The Art of Listening Deeply

Fall this year has been beautiful.  It has arrived late and lingered on.  I’m not complaining, fall is my favorite season.  And this last week, I have been determined to make the most of it by getting out for at least an hour after work for a long walk to enjoy the colors and the weather.

wavesOne of my favorite parts of being able to take a long walk is taking a few minutes to just sit and listen.  When I’m walking by the lake, to listen to the waves.  When I’m on the local nature trails, to listen to the animals just beyond the trees.  When I’m out in the open, to listen to the wind blowing through the corn fields.  cornfield

It’s been a long time since I’ve really taken the time to just listen.  To really listen deeply.  In college, a friend of mine challenged me to listen for the farthest away thing I could hear.  Then we walked to see if we could find it.  I heard water running and we walked to see if we could find it.  A mile or later, just outside of town, we found the source: water running out of a tile and into a ditch.

listeningListening deeply is something I’ve realized I need to make more time for.  It’s also something I have to admit I’m a bit scared to do.  For it is in the listening deeply that God often speaks the hardest things for me to hear into my life.  I have some hunches on what God might be wanting to speak into my life at the moment.  Some of them I’d love to hear.  But some of them I’m not so sure I’m ready to hear.  So I haven’t been listening much lately.

Now the question becomes are my hunches correct?  I guess time will tell.


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One Last Favor

A warning for this post, you may find it a bit morbid.  But I do believe its important.

A couple of weeks ago my aunt passed away.  She never married, never had kids, and lived several states away.  It has fallen to my dad and two aunts as her siblings able to travel to take care of her affairs.

While dad was out of town to see what initially needed to be done, I found myself making phone calls and decisions I never anticipated.  I wasn’t surprised with being asked to pick the scripture readings and music.  But it got a bit overwhelming to be asked about service times, a poem for the funeral program, what the funeral program would look like, to write an obituary, pick out a burial vault, arrange a meeting for some of the family to meet with the priest ahead of time…..well, there was a LOT of stuff to do which you can’t leave until the day or two before a funeral to decide.  And because my dad and his sister’s were dealing with stuff out of state, I was dealing with stuff locally so we would be set to go to have the funeral as planned.

The hardest part was doing all of it not knowing her super well.  She lived far away and I never saw her a lot when growing up.

So I ask this of everyone:  Write down what you want done for your funeral.  For those you leave behind, this will be one last huge favor you will do for them, trust me.  It is stressful enough having to deal with the myriad of logistical details to arrange for a funeral while grieving, answer as many questions as possible for your loved ones.  Do you have a scripture passage you want read?  Or one you really don’t want read?  Do you have a song you hope someone will sing?  Or a song which irritates you that you would rather not be remembered by?  What about what you want to be buried in?  Strong feelings on burial vs. cremation?

And talk about it with those who will be responsible for carrying out your wishes.

I know it’s a bit of a morbid thing to think and talk about but I’ve learned it is important.  It’s one last favor you can do for those you will leave behind.

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What if a Church Dared?

I had a thought the other day.  About a program which would make a church really attractive to me.  I can’t really imagine it happening but I would be REALLY curious to see what happened if a church took a leap of faith and tried it not only once, but on an annual basis.

i-dare-youI’d love to see a church which, once a year, shut its doors with the intention that each member attend a different church that Sunday.

Please hear me out on this.  It wouldn’t be without some thought and preparation.  It would most certainly be with some homework and follow up.  But I think it would be not only interesting but beneficial to individual members as well to the overall health of a church.  Why?  Because we get too comfortable.

forgettingWe forget what it is like to be the new person in the pew who doesn’t know anyone or where basic things like the bathrooms are.

We forget what it is like to awkwardly wonder when we can sit down and stop trying to force people to interrupt their mid-service conversations to shake our hand and say a polite hello.

We forget what it is like to not be sure if we should stand, sit, or even kneel.

We forget what it is like to sing a song in a slightly different way than everyone else.

We forget what it is like to not be 100% sure if we should or should not be taking communion as well as not knowing the particular little quirks of how each church distributes the elements just a little bit differently than the one down the street.

We forget all of these things and more.

false assumption quoteAnd then we assume that our church is the only one who is doing it right.  Which, in case you haven’t guessed it, is so far from the truth of the matter.  And because of that, it is a dangerous assumption to allow yourself to have.

