How Are You?

how-are-youIt’s a question that we may speak as often as we hear it, but how often do we ask it with sincerity, sincerely wanting to know what’s going on with the person whom we’re asking? When someone asks it of us, how likely are we to give an honest answer or do legitimately think that, if we gave an honest answer, the person who was asking us really gave a rip?

As I get older and the lens of what’s really important in life seems to become clearer, I continue to see that there are certain themes and principles that seem to apply across the board. No matter who you ask, no matter where you are, these things seem to be true.

One of these things that I have come to appreciate and understand more and more over the past few years is the fact that you can never assume that what’s on the outside of the box matches what’s on the inside. In other words, when it comes to people, just because someone seems to be doing okay on the outside doesn’t mean that they aren’t hiding something….or, more accurately, not divulging what’s really going on for any one of a number of fears.

For me, as a pastor, Sunday mornings can be among the busiest hours of my week. I am trying to make sure that everything is set. Whether I am preaching or leading the music team or whatever I might be doing, it can be an incredibly stressful hour. That’s not to say that I am not focused on the goal of that time or the importance of it, it just means that there are other things that I need to maneuver through to get focused on just why I am there. But it can be easy for me to casually cast off a “How are you?” here and there without really thinking through what I’m really asking or, worse yet, without really wanting to know or hear the answer.

Like I said, though, one thing that I am coming to realize more and more every day is that there can be far more going on beneath the surface than the casual “How are you?” with the obligatory “Good” or “Fine” retort actually shows. And I wonder just how many people answer the question honestly and really feel that they can answer the question honestly. If I answer honestly, will the person asking even care? If they care and I’m honest, will they tell the world about what’s going on in my life? If they find out what’s really going on in my life, will they shun me and make me feel as isolated as I already feel?

I’ve come to realize that just because someone answers that they’re doing good or fine or whatever, that doesn’t necessarily mean that’s an honest answer. And so it’s forcing me to pay attention and to listen. How do people carry themselves? Are their words and answers matching their body language? Are they dropping any subtle hints about what’s lying beneath the surface as I speak with them?

Because I can get so caught up in the goal and the endgame, I can easily forget about the people involved in accomplishing and achieving that goal. When I do that, it cheapens the relationships that I have that are far more important than that would indicate. The last thing that I want is for the people around me to think that they are just cogs in a system of simply getting to the end. I wouldn’t want to feel like that, so why should I think that anyone else would want that either?

No, things aren’t always what they seem. There is usually so much more lurking beneath the surface, but it takes intention, patience, love, empathy, care, and time to really get there. People aren’t going to share it right out of the gate. They need to know that they can trust you, they need to know that you won’t betray their confidence, and they need to know that you really, truly, genuinely care about them and what’s really going on in their lives.

I’m learning, I’m growing, and I’m trying to do better here. I’m working to make sure that if I ask someone “How are you?” that I am ready for whatever kind of answer they might return to me. I might not always like the answer, I might not always feel like I’ve got the time for the answer, but to not listen and care about the answer is to allow someone to float off all alone out there in the world.

We can make a difference when we listen and pay attention. We can make a difference when we legitimately ask the question and want to know the answer. I know that when I’ve done it with genuine concern, it’s made a huge difference to the people to know that someone is paying attention and someone cares. I know that there have been times when the question has been asked of me and I probably gave more of an answer than the person was expecting, but in the end, it made all the difference in the world for me to be heard and to know that someone really cared. 

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Why Am I Talking?

don't talkI’ve always considered myself a fairly decent listener and have even been told that in the past, but as I get older and gaze at the list of responsibilities that lie before me, I find myself rushing through things and multi-tasking to get everything done. Sometimes I’ve made cursory reads of emails and missed key and important points in them. Sometimes I’ve read through things with action items and proceeded to forget all about those items. Sometimes I’ve had a conversation with someone and as soon as I hang up the phone or walk away from the table, I’ve left whatever meaningful pieces were to go with me right there on the table or hanging on the telephone line.

Now, this isn’t an every day, all the time thing. It’s happened enough for me to see it as unacceptable. I haven’t found myself in trouble because of my lack of attentiveness to things, but I don’t ever want that to be the case. As I’ve assessed the situation, I’ve realized my own need to be mentally present wherever I am. If I am reading an email, be present. If I am on the phone, be present. If I am talking over a meal, be present.

During my sabbatical, I went through some training to become a Strengths Communicator. If you aren’t familiar with StrengthsFinders, I would highly recommend checking it out. It has been a very helpful tool for me and for others to find out the areas in which strengths lie so as to focus energy on those areas. Like any assessment, it’s not foolproof or perfect, but I have seen its impact on many people, not the least of whom is myself.

