Talking Ourselves Out of Listening

As a teacher, I witness thousands of interactions every day.  Conversations abound around me as teenagers struggle with navigating the social and academic landscape, attempting to understand themselves and their peers.  During these conversations, students are often grasping to get their points across as awkward silence and miscommunication block their intent.  I see them talking over one another, cutting each other off mid-sentence, and being distracted by something more interesting around them.  It has been argued that teenagers, and ourselves, have lost the art of conversation, with the influx of technology being the main culprit.  Although, this reason may contribute, there is an even greater reason as to why we are not communicating well.  One of the most important skills we can learn in order to effectively converse and communicate with one another has nothing to do with what we are saying, but involves us closing our mouths and opening our ears.

In Celeste Headlee’s TED Talk “10 Ways to Have a Better Conversation,” the NPR host cites several different strategies and approaches to get the most out of our interactions.  Among ideas that include avoiding multitasking and pontificating, utilizing open-ended questions, and dodging repetition, is one of her most important pieces of advice, for us to listen when others speak.  Although a simple directive, it’s not quite so simple when we look at the reasons as to why we don’t listen to one another.

When we converse, anxiety tends to play a part, and we feel the pressure of expectation.  So, we tend to listen less and talk more because, let’s face it, we’d rather talk.  When we talk, we are in control and need not worry about the direction of the conversation.  We are then the center of attention and can guide the conversation towards topics in which we are interested.  When we listen, we hand over control to another, which can sometimes be uncomfortable and intimidating.  Also, because of our humanity, our egos dictate that we consistently like to promote ourselves, thus our constant need to interject our own pontifications and experiences into what others are saying.  And finally, we get distracted easily.  Our brain listens to more words than we can speak, so our mind tends to wander, thus taking more effort and energy to pay attention to someone.  Yet, if we put ourselves aside and accept humility, we can actively engage in listening to one another, gaining a deeper understanding of our lives and relationships.

Proverbs 18.13 states that “To answer before listening—that is folly and shame.”  When we do not actively listen to each other, we develop disagreements and misunderstandings.  We build unfounded resentment because we are too concerned with our own agenda.  Author Stephen Covey observed that, “Most of us don’t listen with the intent to understand; we listen with the intent to reply.”  If we can set aside our personal needs and surrender them to others, we can truly listen to what others are saying, resulting in building stronger relationships based on truth and understanding.

We also tend to talk too much to God in prayer instead of listening to Him.  We most often pray when we have a need or a list of desires, but we don’t pray when there is nothing to say.  So, we may be telling God everything we need, but we don’t hear what God truly wants for us.  As Christians, we desire to know God, and listening helps us work towards that goal.  Film music composer John Powell said that, “A good listener truly wants to know the speaker.”  Through silence and being a good listener we grow closer to Him and align our goals towards knowing Him better.

There’s an old joke about careful listening in a marriage that goes something like this: “My wife says I never listen to her.  At least I think that’s what she said.”  Although told in jest, the humor rings true, as most of us have no idea how to really listen to one another.  This week, ask for a spirit of humility and spend more time listening than talking.  If we silence our inner selves and become humble in speech, not only before others but before God, we grow in faith, wisdom, and in our relationship with Him, finally hearing what wonderful plans He has for us.  Amen.

The Result of Stepping in It

Having a house with three dogs and a big backyard, the “waste” can build up pretty quickly if not attended to.  So, someone in our household is always picking up after them, attempting to keep our yard free and clear.  Yet, no matter how hard I try, for some reason, I have always managed to step directly into a pile of it.  It’s actually a running joke in our house, as no one else seems to have this problem.  Despite trying to keep a look out, I usually end up with it on the soles of my shoes.  The worst part is the discovery, as I don’t usually find out that I’ve stepped in something right away.

Sometimes, I manage to track it in the house, and am horrified to find it trailed behind me.  Sometimes it’s when I enter an enclosed space, and either myself or the people around me sense the odor.  And when I am alerted by others, the overall sensation (both mine and theirs) is disgust and revulsion.  The overwhelming smell is so strong, that it doesn’t matter who you are, what you look like, or what level of fame or power you have in life: there’s nothing like a little poop on your shoes to bring you down several notches.

