THE ART OF LISTENING

31st January 2016, Fitzroy Presbyterian

We filed into the pews of Fitzroy Presbyterian Church this morning with a shared purpose: to listen.

The Rev Dr Heather Morris, previously the President of the Methodist Church in Ireland, had travelled to Fitzroy especially for the service – and so had the BBC.

Just before the service began, the Church was busy with directions being given down earpieces and various participants shuffling into position, in time for our director to whisper the words, “We’re on air.” The service was being broadcast live on BBC Radio Ulster – so it was no longer just the congregation within Fitzroy’s walls who were listening, instead those sitting in their living rooms, kitchens, cars and workplaces were tuned in, too.

It was all slightly exciting. This service was being broadcast to the four corners of Northern Ireland and beyond. (We later learnt that folk had tuned in from across the Atlantic in the U.S.)

Fitzroy’s very own Rev Steve Stockman opened the service – praying for our “wonderful but wounded city” – and beckoned us to “open our ears and the doors of our soul to listen.”

A prayer for the four corners of Belfast, penned by the Rev Stockman and read by four members of the 4 Corners committee, conjured images of our wounded city as we tuned our hearts to its cries for hope. Beginning with Cavehill to the north of the city, the prayer reached south to Queen’s University, then east to Stormont and, finally, west to Black Mountain. This made for a very poignant moment in the service, with a call to ‘speed reconciliation’ and see God’s Kingdom come in Belfast.

“We don’t need to learn that listening is art…we know its significance; because we know what it means when someone listens, and we know how it feels when someone doesn’t,” the Rev Dr Heather Morris began. Drawing on Moses’ encounter with God in the burning bush (Exodus 3) and Jesus’ encounter with the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), the Rev Dr Morris spoke of the importance of crossing boundaries and borders to listen to those who reside there.

“God listens,” she said. “If you are listening this morning in bed, or hoovering or walking and thinking, “I’m glad they have their faith but Jesus would want nothing to do with me,” please hear the evidence of this story. That the love of God streams to every person, every place, beyond our expectations and the barriers we ourselves put up. All are loved, all are valued. God, loving parent; Jesus, the Son of God, listens.”

In the spirit of the Four Corners Festival, we were encouraged to step outside our comfort zones – out from the little homelands with which we have become so familiar – to courageously hear those with different stories, histories and cultures of their own:

“What if the stories of those who are new to Northern Ireladnd were listened to; what if we listened to the experience of those still hurt as a result of violence; what if we gathered to listen, really listen to God in prayer; what if we listened to the stories of those who throw stones at police vans or at barricades or who paint racist slogans on homes of those simply trying to settle here?”

Read the full transcript of Heather’s sermon here. 

Her words echoed those of a song sung earlier in the service, ‘Oceans’ – made famous by Hillsong United. Setting out to exercise the ‘art of listening’ in Belfast’s current “context of an infant peace”, the song’s bridge is a great reminder that we do not step out alone – but are guided, and indeed called by, God to do so:

“Spirit, lead me where my trust is without borders.
Let me walk upon the waters – wherever You would call me.
Take me deeper than my feed could ever wander
And my faith will be made stronger
In the presence of my Saviour.”

Is it time to leave our corners of comfort to engage courageously? Is it worth the risk? Will our four corners be all the better for it? I reckon so.

Listen to the full service here.

Words by Zara Porter (@zaraporter)

The festival carries on until Saturday 7th – check out this week’s events!