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Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

Wednesday December 7 2016

Quotations I love: secrets and compassion

“Every single person has at least one secret that would break your heart. If we could just remember this, I think there would be a lot more compassion and tolerance in the world.”—Frank Warren

This quotation makes me ask myself three questions:
1. When people tell me their secrets, do I listen well?
2. Do I keep confidentiality?
3. When I suspect that someone has a painful secret, do I respect their right not to tell me about it while still treating them with compassion?

I’ll write about the questions in reverse order. My third question highlights a difficult balancing act. We can use our imagination too little or too much when we think about people’s lives. If we use our imagination too little, we don’t put ourselves in the place of people who have experienced difficult things, and compassion is difficult or impossible. I see imagination and compassion as closely related. Both need to be consciously cultivated.

However, if we imagine too much, we might read something into someone’s life that simply isn’t or wasn’t there. Imagine that you have a grumpy colleague, and it seems likely to you that this person was sexually abused as a child. But maybe not, and the person doesn’t seem inclined to tell you about the past. Frank Warren seems to be advocating compassion whether or not we know the other person’s story, simply because most people have stories that would break our hearts.

Regarding confidentiality, my second question above, don’t forget that gossip is listed twice in the New Testament in lists of sins (Romans 1:29 and 2 Corinthians 12:2). Proverbs 11:13 uses the language of “trustworthy in spirit” for the kind of person I want to be: “A gossipgoes about telling secrets, but one who is trustworthy in spirit keeps a confidence” (NRSV). Some other translations of that verse in Proverbs use “faithful in spirit,” and The Message uses “a person of integrity.”

Gossip is one of the easiest sins to engage in because so often gossip seems innocent. And of course, talking about other people’s needs can play a role in caring. For Christians, the boundary between gossip and sharing a prayer request is pretty blurry. In addition, the deliciousness of gossip plays such a big part in what we call “news,” so we become numb to the consequences of it.

People’s stories belong to them, not to us. If we want people to honor us with their stories, we need to honor the people who tell the stories and let them decide with whom to share the story.

And that brings me to the topic of listening, my first question above. I’ve written so many posts and articles about listening, and I’ll paste in a list below. Good listening skills really do help people talk through events that might have become secrets with the passage of time. And those secrets usually have less power and become less heart-breaking when talked about in the presence of a good listener. Careful, respectful and compassionate listening conveys love.

Frank Warren, in the quotation above, is asking for us to remember that people have painful secrets whether we know what they are or not. He seems to be saying that when we remember the presence of those secrets, we will have more compassion and tolerate differences with more love. This seems like a good idea in our politically polarized world.

(Next week: a beautiful benediction that encourages us to believe God has a purpose in our being where we already are. Illustration, "Paihia Beach," by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Posts and articles on listening:

Listening past the noise
Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others      
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?
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

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

Friday October 21 2016

Quotations I love: Thomas Aquinas on loving people we disagree with

“We must love them both, those whose opinions we share and those whose opinions we reject. For both have labored in the search for truth and both have helped us in the finding of it.”
                      —Thomas Aquinas (1225-1274).

In this contentious time, characterized by deep divisions and polarities, this quotation is challenging. Do I really believe that the person who has a different opinion than I do on a topic I really care about has “labored in the search for truth”? Do I really believe that such a person has actually helped me find what I consider to be truth?

Aquinas emphasizes the search for truth, a cognitive process. He calls us to honor all who engage in that cognitive process.

His words provide an interesting juxtaposition with a quotation I’ve been using a lot as I teach listening skills:

“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.”
                               —Mohan et al., Communicating! Theory and Practice [1]

These authors argue that we can disagree with people but still be interested in how they came to embrace the position the position they hold.  Mohan et al. call us to honor the motivation that lies behind another person’s thinking. They ask us to engage in a psychological process of curiosity in way that honors another person’s journey.

When teaching listening skills, I encourage people to ask the kinds of questions that get to the motivations and experiences that have shaped people we disagree with.
     • “Tell me about why that perspective is so important to you.”
     • “What were some of the experiences that shaped your opinion?”
     • “Would you be willing to tell me a little bit about the journey that brought you to this belief?”

