Learning to Listen Deeply

imagesdog earsIn our noisy world, we are stimulated, it seems by all of our senses so much that we may not be able to really hear what we need to hear—what we want to hear. The sounds of traffic, the beeps of technology, the rings on our phones always interrupt almost any attempt to find quiet—even for a nano second it seems. Then we hear our inner voices—the inner critic who seems to always be nagging about what we just did wrong; the voices of shame that seem to whisper or shout at us about how messed up we are. One friend told me he always has a “committee meeting” going on in his head. His mind seems to always filled with multiple and conflicting voices saying one thing—then another. He is not mentally ill. He is not schizophrenic . He is voicing my inner world and perhaps yours.So much talking. So many words. So many meetings. So much information. How can we ever take in what we really need to receive to make sense of our lives, our days and most importantly, one another.It is hard to listen. We actually might think that we are listening but our attention may be divided. Our minds are distracted. Many times we are already formulating our responses; our disagreements and forming our opinions while our spouse or a friend is talking with us. We miss much of what is being said. We can’t hear. They are not making much sense and we are not understanding or showing compassion.Perhaps, we may all have an un- diagnosed conditions called, “Attention Deficit Disorder.” We are in such a deficit of giving attention because our outer world is so noisy and our inner words are shouting to us about what we should have done; should have accomplished; should have already become in this world. Perhaps rather than taking a new medication, we can learn to listen deeply. Even at the Staff meetings of our ministry, Potter's Inn, I find myself beginning most of our times together saying, "Can everyone please power down your phones?"  It is an invitation which means, "Hey, we have important work to do here. Let's be fully present with each other." When our kids all come  home, I try to muster the courage to say the same thing: Can we turn our phones off and no one post pictures of our food while we eat to Facebook?"  Perhaps it is as simple as this --as I age, I see our times so sacred and sadly so rare--I don't want any of us to miss out by being distracted to our table--to each other.Most of us are familiar with the story (See Luke 10:38-42) about the two sisters, Mary and Martha in the presence of Jesus. Martha was overly busy and pre-occupied with “so many things” and Mary got the praise for being so attentive to Jesus by listening so well—so deeply to him. We have heard this preached about for years thinking that there are two different kinds of people and how we all need to become even more like Mary. But when you study the teaching methods of Jesus, we realize that each of us actually has a little bit of Mary and a little bit of Martha in our hearts. A part of us wants the deeper, more intimate things of God while another part of us is distracted, busy and living a life out of being ‘attention deficit” to spiritual things of life. This really is a story about learning to experience the Presence of God—and how we need this story to come alive today to us with all of our inner and outward distractions.To listen—to listen deeply is really a challenge. I’ve been listening to people all of my vocational life. I’ve listened to problems. I’ve listened to couples argue about their dying marriage. I’ve listened to children lament about their emotionally absent parents. I’ve listened to team members complain about another team member. I’ve listened to staff complain about their senior leader. I’ve listened to so many leaders, that listening always presents me with a huge challenge. Will I really listen? Or, will I be distracted, unfocused, pre-occupied with the last conversation and not THIS particular person? Sometimes, I can think to myself, “Here we go again, another couple on the brink.” Or, “Here’s the latest staff team in conflict.” I am editing. I can be pre-occupied. I can miss them and what they need to say and want to say because I am so much like Martha.In my marriage with Gwen, I have found the challenge of really listening to her, a huge challenge. Sometimes, I feel a growing impatience within me as she is talking. One time as she was sharing with me about her day, I was feeling