Hard of Hearing

There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.           ~ G.K. Chesterton

Listening is hard. Hearing is even harder.

Years ago, I was the Counseling Supervisor at very busy Crisis Intervention Center in a mid-sized city. We had a 24 hour crisis line along with a steady stream of walk-in clients.

I was the only one in the center late one Saturday afternoon when a 36-year-old client I’d met with often, walked in, clearly agitated. He picked up a bottle of glue off a desk, squirted it in his Coke, shook it and sprayed it all over the walls.

As I began to try to gently talk to him, he grabbed me and held a knife to my throat for the next 45 minutes. He was strong and I was at a loss. Regardless of what I said, he heard something entirely different. Stan was a paranoid schizophrenic who rarely took his meds and often heard voices. On this particular Saturday he thought he’d heard my voice making fun of him.

Stan couldn’t hear what I was really saying. He only heard what he was afraid people said about him. His deteriorating mental health made hearing impossible.

Stan’s focus was entirely on himself. And in that way, he and I aren’t so different. A memory or my opinion or reaction to a remark can shift my focus in a conversation off of the person I’m with and back onto me. When I’m listening to you but thinking about me, I don’t hear what you’re saying.

We all have mental chatter to tune out. We may listen to voices from our childhood or school or church. They may even be tapes we’ve made ourselves – voices that distort the sound-waves so that we add our own spin to another’s words. There’s a lot of difference between listening and hearing.

It’s the same with God. Sometimes I talk and talk and then I’m done..  

I skip over the listening all together. When I’m praying and I do all the talking, I become hard of hearing.

With God, and with others, playing my own tapes too loudly can lead to hearing loss.

Alcatraz

               Pride makes us artificial. Humility makes us real.                           ~ Thomas Merton

I visited Alcatraz a few years ago. It’s a sad and haunted place. Alcatraz was designed to break people. The weight of it all still hangs in the air there.

My first job after college was as a Correctional Worker. It was a job for which I was exceptionally ill-suited. I was 21 and while my Psychology degree qualified me, my personality didn’t. I was inexperienced, naive, easily intimidated and phobicly adverse to confrontation.

Unfortunately, I’ve always interviewed well.

I worked in a residential facility for women that was a stop over between jail and integration into the community. Most residents came to us after serving prison time. The offenses ranged from multiple DUI’s to the killing of a Federal Marshall.

As the newest staff member, I was assigned most of the pat and strip searches. When it was time to do random drug testing, I was the one who watched while the residents used the restroom to make sure they didn’t dilute their UA’s.

Although Corrections was miles outside of my comfort zone, I wanted to make a difference. I know the women I worked with could sense my hesitancy and tentativeness. I was always polite but so uncomfortable. Years away from being broken, I didn’t know anything about humility.

I thought understanding the socioeconomic/environmental/cultural reasons for behavior would enable me to help/fix/cure. More than anything, I was intimidated and embarrassed – reactions which shifted the focus back onto me. Because I was embarrassed, I robbed the residents of yet another portion of their own dignity and worth.  I looked at people without seeing them and missed the opportunity to look into their eyes and pray that they might see some glimmer of God’s grace.

Pride makes us artificial and humility makes us real.
Some days I can still feel pride creeping back up my neck. I’m hurt or fearful or insulted and I begin to rationalize instead of relate. I become insular instead of open. I catch myself putting my fake on.
Pride is its own prison.

Taking Stock in the Checkout Line

While standing in line at the checkout counter, the lady in front of me pulled out food stamps to pay for her groceries. It was obvious as she unfold the currency that she, I, and the checkout girl were quite uncomfortable with the interaction. The woman never lifted her head as she organized her bags of groceries and set them into her cart. She walked away from the checkout stand in the sort of still movements a person uses when they know they are being watched.

On the drive over the mountain that afternoon, I realized that it was not the woman who should be pitied, it was me. Somehow I had come to believe that because a person is in need, they are candidates for sympathy, not just charity. It was not that I wanted to buy her groceries, the government was already doing that. I wanted to buy her dignity. And yet, by judging her, I was the one taking her dignity away.  ~ Donald Miller

While reading Miller’s story, I thought of the times I’ve looked at someone’s life and felt sorry for them. I’m certain I’ve done this with people who are perfectly happy and content. My reaction isn’t based on their lack, it’s based on mine.

