What? I can’t hear you!

I think my second son is absolutely hilarious.  On more than one occasion I’ve been in my kitchen chuckling at something I heard him say in another room.  This nugget not so long ago:  his little sister needed some clothes washed (that’s his job) and he’d been derelict thanks to his baseball schedule. So she shouted from her room, “Hey!  Do the laundry!  I’m dyin’ over here!”   Instead of getting mad, which is not his style, he throws out a “What?  I can’t hear you; it’s dark in here!”   How can you get mad at that?  It’s so funny!!!   Beside being great for his ego and my mood, it gives me food for thought.

 

I’ve written about listening before since it’s a favorite topic of my husband and me.  Recently we were at a meeting where, among other things, we were encouraged to do considerably more listening than talking.  Someone later said, “Did we really need that?  Shouldn’t we be doing that already?”  That amused me, too, because the very fact that we DON’T listen well warrants the need to have such presentations.

Because this hits my radar so frequently, I can tell you unequivocally that we humans are terrible listeners.     Not just poor or we-could-do- better, but terrible.  I’ll be at the whiteboard giving step by step instructions slowly when a student will look up and say, “What are we doing?”  When I tell them I JUST said what they needed to know, they’ll weakly say they were writing their name on their paper…and add somewhat defensively that they can’t do both at the same time.  To which I’ll counter, you can’t listen and write your name?  Nope.  Wow, so you won’t be having music on when you drive?  Of course they will.  But that’s two activities at once.

Think where we’d be if we couldn’t do two things at once.  I get the whole mulit-tasking isn’t really accomplishing two things, it’s one, but we CAN listen for cars when we’re jogging, CAN hear the baby crying in the back of church while we’re listening to the sermon, we CAN hear the timer go off when putting in laundry.

But beyond the annoyance of someone who isn’t listening to you when you’re literally standing 3 ft away from them, how about the sadness of those who don’t listen to the more important things in life?  At that presentation, we saw a demonstration of what it’s like to be a good listener.  The demonstrator drew out a story and asked very intuitive questions.  Not just the expected banalities that bore us all.  Glennon Melton recently said that “Questions are gifts.  It’s the thought behind them the receiver feels.”  And she’s exactly right.  When you’re blown off or you share something and a friend never asks about it again, it doesn’t feel good.  It’s more than being self-centered; it’s wanting others to care about you and to show it by listening.

Glennon also said, “If we really want to know people, we need to ask questions that convey ‘I’m not just checking the box here.  I really care what you have to say and how you feel.'”  I recently worked with someone who literally never asked me one question about myself.  Didn’t know I had kids, volunteer, went away for a week…never asked.  She’s motivated me, though.  Someone I’ll see soon just started a new job, I’m going to ask what her favorite part of it is so far.  Another woman is going to be a grandma again.  I’d like to see the ultrasounds and share her joy.

This is not hard work!  Make it your goal today to ask someone something deeper than ‘how was your day?’  Verbal grease works for many situations, but if you really want to show you care, don’t claim you can’t hear them just because it’s dark 🙂

A Buddhist and a Christian walk into a room….

I met a new friend a few years ago who I liked instantly.  I hoped that we would be able to know each other for a long time.   Then she shared that she was a Buddhist.  Oh.  I have no problem with that; it’s just that I’ve never known a Buddhist before.  This was new and it was a good new. We talked openly about things and what was most appealing were these words: “I’m not going to judge you.”   How refreshing!

I know all about judging because I feel like an expert some days.  It’s so hard for us NOT to judge and we do it so sub-consciously that it becomes our default setting.  Granted, some are better at this than others, but I’ve also heard from some amazingly honest people lately about how opinionated they are, how they find it easier to gripe about people than listen to them and they seem to have more fun with friends with they’re criticizing others. Hhmmm….

