What Happens When We Actually Listen?

By Holly

sbroady / Pixabay

When others repeatedly tell you that you are good at something throughout your life, strange things can happen. Of course, the door to the ego opens wide and it can go to your head.  More likely, the praise ends up buried in a mental compartment labeled something like “already good at – just like everyone else – so I don’t need to work on it.

We normalize our strengths and work on our weaknesses while the reverse would be much more helpful. This is what I did with listening.  Friends, family, teachers and coworkers told me I was good at it; therefore, becoming a better listener never made my list of self-improvement goals.

It was an unlikely event that changed this – dinner with friends at one of my favorite Asian restaurants on a rainy Saturday night. It was the kind of evening that you look forward to for weeks because you will be with some of your favorite people sharing wonderful food and adult conversation while the kids stay home.

As we slid into the ornately carved wood booth, my mood shifted to unusually light and happy. My typical reserved nature was overshadowed by an impatient desire to be the one talking. There were things I wanted to say, and, with conversation flowing steadily among four couples, it was hard to get a word in. Laughter, stories and a scrumptious family-style meal filled the table, time passed quickly, and goodbye hugs were exchanged with satisfied, mutual fullness.

On the way home, a familiar restlessness swept through my mind. I replayed the evening, wondering why I had been so focused on what I wanted to say. I recalled a specific moment – holding my drink in the air as shapeless words floated around it – when I appeared to be listening to a story but I was really listening for a space to tell one of my own.

And that was when it hit me:  We can listen for or listen to. I am pretty good at listening for things, and not just for my turn to talk. In a single day, I catch myself listening for what I expect my daughter to say when I ask her why her clothes carpet her bedroom floor, confirmation of the stories I make up about myself, criticism from a colleague, bickering sisters, grumpy cashiers and judgmental moms.

In The Listening Life, author Adam McHugh puts it this way: “In listening for, we are listening like a prosecuting attorney, trying to uncover a hidden motivation, catch the person in a contradiction or find something to confirm our suspicions. We are setting the trap, posed to say “aha!” at any second.”

It’s not hard to find what we listen for.  But what will we find if we listen to?

A couple of years have passed since that lovely dinner that changed my relationship with listening. Through trying and failing and trying again, I am paying attention to how I listen and learning what happens when I listen to:

Someone I find hard to love says something hard to hear. In my head, I roll my eyes, I criticize. Something stills me just enough to listen more, to listen to. Buried beneath his rough words hides a precious dream. My judging heart turns soft.

Listen to, it connects who you are to who you want to be.

     A group of friends is set to gather at my house.  A few people cancel.  I wonder why they’re not showing up; stories of being not-good-enough speed through my mind.  I pick up my phone again to glance at a text and read the words on the screen , instead of the ones inside my head.

 Listen to what IS, instead of for what may or may not be. 

     I show up at the gym with a goal in mind: calories to burn. I am determined. Halfway through the elliptical, the right side of my body screams, “stop.” With one foot on the machine, I pause. My number of calories seems more important than my pain, so I go on. Two days of fatigue and irritability follow.

Listen to your body.  It has something to say.

     I hear birds sing a winter morning into light. Later, a fog horn calls to life beyond land. Still later, the hum of my empty home’s furnace preparing for my family’s return.

Listen to your places, they speak the language of your heart.

     I interrupt my husband – again. I wonder what he was going to say as my mouth keeps moving. I’ve run over his words with some of my own; a faint, familiar emptiness sets in: a moment lost.

Listen, for fullness.

     Something triggers pain from the past. Suddenly, today is yesterday. I am who I used to be.  But, when I listen to what is happening now – words spoken from loved ones who are trying and changing, fresh silences born out of healing, sounds of this year’s rains tapping taller, stronger lodgepole pines – it brings me back into presence.

Listen to now.

What will you listen to?

When Good Ideas Seem Like Dead Ends

By Holly

jarmoluk / Pixabay

You know those ideas that seem good – so good that they could even be from God – but then they don’t work out?  I had one  just last month. It came to me unexpected but complete, like a sudden, clear vision. I saw myself as a volunteer mentor for a local nonprofit that I deeply admire.  The planner in me took over, and I thought of that Steve Jobs quote about life only making sense when we connect the dots looking backwards. I was sure this would become my story of pieces of the past falling into their perfect place in the world. Weeks of prayer, research, networking, emails and texts followed.

