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An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance

Thursday October 8 2015

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance

Many months ago, a friend of mine was asked to lead music at an international conference. She was happy to say yes, and she immediately contacted people who had helped her lead music at conferences in the past to see if they would be willing to come along and help. None of them were available.

She prefers to lead singing with a team rather than alone, even though she is quite capable of doing it alone, so she wondered what to do next. Should she cast the net wide and contact everyone she knows who leads music? Or should she pray and wait to see how God led her?

She chose the latter path. She began praying for God’s guidance and asked others to pray. I was one of those friends praying for music leaders to go with her overseas to the conference.

Last Sunday I saw her in person and asked her if she had found anyone to go with her. She said, “Yes, I did. I had a dream, and in that dream I saw this particular fellow leading music. I contacted him, and both he and his wife were eager to come on the trip with me. It turns out they have several connections with the country where the conference will be held. And unbeknownst to me, God had already been speaking to them about a return visit.”

She then added, “I love that God allowed me to dream about him leading music. What I don’t like to tell people is that I had the dream when I fell asleep during a massage.”

Perceiving God’s guidance from a dream is not at all uncommon in the Bible or in Christian history. I doubt that many of those dreams happened during a massage! I want to make several observations from this story that made me smile.

1. My friend was quite blessed that her dream was so clear. So many dreams are hard to figure out. We must never say that dreams are easy to interpret and should always be clear. But God does speak clearly through dreams from time to time, and we need to be open to that reality.

2. My friend had been actively praying for guidance about musicians who could come on the trip with her, and she had asked other people to pray for guidance as well. We can’t say God only speaks to us when we are praying to hear God’s voice, because God initiates with people in all sorts of settings and in all sorts of circumstances. But anecdotally in my own life, and from reports in other people’s lives, God often seems to speak to us when we’ve been asking for guidance of some sort. And our prayers open us to listen, giving us expectant hearts.

3. Maybe it’s not an accident that my friend had this dream during a massage. She was relaxed, having given control over to the massage therapist for an hour. She was probably more in touch with her body than usual (before she fell asleep!). Relaxation and being in touch with our bodies makes us very present to the sensory experience of the moment, and often God is seems especially present to us when we are present to the world God created. And often we are more able to hear God speak when we relinquish some of the control we love to exercise.

Watching for patterns can help us be more open to hearing God’s voice. So, with the goal of seeing patterns, I’ll ask what you have observed in your own life. Do you hear God more easily

  • about topics you have prayed for?
  • when you’re in touch with nature or your body?
  • when you relinquish control?

(If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

I’ve been posting a lot about listening recently. Here are most of the posts:
John Perkins listened 
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

John Perkins listened

Friday October 2 2015

John Perkins listened

One of the adults who went along on a church youth group mission trip told me an amazing story. The Seattle youth group went to Mississippi in July to spend a week learning about racial reconciliation. Each morning, Dr. John M. Perkins spoke to the group about Christian perspectives on reconciliation. Dr. Perkins is an 85-year-old civil rights leader who has received an astonishing 13 honorary doctorate degrees for his work.

On the first and second mornings of the youth mission trip, Dr. Perkins gave an overview of racial reconciliation to the group. Both mornings, as an aside, he mentioned how deeply disturbed he was by the recent Supreme Court decision about gay marriage.

The views on gay marriage in the youth group covered the entire spectrum. Some of the teenagers were glad that Dr. Perkins reinforced their views, but others were quite offended by his words, and the adult leaders of the trip spent time talking through the issue with those students. On the third day, two of the adult leaders – Scott Gronholz, the youth pastor and Lynne Blessing, the church missions pastor – talked with Dr. Perkins about what was going on in the group, simply to encourage him to avoid the topic of gay marriage for the rest of the week.

