Background Music and Getting Outside of Ourselves

March 5, 2017 § Leave a comment

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Jon Weece likes to introduce people to each other. Often it’s telling large crowds about someone he knows. And as “lead follower” at Southland Christian Church, a megachurch in Lexington, he has lots of opportunities to address large crowds. I’ve known Jon since he was a kid, and I was glad to be able to hear him speak last month at Ozark Christian College, his alma mater, as it celebrated its 75th anniversary.

Jon, a former missionary in Haiti, keeps his eye out for people who need a helping hand. One of those people is his friend Donnie, and Jon told us his story. In his book Jesus Prom, Jon writes,

When Donnie was six years old, he watched his dad beat up his mom. The trauma of that episode locked Donnie into a permanent state of childlikeness. Though he is fifty-two years of age today, Donnie thinks and acts and communicates like a six-year-old. Donnie loves me, and I love Donnie. He has taught me a lot about love.

Donnie washed dishes at a local restaurant for two decades. Each Friday he would cash his paycheck, and each Saturday he would ride his bike from one garage sale to the next buying albums and paper novels and costume jewelry. Donnie has a Christmas gift list and 385 people on it. Donnie loves people, and people love Donnie—so much so that he spends his entire year Christmas shopping for all the people he loves.

…..

Donnie doesn’t know a stranger. When he meets people for the first time, he hugs them. And he doesn’t let go! When Donnie hugs people, he holds on! And it doesn’t matter who you are; once Donnie learns your name, your name finds its way onto his Christmas list. From the mayor of our city to the homeless men in Phoenix Park, Donnie konws a lot of people by name.

Donnie looks a lot like love.

Love holds on.

Love gives.

Love knows.

Jon also introduces people to Donnie one on one. He said that when Tony Anderson, another OCC grad, contacted him to get together, Jon brought Donnie along. Tony lives in Lexington and is a successful film composer with a long list of commercial and documentary credits.

Before Tony had become established in his career, he took on his first project, a short documentary for Christ in Youth and Rapha House, a ministry working to eliminate child trafficking and sexual exploitation. The film Tony helped them with was Baht, about sex trafficking in Cambodia.

Tony later worked on another production for Rapha House, creating the score for Finding Home, a longer documentary following three young women who’d gotten out of the sex trade in Cambodia.

Tony’s career took off when Musicbed made his growing body of work available on their licensing site, and now his clients include Ford, TOMS Shoes, ESPN, and National Geographic. When Musicbed produced a video highlighting Tony, he put Donnie front and center (and, yes, that’s Tony’s music in the background). Tony says that Donnie is teaching him how to recapture the “childlike innocence and joy” that he’s let slip away. He’s also teaching him about opening doors, seeing the value of relationships over competition and deadlines, and “getting outside of” himself.

And finally, here’s one more example of Tony’s work. He composed the music behind this short film, Onward. It’s about a family in Western Mongolia and their tradition of hunting with eagles.

(Jon Weece, Jesus Prom: Life Gets Fun when You Love People like God Does, Thomas Nelson, 2014)

[photo: “Sitting by the Piano,” by Difei Li, used under a Creative Commons license]

Vulnerability: Letting Others See What Is Hard to Look at Ourselves

December 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

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I recently wrote about Steve Saint’s travels with Mincaye, when Steve—the son of martyred missionary Nate Saint—was logging thousands of miles on his way to speak to thousands. But that was before an accident in 2012, while testing an experimental wing at I-TEC, that left him as an incomplete quadriplegic.

Since then, Steve has openly shared about his struggles and pain. In a post he wrote last month at the I-TEC blog, Steve talks about his feelings of insignificance. “It is hard to feel very important when Ginny has to help dress me and when I need a bib at dinner time,” he writes. “But then when I’m lamenting that I no longer count I’ll get a letters from someone thanking me now for trusting God in suffering. Go figure.”

I’d like to add my vote saying that Steve still counts. I am so grateful for his honesty, for his willingness to be vulnerable. He is truly serving through his scars.

Here is how he begins his post:

About half of the time I can only function at about 4 on a scale of 1 to 10. Then, with no warning I crash to about 1 or 2 in 10. I lose the tiny bit of feeling in my hands, the bands around my body begin to clamp down so tightly that I go into spasms just trying to stand up. But worse than the physical torment I struggle with, the increased pain is accompanied by an involuntary hardening in my “heart”.  I sing along in church and hear preaching that used to move me, and I feel nothing. 

