HE ISN’T LISTENING

If we pastors give people the opportunity to really talk about their faith and really listen to what they are saying, we will always discover some interesting things.  In  most settings, the discussion will eventually get to prayer and there will be some really powerful comments about prayer.  But at some point after the saints tell their prayer victory stories and the new believers tell their stories about learning to trust God in prayer and the more emotional ones telling just how wonderful prayer makes them feel, someone in the group will hesitantly and haltingly tell their story, a story about the time (or times) they prayed and God didn’t listen to them.  When asked how they know that God didn’t listen to them, the answer is obvious to them–they know that God didn’t listen because he didn’t answer.

There are many ways of dealing with this individual.  We can remind them that no matter what we feel, God hears us.  We can quote a lot of Scripture verses that tell us to pray and keep praying.  We can talk about how their doubt obviously gets in the way.  We can have the successful pray-ers tell some more of their stories.

We can do all of those things–and as a pastor, I have probably done most of them at some point.  But probably what is needed most in a setting like that is for us to really listen to what the person is saying.  This is more than just a theological question–this is a deep-down problem and maybe even a crisis for the person.  Their faith tells them to pray and when they pray, it feels like God isn’t listening.

And, after they have found the courage to share this story, if I or anyone else tries to fix things with another story or a call to have faith or a veiled attempt to shame them for their lack of faith, we haven’t listened.  And if people can’t find other people who will listen to them, it is harder for them to find God listening to them.  To paraphrase  I John 4.20, “If my brother whom I can see can’t listen to me, how can I believe that God whom I can’t see is listening?”

There is no question in my mind that when a person feels that God isn’t listening, the problem lies within them.  They aren’t being totally honest with themselves or God; they are not being truly open to hearing God; they only want to hear one thing; the message that God wants them to hear is too painful or different for them to hear–these and other reasons easily explain why they think the God of all love and grace who listens perfectly isn’t listening.  It is their problem, not God’s.

But it is their problem–and my task isn’t to defend God.  My task is to listen to them enough so that they can hear themselves and understand what is going on in their spirit and mind.  My task is to listen to them using all my skill and patience so that they can learn to listen to themselves.  And in being listened to, they learn to listen to themselves.  And when they learn to listen to themselves, they can then learn to listen to God, who has been listening to them–and us–all along.

I have discovered that just as we struggle to listen to others, so also we struggle to listen to ourselves.  Often, we are no better at listening to ourselves than we are to others.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we are tired or anxious or afraid or excited or whatever.  We don’t hear ourselves say that we really want X but will pretend to want Y.  And when we don’t listen to ourselves praying, we can’t really believe that God is listening to our prayers.

And so when people tell me God isn’t listening, I need to listen.  In some ways, I become the physical embodiment of God, using my listening to help them as they grope their way to understanding that God is listening–and answering–no matter what they think.  As they are heard by a physical being, it helps them hear themselves and that opens the door to them understanding that God hears them.

Listening and being listened to may be among the most important things in life–and one of the hardest to actually do.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTENING TO GOD

We were sitting around the table at Bible Study, talking about something that had sparked a discussion about something else and that lead to something else and we eventually landed on the topic of hearing God.  One of the members of the study looked at me and asked me if I ever heard God speaking directly to me.  Now, as a pastor, preacher and teacher, I frequently tell people things about God and things that I believe God has said that I need to pass on.  I have helped many other people (I hope) connect with God and hear his message.  But, as I answered the inquirer, I have never heard God speak directly to me in the same way a person would speak to me.

I know people who claim that God speaks directly to them.  And I have to confess that some of them I believe–and some of them I really wonder about.  I rejoice with those who hear direct verbal messages from God that are in fact direct verbal messages from God, although my personal experience is that people who receive such messages are rare and even they don’t have the experience all that often.

And that makes sense to me.  As a species, we have a serious hearing problem.  We struggle to hear the messages we send ourselves.  We are terrible at hearing even the most basic of messages from other human beings.  So it stands to reason that when it comes to God, whose reality is far beyond ours, our ability to hear him would be a problem.  But that doesn’t stop us from claiming to have heard God.

