Tag Archives: listening

How to listen deeper: What is behind what people say?

We usually need to listen deeper. Bryce and I were talking one day and he said this little piece of wisdom might make for a good leadership team training: I told him I generally give people a “bye” on the first thing that comes out of their mouth. I don’t ignore them, I just reserve judgment. I assume I don’t know what they are talking about. The crazier it seems to me, the more likely I am to say, “I need to listen deeper. I must not know what is going on here, because what is on the surface can’t be all there is.”

My goal is to trust their heart, not their words, trust God at work in them, not parse their words in order to judge them. I certainly don’t want to get in a power struggle! I want to live in a condemnation-free zone, so I need to guard my feelings and  bridle my tongue. This gets harder the more intimate one is with someone, of course, since we often think we know what they are saying better than they do, and we are often poised to be offended, because what they say matters to us.

need to listen

When I told the leadership team this little bit of wisdom, an astute member immediately noted that brain chemistry backs me up. They noted Daniel Kahneman’ book Thinking Fast and Slow (2011). He shows how our minds react to stimuli with two intertwined systems: the automatic and effortful systems. My bit of wisdom is about slowing down and letting the effortful system get deeper than the snap judgments and illusions that can undermine loving responses from the automatic system. So here’s to brain research!

Slow down and listen again

When we have a large reaction to what someone is saying or feel suspicious about it, it is kind to slow down and see whether there is something else going on we can’t see yet.

There are a lot of different things that could be happening that we (and they) might not immediately see. For instance:

  • They are upset and I am feeling the upset behind what they are saying, even if they are not talking about it directly.
  • They are working something out verbally and they don’t really care what they are saying. They are not holding on to the thoughts I think are important.
  • They trust me and I am getting some very deep things that may or may not fit with the subject. They are putting a lot on the table that may not be sorted out yet.
  • They don’t know what they are talking about yet, but they want to appear like they do because they are afraid I might think they appear stupid or weak. They are speaking from their image, not their feelings.

We are often in challenging conversations in the church because we prize dialogue and are organized to make it happen.  But we are not all the same and we don’t always understand each other. So we need some effortful listening to avoid being tangled up all day or stirring up needless conflict. More love will happen if we demonstrate grace that really listens for anything good behind what people are doing and saying — especially when it seems like what we have heard so far is not so good! We want to find something good to trust. It is exactly like Paul telling the Philippians to dwell on whatever is good in Philippians 4.

This is not always easy. After the sunrise celebration on Easter, some women who like to evoke the dances of indigenous people groups made a circle and started dancing to the drums. My first reaction to what they communicated was, “There is that branding that makes quite a few people uncomfortable.” And “There is a circle that is excluding others — and they look like accessories to the worship team!”  I could have gone home and complained to Gwen in the car about it.

But, rather unconsciously I must admit, I went over and put myself in the circle for a little while. I did not dance like an indigenous person dancing, I danced like me, but I did connect with the dancers, one who is in my cell. I picked up on the deeper message in their dance and it feels good to remember the moment as I write. I understand why someone would dance on Easter Sunday — why wouldn’t everyone?! It felt good to connect with people expressing joy with their bodies and not just stuck in their head. They were not doing something wrong; they were happy!

Maybe everything that is happy seems like it is wrong to someone. And maybe we should be so free that we can express our happiness in ways that don’t run over people. My automatic thoughts were not wrong. But my effortful thoughts were better — and more connective. I tried to listen beyond my reactions, and sure enough it was possible – especially since these dancers were people I knew and loved.

Remember how you would like to be heard

Listen to someone as you would like them to listen to you. (Sounds like Jesus, right?). Think about it. How would you like someone to listen to you? Don’t we all long to express what we are thinking and feeling? How do you want someone to hear you? Do you always know what you are talking about? Aren’t you regularly wrong about what you assumed to be true about someone or some circumstance? Do you even know what you are feeling at a given moment? Chances are, we all have a lot to work through and some effortful listening from a loving person would be great. Too often we need to work something through and we end up dealing with someone’s first reactions more than what we are working through! Too much of that kind of dialogue and we stop trusting anyone enough to say much of anything!

