Tuesday, July 26, 2016

Listen

I'm currently enrolled in an online pastoral care course through Asbury seminary, and one of the required texts for the course is Michael P. Nichols's The Lost Art of Listening: How Learning to Listen Can Improve Relationship.

Now, I consider myself a pretty good listener. I try to give people my full attention and to be responsive in ways that let folks know I'm listening, but without commandeering the conversation; I'm naturally empathetic; I know better than to go in with guns blazing, trying to solve every problem someone shares with me.
So, when I saw this on the reading list (and saw that it was the longest book on the list), I wasn't exactly thrilled. It's not that I don't think I have more to learn, I'm just a slow reader, and maybe I could better spend my reading time on other things, things that I'm not at all good at. It didn't help when the first page was putting me to sleep.

As it turns out, the book is fascinating, makes a lot of sense, and is totally enlightening. I feel like I'm starting to understand so many dynamics in my interactions with people that I never even noticed before, or that I just could never quite put my finger on. (Be warned! If you and I talk any time soon, I'll probably be listening and thinking, 'ah, now here is a textbook case of ...' You know, since I'm an expert now and all.)

Sometimes people just don't seem to ever listen, or can just be really hard to talk to - we all know about that. But then Nichols points out that "it is possible for people to change; all we have to do is change our responses to each other. We are not victims--we are participants, in a real way, and the consequences of our participation are profound" (53). In other words, two people communicating or failing to communicate always involves... two people. If I want things to change, I have to try changing my role in the interaction - maybe assumptions I'm bringing to the conversation, ways that I'm antagonizing them or enabling them in some bad habits, whatever it is.

Sometimes when you're talking to someone, other relationships of theirs will cloud their ability to hear you clearly. You ask a question about something they're doing, and they hear a criticism, because mom or dad was always criticizing. You complement them, and they hear you trying to get something out of them, because their boyfriend or girlfriend or spouse is always trying to manipulate them like that. They transfer the other person's intentions and meaning onto what you are saying, because that's how they've learned to hear people. That's frustrating, because it distorts how they hear you and causes misunderstandings... but maybe, Nichols suggests, if we can get past the frustration, we can learn something from it (46). If someone is always interpreting your words as criticism, maybe that should tell you they need more praise and affirmation in general. Rather than just being frustrated by the misunderstandings, we can use them to help us understand the other person better and relate to them in new, positive ways.

How many times have I found myself 'graciously' allowing someone to speak their piece, all the while searching for the words I can use to prove that they're wrong (or that I'm still right) as soon as they're done? But is that really listening? "Simply holding your tongue while someone speaks isn't the same thing as listening. To really listen you have to suspend your own agenda, forget about what you want to say, and concentrate on being a receptive vehicle for the other person" (77). Set aside your agenda and forget about what you want to say. That's probably not our first impulse. But if I'm really going to love the person I'm listening to, shouldn't I be able to set myself aside for a while and truly focus on them?

The book keeps surprising me and challenging me with simple yet powerful insights like these.

And all of this is starting to change the way I understand and try to practice James 1:19: "My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry."

In the US today, with all of the racial division, political division, the divisions within denominations and congregations and families, the general animosity and strife between disagreeing parties, couldn't we use a little more careful and caring (in other words, Christian) listening?

Well... what are you waiting for?

Thursday, July 14, 2016

GM2016: God is a fire

Lärmfeuer 2010.JPG
By 4028mdk09 - Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=9850897
Fire is a really common image in the New Testament.
John the Baptist talks about unfruitful trees being tossed in the fire (Luke 3:9), and so does Jesus (Matt 7:19). There's the famous "lake of fire" in Revelation (20:10, for example), reserved for the devil, Death, Hades, and the faithless. More hopefully, there are the flames of Pentecost (Acts 2:1-4) and the purifying fire Paul describes in 1 Corinthians: fire that tests our works, reveals what was gold and what was straw; we're saved "through fire," he says (3:10-15).

Then there's Hebrews 12:29. It says there that "our God is a consuming fire."