But, the physical pain and spiritual feelings take second place to an almost constant sense that my life has no significance anymore. But I’m not the only one struggling to have my life count. . . .

I hope you’ll take the time to read the rest of “No Count People?

And on the topic of letting others see us as we are—if you haven’t watched it yet (or if you’d like to watch it again), here’s Brené Brown’s TED Talk entitled “The Power of Vulnerability,” in which she says,

I know that vulnerability is the core of shame and fear and our struggle for worthiness, but it appears that it’s also the birthplace of joy, of creativity, of belonging, of love.

(I’m sure this makes me a prude, but before you gather the kids around the computer to listen to a video that Uncle Craig recommended, please note that it has a touch of PG language.)

(Steve Saint, “No Count People?” I-TEC Blog, November 29, 2016)

[photo: “Let There Be Urbex,” by darkday, used under a Creative Commons license]

Listen Up! In Which I Talk about Invisibilia and Cincy Stories and Link a Lot of Links

November 30, 2016 § Leave a comment

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By way of Mockingbird, I saw a c-ville interview with Lulu Miller, co-host of NPR’s Invisibilia, in which she speaks on the value of listening to authentic stories. Sounds as if she’s taken some lessons from Dick Gordon.

She’s often amazed at the things people reveal about themselves in an interview. It’s a reminder that when you’re vulnerable, “when you do show your worst side, that can be an act of humanity, because it shows everyone that everybody else is so deeply imperfect,” Miller says. “That can be such a gift, because sometimes people put up such a front.”

(I would think that a lot of the gifts she receives don’t have bows.)

Miller continues about not just listening, but really listening:

“Really listen,” Miller says. “Really show you’re with them. Sometimes people are almost shocked when they’re very closely listened to.” Once the person is a bit more relaxed, she says she starts poking and prodding gently.

“The range of people and their take on the world, that’s what never ceases to amaze me,” Miller says.

Invisibilia‘s most recent episode is titled “Outside In” and asks whether external change can produce inner change. In it, they talk to members of an all-female debate team in Rwanda. Following the genocide in 1994, the formerly male-dominated country was left with a population reported to be at least 70% female—because so many men had been killed, had been arrested for the killing, or had fled. To fill needed jobs, Rwanda legislated gender equality, without first going through a gradual change in culture. Has it worked? Invisibilia follows an all-female debate team as they push against long-held expectations. In one debate, by the luck of the draw, they had to argue the negative position on the topic “Developing countries should adopt Western feminism.” You can listen to the podcast to see how that turned out.

Another Invisibilia installment, “The Personality Myth,” is about the idea that personalities are more malleable than we commonly assume. It focuses in part on a woman who finds out about a TEDx event in the Marion Correctional Institution and meets a prisoner whose personality has seemed to change dramatically. One of the links at the podcast website is to an NPR article on personality tests, written by Annie Murphy Paul, author or The Cult of Personality Testing. If you can’t tell by the title of her book, Murphy Paul is not a fan of such things as the Myers-Briggs Type Indicator. Simply put, she says that “human beings are far too complex, too mysterious and too interesting to be defined by the banal categories of personality tests.”

Even if you agree, that doesn’t mean that you can’t use your four-letter MBTI code for a little fun and games.

Speaking of fun and games, each episode of Invisibilia includes a downloadable coloring page of the episode art.

And finally, back to Miller’s listening skills: John Casey, professor in the University of Virginia creative writing MFA program where Miller studied, describes her in The University of Virginia Magazine as “extremely sympathetic and attentive, and people open up to her because she is open to them.”

Those sound like the qualities demonstrated by Shawn Braley and Chris Ashwell, who direct Cincy Stories in Cincinnati. Their project, inviting locals to tell their unedited stories, began when Braley, a church pastor, was looking for a way to connect with his neighbors. Braley was inspired by StoryCorps and The Moth, two more personal-story telling podcasts from NPR.

But, Braley tells Christianity Today, his main inspiration is “obviously” Jesus. “The marginalized people and the people on the outskirts: He loves them and just listens to them, and that’s why they’re drawn to him. We want to replicate that.”