After thinking about these comments, I prayed about trying a different approach with people:  to assume the best more often, and to not judge but ask about what else might be going on so I can have a more complete picture than the one I knee-jerk guess.  Or, just praying for them. As a Christian, I have prayed for forgiveness many times for my critical spirit and my lack of grace with others.  There’s no excuse when Jesus has been generous to the point of giving His life for me.  But I also know I’m a sinful woman who can look Him full in the face and His mercy covers me anew each day.

And to that end, this morning my Buddhist friend called and left me crying when I hung up.  Not tears of sadness but from a weight of compassion.  She asked the right questions, listened compassionately and understood my vulnerability generously and accepted my honesty graciously.   That kind of love brought me to tears.  I don’t claim to understand a thing about Buddhism; and I have a long way to understanding the complex mysteries of my God and Father, but I know for certain when He brings two women together to bless each other.

So here I am, a committed Christian, wanting to be a little more like my Buddhist friend in her acceptance and openness of people.  It makes me think of others who aren’t Christians but have something about their natures that I want to emulate.  Speaking only for myself and not for Christians at large, I know that I live in a bubble of my own making.  To my shame, I can’t rattle off a list of non-Christian friends.  It’s not because I’ve intentionally avoided them, but because my orbit is a little too small.  I’m working on that – and excited about it.

When we first met, my friend asked me if it would be a problem for me to befriend her and I said No immediately.  For one, I rarely think of her religion and, I also believe God can use anyone and He clearly is using her to bless me.  As we approach Easter, I’m reminded of the new life that He gives us and I’m thankful that sometimes a new turn of heart comes from unlikely places and people.

The chocolate cake connection

One sunny morning about 15 years ago found me standing at my kitchen counter frosting a cake.  It was three layers of chocolate and silky frosting was going on smoothly.  What makes this cake different from the myriad I have made was that my mom was standing on the other side of the counter watching me.  As I worked my spatula back and forth, she noted nonchalantly, “You’re just like your grandma.”   My hand froze.  “What?”  This from a lady who hardly ever mentioned her mother, childhood, past…and oh how I wish she had!  I had so many questions about my ancestors but those questions were always just met with a shrug.

Again, “What?”  I had to contain myself from shaking her shoulders and pleading with her to open the floodgates of memory.  How am I like her? I knew some ways from my memory alone.  She could be quite mischievous and chuckled when she heard of something a little naughty, her eyes twinkling.  She loved to listen to the baseball game while sitting in her sunny living room and she kept the police scanner on, always interested in what local law enforcement was encountering that day.  I also clearly remembering her “peeling out” around the corner in her huge blue Buick.  For a 70-something year old lady, she knew how to floor it – and she enjoyed it, too.  Grandma loved music and having family over for coffee, always with a little sweet something served on the side.

This particular morning it came out that my grandmother was known for her cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake.  Hold the phone.  How did I learn of this some fifteen years after my grandmother passed away?  Here I was, becoming known for my cinnamon rolls and chocolate cake, completely oblivious that I was echoing my grandmother so many miles & years away, so distant from knowing the real her, yet behaving like her through a simple recipe. I don’t know how I landed on those two items in particular to craft repeatedly, but I was somehow drawn to them.  Mixing flour, butter and sugar is so relaxing, so natural…I feel very much like me when I’m at my counter making something sweet for someone I love.  Knowing that so many decades ago, she was doing the same thing, is so gratifying.

I know lots of people have lost loved ones; I also know women my age who still have their grandmothers and parents.  Losing them so long ago compounded by living away from my birth family for almost 30 years makes me a little more keen for moments like these, I guess.  Even though I’m so much like my mom and grandma in copious ways, that experience made me a little different in that while I’m making or baking or serving that cake or those gooey rolls, I make sure I remember to tell a story of what those two were like… or me.  I’ve raised my kids’ eyebrows with a few stories of my youth (like they can’t quite envision me as a spot welder), but I want to make sure they remember a few things about me and my ancestors from when we were younger.  Hopefully, when many years have gone by and my kids enjoy a piece of my cake made by their own hands in memory of me, the stories they hold will be sweeter than the frosting on the cake.

