Review: A Life of Listening

a life of listening

A Life of ListeningLeighton Ford. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2019.

Summary: A memoir in which Ford sums up his life as one of listening for God’s voice, and the unique voice of his own he discovered as he did so.

I have been listening to Leighton Ford most of my life. As a young boy, I heard him preach on The Hour of Decision on occasions when Billy Graham was not on the broadcast. As a college student, I participated as a counselor in a crusade he led in Youngstown. Even then, his voice was different from Billy Graham, quieter, rich with cultural and spiritual insight. I was moved by his account of the death of his son Sandy, a parent’s worst nightmare, and how he went on with God afterward. I saw a turn in his ministry as he focused on leadership and found his book Transforming Leadership deeply helpful as a rising leader. Much later, as I found myself giving increasing attention to the inner journey, his book, The Attentive Life, captured for me what seems the connecting point between those who love God and love learning, the practice of attentiveness. Now, as I think of this question of what it means to finish well in Christ, comes this memoir, in which Ford looks back and sums up a journey of listening to God.

In the Introduction to the book, he describes his youthful response to the call of Jesus after listening to a retired missionary and a college student speak of Jesus:

   I was five then. Now, eighty plus years later, I can barely recall the voices and face of that missionary lady and that college student, but I know that through them I heard another Voice calling me, a voice I have been listening for ever since. So I write my listening story not because it is a perfect story or one to emulate but as a testament to the power of listening for the voice of my Lord.

The narrative traces this listening story from the early years as the adopted son of Charles and Olive Ford. Olive was the one who first taught him to read scripture and pray and took him to the Keswick conference where he responded to the voice of Jesus. He describes his teen years as he struggles to differentiate the voice of Jesus from Olive’s strong, controlling, and protective voice. He narrates his first encounter with Billy Graham at a Youth for Christ rally he had organized, and how, amid discouraging results, Graham encouraged him, encouraging his own response to the growing sense of God’s call to preach.

Graham also told his sister Jean about Leighton, and when they went to Wheaton, they eventually began dating, and in a decisive break with Olive, who disapproved, married Jean. The following years were one’s under Graham’s mentorship, first as an associate accompanying him and sharing some of the preaching, and then forming his own team and booking his own crusades as part of the Graham organization.

He describes the shift in his own ministry as he increasingly included social advocacy and outreach in his crusades, began discovering his inner life as he wrestled with depression,  and met his birth mother and understood more deeply the pulls in his life between the sense of loss and longing represented in his birth mother, and the impulse to separate Olive’s voice from the voice that was calling him. Then came the devastating death of his son Sandy, and the discovery of “places in our hearts we don’t even know are there until our hearts are broken.” His preaching was changing, and it became apparent, first to Billy Graham, and then him, that it was time to part ways organizationally, a move that actually deepened their friendship, and collaboration on things such as the Lausanne Consultation on World Evangelization.

The last part of the book covers the period from his fifties until the present as he embarks on what Susan Howatch called “the second journey.”  He learns both to listen more deeply for the Lord’s voice and to find his own. He recounts the several year journey to developing a new ministry focus on developing rising leaders and evangelists. His last chapters explore the anamcharas through whom the voice often comes, his growing appreciation of beauty and hearing God’s voice as he took up art, and the distinguishing character of God’s voice and how it comes.

No two lives are alike, no two paths the same. Yet, at least for me, listening to those who have been listening to the Voice of the Master is a rich source of wisdom. Such is this book by Leighton Ford; not a substitute for listening to the only Voice who can lead us safe home, but as sage counsel for how to recognize the only true Voice from the many competing for our attention.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.




St Francis in Meditation, Francisco de Zurbaran

O divine Master, grant that I may not so much seek
To be consoled as to console,
To be understood as to understand,
To be loved as to love; –From the “Prayer of St. Francis”

As I’ve continued to think about this idea of “the speech of freedom“, I am convinced that the pursuit of understanding is foundational to this practice. Often we think of free speech as being able to simply express openly and without restraint my ideas, convictions, grievances, preferences, whatever. But I wonder how free are we if no one is listening, no one is understanding what the other says? If that is the case, I am confined to the bubble of my own monologue.

In the prayer attributed to St. Francis, he prays “that I may not so much seek…To be understood as to understand.” As odd as it seems, we may most truly be understood when we have given ourselves to deeply understand the other. It think this works for two reasons.

One, it is often, but not always the case, that when we give another person the gift of really listening to understand them, they will want to return the favor. To have another person enter deeply into my life, to work and work to really understand me, and to convey in words that express back the content and tone of what I’ve said is a rare and beautiful thing, a form of deeply knowing a person.

This deep knowing of understanding the other also helps me to speak to be understood when the time comes for that. Then I am not just expressing what I want say but also trying to connect the things I care about with what the other cares about. I better understand the things they fear, the things they hope for and can be careful not to needlessly arouse their fears nor quench their hopes.

Understanding is not the same as agreeing. In fact, sometimes understanding helps us better understand the nature of our disagreement. Often when we do not listen to understand, we discuss what we think are the points where the other disagrees rather than with what is the actual substance of our disagreement. Sometimes we actually agree on things we thought we disagreed upon! When we’ve worked to understand one another, we are freed to work together from our places of common ground to the places where we disagree.

Tim Muelhoff, a professor of communication at Biola University proposes in his book I Beg To Differ several crucial elements of listening to understand:

  • Desire to understand. Do we really desire to engage and understand the other person, allowing time and space to share his or her perspective?
  • Questions. If a phrase, term, or idea is not clear, are we asking for clarification? When listening, how often do we achieve listening fidelity [understanding what the person means to convey]?
  • Summary statements. After asking for clarification, are we offering summary statements that paraphrase the words of the speaker, making sure to match content and tone?
  • Perspective taking. Are we putting ourselves into the perspective of another person to see how we would react if we held the views of the speaker?
  • Mindfulness. Are we fully present when listening to others? What internal or external distractions make us lose focus?
  • Poetic moments. Are we keeping our ears open for a phrase that surfaces a person’s passion or deep convictions? (p. 101)

It just may be that the most important element of “the speech of freedom” isn’t really speech at all but rather the effort to really listen to understand that conveys I want for the other what I want for myself: to be understood. It is then that monologue can become true dialogue and we are freed from the misunderstandings that prevent us from seeking the flourishing of even those we most deeply differ with.