Issues of mental illness and suicide have been in the news recently—both locally and nationally. While the Gospel offers much life to those struggling, it is often those who purport to carry the Good News who do the most damage to those who are suffering. In that light, we asked Adam McHugh, a former hospital chaplain and author of the newly released book, The Listening Life, to offer some insight into what it means to listen well to those who are in pain. We’re also offering a giveaway of Adam’s excellent book. To enter, simply comment on this piece. A winner will be drawn at random on February 8, 2016 and will be notified by email.
Few things shut down a person in pain faster than quoting the Bible at them. As I write that, I can hear the sirens of the Heresy Police surrounding my building. Yes, the Bible contains the words of life, the promises of God-with-us that have comforted saints and resurrected sinners. But the Bible can also be the ultimate conversation killer. It can be used as a tool for silencing people and for short-circuiting grief, hurt, and depression. Sometimes people use the Bible in a way that makes hurting people feel like God is telling them to shut up.
This [piece] is based on two premises. First, life is hard. If you haven’t experienced that yet, just wait a little while longer. If you are in a sunny season of life, by all means bask in it, because a storm front is not far away. Second, many of us are at a loss for how to respond to a person who is experiencing that life is hard. We are daunted by the weight and emotion of painful situations and our best intentions seem inadequate. We say too much or we say too little, we quote the wrong verse or feel a compulsive need to quote a verse at all, we do the wrong thing or we do the right thing wrongly, or whatever we say or do falls with a thud.
I don’t like saying this, but it has been my experience that Christians are often worse at dealing with people in pain than others with different beliefs. Truth be told, I have chosen on many occasions to share my painful moments and emotions with non-Christians rather than Christians, because I knew I would be better heard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer lamented the same thing: “Many people are looking for an ear that will listen. They do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking when they should be listening.” This saddens me, and confuses me. It seems to me that no one should run into the fire like Christians, because we follow a Savior who descended into hell. No one should be better equipped to respond to suffering than those who wear crosses around their necks. But it is far less messy to stand over people in pain than it is to enter their worlds and risk feeling pain ourselves.
I once heard a ministry colleague say: “I’m going to be with a person in the hospital tonight. Time to speak some truth.” This idea prevails in many Christian circles, that preaching is the healing balm for suffering. Whether it’s sickness or divorce or job loss, a crisis calls for some sound Biblical exhortation. I have a number of issues with this. First, it assumes that the hurting person does not believe the right things or believe with enough fervency. They may end up receiving the message that their faith is not strong enough for them to see their situation rightly, or that something is wrong with them because they are struggling. Second, preaching to people in pain preys on the vulnerable. It’s stabbing the sword of truth into their wound, or doing surgery without anesthesia. Unwelcome truth is never healing. Third, “speaking truth” into situations of pain is distancing. You get to stand behind your pulpit, or your intercessory prayer that sounds a lot like a sermon, and the other person is a captive audience, trapped in the pew of your anxious truth. Suffering inevitably makes a person feel small and isolated, and preaching to them only makes them feel smaller and more alone, like a scolded child.
Dr. Seuss wrote some classic stories, but he also gave some classically bad advice: “Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened.” Your role as a listener is, by all means, to let them cry that it’s over. Don’t be the Grinch who stole grief. Be a witness to their tears. Each falling tear carries pain and it’s the only way to get it out.
A hurting person is in a storm. They are cold, wet, shivering, and scared. Preaching, platitudes, and advice will not get them out of the storm. Don’t tell someone in a storm that it’s a sunny day. There will likely come a day when the clouds part, but it is not today. It’s not your job to pull them out of the storm. It’s your job to get wet with them.