Okay, that doesn’t help

I know that generally, people mean well.  Really, they do, but there’s some real ham-handedness going on out there.  This week I’ve had a hand-full of people mention how they cringe when they are offered cliches when what they were really looking for was some compassion or understanding.

Okay, okay, I know not everyone is a counselor, nor should they be but can we not say to people who have just lost a loved one, “Well, at least they’re in a better place,” or to someone who’s struggling in a relationship, “What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” or how about my most loathed, “It is what it is.”  Ugh!!!!

That last one frosts me because I heard it said too many times from someone who used it as an excuse for his ineptness, his tardiness and his apathy.  Schedule a meeting (you’re supposed to lead) and not show up? Well, it is what it is.  Disappoint and frustrate a dozen people because you continually over-promise and under-deliver?  Well, it is what it is.  Actually, no.  What it is is rude.  It’s a cop-out.  It’s lame.  Own it and treat people better, buddy.

The words we use are a good indication of what’s important to us.  Want someone to buck up?  Tell them Kelly Clarkson’s ‘if it doesn’t kill you, it makes you stronger’ line.  (not that she’s the originator of the line) Want someone to get over grieving already?  Tell them their loved one is in a better place.  Sick and tired of someone being sick and tired?  Give a flip story about how you just get up and get on with the day, as if that’s so easy for everyone.  Usually our trite responses just make our listener wish they hadn’t said anything.

Everyone will be in a situation in which we just don’t know what to say, but I vote for saying something kind and loving as opposed to trite and harsh.  Saying “I don’t know” or “I’m so sorry you’re struggling with that’ is better than posturing that you’ve figured their problem out and have a flip answer for them.  Sometimes we want to rush people to the end of the story.  We want people to just get over it already.  Don’t we?

Many, many years ago, I went through a particularly long relapse of Chronic Fatigue.  Throw in a few other complications and I was barely slogging through my days.  It was obvious I needed help and there were those who wanted to help so a cleaning crew of ladies came in and went over my house with invigorating energy.  It was such a boon.  Wanting to thank each of them personally, I called each one over a series of days and expressed my gratitude.  The first few I called were confusingly cool to me on the phone.  A few more were a bit warmer but I was puzzled by their clipped “you’re welcomes.”  Attributing it to anything else but my inklings, I made one last call and out it came:  after they left my house, they went out for coffee and all decided that what I really needed to do was tackle one little project at a time.  Other bits of advice came out but what I heard loud and clear was judgment.  I didn’t hear compassion for being an ill young mom.  I didn’t hear any kind of leeway given for having to tackle these things and more while I feel like I have the flu every day.  It was just a ‘you-really-should….’ list that just plain hurt.

Experiences like those make us clam up.  They make us determine never to reveal a need again.  They make us distrustful, because what’s behind our words are values and assumptions and those can lead to some profound misunderstandings.  Misunderstandings lead to hurt.  When someone is told something as unhelpful as the above comments, we hear what they’re really saying loud and clear and it’s not loving, kind or wise.

As the years tick by and the hurts stack up, so do the occasions where people get it right, thankfully.  I think of my neighbor Sherri who had only a faint hint that I wasn’t the image of health and one day she came onto the yard to see me barely awake and as limp as last night’s spaghetti.  God bless her, she didn’t ask anything, she just took in the scene of two little boys running around and said, “I’ll have the boys at my house this afternoon, go get some rest.  I’ll bring them home in time for dinner.”  I could have cried.  No judgment, just help.  It still brings tears to my eyes.  That scene is a model for me that I refer to often.  I don’t always get it right, but I try, and it helps to know that when people disappoint us on earth, we can lean into a Savior who was an expert at suffering.  He knew it all: betrayal, pain, sleeplessness, rejection….and he chose it.

