Posted in Moments of grace

“What a waste of time.”

Joe L. was a friend of a friend I got to know a few years ago. I think he was a little younger than me, a United States marine, and had done quite a bit of work with the homeless before he had to retire with disability. Because of a variety of ailments, I occasionally visited him in hospitals, rehab facilities and at his home.

He knew I was a pastor, but we never talked too much about God. He was straightforward about what made him angry, what he wanted, what he needed and what he thought about others. I enjoyed that about him. I knew where I stood with Joe. No games. No pretense. No pretending.

One time I thanked him for that. He replied, “Why are you thanking me?”

I said, “Well, most of the time people tell me what they think I want to hear.”

Joe said, “What a waste of time.”

I have often thought about that conversation and that gem of wisdom. It is so true. There are precious few people with whom we can be completely honest and say what’s on our minds. We harbor far too many fears about what others will think of us, so we rarely express how we feel. And if Joe’s perspective is correct, we waste a lot of time telling people what they want to hear.

I’ve spent a lot of time on the phone this past year. Some people are still distancing from worship at church, so I just call and say, “Hi. I was just checking in to be sure you were well. What can we do for you?” After a while, the responses are predictable.

“Oh. Hi, Pastor. We were just talking about how we need to get back to church.”
“Don’t worry Pastor, we are mailing our offerings to the church.”
“I know we haven’t been to church lately, Pastor, but don’t worry, we still pray every day.”
“Pastor, we are still staying home, just to be safe. We don’t go anywhere, except for our doctors, the grocery store, the post office, physical therapy and the veterinarian.”

All I wanted to know was if you’re healthy and have everything you need.

Of course, we in ministry are guilty of the same thing. How often do I tell someone what I am really thinking about them? How often have I dulled the edges of my preaching so as not to offend as few people as possible? How often do I simply keep my mouth shut? It’s a skill you learn early in life and perfect as the years go on.

A lot depends on how you say something. There’s a time and place for honesty, but it’s also important to listen and understand before you speak. I believe you also need to examine your motives. Why are you telling someone something? To help them, or to hurt them? Is it for their benefit, or to make yourself feel good?

And of course, the more important skill is listening. Listening is never a waste of time. I always learn something. And I often hear what I need to hear, not just what I want to hear.

Posted in listening, Ministry

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.