anxious, frustrated and annoyed. I remember thinking—but thankfully not saying—“Can you just give me the bullet points of your day. Spare me the details. Get on with it.” Maybe you can relate? Have you ever felt frustrated as someone you actually love is talking and you can’t really hear them because you are so preoccupied with your own inner noise? Many of us can identify with this conundrum. We want to listen but find it hard to really listen well—to listen deeply.We are often deaf or hard of hearing it seems. One couple I counseled came in one week and the wife began. “He’s totally deaf to me. He doesn’t hear me any more.” We can be this way with our families; at work and even with God. We can’t seem to hear one another well. We hear the buzz of noisy words but we are really missing each other. Life becomes absurd for us when we can’t listen. In the Latin, the root word ‘absurd’ comes from the word—deaf. When things in marriage, work and with life feel absurd---I am experiencing a deafness—a missing of what is being spoken. It makes no sense. She makes no sense. You make no sense. Life makes no sense. Even God makes no sense.When Luke describes the encounter of Mary and Martha and Martha’s ADD, we’re told that Mary “listened to what he was saying.” It was Mary’s ability to focus, to give attention to the words of Jesus that Jesus noticed. Mary listened first to his words but then the words gave way to the experience of the presence of Jesus. Mary was in the presence of Jesus while Martha was not. She moved beyond the content of the actual words of what Jesus was saying to experiencing the Presence of Jesus.Gwen has told me for years that she wants me, needs me to really listen to her. When she says this, I am finally able to figure out that she is wanting my full presence—not just my ears. She wants me; needs me to be present—to be with her. She wants my focus, my attention. She doesn’t want me to be a busy Martha solving her problems before she even finishes telling me about her problems.In my efforts to become a better listener in my marriage and in my work, I was introduced to the Chinese word for “listen.” Remember how sometimes a foreign word can help shed light on our own mono way of understanding? The Chinese characters which make up the word “listen” have each of these parts to make the one word—the whole word listen: One character depicts the ears. Another depicts the mind. One reveals the eyes and another shows the heart. In Chinese, the word for “listen” involves the ears, the mind, eyes, and heart. There is also a horizontal line in the midst of all these characters which means undivided attention. Listening requires focus.Look carefully at the Chinese word for "listening"Mary’s listening to Jesus involved her mind being present—not rifling through her lists of things that needed to get accomplished. Listening for Mary meant using her ears to really lean into the presence of the words to hear and to experience a deeper meaning. Her eyes were laser focus on the One who was speaking. She offered her undivided attention and her heart was present to experience the true presence of Jesus.At our retreat, we help people listen to the Scriptures. Most of us have heard so much preaching and teaching that we assume we know so much. Our attitudes about even hearing the Scripture stir up feelings of “Yeah, tell me something new. Tell me something I don’t already know. I’m numb to this even before you start reading.” This is what I mean by spiritual absurdity. Nothing seems to ever make any sense because we simply becoming deaf.In the ancient method of listening to Scriptures known as ‘Lectio Divina’, we practice listening by hearing a simple passage read slowly repeatedly and softly. We encourage people to imagine their ears as being the giant ears an elephant wrapping around each word to find the deeper meaning. We are helping the Marthas of today to become the Marys. We are helping each other move from just hearing words—to experiencing the presence.Every lectio reading becomes truly sacred in this way because we move from just hearing to experiencing the Presence. Like Gwen has coached me so well through the years, my lectio in our conversations moves me towards her—moves me to be present with her—moves me to experience her heart and not just hear her words.How can you move from hearing the words to being in the true presence of your spouse, friend, team and into the very Presence of God today?

