“…A Faith That Is Authentic…” Part 2: Listening


When last you joined us–in Part 1–I had explained why, though I compete for “Most Dysfunctional Functional Person in the World” (I’ve never actually won, but I’ve come in 4th like six times), I also have the crazy privilege of profoundly influencing people, sometimes being one of the most influential people in their lives…and not even in a bad way.

After writing several posts and series on how people like us (go ahead, define that) survive and seek to thrive and trust God in the world, I’m taking the bold step of trying a series on what I do right.  That’s what this is.  I think I’m special only in the sense that God has worked in my life in unusual ways and taught me some thing that appear to be a bit off the beaten path.  If they help others, that’s worth sticking my neck out and offering them.


I don’t know if I’m a better listener than others.  I do know I listen a lot (I’m also rumored to talk a lot, which means I must spend a lot of time with people).  Listening is both easy and crazy hard work.  I’ve given a lot of thought to listening:  what it is, how it works, why so many people suck at it, and how transformative it can be in people’s lives.

  1. (and also 2., 3., etc.)  Care

The difference between merely waiting for someone to stop talking and listening to them is caring what they say.  Caring what people say is one of the most practical ways we can love them. Christianity is really big on love, since the founder kept commanding things like “Love one another as I have loved you.”

[pullquote align=”full” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.[/pullquote]

Here’s a crazy thing:  Jesus was a great listener.  The wisest person ever to live listened well to others.  Had the most important things to say in history, listened well to others.  My favorite example is that on the way to heal Jairus’s daughter, Jesus stopped when the woman in the crowd touched him.  She was already healed physically.  But he wanted to identify her, look her in the eye, hear her story, and then send her in peace, proclaiming to her and everyone else that her faith had healed her.  Jesus healed her emotionally and socially.  He showed her that she mattered.  He loved her by listening.

People generally know if you are paying attention or not.  Paying attention is an investment in another human being.  It’s called “paying” for a reason.  It requires concentration, setting aside anything more urgent-feeling, and quieting the voices shouting “Squirrel!” and “I’m hungry,” and “Ooh, she’s cute.”  Eye contact helps. Active listening, i.e. asking real questions and giving ongoing verbal and non-verbal cues that indicate we are tracking, these demonstrate that we care what the other person says and help us succeed at listening, at the same time.

[pullquote align=”right” cite=”” link=”” color=”” class=”” size=””]For me, real listening means finding a way to connect with what the other person is saying.[/pullquote]

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Identity, Value, and Trudging Home


One of the most readily affirmed truths in Christianity is that we are children of God and all our value comes from that identity.  By that, I mean we recognize that God’s love and adoption of us as his children imparts our value to us.  Not our abilities, not our possessions, not our fame or fortune or friendships or degrees or social standing or accomplishments make us any more valuable in God’s estimation than we were to begin with, simply because he created us and adores us.


I’m always wrestling with which pronoun to use, because “I,” “you” and “we” convey
monumentally different things, and I don’t always feel confident or qualified to move beyond first-person singular.  So I will start with the one about which I am certain.


I say these words easily but they are not yet true of me:  My only value comes from being a child of God.  Actually, they are true, I believe by faith.  But I don’t believe them.

Huh?  Yeah, I said that.  I believe in the truth of this statement, but I do not believe this about myself on a day-to-day, minute-to-minute basis.

Can I believe a statement is true if I don’t live by its truth?  Of course.  I believe that sin hurts us and if I avoided sin, I would spare myself oodles of suffering and misery.  Yep, I believe every word of that.  I don’t stop sinning, mind you.  But intellectually?  I’m all in.

And yet, and yet, we have to ask what we mean (oops, slipped into first-person plural) by “believe.” Does it mean, “I affirm this truth,” “I assent to this fact,” or does it mean, “I live by this knowledge and order my life accordingly?”