We can see Jesus’ come-as-you-are attitude catching many people off guard in the pages of the New Testament, and Braley enjoys doing the same.

“What I see often,” he says, “is, ‘Wait . . . there is a pastor overseeing this, and you still let me tell my story?’”

For a taste of Cincy Stories, here’s Caitlin Behle, who says,

I’m still Asian as far as I can tell and I’m still adopted and I feel really good about it so that’s something that I haven’t really had to question . . . until this one time. So in November 2010 I went to Korea for the first time, like since I’d been born there. . . .

Erin O’Hare, “Lulu Miller on the Fulfillment of Making ‘Invisibilia,'” c-ville, November 9, 2016; Annie Murphy Paul, “Personality Tests Are Popular, But Do They Capture the Real You?” Shots, NPR, June 25, 2016; Michelle Koidin Jaffe, “Podcast People,” University of Virginia Magazine, January 19, 2015; Jennifer Ditlevson Haglund, “How Uncensored Storytelling Helped Cincinnati Churchgoers to See Their Real Neighbors,” Christianity Today, September 2016)

[photo: “Listen to the Radio,” by Mike, used under a Creative Commons license]

The Listening Pastor

February 2, 2016 § Leave a comment

After 36 years, Leadership Magazine is calling it quits as a print magazine. The Winter 2016 issue is its last, as its parent company, Christianity Today International, is replacing it with a new section inside the pages of Christianity Today, and a future website, CTPastors.com.

Leadership is currently celebrating its history by counting down a series of “Top 40” articles, presented in chronological order, at the magazine’s site. Number 38, reprinted last week, is Eugene Peterson’s “The Unbusy Pastor,” originally published in the magazine’s second year.

It’s amazing to realize that Peterson has been writing about, and living out, his opposition to busyness for that long.

Two years ago I borrowed from Peterson’s article, using a quotation in a post I wrote about  listening. I’m reposting it below, because Peterson on listening is worth reading again . . . and again.

Listening and the Spirit of Unhurried Leisure

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“Get busy.”

That’s the mantra of many a boss.

“Look busy.”

That’s what coworkers say when the boss is coming.

Busyness isn’t always a synonym for work. In fact, busyness can get in the way of productivity.

Eugene Peterson, best known for his translation of the Bible, The Message, also served as a pastor of Christ Our King Presbyterian Church in Bel Air, Maryland, for 30 years. One of the consistent themes in his teaching and writing is that pastors should not fall into the seductive trap of busyness. Instead, as he writes in “The Unbusy Pastor,” his goal in his role as a church leader was to do three things, things that are too easily pushed aside by a busy life: to pray, to preach, and to listen.

Listening, he says, needs “unhurried leisure.” This leisure is the opposite of busyness. And just as busyness does not equal work, neither is leisure the same thing as laziness. Instead, leisure is having time at one’s disposal, and when one chooses to use that time for listening to what someone else has to say, it is a very valuable gift.

The passage below was written by Peterson in 1981. It is about and for pastors, but it can help any of us listen better, unless, of course, listening is something else we’ve ceded over to the professionals.

I want to be a pastor who listens. A lot of people approach me through the week to tell me what is going on in their lives. I want to have the energy and time to really listen to them so when they are through, they know at least one other person has some inkling of what they’re feeling and thinking.

Listening is in short supply in the world today; people aren’t used to being listened to. I know how easy it is to avoid the tough, intense work of listening by being busy (letting the hospital patient know there are ten more persons I have to see). Have to? But I’m not indispensable to any of them, and I am here with this one. Too much of pastoral visitation is punching the clock, assuring people we’re on the job, being busy, earning our pay.

Pastoral listening requires unhurried leisure, even if it’s for only five minutes. Leisure is a quality of spirit, not a quantity of time. Only in that ambience of leisure do persons know they are listened to with absolute seriousness, treated with dignity and importance. Speaking to people does not have the same personal intensity as listening to people. The question I put to myself is not “How many people have you spoken to about Christ this week?” but “How many people have you listened to in Christ this week?” The number of persons listened to must necessarily be less than the number spoken to. Listening to a story always takes more time than delivering a message, so I must discard my compulsion to count, to compile the statistics that will justify my existence.

