Beyond Listening

Luke 4: 40

“When the sun was setting, the people brought to Jesus all who had various kinds of sickness, and laying his hands on each one, he healed them.”

You never know what kind of reaction you are going to get when you act in compassion. Maybe you heard about the man who heard a scratching at his door. He opened the door to see a dog with a hurt leg. He took the dog in, and after the dog was completely healed it ran out the door out of sight. He was so disappointed that the dog had no appreciation for the care and kind treatment. The next day the man heard a scratching at the door again. He opened the door and the same dog was back, but this time there was another dog with a hurt leg with him!

We never know how things are going to turn out when we help. And when we help our loved ones, we invest ourselves with all that we are because we are acting out of love for them. And we act in different ways since we are all unique. Our first reaction may be to just listen. Being a presence to someone who is hurting can mean so much. Simply being there is a valid way to minister to someone. People lost in anger, despair, or confusion can receive great comfort from your listening presence. Do you recall a moment when you didn’t know what to say, but maybe you held a loved one’s hand, or sat quietly, and then later that person thanked you for helping them? You may have thought, “I didn’t really do anything.” In fact, you did so much. Being there counts. There are times that require you to listen without anxiety or judgment, without feeling the need to offer advice or try to fix the problem. The person sees you as caring, without an agenda other than to be helpful. Some people have said that this type of care means that you are being a true companion. You are not leading or following, but walking alongside the person. Some have likened this behavior to being a kind of mirror, allowing the person to express themselves as they look at themselves. Sometimes this kind of care is the best way to help. When we do help in that manner, it is easy to feel helpless or not recognize the good that we are doing because it feels as if we are not doing anything at all.

We seem to feel the need to go beyond listening, don’t we? And many times we should be courageous and move beyond listening. Our lives, our culture, and everything we do seems to be so action-oriented, yet moving beyond listening when we care for others can be difficult. Maybe it is because we know that television episodes, books, and movies resolve conflicts within set parameters. When we are faced with a challenge, we have a built-in time frame in which the problem needs to be resolved, and if we do not see a defined end, we feel a little lost. When we feel the need to do something quickly to solve a problem, we may react out of instinct. When a disease or condition does not respond to treatment, or we realize that a loved one is truly gone, we feel that something must be done. When a quick fix does not seem available, we look within and react according to our own coping mechanisms.

One of the best case studies of this is my own family. If you have siblings who reacted differently than you did to family trauma, you can easily relate. When my father was diagnosed with cancer, each person in the family reacted differently.

My brother focused upon the feelings that cancer provoked within the family. He has always been skilled at feelings. He would ask how you felt, and if you weren’t forthcoming, he knew how to

encourage you to share. I remember my brother’s encouragement of my Uncle Mike when he came to tell my father good-bye. As my brother would say, feelings matter, and he encouraged my Uncle Mike to share his feelings, something that seemed like an impossible task. Some people do not show feelings easily, but they might show feelings privately. We might need to take that into account.

An example of this is Will Rogers. Will Rogers was entertaining at the Milton H. Berry Institute in Los Angeles. It was a hospital that specialized in rehabilitating polio victims and people with spinal cord injuries and other extreme physical handicaps. Rogers had everyone laughing at his jokes. Even the patients in the worst conditions were in stitches. When he took a break and went to the restroom, Milton Berry followed Rogers to make sure he was all right. But when he opened the door he saw Rogers in the corner of the bathroom, leaning against the wall, sobbing like a child. The suffering had pushed his emotions over the edge. Berry closed the door and wondered what to do. But a few moments later, Rogers was back on stage smiling and laughing, as upbeat as ever.

Sometimes we misjudge our family and friends when they appear to be cold and detached. They may be hiding their feelings. Of course, denial of feelings can lead to blindness in parts of life, but not showing feelings in public may not always be denial. It may just be a postponement, like Will Rogers, that has been reserved for a private time. So, if your focus is on feelings, when bad news strikes, be attentive to how you treat others.

My sister’s reaction involved planning her wedding. You know how many details are involved in a wedding. Not that there was anything wrong with planning the wedding at that moment, but it might serve as an example of how some people create distractions as a response. A mountain of details is one way of avoiding the hurt. Maybe you know of a widow who reacted to what she called a conspiracy of silence when her family refused to talk about her husband who had passed away. “I miss him! I didn’t forget about him!” She did not like the way that they changed the subject every time his name came up. That was the way that they dealt with his passing, but she was in a different place. My sister’s wedding was as close to my father as it could have been. The wedding ceremony was held in the hospital’s chapel. She had dreamed always of his performing her wedding and had high hopes of that still happening.

