The ministry of listening…

The neighborhoods I frequent in order to make friends with God host hundreds of men and women who talk to themselves and yell at invisible antagonists. Their minds are mush from birth or from abuse or from profuse amounts of Seagrams, crack, heroin, or meth – or all of the above. The people there are shipwrecks, and sometimes there is not much left. Demons have found safe houses in many of these precious souls.

Though obscured by their psychoses, they still bear the mark of the Creator’s image, and are loved in heaven, where – if they go there someday – their minds and social capabilities will be reassembled and perfected. In the meantime, they need to be told that they’re loved by the Perfecter. But maybe more than that, they’re dying (literally) to be heard, to be shown affectionate attention.

I usually walk, at a rapid pace if necessary, to dodge such souls on our San Franciscan streets. Especially if we’re trying to distribute our food, preach our sermons, or sing our Jesus songs I tend to be distracted, if not annoyed, by the antics of such disturbing personalities. The other day, Jerry (that’s what I’ll call him, anyway), a well-known street-corner-talker approached me for “conversation.” Like most in the club, Jerry was soiled and smelly from days, probably more like weeks, bereft of soap or shower. Wild-eyed and constantly in motion, he was chattering at me in indecipherable, interminable sentences. I can’t be sure, but I think conspiracy of one ilk or another was his theme for the day. So insistent on having a visible flesh and blood audience, Jerry all but grabbed me by the collar and continued his rant.

Instead of lending him the attention he craved, I looked over his shoulder in order to scan the crowd that was gathered for the food we were about to distribute for more potentially fruitful opportunities to advance the Kingdom of Jesus. And believe me, I looked and hoped for just about any other person to connect with, but my feet felt cemented in place. I couldn’t have escaped without stepping out of my shoes. I took a deep reluctant breath, and under the duress of a sense of mandate, “decided” stay put a while.

Not many people listen to Jerry or his sort. I know I don’t, and because of the street ministries in which I’m involved, I’m around psychotic individuals more than most. But along with the ought I felt at the moment, came a peace, a sort of quietude. Standing on one of the City’s least pleasant and most chaotic streets I might as well have been on the peaceful shore of a remote mountain lake. The pleasure of God that I often feel while worshipping or preaching or serving in some way, I felt just listening to this confused man named Jerry. Unless I’m wrong, God in me was patiently, actively listening to Jerry’s rants through me.

Though I made every effort to follow his spewed stream of consciousness and make sense of the bewildering leaps between topics, I can’t tell you anything he said. But it wasn’t understanding that was required of me. My directive at that moment was to receive the Father’s peaceful compassion to stand still and listen to the man beneath, which I did until Jerry was out of words and I was out of time. He finally inhaled between topics and I knew we were circling the runway for a landing.

Before parting, I put my hand on Jerry’s shoulder – you can’t always touch people who are as disturbed as him, but I usually try anyway, and apparently he didn’t mind – and asked him if I could pray with him. He nodded a yes, removed his ragged cap, unfurling his grimy and matted hair, held it with both hands in front of him like a respectful church-goer, and bowed his head. My brief prayer for God’s love to untangle his mind and penetrate his insides was sincere if not profound. Following the Amen his confusion was not decipherably alleviated, but I went away feeling that God had paused his universe management in order to listen to one of his beloveds.

Instead of my mouth he used my ears, and through me made an invisible, inaudible connection between his heart and Jerry’s. I didn’t fix anything or detectably reduce any of his mania. And while I would like to have done more, I recall many a time when Jesus has patiently listened to my panic and paranoia. I’m grateful that I could be his ear that day.


“… quick to listen, slow to speak” James 1:19



2 Replies to “The ministry of listening…”

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