The Morphing of Community and Friendship

people-circle-webMy understanding of community has morphed through the years. Time, failure in relationships, brutal betrayal, sacrificial love and unimaginable kindness by strangers have all helped develop my experience of being in and practicing community--of sharing friendship.If you have read some of my books, you have been a witness to my progressive revelation of what community is and what it is not. In 2006, I was shaped and impacted by the words of psychologist David Benner when he says that friendship has several non-negotiable ingredients—one of which is this: True friendship and community must be reciprocal. There must be give and take in healthy relationships. No one person can be the one who gives all the time. No one person can do all the initiating. It must be reciprocal. It must be shared. It must be give and take and back and forth. Benner penned these words in my very first book, The Transformation of a Man’s Heart. That clarification helped me greatly to distinguish what had become a fuzzy boundary in my life in relationships where I was paid to be people’s friends in ministry as a pastor. When I grasped the needed quality of having reciprocal relationships, I learned to distinguish between people who were really my “work” and people who were really my “friends.” It helped me and still helps me know who I am to the few people I can find in my life that actually do want to be reciprocal rather than one of us feeling like we are doing all the giving and thus someone else is doing all the taking.In 2008, I wrote in a chapter in Soul Custody titled, “Soul Companions: Choosing your Friends” that companionship is one of God’s great desires for us. Since God is Trinity—and we are created in the image of God—we learn that the soul was created to actually be in and thrive by community. It really is not good to be by ourselves in this life. There’s a lot in that chapter about loneliness and moving out of loneliness into the actual experience of tasting true friendship. As I read that chapter today, I can clearly see my own pilgrimage in attempting to move beyond my own inner loneliness to a sense of connectedness and community.In 2012, I wrote an important book titled, The Jesus Life. There’s an anchor chapter in this book about “The Way of Companionship.” I wrote this chapter reflecting on one of the greatest hurts and wounds in the erosion of what I thought was a friend. Through a deep betrayal, a friendship ended and has never been resurrected to this day. I still wonder how something that deep and tearing could ever be repaired and would I even WANT it to be? It was in this year that I discovered a small and seemingly insignificant verse in the Gospel of John where we are told that Jesus “would not entrust himself to them for he knew all people” (John 2:24). Jesus was speaking about his companions at a table he was having dinner with. He somehow knew in his interior soul that some of the people around him—perhaps already in his circle were just were not safe. That one, small verse gave me fodder for the fire in my heart to grasp friendship even more deeply. Here I learned that Jesus did not give his heart away like we were taught in Sunday School. He guarded his own heart and was not fully vulnerable. Perhaps, in my quest to be like Jesus, I would need to reign in my heart and be more careful about who I called, “friend” and with whom I told my secrets to in life.In 2014, we moved out of the city where we had lived  for a dozen years and uprooted our lives to live near our retreat. We wanted our life to be integrated. I wanted to “do my life” in one place and not be so divided. We left our church. We left our small group. We left our home and have tried to put down roots where our work, life , church and friends can have a sense of synergy, connectedness and harmony. It’s not been easy to be truthful.But in the last few months some new light has come into my quest to understand community even more. The prolific 21st century sage, prophet, farmer and spiritual guru, Wendell Berry, wrote a few sentences that stopped my in my tracks in trying to grasp community. He writes, “Community, I am beginning to understand, is made through a skill I have never learned or valued: the ability to pass time with people you do not and will not know well, talking about nothing in particular, with no end in mind, just to build trust, just to be sure of each other, just to be neighborly. A community is not something that you have, like a camcorder or a breakfast nook. No, it is something you do. And you have to do it all the time. “His words were like a light bulb for me. Something that felt dark became a little more filled with light.  Community is something you do and you practice.   So, with renewed wind in my sails, Berry’s words have helped me want, desire to practice community. We went to church on Sunday and sat in chairs surrounded by some “friends” and neighbors where we live. We passed the peace to each other when the preacher asked us to; we stood up together and sang the Doxology and sat down to pray the Lord’s prayer together in unison. With one voice; one motion, and in one building we found ourselves warmly connected. It was stirring for me in a deep way. I was practicing Berry’s plea for what authentic community actually is and actually does. Slowly we will build trust. We invited one couple to join us for lunch. We began a new journey of practicing casual friendship. We are both new to our new town; new to our shared neighborhood and in a new stage of life together. There’s a lot in common to build upon. There is some ground now to “practice” all that I have learned thus far in my life about friendship and community.No voice has impacted me more deeply than the prophetic words of poet and author David Whyte. He writes,, “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” Read that again.   