The Needless Burden of Your Baggage

I can remember years ago when my nonagenarian grandmother was alive, that no matter what befell her in her old age, she refused to let anything get her down.  For years, she was happy to enjoy the simple pleasures in life like cooking for others, visitors, and family.  We’d ask her, on any given day, how she was feeling, and she’d tell us, “I can’t complain.”  That response always astounded me because she clearly had much about which to complain as it wasn’t like she was pain-free.  Yet despite her cataracts, arthritis which resulted in a hunched over frame, losing her hearing, and high cholesterol and blood pressure, she refused to complain.  I thought maybe she was just modest or didn’t want to focus on the negative (both of which may be true), but I believe she wouldn’t complain for another reason.

In life, she never wanted to be a burden on anyone, desiring to do most things herself.  So, I’ve concluded that she responded with no complaints because of just that: she didn’t want to burden others with what she was going through.  She’d rather keep it to herself and bear the burden silently.

But isn’t sharing the burden a Godly trait?  Our earthly burdens are frequently referred to as “our yoke,” with scripture instructing us to place it upon Christ where He will give us rest.  Galatians 6.2 teaches us to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.”  We frequently see our fellow travelers struggling with difficult baggage, and it does them great good to share those struggles with an attentive ear and a firm shoulder.  But this is not about those selfless people or those sacrificial times.

This is about the me-monster.

Comedian Brian Regan told a story about how at a party, no matter what he said, this other person had a bigger story.  When Brian told about an accomplishment, the other person would say something along the lines of, “Well, if you think that’s something, then…” and would proceed to top whatever he had to say, obnoxiously eclipsing him at every turn.  Similarly, the me-monster can rear its ugly head when it comes to sharing burdens.

We all know that person (or maybe more than one) whom we never like to ask how they are doing, because we know we are in for a long story about how much they’ve been suffering lately.  They will go on to complain about their health, how their kids are treating them, what indignities they’ve suffered at work, all because they just love to put burdens on other people and top other’s stories.

Get a few of them together, and unlike my grandmother’s approach, it’s a who’s who of bodily ailments: whose sciatica is acting up, what pain was emanating from where the other day, or how their senses are slowly getting dulled in the coming years.  You see, the me-monster doesn’t also just like to one-up you with their accomplishments, they also like to out-do you in how much they have to put up with.  They are a black hole of sympathy in the room, drawing all sunlight and hope away from everyone for the sheer desire to elicit misery and empathy.  In short, they want you to feel bad for them because it makes them feel good.

And it doesn’t do anyone any good in the process.  The me-monster just gets bigger and those around it are further alienated and minimized.  Sometimes, burdening others with our troubles isn’t the answer.  Sometimes it’s better to just carry them ourselves if we can.

I was faced with this dilemma recently, when I learned at work that there was a chance I might lose my job due to budget cuts.  I had been there twelve years, but in my department, I was third from the bottom.  This information weighed on me as I wondered how I was going to deal with it.  For many, as was my instinct too, their first action is to share the burden with a loved one or spouse.  I thought through this action, but realized that in sharing my burden with my wife, she would have to put up with that burden as well, carrying it around, needing to deal with it.  I didn’t want to have to have her suffer with this information yet, as like I said, there was only a chance of me losing it.  So, why put my burden on her and force her to contend with it when I could quietly suffer with it just fine myself?  By telling her, the only person who would benefit would be me from the sympathy, which is arguable because if my wife is worrying about this, then our marriage suffers too with the amount of stress I’ve introduced.

So, I decided that I would tell her when the threat was more real or when I couldn’t deal with it myself, just like my grandmother who was suffering silently just fine by herself.  There was no need to burden others with what she was going through, so I followed likewise.  And as it turns out, my threat passed, and it seems I have a job next year.  So, by telling her back then, not only would I have been burdening her with this information, I would have been needlessly burdening her, just like the me-monster.

Just because we are suffering, that doesn’t give us license to share with everyone around us.  Even Christ didn’t share with everyone the burden of His impending crucifixion.  Sure, when the burden becomes too much, confession to someone close helps lift that burden, but just becoming the me-monster and burdening everyone else in our world doesn’t make for a very inviting existence.  So the next time you have an opportunity to share your burden, weigh whether you need to or not.  Don’t let the me-monster take over your communication, and instead take a note from grandma by choosing to radiate optimism and not complain.  Amen.