The listener’s job is to enter in. The apostle Paul nails it with these verses:
Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and the God of all consolation, who consoles us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to console those who are in any affliction with the consolation with which we ourselves are consoled by God. For just as the sufferings of Christ are abundant for us, so also our consolation is abundant through Christ. If we are being afflicted, it is for your consolation and salvation; if we are being consoled, it is for your consolation, which you experience when you patiently endure the same sufferings that we are also suffering. Our hope for you is unshaken; for we know that as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our consolation. (2 Cor 1.3-7)
There is no getting around the fact that a Christian community is one that suffers. The pioneer of our faith suffered, the main symbol of our tradition is one of agony and death, and there is no use trying to remove the cruciform marks from the hands and feet of the church. The mark of the gospel is not health and wealth, but nails and blood. The good news is that a Christian community is one that suffers together. We partake in one another’s sufferings, an unsavory meal that is made sweeter when we patiently endure with one another. Consolation is not necessarily rescue from suffering, but consolation is what comes as we suffer together. This does not at all mean that the church ignores injustice, poverty, and oppression or that we do not seek to relieve suffering when we have the ability to do so. We rail against pain and rage at death, because we know things are not as they ought to be. But there are many times in life when we just don’t have the ability to relieve someone’s suffering, as much as we wish we did. You’re not going to magically remove someone’s grief when a loved one dies, or snap away their depression when a dream fails. The grief and depression are essential parts of their healing. The church is a community of people who acknowledge suffering, treat it as real, and enter into one another’s pain, because our Lord knows our afflictions. Jesus offers his presence in suffering, and so should we.
We are eager to offer up premature consolation though, aren’t we? I call it preemptive assurance. If we can strike first with our assurances and answer some questions that haven’t been asked, maybe we can protect ourselves from discomfort. We start hearing ourselves say things like:
“Everything will be okay.”
“Hang in there.”
“God is good.”
“This will pass.”
“Soon you will be glad this happened.”
“God is in control.”
“This will make you stronger.”
“God won’t test you beyond what you are able to handle.”
“God works all things for good.”
I know that when my language takes on a particularly religious slant, I am probably dispensing some preemptive assurance. Pain is too serious for pat answers and glib God-talk. When I was a starting out as a chaplain, I had an itchy prayer trigger finger.
My first question for a patient was “How are you feeling?” and my second question was “Can I pray for you?” That way I could maintain control and let my carefully rehearsed prayers drown out their pain. I would move on to the next hospital room thinking I had done my job. I hadn’t.
Listening to people in pain is about giving them room to grieve and weep and rage and doubt. We’re not there to spiritualize their pain or theologize their experience. Our religious talk, preemptive assurance, and breezy conversation take space, when we want to give space. Otherwise we are subject to Job’s rebuke: “I have heard many such things; miserable comforters are you all. Have windy words no limit? Or what provokes you that you keep on talking?” (Job 16.2-3). Bonhoeffer said it almost as strongly: “It must be a decisive rule of every Christian fellowship that each individual is prohibited from saying much that occurs to him.” In other words, listening and silence are not necessarily the same thing, but silence is a really good start. Some situations are so heavy that only silence can support their weight.
We are on the wrong track when we diminish the emotions that people are feeling. You don’t tell them how to feel; you let them feel however they are feeling, in the presence of another. Don’t catch what I call “at-least syndrome.” At least you have your health. At least you got to have her in your life for a little while. At least it’s not as bad as what this other person is experiencing. At-least statements diminish pain. Let people have their pain. In some situations, it’s all they have.
It’s a scary prospect, especially if you are uncomfortable with raw emotion, but you need to let people feel their hurt. This is especially challenging when you have done something to hurt someone. You might find yourself whipping out the “quick on the draw” apology. The faster I can apologize, the less I have to listen to their pain and the less guilty I can feel! The quick apology is not for them, but for you. If you can’t hear the pain that you played a role in inflicting, there will not be full reconciliation.
Sometimes you not only encourage people to express their pain but you even help them to feel what they are feeling more intensely. As a hospice chaplain, I was surprised to discover that my role was often not to reassure, but to remind people just how agonizing their situation was. They would take a step toward describing their pain, then take a step back and offer a cliché like “But that’s the circle of life for you.” That’s when I would step in and say “Yeah, but the circle of life sucks, doesn’t it?” Sometimes you have to say the blunt thing to open the floodgates. Too much tiptoeing and nothing significant ever gets uncovered. I gave them permission to grieve, and to express their pain in the simplest, rawest way possible, which is the language of deep emotion.
The Mortal Enemy of Listening: Anxiety
Neurological research has discovered that when a person near us expresses sadness, our bodies involuntarily respond to them. Our brains contain “mirror neurons,” which automatically mimic what we see in the facial expressions and body language of another person. If a person wears a frown, then our mouths, on a micro-level, will start to frown without any conscious decision on our part, and those undetectable movements will actually produce similar feelings in us. If someone is sad, our mouths curl downwards, our tear ducts are activated, and we start to feel sad. The primal compassionate response is built into us. Our bodies want to feel the pain of others.