When I compare my circumstances to another’s and feel pity, I’m assuming they want the same things I want – that they feel how I’m guessing I would feel in their place. It’s so easy to rob someone of their dignity by making assumptions and by practicing pity instead of compassion.

While there may be an element of good-will in pity, there is almost always an underlying strain of pride. Pity is a place, just far enough removed, where we can look down while keeping clean and safe. Pity urges a turning away, or at its best, a temporary cure which mostly serves to make us feel better about ourselves. Pity is presumptive and demeaning.

The word compassion comes from the Latin meaning to suffer together with. Compassion not only calls us to care rather than judge, it also calls us to comfort instead of always trying to cure. Compassion moves in and takes the time to learn the heart of another.

Pity says: There but for the grace of God go I.

Compassion says: There, by God’s grace, I’ll go with you.

Losing Time

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to weep and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance ~ Ecclesiastes 3

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven. But sometimes I step out of that season. When that happens, I lose time. I’ve lost time by mourning when I could have been dancing. I’ve lost time with people I love by dreading their death while they were still living. I’ve lost time anticipating how much I would miss my children when they left for college when they were only beginning high school. I’ve even lost bits of vacation by thinking about how soon it would be over.

I’ve been on a journey to try to live more and more fully in the present. It sounds so simple but sometimes my mind wanders. Last week, for example, I got the unexpected news that my job would be coming to an end. It isn’t a monumental thing. It happens often in this business. I may be without work briefly, but probably not for long. I have enough to get by until a new spot opens up. I wasn’t worried but I wasn’t happy.

I wasn’t happy because I didn’t want things to change. While I was grateful for the present good, I reacted as if I’d used Aladdin’s 3rd wish. As if I’d rubbed out God’s last bit of blessing. I didn’t want anything to change, even if the change was good for me – even if the change might be something better. I wanted what I had to stay as it was.

How easy it is to give up the gift of joy in the moment by giving in to fear or worry or dread or anxiety or sadness or the need for control. I started grieving the loss of what I had before I lost it and in doing that, lost it before it was over. I lost time for a day or two.

There will be a time to mourn, but it isn’t today. It isn’t this moment. This is the time to dance!

Beauty Is As Beauty Does

There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are. ~Brennan Manning
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When I was in first grade, I was playing at my friend Tara’s house. Her big sister, Patti, came downstairs carrying her yearbook. Patti was a sophomore. She was very smart and very popular.

Patti called us over to the sofa and opened the yearbook to the Senior Class pictures. She said: Who do you think is the prettiest girl in the class, Tara? It took Tara only a moment to point to the soon to be prom queen. Patti nodded and smiled and then passed the book to me. Debbie, who do you think is the prettiest girl in the class?

I liked Patti and I wanted her approval so I took the assignment very seriously. It was a small school. I don’t know exactly how many were in the senior class but I considered each picture carefully until I was confident that I’d chosen well.

Even though this was decades ago and I couldn’t tell you the name of another person in the entire high school, I remember my answer that day: Dorcas Miller. I can still picture Patti folding in with laughter. Dorcas Miller! Why in the world would you pick Dorcas Miller? She’s fat and her hair looks like her Dad cuts it. I asked you to pick out the prettiest girl in the class, not the ugliest one, Debbie!

I’m sure I remember this because it was the first and only time Patti ever talked to me and I was embarrassed. But I defended my choice: I like her face. She looks like the nicest girl in the class and that makes her the prettiest.

When I was 7, beauty was a simple concept. Nice people (or in the case of Dorcas Miller, people I thought looked like they were nice) were beautiful. Not nice people weren’t. There is a beautiful transparency to honest disciples who never wear a false face and do not pretend to be anything but who they are.

My thinking about most of life has changed over the years but my definition of beauty is pretty much the same. Beauty is as beauty does.

Knowing God’s Will

My Lord God, I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think that I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so. But I believe that the desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this you will lead me by the right road though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone. ~ Thomas Merton

I took a class once on how to know God’s will. It was a large group and, as you might expect, there were a wide variety of views, varying from: You can’t -  to God will tell you where to park your car if you’re listening. Scripture was cited supporting every possible position and the debate was lively and endless.