One of the principles that we talked about during my training had to do with listening. The instructor said a good acronym to remember is “W.A.I.T.” which stands for “Why Am I Talking?” It’s hard to say just how many times that has popped into my head since the first time I heard it nearly two months ago. Over and over again, as I find myself in conversations, the urge within me is to start talking, to fix a problem, to fill the space, but sometimes, that space doesn’t need to be filled, sometimes that problem doesn’t need to be fixed, at least at that moment. Sometimes, all someone really wants you to do is listen.

It’s too easy for me to be in the midst of a conversation and be thinking about what’s next. I can too easily find myself planning out the rest of my day and slowly tuning out the person sitting across from me. But the act of listening is not just about physical presence, it’s about mental awareness and intuitiveness as well. Listening is an act of the ears and act of the brain, we need to process what we hear, which is virtually impossible when we’re moving on to other things in our minds.

I’m a talker too. One of my strengths is communication and part of the way that I process information is by communicating. But I am finding that there are other ways to communicate than simply speaking. I’ve kept a handwritten journal during my sabbatical and have filled nearly the entire thing in those three months that I was away. It’s proving a training ground for me, a mental gym, if you will, where I can practice my thinking and communicating without having to burden anyone else.

I’m not there, I haven’t arrived, this is still an area of growth for me, but I’m conscious of it and I’m working on it. I need to do a better job of listening, to my friends, to my wife, to my children, to the people in my church, to all of those with whom I connect. I’m a work in progress, but I’m grateful for this insight to set my eyes on and move forward.

Open Your Eyes

I sat on my couch, hearing the ticking of the clock behind me and trying to focus. Even in the quiet of the morning with nothing but that ticking clock to distract me, I can still somehow find ways to lose my focus.

As my eyes opened and closed, I wondered to myself, who said that the proper stance for prayer was head bowed and eyes closed? I get it, but it’s a hard thing for me to do. So, after assuming the position multiple times, I finally gave in and left my eyes open.

I turned my body to face the back of my house and the windows that looked out onto the screened porch. Beyond the porch was the horizon and I could see the sun rising in the distance. As its warm glow slowly made its way into the morning sky, I wondered how many times I had actually seen it there.

Of course, I know that every day the sun rises and the sun sets whether or not I notice it, but I wondered whether or not I had actually realized that I had the view that I had. How had I missed it? What was I doing that kept me so distracted from seeing this event unfold before my eyes?

It seems a constant theme in our world, the need to slow down and smell the roses. We can easily fall into the trap of stepping into time with the rest of our culture and becoming overwhelmed with busyness. We find ourselves running in the rat race that we didn’t even realize we had entered. We wonder how we got there when we had told ourselves that we wouldn’t fall victim to the trap, we wouldn’t get suckered in.

How many times have I said that I wouldn’t only to find that I really would?

Slow down.

Take a breath.

Breathe easy.

As I watched through the trees to see that glowing orb light up the morning sky, it was a gentle reminder to me that my eyes need to constantly be opened. If a tree falls in the woods and no one is there, it still falls. If a sun rises with beauty and grace and no one notices, it still happens.

Chances are, when I wake up tomorrow morning that I will miss this sunrise again. I will go through my day and pass by a thousand little things that will astound me should I notice them. But what things will I notice? What things will call my attention and steal my focus?

I’m watching. I’m listening. Lord, let me be attentive.

Wake Up

Sometimes when you’re sleeping, it takes a lot to wake you up. Sometimes it doesn’t take much at all. How about when you are sleepwalking through life? Maybe not even sleepwalking, maybe it’s just a matter of going through the motions and not really considering what you’re doing, not asking the hard questions to make sure that you’re moving in the right direction, not paying attention to warning signs that might be going off.

I drove a Toyota and if I don’t or the passenger doesn’t buckle the seatbelt, a very annoying beeping begins. Since I mostly abide by seatbelt laws, it doesn’t happen very often. But occasionally, if I am in a hurry, I don’t buckle and it doesn’t take much time before that beeping commences. Sometimes I will suffer through it Sometimes I will buckle up. Other times I will simply turn up the music louder to drown out the annoying beeping that’s began grating on my nerves the moment it began.

If we take a look around, there are warning signs all over in life, they tell us to pay attention, to stop, to check things out. Sometimes we choose to pay attention and heed the warnings, other times, we choose to ignore them. Just because we choose to ignore the warning signs doesn’t mean that they aren’t there. Just because we choose to ignore the warning signs doesn’t mean the problem goes away. In fact, it usually gets worse.