For me, that verse doesn't bring up warm feelings. I think of the members of the Consuming Fire Fellowship who used to bring their bullhorns, their sandwich boards, and their small children to LSU's campus once a week to hand out pamphlets and to tell us that we'd all spend eternity in Hell, in the fire. (The verse also reminds me of the old Third Day song, "Consuming Fire.")

I was reading recently in Consuming Fire (does the title make sense now?), the book of daily selections from the 19th century Scottish pastor and inspiration to C. S. Lewis, George MacDonald, when I came across this discussion of fire:
The fire of God, which is his essential being, his love, is a fire unlike its earthly symbol in this, that it is only at a distance it burns--that the farther from him, it burns the worse, and that when we turn and begin to approach him, the burning begins to change to comfort, which will grow to such bliss that the heart at length cries out with supreme gladness, "Whom have I in heaven but thee? And there is no one on earth that I desire besides thee!" (Consuming Fire, June 19th, quoting Ps 73:25)
The fire is God's essential being, he says. It's God's love.

"Our God is a consuming fire" is such a frightening phrase, when you think about the menacing "fire that will never be quenched" (Mark 9:43) or Revelation's lake of fire. What does God do to people? But then there's also that idea that Hell is essentially the absence of God, separation from God ("depart from me," Matt 7:23). That's what MacDonald is hinting at here. The blazing fire of God's love only burns when we're far from it. The closer we get - it doesn't burn - it warms us, it comforts us, and it sets our hearts on fire too.

Thursday, July 07, 2016

bad news and the good news

"Protests break out after Baton Rouge police fatally shoot man."
"New wave of attacks on Muslims in America."
"San Diego police investigating 'random' violent attacks on homeless people."
"Islamic State tightens grip on captives held as sex slaves."

That's not to mention all of the headlines about the patent falsehoods one of our major presidential candidates here in the US has been peddling for the last year, or the other candidate's stubborn insistence that an anti-Semitic image created by white supremacists is not, in fact, a racist image.

People talk a lot about all the bad news of horrible things in the world that gets coverage, but this morning I could really feel it. The headlines hung over me like a cloud. If anyone doesn't understand why the church talks about sin, just read the news. Our world is broken.

But, at the same time, to me all of this bad news just makes the gospel, the good news, all the more beautiful.

When I was growing up in the church, I wouldn't have seen that. Growing up, the gospel was all about an eternal life that meant going to heaven (and not going to hell!) when you leave this earth. That was it. It was about 'not perishing' (hell) but 'having everlasting life' (heaven), in the words of John 3:16.
If that's what the gospel is about, all of the mess here on earth doesn't much matter, because once you're dead and gone, it's a thing of the past, like you're waking up from a bad dream. Your only concern with the brokenness is not getting entangled in it, not letting it distract you or obstruct you from finishing the race and keeping the faith. You might also try to combat some of it, either because you feel like it's a Christian's duty (to feed the hungry, for instance), or because you don't want to kindle God's wrath (and so you might vote against things you think will anger God, like abortion).
But when you woke up and the headlines were just oppressive... on days like that, you just thought about how you can't wait to get out of here and leave all of this mess behind. The gospel meant that one day you'd get to escape the mess and go somewhere better. "Just a few more weary days and then I'll fly away. To a land where joys will never end, I'll fly away."

That's how I was raised.

But that's not what I think the gospel is about anymore. Now I know that the gospel isn’t about escape: it’s about healing. 

In Luke, when Jesus first launches his ministry, he goes to his hometown of Nazareth and preaches a sermon that sets the agenda for his mission. Here’s what I’m going to do, he tells them: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (4:18-19).
Jesus talks about repentance more in Luke than in any of the other gospels. He forgives sins; he promises paradise to the dying. But not yet. First, he talks about righting the wrongs in this world, for the poor, captives, the blind, those who are oppressed. First, he talks about bringing healing on the earth. That’s why the Messiah has come; that’s what he’s setting out to do.

