Wednesday, March 25, 2015

Stop, Look & Listen ~ PART TWO

Dear Friends,

Last week in Stop, Look & Listen~PART ONE, we saw why it’s helpful to apply the railroad safety slogan to our communications with one another. Two friends were talking. She was telling him that her father had recently died. His quick, off-the-cuff response was callous, thoughtless and trivialized her father’s passing. If he had only stopped for a moment to actually focus his attention on her, looked at the pain and grief on her face, and listened to her aching heart, he would have never said what he said. The brother of Jesus wrote that in all our conversations, we should first listen and listen well before we finally speak. James 1:19 (NLT).
As I’ve been more intentional about my own conversations this past week, I’ve become aware of how too often my own communication style can be described not as “stop, look & listen” but more as “hit & run.” I’ve caught myself too many times just throwing off a snappy remark to someone as I rushed by the person to get to whatever perceived priority was calling to me at that moment. But at a recent church workday, the most enjoyable and fulfilling moments were those when I was reminded to stop what I was doing and be with another person, look at them, and listen to them.

In last week’s AMEN Corner, we saw the communications contrast between the younger Millennial generation and the older generations (Baby Boomer and Builder). I said, “At the risk of oversimplifying, on one end of the generation spectrum are younger people who don't know how to talk with each other and at the other end, is a generation with no one to talk to.” The younger generation has plenty of wise and not-so-wise older people in their lives who talk to them. They have fewer older people who love them enough to stop and just listen to them. 

Most of us have the talking part nailed down – the listening part, not so much. Stephen Covey wrote, “You’ve spent years learning how to read and write, years learning how to speak. But what about listening? What training or education have you had that enables you to listen so that you really, deeply understand another person..?”And quite honestly, some of us may need to polish our listening skills.

What annoys me about people, and I’m sure what annoys people about me, is when we fail to listen, focus on what we are going to say next and interrupt the person to hijack the conversation. If you or I do that, the Bible bluntly calls us a “fool.” Proverbs 18:2 (NLT) And when we jump to conclusions and make assumptions before we hear the other person, we are being foolish. Proverbs 18:13 (NLT) 

But we exhibit good listening skills when we stop what we’re doing and look at the other person. When we ask clarifying and follow-up questions.. When we listen past the words and listen to their feelings, emotions and struggles.. When we don’t interrupt.. When we refuse to be distracted by our cell phone and the world around us.. When we are sensitive to where the Holy Spirit is leading the conversation.. When our responses flow out of a heart of Christ-like love...

Those in the counseling and therapy fields are taught techniques such as mirroring back and making empathetic statements in order to create a listening environment where people find it safe to talk. Studies have shown “therapeutic listening” to be very effective in the healing process. It’s always a delight (but no surprise) to read that secular studies have reached conclusions that line up with God’s word! But we don’t need to use learned therapeutic techniques or memorize rote responses, because when we are filled with the love of Jesus, it’s out of the overflow of our heart that our mouth speaks. Matt 12:34.

The people group that most needs to be listened to today are the seniors. Few emotions are more overwhelming than loneliness. As our population ages, more and more seniors are struggling with feelings of despair and abandonment. Grown children are gone and raising families of their own. Friends move away, pass on, or are confined in senior rest homes. 20% of seniors live alone and even 60% of those who are still married experience loneliness. The breakdown of family relationships today has made many older people feel as if they’ve been pushed to the outer fringe of life and forgotten. The most encouraging gift you can give a senior is your time and attention. Just stop what you are doing and love them like Jesus. John 13:34

Wednesday, March 18, 2015

Stop, Look, Listen ~ PART ONE

Dear Friends,

A friend who works at CSUN gives workshops to graduating seniors on how to enter the job market. Preferring to just text their resume, they’re disturbed to find that they need to network with those in their chosen field, build relationships and actually talk to people. A recent survey showed that the majority of those in their early twenties, prefer Facebook and Twitter communication over face-to-face conversations. The Boomer Generation likes to talk; the Millennial Generation likes to text. 

The younger generation seeks to have authentic, “real” relationships while communicating with each other using social media where many hide behind a fantasy version of themselves. For example: “Avatars” are personal icons that people use on-line, in social media communications and in on-line games to represent themselves. Instead of using a photo, you create a fantasy cartoon image of yourself. And to show you what they look like, I created one for this blog post that makes me look younger, smarter, thinner, kinder and hipper! I may keep the new me.

The sad thing is that people are creating fantasy versions of themselves, while hungering for genuine, authentic relationships. Sometimes, in the dreadful loneliness, they pretend. There’s a “boyfriend” app that young women can download to their phones and then create the perfect fake boyfriend who will send them thoughtful, loving emails. In Japan, an engineering company has designed and marketed a digital robotic girlfriend for the young, lonely Japanese man.

It’s not just the younger generations that are grasping for genuine, fulfilling relationships, it’s the older “forgotten” generation as well. As the largest living generation, the “baby boomers,” moves into their golden years, they are facing neglect by family and society and some are experiencing profound loneliness.

