Just a whisper

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Photo by London Scout on Unsplash

And [the Lord] said [to Elijah], “Go out and stand on the mount before the Lord.” And behold, the Lord passed by, and a great and strong wind tore the mountains and broke in pieces the rocks before the Lord, but the Lord was not in the wind. And after the wind an earthquake, but the Lord was not in the earthquake. And after the earthquake a fire, but the Lord was not in the fire. And after the fire the sound of a low whisper. (1 Kings 19:11-12)

I have long been fascinated by this moment in the prophet Elijah’s life. He’s ready to give up and pack it in. He’s not just ready to retire. He wants to die. God’s says, “I want to talk to you. Climb up that mountain over there.”

Then, rather than manifesting himself in a tornado, earthquake or wildfire, God speaks in a low whisper. The literal words are a “thin silence.” So I’ve been wondering, would I rather hear God shout or whisper?

On the one hand, God’s powerful entrances are traumatic. When God finally shows up to answer Job’s questions, he speaks from a whirlwind (Job 38:1). Suddenly, Job doesn’t have any more questions (Job 40:5)! When the earth literally shook at the base of Mt. Sinai because of the presence of God, the entire nation backed away (Exodus 20:18). When the people were bemoaning their life in the desert, the fire of God began to consume the outskirts of their camp (Numbers 11:1).

On the other hand, the power of God is transformative and empowering. When the sound of a mighty rushing wind and tongues of fire accompanied the arrival of God’s Spirit, the apostles suddenly became bible translators, preaching in the language of the international crowd in Jerusalem (Acts 2:1-4). When the early church prayed, the house shook as the Spirit gave them the boldness to keep speaking about Jesus (Acts 4:31). In the extra hot fiery furnace, Daniel’s three friends were joined by the Son of God rather than being consumed (Daniel 3:19-25).

When our children were still at home, there were moments when I would raise my voice and they (or my wife) would say, “Don’t yell!” So I would turn up the volume and reply, “I haven’t even started to yell yet!” That’s when they would put their hands over their ears.

Yes, there are times when God needs to get my attention. Turn up the volume a little. Even yell. Because I’m not really listening. I might even have my hands over my ears.

Yet there are other times when I’ll say, “What was that, God? Say that again. I’m having a hard time hearing you.”

If God is in whisper mode, you have to pay attention. Listening is hard. You have to stop talking, turn off your mind, get rid of distractions, and let the Scriptures speak. Read slowly, deliberately, without a goal or an agenda. Read out loud. Read it like it was the first time you’ve ever gazed at those words. Imagine you are there when the events happened, the words were first spoken, or when they were first heard. Don’t listen to respond. Listen to what He’s saying.

Though God reveals himself in many powerful ways, he chooses to reveal himself, his love, his grace, and our future through word. Words I understand, words I can remember, words I can repeat. If a whisper gets me to listen, all the better.

 

 

You couldn’t wait for me to get to “amen.”

caleb-woods-182648-unsplashThis hasn’t happened just once. I’d say it happens about once a month. I’ll be out visiting someone in their home or the hospital, and as I wrap up a prayer, they begin speaking less than one second after I say, “Amen.”

“Amen.” “Pastor, I have a question…”

“Amen.” “I’ve always wondered…”

“Amen.” “There was this guy…”

“Amen.” “I just don’t understand…”

So, you really weren’t praying along with me, were you? You were somewhere else, having boarded a different train of thought, impatiently waiting for me to get to “amen.” Anyone who knows me knows I do not say long prayers. It’s not that I lost you in a vast sea of petitions. You had just fast-forwarded through whatever I would say, biding your time until I finally finished.

I’m not really upset by this. It just surprises me. You’d be surprised if I didn’t pray with you, and yet your mind was wandering.

Good listening means you aren’t formulating a response when the other person is talking. You’ve set that aside, so you can pay attention to what the other person is saying. This is very hard to do. Listening is hard. I guess it’s hard to focus when someone’s praying for you, too.

Here are a few tips for the next time your pastor comes to visit and prays with you

  • Keep your eyes closed (if you pray with closed eyes) for just a moment after “amen.” Savor the blessing of a God who listens to and responds to your prayers. Just like a fine wine, prayers have a finish worth enjoying.
  • Take a couple of breaths after “amen.” Let the petitions echo in the room and in your mind for a moment. Let the dust settle before you speak.
  • Add your own prayer after “amen.” Keep the conversation going. Ask and seek and knock.
  • Embrace a few seconds of silence. It’s a noisy world and quiet moments are at a premium. Make the most of them.

I find great comfort and inspiration in knowing that a moment of prayer can turn an ordinary home, hospital room, nursing home or park bench into the holy ground of God’s presence. I know he loves those moments, too.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Just listen.

listenMy friend J. stopped by the other day to cancel a lunch appointment later in the week. He had to go out of town, so we’d get together some time in the future. He could have called, but he was out and around, so he came to the church to talk to me. And he did, for about fifteen minutes, about all kinds of things. Standing in the hallway, I just listened and nodded as he wandered seamlessly from topic to topic.