I believe that eating healthily all the time is the best thing for my body.  I don’t always eat healthily, but generally I try.  And sometimes I just gorge.  Mostly on holidays or special occasions when I’m calling it a feast day and just taking it off from eating more wisely and selectively.  Or when I’m depressed and think that eating junk food will cheer me up, which never works in the long-term but does make me feel a little better in the instant gratification time-frame.

Back to identity.  My conflict feels different to me than sinning or eating badly, because with those I know I’m wandering away from reason, but in the moment I’ve just decided a)I don’t care, b)the consequences are worth it, or c)I’ll swim in denial for a bit.

When I say, “Being God’s child alone gives me value,” I am speaking a truth that my head buys and my heart simply doesn’t.  So I know it’s true, but I don’t believe the truth I know.  In case you are not conflicted in this manner, I can recommend some wonderful higher mathematics sites that you might really enjoy.  But Paul who wrote Romans was.

For we know that the law is spiritual; but I am of the flesh, sold into slavery under sin. I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.  Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good.  But in fact it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do.  Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.

I had a leader of a mission trip I was on tell me that this is a passage for non-Christians and does not apply to Christians.  It may not have applied to him, but it still describes me and I’ve been a Christian for coming on 30 years now.

I would like to know and believe the truth about myself.  Heck, I would like to know, believe and live the truth about myself.  How cool would that be?  When I imagine what “God is faithful to complete the work he started” means, I picture this.  Consistency, across the board.  But today, I’m still all over the map, like the start of a Risk game when you’ve got one or two armies on each country spread out hither and yon with no pattern other than the random draw of cards.*

Today I received four compliments, seven insults, a few hugs, a nasty look, and an email thatstocksrisingandfalling might have been joking or else was a dagger camouflaged as humor.**  Does my value change like a volatile stock that bounces up and down as its shares are bought and sold?  Nope, it does not. I know that.  But those things impact me because some part of me believes that that’s exactly what happens.  Days where I can do no wrong, everyone sends sunshine my way, and my little goals in life seem to be getting accomplished, I don’t just feel happy–I feel more valuable.  That’s a confession.  I shouldn’t.  I know better.

• The things people say are largely, if not entirely, about them, not me.  Every compliment must be taken with a grain of salt and every insult should probably be taken with a salt lick.

• There are SO MANY variables going on with every interaction I have:  People are having skubula days, they are in crises I know nothing about, parenting is not working out for them today, they (like me) suffer from insomnia, they’re feeling lousy, etc, etc, etcetera.

• I can’t be a reliable witness to how others intend their words.  Oh, I can guess and speculate–and do, all the time.  But I’m no expert witness.  No case should be decided based on my evaluation of whether that tone you just spoke to me in was light-hearted, mocking, indifferent or dismissive.  I don’t know your intentions.  I’m doing my best to decipher them, but even after I guess I still don’t know whether I’m right.

That’s a tiny list of reasons I shouldn’t let my value rise and fall on my interactions with others.  I know all this stuff.  But if you, whom I love, or maybe like a whole lot, speak sharply to me or maybe don’t trouble to speak to me, I feel bad.  It might be legitimate for me to feel concern for you, or be troubled about the state of our friendship (or whatever we have), or even question whether I did or said something wrong.  But I feel bad about me.

Truthfully, my negative response ranges based on how important the speaker or ignorer is in my life.  And this is exactly why I should root my value in God’s view and only God’s view.

• God alone has the objective view.

• God isn’t having a bad day, pissed that his car won’t start, etc. x 3.

• What God thinks of me, in the end, matters the most…by a wide margin.

In the same sense that either God exists or doesn’t, I am either valuable to God or I’m not.  According to the Bible, God does and I am.  Both unchanging.

You may say, “Come on, Mike, those negative things might hit your emotions, but they aren’t really impacting how you see your value.  Right?”  Thus did I choose to write this from my very own first-person singular perspective.  You may love advanced equation websites and you may never have felt the Romans passage I quoted above applies to you.  If that’s genuine, awesome.  If that’s your version of denial…stay with me.  We’ll get there.

