The Gift of Listening

In the moments just before dawn this morning, I sat on my back porch, soaking up the sounds that God made. It was still too dark to see anything, so my sense of hearing was more finely tuned to the cardinal’s song greeting the coming light, the rasping of the crickets, the scratching of the squirrels as they ventured down the oak tree to drink from the bird bath… I could even hear the whir of hummingbird wings as the tiny bird neared the feeder beside the porch. It was a feast for my ears, and for my soul!

Listening is a gift…It is a gift that God offers–in the staggering discovery that God actually listens to us–and it is a gift that we offer others…  -Adam S. McHugh, The Listening Life

I’ve spent the last week studying and pondering the fourteenth chapter of Luke’s gospel. A leader of the Pharisees invites Jesus to join him and his guests (more Pharisees) for Sabbath dinner so that they can observe him. They’ve heard that his Sabbath behavior can be inappropriate, so they test him. Jesus, of course, sees it as the perfect opportunity to challenge their perverted understanding of humility, compassion, generosity and hospitality and to teach them God’s perspective about these virtues.

Jesus is quite clear that we are to cultivate and practice these virtues now if we want to sit at God’s dinner table when the Kingdom comes in the fullness of time. I am challenged by this. I am not by nature consistently humble, compassionate, generous, or hospitable. And from what I observe of human nature, I’m not alone.

As I listened to the sounds of creation this morning, Jesus’ words from Luke 14 echoed in my mind, as well as McHugh’s proclamation that listening is a gift. Jesus always listened. (And he still does!) He was never too rushed, too busy to stop and listen to someone’s need. And I sensed the Spirit saying that listening is critical to developing the virtues of humility, compassion, generosity, and hospitality.

Listening requires humility, first and foremost. I have to be humble enough to set aside my thoughts, my desire to speak, in order to truly listen to another. Deep listening reflects compassionate concern for others. Listening prompts generosity and is, in and of itself, an offer of hospitality.

Listening is a gift–first from God to us in that he listens to us continually, and then from us to others as we freely, humbly, compassionately, generously and hospitably give what we have been given.

In our lives, Lord, let this be so. Amen and amen.

Adjusting Expectations

Recently I was talking with a young man who is reaching what is probably the midpoint of his life, and is grappling with the fact that time is running out on accomplishing some of his dreams. He has a wife and family, a good (if sometimes stressful) job, and has recently met a major life goal. Perhaps it is the accomplishment of that goal that has prompted him to look at what he once dreamed his life would be, comparing it to what he can see of the life that he has left…and finding it wanting.

While I am considerably older than him, I remember well the feeling of time slipping too quickly by as life’s milestones came and went: getting married, having children, accomplishing career goals, seeing my children finish school and embark on careers of their own, their weddings, the birth of my first grandchild (and then seven more!)… With each passing milestone I became more and more aware of the transcience of life. Sometimes I was frightened by that, and sometimes saddened by it as I imagined that there were fewer and fewer adventures to look forward to. When my mom died two years ago, it really hit home that I am closer to the end of my life than to its beginning. It has been an interesting journey of acceptance!

I wanted desperately to reassure that young man that, though he can’t see them right now, life still holds many adventures, many rewards, many beautiful moments. But I know that to try and explain that is like trying to explain how a bumblebee flies. It looks impossible for a bumblebee to get off the ground with its short wingspan and plump body–and indeed is, according to the laws of aerodynamics–so you simply have to witness it to know that it’s possible.

For 25 years we lived in a home with a heavily shaded yard. I couldn’t grow vegetables, and any flowers I planted had to be shade-loving. But then something unforeseen happened that enabled us to move last year into a house with a sunny yard. So I planted a vegetable garden in the spring. I also planted a package of zinnia seeds in a sunny flower bed.  I never imagined the adventure it would be to watch vegetables and flowers sprout from seed, yielding food and beauty for my table! I had no idea that I would learn to make img_20190819_102027-1pesto from basil I grew myself, or that I would be able to walk out my door and pick a bouquet of bright beautiful zinnias that have sprung from the seed I planted and nurtured. I couldn’t see that even five years ago! But my circumstances changed, and that is my new reality.

I’ve recently discovered that bird watching is an incredibly satisfying experience…which came as a great surprise! The other day I watched two hummingbirds vying for supremacy at the birdfeeder, their fighting keeping either of them from actually feeding. And I sensed God reminding me that when Christians bicker and argue among themselves, those who are spiritually hungry rarely get fed. I would never have imagined that adding a couple of birdfeeders to the yard would bring fresh insights into God’s timeless truths!

