Death by Envelope and Other Tragic Postal Stories

8029186137_cf6ca85955_zI was wanting to mail a letter to our friends back in the US, but I had a problem. I had just been to the front counter at the post office and told the postal worker my plans. She pointed over my shoulder and said something about “over there.” I turned around, trying to act as if I knew what she’d said. (I’d only been in Taipei a few weeks, and the only thing I understood clearly was her pointing.)

Behind me, against the wall, was a table with a couple bowls of what looked like wall-paper paste, with a small brush in each one. They were for sealing envelopes, since the envelope flaps in Taiwan—and I assume, most of Asia—don’t have adhesive on them. I’ve been told this is because in the high humidity, the envelopes would glue themselves shut while waiting to be used. That explanation sounds perfectly plausible to me.

Behind the paste were two slots in the table. Each had a sign with a few Chinese characters on it. I went to the table and pretended to sort my mail for a while, pondering what I should do. What did the signs say? “Local Mail”? “Air Mail”? But the only time I’d ever seen slots like those were in the tables at the bank where you can fill out deposit slips—you know, the slots for throwing away your trash. So maybe the signs said, “Place Wastepaper Here,” and “Not for Mail.”

Beside the table was the door. Maybe the postal worker had pointed outside—to some mailboxes I hadn’t seen.

I made my decision, tossing my letter into one of the slots. I didn’t look back. I didn’t want to see the lady at the counter shaking her head at me. Instead, I hurried home and emailed our friends: “Let me know if you get a letter from us. Either I mailed one to you or just threw it away.”

A week later, they wrote back and said it had arrived. Sometimes, in spite of myself, I got things right.

It took me quite a while to get over my nervousness going to the post office. For expats, it can be a pretty scary place—in large part because there’s so much at stake. You’re often sending important documents or valuable parcels (like hand-drawn pictures to Grandma and Grandpa). And once you stick on the postage and drop them in the mailbox, there’s no do over.

Lick at Your Own Risk

Not long ago, here in the safety of the US, I was helping a friend from Asia prepare some papers for mailing. I handed him the envelope, and seeing that there wasn’t any paste available, he tried to peel the backing off the self-stick flap. The trouble was, the flap wasn’t peel-and-seal. When he realized he needed to lick it, he laughed and said he’d heard about people putting poison on the adhesive. I told him that’s never happened, because . . . uh . . . that’s never happened . . . right?

Well, I did some research, and I’m sticking by my assertion, but it seems that my friend is more up on American pop-culture than I am. How about you?

First, there’s this cautionary tale that began circulating by email in 1999:

Whenever you go to an automatic teller machine to make deposits, make sure you don’t lick the deposit envelopes. A customer died after licking an envelope at a teller machine at Yonge & Eglinton. According to the police, Dr. Elliot at the Women’s college hospital found traces of cyanide in the lady’s mouth and digestive system and police traced the fatal poison to the glue on the envelope she deposited that day. They then did an inspection of other envelopes from other teller machines in the area and found six more. The glue is described as colourless and odourless. They suspect some sickco is targeting this particular bank and has been putting the envelopes beside machines at different locations. A spokesperson from the bank said their hands are tied unless they take away the deposit function from all machines. So watch out, and please forward this message to the people you care about . . . Thanks

Completely false, says the urban-legend site Snopes.com. But when has that ever stopped an internet fable from gaining traction?

Snopes also tackled another email that made its debut in 2000. It’s about poor lady number two falling victim to the dangers of envelope glue:

This lady was working in a post office in California, one day she licked the envelopes and postage stamps instead of using a sponge.

That very day the lady cut her tongue on the envelope. A week later, she noticed an abnormal swelling of her tongue. She went to the doctor, and they found nothing wrong. Her tongue was not sore or anything. A couple of days later, her tongue started to swell more, and it began to get really sore, so sore, that she could not eat. She went back to the hospital, and demanded something be done. The doctor, took an x-ray of her tongue, and noticed a lump. He prepared her for minor surgery.