Then, I stopped to listen: Silence. Dead ends. Space. Not yet.

I didn’t understand. My idea made so much sense. It seemed so good. Pure. Selfless, even.

It’s weird when God doesn’t pave the way for our good ideas. What starts out as an “Aha!” moment can so quickly spiral into to self-doubt and confusion. I am not convinced we are meant to connect the dots of every “no” we meet in life, but I do love it when what seemed like a dead end becomes a breakthrough. And this is what happened with my idea.

More like a painting in process than a reverse connect-the-dots, my story is not about making sense of “no.”  It is not about the amazing things that never could have happened in my life because this one thing never did. It feels broader than that, like an unplanned brushstroke that causes the painter to reconsider her entire vision.

I knew things were going to unfold differently with this particular “no” because of the feelings that came with it.  Instead of questioning or becoming more determined to make it work, I felt surprised. I never expected it to go this way. It scared me too – how many other things in my life had I left unquestioned, charging ahead with a healthy dose of self-determination, because they seemed good and made sense? A truth was emerging that seemed bigger than an answer to why my idea wasn’t working out. It looked something like this: Becoming more of who we are meant to be requires less from us, but more of us.

There is a part of me that could have made my idea work. Made up of persistence, desire to help others and deep longing for the story of my life to be a compelling one, it is a sliver of me that is less inclined toward pride or fear. If God approved of certain parts of us more than others, this one would get a nod, wink and thumb.

But we break ourselves into pieces, not God. We separate into good and not good enough, disintegrating what was intended to be a whole surrender. And this is what makes our good ideas just as fragile as our bad ones.

It is also why we must listen. Not just for the answers to our questions or approval of our good ideas, but for all the divine whispers that pop up in a day, coaxing our pieces back together.

I still don’t know exactly why my idea didn’t work out. But hearing that surprising “no” made me a better listener. Or at least a more frequent one. And that is enough.

For now.

At Christmas, We Fight

By Holly

Pezibear / Pixabay

On the shores of the Puget Sound, in a quaint coffee shop called The Jewel Box, I spend December Mondays reading Timothy Keller’s Hidden Christmas with friends.  We wrestle new insights about the birth of Jesus.  We admit our reluctance to accept the darkness in all of humankind.  Most importantly, we carve a humble slice of time to shift from holiday mode to Christmas meaning.

I feel the collective fight of the holiday season.  We fight to hold space that honors the how and why of Christmas, to occupy that sacred space with friends and family, with silence and time.

On unusually wintry Pacific Northwest nights, I slide into cold sheets and feel my heart make an uncharacteristic turn toward repentance.  Pride, control and judgment surface.  In the darkness, I see myself more clearly.  I fade as the flame-lit furnace kicks on, singing me to sleep.  

We fight for hearts that are more divine than human.

The fragility of things that once seemed stable – finances, careers, health – is brought to light as a light snow falls, vanishes.  As I feel my way through uncertainty, I understand why God told the Israelites to remember.  I remember things that seemed impossible years ago – dreams, longings, needs – and the ways God turned them into miracles I live with now.

 We fight to be people who see the future in miracles.

And none of this comes naturally.

There are things we fight against, too.

Another trip to the mall, stockings waiting to be filled, bank accounts taking their annual dip…  and anxiety rises deep within me.  I pray for freedom from the urge to numb my overwhelm with control.

We fight against self-reliance.

As one more pocket on the advent calendar is emptied, I taste the confusing mix of familiar feelings that arrive at the end of a year.  I want to rush ahead and meet the “new” of a New Year.  At the same time, I am weighed down with fear.  Another 365 days are gone.  Did I spend them well?  Was I enough?

We fight against the vortex of the past and the pull of the future.

We fight for things that are not natural and against those that are.

And in the battle, this battle for good, I can easily miss this:  it’s not about what I am fighting for or against.  It’s about the fight itself.  That we are all in it.  And that every single one of us, no matter how hard we try each day, how much faith we embody or how much good we do, needs to be rescued from the fight.

