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“Holy curiosity” as a way to think about effective listening

Friday March 6 2015

“Holy curiosity” as a way to think about effective listening

Albert Einstein coined the term “holy curiosity” in the 1940s to describe the freedom of inquiry he considered to be important in science education. People of faith have adopted this phrase because it evokes so much about effective Christian ministry. In order to meet needs, we must be curious about what they are. In order to give aid or help, we need to be curious about the ways to do it most effectively and in forms that empower the recipient. Our curiosity needs to have a holy quality about it, centered in God’s gentle and insightful love.

Curiosity can take two forms. One version of curiosity is nosy and prying, and it comes across as invasive. That kind of curiosity arises out of the listener’s need to know all the details about a person’s situation, perhaps so the listener can gossip with others about it or appear to be knowledgeable in other settings. A more subtle form of invasive curiosity arises when we feel proud of our listening abilities, so we draw people out in order to demonstrate our listening skills, so we can feel good about ourselves. Any self-focused listening can slide into being nosy and prying.

In contrast to nosy and invasive curiosity, the second form involves being interested and concerned, eager to understand the other person’s interests, priorities, and experiencesif she wants to talk about them. When the listener is motivated by God’s love, then this form of curiosity becomes holy curiosity, which undergirdsthe kinds of conversations in congregations, workplaces, and homes where people are able to express the overlap of their faith and their daily lives. Holy curiosity makes possiblepastoral care listening and listening for mission, and it lays a foundation for proclamation of the Christian Gospel.

Obstacles to holy curiosity come in several forms. So much of the fear that impedes listening in everyday settings comes from not truly believing that we can grow in understanding the priorities and values that lie behind another person’s convictions without agreeing with them. Listening often changes us because we understand more about how other people think and feel, but listening does not necessarily mean that we change our own central beliefs in response. Holy curiosity enables us to try to understand others’ beliefs and priorities, being open to change within ourselves but also being open to holding strongly to our own convictions. I love this quotation from a communication textbook: “There is a difference between understanding and agreeing with a speaker. We need to develop new psychological habits that encourage us to keep an open mind and a positive attitude to the motivation behind what is communicated to us orally” [1].

Another obstacle to holy curiosity is the conviction that we already know what the other person means when they say something. I told one of my friends about an upsetting stay in the hospital, and I mentioned one nurse who was like an anchor to me while I was there. At that point my friend commented that she was glad the nurse was helpful to me. Later in the conversation my friend returned to the topic, sayingshe hadn’t asked more about why the nurse meant so much to me simply because she assumed she already knew what made a nurse helpful. It took her until later in the conversation for her holy curiosity to come into play, making her wonder what I had particularly appreciated about that nurse.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent I’m posting excerpts from my book on listening. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

[1]Terry Mohan, Helen McGregor, Shirley Saunders, and Ray Archee, Communicating! Theory and Practice, 4th ed. (Sydney: Harcourt Brace, 1992), 417.

Why Do We Listen?

Thursday February 26 2015

Why Do We Listen?

A few weeks ago, I suggested that perhaps a focus on listening might be a good thing to do in Lent. For the weeks of Lent, I’m going to post excerpts from my book, The Power of Listening, in case you’d like to work on your listening skills. I’m beginning with some thoughts on the purpose of listening.

Humans listen for many different reasons. Like most mammals, birds, and reptiles, humans listen at a very basic level to protect ourselves and our loved ones from danger. For a raccoon or robin, listening brings awareness of predators. When I ride my bicycle, I pay attention to the car and truck traffic on the road, and part of my awareness comes from listening. When I had young children and I walked with them near busy streets, I used all my senses, including hearing, to try to keep them safe from harm.

Listening plays a role for some animals in their ability to find food, and a parallel for humans might involve all the listening we do that gives us information for all sorts of purposes. As we listen for information, we easily move from facts to analysis of the facts, and then to deeper meaning. Note the progression in complexity and level of meaning in the following series of questions: What time does that movie start? Where is the theater located? What kinds of things are reviewers saying about the movie? Does it sound like a good movie? Does this movie have spiritual implications? If I took a group of high school students from the youth group to that movie, what kinds of issues might we discuss afterwards?

Communication scholars make a distinction between hearing and listening. Hearing involves perceiving a sound with the ear, while listening involves paying attention to the sounds received by the ear and perceiving the meaning in them. We might say listening involves being alert to the sounds we hear. When we listen, we heed the sounds, tune into them, give consideration to them, or process them actively. In fact, the English word “listen” comes from two Anglo-Saxon words. One of them means “hearing,” and the other means “to wait in suspense.” Conversations might manifest greater love and attentiveness if we adopted an attitude of waiting in suspense to learn something from the other person’s words.

In common parlance, we interchange the meaning of these two words—listen and hear—quite frequently. “Yes, I hear you,” we might say when we want to indicate that we’re listening carefully. Or we might say, “I’m listening to the radio,” when we’re immersed in another task and the radio has become background noise only.