When the doctor cut her tongue open, a live roach crawled out. There were roach eggs on the seal of the envelope. The egg was able to hatch inside of her tongue, because of her saliva. It was warm and moist. . . .

This is a true story. . . . Pass it on.

Actually not true, but extra points for the graphic detail.

The Website TV Tropes reports that over the years, the poison-envelope theme has occurred in several TV crime shows. But the most famous example was part of the comedy Seinfeld, when George’s fiancée died after licking the toxic adhesive on some 200 cheap wedding invitations.

So no wonder my friend didn’t want to lick the envelope. Oh, sure, I could tell him his fears are based on urban legends, ridiculous story lines, and misguided fear. I could tell him that expats are especially susceptible to rumors and fantastic stories. But still . . . there was Mr. Fechheimer, mentioned in the 1895 New York Times:

S. Fechheimer, formerly a merchant of New-York, died here yesterday from blood poisoning as a result of cutting his tongue while licking an envelope. He was a rich man until a few years ago, when the panic came and brought ruin. He was the senior member of the firm of Fechheimer, Rau & Co., New-York shirt manufacturers.

So please be careful. And the next time you have to mail a letter, you might want to use a sponge.

(Barbara Mikkelson, “Dial ATM for Murder,” Snopes.com, September 2, 2006; Barbara Mikkelson, “Cockroach Eggs,” Snopes.com, January 22, 2014; “Finger-Licking Poison,” TV Tropes; “Poisoned by Licking an Envelope,” The New York Times, May 4, 1895)

[photo: "Lick the Envelope," by Rick & Brenda Beerhorst, used under a Creative Commons license]

Peanut Butter and Nutella: A Tale of Two Spreads

6398248857_aefa147739_mA few days ago I was the only one in the house at lunch time and I couldn’t find the peanut butter to make a peanut-butter-and-jelly sandwich.

No peanut butter? Why, it seemed downright un-American. And not only that, but it was nothing less than a betrayal of my upbringing.

An American Staple

Writing in the Pacific Standard, Karina Martinez-Carter quotes Jon Krampner, author of Creamy and Crunchy: An Informal History of Peanut Butter, The All-American Food. “Peanut butter,” he says, “embodies the raw primordial heart of American childhood.”

PB&Js are so fundamental to our formative years that, according to the National Peanut Board, the average American will eat 1,500 before graduating from high school.

Peanut butter is part of what makes America America. Even those from outside our borders know it’s so.

While it’s not nearly so popular around the world, once people arrive in the US, they are pulled in by the gooey spread. After giving us another quotation from Krampner—“immigrant kids tend to take to it as a part of their Americanization process”—Martinez-Carter tells of her own experiences:

My father is a first-generation Mexican immigrant and my sister adopted from China, and our cupboard reliably contained a jar of peanut butter we dug into daily. Much like how my sister’s English as a Second Language class teacher screened the classic Disney movies for her kindergarten students to catch them up on cultural references, developing a taste for peanut butter is a component of the acculturation process in the U.S. It is sustenance for understanding America.

Peanuts have their own story to tell about immigrating to America. According to the National Peanut Board, Europeans first came across peanuts while exploring Brazil. Later, Spanish explorers brought peanuts back home from their excursions into the “new world.” From Spain, they were introduced to Asia and Africa. And finally, in the 1700s, Africans brought peanuts to what is now the US.

But it wasn’t until 1884 that Canadian Marcellus Gilmore Edson received a US patent for creating a peanut paste, which he used for making a type of peanut candy. In 1895, John Harvey Kellog invented his own version of peanut butter, a year after he and his brother invented corn flakes. And peanut butter got it’s public debut at the 1904 World’s Fair in St. Louis, when C. H. Sumner sold it at his concession stand.

Now, back to my can’t-find-the-peanut-butter dilemma. I’d already spread my jelly, and I had to eat. So I did what I had to do . . . and used Nutella instead.

The Hazelnut Alternative

6398251975_042c8b2e79_mThere it was, a jar of Nutella sitting where I thought the peanut butter should be. (Since we’re still unpacking from our move, there are a lot of things out of place.)