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The Inner Warmth of Simple Gestures

When entering the cat shelter, even though we are greeted with a variety of responses from all 75 cats, there is one overwhelming response and need that dominates the whole place: attention.  Almost every cat there wants to be petted, rubbed, roughed up, or scratched.

My family and I have been volunteering at a local cat shelter for the past couple of years, where we come in once a week to clean cages, change litter boxes, feed, and fill water dishes, but for the most part, what these cats want more than anything else, is to be acknowledged through human touch.  Since they don’t have owners, their exposure to people is very limited, so when we get near Mew-Mew’s cage or see Joey waiting at the door for us, we know that they just want to have some much-longed for attention.  Sure, there are the few who want nothing to do with people for the most part, as initial reactions are clouded with bad memories and fear, but even the most hardened of feline hearts melt after enough time.  Just ask Smudge, who went from batting at us with open claws to full on mush who just needs to have his neck scratched.

What I’ve observed from these cats is that despite their rough exteriors, their past experiences, or their temperaments, there are common character traits among all of them.  There exist desires that they all share, needs that must be fulfilled, with the biggest being a need for people to pay attention to them.  It’s as if they are preprogrammed at birth with this trait.  To them, there is something fantastically comforting about rubbing up against us or having us stroke their backs.  Perhaps they feel comforted or validated.  Maybe it reminds them that someone’s taking the time to devote efforts to them.  We may never know the impact that such a small gesture makes, but we know that they all want it.

This need is not regulated to just their world: these are human needs, too.  We have a tremendous need for attention and validation.  Don’t believe me, just check your friend’s Facebook or Instagram feed (or maybe your own).  We have a need for others to like our pictures or statements, commenting on how impressed they are with our lives.  And there’s nothing wrong that need; it’s just an observation of who we are as a species.  Despite what Simon and Garfunkel may claim, no man is a rock or even an island: we all desire some sort of connection with others, so that we know we are not alone.

When we need it, it can be frustrating and devastating when we don’t get it.  Posting a picture to social media that gets no likes can be upsetting.  Those days where you walk into work and no one acknowledges that you are there, almost as if you are invisible, seem surreal.  Having waitstaff walk past you while you’re trying to get his or her attention is baffling.  During those times, you feel like jumping up and down and waving your arms because you can’t believe no one notices you.  Not getting noticed when we need it is an exasperating experience.

And a great deal of consolation comes when we finally do get acknowledgement.  Over the winter break, my students were given a task: make a difference in the lives of three people with whom you are not terribly familiar, and write about it.  I purposely left the assignment very open-ended to see what they would do.  When I read their responses, the creativity was quite surprising.  Some took it upon themselves to help others where they saw need, but others decided to just change people’s lives for the better by handing out random compliments and smiles.  The responses they got surprised even them, as people radiated the kindness that was given them.  Individual’s days were made significantly better by such small gestures, as we feel comforted when someone notices us.

Feeling noticed and having connection isn’t regulated to the weak, either.  The strongest of us need companionship and connection, too.  The night before Christ was to be arrested and crucified, He knew it was coming, and feeling the immense pressure of His impending sacrifice, asked for someone to be with Him.  He withdrew to Gethsemane and prayed, taking a few of His disciples with Him.  “Then he said to them, ‘My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.  Stay here and keep watch with me’” (Matthew 26. 38).  Feeling alone, overcome, and lonely, Christ felt the need for companionship and asked that His friends stay and support Him.  He knew that just being there with Him was enough of a consolation, so that He wouldn’t feel as if He was facing hardship alone.

We should never feel the need to go at it alone.  Even the most hardened of exteriors longs for human connection beneath.  We all hurt, we all want connection, we all want comfort.  Just like the cats, we are all preprogrammed at birth with the same basic human needs.  I continually impress upon my students the need to acknowledge someone who is all alone by giving them just a smile, a friendly hello, or whatever else they are willing to give.  Sometimes, just asking if someone is okay is enough to make them feel better.  The idea that we don’t need to suffer alone is a great comfort to many, giving quiet consolation where there is loneliness.