(Eugene Peterson, “The Unbusy Pastor,” Leadership, Summer, 1981, also in The Contemplative Pastor: Returning to the Art of Spiritual Direction, reprint edition, Eerdmans, 1993)

[photo: “Railway Chit Chat,” by Brett Davies, used under a Creative Commons license]

Gifts without Bows: Telling and Receiving Stories as They Are

December 24, 2015 § 3 Comments

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This is a time of gift giving. It’s a time of buying and making and choosing and wrapping.

In our family, we tend toward minimalism when it comes to wrapping gifts. From my father I inherited the practice of using newspaper. When your package carries the latest headlines, there’s no need for bows or ribbons. And if you’re feeling extra festive, you always have the Sunday comics.

We all know it isn’t the paper on the outside that matters, but we sure do act like it sometimes.

I think that one of the best gifts to give and receive—any time of the year—is the gift of our stories, our feelings, our truths. Sometimes they come in worn-out shoeboxes, in paper bags with the tops folded down, or in cardboard boxes marked “Kitchen” from the last move. They’re offered with trepidation and best received with reverence. They’re precious, authentic gifts, rugged and unedited.

And without a bow.

Are we willing to receive such gifts, or do we prefer presents wrapped neatly in shiny paper, with colorful ribbons curled just so? Do we want only the stories that have tidy, happy endings, tied up with a platitude or moral or lesson? Do we carry our own supply of bows in case the gift givers are lacking?

Are we willing to give those gifts as well? Do we hold back the deep realities of our lives, the honest hurts, waiting until we can decorate them with a “that’s when I knew it all happened for a reason,” an “I learned so much,” or a “now I can see it was all part of God’s plan”? In the waiting there is sorrow and pain.

I can’t help but think of my missionary friends, and other cross-cultural workers, too often feeling the need to adorn their stories so that no one will “misunderstand,” too often saying what is expected or what is easier to hear. I can’t help but think of myself when I’ve done the same thing.

Not all gifts are meant to be shared in the open. Some are too personal. Some can only be given in a private, safe, accepting space. Can you create a space like that for your friends, for their parents, for their children? Without such a place, their precious gifts stay hidden away. And hidden gifts are often forgotten and remain ungiven . . . simply for lack of a bow.

The decorations aren’t necessary. Give your gifts without bows, we’re listening. Receive our gifts without bows, we’re talking.

Merry Christmas.

[photo: “Project365-Day21,” by Farouq Taj, used under a Creative Commons license]

Empathy: A Ladder into Dark Places

November 11, 2015 § 5 Comments

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When Brené Brown, a professor at the University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work, discovered that “the way to live is with vulnerability,” it flew in the face of her training as a researcher. She had been taught to control and predict, the antithesis to being vulnerable.

She voiced this in a 2010 TED Talk, and the video went viral. Two years later, she followed it up with another TED Talk, this time on the topic of shame. While not as popular as her first video, it’s powerful in its own right. In it, she shares about the response to her earlier talk and stresses two basic points: “Vulnerability is not weakness,” and “We have to talk about shame.”

To combat shame, she says, we need empathy, because “empathy’s the antidote to shame.”

If you put shame in a Petri dish, it needs three things to grow exponentially: secrecy, silence, and judgment. If you put the same amount in a Petri dish and douse it with empathy, it can’t survive. The two most powerful words when we’re in struggle: me too.

That brings us to a third video. This one is a short animation, adapted from a presentation Brown made on vulnerability to the Royal Society for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA). The RSA piece is titled “The Power of Empathy.”

“Empathy is a choice,” says Brown, “and it’s a vulnerable choice.”

In this short, embedded below, she refers to four attributes of empathy, identified by nursing scholar Theresa Wiseman:

  1. Seeing the world as others see it
  2. Being non-judgemental
  3. Understanding another’s feelings
  4. Communicating that understanding

The animation is a nice touch in fleshing out Brown’s words. I especially like the image of lowering a ladder down into another person’s darkness. One of the books we have on our bookshelf at home is Bonnie Keen’s A Ladder out of Depression: God’s Healing Grace for the Emotionally Overwhelmed. It is nice to see that ladder not just as a metaphor for recovery, but for empathy, as well. (As an aside, I also like how, when you can’t see her face, Brown sounds a lot like Martha Stewart.)