I’ve been operating at an unsustainable pace for the last four years. I knew it. Others knew it. There were warning signs going off. When my mom was diagnosed with cancer. When we found out we were having a third child. When I was finishing seminary. When my mom died. When my dad got sicker. When my church went through a major transition. When I changed denominations. There were warning signs going off. I knew that they were there, but I think I just turned the music up to drown out the annoying beeping that I was hearing in my ears.

I finally got around to scheduling a physical. They didn’t like an abnormal EKG which sent me to the cardiologist where another abnormal EKG was found. A stress test was run which led to the scheduling of a heart catheterization, all the while my anxiety and stress levels rising and rising, the warning signs raging in the background. Finally, after 41 years, I finally spent the night in the hospital. Tests were run. Results were found. Medicines were given. Changes needed to be made.

Warning signs will make themselves known, whether we heed them early or not. If we decide not to heed them, they will just get louder and louder and usually take the shape and form of something far more serious. We can ignore them for so long before they force us to pay attention. If we ignore them, we can only hope that by the time they force themselves to be heard that the damage is no irreparable.

It’s nice to be loved. I have enough friends around me who hear this news and embrace me, not in a “it’s going to be all right, I’m praying for you” kind of way but in a “get off your @$$ and get moving and get healthy with me” kind of way. Friends are offering to start exercising with me, walking, running, whatever it takes. It’s nice to be loved.

I’ve learned a lot over the past few years. A lot of what I have learned has to do with advocacy, for myself and for others. Generally speaking, you’re going to have to advocate for yourself and the ones that you love, you’re not going to get a whole lot of help and support from certain places. That’s why warning signs are so important, you might be the only one who hears them for yourself. Even if other people do see them or hear them in you, they’re not always likely to address them. When it comes down to it, we can all get pretty selfish and when we’re getting what we want, we might not address warning signs in other people because it will impact what we have to do and whether we get what we want.

So, I’m heeding the warning signs and it didn’t even take me until January 1st to adopt some kind of a resolution. I’m sure that I’ll be blogging on my progress, after all, this is where I go for my confessions!

Warning Signs

warning signsI’ve never liked sirens. For as long as I can remember, the sound of a siren sends shivers down my spine and sends me running for cover. I remember times as a child when I would be playing in the neighborhood and I would hear a siren. I would run home crying to my mom. For whatever reason, the sound of the siren would get my ever active brain moving into high gear, thinking about the reason for the siren, who might be hurt or injured, what might have happened.

41 years into this thing called life, it doesn’t evoke the same response that it once did, but I’m still not a fan of sirens. That same feeling that I used to get as a kid when I would hear sirens in the distance still creeps up my spine when I hear sirens to this day.

The other day, after the school bus had come for my children, I was taking a walk in our neighborhood. Even with headphones on, I heard sirens in the distance (I guess that’s reassurance that my music wasn’t too loud). I nearly stopped in my tracks as I thought about what was wrong. Who was hurt? Was everything okay with my kids? I learned a long time ago to pray when I heard sirens, so that’s what I did. Then I went on my way and continued my walk, eventually arriving home and realizing that things were okay there.

The thing about sirens is that they are kind of like warning signs. When you hear them, you instantly know that something is not right in the world. The world of the 1950s is behind us, fire engines aren’t generally sent out into neighborhoods to retrieve cats and kittens from trees, at least I don’t think that they are. When there is a siren in the distance, it is generally an indication that there is an emergency somewhere. Something is wrong and the responders are doing what they do best: responding to it.

I wonder how many times in our lives we hear or see warning signs and we look the other way. We know that they’re there for a reason, yet we still turn our backs on them and look the other way. Maybe we think that the situation will fix itself. Maybe we think that the situation is not as grave as it really is. Maybe we just don’t want to be bothered or inconvenienced by a potential emergency in our lives.

Regardless of why we might avoid or ignore warning signs, the end result will never be anything beneficial. Eventually, those warning signs will creep up again and it we have done nothing to address the warning that was signaled to us in the first place, the chances are pretty good that the situation that was once grave will be downright catastrophic by the time we finally respond.

I will fully admit that there are some times when warning signs will pop up and they seem to sound the alarm to make it seem like things are worse than they really are. For instance, the “Check Engine” light in your car might come on just because you didn’t screw your gas cap on tightly enough. There are other cases when warning signs come off as false indicators, causing alarm when they really shouldn’t be going off at all. But let’s face it, these situations are not as common as we might think or as we might convince ourselves that they are.