The last time I went to visit S., he was in a pretty good mood and shared with me his plan to regain enough strength and balance in his legs to leave the nursing home and move back home. After my initial greeting, I didn’t have to say much. He had mastered the art of speaking without periods. Every sentenced ended with a comma-like pause, and segued into the next thought, story, complaint or reflection. Sitting there, I just listened and nodded for about thirty minutes.

My visit to K. found her in good spirits even though she would not be going home. Case workers were searching for a suitable assisted living situation for her. She too had much to say about her family, friends, and possible future. Thirty minutes into the visit, I had only spoken two sentences as she chatted about everything and everyone.

S. topped by the church office with a question, which led to additional questions, apologies for having so much to say, and lengthy stories which never quite reached a conclusion. Twenty-five minutes of listening and nodding.

I believe these and many others are simply starved for someone to talk to. They are either alone most of the time or just don’t have anything left to say to those they live with and are famished for conversation. So I listen. And I tell myself over and over in my mind, “They need to talk. Just listen.”

With more and more ways to communicate, we actually talk to fewer and fewer people. Instead of calling to order a pizza, I use an app. I exercise with virtual people on DVDs. I reserve boarding dates for my dog via a popup chat box. I don’t know if there is a real person on the other end or not. I’ve gotten a rental car at a kiosk with a screen and a talking head, rather than from a person on the other side of a desk. I get texts instead of phone calls. A machine at the grocery store tells me what my blood pressure is.

I’m comfortable with all the technology and use it all the time. But my day is also peppered with phone and in-person conversations with people that I know well as well as those I’ve just met. But one day, if I don’t (or can’t) go out much, and have outlived some of the people I used to talk to, I’ll bet I’ll crave someone, anyone, to talk to, too.

So I’m paying it forward now. Go ahead and talk. I promise to listen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Can we be better speakers and listeners?

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Photo by The Climate Reality Project on Unsplash

So I am sitting at a conference, watching the other attendees, fascinated at all the other activity going on. Yes, there are a few people sitting, listening and taking noted. But there are many more people who have come well-equipped to do other things. A few still bring books and newspapers, but many more do their reading on a phone, tablet or laptop. One person is preparing slides for a presentation. Another is catching up on email. Of course, some are scrolling through their Facebook newsfeed. Some have brought their breakfast with them. There is plenty of texting going on. Me? I admit, I was doodling on the back of the conference agenda as I listened.

It’s tough to listen. It’s tough to just it there and listen. It is hard, hard work. Which puzzles me a little. I have two ears that hear naturally, involuntarily receiving lots of sounds. But it is still hard to listen.

That got me thinking, when I was supposed to be listening, about those who listen to me preach each week. I can’t see everything everyone is doing, but I know there’s a lot going on. There are people on their phones, and I know they aren’t all using their Bible apps to follow along with the sermon text. I see a few of the weekly church newsletters in people’s hands — well, at least they will know about upcoming events. The congregation always includes a few note-takers, snackers, dozers, draw-ers, sneezers, whisperers, and nose-blowers. Some need to visit the bathroom, a few need a drink, a couple have to go back to the car to get their glasses, and who can help but watch the babies?

I know it’s different. I only have to keep their attention and they only have to keep their focus for fifteen to twenty minutes. But whether it’s a scheduled hour-long presentation or a blessedly-brief twelve minute homily, I believe there is a shared burden by both speaker and listener for effective communication.

For the speaker at the conference (or in church):

  • Do not read your powerpoint slides to me. I can read them myself, thank you very much.
  • Tell me stories, get me to laugh, paint some word pictures and engage my attention before you get to the weightier part of your presentation.
  • Make sure you haves a point. At some moment, give me something that will stick in my mind. It can be a phrase, a 140 character summary, a slogan, something to take with me.

For the listeners at a conference (or in church):

  • Don’t bring a diversion. Instead, come prepared to listen.
  • Take notes. Write down a few words, a phrase, a summary, something you can take with you.
  • Visit the facilities before the speaker begins.
  • Commit to giving the speaker some kind of useful feedback. By useful, I mean beyond the generic, “Thanks, I enjoyed that.”

I do not offer the above advice as an expert speaker or listener, just as someone who wants to learn to do both better.

 

 

Role reversal

I didn’t have to preach today. We had a guest preacher for the final week of a stewardship emphasis we had today.

Sometimes it’s harder to sit and listen to a sermon than to preach one. Know why? As a preacher you tend to over-analyze every sermon. You’re constantly critiquing the speaker’s style, content, stories and delivery, rather than just listening, expecting God to speak through that person. It’s not too much different than watching sports and second-guessing the plays that are called. You would have done things so differently. And you would have done so much better.

Perhaps part of the problem is that we get a lot of training in preaching, but very little in listening. Listening is hard work. It’s tough to shut down all the other things going on in your mind and shut out the distractions around you to truly hear what someone is saying. Plus, we preachers get a lot of practice preaching, but little in listening. I did most of my listening before I started preaching, but not much afterwards. I think I need to do more. That’s one resource that’s available to me. There are zillions of sermons I can listen to online.

So even though I really didn’t hear anything new or especially interesting this morning, I did get a message. I need to  learn how to listen better. And to do that, I’ll have to do some listening. I’ll let you know what I learn and who I find to listen to.