Tuesday, October 22, 2013

Listening "Speaks"

When you commit yourself to go deep into listening, you find that listening “speaks” in ways far more powerful than talking ever could. The most profound sermon, masterfully delivered, cannot compare to the experience of being truly heard. People don’t line up at the sanctuary door to shake your hand after you have listened, but 10,000 true and beautiful words cannot convey love like unhurried listening.

Listening makes a statement. The text of a listening conversation is important, but it is the subtext that can be magical. The most powerful messages are always conveyed to the subconscious. Under the surface, listening communicates to a person that they are worth paying attention to, that their story, emotions, experiences, and ideas have value, and that they have value. I believe that being heard is a basic human need, as essential as water, food, and shelter. A person created in the image of God has inherent worth and dignity, and listening is one of the most powerful ways we can remind people who they truly are.

Listening says that this moment – with all its meaning, uncertainty, doubt, and hope – matters and that a person is loved, right now. You are a unique individual, and everything you bring to the table in this instance, without filter or editing or resolution, has meaning. Listening is not a reward for good behavior or orthodox doctrine. It is not a statement of agreement with everything you say. I am not waiting for you to be fixed, say things perfectly, believe what I do, or see things as I do before I listen to you. If Jesus had listened like that, he would have spent a lot of time alone.

The other subliminal message conveyed through the act of listening is what God is like. Jesus’ ambassadors represent him in more than just the words they speak. What if we not only prayed in Jesus’ name but listened in Jesus’ name? The medium is the message, after all. Everyone has met the law-giving God, the one who makes pronouncements on our behavior, the one who thunders truth from the mountaintops. Sadly, most people have not met the God who listens. I do not only mean the God who might answer a prayer or orchestrate a coincidence on occasion, but the God who pays attention, who takes you seriously, who is interested and invested in your life. The God who is all ears. If you find that hard to believe, well, we welcome you as a member of the human race.

Perhaps the world would be more at ease with the idea of God as listener if God’s people were better at listening. If those who bear his name preach and rebuke and pronounce and debate and saturate the air with godly words, then that will be the image of God that prevails. And it is. But if his people humbled themselves, paid attention, put aside their agendas, and devoted themselves to listening first, God might start to listen too.

Finally, listening speaks about the listener himself. It whispers “I don’t know everything.” I have gaps in my knowledge, my viewpoint is obscured, and I need you to tell me what you see. I am not walking into the room with my mind made up. I will bring my opinions and beliefs in an open palm, not a closed fist. I am open to your feedback and critique. I enter this conversation, and every conversation, with the intention to learn. I recognize that the world is not colored by black and white, and the best conversations happen when we can, at least temporarily, enter into a shade of gray. I hope to be humble, courageous, and strong enough to place my focus on you. I would rather be interested and impressed than interesting and impressive.

Wednesday, October 16, 2013

A Tale of Two Roads

This last season of my life is best captured by two roads. It sounds like a tired metaphor, except it’s not a metaphor. I have in mind two actual paths. One you drive and the other you walk.

The first road was a way of salvation for me for many years. In my spiritual life, the Damascus Road or the Road to Emmaus do not hold a candle to the 101 freeway. No one who has ever driven on the 101 near the 405 interchange would ever call it the road less traveled. But every few weeks, when the work of ministry had taken more than it had given, I would sneak off to the 101 North and drive up the California coast to the Santa Ynez Valley, the wine country just past Santa Barbara.

There is a point on the 101, right around Ventura, where your car emerges from the gripping congestion of greater L.A. and you are greeted by the Pacific Ocean lapping the central coast of California. As the road opens up, so does the landscape, and with the blue ocean on my left and the emerald hills on my right, my soul would take a deep breath. I called these jaunts “wine retreats,” though admittedly at first they weren’t particularly spiritual. I was parched from ministry and I hoped some good Pinot Noir would quench my thirst.

Over time I began to apply different language to these adventures. I started to call them “pilgrimages,” allying myself with ancient wayfarers who trekked to holy places and usually stopped along the way at monasteries for food, rest, and a glass of estate wine. The vineyards became a “thin place” for me, one of those hallowed spots in the Celtic tradition where the clouds that separate heaven and earth part and the sun of God’s presence shines brilliantly.

To read the rest of this post, called A Tale of Two Roads, head over to Internet Monk, where I will be writing a monthly post. 

Thursday, October 10, 2013

A Word about Book Promotion

My mailbox has been spilling over with gooey literary goodness these past couple of weeks. Publishers seem to sit on their hands through the summer, waiting for the first cool afternoon breeze of fall to carry all the magical books into hungry mailboxes. It's the most wonderful time of the year.