Just as with our fellow humans, we let a whole long list of things get in the way of our ability to really hear God.  And at the head of the list of things that prevent us from hearing God is the basic problem that we likely really don’t want to hear what God has to say to us.  God is in the business of helping us become what we were meant to be, rather than confirming us in what we want to be and so many of the messages he wants us to hear are inconvenient, uncomfortable and even scary.

The messages we would like to get from God; the messages we would send ourselves if we were God; the messages we fantasize receiving–these are all much more acceptable and enjoyable and easier to hear.  So, we hear them–and assume that they come from God.  If I want a new computer, then it is amazing how easily God seems to agree with that need.  If I don’t want to go see someone in the church, it is amazing how quickly God tells me that I shouldn’t do that.

God speaks to us all the time in a variety of ways and using many different approaches–and we, like the good listening beings that most of us are, are always ready and able to not actually hear what he has to say.  And of course, when we aren’t listening to God, it is always because he is silent, a situation that causes us a great deal of spiritual frustration.  That spiritual frustration has a lot in common with my frustration with people speaking too softly all the time–it had to be their fault I couldn’t hear them. I am amazed at how much better people talk these days, especially when I have my hearing aids in.

How do we hear God? Like we hear everyone else–we have to work at it.  And just as our own stuff is the most serious hearing impediment with other people, so it is the most serious blockage when it comes to hearing God.  My solution to this hearing problem?  Well, I recognize that I don’t listen to God as I should; I commit myself to working at listening; I get my stuff out in the open by admitting what I want to hear–and then I wait  patiently and expectantly, testing and evaluating everything I am hearing and seeing, looking for the fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5.22-23).  It is a slow process and I get lots of false messages but eventually, I do hear what God has been saying to me.

May the peace of God be with you.

PRAY–GOD IS LISTENING

Sometimes, when I am working hard at listening to someone, I hear a comment that could bother me a great deal.  The comment often comes after I have spend a considerable amount of time focusing on the person, giving all the necessary feedback to let them know I am listening.  I am not faking, I am actually listening and can, when necessary, give them a full replay of the whole session, including both the verbal and non-verbal content of their communication.

As the session progresses and they get more comfortable (a powerful consequence of being listened to), some will eventually utter a comment something like, “I just want someone to listen to me–but nobody listens.”  Early in my ministry, I would quickly respond with, “I am listening”. At other stages, I would think to myself, “What do you think I have been doing for the past half-hour?”.  These days, I privately enjoy the irony:  if I weren’t listening, they would not likely be comfortable enough to complain that nobody listens to them.

Unfortunately, their complaint is an all too accurate and too common one–listening is a skill we all want others to have but don’t always want to practise ourselves.  We want to be heard but don’t necessarily want to hear.  All of us need to know that there is someone to listen to us–and we all want the listener to be a real person, someone who cares and whose care shows and helps us feel important and valuable and significant.  Nothing can take the place of a real live human listener.

Along with that need for a human ear to hear us, we also need a sense that something beyond us is listening.  As a Christian, I need to know that God is listening.  But because I so used to not being listened to, I sometimes make the assumption that God listens like many of the humans I associate with.  Like many people, I have experienced prayer times when I have felt that no one is listening–it feels like God is on vacation or at least on a coffee break.

That can be a devastating and frustrating experience, especially when the prayer is coming from deep inside and dealing with some significant issue.  Feeling that God isn’t listening can make someone feel really isolated and insignificant and worthless.

And since God is Spirit and therefore doesn’t give the usual signs of listening:  nodding, non-word verbal prompts, appropriate reflection and helpful questions, it is harder to know that God is listening.  I am pretty good at telling is someone is actually listening to me or not–but since I can’t see God, I have none of the usual clues that show someone is listening.

The difference I need to remember is that when I deal with God, I am dealing with a qualitatively different situation.  I am moving into the faith realm.  I can see whether another person is listening to me.  I have to believe that God is listening to me.  With many people, I can feel whether they are there listening or not–but with God, I need to believe that he hears and is listening.

