Practical Dreamers

Valuing the Listener

Paul Tregurtha


Rev Paul Tregurtha is Ecumenical Chaplain at Dunedin Hospital, and is a member at our Mornington Church where he sings in the Choir. This fine address was given recently on the occasion of the commissioning of Hospital Chaplaincy Assistants. Thankyou Paul.



Are you are Mary or a Martha? This question is often raised in sermons on this well dusted off Jesus story, recorded only in Luke’s gospel. Preachers since time immemorial have invited their gathered flock to do some personal reflection in light of the very different responses of these two women when their friend Jesus and his disciples stayed in their home. Are you, a Martha, a practical person, one who likes to roll up your sleeves and get stuck in to what ever needs to be done; or are you a Mary, one who is more contemplative, more reflective, a person of being rather than of doing. Or are you a bit if both, depending on the situations you find yourself in?

Interesting in this recorded story by Dr Luke, that Jesus apportions more value to Mary’s response than to Martha. This is in light of Martha suggesting to Jesus that he rebuke Mary for not helping her out in the kitchen. ‘Martha, just settle’ says Jesus. ‘ You’re fussing far too much and getting yourself worked up over things that don’t really matter. I just need one thing and Mary has chosen that.
Tonight I would like to suggest there are parallels in this story within the hospital environment. Many of the patients admitted to this hospital, and their families, are in similar state that Jesus and his disciples were facing when they were welcomed to the home of Martha and Mary. Many are stretched to the limit; they are exhausted, physically, mentally, spiritually. Many patients know they face an unknown period of separation from family and home, and during their hospitalization they have to cope with loneliness, anxiety, misunderstanding, depression, sleeplessness, physical pain, maybe even the prospect of their own death. And they soon find that their lives are no longer their own; they are dependent on others for help and for healing.

Help in the hospital will come from a multi-disciplinary team working together to provide holistic care for the well being and healing of patient and their families. That team includes medical staff, allied health workers, and members of the Chaplaincy Team. Each have equally important roles to play but roles quite different from the other.
The work of medical staff demands that they act like Martha; they are the doers, often on the run, stretched to get around to meet all the demanding medical needs of the patients under their care. They rarely have time to speak at any depth to their patients outside their medical condition.
Conversely, the role of the Chaplaincy Assistant requires them to respond to patients, families and staff in the same manner as Mary to Jesus. Mary recognised that Jesus needed someone who he could pour his heart out to, someone who would just sit at his feet and listen to his story. And so she broke the cultural norms of her day out of sensitivity and compassion for her friend and left Martha to do the practical hospitality tasks expected of a woman of her day.

Sally, Ruth, Alison, Andy, Jill and Helen, your task as Chaplaincy Assistant, also requires you to minister in a manner which is contrary to the prevailing culture of the hospital environment and society at large. To provide pastoral and spiritual care, hospital you will have to be rather than do; to be fully present and actively listening at each bedside. And that will be a challenge. For listening I suggest is not something we humans are naturally good at or value. One reason why we don’t often have alert ears, is because we have open mouths says Pastor Rick Warren author of “The Purpose built Church/Life.’ Speaking is given high value in our society. Don’t we celebrate the first word uttered by a child? And at school we are taught how to communicate by reading, writing and speaking. But we are never taught how to listen, are we? Is there a box for teachers to tick in the English NZQA curriculum for listening? Society in general admires those who have the ‘gift of the gab’, the speaker who can hold an audience with the flow of enlightened or entertaining conversation…politicians aside!!!

Another factor working against valuing listening is the fact we live in an individualistic, competitive society where many people strive to be in control of every situation they face. When we listen intently without interruption, we hand over the control of the conversation to someone else. We let that person set the agenda, the direction, the pace, the content of the conversation. Good listeners create space for the other person to fill, rather than fill it with the sound of their dulcet tones. They practice the ancient edict which stated The ears are always open, ever ready to receive instruction; but the tongue is surrounded with a double row of teeth, to hedge it in, and to keep it within proper bounds”
Good listeners are comfortable with silence, and allow the other person time to gather his/her thoughts and feelings. And they stay with the patient through the painful moments,without changing the subject or politely excusing themselves on the grounds of feeling uncomfortable or out of their depth.
Yes it is no easy task being a good listener; it can be tiring, stressful, frustrating. But it is a form of costly discipleship, of servant ministry which Jesus asks of each one of his followers.

Our new crop of Chaplaincy Assistants to be commissioned tonight, now know a lot more about listening than before they started their training course. They can tell you what is a perception check, what is fogging, what is the difference between an closed and an open question, what is a minimal encourager. Correct? ..They realize now that active listening is a skill to be learned; an art and a science that needs informed teaching, frequent practicing, and regular evaluating through those lovely things called verbatims! For a skilful listener not only hears what is said, but also is aware of clues given by way of body language, tone of voice, eye contact, so he/she is able to respond to the music behind the words, to tune into the patients’ feelings, and to matters of ultimate concern, whether they be physical, emotional, social, psychological, or spiritual. People who listen well not only listen with their ears and brain but also with their eyes and heart and soul. And they can then enable the conversation to go to a far deeper level than just social ‘chit chat’, maybe even to a place where faith is discussed and where personal faith is rekindled, and an inner strength rediscovered. Yes effective listening by chaplains has a huge contribution to make to a patients recovery, alongside the work of the medical and other hospital staff .

Sally, Ruth, Alison, Andy, Jill and Helen, congratulation on your commissioning as Chaplaincy Assistants tonight. On hehalf of the team I wish you well in your journey. And may you all be richly blessed as you present yourselves as creative listeners to the patients, relatives and staff in this hospital.

” The ancients had some sayings on the subject: “Men have 2 ears and but one tongue that they should listen twice as much as they speak.”




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