Listening as an Act of Love

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In the late 1980s, in a small group gathering, Dallas Willard said: “Listening is an act of love.” I had chills as I recognized the truth of his statement and I quickly wrote it down. I’ve been ruminating on this phrase for thirty years now. And I try to listen lovingly as a spouse, a family member, a friend, a spiritual director, and a church member. When I listen with love or am listened to with love, the competing, clamoring internal voices are quieted down and God’s own voice can be heard.

 

During the recent Christmas holiday my husband, Kevin, and I traveled to Southern California to be with my family. We live in Michigan and don’t often see my family but connect via phone and/or social media and had not visited my family for a few years. I was anxious because I’m not always certain how we will be received—will we be in the way of everyone else’s plans? Will people make time for us? Will people be interested in our lives? Will they listen to us and our stories?

 

My anxiety is grounded in my (unhealthy) desire to not be a bother to people. I don’t want to make presumptions on others because what if I am rejected? I am not certain that people are interested in me and my life so I fret before a visit home.

 

I did make plans to for us to visit Dennis, Susan, and their sons on Susan’s birthday. I’ve been friends with them for forty years while their friendship with Kevin is briefer and as my spouse. I wondered: will they be interested in Kevin? Will my friends talk with Kevin or only to me? Will they ask him questions about his experiences, observations, the state of his soul?

 

As our time together progressed, Susan began asking Kevin about his work. As she talked with him, she leaned toward the dining table and rested her elbow on it with her chin cupped in her hand. She was listening intently to his story of vocational discernment. And the more she listened the more Kevin shared. As she asked follow-up questions about his discerning process he moved into deeper descriptions of his conversation with his spiritual director. Susan listened carefully with a caring heart and his story unfolded. He was feeling heard by Susan. He was feeling loved.

***

When I lovingly listen to another I am giving of myself to that person. I am giving of my time, my mental, emotional, and my spiritual energy as I clear away my own concerns in order to give full attention to the other person.

As Jan Stairs wrote in Listening for the Soul, “Listening happens best when we pause and take time to hear more deeply and reflect upon the depths we hear. Our souls simply cannot thrive in a fast-paced life without claiming some time to take things in, uncover what lies deeply within, and mull things over … listening for the soul requires ongoing attention and sustained habits of reflection,” (p. 21).

In the conversation between Susan and Kevin, they both paused at moments to reflect—either in response to a question or in the answer itself. Both of them were reflecting on the unfurling of love within the conversation.

 

I have learned that I am able to listen to others because I have been lovingly listened to: by my husband, family members, my former therapist, different spiritual directors, and friends like Susan. Because I have been “heard into speech” (as Nelle Morton described loving listening), and have been accepted as I am, I can, hopefully, lovingly hear others into speech. I can lean in toward the person with open-hearted freedom and hear their hearts just as Susan leaned toward Kevin across the dining table.

***

Several hours later, after we hugged Dennis and Susan goodbye, we left our time with them feeling loved. We described it as “our hearts were warmed” by the attentive, compassionate, open-hearted listening we received.

Where is God?

Wise men with Jesus

The Christmas pageants, nativity plays, and carols all seem very distant as we watch the news, as wars persist in Syria and Afghanistan and Congo and South Sudan, as we watch North Korea and the United States fire words at each other. We do our best to keep these tragic stories at bay and social media and popular culture work hard to collude with us.

Last month we heard, told, sang, prayed a Christmas story of love and peace, of a God who came to save the world.  But there are many who justifiably ask when tragedy strikes, “Isn’t this Christmas stuff absurd in the face of all this conflict?” Where is God in the mess of the world? Where is hope now? The safe, beautiful, idyllic scenes of the Christmas cards seem a million miles from the reality of the suffering people are facing.

But if our faith seems irrelevant or inadequate perhaps we need to share some of the responsibility. Christmas has become tame and domesticated–treated as either a cozy source of emotionally uplifting platitudes or as a way to help our American economy thrive through extravagant Christmas purchases. Perhaps we have neglected to take the stories surrounding Jesus’ birth seriously. It’s hard for us to appreciate the full impact of the stories about Jesus’ birth without entering into the brutality he confronted as an infant and the vulnerability of a peasant family like Jesus’ family encountered.  Jesus was born into a world ruled by a Caesar who spent resources glorifying himself as “savior of the empire” that should have been spent in saving his subjects from poverty, famine, or from Herod himself.  Jesus was born to a people who were delivered from slavery in Egypt, but ruled by a king who drove him and his parents back there as refugees. The gospel stories are very clear about just how great and how oppressive the powers and principalities were at the time of Jesus’ birth.  And when we read the story of the wise men, of Herod’s fury, of the slaughter of innocent babies, and of the fleeing of Jesus, Mary, and Joseph to Egypt, we know life after that first Christmas was not the safe, beautiful, idyllic we prefer to portray about Christmas.  The “peace on earth” sung by angels is followed by death, destruction, suffering, and evil.