Aquinas might encourage the addition of a couple of additional questions:
     • “I’d love to understand some of the thought process that brought you to this opinion.”
     • “Tell me about the search for truth as you experienced it.”

I find it very difficult, as most of us do, to listen to someone talking on and on about something I disagree with. I’ve found it helpful to ask some of the above questions, because frankly I find it at least somewhat interesting to hear about how a person got to that belief that I find so repugnant. Sometimes the back story really does help me love the person more, because I understand more about the forces at work in their life that led them to the place where they stand.

In Matthew 5:44, Jesus says, “Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.” The Message version repeats the first words but adds some additional challenging words: “I’m telling you to love your enemies. Let them bring out the best in you, not the worst.” One form “the best” can take is asking questions that help us understand what’s going on inside the people we disagree with. How I wish this could be a part of our political dialog in this contentious time, and how I wish people in churches could have this perspective in the midst of profound disagreements.

(Next week: The Jerusalem Talmud on enjoyment. Illustration by Dave Baab. If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under subscribe in the right hand column.)

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

Quotations I love: Rick Warren on love and disagreement

Wednesday September 7 2016

Quotations I love: Rick Warren on love and disagreement

“Our culture has accepted two huge lies. The first is that if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them. The second is that to love someone is to agree with everything they believe or do. Both are nonsense. You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate.” Rick Warren

This quotation echoes one of the major findings of my research on listening, which I’ll explain in this post. I looked around online to try to find the source for this quotation, and instead I found a great deal of anger about the quotation from Christians on both sides of the GLBT debate. So, as I discuss the quotation, I’m going to ask you, my lovely readers, to set aside your thoughts about sexuality issues and think about human disagreements in other areas.

Let’s use an example from my life to consider Rick Warren’s words. A few years ago I reconnected with a woman I had known in a Christian fellowship group when she and I were in our twenties. In our conversation, I found out that in her thirties she became disillusioned with the church. She embraced a Buddhist meditation practice that she has continued for more than two decades.

When I learned about this, several different emotions flooded my body. I felt sad that I wouldn’t get to hear the story of what it looked like for someone to follow Jesus over the many years since we’d last seen each other. I felt anxious that I wouldn’t know what to say to her. And I also worried that if I drew her out about her Buddhist practice, which I wanted to do, that I would be communicating tactic agreement with her practice.

In my listening research, I learned that most people feel a fair amount of anxiety when they listen, especially when the person they’re listening to is expressing an opinion that differs with theirs. Rick Warren writes that we have accepted two lies, and the first one is this: “if you disagree with someone’s lifestyle, you must fear or hate them.” My listening research indicates that it is a natural human response to feel some level of fear when we interact with someone who has a major life value that is different than ours. Will I know what to say? Will I defend my own opinion appropriately, gently and firmly? If I ask some questions about the underlying motivations and passions that lie behind this value, will it sound like I agree?

These questions reflect the normal fear or anxiety that we experience when we listen to someone who is different than we are. But we have to remember that in fact, every human being on the face of the earth is different than we are, even our closest friends who share most of our deepest values. This truth relates to Warren’s second lie, that “to love someone is to agree with everything they believe or do.”

One of the most significant listening skills is learning to set aside the fears – big and small – that sweep through our minds and bodies when a conversation partner disagrees with something we hold dear. We will be able to listen and converse with compassion only if we can set aside that inner turmoil or inner noise. “You don’t have to compromise convictions to be compassionate” says Rick Warren, but we do need to identify our fears so we can respond appropriately.

“I’m still a committed Christian,” I said to my friend. “But I am very interested in hearing in what you value about your Buddhist practice.”

 

Here are two articles I wrote about setting aside various forms of inner noise as we listen:
     Listening past the noise
     Letting go of agendas so we can listen to God and others

I’ve also written many blog posts about listening, as well as a book, The Power of Listening.

(Next week, spiritual practices that help address a vivid quotation by Fulton Oursler: “Many of us crucify ourselves between two thieves – regret for the past and fear of the future.” If you’d like to receive an email when I post on this blog, sign up under “subscribe” in the right hand column.)

Benedictine spirituality: the third vow, obedience

Thursday February 25 2016

We saw the significant role listening plays in fulfilling the vow of stability,Benedict's first vow: God calls us to listen to his voice in this place and in the midst of these commitments. In addition, we cannot embrace Benedict's second vow, conversion of life, without listening to God’s leading. Listening is also at the center of third vow, the vow of obedience.