As I get older, I’m doing my best to look for and listen to the warning signs that go off around me. Sometimes, I might get alarmed myself by them, escalating what the real problem is in my mind before I even have a real analysis. But if I am heeding those warning signs and following up with them, the chances are slim that whatever they are warning me about will get worse by addressing it as soon as the warning signs go off.

The end results of listening to those warning signs may be scary. They may cause us to address things that make us uncomfortable. They may lead to changes that we don’t want to face or even have to address. But what’s the alternative? What will happen if we leave those warning signs unaddressed? That’s just a chance that I’m not sure I’m willing to take.

 

There’s Just Something About It

baby listeningListen……I get we’re in the digital age. Everything comes in a hard copy form or in a digital form. Sometimes you can buy one and get the other for free. When you have limited space, the digital form is really beneficial. But, hey, there’s just something about going to the store to buy a brand new book or a brand new CD. If you’re a real purist, you can’t wait to open up the latest 180 gram LP. There’s something about the real thing that you just don’t get from digital.

I’ve been a Coldplay fan since well before Mylo Xyloto, going back to the days of Parachutes and A Rush of Blood to the Head. I was excited to get Ghost Stories when it came out this week and I contemplated going digital with this one. After all, I had just done a major purge (which means getting rid of anything, for me) of my music collection and am always looking at ways that I can keep from bringing the clutter back into the house.

But, alas, Target had a special release with 3 extra songs which always seems to grab the fans, at least it grabs me. So, it was off to Target that I went to pick up Ghost Stories. After standing in line, I walked quickly to my car. I should tell you that I have become an expert at opening CDs, Blu Rays, and DVDs. It’s become its own art form to me, slicing through the plastic wrap, negotiating the sticky label off without leaving its traces remaining on the case. I quickly unwrapped it and pulled the CD from its clear case. The CD player stood there before me, awaiting the silver goodness that I was ready to put in its mouth. It almost anticipated the beats and rhythms that it would soon be spewing out once I fed it.

Anticipation. What will it sound like? Will I like it? Will it meet my expectations? How will they start? How will they end? What will be in between? These questions and many more are the questions that run through my mind as I spend these seconds which seem like an eternity anticipating what will come out once I have fed the monster.

Sure, I could have bought the digital download and put it on my MP3 player, blasted it equally as loud in my car, and enjoyed every minute of it, but it just wouldn’t be the same. There’s something about opening up the CD and pulling out the CD insert for the first time. It has that smell, not quite like a new car, but almost like a new book. You turn the pages, you read the notes and words, and the smell creates for you an experience. Music should be more than listened to…..it should be experienced.

So I listen, I ingest, I process. I put aside my preconceived notions of what I would hear and do my best to listen with an open mind, to listen with an open spirit. As I listen, I like some of what I hear and dislike some of it as well. But after I listen, I listen some more. The CD spins around and around as the monster in my dashboard continues to spew out beats, rhythms, and melodies. One listen……two listens……three listens…..and it’s happening, it’s beginning to grow on me. All of the things that I expected and didn’t find are replaced by the newness of what is and what’s playing all around me.

Yes, music needs to be experienced, and though I’m doing it less often than I did before, part of that experience is the purchase of a CD or an LP. If you haven’t tried it in a while, you might want to give it a whirl. Choose wisely though, one false step or disappointment could not only ruin this experience but any future experiences that you might consider as well.

Happy listening!

Lady In Satin

lady in satin holidayGone are the days when people sit down and listen to an album from beginning to end.  Of course, gone are the days when most people refer to albums, at least in popular culture.  We have become an iTunes culture where we are satisfied to buy one song at a time, rarely listening to complete albums.  I would venture to guess that few popular artists go through the same thought process in putting together music that artists once did.

The other day, I was browsing the cheap CDs at Barnes and Noble.  It’s a new year, but I am always seeking out new music and new stories.  To be honest, I’m not sure why the CDs that are there are there, they would hardly be categorized as “cheap” CDs.  This isn’t so much because of price but because of quality.  Artists such as James Taylor, Aretha Franklin, Harry Nilsson, and others can be found in this section.  It was my good fortune to find an album by Billie Holiday there called “Lady In Satin.”

Columbia Records was a powerhouse back in the day and much thought was given to the liner notes on albums.  Over the years, as albums have been re-released, Columbia has reproduced the original liner notes from albums.  This album was one who had new liner notes on the back of the CD for the reissue.  I read them and was intrigued, leading me to pull out my smartphone and do a search for some reviews.