At the risk of oversimplifying, on one end of the generation spectrum are younger people who don’t know how to talk with each other and at the other end, is a generation with no one to talk to. It’s time for us to seek out multi-generational, multi-cultural relationships and become intentional about our conversations. It is too easy for us to lose touch with one another. It’s too easy for us to withdraw into silence. Too easy to use the excuse that we just don’t know what to do or say...

As a new driver, you were taught to “stop, look and listen” when you approached unguarded railroad tracks. I’m going to suggest that we take this wise instruction and apply it to our conversations with those who God brings into each day of our lives.

STOP what you are doing and pay attention to the other person. Last week, sitting near me at a restaurant were fourteen people celebrating a special family occasion. Grandchildren talked with grandparents while the six parents spent the entire time with their phones and ignored each other. 

God cannot use you for His plans and purposes if your primary purpose in life is to keep your Facebook updated. If you are seeking those God-ordained, Spirit-directed encounters and conversations, you may need to stop what you’re doing and just be with people. When those in need called out to Jesus, He stopped, looked at them and listened to them. Matthew 20:32 (NLT)

LOOK at the person. Making eye contact, tells the other person that they are important to you. It tells them that what they are saying has value to you. It has been said that the eyes are the window to the soul and when our eyes meet, we are, for that moment, connected with one another.

LISTEN to the other person. Last Saturday, I overheard a conversation between two women who were in their late 40's to early 50's. One was saying, “..and then my daughter told me, ‘Would you put down your phone and just listen to me?’” 

Listen to their words and listen past their words. Listen to their heart. We automatically ask, “How are you?” They automatically respond, “I’m fine, how are you” and if we’re not listening, we may miss the pain behind the words and that they are not fine at all. 

Lord, open my eyes that I don’t miss Your divine encounters with those You send to me. Open my ears, Lord, that I may listen and really hear them...  
(to be continued)

Wednesday, March 11, 2015

Time For Some Hard Pruning

Dear Friends,

It’s a beautiful Monday morning. A little chilly but the sun is out and it will be a warm Spring day. I put on leather gloves and gather my pruning tools. My outdoor cats gather to watch and meow quietly among themselves as they critique my work.

In order for my rosebushes to have a nice bloom of roses in the spring and summer months, it takes some work. Rosebushes require attentive care. If ignored they will become a tangled mass of dead branches intertwined with unhealthy live ones. Errant shoots will drain the life out of the stems and rob them of their strength and health.

I study each rosebush. Identifying the deadwood. Determining what I want it to look like so that I can shape it accordingly. I think of the parallels with my own life. Is it just a coincidence that the time to prune my rosebushes comes during the season of Lent? When I need to self-reflect and prune out of my life anything that precludes or hinders healthy spiritual growth? 

Some people mistakenly believe that severe pruning causes weak and insufficient growth so they timidly and lightly prune and leave most of the rosebush intact. But the secret to an abundant and healthy rosebush is a robust and ruthless cutting back of the plant that’s called “hard pruning.” 

I get to work and aggressively begin to prune out the deadwood. On a rosebush you can quickly identify deadwood because no new growth is sprouting from it. Nothing new, green and healthy comes from wood that is hard, brown and dried up. It’s difficult to cut out the old dead wood. I use the long-handled pruners and have to apply real effort. What are those old dead things that I still cling to? Dried up old bitterness in my heart? That dry, hard sin of unforgiveness that I’ve held onto for all these years? The gnarled old sin of pride with its roots embedded so deeply in my soul? “..put off..the old man which grows corrupt.. and be renewed in the spirit of your mind, and that you put on the new man which was created according to God, in true righteousness and holiness.” (Ephesians 4:22-24) The “old man” is deadwood. Nothing good can grow out of that. It’s time for some hard pruning.

I next cut out any damaged branches. Bent. Broken. Something or somebody did something that damaged it in the past. Maybe kicked or hit the branch and left irreparable harm. They need to be pruned out. Has some part of me been damaged by something or somebody in my own past? Something that left a part of me bent or broken? Maybe left me with flawed thoughts about my gifts and abilities? Pervasive thoughts of worthlessness? Damaged thoughts must be cut back to their roots. It’s time for some hard pruning.

A neglected rosebush can become congested and unattractive. I cut out misplaced stems. The ones rubbing together or just growing in the wrong direction. They are healthy and growing. But these branches are taking the plant in a direction I don’t want it to go and they detract from the overall attractiveness of the rose bush. They are jostling for limited space and I need to choose which ones I want to thin out. I take a close look at my own lifestyle and habits. "All things are lawful for me, but all things are not helpful. All things are lawful for me, but I will not be brought under the power of any." (1 Corinthians 6:12) What are those things that may be okay for me to do but are just not helpful for me to do? What are those things that clutter my life and keep me from growing in spiritual maturity and living in the presence of God? It’s time for some hard pruning.

When we are the one being pruned we quickly find that the process is neither painless nor easy. We always need to keep God’s purpose for pruning in mind: “Every branch in Me that does not bear fruit He takes away; and every branch that bears fruit He prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” (John 15:2) 

My rosebushes are now pruned in a manner that will grow them into a pleasing shape. And, during this season of Lent, my life also needs to be pruned into the shape that is most pleasing to God. It’s time for some hard pruning.   Amen?

This AMEN Corner was originally published March 13, 2013