It’s when we voluntarily open those mouths that have involuntarily responded with compassion that we screw things up. Our bodies may want to feel their pain but the rest of us doesn’t. It is an axiom of human nature that we avoid pain, and to that end, we avoid other people who are in pain. If we can’t physically avoid them, we emotionally avoid them. We try to fix, solve, rescue, give advice, or make the pain go away, which usually makes things worse.
Anxiety is the mortal enemy of listening to people in pain. When people are struggling with pain, sickness, loss, doubt, inner conflict, or broken relationships it inevitably stirs up our own anxiety. We hear our lives and vulnerability in theirs. The closer we are to a person, and the more our lives are interwoven with theirs, the lower our anxiety threshold. When they question the direction of their life, they question the direction of our life. When they hurt, it disrupts our sense of well-being too.
We have the hardest time listening when things become personal for us. When something upsets us, whether in a close relationship or in a situation we are more removed from, it is usually because it hits close to home in some way. The reason why we have a hard time hearing the doubts and faith questions of others is because it provokes our own unacknowledged doubts. We have a hard time holding together the tension of our God’s goodness and our world’s brokenness, and our anxiety makes us rush to simplistic answers. We are unable to sit in mystery with others because it brings us face to face with our own pain, our own questions, our own faith struggles.
For 6 months I volunteered as a counselor at a food bank affiliated with my church. Clients would come in a few nights a week and talk with us before going home with their donated food and clothes. We were in the throes of the worst recession of most of our lifetimes. Our client logs were at a record high. Their stories were heartbreaking. One man was a homeless Vietnam vet. An older woman was taking care of her disabled son and living on food stamps. A young mother came in with her two young daughters the Tuesday before Thanksgiving.
I myself was unemployed, laid off six months before I started volunteering. I had applied for dozens of jobs, in several different industries, but the competition in a recession was stiff. Low-paying jobs would have 100 applicants. I started volunteering at the food bank partly because I needed something to do. The circumstances of the clients I saw every week were much bleaker than mine, but I couldn’t help but see myself in their situations. Our conversations provoked some of my deepest fears about the future and my deepest doubts about God. I would go home and lie on the couch in the fetal position. And truth be told, even with all my training, I practiced some of my worst listening with our clients. I know that when I start doing things quickly, my anxiety is speaking for me. I would end conversations quickly, pray quickly, and refer people to other agencies quickly. Good listening is slow; anxiety moves fast.
Join the Conversation
What helps you to listen to those in pain?
Adam helpfully points out that when we’re moving quickly in a conversation with someone, we’re usually motivated by anxiety. Does this resonate with you? What helps you to slow down?
Christian community suffers together—where have you seen that play out in your story?
Taken from The Listening Life by Adam S. McHugh. Copyright (c) 2015 by Adam S. McHugh. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515-1426. www.ivpress.com
THE TRUTH SETS YOU FREE
I love the words of Jesus when he told his followers “The truth will set you free.” Freedom comes by embracing the truth, not by holding onto lies, illusions and myths.
It’s interesting to note that the Apostle Paul wrote two different books to the same group of followers of Jesus in a city named Corinth in the Greek Isles. In the second book, we see an older, more mature Paul talk about living within limits. In 2 Corinthians 10:13, Paul explains his understanding of living life within the limits God has set for us. He writes about not over-extending ourselves.
“But we will not boast beyond limits, but will boast only with regard to the area of influence God assigned to us, to reach even to you.
The Message puts it this way:
“We aren’t making outrageous claims here. We’re sticking to the limits of what God has set for us.”
A limit requires a basic understanding of where you should invest yourself and where you should refrain. A limit is understanding what writer Wendell Berry calls “your carrying capacity; knowing your own “bandwidth.” How much can you work? And not how long can you work, but how long SHOULD you work? And it’s not just about work. Limits are important to understand regarding most aspects of our lives. How much should we exercise, eat, sleep, play, use technology? How much can you carry before something is dropped?
