints about leaders. What I know is that every pastoral leader I know wants desperately to be a good leader, to listen, to care, to see excellent results, and to lift their congregation’s eyes high enough to see over into the Promised Land.

But when we fail to be at our best, succumb to selfishness under pressure, and respond to people with insensitivity, it is most often because of the truths in this parable. For only when a pastor has learned to listen closely to the people’s hearts, hearing their feelings uncommunicated, pains unexpressed, and complaints not spoken of, can he hope to inspire confidence in his people, understand when something is wrong, and meet the true needs of his congregation and community.

The loss of pastoral influence, and cause for erosion in his ministry, comes when he listens only to superficial words, and does not penetrate deeply into the souls of the people to hear their true opinions, feelings, and desires.

Barking dogs and the kingdom of God! It doesn’t take much to hear the one, but it takes a lifetime to hear the other.

“He who has ears to hear, let him hear” (Mark 4:9. NIV)

T. Ray Rachels, District Superintendent, Southern California District Council, Irvine, California

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