A Garden of Living Water: Stories of Self-Discovery and Spiritual GrowthThe Power of ListeningDeath in Dunedin: A NovelJoy Together: Spiritual Practices for Your CongregationSabbath Keeping FastingDead Sea: A NovelDeadly Murmurs: A NovelPersonality Type in CongregationsBeating Burnout in CongregationsPrayers of the Old TestamentPrayers of the New TestamentSabbathReaching Out in a Networked WorldEmbracing MidlifeA Renewed SpiritualityFriendingDraw Near: Lenten Devotional by Lynne Baab, illustrated by Dave Baab

Lynne's Blog

Receptivity and listening

Thursday April 9 2015

Receptivity and listening

A term that helps summarize many of the themes in my book on listening is “receptivity,” my latest favorite word. In the past couple of years, I’ve been trying to grow in being more receptive to what God is doing all around me. I’ve been trying to notice the gifts God is offering me through my work, my home, my body, and the people in my life. I’ve been trying to control my life less and instead receive the gifts of my life with open hands. A key component of a receptive life is listening to God and to others, thus the concept of receptivity summarizes many of the themes of this book.

When two people have an honest discussion about where God seems present in daily life, those individuals are trying to be receptive to each other’s perceptions as well as to God. When someone has a conversation with a work mate who holds totally different political convictions, with the goal of trying to understand how he arrived at those convictions, the listener is trying to be receptive to another person’s reality. When members of a congregation listen to the wider community in order to try to figure out where they can make a difference, they are trying to be receptive to the actual needs and concerns in the community.

Around the year 2000 I read Making Room: Recovering Hospitality as a Christian Tradition by Christine Pohl, which immediately joined my short list of books that have changed my life. Pohl nudged me to see not just the significance of acts of hospitality involving food and lodging, but also to see hospitality as a paradigm for all relationships and all ministry. I began to try to be hospitable in every interaction with people. I’m sure this shift toward being hospitable played a role in my growing interest in listening skills. And I know my commitment to trying to be hospitable in every conversation brought into focus this posture of receptivity that has been so significant in my life in recent years.

Sitting around a table eating a meal together breaks down barriers. When I’m eating with someone who has political views that are different from mine and that person starts talking about those views, I try to listen. In fact, I have to listen, at least to some extent, because I can’t get up and walk away like I can in so many other settings. One of my interviewees talked about shared hospitality promoting a “different kind of listening.” When I eat with people, I am somehow more open to hearing their viewpoint. Food breaks down barriers and often brings a kind of magic to conversations. Pohl’s book encouraged me to bring that attitude, that magic, into all of life. Of course I don’t always succeed, but I’m trying to be more receptive to whatever people bring into a conversation. I’m trying to be hospitable in all settings, and listening skills are essential to that stance.

In our time, practicing that attitude of hospitality and receptivity requires us to make some careful and intentional choices. Slowing down in the midst of a busy schedule is usually required, and that is not easy to do. Multitasking, which divides our attention, must be set aside for period of time. Also necessary is ignoring the ringtone of the cell phone, the music on the iPod, or the lure of the Internet at our fingertips on the smart phone. One of my interviewees pointed out that technology points us to the next thing, which takes us out of the present and turns our focus onto our selves and nurtures narcissism. An attitude of receptivity requires abandoning that future focus and narcissism in order to be present to this moment and this person.

Receptivity includes being open to God’s guidance, and in any conversation, God may guide me to speak up about something. Receptivity does not mean being silent all the time. Some of us need encouragement to speak up more often, and some of us need encouragement to listen more, and in every conversation all of us need God’s guidance regarding both listening and speaking.

Listening is not an end in itself. Listening skills are tools that put us in a receptive, hospitable posture so we can appreciate, learn from, encourage, and speak wisely to the people in our lives. Listening skills help us learn how and where to serve individuals and local communities. Listening skills facilitate the kinds of conversations where we can talk about the overlap of our faith and our daily lives, and the ability to talk about and recognize that intersection shapes us into people who can participate in ministry and mission with energy, enthusiasm, wisdom, and love. In a follow-up email, one of my interviewees wrote, “Many of us may not choose to share information about ourselves unless asked by someone we know to be a good and interested listener.” I long for our congregations to be places where good and interested listeners are nurtured.