We may think that a monk or a nun has a commitment to obedience that is totally different than ours because they are called to obey the instructions of the head of their monastery. What lies behind their obedience to the abbess or abbot is a very simple understanding of the call of all Christians to obey God.

Esther de Waal writes that that obedience is about listening, responding, and acting on what we hear. Obedience, she believes,

is no more than listening to God – and listening is after all the way in which the Rule opens. Listen is the very first word of the Rule: listening in its fullest sense, listening with every fibre of my being; listening in all the ways in which God is trying to reach me. This will not only be in words (though a dialogue with God through the scriptures, through daily reading, and particularly through the psalms, is very central to Benedictine life). But also listening through the people whose lives touch mine; through the things I touch and handle; through moments of grace. Do I really take this as seriously as I should? Do I not in fact so often take for granted God’s amazing generosity?

Elizabeth Canham also stresses the connection between listening and obedience: “The kind of listening Benedict calls for is a deep hearing that moves beyond understanding with the mind to a willingness for the heart to be moved. Because ear and heart are inextricably connected, obedience to God’s call follows.” She also observes, “We do not readily embrace obedience, and we often expend a great deal of energy in attempts to avoid doing what is required of us. Obedience is hard work (Saint Benedict calls it labor), for it demands of us a searching honesty about our willfulness and challenges our claims of independence.”

What does this kind of obedience look like in practice? It includes faithfulness to commitments and thankfulness for God’s generosity. It may involve hearing God’s call in small things, such as making a phone call to someone experiencing a loss or apologizing for something relatively trivial but potentially hurtful. Obedience may involve a significant life change, such as moving across the country to take a new job or caring for a relative in a costly way.

When we talk about obedience, we must be careful not to put too much emphasis on our own efforts to obey. We are being transformed into Christ’s image, and it is Christ in us – through the Holy Spirit – whowill enable us to obey. Listening to God for guidance, resting in the power of the Spirit, relying on God to help us obey as Christ did will all be essential as we strive to fulfill the vow of obedience.

For those of us who inhabit the twenty-first century, the vow of obedience may be the most foreign of the Benedictine vows. We can understand God’s call to stability, to look for God here in the midst of ourcommitments. We can understand God’s call to conversion of life because we generally embrace growth towards wholeness. But obedience calls for a kind of submission that may feel foreign to the “Me Generation”and to the generations that follow.

Esther de Waal points out that all three of Benedict’s vows help us to be human but also help us to orient our lives away from ourselves,

away from that subtle temptation of self-fascination and self-discovery. They challenge any spirituality from becoming yet one more expression of the contemporary obsession with the self, with self-awareness, with self-fulfilment. Instead they point me to Christ. Christ the Rock on which I build, Christ the Way I follow, Christ the Word I hear. If I am to put Christ at the center, as St. Benedict would have me to, that then displaces me from the centre.

De Waal goes on to say that even in the context of the Christian faith, we so often put ourselves at the center, focusing on our own obedience and faithfulness, how well we are serving God, whether or not we are being “good,” how much we are attempting to please God. If we truly begin to put Christ’s love at the center, then we can live in a receptive stance, ready to receive love as well as guidance about what to do.As we long for significance and meaning, Benedict’s priorities can help us see that true significance and meaning come from putting Christ at the center, rather than keeping ourselves there.

The Benedictine viewpoint sees listening and obedience as a part of an interplay between God and humans. This kind of obedience does not involve effort or strain on our part to be good or to do the right thing. Obedience flows out of communication and relationship. Even more significantly, obedience is the fruit of receiving God’s love.

 

This is the seventh post in a series on Benedictine spirituality. The earlier posts were
     Embracing Structure
     John's Story    
     Who was Benedict?   
     Monastic living in ordinary life    
     The first vow, stability      
    
The second vow, conversion of life 

Next week focuses on the role of hospitality, service and work in Benedictine spirituality. Excerpted from A Renewed Spirituality: Finding Fresh Paths at Midlife (InterVarsity Press, 2002), copyright © Lynne Baab.