Where was God?

Last Sunday, we celebrated Epiphany, remembering when the wise men met and worshiped the Baby Jesus. They brought with them on their journey three deeply symbolic gifts. They came prepared to make a particular sort of response to the Messiah. They came with a set of expectations which make it much more likely that they would recognize God when they find him.

First, the wise men came with gold.  If we are serious in our discipleship we will let Jesus impact the material things of our lives. For instance, the way we earn and spend our money. Or, the way we spend our time, use our talents. Or, what we are prepared to let go of, give up.  It’s interesting that people’s first response to a tragedy is to give money—millions and millions of dollars of aid for hurricane, wild fires, and flooding relief. Our urge to be generous is a sign of God at work.

Second, the wise men came with frankincense. Frankincense–incense–was, and still is, used in prayer. It symbolizes openness to a world beyond the material, a world we can see and touch. Frankincense symbolizes our openness to mystery, an openness to the God who is infinitely greater than we can comprehend. We often feel–we often are–helpless in the face of tragedy. Our understanding fails. Our ability to act fails. If we are serious in our search for God we need to accept that we don’t already have the answers. Wise women and men searching for God today bear the frankincense that leads them into prayer, that says, I don’t know it all, I’m open to God’s unknown future, to what God may do next, not just what God has done already.

Third, the wise men came with myrrh. Myrrh is for embalming the dead. It is a bitter herb, a foretaste of the suffering that this Christ child, and those who follow him, would have to face. If we are serious about our search for God at work in the mess of the world, it is no good thinking that the journey will be without pain. Sometimes we feel the urge to turn away from the news. Sometimes we turn away from those in our communities. And sometimes we turn away from our own pain because we’d rather not “go there.” But the message of the wise men is that myrrh is an inescapable part of life. If God is to be found in war-battered places it will be by those who live already live there, the people who have the courage to go there and to stay there, who find the strength to rebuild and hope again.

If God is to be found in the painful places of our lives it will be by facing our suffering, sticking with the questions, not hiding behind platitudes and hoping it will all go away. We won’t find God in the mess of the world if we try to leave the myrrh behind, to avoid the death, to take the easy route.

Where is God?

God is present wherever love is expressed, in the tears of those whose lives are forever impacted by tragedy, and in the hearts and minds of those who respond with compassion, mercy, and devotion.

Loving Listening

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Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church after a challenging week of working too many long hours and racing to complete to meet a deadline. She felt exhausted, raw, and unable to listen to the sermon or sharing time. She needed to share her story with someone in hope to find healing and new life. After church, Mary approached Debbie and asked her how she was doing.  The words began tumbling out of Debbie as she shared the awfulness of the week. Unfortunately, Mary wasn’t really interested in hearing Debbie’s story; Mary wanted to tell Debbie about her week.

Soon Debbie noticed that, while Mary was sort of listening to her, she was instead looking around as if she wanted to find someone else to talk to. Debbie stammered on into the story of receiving a speeding ticket and Mary interrupted her: “That’s nothing. My car got towed this week when I parked it in a tow‑away zone. I had to get my sister to take me to the police impound and pay $150.00 to get it out. I cannot afford to lose that money just now, etc., etc. ….”  Debbie mutely nodded while Mary continued with her story oblivious to the pain that Debbie was still experiencing. Neither Debbie nor Mary experienced God’s loving presence in their interaction with one another. Neither of them was able to listen lovingly to the other.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives home at the end of a troubling week, filled with problems with clients, and, receiving a speeding ticket for racing to her office to meet her deadlines. She was discouraged and exhausted, doubtful about God’s call to use her gifts business. In fact, she was having difficulty hearing God’s voice and believing that God was even interested in the awfulness of her week. After supper, she made a cup of tea and dialed Rachel’s phone number. Debbie thoroughly trusts Rachel to lovingly listen to her, to be present to her, pray for her, and offer words of love and wisdom. Debbie believed that Rachel represented God’s concern for her and called Rachel where they jointly entered into God’s loving presence via the telephone.

At different points of my life I have been each of these characters:  Debbie, feeling raw and discouraged, in desperate need for someone to lovingly listen to me, holding my heart before God in prayer while listening; Rachel, the loving friend, willing and able to listen wholeheartedly to the other; Mary, so self‑absorbed that I can’t even begin to listen to the words someone else is speaking let alone to hear the pain underneath the words. Of course, I like to think of myself as Rachel, the one able to listen with love and wisdom, but, naturally, I vacillate between all three characters at any given time yet I can choose between listening like Rachel or listening like Mary.