There are lots of Scripture verses that I could quote and thus prove that God is always listening to me, but the bottom line is that I have to depend on my faith here, not my feelings or my observations.  I pray because I believe God is listening.  When I feel God isn’t listening, I pray because I believe he is listening.  When I don’t observe anything to show he is listening, I pray because I believe he is listening.  When I pray and am sure that the prayers bump up against an unlistening and uncaring universe, I continue praying because I believe God is listening.  When I pray and pray and get no answer, I still pray because I believe that God is listening.

Even more, I pray because I believe that God does more than listen.  I believe that he answers.  I might have trouble seeing the answer, but I still pray because God is both listening and answering.

May the peace of God be with you.

LISTEN TO ME!

We live in a world where we are surrounded by sound and pictures and videos–people have more methods of communicating than ever before.  The internet has added another layer of communication possibilities which allows people to communicate as never before–real-time, as it happens reports on everything potentially available to everyone, or at least to everyone with internet.

It seems like we human beings have a desperate need to communicate with each other.  We want people to know what we had for supper, where we went for vacation, how the cancer treatment is going, when the new job starts, who we care about.  And so we communicate:  we talk, we post, we upload, we visit coffee shops, we stop the pastor on the way to the pulpit.  We want to communicate and so except for a few people even more introverted that me, we look for any possible way of communicating.

But the weakness in the whole thing is that we often forget that communication is a two way process.  Communication is more than just someone speaking or writing or posting or uploading a video.  The communication process consists of me sending a message and you receiving that message and letting me know that you have received the message.  Unfortunately, my admittedly biased impression is that we all want to do the first part but don’t want to do the second part.

One somewhat cynical description of general conversation that I ran into a while ago says, “When you are talking, I am thinking about what I want to say next and wishing you would stop talking so I can say it.”  As a pastor and counsellor, one of the most common things I hear from people struggling with some issue is that no one will listen to them.  Not feeling that we have been heard is one of the great causes of pain in our culture.

As Christians, this is something that we need to pay attention to.  Learning to listen to others is a major part of the practical expression of our faith.  Ours is a community based faith and to be a healthy community, we need to be willing and able to listen to each other.  While there are some who are gifted in listening, either by birth or because of the Holy Spirit, we can all learn to listen better.  Part of loving our neighbour as ourselves (Matthew 22.39) consists of listening to our neighbour as we would like to be listened to.

So, how do we listen? Well, I think most of us would be wise to begin with some prayer.  We could pray a prayer of confession, openly admitting to God that we don’t listen very well.  The small percentage of the population who does listen well could still benefit from this prayer because even the best listeners aren’t perfect.

We can follow that prayer with a prayer for enlightenment–part of the task of the Holy Spirit is to teach us what we need to know (John 14.26)–and how to listen is something that we all need to know.  And then we can follow that with a prayer for the discipline to actually practise good listening skills.

It should be clear that I am approaching our poor listening skills as a spiritual problem.  The difficulty we have in listening to others seems to me to point directly to the self-focus that is the root of all sin.  We can’t see beyond ourselves and that means we can’t hear beyond ourselves.  Overcoming a lack of ability to listen is the same as overcoming any sin–we need to involve God and the presence of the Holy Spirit in the process.

I am not totally sure that I am comfortable seeing my inability to listen to others as a sin–I would rather see it as a result of my introversion or my need to focus on getting ready for worship or being tired or having something important on my mind or needing someone to listen to me for a change.  But in the end, when I don’t have time or space or interest in  listening to someone else, it is because I am focused on my own stuff.  And at times, that might be okay–but when I consistently don’t listen to others, that slips into sin and I need God’s help to deal with that.

May the peace of God be with you.

CONFESS IT–OUT LOUD

While I am not a professional therapist, I am a pastoral counsellor and have some experience with emotional and psychological issues that all of us deal with.  My experience has come both from the people I work with and from my own personal issues. And based on that experience, I would suggest that one of the most effective ways of dealing with most issues, after we have recognized and accepted the reality of it, is to confess it, out loud.

One of the most common ways I at least have tried to deal with stuff is by keeping it inside my head, trying to figure out some way to take care of whatever it going on.  Unfortunately, this internal process really makes things worse because in the end, all I am really doing is spinning my mental tires on the stuff that it getting me stuck.  Whatever the issue, I keep seeing it in the same way and in the same light, following the same ineffective mental paths time after time–and no matter how many times I roll things around in my head, I can’t see anything different.  Things get worse instead of better.