I don’t know where it had come from.

Well actually I do. It had come from all over the world.

According to the Organisation for Economic Co‑operation and Development (OECD), Nutella is such a good example of the “global value chain” that the group used the chocolate-flavored hazelnut spread as a case study for one of its policy papers.

Here’s the globality of Nutella: Ferrero, the Italian company that produces Nutella, is headquartered in Germany. The ten factories that make Nutella are located in the European Union, Russia, Turkey, North America, South America, and Australia. As for the ingredients, a list with their origins includes

  • hazelnuts mainly from Turkey
  • palm oil from Malaysia, Papua New Guinea, and Brazil
  • cocoa mainly from Ivory Coast, Ghana, Nigeria, and Ecuador
  • sugar mainly from Europe
  • vanilla flavor from the Europe and the US

Put it all together and you have a product that’s sold in 75 countries. OECD even made a map to show Nutella’s main suppliers, factories, and main sales offices.

Invented by Pietro Ferrero in the 1940s, Nutella has become the self-proclaimed “number one spread in Europe.” And while it hasn’t yet become a major competitor to peanut butter in the US, it does have it’s devoted Stateside fans.

Take, for instance, the students of Columbia University. Last year, the Columbia Daily Spectator, the school’s newspaper, launched headlines around the country when it reported that in just the first week Nutella was added to the menu at two dining halls, students went through $5,000 worth of the spread. Dining Services said that students were consuming up to 100 pounds of Nutella daily. And by “consuming,” I mean eating it for meals and stealing jars to take home. It was what one student called “all you can eat, and all you can hide.”

If that rate held up, noted the Spectator, it would cost the dining halls $250,000 a year.

But, alas, the numbers didn’t quite hold up. Another article in the newspaper two days later reported that the first week’s Nutella demand actually cost Dining Services $2,500, not $5,000, and the amount quickly faded to $450 a week after that. But even with the revised numbers, that’s still a lot of hazelnut spread.

I guess I can see the appeal. Nutella isn’t necessarily my thing, but I’m sure I would have liked it when I was in college. My mother never let me eat chocolate frosting by the spoonful when I was growing up, but at college, with no Mom looking over my shoulder, I could have eaten all the frosting . . . uh . . . Nutella I’d wanted.

Well, my college days are now long behind me, and I have new voices in my ear (many of which sound a lot like Mom’s). I don’t think I’ll ever develop an extreme taste for Nutella. I do like a good peanut butter and jelly sandwich, though. You really are what you eat, or at least you are what you ate when you were a kid. And I sure did eat a lot of PB&J sandwiches.

PB&Js. What a strange thing, my friend from Asia once told me. She had never seen one, but she’d heard about them. Why, she asked, would Americans want a sandwich made from peanuts, butter, and jelly. Strange indeed.

(Karina Martinez-Carter, “As American as Peanut Butter,” Pacific Standard, February 14, 2014; “Fun Facts,” National Peanut Board; “History,” Peanut Butter Lovers; Koen D. Backer and Sébastien Miroudot, “Mapping Global Value Chains,” OECD Trade Policy Papers, No. 159, OECD Publishing,  2013; Cecilia Reyes, “Nutella in Ferris Booth Costs Dining $5,000 per Week, in Part Due to Dining Hall Thievery,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 5, 2013; Finn Vigeland, “University Says Nutella Cost $2,500 in First Week, less than $500 After,” Columbia Daily Spectator, March 7, 2013)

[photos: "Jif Peanut Butter" and "Nutella," by Brian Cantoni, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Faith of a Bicycle

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When we first moved to Taipei, we lived across the street from a park. One day, I was approached by three college-age students who asked me in English, “Do you know Jesus?”

“Yes,” I said.

“OK,” they replied. “But do you really know him?” This was a logical question, because while English has the one word for “know,” Chinese has two. The first would be the one in “I know who he is,” while the second means “I know him personally.”

I had the perfect response. Not only was I a Christian, but I was a missionary . . . and I’d been studying Chinese, too. So, I told them, somewhat smugly, in their language, “Yes, I know him. I’m a . . . bicycle.”