My reaction involved putting pressure on my father to get well. I decided to teach him to out-think the cancer using mind-body techniques. After reading a few books I decided that I was an expert. I made a series of posters with pictures of decreasing cancer cells, his actual cells enlarged. I can’t imagine the pressure he must have felt as I stood in front of his bed with these posters, asking him to visualize the cells being destroyed by a little pac-man that was eating the cells one by one. “You can do it if you just visualize the cancer being eaten away!” I insisted. Sometimes we react with compassion by insisting the person can do it all on their own. We exert a lot of pressure. The other side of that might be to try and take all of the pressure off of the person by bringing it onto yourself. I have a colleague that uses the “I can top that” strategy whenever anyone presents a problem. He might as well be on a game show with a red button that he can push as he counters with a greater problem. He believes that behavior lessens the pain by identifying with the person. It is good to identify with another’s pain, but the timing is very important. A right-off- the-bat immediate identification might not be appropriate. It might stop the person’s attempt to share something by re-focusing attention upon yourself.

How easily we fall into that trap! We feel obligated to do everything for the patient and take over. Maybe you have experienced a family member who began to micromanage everything about a

situation. The way that they moved beyond listening was to feel obligated to control everything. Instead of just showing compassion, the situation consumed both the one stricken and the one being treated. We want to tell that family member, “You can’t do all this by yourself!” To borrow an image from Stephen Ministry, they end up jumping down into the hole with the person who is suffering, rather than offering a hand out of the hole.

We have to have faith that God is playing a part in the situation, and trying to be God doesn’t help. Where God fits into the equation is tricky. When people begin to suffer, a usual question may be, “Why did God allow this to happen?” In spite of the fact that God is with them, they do not experience the comfort of God’s presence. They may feel like the psalmist in Psalm 88: Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend.”

They may feel totally abandoned by God as this Psalmist did. Yet God is still with them. And don’t be too quick to rush to God’s defense. Your loving presence will answer their question about where God is. You will be a reminder of God’s love. Remember how the book of Job ended? After so much suffering, Job hears God tell him to look at the complexity of the world and its mystery. Job looks at the different creatures and ponders his place in the world. It is a powerful ending to a book filled with speeches by Job’s friends on why God might have allowed Job’s suffering to happen. In the same way, we cannot answer why God allowed something to happen. We must trust God’s presence like the Midwest farmer who trusted the rope that was tied between his house and his barn. When the snow fell and whiteout conditions happened, he couldn’t see the rope, but he knew that it was there, and he could make it back home.

When we move beyond listening, there are so many ways that we could react, but let us not get carried away by over analyzing ourselves. The most important point is to react with genuine love and concern. We need to react as our true selves and not be like the photographer who saw a man choking on the street. The photographer saw a great picture and began fumbling with his camera. The man said, “Help me, I’m turning blue!” to which the photographer responded, “Don’t worry I’m using color film.”

If we respond with genuine love and compassion we enter into the suffering with the person, and we do not leave them as they are; we bring them forward in life. As the shortest verse in the Bible states, “Jesus wept.” Jesus showed genuine compassion, which means, “to suffer with.” When Jesus fed the hungry, taught the ignorant, healed the sick, and gave real hope, he entered into the suffering of others. Jesus always pointed others toward a future filled with new beginnings. We must push ourselves to be future oriented when caring for others. While the wounds of the past require attention, the potential for growth and healing lies in the future. Without a clear vision of the possibilities the future holds, there’s little motivation for constructive change in the present.

What do you do when a person feels helpless? The thing that you can do is to embrace change. There will be a change in patterns of relationships. Helping identify and change behavior that is destructive to lasting relationships can increase and mobilize support from others. There may be a change in outlook and attitudes. Look at the positives that work for good and see the possibilities along with the problem. There may be a change in goals and expectations. Dreaming big dreams is just as important as balancing realistic goals and expectations. Sometimes reality help is needed to

prevent devastating disappointments. The point is, people need help recognizing that things can be done to bring about positive change.

Acting as your true self means that when you offer compassion, you remember your own life and how God has helped you. Those who have experienced the grace of God at the very brink of despair can be a source of great blessing and encouragement to others. As Psalm 94 states, “Unless the LORD had given me help, I would soon have dwelt in the silence of death. When I said, ‘My foot is slipping,’ your love, O LORD, supported me. When anxiety was great within me, your consolation brought joy to my soul.” Let us be especially attentive to how we journey beyond listening. With God’s help, we can all be a source of powerful peace. Amen.