Knowing this fact, don’t feel the need to face things down alone.  Ask for people to be near you; reach out to others when feeling the hardships of life.  Just making that connection with another is sometimes enough to get you through things.  And when you spy someone alone, remember that despite what they may look like on the outside, they may be silently struggling inside.  Don’t be afraid to smile and greet them, as that extension of warmth might be just what they need to get through that day.  Amen.

Working Hard is Hardly Working for You

I’m really busy, lately.  I won’t bore you with the details, but what is most telling during this time is how cluttered my home desk gets, and not with work.  Instead it’s filled with materials that I find relaxing, items that help me get away from it all: comic books, enjoyable readings, Sudoku puzzles, newspapers, and magazines.  Since they have nothing to do with work, they are not a priority, and are left untouched until I am no longer busy.  One can usually get a sense as to how busy my life is by how chaotic this area is: the more there is, the busier I am (and conversely, when fully empty, it means that I have time for leisure activities).  So, during this time of heavy work, there gets to be quite the pile.

In mentioning this scenario, most people don’t really see a problem.  For those of us who prioritize well, we know that we get done what needs to get done first, looking to escape later when there is time to escape.  Yet, look at that word: “escape.”  Why do we call these activities escapist if we don’t get to them until there is nothing from which to escape?  Why do we wait until everything is finished before we start them?  The obvious reason is because there is work to do, but I would like to make a case that excessively working without these escapes is nothing more than a futile exercise in entropy.

Put simply, one of the laws of entropy (or thermodynamics) suggests that for some tasks, the more effort you put in, the fewer results you will get in return; the harder you try, the less you’ll succeed.  For example: a student has a test tomorrow, and when he gets home, he tries to read the relevant chapters, scanning them several times.  He then takes notes on those chapters, filling out several pages worth.  Next, he chooses to stay up late and quiz himself on those chapters, creating flashcards and diagrams to help with his studying.  He sets an early alarm to review all the material.  On the bus in, he works towards memorizing all his notes and reviewing his flashcards.  He continues to study up to the minute that the test is given, yet when he gets his grade back, the grade is not as high as the other student who studied for a few hours when she got home, had dinner with her family, made one set of flashcards and reviewed them twice, watched a little television, got lots of sleep, and didn’t study at all when she got up the morning of the test.

I’ve seen these two scenarios play out thousands of times.  The one who tried hard ended up burning himself out, where the one who worked, but took breaks with activities she enjoyed, ended up renewed, filled with energy, and performing at a higher capacity.  More isn’t necessarily better.  There exists, in each of us, a point where going beyond said point has diminishing returns, and we are then not of any use to anyone, including ourselves.  However, when we stop before we get to that point and then couple it with times of leisure, we are more productive despite the less time devoted to work.  God gives us opportunities for rest for a reason, and if we don’t take them, we become overworked and overstressed.

When the work is piling up, we seem to think that we need to tackle it right away and continue to tackle it even when we are exhausted.  We don’t take time to do the things we enjoy, activities that renew our spirit.  Christ felt this way, too.  After a long day of preaching to the crowds, despite their demands for more, Christ decided to get away, even though there was still work to be done.

That day when evening came, he said to his disciples, “Let us go over to the other side.”  Leaving the crowd behind, they took him along, just as he was, in the boat.  There were also other boats with him.  A furious squall came up, and the waves broke over the boat, so that it was nearly swamped.   Jesus was in the stern, sleeping on a cushion.  The disciples woke him and said to him, “Teacher, don’t you care if we drown?”  He got up, rebuked the wind and said to the waves, “Quiet! Be still!”  Then the wind died down and it was completely calm. – (Mark 4. 35-39)

Even though the storm raged around them, Christ ignored it.  Even though the work was piling up, He was in need of renewal (and more than likely, the only reason He calmed the storm was so that the disciples would leave him alone and let Him rest).  Often, it’s more important to rest and be renewed than it is to tackle the work.  Christ knew that there is always time for work, but there will not always be time for rest.  And the more rest He got, the more productive He could be later.  By accepting these God-given occasions for rest and renewal, we are allowing God to grant us the rest we need, so we can continue to work for Him in all things.