 

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

For further reading:

Paul Wilkes, Beyond the Walls: Monastic Wisdom for Everyday Life (New York: Doubleday, 1999).

Timothy Fry, OSB, editor, The Rule of St. Benedict in English (Collegeville, Minn,: The Liturgical Press, 1981).

Elizabeth Canham, Heart Whispers: Benedictine Wisdom for Today (Nashville: Upper Room, 1999).

Esther de Waal, Living with Contradiction: An Introduction to Benedictine Spirituality, (Harrisburg, Pa.: Morehouse, 1989, 1997).

Kathleen Norris, The Cloister Walk (New York: Riverhead Books, 1996).

Dennis Okholm, Monk Habits for Everyday People: Benedictine Spirituality for Protestants (Grand Rapids: MI: Brazos Press, 2007).

Gifts of Freedom: The Sabbath and Fasting, article by Lynne Baab that draws on her monastery visits.

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

Sunday October 18 2015

Good listening is not enough to make a good conversation

After four years of focusing a lot of my pondering and writing on good listening skills, I was quite struck by these biting words from broadcast journalist Barbara Walters in her 1970 book, How to Talk to Practically Anyone About Practically Anything:  

I happen to disagree with the well-entrenched theory that the art of conversation is merely the art of being a good listener. Such advice invites people to be cynical with one another and full of fake; when a conversation becomes a monologue, poked along with tiny cattle-prod questions, it isn’t a conversation any more. It is a strained, manipulative game, tiring and perhaps even lonely. Maybe the person doing the talking enjoys himself at the time, but I suspect he’ll have uncomfortable afterthoughts about it; certainly his audience has had a cheerless time.

A conversation, even a brief one, should have all the best features of any functioning human relationships, and that means genuine interest on both sides, opportunity and respect for both to express themselves, and some dashes of tact and perception. Conversation can be such pleasure that it is criminal to exchange comments so stale that neither really listens.

She does acknowledge that sometimes all we can do is listen:

There are painful, tedious people in abundance and some of them must be suffered kindly, maybe even until they run down and have nothing more to say. . . .  Furthermore, warm, sustaining relationships become especially important during those periods when we are our least lovable. People bursting with good will and abundance of mental health are charming company; their need for ego-boosting, however, is minimal. People sinking into self-pity and depression are dreary, but they can’t get out of it by themselves. So every now and then, just sit there and listen, listen, listen. You’re paying your membership dues in the human race. . . .

When you’re with someone who has had a recent loss, and who wants to talk of nothing else, you’re going to have to compose yourself for patient, sympathetic listening. Life isn’t easy; every conversation can’t be a joy. And in later years, he’ll remember gratefully that you listened when he needed you most.

All grief is not for the dead. People show the same symptoms of grief — lassitude, preoccupation with one topic, a general grayness — when they have been through mutilating surgery, or when a marriage or a love affair ends before they were ready, or when they’ve just moved from a place where they lived long and happily, or when their self-esteem has been punctured by the loss of a job or failure to be chosen for an expected honor.

Be tender; let them tell you how rotten they feel, and what a lousy world this is. Don’t argue and try to point out that they have no problems. Sometimes as with teenagers just sympathetically saying, “I know, I know,” helps.

Walters evidently would agree with me that having excellent listening skills in your communication tool box is a great idea if you want to show love to people around you, especially when they are suffering from loss. I wonder if sometimes I focus more on listening and less on conversation because I assume that most people are grieving something most of the time, and my job is to help them talk that through. Therefore I default into drawing people out and listening carefully rather than trying to assure my conversations are truly conversations, as she describes in the first two paragraphs I quoted. 

I’d love to hear comments from readers of this post: How do you know when to stop drawing others out by mostly listening and instead engage in back-and-forth conversation? And what do you think are the components of a good conversation? What can we do to nurture good conversations?

(If you’d like to receive an email whenever I post on this blog, sing up under “subscribe” in the right hand column. I am grateful for two posts on the blog “Brain Pickings” that drew my attention to Barbara Walters’s book and to these particularly quotations, here and here).

 

Here's a complete list of all the posts on listening on my blog. Maybe one of these posts will interest you:

An amusing story of hearing God’s guidance
Listening to creation as a part of environmental stewardship

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

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