That Middle Section

IMG_4111 - CopyI’m getting ready to visit my sister. She lives in the south, her house cradled by mountains. A lovely place to write my next blog, except…

“Don’t forget we have no internet,” she reminded me on the phone last week.

“Oh. Wow. Okay, I’ll use my phone, I guess.”winter mountains

“No cell service either. Sorry.”

“You mean I’ll have to use data, right?”

“Nope,” she said. “I mean no cell service. No data, no internet, no phone. And, by the way, we got rid of our land line. Too expensive.”

Had my sister moved to Mars?

“You’ve got to be kidding,” I said. “Wait, aren’t you talking to me on your cell phone now? From home?”

“It’s a cloudy day, so if I sit on my front porch before the trees leaf out, sometimes I have one bar.”

“Must be why this connection is so terrible. It sounds like there’s a hurricane at your end.”

“That’s not the connection,” she said. “The wind is blowing like crazy.”

I squinted into the phone. “And what’s that clicking noise?”

“Freezing rain pinging off my phone. Or it could be my teeth chattering.”

I imagined myself huddled on her front porch, bundled to the hilt, crouched over my phone and trying to type my blog with thick gloves.

Um…no.

I could write my blog ahead of time and schedule it to post next Monday, but I’d still need to check email and call my husband while I was visiting.

“Is there anywhere I can get on the internet?” I asked her.

“Well, sure, we’re not hicks in the sticks, you know. You can go into town.”

I bit my lip, remembering the last time I went “into town.” Driving my pickup along a dinky, icy one-lane road cut into a mountain. Oh, and with no guard rails.

Let me tell you—if you’re not a firm believer in prayer, don’t take that road. The beginning and end aren’t a problem, but that middle section is a different story. And, trust me on this, you don’t even want to start that drive without praying—big time.

Imagine meandering on a thin, blacktopped road. As you drive, you notice that, on onewest virginia road side, the mountain begins shooting straight up. And on the other side—you guessed it—the mountain drops down. Way, way down.

This, by the way, is a two-way road. Which means, while you’re navigating that middle section, you may encounter a vehicle coming the other way. And since we’re south of the Mason-Dixon line, way out in the country, no siree, that vehicle won’t be a Prius or a Kia.

 Everyone here drives pickup trucks. Big ones. With lift kits.

Of course, who am I to talk? I drive a pickup truck too. I live in Michigan—enough said.

So, what happens when two vehicles going in opposite directions meet in that middle section of the road?

Well, someone has to back up.

Along that middle section, the county provided a few outcrops on each side. Very few, since building a turnout spot with a steep mountain wall on one side and a steep mountain cliff on the other isn’t all that easy. And by outcrop, I don’t mean a ten-foot paved section. No, no, no—this is a four-foot-wide space just long enough for a vehicle to squeeze into. And the outcrops on the cliff side? You got it. No guard rails.

Here’s the rule. The driver heading out of town has the right-of-way. That’s because he has the cliff on his right while the driver heading into town has the mountain wall on his right. If the incoming driver encounters another vehicle, he must back up until he finds an outcrop and maneuver his vehicle snugly against the mountain, allowing enough IMG_4292room for the other vehicle to squeak by, often with its wheels on the edge of the road.

And, since both of those scenarios scare the pants off me, I’d pray like crazy that I won’t meet another vehicle. And my big God would answer with a resounding “Yes!” and I’d travel that road without seeing another vehicle.

Except for that one time…

On the way home from town, I turned onto that road. I thought I’d prayed, but I was babbling away with my sister. Maybe I forgot.

Anyway, in that middle section, I came face-to-face with an oncoming vehicle, who stopped about thirty feet away.

I braked and gawked at my sister. “Oh, no! What do I do?”

“He’ll back up,” she said in a calm voice. Nothing fazes my sister—ever.

I gave my horn a gentle tap, but still he idled without moving.

Oh-oh. He didn’t know the rule.

I turned to my sister. “Now what?”

I had always wondered why, if the incoming driver pulls off the road to allow the outgoing driver to pass, the county had bothered to put outcrops on the cliff side of the road. And I found out why—for the people who don’t know the rule.

I beeped my horn again, this time not so politely. “Come on, Dorkball. Back up!”

“That’s not very nice. He’s probably not from around here,” my sister said. Not only does nothing faze her, but she never says anything bad about anyone.

She pointed to an outcrop twenty feet ahead, on my side of the road. “Pull in there.”

“But, but…”

I might have forgotten to pray before, but I definitely did not forget now. “Help, Lord, oh my gosh, don’t let us die.”