What’s true is this: A person cannot give 110% all the time. That’s just not possible. As the Bible says, “Young men do grow weary.” Even young men and women need to learn the limitations of their physical strength. Tim’s spouse told me, “All I get from Tim when he gets home are the leftovers.” It’s a message my wife, Gwen, tried to tell me when my own career was blossoming and I was at the zenith of my vocational ladder. Now, years later, I lament to Gwen and often share in my talks when asked to speak on this subject: “I gave the best years of my life to my work and the leftovers to my family.” Sure I tried to be present, to go to my son’s basketball games and soccer matches. I tried to understand the concept of “quality time.” But now I can say, I may have been physically present but I was far, far away in some distant land in my mind. I now realize that I was emotionally absent. I was checked-out, pre-occupied with planning meetings, building reports, and strategies for growth; in other words, my kingdom.
I regret not really showing up for much of my life. I showed up in work but did not show up in other ways and I paid the price. Please hear me—so will you. No one escapes the boomerang of ignoring your limits. I have spent much time seeking to regain the “years that the locusts have eaten” in my life, with my family ties and especially with my most sacred of all relationships—my wife. Learning to live within my limits was a key “Aha” moment for me. When the lights came on, my life began to change—and so will yours—and all for the better.
Over-extending yourself is stretching your physical, emotional, financial, vocational, and relational boundaries to the point of depletion. Have you ever heard the expression someone says when the money is running tight. It goes like this: “There too much month for too little money.” Translated it means, “I’ve run out of money to pay all my bills and it’s only the middle of the month.” That’s what happens when we overextend ourselves; there’s more being asked of us than we can give.
This overextending causes stress to accumulate: the stress at home, in the workplace, during travel, it all piles up like a huge stack of dirty laundry. Stress, as we all know, is deadly to our health. Every doctor and therapist will tell you that unresolved stress is going will “do you in.” Stress works itself out through our blood pressure, and attacks our vital organs. Stress releases a toxin that when built up leaves it’s marks inside of us. We live with a tyranny of the urgent mentality with drives us, manipulates us, and sucks life and passion right out of our marrow and veins. Everything must be done now. Everything has to be quick.
Professions that call for high emotional investment in people, otherwise known as “helping professions” need to take note. Examples include ministers, counselors, social workers, nurses, doctors, teachers. The principle that anyone involved in a helping profession needs to uphold is this: Those who care must be cared for. No one is the exception to this, not even you! An important step in learning to live your life within limits is to confess, “There are no exceptions to this principle. Not even me!”
In the military world, men and women who have repeated multiple deployments, living in harms way for extended periods of time apart from loved ones, experience signs and symptoms of the burn-out and depletion I am describing. I have three sons who serve as officers in the United States Army. When they are deployed, I see firsthand the stress on their wives, children, and in their own souls. I also sense my own stress rising when they are deployed. Sometimes, I can’t sleep if I know they are truly in harm’s way.
I’ve worked with numerous people who work in the area of disaster relief and in crisis situations for large organizations. After flying overseas or travelling to a site where a hurricane, earthquake, or human plight has developed, they go into fierce action-mode, doing everything possible to save lives and alleviate suffering. It always takes a toll. One relief worker who is employed by a United Nations relief agency came to our retreat and introduced himself with these words: “I’m DOA. Dead On Arrival. I’m spent and have no idea where I left my heart along the way.”
Most people in the developed world know to wash their hands before eating. By washing your hands, you are preventing the spread of germs that can make you sick. In developing countries, many cross-cultural workers will teach people about drinking water that is safe. They say, “Urinate over there and keep this area clean and pure so nothing bad will go into the water.” Again, it’s a simple truth to keep people healthy. Learning to live within your limits is a simple preventative principle that will help you stay healthy. All aspects of caring for yourself are really preventative work. Preventative care is an important part of the work within the work. It’s never a selfish act to care for yourself! Never! In the bigger picture of life and health it is stewardship.
I tell people this simple proverb: “Know before you go!” and what I mean by that is you need to know some basic life principles before you go and give your heart away for a cause, a mission, an organization or a company. This by far is the most identified regret of my entire life.
To explore your own limits, consider these categories that will help you as you begin setting realistic limits for yourself.
First, consider how you can conserve energy, as in “your” energy. We need to learn some conservation skills. We simply cannot give all of our energy all the time. No one ever told me this. I was taught to give my all and that my all was needed, if not demanded. I was also taught, via sermons, and books, and stories, that even God expected my all. Now I know this is simply not true. Even Jesus did not even begin his thirty-six month mission on earth until he was thirty years old. With the kind of thinking that was ingrained in me, I found myself wondering “Jesus wasted a lot of time. What if he had begun earlier in life; hung up his tool belt by age 18 and started out then…look at how much MORE he could have done.”