I am getting dangerously close to finishing the manuscript for my second book. Which, for me, means I'll probably have it done by New Years Eve. I am an unapologetically slow writer, but I also don't feel much urgency in getting this book out there in the marketplace. Now that I have already seen my name on a book, which was one of the highlights of my life, I don't have the same anticipation for the second one. I know from experience that writing and editing the book is by far the best part of the process. Because once the book is incarnate, the book promotion begins.  Dunt dunt daaaaaaaaaaah.[Cue: THUNDER!!]

I wrote a lengthy post about my philosophy of book promotion a few years ago, so I won't go into that here. For today, I want to talk about the feelings that promoting evokes.

I haven't met a single author who, if really pressed, would say they like the promoting process. Some of us break out in hives when we hear words like "platform" or "brand." Some of us would rather roll in honey and go on a bear hunt than do an radio interview. A lot of us are introverts and our ears are still ringing from the time our publisher told us that we have to do publicity for our own book. Um, my name is on the cover, isn't that enough?? Sorry, you want me to do how many interviews? And they pay what? Nothing?? Because this is their version of a favor for me? What kind of f'd up system is this??

Sure, we have moments of satisfaction when we get an email from a reader who loved our book or a listener who appreciated our talk. Those are fulfilling interactions, and they remind us why they wrote the book. But no author that I know got into the business in order to promote their work. Writing itself is incredibly vulnerable work, and the vulnerability increases exponentially when we have to talk about our writing and convince people to spend money on what we wrote. It's like putting a $12 price tag on our blood.

Apparently, a few years ago, right about a day and a half before my book was released, all publishers everywhere ran out of money and decided that authors should be promoting their own books. About 2 hours after that ruling, Twitter was invented and we all took to the tweets to try and pay the rent. It didn't work, and most of us live in cardboard boxes now. But we writers are a persevering lot, and we are still at it.

Here is my favorite tweet from a fellow author in the last couple of weeks:
Emily's book, by the way, is called A Million Little Ways, and I highly recommend it. I'm particularly taken, not surprisingly, with the chapter called "Listen."

Emily captures the ambivalence we authors feel. We tingle with pride in holding our book in our hands. We got into this business because there was something in us that had to come out, and now that something has page numbers and a cover and endorsements and a pretty picture on the front. When we die, in some dusty corner of an abandoned library somewhere, there will still be a copy of our book that outlives us. Our exuberance is only matched by our sheer terror. My book is awesome! My book is terrible. (Don't trust authors who don't have a least a small suspicion that their book is terrible). I want to share this part of myself with you! Oh god what if you hate it? I want the world to hear my message! Am I shouting too loud? Am I being annoying? Should have I second gin and tonic at 10am?

Last week my friend Sarah, who is releasing a game-changing book next month, asked for my input in how to promote her book. I was typically unable to offer much practical advice (I should get a job writing Ikea furniture manuals, because then people would have a name to go with their assembly rage. "Why won't this stupid hinge fit on the freaking door??? Dammit McHugh!!!!"). But as I was thinking out loud with my friend Sarah, I realized that....Sarah is my friend. And she is my friend because when I had a book to promote, I reached out to her. And then I guest posted on her blog. And she guest posted on mine. And then I made fun of the fact that she lives in Canada. And then she threatened to check me into the boards. And then I told her that Ann Voskamp called to say that she is NOT grateful for her. And then she told Ann on me, which probably ruined my chances of Ann endorsing my second book.

All these books I am getting in the mail these days have my friends' named emblazoned across the covers. And we are friends because I reached out to them or they reached out to me, because we realized that we are in this crazy book promoting business together and we can't do it alone. We encourage each other and we sympathize over every bad Amazon review with each other. Maybe promoting a book is closer to cultivating friendships than it is to selling a product. And I know that my second book will get some attention, not because it is all that amazing, but because I have writer friends out there who will care about it because I care about it.

So, read my friend Andy's book Playing God because he is brilliant and insightful and the conversation about the proper use of power is so critical in our culture.

Read my friend Addie's book When We Were on Fire because she is funny, can turn a phrase like a DJ on a 4 pack of Red Bull spins records, and because the life of faith is less like an inferno and more like a smoldering coal.

Read my friend Jim's book In Search of Deep Faith, because the man can combine theology with travel writing like no one else.

Read my new friend Mandy's book because it is called Thrashing About with God and because you want to give up on God but you haven't.

Consider yourselves introduced to my friends.