As Christians, our living example to others is one of our strongest tools in showing the world Christ.  Yet we have a tendency to “step in it” in life, thus destroying any ministry or power our example might have.  When we become involved with events or activities that clearly are not Godly, we have “stepped in it” and that act permeates any other good that we are trying to accomplish.  Paul, in his letter to the church at Corinth, suggested that “we put no stumbling block in anyone’s path, so that our ministry will not be discredited” (2 Corinthians 6.3).  He knew that one small stench can destroy an entire lifetime’s worth of work, so he warned us to watch our step.

So how are we “stepping in it,” exactly?  When I literally step in it, it’s usually because I am paying attention to the wrong things in life and not what is on the ground in front of me.  Thus, we “step in it” by having the wrong focus, drawing attention to ourselves through the wrong means.  Vala Afshar, a writer for The Huffington Post, recently tweeted that we should not be impressed by “money, power, looks, title, or network.”  When we focus on improving these very human areas in our own life, and often times blindly so, we tend to bring attention to our own person and what we have accomplished as individuals.  We have stepped into areas that take the focus off Christ and put it on ourselves and our achievements, establishing a stench of personal triumph.  Gandhi is often cited with the idea that he liked Christ but did not like Christians, and most likely because Christians step in it frequently, making our examples very un-Christ-like.  When we focus on bettering ourselves, the stench is staggering enough to illicit revulsion and rejection, no matter how great our words and examples are.

Then, Afshar tweeted that we should be impressed by “character, kindness, generosity, humility, and passion,” areas that take the spotlight off ourselves and place it on Christ’s example and teachings.  By building up these areas in our life, the stink is eliminated and our ministry of Christ’s love through us is manifested.  We no longer celebrate our personal success but instead rejoice in His love for us, and the smell of His embrace is much more attractive than what we may be tracking in on our shoes.

If our priorities and goals are misaligned, and we seek this first list of qualities, the overwhelming foulness permeates any other admirable goals we may be trying to attain, and people will be driven off.  Yet, if we center ourselves daily on Him through prayer and meditation, realigning our efforts on these Christ-like qualities, people will be drawn to Him through us, and will experience the much more inviting sweet scent of His love for the world and all its people.  Amen.

Swapping Anger for Empathy (and Donuts)

A friend of mine was recently celebrating his son’s ninth birthday party by hosting a sleepover.  As a special request, they had the local bakery make specialty donuts in the shape of the number “9” to give out to everyone when they awoke the next morning.  Making sure to be careful about planning the event with enough time, the father called the order in well-ahead so that the bakery would be able to fulfill the order.

On the morning of the sleepover, the man and his son went to pick the donuts up, only to find that one of the baker’s workers had given away half of the order to another customer by accident.  The father’s mind and heart filled with outrage, as he stood ready to angrily lash at them for their obviously careless mistake.  After a moment of lividness, he took a deep breath and asked the manager how they could solve the problem.  She quickly got on the phone to see what she could do.

Anger tends to be the go-to emotion for many people when life sometimes takes a turn away from what was expected.  American philosopher Martha Nussbaum keenly suggests that all anger is deeply rooted in feeling a lack of control in our life.  When anger rears its head, most times it is because of insecurity, where situations and relationships are deemed beyond our control, or events and outcomes are going against our wishes and wills.  Anger rises when our best laid plans go awry and we try to fix what we can’t; it is our futile response at attempting to solve problems.

When things don’t go our way, we also quickly look to blame someone, finding a target for our anger.  Yet, when we do, we ignore the problem and focus on the individual.  By shifting focusing to the problem, we look towards a solution, which is really what we truly want.  Anger might feel good in the present, but a solution feels even better in the future.