Winston Churchill, the undeniable leader of the Free World has much to teach emerging leaders here on the “know before you go” principle.
In Paul Johnson’s biography of this legendary British hero, Churchill, we read these words:
In 1946, I had the good fortune to ask him a question:
“Mr. Churchill, sir, to what do you attribute your success in life?”
Without pause or hesitation, he replied:
“Conservation of energy. Never stand up when you can sit down, and never sit down when you can lie down.”
Johnson then goes on to explain the idea of conserving your energy on an every day basis:
“Churchill was capable of tremendous physical and intellectual efforts, of high intensity over long periods, often with little sleep. But he had corresponding powers of relaxation, filled with a variety of pleasurable occupations, and he also had the gift of taking short naps when time permitted. Again, when possible, he spent his mornings in bed, telephoning, dictating, and receiving visitors.”
Second, embrace the idea of living life in rhythm, not in balance.
[T]he idea of balance is a lie. It simply cannot be maintained. Despite all the seminars, books, and TED talks, balance is bunk. Rhythm is doable and allows you to develop your own understanding living life in limits. I have a friend who is a Registered Nurse in a Cancer Ward at a leading hospital. She works three days “on” and four “off.” Her three days on are twelve-hour shifts that sometimes extend to 13 hours—even 14 some days when there is so much documentation needed. Her first day “off” is useless to her. She is so tired, so exhausted, so “spent” that she told me, “On my first day off, I’m no good to anyone. I just sleep, “veg” and eat. By the second day off, I’m sensing who I am again, and go out for lunch or dinner with a good friend.” It’s a necessary limit and rhythm that she has come to understand about her own life and need for recovery.
Third, steward your output by mentally and emotionally disengaging after you work. I coach leaders to leave their work at work and do not do work in your home if at all possible. If you work at home, define a definite workspace. Hint—this should NOT be your bedroom. In defining work areas, you actually create mental and emotional space.
My wife and I do not speak, mention, or chat about the name of our work, people we work with, or issues relating to space on our days off or in our home after work hours. To talk about our team is to talk about work. We’ve set high boundaries here and limit our conversations to issues pertaining to us, our kids, grandkids, close friends, and vacation plans. We literally try to set our mind to ease by saying, “This is not a Sabbath conversation. Let’s talk about this tomorrow.”
After every great output of energy, plan and schedule a time for input. Give yourself what brings you life. Give yourself permission to live and not just work. After you spend enormous time and energy involving yourself in a project or travel obligation, know that you need some recovery time. You cannot simply give and give and give. This is a deadly mistake that will lead to burnout and depression. You have to replenish.
I travel internationally and after doing this for several years, I’ve learned that just the trip alone and the changing of time zones and the stress of waiting and delays and security issues requires that I need to set aside calendar time to re-coup. Last year, I traveled to India. I flew all night and half of the next day to get there. I arrived and was whisked away in a taxi to give a talk. It was one of the biggest mistakes of my life. I was completely zoned out. Now I know better. I “know before I go” and build in a day or two to get adjusted, to rest, and to have time to collect my thoughts.
After a time of intense work, how about taking a couple of days for yourself—to go see a “sight” or to have some life giving experience? Could your spouse join you for an extended time “off” knowing that you’ve been “on” so much lately? By thinking like this, you will insulate yourself from the crisis of cramming too much in and doing too much. Build in your time off before you go. Work this out with your boss and team and call it “Compensatory Time” or something that will give you permission to take good care of yourself. This is vital and key to learning to live within your limits.
Fourth, face the truth that you cannot do everything and do everything well. We cannot burn the candle at both ends. Jesus wisely asked three penetrating questions to his followers—not to people who were considering following him—but to those who had already signed up. His questions were:
Are you tired?
Are you worn out?
Are you burned out on religion?
These three questions give us permission to know our limits and grow in our own self-awareness of how we are really doing and to care for our souls. So many people are living in one of these three unhealthy spheres that Jesus describes: physical exhaustion, mental anguish involving guilt and shame for not doing more, and then the big one which leaves us totally worn out—being burned out—that state where we live like we’re fried without the hope of recovery.
 John 8:32
 Is 40:30
 This is a reference to Joel 2:25 which offers God’s perspective about regaining the lost years of our lives due to certain “locusts” demolishing our lives, families, health, relationships and more.
 Seen in Matthew 11:28, the Message.