So here is what I propose:

Step 1 – Choose a Sunday when you as a church are not going to meet.  Publicize the date like CRAZY.

Step 2 – Provide a list of all other local, Christian churches.  Both those who are similar in worship style to you and those who are very different….not to mention everything in between.  Be sure the list includes service times, addresses, and any relevant directions or quirks a visitor should know about (such as children’s opportunities during the service or Sunday school options).

Step 3 – Ask everyone to pick one of the churches off the list.  They should pick as a family (if applicable) but not with their friends.  After all, part of the point is that you go out and meet new people, not just huddle with the same people you always huddle with on Sunday morning.

homework 2 betterStep 4 – Challenge everyone to ponder a few questions before they go.  Some suggestions:

  • What assumptions about the style of worship do you have going into this church?  Are they positive or negetive?  Why?
  • What sort of reputation does the church have in the neighborhood?
  • What sort of reputation does the denomination they belong to have?
  • Do you believe they have anything to teach you about who God is and how you can grow in your relationship with Him, worship Him more fully?  Why or why not?
  • Do you know anyone who regularly attends this church?
  • Why did you pick this church and not other churches on the list?

Step 5 – Actually close the doors and have a Sunday where everyone, including the pastor, is expected to go to a different church.

comparing notesStep 6 – Ask everyone to get together and compare notes.  Ask people to share their notes and observations with leadership.  Follow up directly with random people from within EACH segment of your church’s population (married, single, families with young kids, families with teens, empty nesters, men, women, single parents, kids, teens, young adults, music team, hospitality team, small group leaders).  Ask as many people as possible to share some of their answers to the above questions.  And then ask them to respond to some of the following additional questions:

  • What caused you to feel welcome?
  • What caused you to feel like an outsider?
  • Did you run into any unexpected that you knew there?
  • What is one thing you experienced that we are as a church could learn from them?
  • What is one thing you missed about being here on Sunday?
  • If we had to close the doors to our church for good today, would you consider attending that church on a regular basis?  Why or why not?
  • What was the thing that surprised you most?  (either positively or negatively)
  • For better or for worse, what assumptions about the church you visited seemed to be proven true?

I think if a church dared to do a challenge like this, they would, over the course of a few years, see some interesting results.  For one, once a year, everyone would be reminded of how awkward it can be to be the new person or new family.  I would hope they would then be a little more motivated to reach out in meaningful ways to the new people they see the other 51 weeks of the year not only to shake their hand on Sunday but to ensure they are able to truly and deeply connect with the regulars at the church.

I think there would be both a deeper appreciation for what is done well at their church and a breathing in of new life as new ideas come into the conversations of how to do ministry, community, and worship.  More real discussions about beliefs and practices would be sparked as we realize there is more than one way to do communion or baptism or that particular worship song you love.

We would be forced to acknowledge that there is a great diversity in the body of Christ…and that’s OK.    God can handle it.

its ok

PS – I would consider it an honor to come and talk with any pastor or church who was really interesting in doing something like this.  And then perhaps I’ll find the church I’ve been looking for as well!

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There’s Beauty Here

I got to sneak out of the office for half of a day yesterday.  There was some paperwork I needed from our Ingham site and so I took advantage of the opportunity for a road trip.  I hadn’t been over to our Ingham site yet and its a slow week at the Okoboji site so the timing was perfect.

And since it was nearly 5 before I left and so I decided to take my time in coming back.  I wandered down a lesser used road, I let myself get lost nearly ending up in Minnesota, and I let myself enjoy a park we never seemed to have time to stop at on the way to my grandparent’s house when I was a kid.  It was a good day to take in some Iowa countryside.

“There’s beauty here,” my heart whispered.

I’ve been missing Scotland a bit more than usual lately.  The heat and humidity of summer has hit my corner of the world with fierceness the past couple of weeks.  To add insult to injury, Facebook memories reminds me almost daily of the sites and cooler temps of Scotland, of spending my days cozied up with books and orange kitkat bars, and of falling asleep to the sound of the ocean waves washing ashore just 100 steps away from my front door.  I’ll admit, I’ve looked around found rural Iowa lacking in comparison.   But as I drove around Ingham Lake, as I drove through the corn fields which seem to visibly grow in the hot humid weather, and as I passed by farm sites, each with its own unique character, I began to see the beauty in the landscape.  A quiet voice seemed to whisper in my ear….