Growing vegetables and flowers and watching birds doesn’t sound very adventurous. It  certainly doesn’t rank up there with falling in love for the first time or traveling to exotic lands! But I’ve learned that the key to satisfaction with this season of life is adjusting my expectations. Twenty years ago I couldn’t see what this season of my life would look like. I couldn’t foresee that I would view life differently, that I would have more patience and desire to wait and watch for the wondrous moments that heretofore went unnoticed. I didn’t anticipate that simpler would be better in that it affords me the opportunity to enter more deeply into an experience, to listen for the sweet whisper of the Holy Spirit so that I might see how and where He is at work.

Transitioning through the seasons of life is sometimes hard and painful. We can’t see what the next season holds, and it’s easy to fear that it will be less than what we think we want. Just as I couldn’t see 20 years ago what my life would be like today, I can’t see now what my life will look like in 20 years. But I am learning that the key to contentment lies in the ability to adjust my expectations while maintaining hopeful expectancy for whatever God has in store.

Today I’m so happy to say that life isn’t anywhere near done with me, nor I with it… Thanks be to God!

 

There was evening and there was morning…

I was asked recently to reflect back on my life and look for the milestones that made my life seemingly worthwhile. The very first thing that came to mind was my children, their births and the subsequent years of raising them up into adulthood. Without a doubt, giving birth to another living being has been the greatest, most wondrous milestone of my life.

The next thing that came to mind were the deaths I’ve attended. Keeping watch at the bedsides of first my dad and then my mom was indeed every bit the milestones as the births of my three children. The rhythm of life…birth and death.

There was evening and there was morning…

The rhythm of days. Each one comes and goes, bringing whatever God wills or allows. An evening, life passing. A morning, new life begins. A day, the time from birth to death. There is a rhythm, a continuity that feels more right to me now in this season of life. I don’t feel the need to push against it, to defy its unceasing flow. These days it is rare that I think or say, “There just aren’t enough hours in this day to get everything done!” Instead I  trust that tomorrow will bring to me more hours in which to do whatever needs doing. Sometimes I even find that what was so important to get done yesterday holds less urgency for today!

There was evening and there was morning…a new day.

As I contemplate this rhythm, I find peace in simply entering into its flow. Of course, the rhythm can be fast or slow. Having a plan for the day is good; however, not being too ambitious and not holding too tightly to that plan is better. It slows the pace so that I can better appreciate the quiet grace of God in the unceasing flow, the rhythm of not just my own life, but life all around me.

In just the right time, Jesus will return and a new rhythm will begin. Until then, I will simply wait and watch, keeping with this God-ordained rhythm–there was evening and there was morning–finding peace and joy in its familiar flow.

One More Antidote for Anxiety

(Continuation on reflections from Psalm 37:1-11. The first two posts are here and here.)

As we’ve heard David’s exhortation to “fret not” and pondered his advice for avoiding anxiety, I’ve saved the best (IMHO) for last! It’s this…

Be still before the Lord. Wait patiently for him.

To meditate on God’s word, contemplating what it means to me in my particular circumstances, requires that I sit still and quiet before God, waiting patiently for him to reveal to me more of himself. That’s not at all easy in the fast-paced world in which we live. We are continually encouraged to do more and do it faster, to fill up every minute of every day with something that the world considers productive. There are several problems with that, not the least of which is that what is productive in the world’s eyes is often in direct opposition to God’s plan and purpose! God deeply desires our love and our attention. The enemy of our souls provides plenty of distractions, cultural busyness and the demand for productivity topping the list.

This past year has brought home the truth that being still before the Lord and waiting patiently for him is non-negotiable in my life, and I would daresay in the life of anyone who wants to follow Christ. I have lived the past four years going from one demanding season to another, juggling it all with as much grace as I could muster. However, at the end of last year, all the demands had been met and suddenly I was left with little to juggle! After four years of being driven and stressed with little time to process what I was experiencing, I found myself frustrated and worn out, even while my soul was incessantly restless. That’s when I discovered this great treasure in Psalm 37:7.

My habit for the past couple of decades has been to spend time with the Lord each morning. However, this time was not necessarily spent sitting quietly and waiting patiently. It was more often spent fulfilling the obligatory Bible reading so that I could check the box on my reading plan, while rehearsing the day’s agenda in the background of my mind and asking God to bless it. There wasn’t much time for listening…mostly it was knowledge acquisition and petitioning. So the truth of verse 7 required some life-changing choices.