I have to get out of my head–and the way to do that is to confess openly what I am going through.  If I am down, I admit to being down.  If I am tense, I admit to being tense.  If I am suicidal, I admit to being suicidal.  To avoid confusion, let me state that I am not stating in any way that what I am confessing is sin or wrong.  I am using the word confession to describe the process of honestly and openly describing what is going on inside my head that is causing me trouble.

For me, there are several good places to confess what it going on.    First, because I believe in God through Jesus, I confess to God.  This confession is different from praying for help and healing.  I do that–but before I do that, I let God know that I am feeling whatever and it is affecting me in certain ways.  I know that God already knows that–he knew it before I was even willing to recognize it.  But I still need to confess it to him.  This confession creates an honesty that is based on having everything out in the open.  Both God and I now know what is there and we can both look at it openly and honestly.

I also confess to other people.  It is probably not a good idea to confess everything to everyone but in truth, open and honest confession is generally the best policy.  The first person to hear my confession is my wife.  I have and will continue to confess various struggles to people within the congregation, such as Bible study groups and even occasionally in sermons.  If things get bad enough, I am willing to confess to a professional therapist, someone with the necessary training and expertise to help me.

The idea behind the confession is to get out of my head.  Rolling things around in my head doesn’t get anywhere after a certain point and even begins to make things worse.  Confession as presented here externalizes things so that I can see them from a different perspective.  Whether it is to God, my wife, the Bible study group or a therapist, the new viewpoint enables me to process in different ways.  Often, I don’t even need advice from the other person–just saying things out loud to a caring listener allows me to see and understand and deal with things differently.

Do I worry about what people will think of me?  Well, honestly, I have never been too concerned about that.  If my Bible study group or my congregation are upset with the fact that I sometimes get depressed, that is something they will need to deal with.  Mostly, though, the responses I have received to my confessions is concern, support and lots of prayer.  I have also found that my confession encourages others to make their own confession.

So, in the end, if January is dark, dreary and cold and I end up depressed, I am going to accept that reality and confess it.  Likely, the feeling will go away when I manage to get out skiing but if it doesn’t, I know how to handle it.

May the peace of God be with you.

HOW DO I WORSHIP?

In some circles, I might be called a professional worshipper.  Most Sundays, I lead at least one worship service and generally do more than one.  I am also called upon to lead worship in a variety of other contexts:  nursing homes, public events, family functions, life transitions and the list goes on.  I take my task of leading worship seriously.  I spend time preparing worship so that it flows and the elements mesh well.  As much as possible, I try to have the emotional content and the cognitive content complement each other.  When other people are involved in the process, I work to help them be prepared and able to do their part well.  I even periodically use sermons and Bible Studies to teach people what worship is and how we worship.

During the worship service, I am mostly conscious of my role as leader of the worship.  While we are singing a hymn, I am looking up and marking the next one.  When the choir is singing, I am using the time to look over the order of service and make sure I am prepared.  I have all my prayers written out, except for the benediction which I memorized a long time ago.  I even have the Lord’s Prayer written out in front of me so that I can make sure I get it right.

So, when we are worshipping God, I am sometimes not sure that I am really worshipping.  Well, to be honest, I know there are times when I am not really worshipping.  I am too focused on the worship to be able to worship.  I could say that is an occupational hazard and someone has to do it and let it go.  But I too need to worship and I, like everyone else, need to worship not just privately but as part of a community.  The few times a year I get to attend worship and not lead it just don’t do it from that perspective.

So, how do I worship?  Well,  I think it means that I offer to God my leadership.  He has called me to this ministry and so I believe he wants me doing what I am doing–so part of my worship is making him an offering of my leading worship.

When I remember that, I can worship.  I try to begin that before worship.  I greet all the worshippers as they come in–we are small congregations and our buildings have no office or vestry for me to hide in.  Mind you, even when I had an office to hide in, I tended to spend time before worship greeting people.

Then, as worship is beginning, I take a few seconds to open myself to God–I suppose it could be called prayer but often, it is physically not much more than a brief closing of my eyes and a re-focusing on the worship to come.  Sometimes, I use actual words but often, the words actually get in the way.