Loving listening requires both time and the contemplative act of listening. We allow the other the passing of minutes to tell their story, allowing for the silence to provide those spaces where additional thoughts might surface from below.

Loving listening takes time over a period of weeks, months, and sometimes years. I recently was reminded that loving listening over a period of years can occur in all of our relationship when my husband listened to me lament and struggle with an issue that I’ve been lamenting and struggling with since we met several years ago.

Loving listening requires a contemplative heart, waiting for the other person to share their heart. Several years ago I read a profile of the journalist Barbara Walters about her interviewing trade secrets. She said she often remains silent after the individual makes a statement because usually in that silence the individual will disclose more to her. Loving listening offers silence as a way for people to ponder and reflect without disruption from me.

Imagine this: Debbie arrives at church tired after a challenging week but calm and collected. She was able to talk with Rachel on Saturday and felt listened to and loved. After church she approached Mary and asked, how was your week?  Mary, who needs someone to listen to her, began to tell Debbie her story of her week. And because Debbie received loving listening she was able to lean toward her and began to lovingly listen to Mary.

Prayer for a New Year

Blog--New Year Prayer

So, here we are God, a new year, a new beginning, a fresh start.

But I’m still feeling worn out,

wrung out,

tuckered out from this past year.

I don’t know if I have the inner wherewithal for a fresh start.

 

Your faithful servant, Benedict, wrote: “Always we begin again.”

It’s a statement of grace,

a reassurance that your mercies are new every morning,

and that there is a wideness in your love.

 

So, I will take you at your word that we begin again. Just as the new year comes around so does your assurance that as challenging as this past year was, we begin again. We begin fresh. We enter 2018 girded by your love, your mercy, your compassion.

 

And, as we are girded and strengthened by your love,

help us to extend love,

mercy, and

compassion to one another and to ourselves.

 

So, thanks God. Here’s to a new year.

Our Advent Longing

Advent wreath 2--Blog

 

We are in early Advent and we wait for the new Light to transform the whole world.  As Advent began, we wept over our preoccupation with ourselves and self-indulgence in our lives.  We long for the time when God will judge with righteous, and all the nations of the world will beat their swords into plowshares. Injustice, oppression, and broken relationships abound in our world, in our churches, and in our families. We cry out to God to restore creation to wholeness.  We beseech God to act.  We desire for God’s mighty streams of justice, healing, and mercy to come and to flow.

When we say the day of the Lord is near, we are saying that our reality is about to change. When night becomes day, the landscape itself is altered. Things look different when seen in the light of day.  And just as a driver traveling through the night is revived by the first light of day–however dim– our souls are revived by the first signs of God’s coming.

At the beginning of Isaiah, the prophet, delivers a series of stinging condemnations on Jerusalem for the unfaithfulness of the people. Yet, interspersed with these stinging prophecies are messages of hope as we see in Isaiah 2: 2-5, a hopeful passage filled with a glorious prophecy of peace and wholeness brought about by the coming of God–the Day of the Lord.

In the days to come the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised about the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, “Come, let us go up to the mountain of the Lord, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths.” For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword again nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the Lord!

Isaiah was writing in a time of conflict and uncertainty in Israel’s history as the armies of Assyria threatened the nation in the second half of the 8th century B.C. Samaria, the capital of Israel to the north of Judah had already fallen. Would Jerusalem, in the little nation of Judah, be next?

We too live in a time of uncertainty and fear.  We are challenged to keep abreast of the news out of Washington, let alone news from around the world. Daily we hear reports on the news about the deaths in war-torn countries. We hear threats with North Korea regarding their burgeoning nuclear weapons program. The current American administration persists in scaring us with talk about imminent attacks.  Perhaps we share some of the thoughts, feelings, and struggles as those to whom Isaiah was speaking?

It is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people of God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity.

What is important for us is the message of hope and the expectation of a new life as all the nations gather to worship God. The prophet does not speak of a great battle victory that will result in all nations coming together in peace. Instead, it is God who brings the people together, by teaching the people God’s ways, of God’s shalom for all humanity. Weapons of war will be converted into tools for food production, swords and spears turned into rakes and shovels.

In Matthew 24: 37, Jesus says, “For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Chosen One.” When we hear the name of Noah and we think of the 40-day flood, we assume the worst: Jesus is going to return breathing vengeance. I saw a bumper sticker that said: “Christ is coming and boy is he mad.”  The quippiness of the bumper sticker makes me laugh but its theology grieves me.  It belittles the Christ that lived and loved on this earth and continues to live and love through us daily.  Repeatedly Jesus shows us that the law of love is the supreme law.  Perhaps then, the reason for the Noah reference is to say that the flood came upon them while the people were eating and drinking and getting married and living their ordinary, quotidian lives. When Jesus returns it will be in the midst of our ordinary lives–where we live and work and struggle and strive and play and love.