This week, despite the work that may be piling up for you, stop after a reasonable amount is done, and start to do the activities that refresh your mind and renew your spirit.  Whether it be time for yourself, time with God, or time with others, take time to make the time.  The work will still be there when you get back, but by taking the time to do what nourishes your soul, you will be able to tackle the work that much more productively.  Overworking yourself won’t get as much done as you might think, but by breaking up that work with activities that renew your spirit, you can be ready to tackle more later, being the full-charged person that God desires you to be.  Amen.

Fallen Idols, Shaken Foundations

I am now sorry to say that I grew up with Bill Cosby as my tv father.

In the 70s and 80s, I thought Cosby was a comedy god, and as a child, it was impossible to escape him.  Whether he was telling me to eat my Jell-O pudding pops or making me laugh with the rest of the Fat Albert gang, I thought he was the funniest person ever.  As a huge fan of comedy, I can remember watching “Bill Cosby: Himself,” his quintessential stand-up special from 1983, over and over, trying to memorize his jokes and imitate his cadence, movements, and especially his voices.  On Thursday nights, my parents and I would gather around the television to watch sweater-clad Cliff Huxtable teach his children another valuable lesson about life, and really, he was teaching me, too.  We probably ended up watching all 197 episodes, so it was a real honor when I saw him perform in person in 1994 at my college when he came to do a concert there.

He also managed to be such a role model in his act.  He never cursed or spoke negatively about anyone (except maybe his children).  He also used his celebrity status to speak out about young black men and the role they play in society, how they needed to take responsibility for their actions and words.  So, it was with a heavy heart and a tremendous amount of sadness when, in November 2014, I learned that Bill Cosby may have raped and sexually assaulted as many as 60 women over the course of his career.

As a country, we went through a variety of reactions to the news, from disbelief, to anger, to sadness, and so on.  How could someone we trusted so much with our time and invested so much with our hearts betray us in such a way that was so disgracefully awful?  To this day, we still shake our heads in disbelief at the allegations: not that we think they are false, but that they are so shamefully unbelievable.

Role models and idols play a big part in our lives.  Ask anyone who their influences were growing up, and they will most likely name a celebrity, athlete, or musician.  Some name a person closer to them, like a sibling, parent, or teacher.  Then, and sometimes even now, we look to these people for guidance and example; we think they have the answers and their lifestyle reflects that wisdom.  Yet when these role models misstep and fall, we are deeply shaken, as if our foundation has crumbled from beneath us.  We spent so much time building our belief system and moral code on their teachings and examples, that to see them fall is detrimental to our support system.  When Lance Armstrong battled cancer and fought his way back onto his bicycle, we were inspired to struggle.  When he won 7 consecutive Tour de France competitions, we thought him a hero.  And when he admitted to taking performance enhancing drugs the whole time, we didn’t know how to continue.

For Christians, our role models are those who walk in Christ’s footsteps and in His word.  Hebrews 13:7 tells us to “Remember your leaders who taught you the word of God.  Think of all the good that has come from their lives, and follow the example of their faith,” while in 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul advises us to “imitate me, just as I imitate Christ.”  For us, Christ is the only true role model, as He will never fall.  Humans may, but He won’t.  Yet what happens when they do?

Recently, I’ve directly experienced leaders and role models who were looked up to by many and guided by several, fall quite hard.  What has been left in their wake are people who are now just as lost as I was when Cosby’s accusers came forward.  So how do we overcome these catastrophes and rebuild?  How can we recover from such a loss of faith?

For those who are directly affected, you can start by talking out your emotions when you’re ready.  Finding someone, or a group of people, who will listen without judgement or interruption is extremely cathartic and cleansing.  Express your every thought and feeling: how angry, sad, or alone it made you feel.  Deal with the emotions head on instead of bottling them up inside.  Also, listen to others who similarly idolized that individual.  Hearing their grief may help you to realize that you are not alone.  Additionally, petition God for healing and comfort, allowing His love to wash over the deep wounds that seem incurable.