While the manager was on the phone, a young girl quietly came over and sheepishly took the blame.  Upon her confession, the father’s anger began to subside as he realized that this young girl was doing her best and was already embarrassed by the situation.  Despite whatever righteousness he thought he could achieve through his anger in that moment, he might have destroyed this poor girl had he responded in anger.

After the manager got off the phone, she said that she could have a new batch made later that evening.  He knew that he didn’t need the donuts until all the boys woke up, so he told the manager that as long as he had them today, he would be alright.  When he returned that night to pick up his order, he was met with three times the amount he asked for, all already paid for, along with various other free bakery items.

We have to wonder how this event would have turned out had he vented his anger.  He might have gotten what he wanted, but at what cost?  Proverbs 29.11 writes, “Fools give full vent to their rage, but the wise bring calm in the end.”  By holding onto his anger, he managed to salvage a girl’s feelings, be a good role model for his son, get a lot more bakery items than he asked for (and all for free), and be able to walk back into the store with his head up and be greeted with genuine kindness.

When we focus on the solution and respond with empathy instead of anger, the ripples of compassion and understanding spread far beyond the moment and affect more than just the outcome.  This week, as you find yourself angered and outraged, remember that these emotions stem from our insecurities and desire for control.  Then, re-route your intentions towards solving the problem instead of lashing out at others.  The results will be much more satisfying in the long run than any expression of anger could possibly grant.  Amen.

Boldness: The Key to Miracles

Years ago, a British test pilot was flying a solo mission, when halfway through he discovered a rat on board with him who was chewing on his fuel line.  He assessed the situation and realized that if the rat was successful in completely chewing through the line, he would definitely not have enough fuel to get to where he was going and may not even have enough to land.  So instead of risking the landing, he decided to take the plane higher.  Since there was no oxygen higher up, he was able to successfully kill the rat and save his plane.

Often, when we are facing persecution and trouble, we tend to go low, hide out, and wait for the storm to quietly pass us by.  We rarely, if ever, face the storm head on and boldly proclaim victory in the face of it.  Instead, our humanity kicks in and we become meek in the face of adversity, and when we are timid, we are not only doubting our own abilities, but we are also doubting God’s ability to work through us.  When we feel the need to go low, God desires us to go high, as that’s where He can do His biggest works.  By going high with boldness and declaring victory for Him, we open the floodgates for his miracles to be done through us, giving Him even more glory.

Scripture repeatedly shows that God desires to use us way beyond our capacity.  Whether leading people out of Egypt despite speech issues, fathering a child while in the twilight of life, or facing down actual lions, individuals who were not fundamentally extraordinary were used for extraordinary achievements once they showed boldness.  When people see our boldness, it gives God a stage to accomplish His work through that boldness.  God wants us to achieve well beyond what people expect of us, work that we would never be able to do ourselves, because people then know that it couldn’t have possibly come through us: it must be from God.  It’s as if boldness is the calling card and invocation for God’s angels and for His plan to work through us.  When we go high, God takes us even higher.

Similarly, in Acts, after Christ’s ascension, the apostles Peter and John boldly preached to the crowds to the point that the leaders jailed them, threatening them to stop.  After being released, Peter and John continued to do what got them in trouble in the first place, boldly preaching the gospel, but now with an even greater boldness.  Together, they prayed: “‘Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness.  Stretch out your hand to heal and perform signs and wonders through the name of your holy servant Jesus.’  After they prayed, the place where they were meeting was shaken.  And they were all filled with the Holy Spirit and spoke the word of God boldly” (4.29-31).  As they became bolder, God took that boldness and worked to end their persecution, taking them and their followers even higher.  When we invoke boldness, God uses us beyond what we are capable of doing, all for His glory.

When we decide to go low in the face of adversity and land the plane instead of flying higher, we sometimes end up just saving the rat, allowing him to chew on the lines another day.  We need to show boldness in the face of persecution and to go high, ending that oppression and cutting off the enemy.  This week, when you are feeling as if the world is closing in on you, show a boldness in your faith that allows God to work miracles through you.  When the world wants you to go low, go high instead.  Amen.