With my vehicle crawling along at one mile-per-hour, I eased into the outcrop while my sister hung her head out the passenger-side window and directed me.

“I’m too close—we’re going to go over!” I yelled, terrified.

“You have plenty of room, like five inches.”

I braked and sat shaking while the other vehicle passed. When I finally pulled back onto the road, I took a quavering breath. “I don’t think I’ve ever been so afraid.”

“Think of this way—it’s good for your faith to face scary stuff once in a while.”

I scowled at her. But later, when I thought about it, I decided that maybe she caution signhad a point.

True, God had strengthened my trust in him every time he got me through that road without meeting another driver. But life isn’t always a clear road, even for Christians. Sometimes, we’re going to meet oncoming vehicles in a middle section, driven by people who don’t know the rules. And when our big God sees us through those cliff-hovering experiences, we learn to rely more and more on him.

And build our confidence solely in him.

Though an army besiege me, my heart will not fear; though war break out against me, even then I will be confident. (Psalm 27:3 NIV)

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Boyfriend Bags

“What’s in all these black trash bags?” my husband asked.

We were spending the first Saturday of 2018 cleaning out the storage room in our basement, which, I’m sad to say, looked more like a dump with a skinny path winding through the debris.IMG_4276

I left the tub I was sorting through and peered into one of the bags.

Stuffed animals, photographs, cards, clothes, letters, jewelry…

“It’s a boyfriend bag,” I told him.

My husband looked around him. “All of them?”

“Yep, all of them.”

We’d witnessed the advent of the boyfriend bag when my daughter broke up with her first steady beau at the age of seventeen. After hours of a bawling meltdown, she marched past me, sniffling and muttering under her breath.

“Where are you going?” I asked her.

“To the garage.”

crying dollA few minutes later, she clomped back with a fifty-five gallon black trash bag, went into her bedroom, and slammed the door. From inside, I heard renewed wailing, more talking to herself, and a lot of banging. A half hour later, she emerged with a bulging trash bag, dragged it down the basement stairs, and hauled it into the storage room.

While she was in the basement, I peeked into her room.

Wow. Purged from any sign of boyfriend number one.

Throughout my daughter’s high school and college years, the same pattern occurred again and again: boyfriend breakup, abandoned bawling, toting of the trash bag into her room, the purge, and finally, lugging of the boyfriend bag to its final resting spot—our storage room.

While my husband watched, I stooped down and began digging through the bag, feeling a little funny about invading my daughter’s privacy. “Wow, she was really mad at this one,” I said as I lifted a handful of ripped photographs.

“Should we just throw the bags away?”

“Let me call her and ask.”

“I don’t want them,” my daughter said when I had her on the phone. “Throw them away.”IMG_4274

“But shouldn’t you look through them first?”

“No. Pitch them all.”

I hung up the phone, frowned at the bags, and made a mom decision.

“What are you doing?” my husband asked as I schlepped boyfriend bags out of the storage room and lined them by the couch.

“She needs to sort through these. Trust me.”

A few weeks later, when my daughter visited, I took her downstairs. “Hey, I want you to go through these boyfriend bags.”

“Mom, I said I don’t want them. That’s all in the past, and I’m really happy with Ken now.

“Just make sure there’s nothing you want and see what we can give to Salvation Army, okay?”

My daughter sighed. “Fine.”

I opened the first bag. “Let’s start with this one. It’s the hardest.”

She sat down on the floor and reached into the bag from boyfriend number one, her first love, who was killed in a motorcycle accident during college. From there, we went through the other bags, laughing at silly letters, talking, rolling our eyes at memories. During our perusal, she found a ring and a picture frame that she had accidentally thrown into a bag, and she put some cute stuffed animals and clothes into the donation pile.

And, while she went through those bags, I saw her close those chapters of her young life not only with acceptance, forgiveness, and the relinquishing of resentments, but also with the understanding that those segments were part of the woman she is now.

When she got up and nodded at me, at peace with her past, I closed the boyfriend bags. It was time to throw them away and look toward the future.

Most of us don’t have physical boyfriend bags in our storage room. But maybe we have a friend bag, family bag, even a God bag, stashed away in the depth of our souls. We twist tie that painful memory, along with resentment, anger, hurt, and unforgiveness. We never want to see that bag again, but yet, we don’t throw it away, either. Instead, we store it where it will lay molding and festering in a dark place

Until we go through that bag with God.