I’ve become convinced that these things hit my emotions so hard precisely because I still have them connected with my value as a person, or as a Christian, or whichever part of my identity gets bruised or coddled.  Going up is just as dangerous as going down because a)what goes up must come down (i.e. if I’m invested in praise I’m also invested in criticism) and b)feeling too good about myself apart from God’s value he has imputed to me runs me smack into pride.  Anything referred to as “the root of all other sins” is just as well avoided.


What now?  If you are going to jump into this boat with me acknowledge that you’ve been in this boat with me all along, I’ll shift to what we might do.

My value comes from God’s love, straight up, no chaser.  God loves me whether I spend tomorrow in the fetal position, accomplish great things for the Kingdom of God, or manage some middle ground betwixt.  God loves me whether I’m wallowing in my sin or loving him with all my heart and my neighbor as myself (he has a strong preference between those, largely for my sake, but his love doesn’t waver).  If God’s love for me stays consistent regardless of my own behaviors, it’s sure and certain not to change with others’ treatment of me, nor with any of the other things that tend to swing me with their lassos.

We need to internalize this truth.  We need to integrate it into our thought patterns and let it become the measure by which we evaluate every interaction.  I know, that might sound exhausting and a little unrealistic.  Am I really going to stop after every conversation and mentally compare it with the truth about God’s love for me?  But I’m pretty sure this is what some other folks already have built in.  That’s how it appears to function in my wife.

To get this truth internalized, we need to soak in it.***  Let it saturate us.  Make it the air we breathe and the chocolate food we eat.  Let it become the water we swim in.  Meditate, memorize, reread over and over every single day, passages that convey God’s love for you.  Pick your favorites.  I don’t care if that’s cherry picking.  If you struggle with the same kind of negative thoughts I do, you are already very clear on passages about judgment, sin, and failing.  God’s grace is greater.  Jesus died for us when we were enemies.  Nothing separates us from the love of God.  For you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.  When Christ who is your life appears, then you also will appear with him in glory.

The next time you feel yourself plummeting due to someone’s words or actions, step back and hold up what they’ve said or done/your reaction to what they’ve said or done**** against the words that you’ve been ingesting.  Yes, they may even have spoken something true about what you’ve done wrong or need to repent of or do differently, but that doesn’t change who you are.  It doesn’t change how God sees you.

If you can, ask someone close to you to speak these truths to you when you can’t manage it for yourself.  This can be uncomfortable, awkward, embarrassing.  It’s tough to let other people see how screwed up we feel.  But the right people can help us to believe what we struggle to accept about ourselves.

Pray.  God can change hearts, God can change minds, God can change our screwed-up wiring.  There’s a reason for each of us why we started believing untruths about ourselves.  Something happened in us that caused us to attach our value to other people’s responses or our own success or failure or whatever thing(s) we’ve hooked on to apart from God.  God can get into that sealed-off chamber in us and transform and redeem what’s in there.

I’m not saying it will happen like magic–“Presto!”–nor that it will be painless.  The truth will set us free, but first it will kick our butts.  Healing often hurts.   That’s the paradox, but it’s one we see in our physical bodies and everywhere in the world around us.  What I’m describing may require intensive prayer, or counseling, or a support group, or some other form of deeper work.  Sorry that sounds rough.  We agreed we are in the boat and leaving denial behind.*****

I am God’s beloved child.  

You are God’s beloved child.  

There are a whole bunch of other things we think we are, we’re told we are, and we’ve believed we are.  They’ve got to be dragged out into the sunshine.  The father who loves us gets the final say.  Do you think the prodigal son, while trudging home, believed the truth about himself?


Rembrandt’s The Return of the Prodigal Son

We’re trudging home.

I believe, Lord; help my unbelief.



*Sometimes we played random draw for countries and sometimes we took turns choosing them.  The latter better look a little more like strategic planning.  Maybe winning at Risk is the image of having God’s work in me completed, in which case the other colors are truly my enemies…not too bad of an analogy.  I think I’ll leave it there before it collapses with rolling the dice.

