On Closer Listening

We don't always hear what we think we hear.

Listen on the Go

Hear an audio version of this reflection.

The Scripture

Psalm 100
New American Standard Version

Make a joyful noise to the Lord, all the earth.

Worship the Lord with gladness; come into his presence with singing.

Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.

Enter his gates with thanksgiving, and his courts with praise.

Give thanks to him, bless his name.

For the Lord is good; his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations.

Photo of a flower

A Noisy Neighbor by Deborah Beach Giordano

An Early-Morning Nuisance

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

Roger Desiderius Maplin IIIIt is 6:34 on a Sunday morning, and I am awakened by the sound of a barking dog. Repeating and repeating. And repeating. Determinedly. Incessantly.

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

Now, you know me: I am a sincere, devoted dog lover. I always insist: There are no bad dogs, only bad dog owners. And, at dawn’s early light on this Sunday morning, I am convinced that a product of bad dog-parenting is nearby.

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

It persists, without the least hint of stopping. I grit my teeth.

It is remarkably like the bark of the dog who lived next door to us before we moved. In our home he had been referred to as “Yapper” (for obvious reasons), although his given name was something like Roger Desiderius Maplin the Third of Thornhill Kennels. But surely — heaven forbid! — it couldn’t be him. Yet, if it isn’t ol’ Yapper, it sure sounds like him.

And he is near by.   Very near.   In fact, the noise seems to originate from our backyard.

Good grief. Did somebody leave the gate open? Did a dog get in under the fence? And What. On. Earth is inciting that animal to go on barking like that? Are his owners deaf? Why isn’t somebody doing something?!?

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

Somebody Does Something

tasteful owl slippersI sigh. Obviously the “somebody” who is going to do something will be revealed by a quick glance in the bathroom mirror. I throw off the covers, pull on my slippers, and get up to investigate.

The previous day was warm, and the bedroom window is open. Pushing the curtain aside, I blink out onto the green and pleasant expanse: shrubs and trees, several flowers and a few persistent weeds. Nothing stirred. As I turn away from the window….

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

I’m at the point of shouting: “KNOCK THAT OFF!!” I can’t see him, but I hear him clearly, loudly. That noisy little fiend is out there somewhere….

Wrapping my robe around me, I fling open the back door (at the same time it occurs to me that I have no plan: no leash or collar or net, no idea what to do when I encounter the — hopefully tame — canine). But here we are now, and so: Forward! The instant I set foot outside, there is a disturbance: the leaves on a low branch of the oak tree rustle and tremble, and then — there he stands in all his glory. Alert, wary, his dark eyes sparkling, he takes a quick glance around the garden, opens his beak and loudly calls out:

Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.    Bark. Bark. Bark.

The Talented Culprit

the culprit

It was, as you have guessed, a mockingbird: a member of that feathered tribe with the astonishing ability to replicate — with unerring accuracy — whatever they hear. And I do mean whatever they hear: mockingbirds have been known to imitate car alarms, babies’ cries, door chimes, dripping water, buzzers, pops, snaps, and rings; honking horns, mews and meows and moos, whistles and chirps, and — of course — barks.

It is remarkable, indeed, as well as occasionally annoying, and invariably deceptive. What you hear isn’t what you expect, but an imitation; a bird-brained reproduction, unrelated to reality. Mr. Mockingbird is merely passing along what he has heard, uncomprehending. His “song” is a composition of nonsense: sounds and noises, signifying nothing.

Believe nothing that you hear….

Returning to the house, it was clear that any further attempt at sleep would have been futile. Therefore, a few minutes after my avian encounter, now comfortably seated in front of a cup of tea, I thought about the nature — and power — of sounds.

“Believe nothing that you hear, and only half of what you see.” This wise counsel has been with us since the 1300s. And yet we still get sucked in; accepting as genuine what is mere artifice, reacting to what we think we hear — what we think we know. We trust the evidence of our ears, despite their having proved false friends with alarming frequency.

“But I thought you said…” our faulty hearing leads to all sorts of complications. Mistakes, misunderstandings, misdirection, confusion, conflicts, arguments and estrangements … and pointless early-morning searches for non-existent dogs. Will we never learn?

Conditional Hearing

To repeat (!!) a story I’ve told before; many years ago I worked in a department store during the Christmas season. In keeping with the Mandates of Marketing, a selection of seasonal music was aired continuously — which included a particularly heinous version of “Little Drummer Boy.” Every time it played, I would cringe.

Animal as Drummer Boy

Then one afternoon, a customer asked, “What’s that awful song?” — she meant, of course, the ghastly rendition of Little Drummer Boy that was, at that very moment, wafting through the building. Before replying, I had to stop and actively, intentionally, listen. Until she spoke, I hadn’t heard any music.

Of course I did hear it; I had heard it, but had tuned it out. It had become a noise that my brain had assessed as unimportant and filed under “Ignore.” Yet it was still present. Uninvited, unwelcome, unwanted, the Drummer drummed on, and — if the psychology of sales is correct — continued to influence all who were subjected to it.

That discordant carol (wrapped up with the lady’s question) was a Christmas gift of a sort: a reminder — a warning — that, often, there is noise running in the background of which we are unaware. Unheard, unsolicited, it plays repeatedly; a siren song attempting to persuade, convince, or confuse us, depending on the producer’s intent.

There is much that we hear — but don’t really hear, nor know that we are hearing.

And that’s disturbing. It should sound a note of alarm to all of us.

Back to the Bird-Dog

There wasn’t a dog barking in my backyard, nor was a friend’s microwave repeatedly chiming its end-of-cycle ring, nor another friend’s lawn sprinkler running (a very convincing “Shhhh! tick-tick-tick; shhhhh! tick-tick-tick”). Every one of these was a clever deception from among the thousands — perhaps hundreds of thousands! — perpetrated by mockingbirds every year.

endless input

In fairness, no blame can be assigned to our avian neighbors. There is no malice intended, no judgment or discernment; they are simply repeating what they have heard as they go about their daily lives.

What they hear is what we get. It is what we have given to them.

Mockingbirds are transmitters of the soundtrack of our culture: bells and beeps and buzzes, rings and dings and ticks and clicks, sirens and shouts and shrieks. Not to mention: advertising! There’s a whole lot of noise going on.

It’s a wonder we’re not all deaf. (Or perhaps, in a way, we are.)

Feathered Friend-ly Warnings

Surrounded by noise and nonsense, we often fail to hear — or, to heed — the single, most important Voice; the One that speaks words of comfort, peace, and cheer. It is the Lord Jesus whom we should echo, His are the words we should repeat, His culture of compassion and kindness, healing and hope is the one we should intentionally, actively listen for — and transmit.

The Gospel good news should be the soundtrack of our lives.

canaryOur feathered friends can serve as cautionary signs — like canaries in a mine, so to speak. They reveal the subtle presence of the Mockingbird Misdirection: the danger of unthinkingly echoing the sounds we hear around us; of believing as a fact what may be utterly false; the temptation to accept as genuine — and repeat as true — what is only a lot of noise.

Surely the Lord will deliver you from the snare of the fowler, and from the deadly plague. He will cover you with His feathers; under His wings you will find refuge; His faithfulness is a shield and fortress. ~ Psalm 91:3-4

Christ’s peace and grace-filled love surround you,


Exercises for Better Listening

What do you notice that you hear? Where does the sound come from, who repeats it, is it true?

What don’t you hear? Is there “noise” that you have ignored — or accepted?

What helps you to hear God’s saving, blessing, transforming Word?