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.

Loving Listening

blog loving listening

 

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.

The Wisdom of Peace Pilgrim (Part 2)

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“My friends, the world situation is grave. Humanity with fearful faltering steps, walks a knife-edge between complete chaos and a golden age, while strong forces push toward chaos. Unless we, the people of the world, awake from our lethargy and push firmly and quickly away from, all that we cherish will be destroyed in the holocaust which will descend.

This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.

The Golden Rule would do as well. Please don’t say lightly that these are just religious concepts and not practical. These are laws governing human conduct, which apply as rigidly as the law of gravity. When we disregard these laws in any walk of life, chaos results. Through obedience to these laws this frightened, war-weary world of ours could enter into a period of peace and richness of life beyond our fondest dreams.”

Steps Toward Inner Peace

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Peace Pilgrim lived 1908-1981 and walked more than 25,000 miles from 1953-1981 spreading her message: “This is the way of peace: Overcome evil with good, falsehood with truth, and hatred with love.”

In Prayer

 

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(Wikipedia; Creative Commons)

 

The Lord’s Prayer

(in the spirit of Celtic spirituality)

O God, you love us like a good parent, and are present in every aspect of our existence.

May your nature become known and respected by all.

May your joy, peace, wholeness and justice be the reality for everyone as we live by the Jesus Way.

Give us all that we really need to live every day for you.

And forgive us our failures as we forgive others for their failures.

Keep us from doing those things which are not of you, and cause us always to be centered on your love.

For you are the true reality in this our now, and in all our future.

In the Jesus Way we pray. Amen.

–David Sorril

Advent prayer

 

Advent quilt and candles

 

Loving God, in this third week of Advent, we praise and bless your name. Together with the prophet Zephaniah, we sing aloud, we shout your praise, we rejoice and exult with all of our hearts to praise your name.

Loving God, we thank you that you are our strength and our might, that you are the source of our salvation, as the prophet Isaiah wrote.

We thank you for your loving kindness and for your mercifulness.

(pause)

We confess to you Gracious One, that for many of us this Advent season has been difficult, filled with anxiety and worry as well as grief and sorrow.

(pause)

We long for the appearance of the Christ Child. We long for your loving presence. We confess to you now our longings.

(pause)

We thank you Merciful One, for your listening, loving presence. We thank you for your continual forgiveness.

(pause)

We bring before you our requests, our concerns for others around us:

During the Advent and Christmas season we read the biblical story of Elizabeth and Mary, of Mary and Joseph, of the shepherds and the wise men.

We also read of the turmoil surrounding these people‑‑ foreign government occupation, mass relocation on account of the census, genocide of infant boys.

We are reminded that turmoil continues today throughout the Middle East. We are tempted to stop praying for peace because of the centuries‑old conflict, because of our weariness of praying for the area, because of our own lack of hope.

God of Peace and God of Justice‑‑again we pray for peace in the Middle East. We pray for an end to the fighting, the deaths, the homelessness of a people. Again God, we ask you to move on behalf of our requests‑‑we pray for your justice and we pray for your peace.

We pray for our country and for the conflicts we have here, particularly the racial divides that plague our nation. God of Peace and God of Justice‑‑we ask you to heal the racism in this country. We ask you to heal the racism in our communities. We ask you to heal the racism in our Church.

Compassionate God, we thank you for listening to our requests and moving in this world on behalf of our prayers.

(pause)

We thank you that you are in our midst, that you rejoice over us with gladness, that you will renew us in your love, and you will exult over us with loud singing.

We praise and bless your holy name.  Amen.

(Photo by Kevin Driedger. Advent quilt by June Mears Driedger)

(Notes) On Art into Faith

jan richardson books

“It is time for religions to open the eyes of a world that believes it has seen everything.”—Daniel Kantor, Graphic Design and Religion.

I recently heard artist and writer Jan Richardson at a conference. I’ve appreciated and admired Jan’s work for many years and I leapt at the chance to hear and see her and I wasn’t disappointed.  Jan’s paper collages have inspired me as I think about fabric art.

One workshop was led by Jan and her husband Garrison Doles on “Art into Faith” and I was nudged again to think how artists and “the arts” can become integral to faith communities. Here are my notes from the workshop and I want to emphasize these are my notes and I may have misheard or misunderstood Jan and/or Gary.

Jan pointed back to medieval cathedrals that used a “multimedia” of art forms to embed the biblical Story into and for the medieval congregants to ultimately embody the Story in their lives.

We need to reclaim the language of “symbol” and how symbols become a part of our existential being—and this is how the Story gets into our bones and we embody the Story of God’s love. Jan said there is a difference between reciting the Story and telling the Story, that is, we live into the Story and develop the skills to tell the Story through all forms of the arts and culture. It is a significant way to tell our story to God and to tell our story to each other. Yet, how can we, with our brokenness and our beauty, tell the Story (and tell our stories?).

These are the things we need:

1)     Engaging people in the creative process, including people who don’t think they are creative. We are co-creators and collaborators with the Creator so we do have creativity. But we have become a culture of spectators so we let the professionals present to us.

2)      We need to develop the talent and skills in people—like developing the “farm league” of a particular medium.

3)     Decide to seek out those who have developed the facility to tell the Story that creates new doorways into the Story.

4)     Art doesn’t happen in isolation but needs community, a fertile soil that provides cross-fertilization, and is focused on the process of telling the Story rather than a final product.

5)     Discern who are the “culture makers” in the congregation and can lead into the mystery of the Story rather than a literal interpretation that limits another understanding of God’s love and interaction with humanity.

6)      Challenge this statement: “I don’t know much about art but I know what I like.” Ask: why don’t you know much about art? Are you afraid of it? Are you choosing to be illiterate? Explore: How does art communicate with people?

