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.

Our Advent Longing

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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.

Mustard Seeds Matter

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There is a legend about a traveler making his way to a large city.  One night he meets two other travelers along the road–Fear and Plague.

Plague explains to the traveler that, once they arrived, they are expected to kill 10,000 people in the city.  The traveler asks Plague if Plague would do all the killing.  “Oh no,” Plague responded.  “I shall kill only a few hundred. My friend Fear will kill the others.”

Fear, whether real or imagined, can discourage us, overwhelm us, and strangle us.  Fear is widespread ranging from fear of failure to fear of war and terrorists.

***

The disciples of Jesus experienced many of these same feelings.  In Luke 17:5-10, we read of their beseeching Jesus to increase their faith. Perhaps this is a cry or prayer you may have said at one time or another, “Lord–increase our faith!  Help us believe enough so that we can do what it is that you have commanded us to do–help us to trust enough so that we can live as you say we should be living.  Lord, take away our fear!”

How does Jesus respond to their pleas?  Does he lay his hands on them and pray and give them more faith as they asked?  Does he snap his fingers and grant them a double dose of the Holy Spirit?  No–instead, he says to them: “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry, ‘be uprooted up and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you.” I imagine the disciples looking at one another with the unspoken question: Do you know what Jesus is talking about?

***

I think Jesus’ odd response to the disciples can be explained through the concept of “the butterfly effect.” The notion in chaos theory is that no matter how complex a system is the slightest change in initial conditions can have far-reaching effects, changing a system dynamically.  Edward Lorenz first observed and proposed this theory back in the 1960s when he was running computer models of weather measurements. When he entered even the slightest difference in the initial number in his equations, the resulting outcomes were dramatically changed.  His paper submitted for a scientific talk he gave in 1992 was titled, “Predictability: Does the Flap of a Butterfly’s Wings in Brazil set off a Tornado in Texas?”

***

Might there be something in the butterfly effect that Jesus is trying to tell us?  Possibly that even the smallest intention and action toward following Jesus, toward doing the good, the smallest glimpses of that holiness and wholeness in the midst of our fear and brokenness can help bring the kingdom of God into being?

***

In the novel and film To Kill a Mockingbird, the character Tom, an African-American, is wrongly accused of assaulting a white teenage girl and he is held in the town jail.  A group of white men approach the jail with the intention to lynch and kill Tom.  On the front steps sits Tom’s lawyer, Atticus Finch, the moral center of the novel. Atticus’ daughter, Scout, runs to Atticus’ side and she watches the men. Her father tells her to run away and go home. But Scout doesn’t run, and she doesn’t fight. Instead she finds the right words that become a kind of mustard seed.

Scout looks at one of the men in the mob and says, “Hey Mister Cunningham, don’t you remember me? I go to school with Walter. He’s your boy, ain’t he? We brought him home for dinner one time. Tell your boy ‘hey’ for me, will you?” There was a long pause. Then Cunningham responds to Scout: “I’ll tell him you said ‘hey,’ little lady,” and he turns to leave. With Cunningham’s departure, the rest of the mob begins to break up and leave.

Scout offered a small, gentle reminder of God’s goodness.  And what she said was a mustard seed–nothing courageous and noble– because she saw Mr. Cunningham’s humanity and touched that humanity enough to bring him out of his irrational inhumanity. It was a “butterfly effect,” a tiny mustard seed that changed the events of that night.

***

I am reminded of the prayer attributed to Francis of Assisi:

“Lord, make me an instrument of thy peace;

where there is hatred, let me sow love;

where there is injury, pardon;

where there is doubt, faith;

where there is despair, hope;

where there is darkness, light;

and where there is sadness, joy ….”

***

In this world where doubt, hatred, and despair reign so supreme, it seems almost impossible that such small seeds of faith, love, and hope have much chance of surviving.  No wonder we cry out with the disciples, “Increase our faith!”