Don’t read anything more than his sentence: “Without tolerance and mercy, all friendships die.” He is telling us that friendship is not about being right. Community is not rooted in the affinity where everyone believes the same thing.  It is not about have the same political views and sharing the same doctrine. He is telling us that the soul of friendships will shrivel and die unless we practice tolerance and mercy with one another. We will not always agree. 90% of all business partnerships fail.  We simply need more tolerance and a whole lot more of mercy.  He further states, “A diminishing circle of friends is the first terrible diagnostic of a life in deep trouble: of overwork, of too much emphasis on a professional identity, of forgetting who will be there when our armored personalities run into the inevitable natural disasters and vulnerabilities found in even the most average existence.” Ouch! How does he write in such a way that his words become a scalpel to my crusted heart. If you find yourselves in a diminishing circle of friends, perhaps your own understanding of friendship will need to morph.About 20 years ago, I wrote an article for a newspaper titled, "Who are the six strong people who will carry your casket to the grave?"  I didn't know the answer to that question then and I still am not sure today. Do you know the answer to that unsettling question?  For some of us that kind of uneasy question may jar us into thinking more about this very important issue in our lives--the question about who are my friends and how do I really find true community?  We live so much of our lives asleep and on the hamster wheel that few of us think below the water line of life as we need to--as God wants and invites us to ponder.Many of the great spiritual truths in our lives are best understood when we accept the notion that goes like this: “I do not know everything. As I live more I will become more wise. I want to be a student of progressive revelation. I want to grow in my understanding of all things that matter: marriage, love, what is really essential in life and my yearning for heaven. As I have morphed and grown in my understanding of community, I can now be ready to lay down some things that have not worked; have not served me or my friends of the past well and now practice a better way of being a friend and having a friend.  Like the Apostle Paul told us, sometimes we need to put aside childish notions and take hold of a more mature understanding of things.  I find myself doing precisely as he instructed us to do regarding friends and community.  Do you?

For Gwen on the Eve of our Anniversary

It is said that behind every great man is a greater woman.  Though I claim no greatness, by my side for 32 years now has been this woman, named Gwen.  Our relationship began when Gwen announced at a Christmas party that she had just broken an engagement.  That was my clue to stand up; pursue the woman and right then and there on that frosty Christmas night, I knew I would indeed marry her. I did two years later. For me, it was love at first sight. For her, it took two years for love to spring forth.  That's life, they say. Gwen has been my true companion for 32 years.  Together, we have pastored four churches, planted two and founded an international ministry called, Potter’s Inn.  No church I served; no church I planted; no book I ever wrote and no souls I ever healed could have happened without this woman.  I truly owe all to her. Her beginning in this life was from the dark clay of Ethiopia, born to missionary parents who raised this blue eyed, blond girl in the rough terrain of a primitive country. There, she stood on crates and watched men and women being operated on and in that dungy surgical suite, she came to the early conclusion at five years of age, that she would become a nurse. She did and served several years in foreign countries and in major medical centers in the US. Her parents, somehow sent, Gwen to a missionary boarding school—a decision we process now, years after the fact.  Was it right? Was it wrong? In those long years without a mother to hold her and a daddy to comfort her, she resolved some things in that boarding school and made some promises that we now unpack with great care, tenderness and mercy.  Those years left scars in the heart and gaps in the mind to comprehend being left on the front steps of a boarding school so your parents could go work for God. Unfortunately, she would re-live this chapter with me, as I  have written about in my books. But scars—they do breed passion and that scar of being left would be a vow she would make to always be present for her four men children that she bore. Her passion to this day is about her men children.  In my dark days of obsessing about my work and the call of God on my own life, Gwen remained true to pastor these boys into men with hearts of gold and spines of steel. I often confess when speaking to leaders around the world, “I gave the best of my life to the church and the left-overs to my wife and kids.”  It’s something I am not proud of today and help people to not make the mistake I made. Thankfully, God has mercy and that mercy has sealed gaps in my absence but mostly because Gwen stood in the gaps I created.  She is that kind of woman. I married this woman on October 18, 1980 at 11am.  