The Bible tells us, “And we know that for those who love God all things work together for good, for those who are called according to his purpose.” (Romans 8:28 ESV)

Our big God promises us that he will use the experiences in that painful bag for good. But first, we need to reopen any stashed-away bags, with Godblack trash bags alongside us. God wants to sort through them with us and use the good stuff to further his kingdom. He wants to help us face those unresolved issues of unforgiveness, hurt, and anger—to give them all to him, so that we can heal and move forward in our walk with him. Then, imbued with his peace, we will be confident that God has gleaned what we need from that bag to become stronger Christians and continue along his path.

Finally, we can put the twist tie on that boyfriend bag, thank our heavenly Father for his blessings and provision, and haul it to the trash.

We won’t need it anymore.

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Hello, Wall—Part III

IMG_4258In our drive-through, text-preferential, phone-gawking, multi-tasking world, we have forgotten how to listen. And one of my goals in 2018? To become a better listener, using the acronym EAR.

In my previous blogs, we covered the “E” and “A.”

  • “E” stands for enquire. After I listen to someone who is speaking, I will ask or comment about at least three things he said, and none of those enquiries start with “I.” This is not a time to focus on me.
  • “A” stands for attention. When someone is speaking, we need to give him our undivided focus. Not only does this means no eye darting, watch peeking, interjecting, or mind wandering, it also entails learning to be a good listener despite inevitable interruptions.

This week, we’ll look at the “R,” which stands for refrain.

Once again, we’ll usher in Amy, who has spent the last two blogs trying to tell me about EAR diagramthe bad day she had. Today, I put my new “E” and “A” listening skills into practice. While Amy is speaking, I pay attention, even through interruptions. And, because I’ve focused on what she is saying, I ask her several questions about her bad day.

However, while she’s answering my questions, I realize that her bad day is the result of an ongoing problem at work. Goody-goody—I can hardly wait till Amy finishes! When she’s finally done, I rub my hands together and spring myself on her with,  “Okay, listen, here’s what you need to do…” Off I go, giving her precise directions with the constant assurance that, “This will work, trust me.”

scared personInstead of putting Amy at ease, however, she’s starting to panic. She has come to me with a story about her bad day, and, with the force of a steam roller, I’ve backed her into a corner. What if Amy doesn’t want to do what I’m saying, or she doesn’t agree with me? She cringes, knowing that I’ll probably check up on her to find out whether she followed my advice, and she’s worried that she’ll hurt my feelings or make me angry if she doesn’t. Not only that, but my plan sounds like a lot of work, and may even put her in an uncomfortable position. Now she’s sorry she ever said anything to me. And when I finish fixing her all up, she’s confused-2681507_960_720outa there.

What did I do wrong?

Here’s something amazing that I realized as I listened and had others listen to me—most people, especially women, don’t want a listener to fix their problem.

Nope. They don’t.

They just want someone to listen—really listen—and to commiserate and care.

Ladies, do I hear an “Amen”?

People need to talk about their problems, fears, and worries. Sometimes, they need to pour out their frustrations or cry on someone’s shoulder. Unless we’re specifically asked to help fix a problem, refrain from pulling out that proverbial hammer or dazzling them with our wise-sage advice.

So what should I have done instead in Amy’s case?

  1. Listened with a quiet mouth and attentive heart until she finished with praying togethereverything she wanted to say.
  2. Prayed with her—right then and there. If the setting or circumstance didn’t allow me to pray, I should have told her that I’d pray for her at home, and then do it!
  3. Offered to help in any way I could and to listen any time she needs to talk.
  4. Called, texted, or emailed her in a few days to see how she is and to assure her that I’m praying.

On occasion, God will bring a person to us, because we have the solution to their problem. Sometimes it’s obvious that we need to impart some advice—maybe a friend is overwhelmed, because she has to find a memory care facility for her mother, and my family just went through the same experience and knows some good places with excellent care. In this situation, I said, “We just found a great memory care for my mom. Would it be helpful if I gave you some recommendations?” We need to pray for wisdom and discernment, so we’ll know when to refrain and when to explain.

When we become good listeners, we are glorifying our big God. And if we want to be more like Jesus, we need to demonstrate God’s love by taking the time to be caring, compassionate listeners.

Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (Jeremiah 29:12, NIV)

The eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are attentive to their cry. (Psalm 34:15, NIV)

I’d love to hear your comments and stories about experiences you’ve had as a listener or a listenee. Just click on “comments” under my name and type away!

May God bless you with ears to truly hear.

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Hello, Wall—Part II

Listening.listening

It’s a lost art. And because we are no longer good listeners, people today feel more alone, ignored, insignificant, and isolated than ever before. So I resolved to start out 2018 by improving my own listening skills, using the acronym EAR.