“There’s beauty here.”

It’s different.  It’s not what I would have chosen.  But there is beauty here.  And not just in the landscape.  As I was pondering the beauty to be discovered in this part of the world, God was also speaking to me about the beauty to be discovered in this part of my life.  You see, part of my frustration in the past couple of weeks has not only been in the missing of a Scottish view, but also in missing various people who are part of my life but, because of time, distance, and money, I can’t just drop everything to go and see.    Part of my frustration in the last couple of weeks has been from attempting to enter into the dating world and finding out just how much it can have me over analyzing everything and obsessing over ever potential flaw in who I am.  Part of my frustration in the last couple of weeks is seeing injustice and the pain it causes while not being able to nothing tangible to fight against it at this stage and place in life.

So I needed to be challenged yesterday to look for the beauty not just in the cornfields and area lakes, but in the circumstances of life as well.  To be thankful that those people are in my life to miss, to learn what it is to cherish the time when I do get to see and/or talk with them, that is beauty.  To more deeply understand what love might be and the power it has to redeem what is viewed as ugly or undesirable, to heal what the world has declared broken beyond repair, that is beauty.  To be reminded that we are never alone in our struggles, that we aren’t the only one facing a particular battle, that there is always someone out there who can empathise and who is willing to fight alongside you if you are just open to looking for them, that is beauty.

Despite the things I wish I could change about life at the moment, there is beauty here.

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What Eternity Isn’t

I’ve been thinking a lot about eternity lately.  Not in a morbid, I think I’m about to die so I should get my affairs in order, sort of a way.  But much more in a trying to retrain my brain in how I think about and conceptualise it sort of way.

rethinkThe reality is that the vast majority of Christians, and yes, that include pastors, preachers, and teachers, don’t understand what eternity really is.  Then again, neither do I.  But I do know we need to radically rethink how we understand eternity and in so doing, there are some major implications for how we think about our theology.

So what do I believe needs to be changed about how we define eternity?  I think we need to stop trying to define it in terms of time.  All too often when I hear someone trying to explain eternity I hear them say that it is all of time from the very beginning to the very end and a little bit more beyond that in either direction.  Another popular approach is to talk about time which goes on forever.  timeWe do this because we are beings which are defined by time.  We have only known an existence in which time and the passing of time is inescapable.  It doesn’t matter if you watch the clock or never give it a second thought.  It doesn’t matter if you are always running late or always arrive early.  It doesn’t matter if you remember each moment in vivid detail or can’t remember what you ate for breakfast this morning.  Time plays a part in defining our lives.  We can’t escape it no matter how hard we may try.

But eternity isn’t defined by time.  It is a reality which exists outside of time.  Time has no control or sway or place in eternity.  It is beyond time.  All of time is contained within it and yet no time at all is contained within it.  It isn’t just all of time imaginable plus a little more, it is a reality where time ceases to exist.  We have a hard time even beginning to grasp this concept because we have never experienced a reality where time doesn’t exist. We have no frame of reference.

god exists outside

What does it really mean to say this?

However, this doesn’t stop us from talking about living for eternity in heaven with God.  It doesn’t stop us from talking about the eternal nature of God.

So what if we really stopped thinking about eternity in terms of an unimaginable length of time and started thinking about it as being outside of and undefined by time?  What might change in how we think about God and our faith?

overwhelmingFor me right now, I’m thinking about the implications it might have for how I talk about dwelling in the presence of God.  I know not everyone has had them, but I have been blessed with a fair number of intense worship or prayer experiences where I truly felt like I was in the presence of God in a special, unique and powerful way.  They remind me that entering God’s presence through prayer and worship is something we are called to do as Christians as often as possible.  And to be in the presence of God is to be, in some way, in eternity as God is always eternal.  It is a bit of God’s kingdom “here on earth as it is in heaven.”

If we allow it to, changing the way we define eternity, I believe, will radically change how we view our relationship with God put our life here on earth into a proper perspective.  Suddenly what is happening in politics isn’t so pivotal because some part of you dwells with an eternal God each time you pray.  Suddenly gathering for worship makes sense because, “where two or three are gathering in my name, there I am also” ensures that our eternal God is our midst.  Suddenly eternity doesn’t seem so big and overwhelming because time isn’t defining it, the presence of God is defining it.


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