Trained to listen

A high-pitched symphony is playing just outside my window.

My neighborhood is rich with birdsong every morning, and today, I am especially tuned into it. For yesterday, in a conversation with some Christian brothers, one of them said something that deeply resonated with me.

He said that he often feels that the spiritual world is like a conversation or a song that he can’t quite make out. He can hear it. He just can’t hear it clearly.

The following discussion focused on how one can learn to be more discerning of that spiritual language or music.

I immediately thought of bird songs. And how I came to listen to them.  (These drawings are from journals during that journey.)

First, let’s recognize that for most of us, bird calls are background noise. They can evoke pleasure in the hearing, but much in the same way that a crashing surf or a babbling stream does. We recognize the whole of it, but don’t listen to the parts.

It takes more than just effort, though, to understand the nuances of bird calls. It requires knowledge. In my journey to discernment, that knowledge came from two sources.

Impersonal experts. I have an app on my phone that can help me identify individual birds. For my purposes of pinpointing a bird by its song, the app works the wrong way – requiring me to see the winged songster first. Not an easy thing to do!  But even so, it has helped me on many walks in unfamiliar parks to connect a face to a voice.

Friendly inspiration. Far more helpful has been my pal, Scott. A walking bird encyclopedia (I suppose I should update the metaphor to “a walking bird app”), he has given me far more than just his knowledge, he has shared his passion. He loves the nuances between the songs -- subtleties that sometimes escape me, like when some native speaker of a foreign language tries to correct my pronunciation.

Scott has taught me how to listen. So now, at any given time, I can auditorily zero in on individual instruments in the avian orchestra. Sitting here as I write, I can hear the cascading trill of a house wren, the impersonations of a catbird and the whistle-chirps of cardinals.

We can be taught to listen to the spiritual world. Impersonal experts can help – devotional writers both modern and ancient. And of course, God’s word is our ultimate guide.

But let’s not forget the role of passionate friends. I can be intimidated by those who seem more attune to Kingdom realities, who hear God’s voice more distinctly. But if I hang around them long enough, their passion can rub off. It can shape me.

Listening can be contagious.

Lord Jesus, no one has ever been more keenly aware of the spiritual world than you were when you walked this earth. Teach us to tune in. Make us expectant. And give us friends to train us to listen.

I have been so encouraged by your comments! Please continue to give me feedback. Email me at This email address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it.. And if you liked this, please use the buttons above to share it!

Bruce Van Patter

As a freelance illustrator, graphic recorder, and author, Bruce is on a lifelong journey to delight in the handiwork of the Creator. And he’s always ready for fellow travelers.

Today's ReVision

Not Mere Good Feeling

If feeling good is what you're after, you'd better take another look at your faith.

Join the Ailbe Community

The Fellowship of Ailbe Newsletters