A spiritual direction session is to be graced with a hospitable freedom to share whatever is on one’s heart or mind. When a trusting relationship between director and directee is established, there may come a time when a directee needs to confess a sin or sinful pattern in their life. In confession, we are invited to “agree with God” about the truth of our lives in light of the truth of his gospel… both of which will always set us free.Read More Post a comment (0)
A desire to pray emerges in the person who has taken God to heart. This is not a static longing, but one that deepens as the relationship matures. While it may be commendable to start out saying one’s prayers, grace allows a time to come when the longing to relate to God makes what began as sincere prayer seem inadequate for the increasing desire to relate to God more deeply.Read More Post a comment (0)
In our modern world, we often treat the spiritual life like a business deal or a construction project. This approach might work in the early stages of life in Christ. However, as we move into the deeper places of our life with God, a more tender, nuanced, reflective approach is needed.
In the Old Testament, The Song of Songs speaks of the deep intimacy that we are able to experience in Christ. In the Song, we find a refrain which is repeated three times: “do not awaken love until it pleases.” Our love relationship with Jesus is compared to the does and gazelles of the field, meaning that the deep things of our soul are timid and shy like a wild animal. We can rush in too quickly and cause the soul to retreat to seemingly safer places instead of waiting and listening patiently.Read More Post a comment (0)
Christian Spiritual Direction is the practice whereby one person helps another to pay attention to God—to God’s presence, voice, and sanctifying work in his or her life. It is the shared noticing of Jesus, revealed in Scripture and the daily events of a walk and a meal, attended to in feelings of disappointment and hope, of joy and burning hearts.
Spiritual Direction conversations include the “stuff” of ordinary life—vocation, relationships, circumstances, health, the life of worship and prayer and service, joys and sorrows, boredoms and adventures—and seek to notice God’s presence, work, and invitations in the midst of those.Read More Post a comment (0)
Last month I talked about getting my face out of a book and learning to welcome the person standing in front of me. It’s been an adventure (and generally fun) to pay attention to the person standing in line with me and the person knocking on my door. (I’m still working on the telemarketer trying to make a living by calling me!)
The next step is “welcoming the stranger.” Not often listed as a spiritual discipline, this practice was one Jesus emphasized by how he welcomed all kinds of people and identified with them: “When I was a stranger, you welcomed me… when you did it for the least of these, you did it for me” (Matthew 25:31-35, CEV). Such welcoming is tangible and helpful, even offering them a cup of cold water (Matthew 10:40-42; see also Matthew 18:5 and John 13:20).
Who are our strangers? People appear to us as strangers for different reasons but they usually fit into one of these categories:
Outcasts. A person’s past didn’t disqualify him or her from being welcomed by Jesus. While most rabbis threw stones at lepers, Jesus welcomed them (Matthew 8:1-4). He touched the untouchables.
Wrong-doers. The immoral past of the Samaritan woman did not disqualify her either. In fact, Jesus went out of his way to extend himself: he had to go through Samaria (John 4:4). He welcomed this person who was also a stranger ethnically and gender-wise. He should not have had a conversation with any woman in public but he not only did so but also invited her to enter into a deepened relationship with God.
Anyone who isn’t like me. When we see or meet people who differ from us politically, ethnically or theologically, a little “ping” may go off in our head that says, Ooh, Different. Step back. I wonder what Jesus’ disciple, Simon the zealot, thought when Jesus healed and then praised the faith of a Roman centurion. Simon would have viewed the centurion as a prime candidate for assassination.
A stranger may just be someone of a different economic class. In a church full of homeowners, an apartment dweller often feels like a stranger. A disabled person is a stranger in the midst of fitness buffs as is a non-reader among well-read folks. Military kids or missionary kids, parolees or drug rehab graduates may all qualify as strangers among those without that type of experience.
Anyone we’re tempted to exclude and ignore. Strangers are often people in power-down positions: “children as opposed to adults, women as opposed to men, minority races as opposed to majority races, the poor as opposed to middle-class, the middle-class as opposed to rich, lower-paid workers as opposed to highly paid workers, less educated as opposed to more educated, blue-collar workers as opposed to professionals.” The elderly are easily overlooked. When my quiet 80-year-old mother-in-law came to visit, our other dinner guests never engaged her in conversation. I wept later to think of the many times I had neglected to speak to an older person.