I wish I could say that the Chinese words for missionary and bicycle sound just alike, but they don’t. The first is chuan jiao shi, and the second is jiao ta che. I think I must have learned them on the same day, because they are forever confused in my mind. The young people in the park laughed with me and let me correct myself. “Chinese is hard,” they said. I didn’t argue.

Over the years, that encounter became a symbol to me for the good and bad times in Taiwan: some days I was a missionary. Some days I was just a bicycle.

Flat Tires and Slipped Chains

In an article published by Christianity Today this month, John Wilson interviews British author Francis Spufford about defending the Christian faith in a post-Christian culture. Spufford talks about a chapter in his latest book, Unapologetic: Why, Despite Everything, Christianity Can Still Make Surprising Emotional Sense, that gives a summary of the New Testament:

[T]he reason why I have Yeshua, my de-familiarized Christ, saying, “Far more can be mended than you know,” which I think is actually true to the New Testament, is that I want mending. Not flying free, not transformation, but humble, ordinary, everyday, get-you-back-on-your-feet mending, to be at the center of the Christian story.

When the book was being translated into Dutch, the translator sent me an email: “This word mend, I’ve looked it up in the dictionary, and it seems to be the same word you use for repairing bicycles. You must mean something else.”

I wrote back, “No. No. No. I want the bicycle-repair word.” What I absolutely want is to suggest that before it’s anything else, redemption is God mending the bicycle of our souls; God bringing out the puncture repair kit, re-inflating the tires, taking off the rust, making us roadworthy once more. Not so that we can take flight into ecstasy, but so that we can do the next needful mile of our lives.

We all need that kind of mending from God. I guess being a bicycle isn’t so far from being a Christian—and a missionary—after all.

(John Wilson, “Faith for the Post-Christian Heart: A Conversation with Francis Spufford,” Christianity Today, April 3, 2014)

[photo: "Bicycle," by Marcella, used under a Creative Commons license]

Related Posts:
Fear of Heights: Pastors, Missionaries, and the Dangers of Pedestals
The Psychological Health of Missionaries—Adding to the Research
One Missionary’s Emotions . . . Honest, Unedited, and Unsanitized

Reading the Bible without Cultural Near-Sightedness

3782“Can you imagine a Jesus without all his teeth?” That’s one of the many questions that E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien ask in Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible.

In modern America, the authors point out, we tend to associate missing teeth with lack of intelligence. But what would your smile look like without the luxury of modern and available dentistry? Would you have a full mouth of straight pearly whites? Did Jesus have all his teeth intact? The authors write, “It seems like heresy to suggest otherwise.” But for much of the world, a lack of teeth would be irrelevant—if not expected—in a carpenter who lived 2,000 years ago.

Richards (a former missionary to Indonesia) and O’Brien’s goal in Misreading Scripture is to get us to rethink our assumptions about what we read in the Bible. They’re not saying that non-Westerners can understand the Bible better, just that we all come to the text with our own cultural baggage that we need to lay down. (They offer that someone else could easily write Misreading Scripture with Eastern Eyes.)

The authors admit that they’ve had to oversimplify the topic, as there is way too much to cover in one book. But, they write, their purpose is to “unsettle you just enough that you remember biblical interpretation is a crosscultural experience and to help you be more aware of what you take for granted when you read.”

For instance, they open the book with the example of the hot, cold, and lukewarm waters of the church in Laodicea:

I know your deeds, that you are neither cold nor hot. I wish you were either one or the other! So, because you are lukewarm—neither hot nor cold—I am about to spit you out of my mouth. (Revelation 3:15,16 NIV)

Our assumptions lead us to think that hot means “on fire” with faith, while cold means that faith is absent. This reading says that God would rather us be non believing than to have a weak faith. But when O’Brien traveled to the site of Laodicea, he learned that nearby were the hot springs of Hierapolis and the cold springs of Colossae. Laodicea didn’t have any springs, so aqueducts brought water in. Both kinds of water, hot and cold, would have been welcome and refreshing to the people of Laodicea, but by the time the water arrived, it was only lukewarm. New insights bring new perspectives.