“Lady In Satin” was recorded about 17 months before Billie Holiday would finally succumb to the hard life she lived, at the young age of 44.  Her life of addiction and abuse had caught up to her but she wasn’t going out without a fight.  She had desperately wanted to make this album with Ray Ellis and his orchestra.  For what can retrospectively be called a “swan song,” this album is eerily close to what Holiday might have actually chosen had she known what the not too distant future would hold.  Maybe she was prophetic in some strange sense.

The album may be painful for some Billie Holiday fans to listen to, her voice is a far cry from what it had been 20 years before and in the prime of her career.  Going back and listening to an album like “Lady Sings the Blues” is a stark contrast from the listening experience of “Lady In Satin.”  This album shows a weary and worn Holiday.  She struggles to sustain notes and present them as melodically as she once did.  The years of heroin, alcohol, and other abuses are more than evident in her ragged voice.

The re-release gives a clearer picture to what was happening during the recording.  The track entitled “The End Of A Love Affair: The Audio Story” has Holiday struggling to hear the band, struggling to learn the tune and melody, and just sounding downright rundown.

Others have written about this album and I read snippets here and there before I decided to dive right in and give it a listen myself.  While there are plenty of other highlights that people mention, to me, the most haunting piece is a song called “For All We Know.”  Listening to it is enough to cause a person to weep as they think about the words and just what was in store for Holiday in a little more than a year.

I am always drawn to stories like this.  They fascinate me.  This plays out like a car wreck where you can’t look away but there is horror in observing.  I almost feel like a voyeur, catching an intimate glimpse of real “soul music” sung by someone who has experienced tragedy, heartache, and who has the scars and addictions to prove it.

“Lady In Satin” isn’t for those who like to download the latest Miley Cyrus or Lady Gaga song, it’s an album that takes commitment to listen, I mean really listen, beginning to end.  It tells a story, the story of a life that was cut short, the story of a life that took a turn for the worse.  There is a strange beauty that is seen in this last glimpse of Holiday and it’s a glimpse that’s worth looking at.  The look might not last long and you might not even want to look often, but when you do, there will be poignancy in that look.

Are You Listening?

woman listening to gossipRecently, I preached a sermon on Deuteronomy 6:4-9, a passage that has come to be known as “The Shema” by Jewish people (there are additional verses that add to these to make up the total Shema).  The word “shema” is Hebrew for “hear” or “listen.”  Listening is not something that I always do well.  But I’m not alone.

It seems that most of us, when we listen, are distracted or forgetful 75% of the time we should have been listening.  Human beings listen at a rate of about 125-130 words per minute and think at about 1000-3000 words per minute.  After “listening” to someone, we only recall about 50% of what they said to us.  We, as a society and human beings in general, are distracted.  We are bombarded with information.

Depending on the sport, I am a big fan.  It’s mostly baseball, but if a New England team is playing on a TV close by, my eyes will wander to check in on scores.  It can be detrimental for dates with my wife if there are TV’s close by, especially during the World Series when the Red Sox are playing.  She’s important to me, but that could easily be questioned with my distractions with sports TV.  That’s not a good thing.  I shouldn’t be so distracted.

So, how much do we listen?  How much do we pay attention?  When we’re “listening” to someone else, are we really thinking about other things?  Are we catching even 50% of what the person speaking is telling us?

Over time, I’m not sure if I have gotten better at this or not.  I was in a one on one meeting with someone recently and I took notes so that I was sure to capture everything that was said.  It was too important for me to miss anything.  If that’s what needs to happen, it might seem strange at first, but I would be surprised if someone objected to note-taking if they know that it results in them being heard more effectively and efficiently.

How do we eliminate distractions?  One at a time.  It’s better for me to be seated away from TV’s in a restaurant if I want to give my wife the 100% attention that she deserves.  If that’s what I need to do, she is more than worth the sacrifice.  In order to eliminate distractions, we need to be aware of what they are, identify them.  If we don’t know what they are, how are we supposed to eliminate them.

I know how frustrating it is when I speak with someone and I feel that they are distracted or disengaged.  I just need to remember that feeling when someone else is talking with me.  I can’t be distracted from listening to others and think that they will actually pay attention to me when it’s their turn to listen.

Information is coming at us in waves all through our days, I don’t think it’s ever going to slow down.  But, we have the opportunity to slow it down ourselves.  We can eliminate distractions and honor the voices that are most important to us.  This is a lesson that I am learning one day at a time, one step at a time.