Everyone’s going to have a weak day or week or month or year and when we do, I want to lean into a Lord who gets it and not rely too much on people who don’t.  I also am reassured that there ARE folks out there who know exactly how to come alongside others and just do what needs to be done, with kindness and love.  So if you know someone who wouldn’t be helped by a ham-handed remark, keep it to yourself and reach for something a little more gentle.  Better yet, just listen without judgment – one of the most beautiful gifts you can ever give to another.

Earning the right to have a voice

Many, many years ago, my college writing teacher visited our town and I was able to hear him read from his new collection of stories.  He wrote about the Heartland, having an obvious love for it and its people.  The writing was honest but respectful and insightful, bringing pride to the locals who read and valued his observations.  In my conversation about writing with him afterwards, he mentioned something critically important that he had not while I was in class: “You have to earn the right to have a voice.  People don’t want to hear what you have to say unless you can show you can be trusted.”

He makes an excellent point.  So about what do we all have a voice?   Especially those of us who are not writers?  Well, plenty!  We all have something to say to the people around us.  Many levels of talk exist but when you’re with someone and you throw in your two cents, you must have first earned the right, in order to be heard.  And don’t we all want to be heard?  Here’s a short list of examples of how people have earned that right.

  •  a parent who has consistently loved and listened
  • an employee who has put in the time and been faithful and reliable
  • a spouse who is always where he/she is when he/she says they are
  • a friend who’s quicker to compassion than judgement
  • a writer/speaker who has lived it before speaking of it
  • a student who shows clear effort and communicates with their teacher

These are the folks who will be heard.  Even though I love to have a good conversation, there are a few places in which I say precious little and I’ve realized that it’s because I either have not earned the right to speak into the situation (lack of experience, haven’t known them long enough) or because I do not trust them with my thoughts (those who have been duplicitous or shown mean-spiritedness come to mind).

However, during the last several days, it’s struck me that the Lord has blessed me with some rich conversations (He knows I love that!)  And each one has been able to reach a depth that only comes when one has earned it.  Just yesterday I came home and said to my husband that I rarely revealed the details of my story to anyone, but I had over lunch to this new friend because she had already earned the right to hear the story.  I was also blessed, when others said, “I don’t know why I just told you that!”  but I knew it was because I had earned the right to listen….and they knew I would keep it in confidence.

So, soon, someone dear to me is going to return my call and I’m going to share what is on my heart about a particular nagging topic.  I have kept it to myself for many years, but I realize that she has earned my trust and I need to tell her.  Will it take courage?  Absolutely.  But that’s what this year is about:  taking a deep breath and diving in.

Don’t let worry overwhelm your wonder

Two summers ago my son was preparing to go on his first Mexico mission’s trip.  At the time, the news was rife with stories of danger for travelers.  For that reason, the team had been advised by locals to not do the street ministry they typically did – it was just too dangerous.  A week before they were to leave, our youth pastor called and told me that the leaders felt the Spirit leading them to continue with the ministry; so strongly, in fact, that they were asking if it were all right if our son participated.  What could I say?  I trusted the team’s word from the Lord and I trust the Lord…there was only one answer: Of course.

That choice was based on love, not fear.  Before you think I’m a stranger to worry and fear, I could tell you stories that prove I’ve spent my time there.  However, not long before that summer, I’d learned about the difference between love-based prayer and fear-based prayer.  So much of our prayers and conversations are fear-based.  ‘What if’ and ‘They might’ sentence beginnings prove it.  If you think about your prayers, so many of them ask the Lord to cover our fears.  He does and wants us to bring to Him all our worries, but I’d found that when I prayed too many of those kinds of prayers, my thoughts followed.  Instead, I tried a new tact: love-based thoughts and prayers.  What a difference!!

So, after that phone call and all during the mission trip, I prayed love-based prayers for my son and the team.  I asked that they truly minister and bless; that their love for Him would outshine any darkness there; that their compassion would be strong for everyone they met…and on and on.  Not once did a fear enter my mind.  The Lord reassured me that everyone would come home overwhelmed with awe and wonder.

