Listen! Listen

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I grew up in a delightful family. My home was filled with lots of love. I remember spirited games of chess and canasta and paddleball (think racquetball on an outdoor court). We enjoyed good food, frequent guests, and plenty of laughter. Some of the laughter was over the same jokes enjoyed time after time.

When a new and uninitiated guest joined us, my dad would ask, “What’s that coming out of your nose?” After a moment of embarrassed confusion on the part of our visitor, he would continue, “Air! There’s air coming out of your nose!”

Then sometimes he’d say, “Listen! Listen!” After an awkward pause, he would add, “Somebody’s saying ‘Listen!’” We always laughed.

The other day, as I was thinking about my dad’s funny lines, the one about listening struck me in a new way. Taken more seriously, it comes out this way:

Listen! Listen! Because there’s always someone out there practically begging that you listen!

I’ve been doing a lot of listening lately. Some of my hurting friends need me most as a prayer partner and a listening ear. In fact, I often have to remind myself that they need my ear but not my mouth, my empathy but not my advice.

Pride can lead us away from the smaller tasks the Holy Spirit hands us. Becoming a compassionate listener isn’t very glamorous. In fact, it’s a ministry of the nearly invisible. It falls into the “He must increase; I must decrease” part of the Christian walk. But it is powerful. It is a silent language of love. Today I want to encourage you to allow a part of your busy life to be eaten up by the gift of an attentive ear, because if you listen, listen, you will almost certainly hear someone crying out, “Listen!”

How are you?

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We were in Delft buying, of course, Delftware, those blue and white ceramic pieces that say, “I went to The Netherlands!” It was late in the day, and the little shop was rather crowded, probably because their prices were so good. I waited in line at the counter, ready to pay for my Christmas ornaments, impressed by the excellent English of the clerk. (I had given up on learning any Dutch.)

When my turn came, I handed the young lady my selections, smiled, and said, “Hello, how are you?” Her response caught me off guard. With nary a hint of incrimination in her voice, she simply said, “May I ask you a question? Why do you Americans ask, ‘How are you?’ when you can’t possibly care how each person really is?”

I’m sure I hesitated a bit as I struggled to come up with a sensible answer to an excellent question. “It’s a greeting we use. We actually do try to care about the response.” (My answer was lame, but the best I could come up with at the time.) Here is my question today, though. Do we care about the answer? Or, in our hurried world, do we ask without thinking, and hope for a quick, “I’m fine. How are you?” so that we can go along our way without pause.

Pause. How often do we pause? How often do we probe a bit for the real answer to the “How are you?” question? And if we do receive an honest response, how often do we take time to listen, to follow up, to offer some sort of related service beyond a quick, “I’ll keep you in my prayers”?

I want to learn to pause, to mean it when I ask the question, to listen when I’m given an answer, to look into the eyes of friend and stranger alike and care. Please, join me. And if you are so inclined, tell me about your own “How are you?” encounters.

 

Practice Hospitality

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A few weeks ago I was invited to dine at a famously scenic restaurant in Austin. I was ushered into a beautiful room overlooking the lake. My vantage point, one of the top stories of a multi-tiered establishment, also gave me a view of several crowded tables below me. One gave me pause. It was party of ten, apparently a family plus a couple of friends. They were enjoying appetizers and beverages as sunset approached…and eight of them were bent over their smart phones for many long minutes. I admonished them in my mind, then caught myself in a similar crime just days later.

  • When was the last time you looked at your smart phone?
  • When was the last time you looked someone in the eye?
  • And do you ever call someone, hoping to get their voicemail so you can just leave a message?

We have allowed ourselves to become broadly connected, yet at the same time oddly isolated. Is this shyness? An enslavement to efficiency? Just a bad habit?

Romans 12:13b is exquisitely direct. “Practice hospitality.” There was a time when I thought hospitality meant simply opening one’s home and serving cookies. (More about that in a later blog.) A bit of research has extended my understanding. Here are a few more detailed definitions.

  • The generous reception and entertainment of guests.
  • A relationship between a guest and host, in which the host received the guest with goodwill.
  • Showing respect for one’s guests, treating them as equals.

Reception, relationship, and respect all speak to our definite and deliberate focus on another person. In Matthew 18:20, Jesus said, Where two or three gather in my name, there am I with them.” The gathering of believers is a sacred thing. What do we miss when we are distracted? And if we are gathered with those who do not know the Lord, what does our distraction say to them about their worth?

Furthermore, children may be heavily impacted by the number of words spoken to them in their early years. How much has that volume been reduced by the constant pull of a smart phone screen?

Focus. Attention. Concentration. These can be difficult to maintain in our swirling culture. But they are gifts we can give to those around us. They are gifts I think our Lord would have us mete out with generosity. They are a part of hospitality. Will you join me in a renewed effort to be fully present at the table–or at the office, or in the kitchen or…? Let me know how it goes. And if you discover tips that help you pay attention, I hope you’ll share them here.

Talk Less. Smile More.

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About a month ago, my brother told me about Hamilton. The book, yes, but also the Broadway show. Some of you are wondering how I could have gone so long without knowing about the runaway hit. Others are wondering why I would even take time to mention the guy on our ten dollar bill.