**I’m making these numbers up so that my problem-solving friends don’t try to figure out where they figure in.

***Some authors I highly recommend to help with this:  Henri Nouwen, Brennan Manning, Joyce Meyer, Timothy Keller, Rob Bell.

****Because remember, we’re only interpreting their intentions through our own lenses.

*****I disavow any pun here.  If you thought it, it’s yours.

Madeleine L’engle, Me, and Quilts, but Mostly Quilts.


I saw Madeleine L’Engle speak at my seminary. She was one of my heroes. I love her writing, both for children and for adults, and I think Walking on Water is the best expression of the intersection between faith and art that I have ever read. She is in my canon with C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, Henri Nouwen, and Frederich Buechner.

Her address challenged many of us. She talked about Jesus the Peacemaker and how we need to be Peacemakers with him. She challenged us to use our knowledge to help people to see this Jesus. I remember that some of her statements likely ruffled feathers and maybe even crossed some people’s lines of how they understood orthodoxy.

SUCCESS lengle19907 post02-LEngle

Afterward, the seminary held a reception for her. I was in my late twenties, struggling through my peculiar mixture of giftedness and brokenness. I had loved her writing since fourth grade, when I read A Wrinkle in Time and she ripped open my longing for other worlds and magical beings that aren’t magical but supernatural. We all had punch and cake and we got to mill about, chatting with one another over what she had said to us, while Ms. L’Engle sat right in the middle and talked to people. I walked toward her, grappling with my insecurities, knowing I would look stupid if I tried to say anything and feel stupid and regretful if I didn’t.

She wasn’t really talking to anyone else when I approached, just greeting people as they paid their respects.  I sidled over and looked out of the corner of my eye but couldn’t make myself go up to her. Then a woman came over whom Ms. L’engle greeted as an old friend.

“I brought the pictures of the quilts,” the woman declared.

“Oh, good,” my hero responded, sounding excited.

Her friend proceeded to turn through a photo album, very slowly, describing each quilt in what sounded to me to be exhaustive detail. I stood there for perhaps ten minutes, willing this woman to go away, praying for her to stop talking about her stinking quilts so that I could muster my courage and give Madeleine L’Engle my regards, my homage, some expression of how much her writing had inspired me and how her life continued to challenge me. But they went on talking about quilts: trivial, superfluous, immaterial compared with the matters of which Ms. L’Engle had just spoken, and about which I was studying in seminary. We were learning about God’s Word and how to impact the World, and I wanted to talk to my hero about these things. I wanted to tell her that I, too, longed to be a writer, which was probably the most terrifying thing of all. Certainly, aspiring writers and sycophants must have said this to her constantly, and it sounded both clichéd and absurd (I hadn’t published anything); nevertheless, I felt it would somehow force me to push forward and validate my claim if I could speak these words aloud to her. To Madeleine L’Engle!

But she kept talking about quilts. The longer I stood there, the more ridiculous and pathetic I felt, until finally I left, mentally scourging myself with every step. But I didn’t solely blame myself. I reviled this other, overly talkative woman, hogging my chance to meet Madeleine with her bloody quilts. Who cares about quilts?

Madeleine L’Engle cared about quilts.

This woman whom I beatified, though I didn’t know anything about her beyond her writing, enjoyed seeing these pictures of quilts. I didn’t miss my one opportunity to speak to her because of quilts; I missed it because I felt insecure, which caused me too much discomfort, so I hid behind anger and directed that anger at quilts.

I later wrote her a letter of admiration that I never sent. Then, several years back, I read about her death.

I wish I had spoken to her, but really, I couldn’t.  I couldn’t speak to her because, with all I was learning about hermeneutics and narrative criticism and Greek syntax, and in spite of her challenge to be a Peacemaker, I had not yet found my own peace and I failed to apply “love your neighbor as yourself.” I failed to respect that my neighbor might have different interests than mine. I missed that, legitimately, she might be a different person than I had projected; she might be a different person than me.


Non-existent picture of Mike talking with Madeleine L’Engle.