I’m not much of a debater. I won’t presume to tell you how you can know God’s will. I can only tell you what I know about myself which is not all that much, as it turns out.

I was a Psych major. You know the type. I was one of those people who was always drawing out other people’s feelings while tabling my own. I would have described myself as hugely introspective. I thought that I thought very deep thoughts.

Merton was right. I don’t really know myself and the fact that I think I’m following God’s will doesn’t necessarily mean that I am.

But, along with Merton, I do want to follow Him and I believe that the desire to please God, pleases God. And that’s grace, isn’t it?

And so is this: I also believe that He will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it. Therefore will I trust Him always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear,  for He is ever with me, and He will never leave me to face my perils alone.

New Year’s Resolutions

The object of a New Year is not that we should have a new year. It is that we should have a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes. Unless a particular man made New Year resolutions, he would make no resolutions. Unless a man starts afresh about things he will certainly do nothing effective. ~ G.K. Chesterton

Today we begin another new year.

I don’t make New Year’s Resolutions. I don’t not make them because I don’t have areas of my life I need to change. I don’t make them but because I can’t afford to.

I’m pulled toward procrastination. I don’t think I procrastinate because I’m lazy. Usually, when I procrastinate, it’s because I don’t want to make a mistake.

If I’m not certain how to approach something, how to do or undo something, I can easily fall into doing nothing. I admire those bold people who don’t mind stepping right in it, knowing they can clean up afterwards. But I’m not one of them. I want to wait until the right moment, when I have just the right words or know the right way to go about something.

That’s why I don’t make New Year’s resolutions. I know myself well enough to know that I have to take care of things as soon as I’m aware of them, before I have time to work out just the right approach. It doesn’t matter if I want to be a kinder person or become healthier or just coral my thoughts – there’s no magic on January 1st for me.

I have to begin each day before I start each day with a prayer to learn the lessons of grace: to give without expectation, to love without condition, to be gentle when harmed and hopeful when hurt.

In this new year, I’m not making resolutions, I’m praying for a make-over: a new soul and a new nose; new feet and a new backbone, new ears and new eyes – a new heart, today and every day.

Santa God is Coming to Town

He’s making a list,
Checking it twice;
Gonna find out who’s naughty or nice.
Santa Claus is coming to town

He sees you when you’re sleeping
He knows when you’re awake
He knows if you’ve been bad or good
So be good for goodness sake

You better watch out
You better not cry
You better not pout
I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is coming to town
~ John Coots/Haven Gillespie

Every year people talk about the need to Put Christ back into Christmas. Sometimes this is in response to materialism and sometimes it’s a reaction to the substitution of the letter X for the name of Christ. Christmas is the day that we’ve chosen to celebrate Christ’s birth. It’s also a day filled with cherished memories of Santa Claus and special treats and gift giving.
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And Xmas isn’t a secular conspiracy to take Christ out of Christmas. The first letter of the Greek word Christos is transliterated in our alphabet as an X. The word Xmas (Christ-Mass) has been used by Christians, not against Christians, for hundreds of years. Christmas is a celebration of Truth and traditions.
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I grew up loving Jesus and Santa Claus. We lived in such a small town that Santa Claus literally came to my front door on Christmas Eve to ask what gifts I wanted. This happened every year until I was in first grade when Sherry Miller told me the man on my porch in a red suit was her Dad. I quit believing in Santa when I was seven. I never quit believing in Jesus.
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But somewhere along the line, I melded together God, Who I knew was real but hadn’t seen, with Santa, who I knew wasn’t real but had seen. I unconsciously carried this concept of Santa God into adulthood.
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I pictured Santa God watching to see if I were being naughty or nice. I kept trying to be good for goodness sake and I was, mostly. But when I failed, my failures led to shame. Failing to be good as an adult meant something more serious than no gifts, it meant no grace. None to get. None to give.
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I’d missed the message from the very start. I’d overlooked the incomprehensible gift of grace required of God for there to be a baby in a manger.
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Christmas seems to be the one day we do think about Him and talk about Him. The challenge is thinking about Him just as much in January. The challenge is to share His message of Love and Grace the other 364 days.
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The problem isn’t that there isn’t enough Christ in my Christmas. The problem is that there isn’t enough Christ in me.

