Listening with the Spirit

“Listening with the Spirit,” Ensign, Jan. 1978, 38

Special Issue: The Sabbath

Listening with the Spirit

Do you want more spirituality in sacrament meetings? You can put it there yourself.

As bishop of a campus ward a few years ago, I agreed to let ward members present a sacrament meeting with speakers and singers recruited from those with whom they were working in a nearby school for the handicapped. I am not sure what I expected, but I was quite unprepared for the moving and memorable worship service I experienced.

Some speakers had to be carried to the pulpit; others sang from the portable cots on which they had been brought. While most were young, many were older than I had anticipated, and all were severely handicapped. But the Spirit of the Lord was whole and fully present in bodies that were not always in control and in minds that had to concentrate intensely to utter a simple testimony.

I wept unashamedly throughout the meeting, not for those who had part on the program but in remorseful awareness of the contrast between what I was often willing to bring to sacrament meeting and what these, the supposedly deprived, were not only capable of, but insisted on, contributing. I knew that if I lacked their physical and mental challenge, I needed to emulate their determination in one of the most difficult tasks I faced: how to listen with the Spirit.

When our Heavenly Father proclaimed the resurrected Christ to the assembled multitude in the opening verses of 3 Nephi 11, it was not until the people “opened their ears” that they understood what they heard. (See 3 Ne. 11:5.) The implication that listening may be as demanding an activity as speaking is inescapable.

This may be especially so in religious communication, where a wide range of techniques may be needed to help us “hear” the totality of what is being conveyed. In sacrament meeting, for instance, the letter of a gospel message should be infused with a spirit that testifies as well as informs, persuades as well as presents. We fail to accept our responsibilities as listeners, however, if we expect the speaker to be the exclusive source of both substance and spirit. Worship is not passive. Those who are “anxiously engaged” do more than receive—they generate.

As in every other Church activity, we find our life by losing it. Once we lose our concern over what we are getting and concentrate on what we can contribute, the whole tone of our sacrament meeting experience changes. There is even some irony in the fact that the less well-prepared the speaker, the more we must pay attention, the more we must be willing to supply. When we listen creatively, that which we hear is simply the material we get to use in generating the significant spiritual experience that is always possible if we are both prepared and determined to achieve it.

To begin with, our simply being in sacrament meeting in the proper frame of mind can be a real expression of that obedience which is the hallmark of developing spirituality. If we are present out of a sense of duty alone, we are really confessing that we do not expect much—and we rarely find more than we had anticipated, for duty, by itself, can be both grudging and pedestrian. To a sense of duty I need to add the exhilaration of shared rejoicing and the thrill of inspiring instruction. These are occasionally available if we wait for others to supply them. General conference, for instance, may be such a concentration of substance and spirit that we simply bask in its power. If we are willing to provide as well as receive, however, the exhilaration and thrill can always be there.

To do this, we must accept the challenge of serving in several ways. At the most obvious, but still very important, level we are the audience—the hearers who complete the communicative process. The speaker needs the response of associates if he is to establish the gauges by which he can improve. Only part of these responses are verbal. The compliment of sympathetic, total attention is not only flattering, but it is also inspiring. We are never really put to sleep by a speaker. An apparently dull talk simply exposes the disposition to sleep that we bring to the meeting. We are always an accomplice in our own boredom.

We also need to remember that we sit as discerning listeners. This need not imply an attack on what is being said. We examine in our own minds what we hear, seeking to refine rather than to destroy. That refinement takes place in the critical listener as he compares, expands, questions, and completes that which is being said. Yet, if we have listened with real sensitivity, our congratulations to the speaker at the end of the meeting—which are often so perfunctory as to be little more than a pat on the head—can be truly helpful. If our comments show the speaker that he has made us reflect and resolve, we may also generate additional reflection on his part—and perhaps even help him see some implications in his message that will provide the impetus for further study.

If physical conditions are such that it is almost impossible to hear what a speaker is saying, we can still give him or her our total attention, and in so doing we may qualify for unexpected blessings. An almost totally deaf sister was once asked how she managed to come to sacrament meeting each Sunday, appear to be genuinely interested in what was being said, and keep clearly awake when many in her ward consistently nodded or were distracted. Her answer was instructive: “I look forward to being in the physical presence of those whom I love and who love the gospel. I can share in their spirit without hearing a word, and if I am really in tune, the Lord whispers to me.”

It is sobering to realize that we help set for others the spirit of every meeting we attend. If we sing in a lackluster manner, are casually irreverent during the sacrament service, or sit in the resigned sprawl of the merely dutiful, we send discordant notes throughout the harmony of belief and practice that a sacrament service should exemplify. While we are whispering to our neighbor, it may be difficult for the Lord to whisper to us.

It may be helpful to think about our sacrament meeting experience with a new approach, never settling for less than being informal accompanists to those who speak or perform. One need only watch a skilled accompanist support an insecure soloist or enhance an experienced one to appreciate how much can be done in the background.

In this respect, we should not overlook the persuasive power of positive expectation. If we are thrilled at the prospect of hearing a particular speaker, we are not often disappointed. We willingly fill in deficiencies; we overlook that which is inadequate. No speaker can fail to say something important if our accompaniment is superb. Everyone has attended meetings where expectations were so high as to be almost palpable. This does make a difference to those who speak and, in fact, ensures their success. For we usually enjoy what we are prepared to enjoy, and our power to transmute the ordinary into the outstanding is limited only by our own determination and insight. Indeed, Ralph Waldo Emerson insists that sermons that are “foolishly spoken may be wisely heard.”

Most of us are able to learn from experience. The smarting finger grasps the second nail with consummate care. There are many experiences, however, that are so coarsening that we need to go through them vicariously. The scriptures are a compendium of cases in which those who have preceded us try to transmit the results of righteousness and the consequences of sin. Sacrament meeting is the compliment the Church pays to its members, for it assumes that we can learn from the insights and experiences of others and need not undergo the pain of repairing the broken commandment.

If we bring the Spirit of the Lord when we come to sacrament meeting, if we expect much and provide whatever is needed to make it significant, we will find in such services those opportunities for spiritual growth that are the special rewards of those who have become effective, disciplined “hearers of the word.”

  • Robert K. Thomas, academic vice-president, Brigham Young University, is president of the BYU Fourth Stake.

Illustrated by Craig Poppelton