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.

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.

Is it Christmas yet?

Advent wreath 3--blog

 

In my family mythology, there is a story of when I was four years old and eager for Christmas to arrive. Beginning the day after Thanksgiving, according to my parents, I woke them up every morning with the question, “Is it Christmas yet?”

“No,” they groggily responded. “We’ll let you know when it’s Christmas. Go back to bed.”

Apparently I was eagerly anticipating Christmas.

We did not grow up observing Advent or celebrating Epiphany—although each day we moved the nativity wise men figures closer to the Baby Jesus. Following the church liturgical calendar was not a part of our Baptist upbringing.

I didn’t observe Advent until I was a young adult meeting Christians who did follow the liturgical calendar. As I learned more about Advent I began to understand the need to mark the four weeks preceding Christmas. As Jan Richardson writes in Night Visions: Searching the Shadows of Advent and Christmas:

The season of Advent means there is something on the horizon the likes of which we have never seen before. It is not possible to keep it from coming, because it will. That’s just how Advent works. What is possible is to not see it, to miss it, to turn just as it brushes past you. And you begin to grasp what it was you missed, like Moses in the cleft of the rock, watching God’s [backside] fade in the distance. So stay. Sit. Linger. Tarry. Ponder. Wait. Behold. Wonder. There will be time enough for running. For rushing. For worrying. For pushing. For now, stay. Wait. Something is on the horizon.

The Scripture passages for Advent are powerful voices calling to us to pay attention.  From the prophets, to John the Baptist, to the apostles, we hear the call to wait activelyto repent, to watch, to prepare. The ancient voices implore us to be alert as we wait in eager anticipation for God’s liberating Spirit to bring the Beloved Community.

The call from the prophets to watch and wait for the coming of a Messiah converges with the call in the New Testament to watch and wait for Christ’s second coming. Of course, we recognize that Christ is with us now, moving in our midst. But unless we “sit, linger, tarry, ponder, wait, behold, wonder,” we may miss the movement of God’s life-giving Spirit, which brings us and the entire world, healing and hope.

 

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.

Mustard Seeds Matter

mustard seeds--11-9-2017 blog

 

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

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

Telling the Truth

couple walking on street

My fiancé and I were walking in the early evening to the grocery store near the seminary where we lived. I had been worrying about this moment for days—really, for weeks and months. Our wedding day was four months away and I had yet to tell him about the extent of my personal debts. And I knew I had to tell him even though I was terrified and deeply ashamed about my disastrous finances.

As we held hands walking across the street, I took a deep breath and prayed for courage.

“Love, I need to tell you that I have a lot debt,” and the words began to pour out. “I owe back taxes, thousands still on an old student loan, and I owe my parents thousands of dollars.”

I began to cry as he walked alongside me in silence.

“Okaay,” he finally responded. “We’re still getting married.”

As we entered the store, we physically separated as I needed to be away from him as the feelings of shame washed over me. I also felt vulnerable standing in the harsh light of the store—I could see him and he could see me—and I felt exposed, wanting to hide. I could not, at that moment, see how courageous I was in finally telling my fiancé my deep, shameful secret.

We purchased our groceries, walked home, each of absorbed in our own thoughts. Finally, he said to me, “Either you have the best timing or the worst timing, telling me this as we walked in the dark to the store.”

I said, “I didn’t want to see your face when I told you.”

“Well, I’m glad you did and we will work though this,” he said.

Within a few weeks after telling my truth I received a check for a significant amount of money, my apartment rent was reduced, and we received many financial gifts for our wedding. Shortly after our wedding I began a job that enabled me to pay my back taxes and student loan. Most importantly, my parents forgave my debts, for their own reasons that they never shared with me. Nearly twenty-two years later, the only debt we carry is our mortgage.

Of course, this is not to imply that telling the truth will solve all of our problems but bringing secrets out of the poisonous muck into God’s healing light and love begins the healing. I believe, our problems begin to resolve as our healing deepens.

As I look back now, I see that telling my truth began to set me free from the shame and bondage of my debts.