Hamilton was our first secretary of the treasury from 1789 to 1795. He was also the chief author of The Federalist Papers, but was perhaps most famous for losing his life in a duel with Aaron Burr. Now he’s also famous for being the subject of what may become the most popular show New York has ever seen, nominated for a record-breaking 16 Tony awards.

This line from the play is making its way to tee shirts and posters,

“Talk less, smile more.”

In the play I think it means “Shut up, and keep your opinions to yourself.” In real life, I think it could mean this: Learn to listen. Encourage others. Be kind. Be friendly.

Barry Corey, president of BIOLA University, has written a book about kindness. I’m almost finished reading it and will certainly have more to say about it soon.  I love this line about listening, about simply paying full attention to the person in front of you. “Presence is more eye contact than it is saying something profound. Presence happens when you give your spouse the gift of conversation when you would rather exercise the gift of lawn mowing.”  (Corey, Barry H. Love Kindness: Discover the Power of a Forgotten Christian Virtue.    100.)

I tend toward the gift of lawn mowing. OK, actually in my case it’s the gift of clean the house, or cook, or run errands, or do laundry or write another blog. But I want to learn to talk less, and do a bit less, and smile more, and listen more. I want to get better at considering the person in front of me to be more important than the list in my pocket. I want even my face, the smile on my face, to convey full engagement to those around me, to say, “Listening to what you have to say is more important to me than asking you to hear what I have to say.” That’s a simple (maybe not easy, but simple) way to love those around us.

Talk less, smile more. Wait a week, then email Steve and ask him how I’m doing with that! (And let me know how you are doing with that as well.)

Two More Hymns

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As the final installment of this hymn sing, I’ll share two hymns, only one of which was familiar to me until recently. When I Survey the Wondrous Cross, written by Isaac Watts in 1707, is the first known hymn to be written in the first person, describing an individual’s spiritual experience. According to cyberhymnal.org, “Charles Wesley reportedly said he would give up all his other hymns to have written this one.”

You can listen to Christ Tomlin’s version here.

When I survey the wondrous cross On which the Prince of glory died, My richest gain I count but loss, And pour contempt on all my pride.

Forbid it, Lord, that I should boast, Save in the death of Christ my God! All the vain things that charm me most, I sacrifice them to His blood.

Were the whole realm of nature mine, That were a present far too small; Love so amazing, so divine, Demands my soul, my life, my all. 

For All the Saints was written by Anglican Bishop William Walsham. It speaks of faith, of trusting God even in troubled times, and of our hope of heaven. ‘Come to think of it, that’s pretty much what every post in this blog is about, and so this is a fitting way to close this tiny taste of hymn singing.”

Listen here.

For all the saints, who from their labors rest,

Who Thee by faith before the world confessed,

Thy Name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

Thou wast their Rock, their Fortress and their Might;

Thou, Lord, their Captain in the well fought fight;

Thou, in the darkness drear, their one true Light.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

O may Thy soldiers, faithful, true and bold,

Fight as the saints who nobly fought of old,

And win with them the victor’s crown of gold.

Alleluia, Alleluia!

And there you have it. Won’t you respond by posting a list of your favorite hymns?

Hymn Sing Part Two

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Welcome back to our virtual hymn sing. Are you as amazed as I continue to be at the wealth of music we all have at our fingertips? I hope you’ll have time this week to listen to these inspiring pieces.

From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee

I think of Martin Luther as a theologian, but he was also a musician. Over three dozen hymns are attributed to him. The best known is A Mighty Fortress Is Our God, but today I’ll share with you the words found in his From Depths of Woe I Raise to Thee, based on Psalm 130. Language has changed over the years, so reading this one takes a bit of extra work. It’s worth it!

From depths of woe I raise to Thee The voice of lamentation; Lord, turn a gracious ear to me And hear my supplication; If Thou iniquities dost mark, Our secret sins and misdeeds dark, O who shall stand before Thee?

To wash away the crimson stain, Grace, grace alone availeth; Our works, alas! are all in vain; In much the best life faileth: No man can glory in Thy sight, All must alike confess Thy might, And live alone by mercy.

Therefore my trust is in the Lord, And not in mine own merit; On Him my soul shall rest, His Word Upholds my fainting spirit: His promised mercy is my fort, My comfort, and my sweet support; I wait for it with patience.

You can listen here.

Blessed Assurance

My dad was an insurance salesman for years. As a child, I thought Blessed Assurance was extolling his line of work. In reality, Fanny Crosby, blind from childhood, yet the author of more than 8000 hymns, was writing about our Lord and Savior. Her words are a great way to end this week’s virtual hymn sing.

Blessed assurance, Jesus is mine! O what a foretaste of glory divine! Heir of salvation, purchase of God, Born of His Spirit, washed in His blood.

This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior, all the day long; This is my story, this is my song, Praising my Savior, all the day long.

Perfect submission, all is at rest I in my Savior am happy and blest, Watching and waiting, looking above, Filled with His goodness, lost in His love.

You’ll find Third Day’s version here.