Or we may avoid pushy people, people who talk too long about themselves, those who scream and pout for what they feel they deserve, know-it-alls, or people who let their kids run wild. In any “us versus them” situation, “them” are the strangers.
The shocking thing about Jesus is that he did not merely tolerate such different people. Jesus offered himself to them in self-giving love. I am able to do this only when I ask Jesus to reach out to others through me.
Excerpted from Invitation to the Jesus Life, ch 5. ©Jan Johnson
Join the Conversation
Who are the “strangers” in your life?
What might be some small step you might take in welcoming one of them?
I am by nature a high introvert. Given my preference, I’d sit in a comfy spot reading a book for the rest of my life. But the second part of the Great Commandment tells me to love my neighbor (Matt 22:39). A “neighbor” is a person who is “nigh” (near) me, which might be the bank teller depositing my checks, the dejected teen boarding the airplane ahead of me, the beaming father holding his 6-month-old in the Home Depot line—or the person who wants my attention when I’m completely absorbed in my book. So I have simplified the second part of the Great Commandment to: What would it look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 seconds?
To “love” the person in front of me does not mean I necessarily feel warm and fuzzy toward them, or that it’s my job to make them feel good (even worse, to like me). “Love” is simply engaging my will for another person’s good. So I often ask God, What does “love” look like here? Most often it involves being friendly or kind or helping someone out. Quite often such welcoming is no big deal.
My friend was in line to speak to a collection agent (so nobody in that line was happy). His previous experiences with the clerk were not pleasant so it was tempting to numb out and just “get through it.” But when he noticed that the gentleman in front of him didn’t speak English well which clearly annoyed the clerk, my friend quietly stepped in and helped translate for the man. It eased the situation considerably.
Some would say my friend did this because he is an extrovert, and that may be part of it. But more than that, he’s very intentional about welcoming people into his life (as is my husband). When he says “How are you?” to me, he waits for a real answer. I’m having to get used to that, since I’m eager to get down to business and address the matter at hand. What I liked best about my friend’s interchange in the line was that he lightened the load not only for the gentleman but also for the clerk who had been so brusque with him. He loved both people in front of him.
Indeed, the person in front of me that I might struggle to welcome might be someone who repeats himself a lot or who tries to convince me of a so-called biblical idea that I don’t think is in Scripture. I most often forget that the person in front of me really matters when I’m distracted by my own dilemmas or trying to make a decision. So the prayer becomes: Show me what it would look like to love the person in front of me for the next 10 minutes. And God usually shows me what to do.
Jesus, I believe, was like my friend. Jesus taught people: “Whoever welcomes you welcomes me, and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me” (Matt 10:40). Jesus laid aside deep grief over John the Baptist’s death to pay attention to the crowd in front of him (Matt 14:13-14).This is the essence of hospitality: welcoming the person in front of me:
We pay attention to others, inviting them to be at home with us as they unfold themselves before us (as God invites us). Then we wait for them to be able to do that. To merely welcome another, to make a place for them is one of the most life-giving and life-receiving things a human being can do. Hospitality is not limited to inviting others to eat with us or stay in our home. While cleaning, bed-making and food preparation are valuable gifts to offer others, the core idea of hospitality is being open and vulnerable to another person (Invitation to the Jesus Life, p. 70).
The more I welcome people into my life, the more I find life to be an engaging adventure in God’s company.
Join the Conversation
What “signals” do you send that indicate to another person that they are welcome? That they are unwelcome?
It is 4:30 am and, unless you are in the car before 5:15, the chance of making your 6:45 time at the gym will be slim to none. Instead of an unhurried date with your own soul, you listen to a podcast through your car speakers while sitting in morning traffic. The gym is packed with others just like you, hoping to fool their bodies into thinking they have an active lifestyle and that the scale might just indicate as much. Hair still wet from the post-workout shower you swear and honk your way to work, barely squeezing into the last available spot at the last available pay parking lot at the last available pre-late moment before being driven into the wilderness that is your day at a desk.
9:30 pm. Children are wrestled away from pixel-glow and sound byte stew and chased to their rooms. You’d make love but the idea of finding yet more energy is repugnant to people already half asleep, already planning the next day, even before you can catch up with this one. You kiss your partner, roll the other way, and, in what seems like moments later, hear your phone alarm telling you it’s time to start all over again.