For those who are not directly affected but know others who are, you might be the one that can walk them through this difficult time.  When they are ready and willing to talk, listen in the same way as mentioned above: without judgement or interruption.  Offer allowable emotional support, meaning that you ask permission to touch or hug them.  If they are willing to, give it.  If not, let them know that you understand.  Just the knowledge that it’s there is sometimes comfort enough.  Finally, be the role model when others people’s role models fall.  Model how to respond in a crisis like this one.  Be a good listener and supporter.  Your example can set a new foundation where the previous one lay.

Obviously, putting faith in another person can be a risk, as our only perfect faith recipient, the one that will never fail, is Him.  But being human, we tend to put our faith and trust in others, and that faith can be betrayed because we are human.  The only thing we can do is be ready for when that failure happens and have a plan for recovery.  Although the fallout as a result of our fallen idols is emotionally unpredictable, what we can predict is how to heal from it.  Amen.

Certain Assumptions and Warlike Behaviors

When I was younger, I thought I knew everything.  I know that sounds trite and cliché, but the confession is true.  I now realize that everything I thought I knew wasn’t as solid as I thought it was, and that I was assuming quite a bit to get to where I was then.

Let me explain with this example:  Scientists have been recently developing a space messaging system, technology that sends information into deep space in hopes of receiving an answer.  Although we’ve been listening for otherworldly messages since 1985 with SETI (Search for Extraterrestrial Intelligence), and in 1974 we even sent a onetime 3-minute deep space signal to a specific star, now a new group called METI (Messaging Extraterrestrial Intelligence) plans on sending numerous messages out into the stars to see who is listening.

The initial idea of making initial contact with an alien civilization seems incredibly valuable and an enormous leap forward for humanity, but there are a variety of issues and conundrums that surround these actions, all of which are dependent upon several assumptions that we are making as a human race.  For example, we assume that should we reach an advanced people, these beings would want to develop a friendship with us.  By extending the olive branch to advanced worlds, how can we be sure that they will accept it?  (If you look through the annals of history, when Columbus came to America, it didn’t turn out so well for the Native Americans.)  We are also laboring under the possible delusion that as civilizations age, they become wiser and develop a totally peaceful existence.  What if these advanced groups have only become more warlike?  Some scientists have mentioned that they hope these civilizations are not angry or hungry, or we are in big trouble.

Also, when METI decides to send out its first message, there is debate as to what that message should be.  How do we know that those receiving it will not interpret it as a declaration of war?  Or an opportunity for colonization?  Or a loud beacon alerting them of our presence, when staying quiet might be the key to our survival?  And, with the universe being billions of years old, our world has only started thinking about contacting other worlds in the past hundred or so, while others might have been doing it for millions of years.  Maybe we’re one of the last worlds to the space party and are so far behind technologically that it may not be that other worlds don’t know that we’re here: maybe they just don’t think we’re worth contacting.

The only conclusion that can come from all this posturing is that we just don’t know what’s out there, what to expect, what to do, and we have no way of knowing any of it.  Thankfully, scientists are fully aware of what they do not know, so discussions and debates ensue, unlike some Christians who are not aware of what they do not know and just self-assuredly assume instead.

In fact, there are times that Christians are so sure of what they assume that they will base it as their entire foundation for belief.  As such, we assume that Jesus had long flowing brownish/blondish hair with brown eyes and light skin, as that is how He is often portrayed in art and film.  Yet given His lineage and the area in which he was raised, He most likely looked more Middle-Eastern than Arian.  We develop firm opinions on whether communion is actually Jesus’ body and blood or if it is just symbolic of His sacrifice, and we condemn anyone who thinks otherwise.  There are many that fully “know” what our own resurrection will entail, how long it will take, whether it will be bodily or spiritual, and how it will coincide with Christ’s return, but if we are to be honest, we really have no firm clue.

The fact that we don’t know is fine, but the problem arises when certainty comes when we are only assuming.  Wars and church divisions have come from arguments based totally on a hypothesis, as Christians can stand so firmly on assumption that it overwhelms them to the point of forgetting the two basic elements of Christ’s teaching: “’Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, with all your mind, and with all your strength.’ The second is: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no other commandment greater than these” (Mark 12.30-1).  At this point in His ministry, Christ knew that the various sects and lawmakers had so muddled every Jewish law that to be a follower involved too much specialized adherence and furious debate, so He boiled it all down to two laws.  However, since then, we have developed so many firm assumptions that many of us confidently stand on shaky ground, when the only fixed foundation should be these two rules.