Here’s what happened next, as described by Scott, the youth group leader, in a church newsletter article:

On Thursday morning Dr. Perkins’ words altered the entire trip for the better and probably altered the lives of everyone in the room. Dr. Perkins sat down and read from 1 Timothy 1:15 which says, “Here is a trustworthy saying that deserves full acceptance: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners—of whom I am the worst.” He then slowly lifted his gaze to us and gently yet deliberately said, “I have sinned this week.” There was an audible gasp from the audience and the energy in the room instantly transformed. I don’t know how to describe what it felt like. I can only say that the room suddenly felt Holy; like the presence of the Holy Spirit was instantly palpable and something special and important was happening. Dr. Perkins proceeded to spend the next 45 minutes apologizing to our group. He said that he had vowed early in his life to be an instrument of love and that he had not done that on this trip. He said that he was sorry and that he needed our forgiveness. To be clear, throughout his entire talk he never once said that he was changing his opinion on gay marriage or that he felt sorry about his convictions and interpretation of scripture. He did humbly admit that the Supreme Court decision was a paradigm shift and that he has inadequate language to talk about it. Finally, he got on his knees in front of us and again asked for forgiveness. He then said that he was going to broaden his ministry to emphasize reconciliation for all people and not just different races. He said that this next phase of his ministry was going to take a lot of work and asked us all to pray for him. At that point he laid flat on the ground and asked us to lay hands on him, which of course we did.

Dr. Perkins listened. He paid attention to the report of how his words affected the teenagers. He repented. But remember, he didn’t repent of his view on gay marriage. He didn’t change his beliefs about it. He repented for the way his expression of his opinion had offended others.

By listening, he learned that expressing his views had made some of his guests uncomfortable, and in the context of host he believed that was unacceptable, so he needed to ask for forgiveness. Scott described the significance of this moment: “John Perkins showed us a path towards real and authentic community where, while there may be disagreement, division and disunity don’t have to be the end of the story.”

One of the biggest obstacles to listening is the fear that if we understand another person’s point of view, we will have to adopt it. Dr. Perkins demonstrated the kind of listening that is deeply concerned about harmony between people who may continue to have different convictions on a subject but who can still experience unity.

I wrote an article about the kinds of inner noise that impede listening, including the fear that if we acknowledge or understand another person’s point of view, we will have to change our own beliefs. This fear of listening and understanding is very real and impedes loving relationships in so many ways.

(If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Other posts about listening on this blog:
good listeners are detectives, not tennis players
a game that nurtures good listening
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

Friday September 25 2015

Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

“The whole world is singing but we’ve stopped listening.” Those words show up in a cool video showing a sound and light exhibition at the United Nations about species loss. A friend sent the link to me in response to my two recent posts about listening. (One of my posts recommended a game about listening and the other suggested that as we listen, we view ourselves as detectives.)

I’ve been interested in creation care as an aspect of Christian discipleship for a long time, but I had never before explored the connections between my listening research and God’s call to steward and tend the beautiful created world. Yet the notion of creation speaking (implying that humans can listen to it) is present in one of my favorite scriptures about creation, Psalm 19:1-4:

The heavens are telling the glory of God;
   and the firmament proclaims his handiwork.
Day to day pours forth speech,
   and night to night declares knowledge.
There is no speech, nor are there words;
   their voice is not heard;
yet their voice goes out through all the earth,
   and their words to the end of the world.

What are the heavens saying? If we listen, what is the message they would speak to us? Joseph Addison wrote a hymn in 1712 expressing his interpretation of Psalm 19. Later, the words were set to music by Haydn, making the hymn memorable. (You can listen to it here.) As you read the words of this hymn, watch for all the listening that Addison implies that we might engage in as we pay attention to the skies:

The spacious firmament on high,
With all the blue ethereal sky,
And spangled heavens, a shining frame
Their great Original proclaim.
Th’unwearied sun, from day to day,
Does his Creator’s powers display,
And publishes to every land
The work of an Almighty Hand.

