While Paul was waiting for them in Athens, he was deeply distressed to see that the city was full of idols. So he argued in the synagogue with the Jews and the devout persons, and also in the marketplace every day with those who happened to be there. Also some Epicurean and Stoic philosophers debated with him. Some said, “What does this babbler want to say?” Others said, “He seems to be a proclaimer of foreign divinities.” (This was because he was telling the good news about Jesus and the resurrection.) So they took him and brought him to the Areopagus and asked him, “May we know what this new teaching is that you are presenting? It sounds rather strange to us, so we would like to know what it means.” Now all the Athenians and the foreigners living there would spend their time in nothing but telling or hearing something new.

One practice from the spiritual exercises of St. Ignatius that opened the Bible to me is the practice of immersing yourself in a story, aka “reading the Bible like a book.” In this practice you choose a different viewpoint in a particular story and use your imagination to experience the story from the inside, not just from the outside, or intellectually. This is the fundamental act of reading, letting the words of another take over and transport us to a different world. We can be the hero or heroine of a book, or the villain (if an author has done her job well, the villain is as sympathetic as the protagonist). It’s kind of fun, a totally different way to come to the parables or the gospels, one that engages all your senses, as well as your mind, and creates different ways for Spirit to seep in. Try it sometime…pick a story and become a character, the leper, the disciple, even Jesus himself. See the light glinting off the Sea of Galilee, taste the wine, smell the fear, listen for Jesus’ voice, teaching from the Mount.

The automatic approach to reading this week’s text from Acts is to imagine ourselves as Paul, as the person bringing the good news about Jesus to the heathen Greeks. We walk up, deliver this fantastic speech about the literal truth about God and Jesus. We’re a soldier for Christ, and our hearts swell with our awesome eloquence and dedication, as we imagine Paul’s heart swelled two thousand years ago. The fact that he converted two people out of the crowd, only two, passes us by, because we were out there, doing our part, giving the stirring speech.

But rather than going for all the glory, let’s put ourselves in the heart of anonymous Greek individual, listening in the crowd. We’re nobody special, not even Dionysius the Aeropagite or Damaris, who were converted to the faith we hold so dear after Paul’s thrilling speech. We listened, we appreciated, but we were not moved.

It’s easy to discount people like this, invisible listeners. We don’t give the speech, we don’t get converted, but if we discount the simple act of listening, then we eliminate even the possibility not just of conversion, but of common human community. Listening is the foundation of relationship. We don’t have to do all the talking. We don’t have to be converted and lay down our lives for Jesus. Sometimes God calls us to listen. Just listen. To offer that act of friendship and respect to someone with whom we disagree, and go our way. Respect is a really underrated, overlooked quality in society today.

Can we listen, and see God’s presence in another’s heart and faith? Can we remain open long enough to feel God’s power in that person? Can we feel how light that makes us, to take our proper place in the universe, and lifting the burden of certainty? If we can do those things, the act of listening can call us into a new way of life, a more gentle, more respectful, more Christian way of life.

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