When I take the youth group to that new movie and we talk about it afterward, I will hear the words that come out of the mouth of the youth group members, but will I truly listen to what they are saying? Will I hear the emotions behind the words? And what interpretation will I give to the words I hear? Many factors impede our ability to listen carefully, even if we are physically hearing the words people say.

The challenges of interpretation grow more intense when conversations focus on deeper issues, when the purpose of listening becomes more nuanced. Why might I desire to listen deeply to the youth group members when discussing a movie with spiritual themes? Is the goal to help the students feel that someone cares about their thoughts? To help them make deeper connections to Christian themes? To motivate them to draw near to God in prayer? And to what extent am I accurately perceiving the central issues the students are trying to talk about, particularly when I have a goal or agenda for the conversation?

Which aspect should the listener pay attention to? To the facts? To the emotions of the person telling the story? To the strategic implications? Can we listen to all those things simultaneously?

Some additional resources on listening:

(Book excerpt from The Power of Listening by Lynne M. Baab. Copyright © Rowman & Littlefield. Used by arrangement with the publisher. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt  may be reproduced or printed without permission in writing from the publisher.)

Of clouds and attentiveness

Tuesday February 17 2015

Of clouds and attentiveness

A couple of years ago, in a moment of air-headedness, I ran my car into a post in a parking lot. The wheel well collapsed into the wheel. After calls to our insurance company and a body shop, I found myself in the cab of a tow truck.

I asked the driver, a man about 40 years old, where he was from, and learned he had been born and raised in the same suburb of Dunedin, New Zealand, where he now lives. I asked him if he had lived anywhere else, and he said he had spent a few years in Brisbane, Australia, where the consistently sunny weather drove him crazy.

He said he likes the rapid changes in weather that we experience here in Dunedin. “Just look at that sky,” he enthused. “It’s gorgeous. All those clouds. That’s what I missed in Brisbane.”

I glanced at the sky. “All those clouds” were, from my point of view, gray and drab. Admittedly, I was probably a bit shell shocked from hitting the post and hearing that awful crunch of breaking plastic, but it was not the sort of sky that I could imagine getting enthusiastic about.

The driver dropped me, and my beleaguered car, at the body shop. I picked up a loaner car and made my way home. At the first stop light, I looked at the sky again. I noticed the variations in the shades of gray within the towering clouds, and the small peeks of blue sky and yellow light around the clouds. The tow truck driver had been right. The clouds were beautiful. In order to see the beauty, I needed to look closely.

A Jewish Sabbath prayer goes like this: “Days pass, years vanish, and we walk sightless among miracles.” I don’t know if I’m better at sightlessness than other people, but I do know I’m exceptionally good at it.

The Sabbath has been one spiritual practice in my life that has slowed me down enough to look at the beauty of the world God made and at the miracles God continues to perform. I don’t think it’s any accident that the Jewish prayer about walking sightless among miracles is a Sabbath prayer. I’ve written a book and a lot of articles about sabbath keeping, enabling me to reflect on that particular spiritual practice as a way to be more attentive to God’s world and work around me. I still keep a sabbath, and it has been one of the joys of my life.

In the past few years I’ve been broadening out to consider other spiritual practices that encourage attentiveness and mindfulness:

  • The intentional practice of thankfulness.
  • Pausing to take a deep breath, then focusing on my surroundings for a few moments.
  • At the end of each day, looking back over my day for signs of God’s presence (the prayer of examen).
  • Saying grace at meals in a way that is not perfunctory but actually involves a few moments of attention to the smells and look of the food I’m about to eat.

Lent begins this week, and Lent is a great time to try a new habit or pattern or practice to help us draw near to God. This idea of attentiveness or mindfulness isn’t new for me, but I still need it desperately. I need the joy and peace that comes from seeing God’s gifts and God’s hand in my life. For Lent this year, I’m going to focus on attentiveness.

Here’s my question of the day: what helps you notice God’s goodness surrounding you?

If you’d like to use the Lenten devotional I wrote for Presbyterians Today, which draws on the Psalms to journey through Lent, the devotional for each day will be posted online here. Presbyterians Today is based in the US, so for my readers in New Zealand, sadly the posts for each day of Lent will appear for us a day late.

(To receive an email update whenever I post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.” This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering voices.)

What is hope?

Tuesday February 10 2015

What is hope?

In the second half of 2011 I did a private research project. In the midst of academic research and writing, I explored the role of hope in my life.

Between mid 2010 and early 2011 I was sick for many months, and no one in the medical community could figure out what was going on. On March 7, 2011, some of the elders of my church prayed for me, and I had a miraculous healing. (That’s another story. Perhaps someday I’ll tell it on this blog.) After I got better, I realized the months of not feeling well had robbed me of hope, and I couldn’t figure out how to get it back. In fact, I couldn’t figure out exactly what it is.

So I began watching for the word “hope” in books, conversations, sermons, prayers and the Bible. I began asking friends where and when they experience hope. As I listened and pondered, I could hear hints of two kinds of hope: hope for life after death and hope for daily life on earth.