God is with us in our Advent waiting, in our Advent preparation. We are not preparing for the way that God will be one day in the future, rather, we are preparing for the way that God is, has always been and always will be.  As Christians, we place our hope in the fact that God is a God of peace, of justice, of love, and of grace. Our hope is grounded by the transformation around us and in us that causes to grow us into a deeper experience and relationship with God.

Prayer of the Week

Praying Hands--blog--11-2-2017

 

 

(We prayed the following prayer and words of assurance on Sunday and the words resonated with me. I thought I would share them with you!)

 

Prayer of Confession

Happy are those who turn away from the counsel of the wicked.

But oh, that counsel can be so seductive

it draws us in,

holds us fast,

distracts our priorities,

obstructs our capacity to love.

 

But we seek no obstructions, we reject wicked counsel.

We embrace God’s embrace.

 

For whatever ways we don’t, we confess.

In whichever ways we sin, we repent.

 

Hear our prayers, O God, as before you, we seek wholeness.

Silence

God of mercy, grace, reconciliation and goodness:

We are sorry for so much—

For words we cannot bear to say,

For memories we cannot bear to relive,

For thoughts we cannot bear to admit.

But you know our hearts.

Relieve us of our burdens,

Bind our hearts not to the unbearable but rather, to you.

So that, in all ways,

We may live in the joy of your salvation

And the delight of your loving embrace.

 

Words of Assurance:

Praise be to God, our sins are forgiven.

God’s steadfast love endures forever. Amen.

 

–Local Church Ministries, Faith Formation Ministry Team, United Church of Christ; Rev. Kaji S. Dousa

Into the desert

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I park my car on the roadside in the national park of Joshua Tree, California. I’ve spotted a big rock that is close enough to the road that I can see who is coming and but the rockis big enough to offer me some privacy.

I’ve come to the desert as another step toward moving from Los Angeles, California to Elkhart, Indiana to attend seminary at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary. I know attending seminary is God’s invitation, God’s calling, but I am reluctant to move from the city I love, from my home church, from my family, and from childhood friends. I have come to the desert to grieve and to release my Los Angeles life to God.

My decision to go to Joshua Tree National Park is an intuitive one, or perhaps a response to God’s nudge to go a place where I can experience God deeply, to follow Jesus’ example of going to a wilderness place to pray. My drive to Joshua Tree becomes a pilgrimage via concrete highways and my car. I drive in silence, preparing my heart and mind for the day.

After I park I settle on the dirt with my back resting on the large rock with my backpack beside me. I retrieve my journal, multicolored pens and pencils, a small box of matches, and a full water bottle. I begin to write all that I will miss when I move: the San Gabriel mountains, the Pacific ocean, the Pasadena Mennonite congregation, etc. I write and write and begin to cry. I want to yield myself to God’s call but surrendering is hard.

As I continue to write I begin to pray aloud, offering each line and image to God. Occasionally I sit in silence with my upright open palms resting on my knees—it is a position of release, of offering my life—again—to God.

After a while I walk around, gazing at the desert land and the expansive sky. My heart feels clear—not blank or empty—but clear from my intense prayer time. I am grateful for the deep silence of the desert.  In the book, Desert Fathers and Mothers: Early Christian Wisdom Sayings, Christine Valters Paintner, writes: “The desert is a place of deep encounter, not a place of superficial escape. It is a place that strips you down to the essentials, forcing you to let go of all the securities you cling to in life ….”

I return to “my” rock and continue to pray: “I breathe in your love; I breathe out my fear.” Again I sit in silence in a position of yielding. As this prayer subsides, I return to what I wrote earlier and tear the pages out then dig a hole in the dirt with my hands. I continue to tear my paper until it is in small pieces then I place it into the hole and set it on fire as an additional gesture of relinquishing my Los Angeles life. As the fire subsides I pour water over the ashes and cover them with the dirt, tamping it down with my hands. I stand and offer another prayer: “I give myself to you, O God.”

Alan Jones wrote in Soul Making:

A desert of the spirit: a place of silence, waiting, and temptation. It is also the place of revelation, conversion, and transformation…It involves being “made over,” being made new, being “born again.” The desert, then, is a place of revelation and revolution. In the desert we wait, we weep, we learn to live.

My experience in the Joshua Tree desert is a time of revelation, conversion, and transformation for me. As I relinquish the life I love to God, I understand that I love God more and am born again, again. I exit the desert experiencing a transformation—from grieving the significant transition of moving to anticipating the transition and what I would experience in my new life at seminary. I drive home in silence, absorbing this transformation.