Encouragement. Direction. Affirmation. How about that for a Holy Trinity? There are days when we feel all alone here. Days when we think we have gone about as far as plastic can carry us. Days when we realize we have to build a life on something, around something, toward something, and we don’t know what that is. We have a job, which pays us enough to pay the bills, but, sometimes, we lose sight of why we are paying the bills. There are days we would die for encouragement, direction, affirmation.
On those days, it would help to be heard. Where can we go to say what we have to say to those who can listen and hear what we are saying? I think we can talk ourselves through hopelessness and despair if we have those who can hear us well. And ask the right questions at the right time. The questions that carry us deeper into our experience, not out of it, or away from it, and enable us to explore it, and to see it, eventually, from a different perspective. There is no substitute for the right kind of company. In the presence of the right kind of company, we find all the encouragement, direction, and affirmation we need.
The culture is not geared to produce the right kind of company. It is not to the culture’s advantage. The culture is geared to produce the right-kind-of-company-substitutes. There are self-help books aplenty in the culture. Why so little evidence that anybody ever reads them? The culture gives us advice columns in the newspapers, but they seem to provide more in the way of comic relief than genuine help. Which is symptomatic of the culture. The culture helps us deal with our problems by taking our minds off our problems. The thrust of the culture is entertainment and escape. The eyes of the culture are on the far horizon, just beyond which things are surely to be better, no, wonderful and glorious and grand. The culture does not see the ground under our feet. It does not see this moment, right here, now. This is not where we get to work. Oh, please not! Oh, please do NOT let this be what we have to work with. There has to be more to it than this.
Let me take you back to the story of the feeding of the five thousand. As incredible and unlikely as it seems, the point is wonderful and well taken. “What do you have to work with?” asks Jesus. “Three fish and four loaves of bread,” say the disciples. “And a bottle of ketchup, and two lemons, and an over-ripe banana” (or words to that effect). “Make it work,” says Jesus. It is indeed ridiculous. Yet, the beauty of it is that is exactly where we always are. There is no way what we have to work with can begin to solve, or even impact, the problems we face. We need deliverance! We need salvation! We need redemption! We need divine intervention! Where IS that very present help in time of trouble, that’s what we want to know! And, Jesus says, “Start with what you have. Make it work.”
This is where we are. This is what we are up against. This is what we have to work with. What are we going to do? We don’t have a clue. And, we don’t know where to go for one. Where do we go for an answer? Where do we find someone to tell us what to do? Remember the parable of the woman with the vessel of grain. She thought she was doing one thing, and she was doing something else instead. She thought it was about one thing, and it was about another thing. We think we need someone to tell us what to do, when we actually need someone who can hear us out, who can listen us to the heart of our pain, and anxiety, and fear, and anger, and confusion. We think it is about escaping the burden of the problem, but it is about getting all the good out of the problem; letting the problem show us what it has to show us; allowing the problem to give us what it has to offer; following the problem through the unmapped regions where “there be dragons,” which we may also discover to be the Promised Land, flowing with milk and honey.
We cannot do that on our own. It takes the company of the right kind of people to listen us into the good of the problem, and beyond. The culture does not make it easy to find that kind of company.
It is such a going, doing, getting things done culture. No one has time to talk, not from the heart about things that matter. And, if you tried it, who would listen? No one has time to listen in this culture. We patch things up and go on. We dismiss difficulties. We discount troubles. We tell people to shut up and get going. “You think you have problems?”, we say. “You don’t have problems. You have your health. You should be thankful. The people on life support, now, THEY have problems. Until you are on life support, don’t complain.” That’s about as deep as conversations go in this culture. Is there any wonder that we are the most medicated culture in the history of cultures? Our pills help us get by in the absence of the right kind of company.
The church has to form itself into the company of the right kind of company. The church has to listen to itself listening, and abandon its shallow, trite, cure-all approach to telling people they don’t have any real problems and, if they do, they only have to pray about it and have faith. The church has to teach itself to be the church one listening opportunity at a time. May we look and see; may we listen and hear; and may we deal compassionately with what is seen and heard!
Oh, but we feel so inadequate, don’t we? So, we rush to patch up and fix and dismiss the problem and the person with the problem, because we don’t know what to do. There is an old psychotherapy saw, a saying, that goes like this: “When someone with a problem comes through the door into the psychotherapist’s office, the psychotherapist has a problem, namely what to do with the person with the problem.” Those with the problem become our problem, and we get rid of our problem by getting rid of theirs—by telling them they don’t have a problem, and if they do, to pray about it and have faith. If we are going to listen well, we are going to have to bear the pain of not knowing what to do.
We cannot listen with the answer in hand. We cannot hear what is being said if we are looking for an opening to thrust The Solution into the hands of the other person. Not knowing what to do is essential for helpful listening. And, it is an agony. It is death.
Let me flash you back to the New Testament, to the book of Hebrews. The writer advises his readers to “run with perseverance the race that is before you.” The Greek word that is translated “race” is “agone,” from which, you guessed it, we derived the English word agony. The word is used one more time in the New Testament, in 2nd Timothy, where Paul says, “I have fought the good fight. I have finished the race. I have kept the faith.” “Run with perseverance the agone, the agony, that is before you.” I have fought the good fight. I have finished the agone, the agony.” We must not be surprised if we meet with a little agony along the way.
Not knowing what to do; not knowing what to say; is essential for helpful listening. And it is an agony. It is death. It exposes us, don’t you see, to the same vulnerability, the same helplessness, that the speaker is looking to us to relieve them of. What will we do? What to do, of course, is to listen. To listen so deeply that a shift occurs in the perception of the person with the problem—a shift that either disappears the problem entirely, or reduces the problem to something manageable. But, you have to listen without knowing what to say or what to do. You have to listen believing only in the power of listening alone to bring healing and hope to life in the lives of the people we listen to. That is called living by faith alone!
Ah, but, how do we get there? Practice, practice, practice. And, that takes time. But, we have time. By when do we have to have it down, is the question. If you want to have it down by lunch today, so that you can go on to something else, something more fun, perhaps, I’m here to remind you that that is the culture’s way of keeping the culture unchanged and unchanging. The culture robs the church of its power to transform the culture by having us think we have to be in a hurry to get the job done. We cannot hurry transformation. We cannot complete the task before its time. We carry out the total transformation of the culture incrementally, one moment at a time. Which means we have to exercise incredible patience. Which means we have to believe deeply in the process of which we are apart. Which means we have to do what we can do and wait it out.
The image, remember is yeast in the dough, a seed in the earth. You work in the yeast, you plant the seed, and you wait, trusting in the power of transformation that works in the darkness to change the world. It is as though we are selling electric skillets in the outback of Alaska. We may drive around with the skillets in the trunk of our car practicing our sales pitches, but we have to wait until the utility company runs the power lines before sales are going to take off. There is a lot of waiting in this business. We wait for the transformation. And, while we wait, we practice. And the practice creates the need that produces the urgency that motivates the utility company to run the power lines that transforms the countryside. We cannot just wait for the transformation. We have to practice the sales pitch that produces the transformation.
In our case, we are not selling electric skillets. We are brokering healing and wholeness. And we aren’t practicing sales pitches. We are practicing listening. We listen the transformation into being. And, we listen without knowing what to say; without knowing what to do. We listen believing in the power of “deep listening” alone to effect the shift in perspective that transforms the world. When we are heard deeply, we see things differently. When we see things differently, everything changes. If you want to change the world, listen to the world. Listen to the world in a way the world has never been listened to before. And, be amazed.