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Coop's Column - Cultivating Attentiveness

There’s a world of difference between hearing and listening.

Untoward, adj: unfocussed, directionless, adverse, impolite, rude, out-of-line, uncalled-for, undecorous, unrefined, unmanageable, unseemly, improper, ungodly, annoying, boorish, conflicted, unbefitting, undisciplined, vexatious, wild, wretched, wrong, scattered, stubborn, obstinate, intractable …”

You get the point: An “untoward” person lacks focus. Thus, for example, when her cellphone rings during an important talk with a friend, an untoward person doesn’t hesitate to abort the conversation by a breezy and dismissive: “Sorry. Let’s talk again later.” Untoward people are inattentive, “hard of listening,” as Rodney Clapp puts it. They are as scattered and directionless as 15 beagles on bungee cords.

Individuals can be untoward. So, too, can entire societies and cultures (cf. Acts 2:40: “Save yourselves from this untoward generation”).

There’s a world of difference between hearing and listening. Hearing is a matter of having physical receptacles—two ears in good condition—to receive spoken messages from another. Listening, however, means putting one’s ears—one’s entire heart and soul, too—into the careful work of being wholly attentive when that person speaks; it is the cultivated skill of earnestly paying attention. Note the distinction between hearing and listening coming through in Matt. 13:15 where Jesus passes judgment upon unrepentant people who failed to believe his message: “They have ears, but they are hard of hearing.” Such people are distracted, inattentive, scattered, obstinate, and untoward. Hard of listening.

Someone once said that the devil’s three most clever tricks upon human beings are noises, hurry, and crowds. If the tempter can bombard people with sounds (grating noises from without, troubling whispers from within); if he can sweep them up into hurried frenzy (so little time to do so many things); if he can squeeze them into a crowded situation (automated telephone calls, Twitter, Facebook, and email messages galore)—then they’ll be hard of spiritual listening. Almighty God will have a hard time getting a word in edgewise to them.

Noisy, busy, crowded persons will find it difficult, too—next to impossible, I think—to bring God the pure, sincere and vigorous worship he deserves and takes delight in. To give God his due—to offer him worthy worship—takes careful concentration and deep attentiveness.

All of the above now now makes clear to me why Grandpa and Grandma Mast, who reared my brother, Jerry, and me from our earliest years, made it strict practice to get to church early. Far too early, as Jerry and I saw it. Their ritual twice each Sunday was precise: Forty-five minutes before church began, Grandpa Mast backed his ’41 Chevy out of the garage, honked the car’s the horn twice to summon the rest of us, and then drove us on the five-minute journey to church. Arriving at church, we made our way to the same pew—”the Mast pew” —and sat there for 40 minutes, waiting for things to get started. Grandpa and Grandma didn’t “do” anything during those 40 minutes—didn’t read the bulletin, didn’t look at others walking in, didn’t speak with anyone. They just sat there, heads facing downward, hands folded. And though my brother and I complained regularly—weekly—to Grandpa and pestered him with “Why do we have to go so early?”, he never explained. His only response: “Never mind, boys; that’s just the way we do it.”

But now, decades later, it’s beginning to dawn on me why our grandparents did what they did. By “just sitting there” they were, in fact, doing something very important: They were getting ready for the high and holy task which lay immediately before them. They knew that to be “up” for giving God good worship requires hearts prepared. Thus, they were aiming to free themselves from the previous week’s accumulation of noises, hurry and crowds. They were centering themselves by quiet reflection and meditation.

Unlike people today who largely ignore the sturdy summons, Grandpa and Grandma’s generation knew the importance of the Biblical words: “Guard your steps when you go to the house of God; to draw near to listen is better than the sacrifice offered by fools;….Never be rash with your mouth…for God is in heaven, and you upon the earth; therefore let your words be few.” (Eccl. 5:1-2) They were readying themselves for the grand announcement that was about to break through: “The Lord is in his holy temple.” They were heeding Scripture’s words: “Let all the earth keep silence before him.” (Habakkuk 2:20)

Untoward people do not worship God well. They cannot. For they are—untoward.

All of Biblical religion can be summarized in the Shema of Deuteronomy, which begins, ‘Hear, O Israel.’…We are used to thinking that it was light that broken the primordial darkness from which all life comes, but it was really God’s voice…’Let there be light.’ Sound precedes light; we hear before we can see.
—Stephen Webb, contemporary theologian


Speak, O Lord, as we come to You To receive the food of Your Holy Word. Take Your truth, plant it deep in us; Shape and fashion us in Your likeness, That the light of Christ might be seen today In our acts of love and our deeds of faith. Speak, O Lord, and fulfill in us All Your purposes for Your glory.

Keith Getty and Stuart Townend
'Speak O Lord'