There is a distinct difference between what we believe and what we know, and when we swap the two, we risk alienating the world and each other.  Instead of being immobile in your opinions, stop accepting assumption for fact and know that you do not know.  Instead, embrace your brothers and sisters in Christ, in addition to the non-believer, putting love above all else, just as Jesus asks us to.  Amen.

Grief:  It’s What’s for Dinner

Like most afflictions in life, the loss of a loved one is never easy to deal with.  Although coming to terms with the absence is the eventual goal, the journey there may be even more important, a trek that is paved with gut-wrenching, heartbreaking feelings that most identify as grief.  Although difficult to experience, grief is part of a healthy diet, nourishing us back to our former well-being.  Avoiding it or shortening it before its time deprives us of the nutritional healing it brings.  The grieving process, the steps needed to come to terms with the death of another, cannot be rushed or skipped, or we run the risk of further complications.

I recently learned that a local middle school, after the unexpected suicide of one of their classmates, encouraged students to attend services, counseling, and bereavement meetings, only to be rushed back to class in two days’ time.  The students, of course, deeply missed their friend, and the school didn’t acknowledge the loss beyond what they already had done in those couple of days.  They felt they had done their job.  So, the students hadn’t really grieved it fully and processed the death of their classmate, a process that takes time.  Thus, feelings of abandonment set in, and as they are now graduating high school five years later, they still hurt deeply about their loss.  What the school hadn’t considered was that they had shut down the students’ grieving process, a necessary part of their lives, when what they should have been doing was serving up a healthy amount of empathy and understanding.

The grief process is a natural reflex to an unnatural act.  As humans, we were never created with the intent to die, so most likely, we were also not created with the ability to cope with death, hence it takes time to heal.  Grief affects almost everyone at some point, but when it happens to other people, as Christians we can help people through the process.  Although grief manifests itself physically (weakness, aches, headaches), emotionally (anxiety, frustration, anger, guilt), socially (isolation and uncharacteristic behaviors), and spiritually (questioning one’s beliefs and faith), and can last anywhere from 6 to 18 months after the loss, the easily determined countermeasure that meets the needs of all of these symptoms comes down to one simple serving task:  being there.

Nothing works better in helping others through the grieving process than spending lots of time with them.  Christ sets forth His example with the model in Psalm 34.18: “The Lord is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God’s response in our time of grief is to be closer to us, as closeness brings comfort.  Knowing that God is walking with us through our time of loss helps us in overcoming the abandonment issues we feel during grief.  In addition to the amount of comfort that God provides, we should follow His example and serve up our support to those who grieve through our close proximity to them.

Surrounding loved ones with our presence is the best approach to helping them through grief.  Comfort is found in having other people around, as we feel that we are not alone when people are with us, going through the process alongside us.  Like the Jewish tradition of Shiva, which is practiced by having family members stay for a week in the home of the deceased and just sit with the immediate family, our constantly being with those who mourn brings ease and healing.

This ancient practice hearkens back to earlier years, even to the time of the death of Lazarus.  “Many of the Jewish people of the region had come to Martha and Mary to console them” (John 11.19) when their brother Lazarus died, and Jesus came soon after, as well.  They all knew that great comfort is found in others, as during the grieving process, we feel alone, abandoned, and hopeless.  Sometimes, comfort can come in the form of a stranger, if that stranger has been through a similar situation, hence the presence of bereavement groups.  When a Delaware pastor lost his teenage son to a car accident years ago, his wife received comfort from a call in the middle of the night from a Midwest stranger who previously had similar circumstances.  Surrounding the bereaved with hopeful people doesn’t cure the issue, but it brings much needed healing that takes root.  Our presence and our reaching out shows that we care.

In times of loss, knowing that we are not alone allows the process to move towards a time of healing.  When we see others grieving, it is important to surrounded them with others.  Had the school system spent more time working with the students in helping them through the process, many today might not necessarily be at ease with what happened, but would most definitely be at peace.  It is this peace that we can introduce to those who grieve by simply being there.  Whether sharing a meal, a night out, or just sitting quietly together, the therapeutic result of basic human connection and interaction nurtures grief and helps the person process the loss.  By answering the call to reach out to the grieving, we are doing His work by serving others and allowing a much-needed process to thrive so that a time of healing can grow forth from it, bringing peace to a place where there was none.  Amen.

