Good Conversation – (Healthy Rhythms pt. 2)

“Speak to one another with psalms, hymns and spiritual songs.” Ephesians 5:19

There are times when I walk through the halls of church and I get very frustrated. I pass through one conversation after another that goes something like this: “How are you doing?” “Fine, fine. You?” “Good.” “Staying busy?” “You know how it goes, especially with kids.” “I know that’s right.” “Well, have a good day!” “You too. See you later.”

For the record, there is nothing wrong with that exchange. We all know that in the South, “How are you?” is a greeting, not an actual question. It is not an expression of superficiality. It is just a pleasant, culturally appropriate and wonderful way to say hello to someone. The small talk that follows such a greeting is also part of the ritual. It is a way for two

Friends from overseas, enjoying the sunshine, our front porch and a great conversation.

Friends from overseas, enjoying the sunshine, our front porch and a great conversation.

people to say extended hellos to each other and acknowledge that they have a friendly relationship. If you’ve spent anytime at all crossing cultures, you know that how people greet each other is a very important part of relationships. It is the southern equivalent of shaking hands, giving a peck on the cheek, trading goats or drinking tea together, depending on where you are. It’s just how we say “Hey” to one another and warm up for the true communication to follow.

But. If over an extended period of time that is the extent and depth of the conversations that take place…It is like perpetually knocking on the front door and never getting invited inside to sit and stay a while. I’ve talked with many people about this very thing and found that others share my frustration and concern.

We were created for depth of relationship with others. If we are a Christ-follower, then even more so. The practice of our faith is a community thing. We are called to share our thoughts, burdens, joys and pains. That doesn’t happen as you pass someone in the hall. It happens over coffee. In a living room. At a kitchen table. While walking together somewhere outdoors. Whatever it is that brings you side by side and face to face with another person for an extended time.

Intentional conversation is a healthy rhythm to practice. Putting times on the calendar with good friends where the object is to ask questions like, “How are you?” and then not rush the answer. Ask follow-up questions. Move slowly through the exchange, following a train of thought thoroughly before switching topics.

Conversations around a dinner table are great! Especially when balloons and streamers are involved.

Conversations around a dinner table are great! And while the birthday balloons are optional, the coffee isn’t.

A good conversation can be like a good meal. It takes time to gather the ingredients (trust, affection, shared memories), to prepare the food (when and where to meet, giving some thought about what to share and ask) and then to eat slowly, savoring the experience. A stomach feels completely different after a full meal with salad and dessert, than following a trip to McDonald’s.

I would suggest not only calendaring a few significant conversations a month, but also preparing for them. Think ahead of time what you want to ask and what you want to share. A good conversation is like a good tennis match. There should be lots of back and forth.

It can be a challenge to say, “This week I’m going to share my heart with someone and ask them about theirs,” without feeling a bit odd. Sort of needy, sort of nerdy. It feels like normal people don’t do that. But emotionally and spiritually healthy people do. It is so easy to let a month, then two, slip by and realize that you’ve haven’t talked with someone about anything more important than the weather, your kids’ schedules or sports teams.

I’ve not really had God show up in my life during a conversation about the weather. But I’ve repeatedly had Him show up during a conversation where I opened my heart to someone else. Knowing that, a rhythm of healthy conversation makes sense.

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Healthy Rhythms pt. 1

“For since the creation of the world, God’s invisible qualities – his eternal power and divine nature – have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made so that men are without excuse.” Romans 1:20

I’ve been thinking recently about rhythms. God obviously loves a good beat. He spun the earth to the rat tat, rat tat of morning evening, morning evening. Then He threw in some swing with winter spring summer fall, winter spring summer fall. On top of that, He layered 6 days on, one day off, 6 days on, one day off. He sprinkled in the steady repetition of monthly moon phases and tides. One of natures most soothing sounds is the whoosh, whoosh of waves meeting the shore, one after another in a steady rhythm. He threw astronomical bodies into elliptical orbits, almost as if they were dancing with each other. Electrons and quartz rocks pulse so regularly we keep time by them. In our bodies He gives us life with the lub dub of heartbeats and the in and out of our breathing. Animals and women follow reproductive seasons that come and go predictably.  Sex is all about rhythm. When we hold our babies we can’t help ourselves: we rock back and forth to a rhythm only mothers hear. Who doesn’t get sleepy on a boat rising and falling in gentle swells? We clap when we are happy. Some people sneeze in threes. We don’t teach our children to dance. They just know to wiggle and move their bodies in time, as do all people throughout history and across all cultures.