And, this, this is the meaning, the necessity, of Christmas:  Rescue already came.  Because God knew we all need it.

I imagine that newborn baby boy in the manger.  I see a fighter.

These 2 Look Good Together

by Kari

Stevebidmead / Pixabay

My mind has been fascinated with word pairings lately. Two words that intrigue me as I encounter people throughout the day and listen to political talking-heads throughout this election season are these: Humility and Conviction. Though they are hard to come by are they not the sweetest of friends when you come across them in a person? And isn’t it a beautiful thing that, yes, the Kingdom of God is among us.

Humility and Conviction

Hand in hand
they walk together
and do best
when in each other’s
clasp

But if Humility frees
her fingers
there is a Pride
who slithers to
counterfeit the posture

Conviction then changes
to shades of judgment
forgetting days so recent
of Humility’s embrace
which made her
more gentle, grace-filled

And there are times
when Conviction leaves
Humility’s side and
her gait slows down
gets mowed down
by the tracks of others
and called Weak-One
instead of Humility

And there is hope!
Yes, hope eternal!
These two can and will
walk together
paving the way for
justice and tranquility
and it starts in the
heart of each of us

God’s Kingdom is here!
Just look at them:
Humility and Conviction

Giving: Is It All About the Sacrifice?

By Holly

joduma / Pixabay

joduma / Pixabay

I can picture her sitting at the head of the dining room table; it’s midnight and she’s just getting started. Photos are strewn across the brown leather table protector; sticky album pages wait for their fill of memories, their place in the finished gift.

It is 1992, before scrapbooking is a thing. There are no 12”x12” decorative pages or digital layout tools. My mom’s project will take months, countless late-night hours. I am fourteen, old enough to understand how much our youth pastor, Kevin, who is moving from the Midwest to Las Vegas, will appreciate my mom’s efforts, and young enough to absorb a definition of giving.

The scrapbook project is mammoth, covering more than a decade of memories from hundreds of people with no help from the internet. Just an old-school photo album, kitchen shears, Scotch tape and an ambitious woman’s self-sacrifice.

Sacrifice. It’s the cornerstone of giving, right? We hear it from the pulpit on Sunday mornings and TV ads comparing monthly latte budgets with the cost of school for a little girl in South Africa. We feel it when a friend shows up and lets her millions of other things wait and when those who have the least gather the most tags from the Angel Tree. We see it at midnight through teenage eyes.

And, all the while, the story of the ultimate cruciform-shaped sacrifice pulses through our veins like a dare to choose a selfish, guilty life or a sacrificial, giving one.

We do our best to choose the latter.

Then one day, somewhere between fourteen and forty, sacrificing and giving become one and the same. Spiritual synonyms. Sacrigiving. We find our ourselves trying to feel the cheerful heart that God loves as we search for the right ways to give – the ones that come with words like inconvenient, uncomfortable and risky. The stuff that will move us from our cozy, protected, latte-filled lives into the unpredictable, risky, faithful world of sacrificial giving.

We spend a lot of time wondering if we are sacrificial enough, and may find ourselves creating sacrificial scenarios to cancel out our selfishness, and hyperfocusing on giving because it’s what God called us to do.

But there’s this thing about giving that God says over and over again, this thing that gets lost in sacrigiving: Obedience is better than sacrifice.

Even thousands of years ago when sacrifice was worship and the goats were slaughtered in the name of faith. Even then. Even in 2016 when we have too much, spend too much and eat too much. Even now.

God wants our obedience more than our sacrifice. And so it seems that God only wants our sacrigiving if it is out of obedience.

I saw my mom sacrifice; I didn’t know it was obedience.

Even now, I don’t like the word, “obedient.” It feels parental, submissive, even robotic. Maybe that’s why it’s easier to go for the sacrifice. Or maybe it’s just that sacrifices are tangible, seen and praised.

But it helps me to learn that the Hebrew term for obedience, shema, means “to listen.” And the Hebrew language does not separate hearing from responding. I like to think that this means we can’t listen to God without changing.

Shema first. Change me first.

As I enter this season of giving this is my prayer: Shema.

Shema first. And the giving will come.