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.

Putting the Human in Humanity

As I was overhearing two people having a not-quite heated but not-quite agreeable discussion about our current president in my classroom, it was clear that even though they were not seeing eye to eye, they seemed at least open to listening to what the other was saying.  Finally, in a moment of exasperation, the non-Trump supporter explained, “I don’t understand why.  Help me to understand.” Instantly, the sentiment reverberated in the room, as everyone listening suddenly realized what we were sorely lacking: empathy.  It was a moment of clarity for that person and for all those around, as they realized that we are living in a time period where understanding is needed more so than convincing, but most are not living that way.  

Ever since that moment, I’ve been trying to get a hold of where the nation and our individual situations are headed.  I did not vote for Donald Trump, a fact that I easily admit to not as anything else other than a fact.  I merely did not agree with his views and policies and felt that he did not accurately represent me.  So, during the election process, I found my default to be one of quick judgment of him and his supporters, and since they disagreed with me, it must be their mental shortcoming.  In fact, most of the country seemed to be defaulting to that approach, which may explain why we are now so divided.  The fact is, judging and dismissing is easier than trying to understand the opposing viewpoint.  Empathy requires patience, time, and openness, all signs of humanity.

So in an attempt to bring us together, I’ve been recently trying a new approach, where when I encounter a political opinion contrary to my own, I want to know why they feel that way and how they got there.  I may not agree with their view or decision, but at least I understand them.  If our ideas of what’s best for the country don’t match, that doesn’t make either side inherently evil; it just makes them different.  It’s our intolerant reactions to one another that invites evil.

The “Serenity Prayer,” a staple wall-hanging in many Christian households, reads, “God grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and the wisdom to know the difference.” With the three active requested characteristics being serenity, courage, and wisdom, they can be categorized as three traits that align with empathy and understanding, all of which fall under the same umbrella: acceptance.  In Romans 15.7, the apostle Paul encourages us to “accept one another, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.”  Even though we rejected, persecuted, and crucified Him, Christ was still able to accept us.  Surely, we can do the same for those that merely disagree with us.  

So when I asked some Trump supporters about what they thought of the latest enacted policies, I instead pursued a line of questioning that helped me to understand why and how they could support them, not a line of defense that created intolerance and discord.  From there, I learned of the past pain and struggle that plagued them, how they grappled with disappoint and failure, and how these new ideas provided hope for them.  This approach humanized them, and I could now see why they felt that way.  In the end, I didn’t agree with their stance, but the conversation went a very different way than it could have, as I was learning to accept them and reflect His approach to others, as well.  Through this humanizing act of acceptance, we can model His example, giving others a glimpse at His glory and bringing the country closer together in the process.  Amen.

The Tangled Strings of Gift Giving

In the subtle art of gift giving, there is a careful balance that must be achieved between the two agreeable parties.  Often times, when a gift is being given on a mutually celebrated holiday, the two parties enter into an agreement, whereas when a gift is given, the accepting party must reciprocate with a gift of similar monetary value.  Additionally, an equal amount of enthusiasm must be expressed upon receiving said gift, or the gift-giver may feel slighted and insecure regarding the pleasurable nature of said gift.  If the holiday is one-sided (i.e. – birthday), the receiver of the gift must express a certain measurable amount of both surprise and enjoyment for the received gift in an attempt to raise the esteem level of the gift-giver.  If, after measuring the amount of enjoyment for said gift, the gift-giver is dissatisfied with the response, then succeeding feelings of jealousy and resentment may incur, which may be followed by events of bickering, brawling, and/or relationship breakups.

When giving a gift, there can often times be a lot of baggage that comes with it.  The above, although tongue-in-cheek, illustrates a point: that when giving or getting a gift, there comes a certain amount of worldly expectations.  When people give, they expect something in return, whether it’s another gift or some reasonable expression of gratitude.  String are usually attached.  And the expectation of gratitude comes not just from gift giving but from any time people go out of their way to do something for someone.  I can remember specific times when people have cooked something for me, and they hover over me waiting for the confirmation that I love what it is they’ve done for me.  Should I express anything less than absolute love for the food, there is immediate disappointment.