I do, though, have a bone to pick with Brown—bear with me here, or just skip straight to the video. While she does a great job of describing empathy, she does so at the expense of sympathy. I really don’t think that empathy is “very different” from sympathy. I don’t agree that “sympathy drives disconnection.” Brown describes empathy as “feeling with people,” which actually sounds to me like a good description of sympathy. In fact, when the word sympathy came about over 400 years ago, it was from the Greek sin, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling.” . . . in other words, a “feeling together.”

Empathy, on the other hand, is a relatively new term, introduced into the English language by psychologist Edward Bradford Titchener in 1909. Titchener got the idea for empathy from einfühlung, a German word crafted 50 years earlier to describe a form of art appreciation based on projecting one’s personality into the art being viewed—thus, “a feeling in.”

Over time, sympathy has had to give ground as empathy has gained the high road, and sympathy has come to imply something more like “detached pity” or “a lack of compassion.”

But of empathy, Titchener writes,

We have a natural tendency to feel ourselves into what we perceive or imagine. As we read about the forest, we may, as it were, become the explorer; we feel for ourselves the gloom, the silence, the humidity, the oppression, the sense of lurking danger; everything is strange, but it is to us that the strange experience has come. We are told of a shocking accident, and we gasp and shrink and feel nauseated as we imagine it; we are told of some new and delightful fruit, and our mouth waters as if we were about to taste it. This tendency to feel oneself into a situation is called empathy, on the analogy of sympathy, which is feeling together with another. . . .

One could even make the case that inserting our feelings into another’s situation can get in the way of seeing the individualness of that situation. Sometimes it is better not to say, “I know how you feel,” but rather “I can’t imagine how hard this is for you.”

As Brown explains, sometimes the best thing to say is very little, something like “I don’t even know what to say right now, I’m just so glad you told me.”

Oh, well. Thank you for letting me step in and defend sympathy. I think it’s gotten a bad rap. I think it’s been misunderstood. And I empathize with that.

To see why a blog about cross-cultural issues is interested in the topic of empathy and listening, go here.]

(Brené Brown, “Listening to Shame,” TED, March 2012; Theresa Wiseman, A Concept Analysis of Empathy,” Journal of Advance Nursing, vol 23, issue 6, 1996; Edward Bradford Titchener, A Beginner’s Psychology, Macmillan, 1915)

[photo: “The Light,” by Amanda Wilson, used under a Creative Commons license]

That One Safe Friend

September 18, 2015 § Leave a comment

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Here’s the intro to my post today at A Life Overseas

Do you have that one safe friend?

When I went overseas, I didn’t. In fact, I didn’t even know I needed one.

Don’t get me wrong. I had a lot of friends, good friends, but I didn’t have one particular person who was committed to the role of being that one safe friend. Since then I’ve come to the conclusion that all missionaries—and other cross-cultural workers—need someone whom they trust to be devoted to them because of who they are, not because of what they do, someone who will reach out to them consistently, someone who will encourage them, comfort them, laugh with them, and weep with them.

It’s not that there won’t be several people who could do this for you, but without someone specific to take on that responsibility, you may find yourself with no one. When you have your home church, your sending agency, your family, your coworkers, and your supporters behind you, it’s easy for each individual to think that you’re more than taken care of. At a Parents of Missionaries gathering I recently attended, Dr. Dorris Schulz, director for missionary care for Missions Resource Network, said that if she’s ever drowning, she hopes there’s only one person around. That’s because people in a crowd too often do nothing, assuming that someone else will step in.

Being that one safe friend, doesn’t take an exotic skill set. It’s not someone who has all the answers. And it doesn’t need to be someone with experience living abroad. But it does need to be someone who is a good listener, someone who is caring and empathetic, someone who understands you and understands the core challenges of life, regardless of the setting. It’s not an exotic skill set, but neither is it common to everyone.

You’ll need to be proactive in asking someone to be that friend. Don’t assume that people will come knocking, maybe because they doubt your need or their ability. So if you’re looking, what should you look for? What should you expect from that friend? Here are some suggestions:

Continue reading at A Life Overseas.

[Photo by Magnus Wrenninge, used under a Creative Commons license]

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