GROWING IN LOVE:
Tools for Strengthening Relationships
Several years ago I had a friend who died suddenly from a heart attack. She was a person who truly helped me in facing some difficult times, who helped me keep my sense of value while not losing faith in my gifts and talents. When I attended her memorial service, it was not surprising to see the sanctuary packed with people who had come to say thanks for her life, for she had obviously touched many others just as she had touched me. Her husband gave a part of the tribute to his wife, and it was he who expressed why she was so special into focus. He said, “My wife had that uncanny knack of being able to help the person she was with feel like he or she was the most important person in the world to her.” I just sat back and said, “That’s it! That’s what it felt like when she was with you.” He then went on to say, “And at that moment she was with you, you probably were the most important person in the world to her.” I learned so much from her about the importance of living in the moment I am in, and being present with the one I am with. When you share a moment with another, you are indeed sharing life itself, and how that moment is being shared impacts the quality of both lives. When I am with someone, when we are with others, it is our chance to be a gift and a positive presence for another. We may have people, like our family, who are the center of our life, but if we are not with our family and with another, then it is in that moment our life can make the greatest difference by being fully engaged with the one we are with. There is an old song that has a line that says, “If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with.” My suspicion is that the intent of the song is not exactly what I am saying, but the words are important when placed in the context of being in the present with another. In the sense of shalom, being present means loving the one you’re with by bringing wholeness and wellbeing to that moment you share your lives together.
This is why listening is one of the important tools we can bring to growing our ability to love another more fully. The passage from James says it well. “Let everyone be quick to hear and slow to speak.” Think about those times that someone has been fully present with you. What was it like? Were they jabbering away, or were they paying attention to you and what your needs were at the time? Were they trying to understand what you were facing, what you may be feeling or needing in your life? It is such a wonderful feeling to know that someone finds you to be the most important person in the world, to be fully present with you as your lives intersect. Is it surprising to us that people are willing to pay over $100 an hour to have someone be present with them? Is it surprising that we rejoice in finding those special people who are able to help us through hard and difficult times? Isn’t it wonderful when someone is truly concerned about you and the life you are now experiencing? There is a wonderful quote about listening that shows how important it is to us to be listened to and understood. The quote goes, “Listening in our culture is a competitive exercise where the first person to draw a breath is declared the listener.” We want to be heard.
The good news is there are some very simple techniques we can learn that can help us develop this most precious of gifts. The bulletin insert has some very easy to learn tools called reflective listening techniques. I won’t take the time to review them now, but please utilize them in your own relationships. There is a story that goes along with these techniques that shows how successful these skills can be. I took a neighborhood mediation course where these tools were taught to us for our own use in doing mediations with people. The leader of the course said he had a professor who was invited to a dinner party at a friend’s home and decided to give these techniques a try as an experiment. He decided he would only use these reflective listening techniques in his conversations with those he met. The next day, the woman who hosted the party received not one but several phone calls from people at the party wanting to know who that wonderful conversationalist was. Again, simply a reinforcement of how wonderful it is to experience another who takes an interest in us and our lives and can stay focused and present with us in our moment together.
Let me encourage you to know that these techniques that allow us to be present with another, this ability to listen is the most important tool we can bring to those whose lives we share with most intimately, our spouses, friends, children and neighbors. They are also the tools that enable us to be the people of God, to be able to reach out to our brothers and sisters in their time of need and truly be a gift of support to them. Let me tell a personal story as an example. My mother died of cancer at the age of 50. When she died, there were no hospice programs, as the movement was just getting started in England. So my mother went into a coma and spent the last three weeks of her life in the hospital. I was active in a church at the time, but my dad was not, so my pastor would stop by to visit with him. One night when I came to the hospital my dad said, “I know this pastor of yours is a friend, but quite honestly she is a pain in the neck. Would you please tell her to stop coming. So a little curious I asked what it was she was doing that was so annoying. My dad said, “She comes and all she does is talk. She rambles on about how God is not responsible for what has happened, that I needed to make sure I wasn’t mad at God. On and on her monologue went. My guess is my dad finally just tuned her out, because then she said, “I am here to help you!” My dad said, “It was like I was supposed to be helping her, like I was not cooperating so she could be a pastor.” I learned from my dad that our gift is often times simply our presence and our willingness to listen when another may have the need to talk. Do not ever stop from visiting someone who may be facing or who has just faced a time of crisis in their lives because you do not know what to say. There are no magic words that are just the right things to say. There are no magic words that can make everything alright. In fact just the opposite is true. There are a lot of wrong words that should never be expressed, but that is another sermon. Simply being present, simply letting another know they are the most important person in the world to you in that moment, letting them know they can sit in the quietness of their own thoughts, but that they are not alone if they need to express something is a tremendous gift.
I chose the story from Matthew because Jesus shows us something very important about listening skills and being present with another. I have always found it a little strange that two blind men would call out to Jesus for help and Jesus would ask them what they need. I want to say “Duh, they are blind and you are a healer what do you think they want from you?” But Jesus does not assume he knows their needs and desires better than they do. He respects them and asks the question of how he may be of help. To be fully present is to not walk into an encounter with our own agenda or our own solution to another’s life. We enter and try to understand what they need, what they are facing and how they believe we can be supportive and caring. It is the first step in being compassionate. It is the first step in developing a character of Christ-likeness for those whom we share lives with. And how did Jesus do this? How do we do this? By asking the person we are with how we can be helpful and then by listening to what they tell us.
When we were in Honduras this past summer, Rachel and I had just walked out of the restaurant after having breakfast and were on our way back to the hotel to catch the van and go to our mission location. As we exited a man came up to us and said, “You are Americans, yes?” My immediate though was “Oh, no here we go.” He continued, “Are you here for a vacation?” “No,” I said, ”I am a pastor and my daughter and I are with a group on a mission trip.” The man’s eyes lit up and he said, “You are a pastor! I have a request for you. Would you do me a favor?” I said to myself, “Here it comes. I can feel my wallet several dollars lighter already.” The man said, “I have a bad back and it makes it very difficult for me to work. Would you bless me and pray for my healing so I can work better?” I was dumbfounded and felt very foolish. So on the streets of La Ceiba we paused and I laid hands upon this man and prayed for God’s healing touch upon him. He then smiled this huge smile, and thanked me for my blessing and left.
There is so much more that can be said about this wonderful gift of listening, and how it truly helps us to be fully present and fully loving and compassionate in the lives of those we touch. Know it is not always what you say that makes you and your life a gift. In fact, at times it is in our silence, in our quickness to hear and our slowness to speak as James says, that we remain fully open and present in the life of the one we care about. May we truly help those we are with feel our full attention and compassion as we share our moments of life together.
Sermon delived by Rev. George Cushman on January 29, 2006.
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