 

Some additional resources on listening:

(During Lent and for this first week after Easter, I've been posting excerpts from my book on listening. This is the last week! Next week I'm starting a series on Celtic Christianity. 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.)

Jesus: freeing us from bondage

Saturday April 4 2015

Jesus: freeing us from bondage

I have always loved Easter. As a child, it meant a new dress. Most years my mother and I pored over a clothing catalog, and I got to make the final decision. Easter meant a special meal including the pineapple/orange/coconut salad that tasted so good with ham. My beloved grandmother was born on Easter, and I often thought about how her caring personality fit with the mood of this amazing day of joy, celebration and love.

Later I learned about the deeper meaning of Easter. Jesus destroyed the power of death by dying and being raised from the dead, which gives us hope for heaven. For our life on earth, Jesus has freed “all those who through fear of death were subject to lifelong bondage” (Hebrews 2:15). This is very good news for those who chase here and there pursuing all sorts of diversions to avoid facing a deep-rooted fear of death.

The bondage I experienced – from which I needed Jesus to free me – relates not to fear of death but to the expectations I had for my life. I always say I am a late bloomer. I worked on a seminary degree between ages 28 and 38, while my kids were young. I didn’t pursue ordination as a Presbyterian minister until I was 45. I started a PhD at 52, and got my first teaching job, here at Otago, when I was 55. I was raised to believe that a woman’s primary role is to be a good housewife and mother. It took a long time for Jesus’ resurrection power to free me from that belief, which may work fine for other women. For me, it was a form of bondage.

I love my husband and kids, and they are enormous gifts in my life. My gifts of analysis, thinking clearly and teaching were used in mothering, no doubt about it, but to be whole and to be my true self, I needed somewhere to use those gifts beyond the home. Now, late in life, I have arrived at the right place. Jesus, whose resurrection broke the power of every sort of bondage, has been bringing his resurrection power into my life over many years, and I can see such wonderful fruit of it now.

This Easter season, I have been thinking about the accounts of the resurrection in the four Gospels. They all vary somewhat, but they have a lot in common, including the fact that the women play a key role. A few of the women who followed Jesus came to the tomb to anoint Jesus’ body with oils and spices. They saw that the tomb was empty. They were first to receive the news of his resurrection, and they were entrusted with the message to take back to the other disciples. Women were asked to be witnesses to this life-changing event.

In Jesus’ time, only men could be witnesses in court. It takes some imagination to perceive the significance that these women were entrusted with a message to tell the disciples. In Jesus’ life on earth, he honoured everyone he came across: men, women, lepers, prostitutes, tax collectors, synagogue officials, Romans, and many others. At his resurrection, it is no accident that women – marginalized people in his culture – were entrusted with this powerful message. He longs to set us free from all the bondage that enslaves and marginalizes us, and his death and resurrection made that possible.

For me, a major form of bondage was my limited expectation of what I could do with my life. What forms of bondage limit your life? Jesus longs to bring his resurrection power into our lives to set us free from all bondage and enable us to use all our gifts to love the people around us and to meet the needs of our hurting world. Jesus wants to give us the joy of the abundant life we were created for, as the unique and beloved people God made us to be.

(These words appeared as a guest editorial in the Otago Daily Times. If you'd like to receive an email when I post something on this blog, please sign up in the right hand column under "subscribe.")

Humility and listening, part 2

Wednesday April 1 2015

Humility and listening, part 2

Historically, Christians have warned against two vices related to humility: false humility and pride. True humility involves avoiding those two opposite pitfalls. False humility or an excess of humility often results in an inability to serve God well because of an overly low view of the self and one’s gifts for service. An excess of humility can also lead to obsequiousness, excessive flattery, or co-dependent submission to others. This characteristic is sadly present in communities of faith when some individuals don’t think they have anything to contribute and are in awe of those who do contribute. False humility is often not just present in communities of faith, but also encouraged and validated.