Remember:The slightest change in initial conditions—no matter how complex–can have far-reaching effects.”  Mustard seeds matter.

Prayer of the Week

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(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.

Praying the News

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The last few weeks the news has been sickeningly familiar: bombings, war, violence, accidents, murders, disasters, fear, misunderstandings, hate—the list of humanity’s failures and sufferings goes on and on.

 How do we respond as Christians?

What can we do about all these distressing things that continue to happen around us?

Here is a possibility: We pray the news. It’s an idea I picked up several years ago while at a conference on contemplative prayer. I became captivated by the idea and began experimenting with praying the news. I discovered it can make a difference not only in my world but also in how I approach the world.

At first thought, praying the news can simply a quick prayer after reading the headlines or listening to the news. But it’s more than that. It involves what Anabaptists believe about spirituality: that it involves both action and contemplation. We cannot effectively act without prayer, not can we effectively pray without acting.

To pray about the events occurring in our world, we must believe that God does listen and does respond to our prayers on behalf of others. There are three requirements to pray the news effectively: faith, stamina, involvement.

Faith: The writer of Hebrews tells us: “Now faith is the assurance of things hoped for, the conviction of things not seen.” The mystery and confounding aspect of prayer is that we can’t measure its effectiveness. We don’t know when we have prayed for something or someone, and it happened as we had prayed, that it’s a direct result of our prayers. Frankly,  we tend to explain away results rather than believe in answered prayer.

For example, I lived in Los Angeles during the two trials of the police officers who beat Rodney King in the early 1990s. During the first trial I didn’t pray at all for the legal process, for the jury, for the witnesses, for the truth to be told and not distorted. The result of that verdict: Los Angeles was gripped by fear and anger and hostility for more than three days in riots across the city.

During the second trial, I prayed diligently. I know churches throughout the city were also praying for justice and peace. The result after that verdict: peace and—depending on who you talked with—justice.

We can explain away the difference. The second judge was wise to have the verdicts read on a Saturday at 7:00 a.m., the city officials were prepared, and on and on. Or we can believe that God—in response to our prayers—gave the judge wisdom and enable the city officials to be prepared. At some point we choose to believe that God is listening and moving on behalf of the prayers of us who are God’s children.

Stamina: We pray for the world because God has called us to pray. Paul encourages u in Thessalonians to “pray without ceasing”—to pray diligently. Paul understood how easy it is to give up praying because we don’t often see measurable results. Or something good may happen and we can stop praying about. We need to continue praying.

Diligent, unceasing prayer is work. It takes concentration. It requires stamina made by strong by faith. If all we can do is pray for five minutes, we must pray those five minutes. But we must also strive to increase the “prayer muscle” by working up to ten minutes a day.

Involvement: To pray effectively requires involvement. A basic level of involvement is the news media. If while watching the news we hear of a murder, we can pray for the victim’s family, for the surrounding community, for the investigation, for the perpetrator. We can pray about the fear the victim’s family will experience, the anguish in imagining final moments, the rage against the murderer.

But we must not stop there. We must go on to pray for a government. Pray God’s goodness into that system. I sometimes pray God into a system by using the image of someone breathing into another while trying to resuscitate that person. Breathe God into systems.

If there is a bill to be decided, pray for the committee, pray for the committee staff, pray for the lobbyists, pray for the family of government officials. Pray for wisdom and for eyes that see and ears that hear for those government employees. And, engage with government workers, including staff and elected officials. Act on your prayers on behalf of others.

Occasionally I like to use Pavlov’s psychological discovery in my prayers. I’ve prayed for dictators and warlords like this: whenever the lust of power sweeps over them, I ask that God will put either a bad taste in their mouths or that an overwhelming nausea may seize them. My hope is that they will eventually equate power with physical illness. Will it work? Beats me. But I am called to pray regardless of the results.

Praying the news can change our lives as we learn to act in tandem with our prayers. And praying the news can change the lives of others as we act with wisdom and insight as a result of our prayers.