Not only did that happen, but my wonder for the  peace He provided and the accomplishments of His goals overwhelmed me, too.  My son experienced beautiful people, the using of his gifts, camaraderie of the team and a stepping out of himself that he couldn’t have, had he stayed home.  With that, was a wonder at what God did.  His hand was everywhere as they all shared stories of an ability to go beyond what their bodies and spirits could do, so they could reach people who needed their touch.

As for me, basing my prayers in love made all the difference.  Had I worried instead of waited for Him to show me his power, I would have missed out.  My son needed to go to Mexico to teach me that, I guess.  Now, even though the world would tell me I have plenty of issues to worry about, I just can’t because I know that around the corner is an experience that will leave me in wonder at what God has done.  If I worry, I miss it, because an important part is for me to trust him to work, set aside my worry and wait for the wonder.  It’ll come.  I know it will because He keeps allowing me to live it, one story at a time.  So if you’re tempted to worry, don’t.   The wonder’s coming.  Watch for it in hopeful and confident expectation.  He will come through because He is a love-based God.

 

I’m too afraid to be courageous!

Aside

Eleven years ago, on the eve of their 3rd & 1st grade years, I was putting my two little boys to bed when I heard a sniffle.  My oldest son was holding back a few tears.  “What’s the matter, honey?”  I couldn’t imagine what could be bothering this high-energy, highly social little guy.  “I’m worried that 3rd grade will be too hard for me,” he managed.  Apparently he’d been told that the stakes would get much higher, the homework tougher and the challenged more numerous and was now, rightfully, afraid.  He was convinced he didn’t have what it took to manage the coming days.

After ineffectually trying to convince him otherwise, I tried a new tactic.  Telling him he had what it took to face the school year hadn’t worked so here’s what I suggested:  “Let’s freak out.” Eyes wider, he asked, “what?”  I launched into fear-laced moanings of all the things he couldn’t do during 3rd grade: he’d fail, he’d not be able to swim, he’d not make new friends….soon he was joining in.  From the above bunk, our eavesdropper joined in.  We laughed as this little dynamo face-planted during recess, got forgotten on the bus and even received a wedgie from a 4th grader.  Oh, the horrors.

Seems cute when an 8 year old does it, but we adults are no different, really.  In my quest to keep ‘courage’ at the forefront of my mind this year, I was piqued to listen to a conversation recently about people’s main motivation.  What do you guess?  Money? Nope.  Accolades, accomplishments, pride?  No again.  What motivates most of us is fear.  That’s right, fear.  Think about it.  Deep down, so many of our decisions are made because we want to keep our fears at a distance.  I’m not criticizing it…heck, I do it myself.  Why did I watch my kids so closely when they went outside?  I feared they’d be snatched.  Why do we say ‘yes’ to things we don’t want to do?  Fear of what others will think.

For our 3rd grader, it took emphasizing everything that could go wrong to realize how ridiculous it was to worry.  If we’re in a good frame of mind and with someone who loves us enough to let us express ourselves,  we could easily launch into our fears with our finances, our relationships, our jobs.  But I learned something in that moment all those years ago that I need reminding of now and then: “Courage is the complement of fear.  A (wo)man who is fearless cannot be courageous.”  Courage and fear are like ying and yang: close bedfellows.

We cannot have courage unless we first have a taste of fear.  Firefighters and police officers can tell you this.  So can kids going to a new school, you beginning your retirement or someone going to the gym in snug yoga pants. We won’t have any reason to exercise courage unless we’re a little freaked out.  Ever witness someone make a speech when they’re pea-green scared?  That’s courage.  Ever have to stand up to an angry, intimidating person?  Fear could keep us from doing lots of things, but courage allows us to follow through.

So my year continues with looking at my fears but not shrinking from them, knowing that courage wraps itself around those fears, ready to lift it up and out of the way.  It’ll still be there, circling back around for more, but in the meantime, I’ll choose to laugh while I freak out, then move on to face those snug yoga pants.