For Such a Time as This: The Need for Talking


There’s an interesting discussion going on at Christianity Today’s her·meneutics blog. It begins with a post by Patricia Raybon, co-author of the soon-to-be-released Undivided: A Muslim Daughter, Her Christian Mother, Their Path to Peace.

In “A Nation of ‘Suspect Thy Neighbor,'” Raybon writes about her husband’s suspicion upon seeing an unfamiliar car parked in front of their house. She writes that following 9/11, “We’ve become not just a nation of strangers, but strangers who suspect each other on principle.” And then she shares another family story.

Ten years ago, Raybon’s daughter, Alana, left the church and became a Muslim. Recently, while mother and daughter were together, a man saw Alana, with her head covered, and yelled to her, “Go home!”

That man wasn’t interested in a conversation, but Raybon is. In the comments following her post, several readers have responded. Some are supportive. Some are not.

Dagney Reardon writes, “I’m sorry—I’ve having a hard time wrapping my head around the fact that I’m suppose to feel sorry for a Muslim-convert American woman for being subjected to a verbal insult . . .” He compares her situation to that of women in Islamic countries and then refers to the recent beheadings of Coptic Christians by the Islamic State in Lybia. “God has not even begun to give me the wisdom or insight to relate to a person who would deliberately choose to align themselves with a religion that condones such unspeakable horror.”

I don’t usually read comment sections on the internet. There’s just too much vitriol. But Christianity Today‘s policy of allowing only subscribers or registered users ups the level of  engagedness and civility. And what I appreciate the most is the willingness of CT authors to answer back. I’m not sure what I would have said in response to the above comment, but Raybon was obviously prepared. “Thank you, Dagney, for your comments,” she writes. “Your argument is interesting. You are right, in fact, about one key thing. No reasonable person would deliberately choose to align with a religion that condones unspeakable horror.” And she ends her response with this:

I’m reaching different conclusions than you. But at least you and I are talking. For such a time as this, talking is a seriously good place to start. Thank you, indeed, for sharing your thoughts. Measured conversations need to happen on these matters. Thank you for taking part in this one. Kind regards, Patricia.

As I’m writing this, Reardon and Raybon have responded again to each other. And to another commenter who disagrees with her, Raybon writes, “Thanks, meantime, for sharing your thoughts. Another view always stretches my thinking.”

I appreciate the “measured conversation” that Raybon has begun. I hope it continues, at her·meneutics and beyond.

(Patricia Raybon, “A Nation of ‘Suspect Thy Neighbor,'” her·meneutics, February 20, 2015)

[photo: “Brighton Beach,” by Mark Belokopytov, used under a Creative Commons license]


Park-Bench Conversations

[I’ve written a new “page” to point readers to posts in this blog that are the most meaningful to me. It’s called “park bench,” and it’s linked in the banner above. And to save you a click, here it is below.]

The posts on this blog, while all under the umbrella of cross-cultural issues, cover an array of topics. All of these are interesting to me, but some of the most important to me are on the subject of transitioning between cultures.

142023581_52b616759aIt’s often a difficult process and lasts well beyond the plane ride. Though there are many voices telling us about the challenges of redefining “home,” many of the stories are not shared eagerly or in public. Rather, they come out in safe places and only in response to careful and gentle prodding.

There are several images that conjure up thoughts of those conversations: a kitchen table, side-by-side cups of coffee, the corner booth in a cafe, a front porch.

For me, it’s a park bench.

I’m not always comfortable with talking face-to-face. It’s easier for me to sit next to someone, with the option of staring into the distance or getting up for a walk. Some of my deepest conversations, with people and with God, have taken place on park benches—at the edge of a mountain trail, in a park, next to a playground, in the courtyard of an apartment complex, at a bus stop on a busy street.

At Clearing Customs, the park-bench talks center on the difficulties of transition, on the grief that comes from losses associated with moves, on finding confidants who are able to listen without judgment. If those topics are relevant to you, too, please follow the category links below.

All of the topics in this blog are interesting to me, but these are some of the most important to me.

[photo: “City Park in Fall,” by Michael Williams, used under a Creative Commons license]

If I Had a Hammer, I’d Still Need to Listen

Thanks to my daughter for showing me “It’s Not about the Nail.”

Point taken (all puns intended). It can be frustrating when someone—like a wife—won’t listen to common sense, ignoring a problem that’s as obvious as the nose on her face. She just wants someone to listen. No advice allowed.