I have a hunch that pride, the other vice related to humility, is also quite common in congregations, but it is usually masked. One of the masks is activity. A knee-jerk response in the midst of a problem or crisis is to do something, because it helps us feel better about ourselves. We love solving problems. A denominational official said to me in an interview, “I’m really good at strategy! My immediate response in most situations is to say, ‘Let’s put good ideas together and strategize!’” We like to do what we’re good at, and many of us are good at planning and action.

Another mask for pride is spiritual certitude. We think we know what the Bible says, what’s right and wrong, and what people inside and outside the church need. We know, therefore we don’t need to learn more. In order to speak God’s love and truth into this hurting world, we need greater understanding of what’s going on in people’s lives. We need the kind of humility that helps us know we always have something to learn.

One kind of listening that looks humble might be called pretend humility. Listeners sometimes say “I hear you,” “good idea,” or other affirmations when they are not taking in what the speaker is saying and have no interest in taking seriously anything they hear. Pretend humility can sometimes be identified by a paternalistic tone of voice, or by the fact that the platitude isn’t followed with any further comment or action. Sometimes pretend humility is quite confusing, because the speaker thinks the message has been received, while in reality the words are completely ignored.

Almost everyone has times when they feel they needto be right, need to be in control, and want to show competence. Almost everyone has moments when all they can summon up is a platitude in response to words they have no intention of taking seriously. Almost everyone has times when they feel anxious in conversations. We might feel anxious about the to-do list spinning around in our head or about the lunch we need to prepare in just a few minutes. We might feel stressed trying to find a moment in the flow of words to express our opinion or to ask an urgent question. We might long to fix another person’s painful problem, even though we know we can’t, and our deep concern for the other person and our inability to change their life for them creates tension in us.

What are the characteristics of listening when we have these emotions roiling around inside and we are unable to park them somewhere outside the conversation? In those times when we need to be right and want to be in control, in those times when we feel anxious, listening deeply does not come easily. We commonly stop listening in those situations.

 

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.)

Humility and listening

Friday March 27 2015

Humility and listening

Alison is a Presbyterian minister who has worked much of her career as a hospital chaplain. She described several obstacles to listening, beginning with the urge to be efficient and productive:

Listening is not time efficient. Meetings at churches have deadlines. Maybe we need to map out a Sunday school curriculum today, but if God isn’t speaking today, we still need to decide. If we put off the decision because we don’t hear God’s voice today, we would have to meet again,and the youth director is just about to leaveon vacation.

She also noted that good listening requires an inner self-discipline that keeps distracting thoughts and emotions from impeding the listening process. “If you’re really listening, you can’t be always thinking about what you’ll say next. That’s hard,and it requires deep restraint. Andif you’re listening for God, you need to focus on listening, not on preparing your response.” This kind of self-control is difficult to achieve and requires a level of commitment and concentration that is hard to find in our busy, active congregational cultures.

Alison noted another necessary attitude. “Listening requires a posture of humility that isn’t ‘sexy.’ If you’re really going to hear God and others, you have to be open to not being right and to seeing something new. But you can’t hear God and others if you don’t have that attitude in some measure.”

She said countless brochures for conferences and speakers come across her desk, and she’s never seen a single one that focuses on humility. Humility, she noted, is not a trend. “I don’t see church leaders being fired up about humility. There are no big conferences, no programs. What’s ‘sexy’ now is emergent church and programs that promise quick results. Being humble isn’t an obvious thing and you don’t get any kudos for it.” Several inner convictions and attitudes make humility in listening more difficult to achieve, including thinking we already know answers and loving action and activity.

A youth worker said, “Youthink you know what someone thinks. Even if they’re talking, you can find yourself not listening because you assume you know.” A retired United Reformed Church minister attributed this listening obstacle to a lack of imagination. He cited Jesus’ healing miracles where Jesus enabled blind people to see and deaf people to hear. After the miracles, they were able to see and hear things they hadn’t previously perceived. He believes we need to cultivate a willingness to see and hear things we haven’t previously seen and heard.