* * *
Abba Antony sat in his cell. The day was shimmering hot and the desert air was punctuated by a concoction of dust, bugs, and the generally parched life that survives among the softly breathing stones of a lazy earth. In his cell it is dark and smells putrid, like too many days without even a fresh breeze to drive out the stale desert. It is the aroma of thought.
He sits with his back against the wall on a stone shaped perfectly to his buttocks, where he spends countless hours simply being Antony. On the other wall is a small ledge built of stray stone and debris that acts as an altar. To one side are the last fragments of his meager meal, unleavened bread, now hard and brittle, like the hands that broke it.
He owns a shredded, tattered copy of the Gospels, a few small candles, an embarrassingly threadbare cloak and the deep ecstasies afforded an old mystic of silent prayer. He had not seen another soul for over two weeks, not since the last colloquy of seekers had come from the towns for spiritual counsel, a service he rendered as often as was needed.
The rest of the time, he prayed in the broad, spacious silence of the Egyptian desert.
* * *
If you are like me, your life is the former but your soul longs for the latter. And, unless your name is Antony, or one of his eremetic contemporaries, you have not lived much of your life alone. Nor have you experienced much in the way of solitude. None of us have in fact.
When the sun sinks low in the evening sky is the time shadows are most insistent, pronounced, surprising. It gives the impression that the world is somehow larger than the sum of its parts. We are the solid matter behind the suggestions of our own shadows. Without our physical presence, nothing appears. Yet, conversely, without shadows we are but ghosts. There is no substance from which is cast forward any proof of our existence.
We live among ghosts and shadows. Before our structures of commerce, built of hollow bones and the featureless droning of our money-lust, lived taller souls. Antony of Egypt. Augustine, Bishop of Hippo. Julian of Norwich. Bernard de Clairvaux. Mechthild of Magdeburg. John of the Cross. Thomas Merton. They were those whose smallness cast forward agreatness – holy mustard seeds dwarfing the hungry world around them. And their shadows have not been silent. Nor have they been still.
If we are to become greater than our shadows would suggest, we would be wise to envelope ourselves in the calming grey shade of saints who have soaked up enough light that they shield us from God’s glory that would immolate us in our tepid, backward lives. These luminaries shine out “like shook foil” (thank you Gerard Manley Hopkins) even as Moses’ face shone after gazing into the great abyss that is the face of I Am. We, too, can do the same.
* * *
How? How do two scenarios so utterly different find commonality? How do the prismic lives of these great saints enter our own ashen experience of contemporary chaos? Is it possible for the ascetic, unitive consciousness of Antony to become our own? Can he who had no wife and children, no mortgage or debt, no rush hour anxiety or job insecurities to deal with speak into our lives? How do such ancient voices, so removed from the modern experience of shameless hurry, find their place within us?
Right, neither do I.
Instead, I offer a frightening consideration: those who long for the nourishing desert silence must be willing to live there first. For, in the desert is found the abundant life, the a priori life, of those least satisfied with anything less; with nothing more. In other words, what Antony and his ilk would tell us is that, to be as still and unshakably unified as they, we cannot simply use them as therapeutic platitudes to shield us from the worst of our game.
We change our game to find their life.
* * *
Louise and Warren used to own two cars, one each for work. They generally parked their camper truck and small boat on one side of their triple-car driveway that fronted a 3500 square foot Tudor style home in the gentrified, shiny part of town. His work with a large software company, combined with her consulting business typically brought in a healthy six figures.
Now, Louise hosts whomever comes to the door of their communal home, bracing their days with warm fire and hot soup, a blanket and conversation. It is Warren’s turn to act as community vicar and offer morning prayers. Filling the simple living room, looking not unlike the common area of a large hermitage, were a host of icons, a candled prayer station, four kneelers, and a prominent Communion table that doubled as a dinner board.
They invested all they had in this new little community. Once they sought to find a faith sufficient to uphold their life. Now, they seek a life sufficient to indemnify their deepening faith. They live their lives hidden in the safety of holy shadows, cast long and still by those whose silent voices speak the loudest.
Someone who recently saw the movie Exodus: Gods and Kings asked me how a good God could drown the Egyptian soldiers in the sea. Here are a few thoughts that came to me.
Our rabbis taught, “When the Egyptian armies were drowning in the sea, the Heavenly Hosts broke out in songs of jubilation. God silenced them and said, “My creatures are perishing, and you sing praises?”Read More Post a comment (0)