There is a rhythm, an underlying beat woven into the very fabric of creation that speaks of order and harmony. It points to a Creator who loves to clap, dance, move and paint His portrait on the canvas of nature and into the most intimate places in our lives. Everyone sees it. Everyone feels it.

I think about this and begin to wonder about other rhythms in my life. External rhythms of what I do and how I express my faith that determine so much of the quality of my life. Internal rhythms that invite the Creator deep into my soul. I tend to live by a calendar and a schedule, which is sort of rhythmic, but doesn’t feel nearly as life-giving or enjoyable. Could it be that there are some things that fall naturally into an organic and gentle rhythm, like waves on the shore or seasons passing over the course of a year?

Rhythms of rest, study, prayer, disciplines, community. Rhythms in healthy relationships and the practicalities of being a Christ-follower. I’d like to explore this theme with a few blog posts.

Holding On To What I Read (Reading Well pt. 4)

For those who love books, it is an easy (and potentially destructive) temptation to skim and try to finish a text without really owning its contents. Here, the goal is to make a mental check and be able to say, “I read that,” without really, really reading it. Because I enjoy reading so much and because it is almost effortless for me to just let my eyes scroll through pages…I am guilty of this sort of mindlessness all the time. And then saying, (ok, boasting) “I read that.”

I used to enjoy reading for quantity… reading as much as possible, often as fast as possible. Honesty alert – I still do this sometimes. Especially when I come across something I feel like I’m “supposed to have read”.  And for the record, this isn’t always bad. We can all sometimes grasp the gist of a book quite well with little effort – and sometimes our time is more valuable than a wrestling with the content. As I age however, I realize the importance of reading for quality. When I take the time to pick up a book I feel has something to offer me, I need to give it the time and attention it deserves. Therefore, I find myself reading less … but in a weird twist, actually reading more, if you know what I mean.

The goal of reading shouldn’t be just to finish the work, but to engage with it – whatever that looks like for you. Sometimes it looks like … acquiring information. (Sometimes just because it has been assigned or would be something good to know.)  Other times it looks like a conversation between two friends as they warmly discuss something they mutually love. It may resemble a wrestling match at times when the author and reader disagree over something, each trying to best the other. Or it may be an experience where the reader is introduced to something totally new, their imaginations pushed to new and wider places – and it takes a while to figure out what the book is doing to their mind and heart. At least that’s how it looks for me sometimes.

With this as an introduction, I want to address potential ways one can hold on to what one reads. While reading a lot of text, a lot of material and a lot of pages, how do I ensure that I retain the important information in a way that changes me? Or at least so that I am open in such a way that there is the potential for it to change me? Or that I can access important points later if I need it? Books have been written on how to read books (sort of ironic…) but here are my thoughts on it and practices with it.

1. It’s not all important.  A while back, I heard Rick Warren talk about his reading habits. He said, “Not all chapters are created equal.” The point was that even though he is a voracious reader, he doesn’t feel obligated to read an entire book, because some of its content is more important or more applicable or more relevant than the rest. So he picks and chooses often. I took this to heart. When reading a book, sometimes I go cover to cover and dig in. Even if I have to make myself, because I think the material is important.  Sometimes I skim the parts that I think aren’t as important. And I’m totally ok with this.

2. Read with a highlighter. Yes, I’ve heard that reading with a highlighter isn’t always a good way to retain information.(Especially if it is a black sharpie:) But it sort of works for me. It allows me to slow down when I recognize an important concept or sentence. It allows me to combine being a visual learner (using the eyes) with being a kinesthetic learner (using the body and movement), hitting two different modes of learning. And it gives me a way to later find what I thought was important as I was reading it. Sometimes I will make notes in the margins, but because I often sit or lay down comfortably while reading, my physical position makes this difficult. I’ve gotten quite good at highlighting a book while flat on my back.