7)   Art jars us out of a particular way of seeing, understanding, and knowing. Art is always a dialogue—what happens in the heart of the artist and the heart of the other. Sometimes art can help us talk about the Story in ways that we haven’t been able to before.

Find the line between the telling of the Story in a powerful and meaningful way and a place of emotional manipulation.

At the end of the workshop, Jan distributed a recommended book list:

Janice Eslheimer, The Creative Call: An Artist’s Response to the Way of the Spirit

Makoto Fujimara, Refractions: A Journey of Faith, Art, and Culture

Robin M. Jensen, The Substance of Things Seen: Art, Faith, and the Christian Community

Daniel Kantor, Graphic Design and Religion

Madeleine L’Engle, Walking on Water, Reflections on Faith and Art

Christine Valters Paintner, The Artist’s Rule: Nurturing Your Creative Soul with Monastic Wisdom

Luci Shaw, Breath for the Bones: Art, Imagination and Spirit: A Reflection on Creativity and Faith

Dick Staub, The Culturally Savvy Christian: A Manifesto for Deepening Faith and Enriching Popular Culture in an Age of Christianity-Lite

W. David O. Taylor, For the Beauty of the Church: Casting a Vision for the Arts

Sister Wendy, Joy Lasts: On the Spiritual in Art

**********

What are your experiences of integrating art into faith?

 

 

All Saints Day: Remembering Five Friends

Photo by Kevin Driedger

The origins of this day are found in the East, where a memorial for all of the Christian martyrs was celebrated, beginning in the fourth century. Currently the day is celebrated in different ways in various church traditions.  When I was on the pastoral team at College Mennonite Church (Goshen, Ind.), we celebrated All Saints the Sunday after November 1. Because CMC has a large group of retired persons and beyond, individual deaths are a regular part of congregational life. Remembering all the people who died throughout the year became an important and solemn ritual with each named called out, followed by a brief period of silence, and lighting a candle in their honor. When I was there, a large box of wooden matches was used to light the candle and in the midst of silence we heard the scratch of the match on sandpaper before it touched the candle wick. The rough strike of the match symbolically reminded me of the pain of our grief as we pondered the person’s death.

Today I want to remember and celebrate five friends who have died this past year: Gene Herr, Lori Waas, Marie Reamer, Betty Snyder, and Dave Haarer.

Gene Herr, Jan. 1: Gene, with his wife Mary, were the founders of The Hermitage, (Three Rivers, Mi.), a contemplative prayer retreat center. Kevin and I volunteered there in the fall of 1999 during a time of transition for us and worked alongside Gene and Mary and continued our friendship after we moved to Lansing.

During that fall, Gene and Mary visited Mennonite churches in Japan. When they returned, Gene told me about traveling by train and seeing the beauty of the Japanese countryside. He said: “As I looked out the window I kept praying, ‘Thank you God for all this beauty that you created. Thank you that I get to see it!’”

Gene died of cancer in Kansas. On his Caring Bridge blog, his daughter described his final days as surrounded by hymns, prayer, and love.

Lori Waas, April 6: I met Lori at church and although I didn’t know her very well, we had many things in common—quilting, music, politics, and theological questions. Now, whenever I listen to the Pink Martinis I think of Lori who was friends with several of the musicians.

Lori also died of cancer. More than fourteen months ago her breast cancer returned and this time it moved elsewhere in her body. When she could no longer eat food she wrote on her Caring Bridge blog how sad she was to no longer enjoy the sense of taste with a delicious meal.

Marie Reamer, April 23: I also met Marie at church where she sat in the same location of the pews. In her early 90s she always wore beautiful costume jewelry and colorful clothes, which I always admired (and, maybe, a few times, coveted).

When we talked after church, she would take my elbow to hold onto for balance but I always received it as a gesture of affection as I leaned toward her to listen to her.

Betty Snyder, July 23: Betty was one of my “faith idols”—someone whose faith I admired and appreciated. Betty was a kind, gentle woman who like a good giggle. She was a giggler. I often thought how I’d like to be like Betty when I grow up.

My favorite memory of Betty is from a sharing time at MSU Mennonite Fellowship. One Sunday she told us about her prayer time earlier in the week: “And I just told God, “I love you! I love you so much.” She cried a little as she shared this and it was a sacred gift to peek inside Betty’s relationship with God. I continue to be grateful for her vulnerability in sharing this.

Dave Haarer, Sept. 25: Dave was an enthusiastic, sincere man who believed the best of others. Once I called him, asked how he was and he responded: “I love my life and I love my wife!” Later that day I recorded this in my gratitude journal as I appreciated his zest for living.

Dave was sick a long time and lived longer than many expected. His beloved wife Ann, unexpectedly died before him and as Dave moved closed to death, she appeared to him in his dreams. Their son Eric, a priest with the monastic community Spiritual Life Institute described his father before Dave died:

“One of the last things mom said before dying was, “I’m ready to go home.” Dad sees her a lot in his dreams. He talks to her in his sleep, and I guiltily yet greedily eavesdrop. Each time is similar: they are in a car on a journey through the countryside near where they first met. Once dad reached out with both arms, “I’m ready, I’m ready. Let’s do!” He wakes up, looks around,  is bewildered. He turns to me and the look of disappointment is heartbreaking: “I’m still here.” He tells me mom said it wasn’t time, he must wait a bit longer. He has more to endure, more to accept, more to let go.” (Desert Call, Fall 2012, p. 29).

Today I light a candle on our home altarscape in memory of these five friends. The stones surrounding the candle are each engraved with a word: “Courage. Love. Hope. Peace. Wisdom.” Words I associate with them in their lives and in their deaths.