Soon as the evening shades prevail
The moon takes up the wondrous tale,
And nightly to the listening earth
Repeats the story of her birth;
While all the stars that round her burn
And all the planets in their turn,
Confirm the tidings as they roll,
And spread the truth from pole to pole.

What though in solemn silence all
Move round the dark terrestrial ball?
What though no real voice nor sound
Amid the radiant orbs be found?
In reason’s ear they all rejoice,
And utter forth a glorious voice,
Forever singing as they shine,
“The hand that made us is divine.”

Addison followed the pattern of Psalm 19 and focused on the “voice” of the sun, moon and stars. If we listened to the animals and plants of the earth, what would they say? Or the mountains, rivers, fields, forests and seas? Or even the bacteria, viruses and other microscopic beings?

Pope Francis, in his recent encyclical about stewardship of creation entitled “On Care for our Common Home,” included a poem with the words, “The poor and the Earth are crying out.” If they are crying out, are we listening? Do the poor and the earth sometimes cry out with the same message?

What are the implications of hearing clearly from creation that “the hand that made us is divine”? If God made something, does that imply we are responsible to care for it? I believe the answer is a strong yes, and that Christians need to spend more energy exploring what that looks like in practice.

(Here’s an article I wrote about spiritual practices that nurture creation care. If you’d like to get an email when I put a new post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. The watercolor painting above is by Dave Baab and called “Queenstown Snow.”)

A game that nurtures good listening

Saturday September 19 2015

A game that nurtures good listening

“How little can you say?” That’s the second piece of advice in a blog post about building relationships through better listening that I wrote about last week. The author suggests that we imagine ourselves playing a game.

The game we all usually play is: How smart can I make myself sound? Bad game. You want the other person to feel good. Let them sound smart. So here’s the game I like to play: How little can I say? The fewer words you speak, the more points you get. The only exception is asking questions when they pause. Don’t be interesting. Be interested.

I like the idea of playing a game to see how little we can say. That would provide good practice in being quiet in conversations to see what we can learn.

The author of the blog post believes that self assurance enables us to stop talking about ourselves, and insecurity makes us talk. Henri Nouwen would agree. In Bread for the Journey, he writes:

To listen is very hard, because it asks of us so much interior stability that we no longer need to prove ourselves by speeches, arguments, statements, or declarations. True listeners no longer have an inner need to make their presence known. They are free to receive, to welcome, to accept.

I like Nouwen’s phrase “interior stability.” There’s no doubt in my mind that interior stability or inner peace helps facilitate listening. The kind of inner tension that might make us talk too much can come from a variety of factors, including anxiety about not knowing what to say if the other person shares something personal or if they talk about something we are totally unfamiliar with or disagree with.

I think there are additional reasons why we often find it hard to stop talking. One factor is simply time. A few sentences of chatter take less time than asking a question and listening at length to the answer. Sometimes, when we have limited time, it’s totally appropriate not to ask questions that might elicit a long answer that we would have to cut off.

Another factor that can nudge us to talk rather than listen is energy. Good listening requires a lot of energy, and sometimes it’s just more energy efficient to chat a little bit and then walk away. Again, this is not all bad. We simply can’t listen intently every moment.

There’s an additional reason for failure to listen that breaks my heart. When I did the interviews for my book on listening, several of the interviewees said that they knew people who had never been listened to. How can we expect people to stop talking and listen if they’ve never had it modeled to them?

If you’re a person who has never been listened to, or if you’re mentoring someone who has never been listened to, then the game of seeing how little you can say might be a good thing to experiment with. I have some other advice for people who are looking for models of good listeners:

1. Read the Gospels. Jesus was a champion listener. Watch for the ways he paid close attention to the people he interacted with. He frequently spoke up and he frequently listened. He knew how to do both, and he is a great model.

2. Watch the pattern of the conversations in your life. Pay attention to conversations when you’re with people you like to be with. In what ways do they listen to you? Also, pay attention to the pattern of conversation with people who are hard to be with. What are their listening habits? I have learned so much from paying attention to the listening practices of people in my life, both good and bad.