One of the main reasons as to why we attach worth and emotions to material things is because of the ownership we have regarding these items.  When we give something, we extend a part of ourselves, and if the person doesn’t respond as expected, we feel personally injured because of the selfish value we place on things and their worth.  We give, expecting to receive.   We become attached not to the selfless act of giving but to the emotional and material worth of the exchange.  As we are attached to our things, we measure our relationship based on this interaction.  Mark 10.25 cites the attachments we have to our possessions with this parable: “It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God.”  In addition to our attachments, the verse suggests that human attachment to things directly connects with the amount of things we have.  The more we have, the more attachment there is.  Hence, when we give large, expensive, important gifts, we expect an equitable response.

Now, the verse is not suggesting that we get rid of all of our possessions.  In fact, if all we have is from God, then getting rid of them would be rejecting His gifts to us.  He gave them to us for a reason.  Instead, what the verse is suggesting is that we acknowledge our faults as people, becoming aware that we naturally become attached to our things.  If attachment is a default, then Christ calls us to a higher reasoning, imitating Him as he gave Himself to us, knowing that we would reject His gift.   Jesus had no expectations when he offered His body for sacrifice.  There was no agreement between us and Him.  He did it as a selfless act of giving and love, and we should similarly follow, denying our sinful nature and embracing His motivations by focusing on Him instead of the act.  As you give to others, don’t wait for thanks or gratitude in order to feel love.  Give selflessly because you want the other person to feel His love, instead.  Amen.

Giving God Your Full Attention

I can usually tell when my students are listening to me or not.  Their attention is usually fragmented by any number of devices or distractions that surround them on a daily basis, so I must be aware when they are listening and when they aren’t.  Often times it’s some social media-like thing that they are immersed in, or they’re lost in thought about some problem they’re facing at home or with someone they’re dating, or sometimes both.  The issue is that because of the demands placed on them in life and the social expectations they should be living up to, there is too much going on for them to participate in active listening.  Although, I can’t really point the finger much.  At home, my wife often accuses me of only hearing every third word she says, as I often get the gist of what she is saying right, if not the details.  I suppose for my students, the same can be said about me in that I just have too much going on in my life and head to actively listen sometimes.

When we want someone to actively listen to us, we sometimes ask them to look directly at us when we are speaking, in an effort to make sure that they are listening attentively.  In my class, when I am saying something important that I don’t want to have to repeat, I often times ask them to “Listen with your face” so that I can make sure they hear every word and idea that I am saying.  Perhaps committing more than just your ears to hearing is the key to actively listening.  Since more than one sense is necessary in these situations, so it can also be said of worship.  When we pray or worship God, whether on our own or together, we can and should be committing more than just our minds and ears to Him.  In Romans 12.1, Paul doesn’t limit us to only those two commitments, but feels as if we should be using as much of ourselves to glorify Him. “Therefore, I urge you, brothers and sisters, in view of God’s mercy, to offer your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and pleasing to God—this is your true and proper worship.”

Many years ago, I decided that it was not enough to just commit my voice to God in worship, but to commit as many of my senses to Him as possible.  So, when we would recite a prayer or song, I would make sure to not only speak it, but to commit my eyes to Him by reading along as well, even if I already knew the prayer or song by heart.  Additionally, I could commit my ears to Him by listening to the church body around me participating along with me in the song.  I can feel the power of His prayers and songs by touching the prayers and verses as I recite them aloud.  I could take in the smells of candles and incense, knowing that they are there to bring glory to Him.  And I can taste the communion wine and bread, remembering the sacrifice He made for me.  However, despite committing these five sense to Him, there still remains a sixth one that is most important: the heart.  We can utilize our sight, smell, taste, hearing, and touch to glorify Him, but if our hearts are not for Him, then those commitments are meaningless.  It is the heart that guides our mind and actions, and without it, those senses and commitments are meaningless.  So, this week, let’s not only commit all our senses to Him, but our hearts as well, so that we can fully promise ourselves to Him in life and in spirit.  Instead of just listening with our faces, let’s listen with our hearts, too.  Amen.