For me, this has looked like changing how I live out each day…simpler. Not simpler as in doing less, but simpler as in doing what has meaning and purpose to me, and doing it at a reasonable pace.

  • My day still begins with morning prayer, but I now use a guide that offers a few verses of scripture, rather than chapters. I wait patiently for the Holy Spirit to illumine a few words and then sit with them–and Him–in the quiet.
  • I limit how many appointments I schedule in a day rather than filling every available hour, which leaves space for God to speak into my day as it unfolds.
  • I spend all the time I can outdoors, where I most easily experience God through contemplating his glory and imagination revealed through his creation.
  • I planted a vegetable garden this year—not because it’s the cool thing to do or because I want to make some sort of statement about organic food. I did it because I wanted to see what it would be like to sow seed and wait for God to grow it into something we can eat!
  • I bought a good camera and took a class in basic photography. It is much more challenging than snapping pictures with my phone! But it encourages me to literally see the world through a different lens.

I pray more than I ever have before. Not a to-do-list- for-God kind of praying, but an ongoing conversation about how good he is and how much more I want to know him so that I can love him more fully.

Am I fret-free? Of course not! I still have moments of anxiety. But when I’m tempted to fret, I find it helpful to consider David’s advice, to focus on

  • trusting in the Lord and doing good,
  • delighting in the Lord as I commit my way to him,
  • and being still before the Lord as I wait patiently for him.

Charles Spurgeon once said that faith cures fretting. What changes do you need to make in your everyday life to build a faith that becomes your antidote for anxiety?

 

More Antidote for Anxiety

(Continuation of my last post…)

Take delight in the Lord. Commit your way to the Lord.

It seems to me that these two go hand in hand. What might God delight in? What does God desire? The prophet Hosea says that God desires us to know him and to love him with a steadfast love.

How do we commit to knowing and loving God? Practically speaking, we spend time with those we love. How much time are we willing to spend with the Lord? I mean, really? What does that time look like? Is it ten minutes of looking at a devotional reading while the tasks of the day run through our mind? Is ten distracted minutes enough for a signficant relationship to thrive?

It takes more effort to engage with the Lord, and it requires a commitment to prayerfully reading the Bible regularly…as in every day.

Just a word of caution here… For a while, I used an app on my phone for my daily prayer. The app promised to make it easier to follow the Daily Office (my preferred reading plan), offering each day’s readings all in one place at the touch of a single button. But I found that the pings and dings of incoming texts, emails, and voicemails distracted me mercilessly. And then I would think of something I needed to add to my to-do list for the day, which prompted me to open my calendar to type in a reminder, which led to a whole bunch of other distractions. I’ve since gone back to my printed Bible!

And speaking of reading the Bible…while that’s certainly a good and necessary thing to do, is that all we need to do? Just because I read a book about someone, it doesn’t mean I really know them. Of course, the Bible is not just any book. It is unique in that it is the living word of God—the Holy Spirit enlivens each word for us as we allow Him to. And that’s just the point. Reading or studying for knowledge is one thing, and it’s what we are trained to do from the time we learn to read. But the intimacy of actually knowing God comes from meditating on his word, contemplating its meaning for our life and for our relationship with the One whose love for us is complete.

I’m certain that this sort of communion with God is what David is speaking of in Psalm 37 when he suggests that we delight ourselves in the Lord. And it will most certainly lead to another of his antidotes for anxiety, which will be the subject of my next post.

In the meantime, spend some time with God pondering these two questions:

  • Lord, how would you have me delight in you today?
  • Lord, practically speaking, what does it look like for me to commit my way to you today?

Antidote for Anxiety

When I’m frustrated and angry over some injustice, Psalm 37 is my go-to Psalm. It deals with the wicked and the unrighteous, the prosperity they enjoy in this life and the consequence of their evil doings when they have to face God. Psalm 37 reminds me that God will vindicate the righteous in due time. But as I prepared recently to preach from this Psalm, I found that–for me, anyway–the real treasure is found in the first eleven verses as David deals with an issue that most of us struggle with fairly regularly.