The story of David and Bathsheba gives another opportunity for us to see an “Eastern” viewpoint. The authors’ thought-provoking analysis suggests that David’s actions were motivated more by honor and shame than by feelings of guilt. In fact, they show how not only the king decisions, but also those of Bathsheba and Uriah, exemplify a culture where individual convictions of right and wrong are trumped by the weight of societal expectations.

Other topics covered in Misreading Scripture are the cultural differences of Individualism and Collectivism, Time, Rules and Relationships, Virtue and Vice, and Finding the Center of God’s Will. In the chapter covering this last subject, Richards and O’Brien discuss the common Western practice of a reader applying scriptures to himself, while non-Western readers—as with the Jews of the Old Testament—are more likely to apply it to the entire group. This is compounded, as the authors point out earlier in their book, by the lack of a plural you in the English language.

While I taught the Bible in Asia, it was a constant challenge to set aside my American presuppositions and allow my non-American friends to understand the Bible on their own terms. Instead, I was tempted to share my personal and cultural footnotes before they could be convicted of a “misguided” interpretation. This was especially dangerous when I found myself, as the authors called it, “arguing [them] to a lower standard.”

As I read through Misreading Scriptures, I wasn’t always convinced of the authors’ conclusions, but I was consistently “unsettled” enough to rethink my assumptions. And when I question those things that I take for granted, it makes me a better teacher and student. When I acknowledge my cultural biases, I am then better able to understand what the Bible says, less hindered by what I’m sure it should be saying.

(E. Randolph Richards and Brandon J. O’Brien, Misreading Scripture with Western Eyes: Removing Cultural Blinders to Better Understand the Bible, IVP, 2012)

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Cultural Plate Tectonics
Barnga—When Cultures Play by Different Rules
Even Paul Needed Member Care

A DIY Banquet of Global Proportions, $1 at a Time

B-E-R-Y-A-N-I

I had to go back a second time to get the spelling from the lady handing out servings of her dish. She was standing at the Middle East table, sponsored by the Islamic Society of Joplin, part of the World Cuisine and Music Festival at Missouri Southern State University.

The music included an African marimba band, a mariachi band, a Chinese ensemble, and a Caribbean steel drum group.

And the food . . . well here are the five  $1 dishes that I chose for my meal:

Iraqi Beryani

2448042544_34a53a326a_qFirst there was the Iraqi Beryani. There are many versions of beryani (also spelled biryani), depending on the area of the world, but the cook wanted to make sure I knew the one she was serving was the Iraqi variety. It had long-grain rice, chicken, peas, potatoes, and—a surprise to me—almonds and raisins. All the spices and flavors worked so well together that I came home and Googled how to make it on (that’s why I had to double-check the spelling).

I found several recipes, but the one that seems closest to the dish I sampled is from “Chef Zina,” highlighted on the website of CWS. Another recipe option is at the Nestlé Middle East site. More from Nestlé later.

Tea Eggs

8493882246_3ddc931fcb_qAt the Chinese table, I spotted some tea eggs (also called five-spice eggs). They’re not exactly a delicacy, but I couldn’t pass up the chance to have one. It had been a few years since I’d picked up my last one from the brown-stained rice cooker sitting on the counter of a 7-Eleven in Taipei. For those who aren’t familiar with tea eggs, they’re hard-boiled eggs soaked in tea seasoned with soy sauce and a mixture of spices. The shells are cracked, letting the tea soak into the eggs, flavoring them and giving them a marbled brown color. If you’d like to make your own, I found a fairly simple recipe at Kirbie’s Cravings. (It calls for Chinese five spice, which my wife says is easy to find.)

A Couple Dishes from the Pros

Along with the MSSU faculty, staff, and students who provided dishes for the festival were local restaurants. From M & M Bistro I got a snack-sized version of their “Mediterranean Platter.” Go to their page for photos from the event.