We will make a safe place for faith, hope and love if we go for building trust. Find something good in what people are saying before you stick with your first reaction or make your point. They may say something you think is dumb, inaccurate, ill-considered, or flat out dangerous. Let that go by and look for the best thing about what they are saying. Find something you can affirm. If you can’t find it in their words, find it in them.  After all, if they are a Jesus follower, they have the Spirit of God in them! If they aren’t a follower yet, they are still made in God’s image! Affirming that goodness is the glue of love that keeps us together and makes us all healthier and happier.

Power struggles and how to get beyond them

When a marriage relationship or a church community seems to be stuck or even falling apart, it is probably because we are not listening. We must be having trouble hearing one another.

There are often many reasons  for our lack of hearing. But the biggest reason of all must be not listening to Jesus. He is calling us into a transformation that allows us to listen, hear, and love like He does.

It is a strange problem. Jesus wants to nurture us into our true selves, which sounds great, but we resist going there. We have trouble letting Him get through a sentence without feeling threatened and either butting in with an objection or turning away. We have a power struggle with God and everyone else.

Friend or servant?

I was pondering a few power struggles I had identified last week when Julie reminded me of John 15. I have been thinking about our conversation ever since. In that account, Jesus calls his disciples into an intimate relationship with him, like branches in a vine. He warns that a disconnected branch will wither and die. But He assures the disciples that withering is not the destiny for his friends. He tells them he is no longer going to call them his “servants,” as if they were people who merely fulfilled a master’s bidding. They have matured into His “friends,” someone who knows His business and can bear the fruit of love that comes from a renewed life. Most of us have a hard time hearing what Jesus is saying, just like we have a hard time with our other intimates — there are reasons for this.

Continue reading Power struggles and how to get beyond them

Solstice thoughts and prayers

My favorite days of the year! Living in the light!

Here are a few thoughts and prayers to enjoy as the sun sets:

Moments of great calm
Kneeling before an altar
Of wood in a stone church
In summer, waiting for the God
To speak; the air a staircase
For silence; the sun’s light
Ringing me, as though I acted
A great role. And the audiences
Still; all that close throng
Of spirits waiting, as I,
For the message.
Prompt me God;
But not yet. When I speak,
Though it be you who speak
Through me, something is lost.
The meaning is in the waiting.

R.S. Thomas

Think of it, all that speech pouring down, selling nothing, judging nobody…what a thing it is to sit absolutely alone, in the forest, at night, cherished by this wonderful, intelligible, perfectly innocent speech, the most comforting speech in the world, the talk that rain makes by itself all over the ridges…Nobody started it, nobody is going to stop it. It will talk as long as it wants, this rain. As long as it talks I am going to listen.

Thomas Merton

Lessons in Spiritual Depth from Paul: Wait, worship, listen

I have received a lot of mentoring from the Apostle Paul — from my first real reading of the New Testament as a teenager, I felt a deep kinship with him. My thought was then, and still is, that, “If Paul can do it, so can I.” He is so obviously a real guy, with all his gifts and limitations in action. He has a personality that shows through. And God uses him.

Oldest image of Paul, 4th C., From Catacomb of St. Thekla in Rome

I look at the accounts of Paul in Acts and what he writes in his letters like a story about an action hero. He is such a persuasive teacher and a courageous missionary! He is so dramatic that it is easy to overlook the quieter, interior qualities that are basic to making him so influential.

I have learned a lot from Paul about how to deepen my relationship with God by learning to wait, listening in prayer, and moving with the promptings of the Spirit.  I felt like doing this little study to prove that he really was that kind of spiritual guy. It seems that, for most people who read his letters, Paul is all about principles, morality and preaching. He is primarily a great  example of an evangelist and church planter. But what about the quiet side? Is he ever silent? How does he get his direction? There are some hints about his personal relationship with God in the New Testament record. I want to list some main ones to encourage us all to move with the “regular guy” Paul as we attempt our own expression of our faith in this era of the world.


Paul was cooling it in his home town after he escaped Jerusalem. It is important to learn how to wait.

