July 2, 2018
We’ve spent some time in this space looking at what art museums can teach us about mission and innovation, and what one particular art installation reveals about how we see each other.
Today I want to talk about what an art installation reveals about listening.
The image above is of the installation, “Terrain,” by Julianne Swartz. This piece is made up of a delicate net of wires and speakers that alternately rise and fall, resembling the swells of a landscape. The speakers suspended from the wires emit whispering voices, differing in intensity throughout the room and creating what Swartz describes as “a landscape of gentle sound.”
Swartz recorded the voices of 37 people whispering things they would say to those they love. The murmuring mass of voices is in a variety of languages and largely indiscernible; however, in certain moments private intimacies can be distinguished, such as the words “I love you.”
As I stood in the room, I was confused at first by the cacophony. It just seemed like a big room with lots of little speakers spouting gibberish. And then one voice caught my ear, and I began to focus on that one voice. Eventually, in the midst of all the other noise, I could hear that one voice saying “I love you.”
In his book Love, Power, and Justice, Lutheran theologian Paul Tillich writes that “In order to know what is just in a person-to-person encounter, love listens. It is its first task to listen. No human relation, especially no intimate one, is possible without mutual listening.”
And participating in God’s mission is not possible without listening.
We’re confronted with voices each day, from a thousand different directions. Just like that room with all the speakers, it can be overwhelming. It can be hard to focus on the voices closest to us. It can even be hard to tell where all the various voices are coming from.
This is true in two ways. First, listening for the voice of God in the midst of everyday life is difficult, to say the least. Spending time each day listening - really listening - for God is essential if we are to discern and participate in the mission of God.
But we also have to listen to those around us. Those with whom we serve, and those to whom we are sent. Spending time, regularly, in conversation with those around us is a key way to discern where God is already working, and where God might be calling us to go next.
Fortunately, the Episcopal Church has put together a variety of great resources on evangelism and reconciliation, and at the heart of all of these resources is listening. Listening to God and listening to others.
How do you try to listen to others in your community?