And from Flavors International Cuisine, specializing in Indian-Pakistani dishes, I got chicken curry and rice. (I see on their site that they also serve biryani at their restaurant. Need to give that a try.)

No recipes here, just recommendations for two good places to eat.

Chocolate Mousse 4248844482_20e315935d_q
Finally, my five-course meal was complete with a cup of chocolate mousse from the Belgian table. It was served in a small, clear plastic cup. I’m pretty sure that if I had been in a fancy restaurant, and the same dessert had been in a champagne flute, topped with whipped cream and a sprig of mint, it could have sold for 5 times as much as the $1 price tag.

So how can I make my own mousse to impress my friends and neighbors? The answer, it seems, is easier than I would have thought. NPR reported last month that the secret to authentic “rich, creamy, dark, dreamy, delicious chocolate mousse,” as Dorie Greenspan, author of Around My French Table, describes it, is not a secret at all. Greenspan, who has lived part time in Paris for 16 years, says that it took nearly all of one of those years to get a good friend to reveal her recipe. But finally she handed it over, literally. Her friend gave her a Nestlé chocolate bar, and on the back of the wrapper was “the recipe for the mousse every savvy French cook makes.” The ingredients are simple: bittersweet chocolate, eggs, salt, and sugar. That’s it.

Now that I have the recipes, I’m motivated to do some cooking, or at least see if I can beg my wife into doing it for me. It remains to be seen if I’ll actually get it done. I’m already looking forward to next years festival.

(“Paris Confidential: The Mystery Mousse behind the Chocolate Bar,” All Things Considered, NPR, February 13, 2014)

[photos: "Biryani Rice," by Maria, used under a Creative Commons license; "Chinese Marbled Tea Egg," by Kattebelletje, used under a Creative Commons license;  "Chocolate Mousse." by Ulrika, used under a Creative Commons license]

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The World’s Largest Ships: Hauling Our Stuff around the Globe

I can still see the container delivering our furniture and household goods as it shuddered around the street corner on the back of a truck in our Taipei neighborhood. It looked so very, very big, and in a single moment, we had become the rich Americans that we didn’t want to be.

If we were to move to Taipei again, we’d plan on buying most things there, since, through the years, we ended up replacing most of what we took over anyway. But this isn’t a post about what was in our container. Rather it’s about the containers themselves. In fact, it’s about 18,000 of them.

305855

Triple-E vessel Majestic Mærsk visits Copenhagen

Containers look a lot smaller when they’re stacked up at a dock or on a ship—like multi-colored Lego blocks locked neatly together. And nowhere do they seem smaller than when they’re sitting atop a Triple-E.

18,000. That’s how many 20-foot containers that a Triple-E, the world’s largest ship, can hold. The Triple-E is class of container ships built in Korea by Daewoo Shipbuilding & Marine Engineering for the Danish company Maersk. When production is finished, there will be 20 of these giant ships in service.

Just how big is the Triple-E? It is 400 meters (nearly a quarter of a mile) long, 59 meters (194 feet) wide, and 73 meters (240 feet) tall. Not counting ballast and cargo, it weighs about 55,000 tons. According to The Telegraph, it has enough space to carry 36,000 cars or 111 million pairs of shoes. It’s too big for the Panama Canal and no US port is large enough to receive it.

While the Triple-E is the largest ship in service, it’s not the largest ever built. The Maersk website World’s Largest Ship states that that title goes to the Knock Nevis, a super tanker that measured 458 meters (1,500 feet) before it was scrapped in 2010. And the Triple-E won’t hold the “biggest” distinction for long. Scheduled to begin service in 2017, the Prelude is being built by Samsung Heavy Industries for Shell. This “ship” won’t travel under its own power but will be towed to a location off the coast of Australia where it will be anchored, serving as a “floating liquefied natural gas platform.” The Prelude will be 488 meters (1,600 feet) long and will weigh over 600,000 metric tons.

But for the next few years, the Triple-E will reign supreme. Here’s a clip from Discovery’s series on the ship.

And this video is a time lapse of the Triple-E being built.