Then, as worship proceeds, I try to be conscious of doing what I do as an offering to God.  I don’t always succeed.  When I miss something in the order of service, I go into panic mode as I work out how to fix it.  When my eyes fall on the wrong prayer and I begin to repeat the invocation instead of doing the offertory prayer, I get busy revising the prayer on the fly.  When the sanctuary is too hot or too cold, I am wondering how that is affecting various individuals and how I can take care of the problem.

But in spite of my failures, I keep trying.  I know that I can both lead worship and worship myself at the same time–but I need to make sure that I am prepared to open myself to the presence and wonder of God.  In the end, my situation isn’t any different from any other worshipper.  When I put in garbage, I get garbage.  When I approach as an opportunity to acknowledge and praise God, I can worship, even if in the course of the worship I forget the offering or hit the wrong button on the tablet or am worried that the Advent wreath might catch on fire.

I lead the congregation in worship–but when I open myself to God, I can and so worship at the same time.

May the peace of God be with you.

LIVING WITH THE UNREASONABLE

            While it is technically true that everything has a reason, knowing that really doesn’t help most people deal with what feels like the unreasonable realities of life. I am a fan of the TV show Bones, in which the chief character, Dr. Temperance Brennan, can always describe the reasonable chain of events that caused the victim to die.  She regularly offers this chain to the victim’s family in an attempt to help them deal with their loss.  Her partner and husband, Booth, then has the difficult task of getting Brennan to stop talking, sooth the family’s ruffled feathers and get the required information from the family.

People in a crisis rarely want to know reasons and generally don’t believe that knowing the reasons will make it all better.  Nor are they likely going to refocus their emotional response to the crisis to joy at hearing that things happen for a reason.  A discussion of causation and consequences probably is very valuable in a scientific experiment, a philosophy seminar or a theology book but does very little good when real people are facing real life situations with real feelings.

But it seems that we who stand on the side lines and look in on the struggles of those in the middle of things need something to say.  We want to make the people feel better–or, as is often the unstated but deeper reason, we want them to stop struggling and suffering so that we aren’t reminded of our own struggles and suffering.  And so we try to come up with some words that will cover over the suffering and make everything better.

The painful and difficult truth is that when people suffer, there are no words that will take away the suffering.  We can’t say something that will magically make it all better so that they no longer suffer and we don’t have to be reminded of our suffering. The endless platitudes and clichés and worn out phrases that we use are empty words, doing nothing but filling space and giving us some distance from the suffering.  They generally bring no comfort to the people struggling but might make us feel a bit better, giving us a false sense of accomplishment that we helped.

When people are in the midst of a crisis, they likely need and want help, although there are a few who claim to neither need nor want anything.  But the help that makes a difference comes when we are willing to acknowledge the reality of their suffering and open ourselves to discovering the best way to provide the help they need in the situation.

Because I am a Christian, I believe that the Holy Spirit will guide me in the situation, if I will listen.  As a pastor, I am called in to many difficult situations and I have learned over the years that I need to listen carefully to the people involved and to the Holy Spirit.  My listening to those two sources is greatly enhanced if I keep my mouth shut.  I used to joke with counselling students that when the mouth opens, the ears and mind are automatically shut off.  I am aware that that isn’t really true, but for many of us, that is practically true.

Rather than spend my time trying to remove the suffering with magic words, I have discovered that I need to let the suffering exist and listen to it and step into it, letting the people I am with off-load a bit of their burden on me for the time I am with them.  My presence is the biggest help I can give them–or rather, my actively listening presence is the biggest help I can give them.  As they talk and cry and rage and sputter and wonder and all the rest, I am trying to be there–not looking for some magic words to turn off the tap of their suffering but letting the suffering come out, encouraging it with my listening and my acceptance.

They may ask for reasons–but I have none.  They may ask for time to turn back–I can’t do that.  They may get really angry–I can’t stop that.  They may cry–I might not feel comfortable with that.  But as they get to freely let it all out, I am actually helping.  I think it is much better to listen and help than speak empty words and not help.

May the peace of God be with you.