You Like Me,You Really Like Me!

We started reading through Matthew, and I thought it was all very interesting, you know. And I found Jesus very disturbing, very straightforward. He wasn’t diplomatic, and yet I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me… I can’t explain how freeing that was, to realize that if I met Jesus, He would like me. I never felt like that about some of the Christians on the radio. I always thought if I met those people they would yell at me but it wasn’t like that with Jesus.  ~ Donald Miller

We’ve all heard parodies of Sally Field’s second Oscar acceptance speech: I haven’t had an orthodox career, and I’ve wanted more than anything to have your respect. The first time I didn’t feel it, but this time I feel it, and I can’t deny the fact that you like me, right now, you like me! It was so uncool to let on that being liked mattered.

We’re supposed to pretend that it isn’t important. Just like yourself. That’s all that counts. That’s what we’re told. But it’s not true. Being liked does matter.

The new convert in Miller’s story was drawn to God because she felt that if she met Him, He would really like her. She didn’t say I thought God would love me. She said I felt like if I met Him, He would really like me. Liking matters.

Sometimes I find myself thinking of God like a family member who has to love me because we’re related but may not like me all that much. Maybe that’s because there are days I’m not my greatest fan and I only see through the mirror dimly while God knows every dark part of my heart. If I know He loves me, does it matter if He likes me?

This is what I’ve always thought about liking and loving: There are people who I like but don’t know well enough to love. And there are people who I love that I know too well to like. That’s what I’ve told myself when I base love on relationship and commitment and like on actions and attitudes.

I don’t know if you’re this way, but when I sense someone doesn’t like me, even if they profess to love me, my walls go up. There’s something so compelling about being genuinely liked. Loving is a cake walk compared to liking. Liking requires listening and giving and a huge dedication to understanding. If we have any hope of being a light, we’d better learn to do the heavy lifting of liking because liking does matter.

Weighing in on Legalism

The problem with legalists is that not enough people have confronted them and told them to get lost. Those are strong words, but I don’t mess with legalism anymore. I used to kowtow to legalists, but they’re dangerous. They are grace-killers. They’ll drive off every new Christian you bring to church. They are enemies of the faith.  ~ Chuck Swindoll

I’ve been on a diet for a while now. I don’t mean a messing around, hit and miss kind of diet. I’m mean an old-fashioned, calorie counting, keeping record of everything I eat kind of diet.

I found a good free on-line program that does all the calculations for me.* I’ve had a good bit of success. I’ve done it by being completely legalistic. Except for vacation, when I had no intention of dieting, I’ve never exceeded the recommended caloric intake (and it’s pretty low). Not once since April 1st. I have 5 pounds left to lose to meet my goal.

For many, many years I was the same way with my faith. I tried to pray enough, share enough, memorize Scripture enough to meet my goal of being A Practically Perfect Christian. I kept track of sin, mine and sometimes others, weighing the significance of each action on my own made up sin scale.

Being legalistic in my eating helped me reach a goal. So did spiritual legalism. The problem was the goal. It wasn’t the Westminster Shorter Catechism goal: Man’s chief end is to glorify God, and to enjoy him forever. It was the Army goal: Be All You Can Be. I was out to continually improve myself (and others).

One hard legalistic lesson learned is that success in all of life lies in the heart not in a discipline. I knew how to lose weight. It’s not complicated. Use more calories than you eat. I was legalistic because I was afraid to give myself any leeway. What if 30 extra calories today led to 50 tomorrow? I was afraid to trust myself.

It’s much the same with spiritual legalism. Legalism isn’t just being careful, it’s being lazy. I was afraid to not know the answer about everything for everyone. So instead of depending on the Holy Spirit, I chose the path labeled: Show No Mercy. Swindoll’s words are a timely reminder  I used to kowtow to legalists, but they’re dangerous. They are grace-killers.

*If you’re interested in the diet I’ve written about it in The Dreaded D Word on my other blog.

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