Last week, we looked at “E”, which stands for enquire. After I listen to someone who is speaking, I will ask or comment about at least three things he said, and none of those enquiries start with “I.”

This week, we’re concentrating on “A,”—attention.

When someone is speaking, we need to give him our undivided focus. This means no eye darting, watch peeking, interjecting, or mind wandering. Paying attention goes hand-in-hand with enquiry—if we aren’t concentrating on what the speaker is saying, we will not be able to enquire.

cell phoneBut today we have to contend with an even bigger challenge—interruptions. We grasp cell phones in our hands while the world buzzes around us at a million miles an hour—a world that expects us to be at its immediate beck and call. How can we be good listeners despite inevitable interruptions?

To show an example how interruptions can cause us to be poor listeners, let me reintroduce Amy. If you remember from the last blog, Amy is telling me about the bad day she had. Since I now know about the “E”, I’m planning to  enquire about at least three things she says when she finishes. Therefore, I am paying attention. A minute into the conversation, however, my message notification sounds.

Of course, if we turn off our phones , we can avoid one less distraction. But let’s be realistic. I’m a mom, and since I’ve received two calls from my daughter telling me that she has been in a car accident, and one from my son, who is about to get staples in his forehead, that phone will never, ever be turned off.

So I peek at my phone, and, Thank you, Jesus, it’s a weather alert telling me to expect yet another Michigan day with accumulating snow and a teeth-rattling wind chill. I turn back to Amy, but now I’m not real sure what she’s talking about since I missed some of the conversation. I’m just starting to put the missing pieces together when my phone rings. I glance at the screen and see that it’s Walmart. I’ve been waiting to hear from them, so I dither in indecision for a moment and finally decide I should take the call. When look back up at Amy, I realize she’s still talking, and now I’m totally lost. So I interrupt Amy and tell her I have to take the call.

At this point, two things could happen:

  1. Amy could throw up her hands in frustration and walk away while I’m on the phone. Can you blame her?
  2. Amy has the patience of a saint and waits until I’m finished. After I hang up, however, I look at Amy. “Sorry, but I’ve been waiting for that coffee maker to arrive at the store. Ours broke a few days ago, and we’ve only had it for a year!”

Amy nods in commisseration. “Nothing lasts anymore.”

“Tell me about it…” and off I go on a tangent, Amy’s plight forgotten. When we finally part, it later dawns on me that I never did find out about Amy’s bad day. And even if we had gotten back on track, there was no way in heaven that I could enquire, since I had  lost the thread of the conversation during all the interruptions.

Oops

Hello, wall.mount everest

So, what’s the solution? Since I can’t haul everyone who wants to speak to me up to the peak of Mount Everest, I’ll face interruptions when I’m trying to be a good listener. How do I focus when my phone, other people, and circumstances around me are also vying for my attention?

Let’s replay the Amy conversation with a stress on the “A.”

When Amy begins speaking, I’m attentive—the model of an astute listener. Then my message notification sounds. I wait until Amy ends a sentence and then touch her arm.

“I’m so sorry,” I tell her. “Would you mind if I checked this text to make sure it’s not a problem with one of the kids?”

Amy will, of course, say, “Absolutely, go ahead and check.” She has kids too.

I check the text and then turn back to Amy. “Thanks. You were saying?..”

I haven’t missed any of the conversation, and I assure Amy that her bad day is important to me.

Amy continues, and now my phone rings. Although I’m embarrassed, I once again ask Amy to hold her thoughts while I check the call. It’s from Walmart and I need to speak to them. I answer the phone and ask the Walmart representative to hang on for a second.

“I am so sorry,” I say to Amy. “I really want to hear what you’re saying, but I need to take this call. I’ll only be a minute. Can you wait?”

Amy may feel frustrated, but she’s reassured that I want to listen, especially because I asked the Walmart rep to hold. I take the call, and when I’m finished, I look at Amy. “Sorry again. Keep going, please.”

Amy finishes her story, and, since I’ve paid attention and heard every word, I can now enquire.

This conversation, however, takes place when both Amy and I have time to talk. Sometimes, despite our best intentions of being a good listener, an important interruption will necessitate that we end the conversation before the speaker finishes. Maybe the interruption is a phone from a family member with a problem, a child who is crying, or a dental appointment in half an hour. When I find myself in these situations, I politely interrupt the speaker, apologize, assure her that I care about what she is saying, and then ask if I can call her later to finish our discussion. I set a reminder on my phone, so that I don’t forget, and I contact her when I have time to listen.