I realized I don’t have any trouble with hope for heaven. We have hope that after we die, we will have new bodies (I Corinthians 15:35-49), our tears will be wiped away (Revelation 21:4), and we will live with Jesus forever (Revelation22:4). For some odd reason, that form of hope has always been very alive and real to me.

But surely the “God of hope” (Romans 15:13) also wants to give us hope for the days of our life on earth. The months of not feeling well had pretty much wiped that out for me.

So I kept listening, reading and thinking. I heard people use “hope” to describe a sort of vague wish. That wasn’t the kind of hope I was longing for. I heard people use “hope” in relation to upcoming events and plans they had, sometimes with a strong confidence that I admired and wished for. Increasingly I could see that hope is rooted in confidence. But where does that confidence come from?

At the same time as my informal research about hope, I was doing academic research involving interviews about listening. (That research resulted in my book, The Power of Listening.)  Many of those interviews touched on the need for improved listening skills because of the decline of the church in Western countries. Two people said almost identical words in interviews: “I have so much confidence in the power of the Gospel.”

Their words brought many of my thoughts together. Where does confidence about the future come from? From the power of God, which we see revealed in Jesus Christ. Jesus is our only hope for the distant future, for life after death, but Jesus is also our only hope for today and tomorrow. God has blessed me with so many good things all my life, and I can have confidence that God will continue that blessing the rest of today, tomorrow, next week and next year. Sure, that blessing isn’t always an experience of pure joy. Even in the hard times, God is present, giving the comfort of companionship and the redemption of pain. (I recently wrote a post about this wonderful reality.)

What more confidence do I need? What more do I need as a foundation for hope?

“In Christ alone my hope is found.” It sounds simple, even simplistic, but that statement sums up six months of pondering. (It’s from a praise song by Stuart Townend that I mostly, but not entirely, like.) Before my pondering, when we sang those words in church – In Christ alone my hope is found – they made no sense to me. Now they seems like a profound truth. Thank you God, for meeting us in our questions and searching. And thank you for the precious gift of hope.

What gives you hope? Where is your hope found? What spiritual practices help you experience hope? Lent begins next week, and these questions are a good foundation for thinking about doing something different or special during Lent.

(If you'd like to receive an email notice when I post on this blog, sign up under "subscribe" in the right hand column. This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices.)

Odd and peculiar?

Wednesday February 4 2015

Many of our extended family members think my husband and I are distinctly odd. Strange. Maybe peculiar.

Some of the things we do because we’re Christians seem baffling them. We keep a Sabbath, which appears lazy. In many cases, we pray about things before we act, which seems irresponsible and a bit wacky. We give away at least 10% or our income, which seems totally crazy. We refer to the Bible as God’s word and we love Jesus, which evidently mark us as unthinking and blind to the realities of life.

Not too long ago I came across the word “peculiar” as a positive attribute in the hymn, “Jesus shall reign where’er the sun.” The first verse of the hymn describes the extent of Jesus’ coming reign as encompassing all creation. The second and third verses describe widespread praise of God, and the fourth verse lists blessings humans receive when Jesus reigns. Then the fifth verse  invites us to respond to the good news that Jesus will reign and that his reign will be so wonderful:

“Let every creature rise and bring / peculiar honors to our king.”

When Isaac Watts (1674-1748) wrote the words to this hymn, “peculiar” could be used to mean particular or unique. With these words, he’s inviting all creatures to bring to God the offerings that are particular to their own gifts or attributes, the honors that they are uniquely able to bring. The verse is a wonderful call to pay attention to the unique gifts and characteristics that God has blessed us with and then bring to God our lives, our gifts, our abilities, and our praises in the utterly unique form that only we can bring.

I wonder if we would be wise also to think about “peculiar” in this verse as odd or strange, to think about bringing to God the offerings and honors that seem peculiar to the rest of the world. Practices like Sabbath keeping, tithing, prayer, Bible study and many other habits and patterns of life that Christians engage in seem bizarre, even incomprehensible, to many who do not know Christ.

Certainly the church of Jesus Christ needs to proclaim the gospel in ways that are culturally relevant. I worry, though, that we have become so culturally relevant that we are virtually identical to the wider culture. I think we need to speak up about the peculiar things we do because we are Christians.

I feel awkward talking about tithing, the fact that we give away at least 10% of our income. Shouldn’t that be private? I have come to believe that the fact that my husband and I tithe is one of the ways we proclaim with our actions that Christ is Lord of our lives to the people who know us. Specifically, that Christ is Lord of our money, which in Western culture is such a significant indicator of values.

I don’t like being told by family members that we are odd, strange or peculiar. That our faith has blinded us to the realities of life. That we are a bit brainless. But I do like bringing to Jesus the “peculiar honors” that I can bring, the unique and particular things I can offer. And if that means people view me as peculiar in the odd sense, maybe that’s a good thing.

Lent begins this year on February 18, and Lent is a great time to try a new faith-related habit that might look peculiar to others but that also might enable us to bring our own “peculiar honors” to God.

(This post originally appeared on the Thoughtful Christian blog, Gathering Voices. If you’d like to receive an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up in the right hand column under “subscribe.”)

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