And, oh yeah, remember that comparison to Legos? Here’s another time lapse. This one is of someone putting together Lego’s version of the Triple-E (which can be yours for $149.99)

(Paul Kendall, “The Biggest Ship in the World,” The Telegraph, July 30, 2013; “The World’s Largest Ship,” World’s Largest Ship (Maersk); “Shell’s Record-Breaking Prelude Takes to the Water,” BBC News, December 4, 2013)

[photo courtesy of Maersk]

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Repost: Are You Listening? Really Listening?

[My family is moving across town this week, so I haven't been able to work on the blog much lately. So here's a repost from about a year and a half ago. This transition thing can feel like Frost's "miles to go before I sleep." But until that rest comes, I'll look for a park bench along the way.]

Finding good listeners is very important to missionaries. In fact, when member-care trainer Brenda Bosch surveyed missionaries about what they wanted from their mission agency, the top answer was “someone to listen to me.”

German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer writes that listening is necessary in Christian community. He calls it the “first service” that Christians owe each other:

Just as our love for God begins with listening to God’s Word, the beginning of love for other Christians is learning to listen to them. God’s love for us is shown by the fact that God not only gives us God’s Word, but also lends us God’s ear. We do God’s work for our brothers and sisters when we learn to listen to them. So often Christians, especially preachers, think that their only service is always to have to “offer” something when they are together with other people. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking. Many people seek a sympathetic ear and do not find it among Christians, because these Christians are talking even when they should be listening. But Christians who can no longer listen to one another will soon no longer be listening to God either; they will always be talking even in the presence of God. The death of the spiritual life starts here, and in the end there is nothing left but empty spiritual chatter and clerical condescension which chokes on pious words. Those who cannot listen long and patiently will always be talking past others, and finally no longer will even notice it. Those who think their time is too precious to spend listening will never really have time for God and others, but only for themselves and for their own words and plans.

For Christians, pastoral care differs essentially from preaching in that here the task of listening is joined to the task of speaking the Word. There is also a kind of listening with half an ear that presumes already to know what the other person has to say. This impatient, inattentive listening really despises the other Christian and finally is only waiting to get a chance to speak and thus to get rid of the other. This sort of listening is no fulfillment of our task. And it is certain that here, too, in our attitude toward other Christians we simply see reflected our own relationship to God.

In the latter paragraph, Bonhoeffer describes a false, inadequate kind of listening. In reading what is lacking there, we can see the qualities required of a good listener. Are you someone who listens in that way?

  • Do you listen with a “whole” ear?
  • Do you presume that you will hear something unique and valuable?
  • Are you patient?
  • Are you attentive?
  • Do you love the speaker?
  • Do you waive your right to speak?
  • Do you hope to keep the other person in your presence, sharing with you?
  • Are you fulfilling your task, to your neighbors and to God?

The New Testament records Jesus saying several times, “He who has ears to hear, let him hear.” In The Message, this is translated, “Are you listening to this? Really listening?”

Thanks to Brian Stankich at FULFILL for drawing my attention to the survey in his post “11 Types of Care Missionaries Want from Their Sending Agencies and Co-Workers.”

(Brenda Bosch, “Summary of Missionary Survey Outcomes,” Global Member Care Network Conference, April 2012; Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Life Together, Dietrich Bonhoeffer Works, Volume 5, Augsburg Fortress, 2004, 98-99)

[photo: "Listen carefully," by Justin Lynham, used under a Creative Commons license]

Related Posts:
Farewell to “The Story,” with Listening Lessons from Mr. Gordon and Some Maasai Visitors
Eleven Tips for Helping Someone with Cross-Cultural Transitional Loss
In Sports and Member Care—Be Safe


Welcome to Clearing Customs. This space is part blog, part annotated bibliography. It’s a collection of thoughts, information, links, and articles about how the people and parts of our world fit together across cultures. It's for those of us who, on our journey, sometimes have to check the box "something to declare." —Craig Thompson

The views and opinions expressed in Clearing Customs are my own and do not represent any group, organization, or institution.

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