Then Barnabas went to Tarsus to look for Saul, and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch. Acts 11:25-6

After his conversion Paul spent “many days” with the disciples in Damascus. The “scales” coming off his eyes also had to do with unlearning his passionate Jewish activism, and no doubt had to do with a major interior change. It took time. In Galatians he gives a more complete timeline:

But when God, who set me apart from birth and called me by his grace, was pleased to reveal his Son in me so that I might preach him among the Gentiles, I did not consult any man, nor did I go up to Jerusalem to see those who were apostles before I was, but I went immediately into Arabia and later returned to Damascus. Then after three years, I went up to Jerusalem to get acquainted with Peter and stayed with him fifteen days. Galatians 1:15-18

The timelines in the Bible are hard to put in order, since that is not the interest of the writers. But this at least implies that Paul spent a significant time in the desert after his conversion. He apparently had a sojourn like Jesus, being confronted and purged by God’s Spirit in preparation for his major role in building the kingdom.

Paul had significant times of waiting throughout his ministry and he used them. Many of them were the times he was in prison. He spent two years awaiting trial, at one point.

As Paul discoursed on righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” At the same time he was hoping that Paul would offer him a bribe, so he sent for him frequently and talked with him. When two years had passed, Felix was succeeded by Porcius Festus, but because Felix wanted to grant a favor to the Jews, he left Paul in prison. Acts 24:25-27

Martin Luther King did well with his imprisonment, too. We may face that ourselves, one day. Until then, we wait in all sorts of other ways – imprisoned in our jobs, or on the Schuylkill. It is good preparation time, if we use it to be with God.


Paul got direction by receiving it from the body as they received it from the Holy Spirit during times of worship and prayer.

In the church at Antioch there were prophets and teachers: Barnabas, Simeon called Niger, Lucius of Cyrene, Manaen (who had been brought up with Herod the tetrarch) and Saul. While they were worshiping the Lord and fasting, the Holy Spirit said, “Set apart for me Barnabas and Saul for the work to which I have called them.” So after they had fasted and prayed, they placed their hands on them and sent them off. Acts 13:1-3

If we have worried about our spiritual development at all, so many of us have spent our days interpreting spiritual material and applying the logic we concoct. As a result we often have little idea of what the writers of the Bible were doing to receive the material we are interpreting! They obviously spent a lot of intense time in prayer getting direction for what they were going to do. From the way Paul writes his letters, it might sound like Christians should all be articulate theorists. But he is obviously a lot more than that. His applications are resting on the foundation of his experience of Christ in his body.


Paul developed the ability, as have so many after him, to listen to the Spirit of God in any number of ways. Somehow the Spirit prevents him from doing one thing and directs him to do another.

Paul and his companions traveled throughout the region of Phrygia and Galatia, having been kept by the Holy Spirit from preaching the word in the province of Asia. When they came to the border of Mysia, they tried to enter Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus would not allow them to. So they passed by Mysia and went down to Troas. During the night Paul had a vision of a man of Macedonia standing and begging him, “Come over to Macedonia and help us.” After Paul had seen the vision, we got ready at once to leave for Macedonia, concluding that God had called us to preach the gospel to them. Acts 16:6-10

The boiled-down “science for the masses” we have all learned has made us very suspicious about spiritual promptings and visions. (And Paul tells us to test them well, himself). Combined with the excesses of the Pentecostal movement, so often portrayed in living color on TV, we end up tempted not to listen to the Spirit at all. So our own directability is pretty much nil. Meanwhile Paul is remembering his experiences of revelation as foundational to all he does and says:

I will go on to visions and revelations from the Lord. I know a man in Christ who fourteen years ago was caught up to the third heaven. Whether it was in the body or out of the body I do not know—God knows. And I know that this man—whether in the body or apart from the body I do not know, but God knows—was caught up to paradise. He heard inexpressible things, things that man is not permitted to tell. I will boast about a man like that, but I will not boast about myself, except about my weaknesses. 2 Corinthians 12:1-5

He had a great experience of hearing from God fourteen years before he was writing, but he was still talking about it. He had regular experiences of being directed that his companions wrote about. I think that teaches me to stop and listen.

God still needs deep people. We have a lot of reasons why we are not developing into deep people. And we really have a lot of reasons why we are not going to follow the spiritual promptings we do receive. But one excuse we should never use is that such depth is beyond us. The wild movement of God’s Spirit is for regular people, like the Apostle Paul.