God focusesAs humans, we must not allow interruptions to cause us to stop paying attention when someone is speaking to us. James 1:19 reminds us, “My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak…” (NIV)

I’m so thankful for our big God’s promise that there will never be an interruption at his end. He focuses his attentive ear on his people’s prayers without a shadow of turning. “…if anyone is a worshiper of God and does his will, God listens to him.” (John 9:31, ESV)

My prayer is that we will all demonstrate the love of God by becoming sincere listeners.

Next week, we’ll conclude the series with “R.” See you then.

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Hello, Wall—Part I

The most common complaint I hear from women is, “No one listens to me.”

I suspect, however, that men often feel this way, too.

The reason?

We are no longer very good listeners.

Several years ago, after a church service, I saw a friend in the lobby.

“Hey, Sue,” she said with a smile. “How are you?”

“Well,” I answered. “I could be better” and I proceeded to tell her about a problem I was facing. After a minute, she started shifting from foot to foot while her eyes darted around the lobby.  When she began emitting distracted “ohs” and “uh-huhs,” I concluded that I might as well be talking to the wall. I took the hint, wrapped it up, and said good-bye.

Unfortunately, this scenario has happened again and again whenever I don’t give one of the acceptable responses that people today expect:

  1. I’m good. (Which we say whether we are or not.)
  2. Busy.
  3. Livin’ the dream.

If we venture from the script, more often than not we lose our listener within minutes. And if we are fortunate enough to hold our audience captive, instead of responding to our busysituation, the listener often starts talking about himself.

Sure, we can blame our poor listening skills on cell phones, computers, too much to do, too little time, too many demands…and we’d probably be correct. Thanks to technology and our busy lifestyles, we are easily distracted, impatient, and have our minds focused on fifteen other things we need to do. Who has time to listen?

sadThe result? People feel more alone, ignored, inferior, insignificant, and isolated than ever before. Henry David Thoreau would be astounded to witness all the people today who, “…lead lives of quiet desperation.”

I try to be a good listener, and I’m aided by the simple fact that I’ve always been more on the shy side. When I’m with people that I don’t know well, I prefer to let them do the talking. And because I’m quiet, I often find people jabbering away about themselves with periodic interjections of, “I don’t know why I’m telling you all this.” But I know why. People today are so hungry for a true listening ear that, once they find one, their problems, worries, fears, and stories tumble out.

In the last year and a half, however, my life has become far busier. And my listening skills have tanked. Big time. So I resolved to start out 2018 by getting back to being a listener instead of an interrupting, eye-darting, watch-peeking, foot-shifting wall.

I’d like to share three ways that I’ve learned to become a better listener—based upon the acronym EAR.

Today we’ll start with “E,”—Enquire.

Let’s say my friend Amy begins telling me about the bad day she had. While Amy is well Ispeaking, I may be tempted to start thinking about a terrible day that I experienced. If I don’t resist that temptation, I’ll become so impatient to tell her how much worse my bad day was than her bad day that I pay little attention to what she is saying. Then, as soon as she draws breath, I interrupt Amy with, “Well, I…” And off I go about myself.

I am a wall, and poor Amy is left feeling belittled, embarrassed, and unvalued.

Now, using the “E.” After Amy tells me about her bad day, I enquire—I ask or comment about at least three things she said, and none of those enquiries start with “I.” This is not the time to comment about myself, my experiences, or to one-up her. And because I know that I’ll be enquiring about what she is saying, I  become listening 4an astute listener. When Amy responds to my enquiries, I then make more enquiries about her answers. Eventually, relating a similar experience of my own can be helpful, but I concentrate on Amy first.

By enquiring about what Amy tells me, I am letting her know that she is important and that I care about what she is saying.

We need to be better listeners. True, a poor listener leaves the speaker feeling humiliated and invisible. But even worse, poor listeners may cause people, even Christians, to become listening 3hesitant to pour out their hearts to God in prayer. They begin to believe that hearing their petitions is a bother and a chore for God; that he is too big to listen and that their small prayers are unimportant to him.

However, in his word, our big God promises to hear our prayers, no matter how small.

*  1 Peter 3:12—”For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous, and his ears are open to their prayer.” (ESV)

*  Psalm 66:19—“But truly God has listened; he has attended to the voice of my prayer.” (ESV)

*  1 John 5:14—“And this is the confidence that we have toward him, that if we ask anything according to his will he hears us.” (ESV)

Our big God is always, always the best of listeners. And when we talk with God, he will assure us that he values, cherishes, and treasures what we have to say to him.

Next week, we’ll delve into the “A.” God bless, and good listening!

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