3. Consider finding a spiritual director. Again, watch the pattern of listening on the part of your spiritual director and you will learn a lot.

Talking too much is such a common pattern. Even the best listeners fall into it from time to time. As often as you can, think about the challenge: “How little can you say?” And think about these words: “Don’t be interesting. Be interested.”

(If you'd like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under "Subscribe" in the right hand column.)

Other posts about listening on this blog:
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

Saturday September 12 2015

Good listeners are detectives, not tennis players

A friend forwarded me a wonderful blog post about good listening as a way to build relationships. Out of six pieces of advice about listening, the first item in the post suggests that good listeners should view themselves as detectives instead of tennis players who are waiting to hit the ball back as quickly as they can.

The author writes, “Rather than having to fake being interested, turning it into a detective game actually makes you interested. And this makes the other person feel special.”

Yes, yes, I totally agree, being a detective is a great idea. And I agree that the fruit of being a detective is that that other person usually feels valued. I have to disagree slightly with one point. Yes, it’s true we often become more interested as we listen carefully, but not always.

Here are some other good fruits of being a detective in conversations:

  • we learn things, often really interesting things
  • we are able to reflect back to the other person what we think we heard, which helps them clarify their thoughts
  • we give people the time and space to think out loud about how they might solve their own problems
  • we help people know they are not alone in their struggles, pain or joy

Being a conversational detective seems to me to be the absolutely right thing to do. But why, then, do so many people engage in conversation as if they were tennis players, waiting eagerly for their turn? What lies behind the willingness (or unwillingness) to be a detective? One or more of these significant attitudes has to be present in order for us to be willing to listen like a detective:

1. We have to believe that good listening shows love.

2. We have to desire to show love to the person we’re listening to.

3. We have to care enough about others to want them to be able to process out loud what’s going on in their lives, and we have to believe that the person can indeed get to their own solution if they work through the problem as they talk about it.

4. We have to believe we can learn something from others.

5. We have to believe that God is present in other people and will speak to us through them.

These are a big, big ask. We can’t assume people feel love for each other or want to learn from others. We can’t assume people understand that letting a person talk through their challenges actually helps the person meet those challenges. After all, often when people talk about painful things in their life it sounds like they’re just complaining.

Number 5 is possibly the biggest ask. I often use a quotation by Craig Satterlee about what he calls “holy listening.” It’s definitely worth pondering what might help us view listening as holy. Satterlee writes:

Holy listening demands vigilance, alertness, openness to others, and the expectation that God will speak through them. Holy listening trusts that the Holy Spirit acts in and through our listening. We discern and discover the wisdom and will of God by listening to one another and to ourselves. From a Christian perspective, holy listening also takes the incarnation seriously; it dares to believe that, as God was enfleshed in Jesus of Nazareth, so God is embodied in other people and in the things around us. [1]

Satterlee’s description of holy listening has helped me think creatively in so many ways about listening, and I wrote more about that in an earlier blog post. Do I really believe God is embodied in the people around me? Even when they are poor listeners? Despite the time I spend thinking about listening as a holy activity, I still get so frustrated (and feel so unloving) when people talk and talk and talk. And I have to confess that I often lack several if not all of those perspectives I’ve labeled 1-5 above. Listening is hard work because love is a challenge in so many ways and in so many settings.

(If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

[1] Adapted from When God Speaks through Change: Preaching in Times of Congregational Transformation (Bethesda, MD: The Alban Institute, 2005).

 

Other posts about listening on this blog:
receptivity and listening
humility and listening
humility and listening part 2
listening wisely to people’s stories
my journey as a listener
why do we listen?
letting go of agendas as we listen
hearing God’s voice
an amusing story of why listening matters
“holy curiosity" as a way to think about effective listening
the role of listening in nurturing Christian discipleship
listening and hospitality

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