3. Blogging. No secret here…if I find an idea intriguing…I often write about it on the blog. I think of it as an ongoing discussion with the material…and a way to invite Jesus into the conversation as well. If I can articulate an idea in writing, I own it at a completely different level. If I didn’t blog regularly, I suspect writing key ideas, quotes or thought-provoking questions in a journal would do the same thing – create another opportunity and mode of learning with which to filter the information. But I know not everyone blogs, so I also make…

4. Journal lists. I don’t always have time to sit down and formulate a whole blog post on something I’m thinking about. I don’t always have time to sit down and journal an idea thoroughly when it hits either. So sometimes I start a list in my journal. It can be of ideas, concepts, questions, phrases…things I want to remember for later. It is a shortcut that doesn’t take much time and allows me to revisit something later if I want. For instance, a list for me might be, “What I’m Thinking About Right Now…” or “Things I Would Like To Talk Over With A Friend…” or “Scriptures to Re-read When I Get More Time…” or “This Author/Book Has Made Me Think About…” These lists often have their genesis in the books I’m reading.

5. Conversations. One of the easiest ways to more clearly remember something I’ve read is to talk it over with a friend. I often carry what I’m reading around, to coffee or lunch dates, to church, etc. If I get there first, I nonchalantly place it on the table to see what sort of response it gets. This allows me an easy conversation starter. Or…I ask someone else, “I’m reading something and thinking about it ________ could I get your opinion on it?”

6. Trust God to bring to mind what I will need when I need it. I know that pastor types often have intricate filing systems to store what they read for later sermon prep. I’m not a pastor. I’m just type A housewife who loves to learn. And even though I publicly speak occasionally, the idea of a filing system seems to duplicate material – because the material is sitting right there in the book on my shelf  (or in my Kindle). Instead, I read, keep the book handy, and trust that if God wants me to revisit the information at some point – either for myself or for teaching prep, then He will jog my memory. So far, He’s been very reliable:). And then, I am free to enjoy reading something rather than stressing too much over, “What if I forget this?”

The reality of course is that we forget much of what we read. Which is ok. Even if I remember just a bit of what I read, it is still more than if I’d never read anything. And, the practice of actively reading something is incredibly valuable. It keeps my mind sharp, creates opportunities for God to speak to me through it and inevitably changes me.

Not Just Reading to Stay Current But Reading To Grow Deep – (Reading Well pt. 3)

When choosing which books to read, which authors to allow to invest in my intellectual and spiritual development…

It is an easy temptation to limit myself to current bestselling authors, those that generate buzz on Amazon, that have displays at the Christian bookstore or that get pushed through the big conferences. I definitely read to stay current, engaging the ideas and idea-generators that are impacting our culture. There is nothing wrong with this.

But there is nothing new under the sun. The Jesus I know and love today is the same Jesus believers have known and loved for centuries. He doesn’t change. And while Jesus is the same yesterday, today and forever, the culture and circumstances through which we experience Him do.

So I regularly read from authors of other time periods and other nationalities:

Those who had to lean on Him through the middle ages where famine and disease and unbelievable uncertainty reigned were privileged to see facets of His character that are all but invisible to me in modern 21st century America. Those who had to work through the ethical dilemmas of the World War II era in Europe, where there were no easy options to escalating evil that snuck in the backdoor. They learned things about making decisions that could cost their lives that I may never be forced to learn. The desert fathers of the first millennium who left civilization, embracing chastity and devoting their intellect and vitality to the study the scriptures and contemplative prayer in the wilderness were privy to a quietness of soul I can hardly imagine. They were able to explore the depths of their hearts in ways that invited God to speak to them deeply, personally and tenderly.

These are all people I want to learn from. Yet they are not of my generation, century or culture.

These are not writing today’s bestsellers. Their books are not always easy to find. These are the authors and texts I must seek out if I am to read them – like buried treasure, tucked away on someone else’s bookshelves or hidden in the recesses of Amazon’s warehouses. Their works are timeless and filled with insights that are almost impossible to find in modern pages. And because they have already passed, I know how their lives ended. I am assured that they actually lived all they believed till their last day – and that they finished their race well. As such, I have more confidence that they really knew what they were writing about.

So I read authors from the past generations. From different centuries and nationalities. Here, my goal is to read to grow deep, not just to stay current.