Anxious worry–which David refers to as “fretting”–is something I come by honestly. My mom was an anxious worrier, and her mother before her. There is much in our culture and in our world to provoke anxiety. News media focus on the negative, sensationalizing every terrorist plot, every tragedy, anything having to do with health issues, and so on. Our modern technology which promised us a more carefree life has instead enslaved us. (Just notice the anxiety you feel when you misplace your mobile device!) And all too often the doctors, hospitals, and pharmaceutical companies we trust to take care of us when we are sick have proven to be more concerned about the bottom line of their financial statements than curing our health problem.

(I could go on, but I prefer to be more of a “glass is half-full rather than half-empty” kind of woman!)

Here’s where those first eleven verses of Psalm 37 come in. King David penned this Psalm in his old age, after he’d lived long and accumulated much wisdom. The first two words are, “Fret not.” He says it twice more in the following eight verses, which should catch our attention. Now granted, he is saying this in reference to fretting over the godless who are prospering, but I think it’s applicable to most any kind of anxiety we experience.

David goes on to offer some very good, very wise advice…

  • Trust in the Lord and do good
  • Take delight in the Lord
  • Commit your way to the Lord
  • Be still before the Lord and wait patiently for him
  • Refrain from anger and turn from wrath

Trust in the Lord and do good.

Only when we trust in the Lord are we truly free to do good. When I fret over my possessions or achievements, comparing myself to others and coming up wanting, I invariably struggle to do good. Instead, I become self-referenced and bogged down in a scarcity mentality, that state of mind that says we are “never enough” or that we never have enough–whether that is time, sleep, energy, material possessions, significance, recognition, or…well, you fill in the blank. Scarcity mentality essentially says that I don’t trust that God has provided what I truly need and that he will continue to do so. Doing good, then, becomes a threat to my own security, for in doing good to and for others, I run the risk of not having enough for myself.

Trusting in the Lord and doing good leaves less time and energy for fretting. We have less inclination to give in to anxious worry because we aren’t thinking about what we lack, but what we can give.

I invite you to ponder that a bit to see if there is any truth in it for you. I’ll speak to the rest of David’s advice in my next post…

 

 

Beyond Words

While on a road trip last week I listened to a few podcasts by Ruth Haley Barton from her Strengthening the Soul of Your Leadership series. In one of them she talked about communing with God, as opposed to communicating with God. It’s easy to settle for communicating with God–pouring out my heart, submitting my list of requests, and then moving on with my life without waiting for or being attentive to God’s response.  What might it look like to really commune with God…?

Then the man and his wife heard the sound of the Lord God as he was walking in the garden in the cool of the day…     -Genesis 3:8

Can you imagine walking in the garden with God in the cool of the day?

A few years ago as I was “communicating” with God, I asked him to help me learn to listen. I knew well my tendency during a conversation to be thinking about what I wanted to say rather than truly listening to what the other person was sharing. It’s rude and dismissive, shutting down the opportunity for vulnerability and meaningful conversation. My communication with God was not much different. I was convicted of my need to change, but also of my powerlessness to do it without some divine intervention! So I asked for help…then went on with my life…which happened to include becoming a spiritual director. Much of the coursework for spiritual direction revolves around listening, so for two years I read book after book and had plenty of opportunities to practice active listening. Real change, however, felt pretty elusive.

But as I’ve reflected on that podcast differentiating between communing and communication, I realize that I more often commune with God these days than ever before. It comes at the strangest times…

  • as I watch the critters in our back yard–a chipmunk, squirrels, and a bevy of birds–all gathered together on and under the birdfeeders to gather nuts and seeds
  • as I meander down to the garden to harvest peas or lettuce and am surprised to see another plant has burst its pod and pushed its way up through the dirt, opening itself to the sun
  • as I sit in my prayer garden in the early morning quiet and simply listen to the sounds around me–all sorts of birdsong, the splashing of a robin taking her bath, squirrels rustling in the bushes, the buzz of bees as they pollinate my flowers
  • as I marvel at the fireflies that light up the back yard as the sun goes down, to the accompaniment of a mourning dove’s soft coo

…and my heart feels so full of wonder that the God of the universe has created such beauty, and has given me eyes to see and ears to hear. And suddenly I’m intensely aware of his gentle, loving presence all around me and rising up within me all at the same time. That’s the moment when I know I’ve finally found my way from communication to communion, from talking at God to intimacy with God…when Love is so powerful that words are no longer necessary.

My prayer for you today is that you will slow down and create time and space to set aside communication in favor of communion with our Creator God, and in so doing you would know the intimacy of that Love which is deeper than words.