Tomorrow, October 18 is our anniversary! The organ played joyfully, “When morning guilds the skies, my heart awakening cries, may Jesus Christ be praised.” She processed and I broke. When she walked down the aisle, I broke down and cried like a baby. I was ravished by such a sight of splendor and beauty and I still am today. These days, I often stare at her without anyone looking, including Gwen. Her hair in the sunlight. Her smile in the morning reaching for coffee. Her laughs in the bed and her giggles when we are in private.  No one gets her like I get her. She has lived that vow out and I am the better for it. Her faithfulness is a blanket of comfort. I told her several years ago when my travel was picking up and I confessed how much I didn’t like travelling by myself-- that I felt I was being set up for failure by these trips and that there was no joy in being a talking head for God or for anyone. She said she would start going with me.  So we tried that and both experienced the sober reality of what too much travel does to ones rhythm—to our couple rhythm. So now, we are turning the tables again to vow to travel less and live the life we want to live—together. Years ago, Gwen went to seminary to study to become what she has become today, a spiritual director and a lover of souls.  Somehow, she intuitively knows when enough is enough and the joy of an afternoon cup of coffee and a bite of very dark chocolate.  Any one she is a director for benefits only in part of what I benefit from every day of the year. We know have three daughters, for three of our four men children have chosen wives.  I study in amazement Gwen’s great, great care and respect for these three chosen daughters for us. When I would press and blow the doors off in a conversation that perhaps, they weren’t ready to have---Gwen somehow knows the great value of silence and just loves them without words, correction and with grace and I see it. I wish I could love like she does. Her greatest joy these days is with our new grandson, Caleb. One of the benefits of technology is being sent videos of Caleb. While I’ll watch them once, I’ll notice Gwen repeating and repeating viewing them…squealing with utter joy at Caleb’s smile on screen or now his cute chuckles.  How she delights in him and through this one relationship, I now understand the parental heart of God so much better when we are told that God delighted in Jesus at his baptism and again shortly before he died. It’s like living in a painting to watch her watch the videos. I know now that all of our grandchildren to come are so very fortunate to have her as the new “Nina”. They—our future grandchildren will find comfort in her arms and against her heart as I have for these many years. It is my great joy to watch Gwen age. We laugh a lot about it.  She is going to be a radiant old woman. She will be that kind of woman who wears her hair in a bun and her face will wrinkle with wisdom lines that she already possesses.  Those she loves will eagerly sit at her feet on by her side sipping tea from Blue Danube cups and with every cup, a piece of dark chocolate. I am the better man for having this woman say yes to me, many years ago. I am the most fortunate of all.  So I tell you now in public what I tell you in secret, “You have outdone every woman I know and you are the desire of my heart and the delight of my soul. Your beauty is not in your doing but in your essence. Your soul is exquisite and your heart huge!" I wish for you that I could have been more tender; had more of a soft hand than a firm one. I wish for you that I could re-live all the years I gave to meaningless deacon’s meetings and Team Meetings. They robbed us of the greatest commodity of our lives…time.  I hope in what years I have left to give you the best and not the left overs. I wish for you the time to be the grandmother, your heart is calling you to be and I will give you that time. It will be a way we can both pay back our mistakes in investing in organizations that honor the organs of the heart and soul.  I wish for you great health with long walks  on the hills of our retreat. I wish for you Aspen Gold to match your hair and clefts to sit in to ponder and to pray. Thank you that you pray for me. That you alone pastor me. That you alone direct me to move in the ways I want to move. Thank you that you know Jesus and that you value your relationship with him so much. Thank you that you are a lover of solitude and that you have mentored me so well here in this much needed school. I look forward to aging with you. Soon we will cross over to the downhill side and it will be a much too quick journey for us.  If I should die before you, I will want you to carry on---to try to fulfill our shared dream here at Potter’s Inn. But if it is too much and too lonely for you, then I release you from this burden to live the life you so want to live. Buy you an RV and roam from son to son and shore to shore with Laz  or your Petunia, (the fantasized old English bull dog that you covet).   And if I will carry you to your grave first, then I will dress you in white—the white of your wedding dress and say, “You were pure and kind to me all the days of your life and  I will always honor you and love you for loving me so well. Because, I am the weaker one, I hope I will pass first because we both know, you are far, far stronger than me. I will not fair well. But that is not for us to choose. In the days ahead, let us lift high the chalice of our lives and drink to the goodness of God.  For He has been good and he has been faithful. Happy Anniversary! Do not kill me for sharing such public things about our love and your beauty. We all will call you "Blessed!"