Funny stuff. I feel this guy’s pain.

But wait a minute. Don’t I like to talk about the need for people to be heard, without having someone trying to fix everything? What about her pain? What gives?

Here’s what I’ve decided: Sometimes it is about the nail, but that doesn’t mean we should stop listening. Yes, some people, like this woman, won’t listen to reason. They don’t want to hear the truth or take responsibility, and they need to hear the truth clearly.

8559722063_d78cba51bc_tBut much of the time, our friends on the couch know the problem well and already have the solutions. Maybe they’re in the middle of fixing it but it’s taking time . . . or the fixes aren’t as quick as they should be . . . or the most obvious solutions would do more harm than good (anybody got a claw hammer?) . . . or there are other issues that make things more complicated. And in those cases, the person with the nail doesn’t need to be pummeled with advice, they need someone to hear about their hurts and fears.

There are a lot of people in the world who don’t want to listen to the truths that will solve their problems, but there are also a lot of people who don’t want to listen to the problems of others, so they use easy answers to try to make their own discomfort go away.

I know, I know. It’s just a comedy skit, and I shouldn’t try to make too much out of it. But I wanted to post the video, and I just couldn’t do that without tacking on my thoughts.

Oh, and one more thing. The writer and director for “It’s Not about the Nail” (he’s the male actor, too) is Jason Headley. Here’s another one of his videos. It’s called “A Little French.” (This will be the last of my comments about learning French for a while.) It doesn’t have millions of views like the one above, but it’s just as funny.

How can you not appreciate the thought process of a guy who can say, “I don’t want to learn French, I want to speak French”? If only. . . .

[photo: “Hammer,” by homespot hq, used under a Creative Commons license]

Put Your Phone under a Bushel

Since having someone to listen to them is so important to missionaries and other cross-cultural workers, I thought I’d put together a list of ways to be a good listener. One of the first things I thought of was

Let the person you’re talking with know that you’re giving him your full attention by turning your cell phone to silent and putting it on the table.

phonecupSounds good, right?

Wrong. And here’s why:

Just having a cell phone in view, even when it’s not being used—even when it’s not turned on—hinders the development of relationships. This is the finding of a study conducted by Andrew Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, of the University of Essex, as published in the Journal of Social and Personal Relationships.

In the first of two experiments, Przybylski and Weinstein paired up strangers and asked them to talk about something that had happened to them over the past month. The participants left their belongings in a waiting area, and then they went to a private booth for their conversations. The booth contained two chairs, facing each other, with a table off to the side. For half of the pairs, on the table was a cell phone on top of a book. For the other half, the phone was replaced  with a pocket notebook.

The result was that partners who had a conversation in the presence of a cell phone felt less close to each other and had a lower quality of relationship compared to their counterparts who talked without a phone nearby.

Since the conversation in the first experiment dealt with a “moderately intimate topic,” the second experiment looked at the effects of a cell phone on less intimate conversations (about plastic trees) and more intimate conversations (about “the most meaningful events of the past year”).

In this exercise, the researchers continued to look at the quality of relationships and also added evaluations of the levels of trust and empathy. The results showed that the phone had little or no effect on those who were talking on the casual topic, but participants reported lower levels of relationship quality, trust, and perceived empathy when the phone was in view. And even though the more meaningful conversation topics encouraged more closeness and trust when the phone was absent, when the phone was present, the levels of intimacy were actually lower than when the topic was focused only on plastic trees.

It’s notable that these effects happened even when participants didn’t remember seeing the phone in the room.

So what is a good listener to do?

Here are some suggestions:

  1. Turn your phone to silent or turn it off. Turning it to vibrate won’t do. Anything that pulls your attention to the phone, even if you ignore it, will disrupt the relationship you’re trying to form.
  2. Don’t put your phone where it can be seen.
  3. You might suggest to your partner that he not get out his phone either. Explain to him how important your meeting is and tell him how you don’t want anything to hinder him or you. (Cross-cultural workers who have visited an embassy know what it’s like to have a meeting and have to leave their cell phones outside. If the meeting’s important enough, the sacrifice can be made.)
  4. If a true emergency requires you to keep your phone on, understand that you will be distracted not only by every call and text that comes in, emergency or not, but by the presence of the phone itself. At the very least, apologize and understand the limitations of a meeting under those conditions.