Anna, like Alison, noted that she gets so many books and flyers that advocate specific programs. “‘Follow these ten steps,’ they all seem to be saying. That’s our model for growth, not listening to Godor listening to each other.”

            A children’s ministries director noted,

We want to be busy. It goes against the grain to slow down and create space for God to work.We’ve been trained that we’ve got a lot to do, so let’s get to it. In children’sand youth ministries, there’s so much pressure to keep functioning. All the programs are so valued. You have to have something every Sunday.

She believes an obstacle to listening to God and to others is the fear that I might have to change my plans. “What if God wants me to do something I don’t want to do? What if God nixes something I want to do?”

Humility is necessary in order to listen when we suspect we already know what the other person will say. Humility is necessary to lay aside battle positions with someone we know we disagree with. Humility is necessary to set aside what we think we know based on media accounts of what people outside the church think in order to listen to a specific individual’s beliefs, priorities and feelings. Humility is necessary to slow down our activities long enough to pay attention to the words and feelings of the people around us.

 

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.)

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Thursday March 19 2015

Listening wisely to people’s stories

Recently a friend of mine had an emergency surgery. On her second day home from the hospital, I phoned her. I asked if she had the time and energy to talk, and she said yes. So I asked her about the lead-up to the surgery. How did she decide to go to the emergency room? What happened there? What tests did they give her? I tried to keep her talking for a while by using those small sounds called minimal encouragers that indicate we are listening: “hmmm” and “wow.” I tried to reflect back what I heard, using brief phrases to keep her talking: “an ultrasound” and “your husband stayed with you.”

After she had talked for five or ten minutes about the lead-up to the surgery, she changed the subject and asked me how I was doing. I answered her briefly, but based on my experience with my surgery, I knew there were two other big topics that we hadn’t talked about—her hospital stay and her thoughts and fears about recovery—so next I asked about her time in the hospital. I tried to give her ample time to talk about her hospital stay by again using minimal encouragers and reflection and by asking brief questions. Then we talked about some other topics. Later in the conversation I asked about her thoughts and fears about her recovery.

When I asked her about her hospital stay, she said she was so grateful that her sister-in-law had worked for many years on the ward where she stayed. Once the nurses found out that my friend was related to their former colleague, they gave her extra attention, and my friend saw that as a manifestation of God’s care for her. If I hadn’t moved the conversation to the topic of her hospital stay, she wouldn’t have had the opportunity to talk about the way she experienced God’s care there. Toward the end of the conversation, after she had talked about her thoughts about her recovery, she circled back to the decision to go to the emergency room, and she said that she felt God’s guidance in making that decision. Making space for enough listening time so my friend could get to the topic of God’s presence in the situation is a gift that I was determined to give her, and I tried to express to her my joy that she experienced God’s guidance and care in the midst of this medical emergency.

All traumatic events have a lead-up, a central event or events, and a recovery time. In conversations focused on medical issues, a death, a natural disaster, a job loss, or any other kind of crisis, a listener can focus a series of questions on those three periods, allowing the conversation partner enough time to talk at length about each of the three. Most happy events—such as weddings, births, and new jobs—also have a lead-up, a central event or events, and the time afterwards, and happy events can also be a topic of pastoral care listening. As happened with my friend, the conversation might shift to something else for a while, which reduces the intensity for a few minutes. The listener can then later return the conversation to the major event by asking a question that moves the conversation to a time related to the event that hasn’t been discussed yet. The listener might say something like, “You talked about the events leading up to your job loss, but I haven’t heard about what happened after you got that news.”

If given enough time, people will often get to their thoughts and feelings about God’s presence with them in the trauma or happy event. If they don’t get there, I try to open the door to that topic by saying something like, “I’m hoping you experienced God’s comfort in the midst of it” or “I’ve been praying for a sense of Jesus walking with you in this.” People often do have a sense of God’s presence in small moments in times of trauma, even if they also have big questions and concerns about what happened. Sometimes the speaker’s central spiritual experience in trauma is the absence of God. A listener can give the gift of letting the person process those feelings out loud.

 

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.)

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