The book of Revelation, in one of the most powerful passages in all the Bible, sketches the healing that God has in store for the world:
Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away... And I heard a voice from the throne saying, "See, the home of God is among mortals. He will dwell with them; they will be his peoples, and God himself will be with them; he will wipe every tear from their eyes. Death will be no more; mourning and crying and pain will be no more, for the first things have passed away." And the one who was seated on the throne said, "See, I am making all things new." (Rev 21:1, 3-5)
The gospel isn't an offer to escape this world. It's an offer to heal it and make things new. The promise of Revelation is that one day God is going to make everything right, to fix what sin and death have broken.

That’s why the psalms describe God’s final judgment as a time when the sea will roar, and all that fills it, when the field will exult, and everything in it, and when the trees of the forest will sing for joy (96:11-13; and see 98:7-9). The whole world is excited, not because God’s coming to take everyone away to heaven, but because God’s coming to set things right on earth, to make things new. (And, of course, the Lord wants to start with you and me! Ezek 36:26; 2 Cor 5:17; Gal 6:15; Eph 4:22-24)

If your gospel doesn’t proclaim the healing that God is bringing to the world, the new creation that God will raise up out of our old brokenness, then your gospel isn’t whole. It’s a half-gospel that doesn’t do credit to the scope of God’s plans, and it probably leaves people confused about the place of service and justice in their faith. There’s no divide between evangelism (sharing the ‘evangel’, the good news) and social justice, trying to make the world a better place, because every step we take towards that better world, every healing word and act we can contribute, brings us one step closer to the world promised by the gospel. We can’t get ourselves there – only the new creation power of God can finally transform this broken world into a new heaven and a new earth. But we can make the good news visible and tangible as we show people what life can look like when Jesus is Lord: it looks like forgiveness; it looks like faithful marriages; it looks like the end of our prejudices and our wars, of terror, of abuse and neglect—because love and peace reign, and reconciliation; it looks like selflessness and human kindness, like supporting and nurturing children, ours and others’, feeding people who are hungry, sheltering the homeless, and caring for the planet and all the incredible biodiversity on it. This is what “Jesus is Lord” means in practice. This is what the good news we’re proclaiming looks like. These are the promises God makes us—and wouldn’t you like to be one of Jesus’ people in this kind of world too?

We need to remember and proclaim that gospel.

When the bad news overwhelms us, that’s the good news everybody needs to hear.

And when the church really commits to this, to the fullness of the gospel, then not only will people hear it, but they'll see it too. We'll tell them that Jesus wants to heal their hearts and lives and to heal all the mess that they see around them, but we'll also live lives that are a breath of fresh air in this suffocating world of bad news.

Friday, July 01, 2016

a prayer for new leaders

Today the city of Natchez inaugurated a new mayor and swore in several other newly-elected officials, and I had the privilege of offering the inaugural prayer at the ceremony. Here is the prayer I led for the new leaders of our city, and I hope you will pray for our community and leaders as well:

Gracious God,
We call on you at this moment of transition, at this new beginning, to seek your guidance for our leaders and your blessing and healing for our community. We particularly ask that you would grant your son, our new mayor Darryl Grennell, all the wisdom, humility, the energy, insight, and support that he needs for the tasks ahead. Surround him with the multitude of counselors that will establish his vision for our city (Pro 15:22). May the words and example of the Lord Jesus always guide and inspire him, and all of our leadership, in their work. Help us all--those who lead, those who protect and serve, who minister or teach, store-owners, employees, parents, those just trying to get by, librarians, nurses, retirees, black and white--help us all to hear and respond to the call of the prophet Jeremiah to seek the welfare of the city, for in its welfare we find our own (Jer 29:7). Give us grace to labor together for a new Natchez: a city where people don’t have to leave town to find work; where our schools are renowned as centers of learning and growth; where no one has to worry about being shot and killed in the night; a place of blessing to the young and the vulnerable and the needy. Lord, protect our hearts from distrust, apathy, anger and bitterness, prejudice, fear—all of the things that can poison a community. Keep us safe from those traps (Ps 141:9), so that we may seek a better future together. May Darryl recognize the way forward and, with your help, blaze a trail into that future. In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit we ask all of these things. Amen.