I have been hearing a low humming in my left ear for months now. It comes and goes. I can’t figure out why it’s there, physiologically speaking. But I imagine sometimes that it is a deep frequency emitted by the earth or the heavens. I hear it now not because I am especially attuned, but because I am on the perilous brink of losing my ability to listen really deeply to anything.
While I was home in Michigan recently, I saw the Swedish movie As it is in Heaven. It is the story of a world-famous conductor who goes back to his little hometown after suffering a heart attack. His purpose, he says, is just “to listen.” When the local church choir convinces him to be their director, he explains to them that all music already exists; we simply must listen for it so we can “draw it down.” Music is something transcendent. It comes down to us from heaven, from the presence of the sacred.
We spoke of the power of music over the birthday dinner of my brother, Andrew. Music, he said, is what has given him faith in “something more.” His best shows happen when he and his band mates get out of the way and let another presence play through them. We compared a performing musician with a pastor when she preaches. Both are called to mediate for others an encounter with something much greater than themselves. It’s about letting what you’ve heard sing through you.
I worry about losing my hearing. Mysterious low humming sounds inside my ear do not help this anxiety much. However, I am not so much worried about losing it from overuse, but from lack of use. Not only do I not play much music anymore, but I notice that I have a harder time differentiating sounds—the threads of a harmony, or the heartfelt story that someone is trying to tell me on a crowded bus. I feel as if my hearing were waning because I have not been tending to the discipline of listening.
Soon, I will be a pastor. At least, that is what a board of ordained ministry has told me. But to be a truly good pastor, I have to learn how to listen better—to people, to God, to God-in-people, to the music of fully-aliveness that is waiting for me to draw it down. In a beautiful essay on the “Unbusy Pastor,” Eugene Peterson has written: “I don’t want to live as a parasite on the first-hand spiritual life of others, but to be personally involved with all my senses, tasting and seeing that the Lord is good.”
I have told myself that I have not written many blog entries—or songs—in recent months because I’ve been busy. But that is not the real reason. In truth, I am just distracted. No tasks are too many or too weighty to excuse me from paying attention to the music that comes down through all my senses.
On the occasion of my approbation as a provisional elder in the United Methodist Church, my friend Amy’s wonderful mother, Cathy, gave me a book of Mary Oliver poems. One of them says:
There are thing you can’t reach. But
you can reach out to them, all day long.
The wind, the bird flying away, the idea of God.
Our most important task is to reach for the mystery of the infinite that is present in the ordinary things, even as it remains always beyond us. Oliver uses herself as a model of sorts when she declares, “I look; morning to night I am never done with looking.” Then she writes a little further on:
And now I will tell you the truth.
Everything in the world comes.
At least, closer.
This mystery we are reaching for wants to come to us—like a God who loves us and wants to be known by us even as she knows us. So really, all we have to do is pay attention—to be ready for it when it comes. I can think of no better gift than these words for someone who is trying to become a pastor.
For me, on account of the music that keeps its low hum going in my soul, even when I am ignoring it, the best way to speak of paying attention is to speak of listening. So I hope I will never be done with listening. All the livelong day.
Photo Credit: Samantha Chalfin
 Mary Oliver, “Where Does the Temple Begin, Where Does it End?” in Why I Wake Early (2004).