Don’t let your phone, or anyone’s phone, hinder you from fully investing in someone. Don’t let the Siren song of your social networks pull you away from the person across from you who needs a face-to-face conversation. And, of course, don’t be the person who answers calls, who texts, who tweets, and who checks Facebook while he’s supposed to be paying attention to the person in front of him. That’s not the way to grow a relationship, to foster trust, and to show empathy. And aren’t those the things that a good listener wants to do?

(Anddrew K. Przybylski and Netta Weinstein, “Can You Connect with Me Now? How the Presence of Mobile Communication Technology Influences Face-to-Face Conversation Quality,” Journal of Social and Personal Relationships, July 19, 2012)

[photo: “iPhone + COFFEE,” by Kondo Atsushi, used under a Creative Commons license]

Conversation: noun, “a turning with”

Steve Smith, author of The Jesus Life and co-founder of Potter’s Inn, recently wrote in his blog,

[I]n the course of life’s seasons, we need to have spiritual conversations with people who are good listeners. Let me be clear here, most people are not good listeners. They listen for facts not feelings. They listen for what they hope to hear. They listen when it may not cost them something.

A spiritual conversation is a reciprocal dialogue between two people where thoughts, opinions and feelings are shared and received. It’s two-way. Not one way.

People who have gone through major transitions—and others who have encountered loss—need good listeners. But what is necessary to be someone who listens well, to be someone who nurtures spiritual conversations? How about compassion and empathy and comfort?

Following is a list of words that I associate with good listeners. We all know what the words mean, but we’ve become fairly complacent in using them. Therefore, as a way to jumpstart our thinking and to help us do a better job of living them out, I’m pairing them with the literal meanings from their origins (with the help of the  Online Etymology Dictionary and other resources). My intent is not to “correct” their modern definitions but simply to give depth to what we already know.

For instance, today a companion is a friend or partner. But the word companion is formed from two parts that originally meant “with” and “bread.” So a companion was someone who shared a meal with another. Even now we understand the link between sharing food and sharing our hearts. Here’s what Smith says about companionship:

I wrote in The Jesus Life that spiritual conversations take place at the table where we eat our meals. . . . It’s never an intent when you ask someone for lunch–to share protein, carbs and water with someone. No, when you ask someone for lunch, you’re really meaning, “Hey, let’s get together so we can share what’s been going on in our lives. It’s been too long. How about next Tuesday at noon at the deli?”  That’s the stuff of conversations where hearts connect and souls meet and people who are lonely become spiritual companions.

Now, here’s the rest of my list:

acknowledge: “to admit understanding or knowing”
from a blending of Old English on, “into,” and cnawan, “recognize,” with Middle English knowlechen “admit”

affirm: “to strengthen”
from Latin ad, “to,” plus firmare, “make firm”

advocate: “someone called to help or plead”
Latin ad plus vocare, for “to” and “to call”

comfort: “to strengthen much”
Late Latin com, “very,” and fortis, “strong”

commiserate: “to lament with”
from Latin com, “with,” and miserari, “to feel pity”

communicate: “to make common”
from Latin commun, “common,” plus the verb suffix icare

companion: “eating partner”
Latin com, “with,” and panis, “bread, food”

compassion: “a suffering with”
Latin com and pati, meaning “with” and “to suffer”

concern: “a sifting” or “comprehension”
from Latin com, “with,” and cernere, “to sift”

confide: “to trust strongly”
Latin com plus fidere, meaning “very” and “to trust”

console: “to give much comfort or solace”
from Latin com, “very,” and solari, “to comfort”

contact: “to touch with”
from Latin com, “together,” and tangere, “to touch”

conversation: “a turning with”
Latin com, meaning “with,” and vertare, meaning “turn about”

empathy: “a feeling in”
Greek en and pathos, meaning “in” and “feeling”

encourage: “to add heart or bravery”
Old French en, “make, put in,” and corage, “heart, innermost feelings”

sympathy: “a feeling together”
Greek syn, “together,” plus pathos, “feeling”

understand: “to stand in the midst of”
Old English under, “between, among,” plus stand

May we better understand these ideas and, in so doing, better understand each other. May we put them into practice. May we all become better companions . . . and better listeners.

(Steve Smith, “The Power of a Spiritual Conversation,” Steve and Gwen Smith, September 26, 2012)

[photo: “61098,” by Drew Herron, used under a Creative Commons license]