party“To be yourself in a world that is constantly trying to make you something else is the greatest accomplishment.”

Ralph Waldo Emerson

“Today you are You, that is truer than true. There is no one alive who is Youer than You.”

Dr. Seuss

 

“So, you…just listen?”

We certainly didn’t expect the response we received that afternoon.

We were attending a World Leaders Conference with some of the deepest thinkers, activists, and social change agents from around the world. We had been graced with two complimentary tickets to the conference and felt privileged to be “invited to the party,” to listen, for three days, as others shared their BIG ideas and how those ideas were making a significant difference in the lives of others.

The first morning started off well. Several key communicators spoke with conviction and vulnerability. The conference was doing exactly what we hoped it would—it was beginning to reenergize us to go back into our mission field with passion and enthusiasm. But things quickly shifted as the lunch hour approached. The host of the conference invited us to get our lunches and assemble around a table with six or eight other attendees. One by one, we went around the table introducing ourselves and describing our areas of expertise.

The first leader spoke about his gifts in engineering and how those gifts were helping to create irrigation systems in third world countries for water preservation. The second leader shared her gifts related to public relations and described how those skills were helping children learn English as a second language on the Internet. The third leader shared her qualities in leadership development and explained the curriculum she had created to prepare teenagers to enter the business world in foreign marketplaces.

More and more BIG ideas flowed. Economics. Healthcare. Politics. Communication. Each idea was unique; each idea was significant. It felt that way to us and it seemed that everyone else felt that way too.

Then it was our turn. We introduced ourselves. Then, one of us explained our mission of providing a compassionate presence and a listening ear for people who need a safe place to share their stories. Silence. We could hear a pin drop. It wasn’t because they were overwhelmed by what we said. They simply didn’t know how to respond. The awkward silence went on for a few seconds until one of the women rescued everyone else at the table by inviting them to eat their lunches. That was it.

Another woman sitting next to us hesitantly made eye contact. She re-introduced herself knowing that we would be sitting next to one another for the rest of the afternoon. We couldn’t be “avoided” even if that’s what she wanted.

After a few pleasantries, she quickly asked us a question:

“So, you…just listen?”

She emphasized the word, “JUST” as if our mission was unimportant; it felt vaguely dismissive.

It seemed as if she was asking the question everyone else around the table wanted to ask, but didn’t or wouldn’t.

We both looked at each other, meekly, wondering which one of us would respond. Quite honestly, it wasn’t the first time we had been asked that question, so we weren’t completely caught off-guard. Tom spoke up:

“We think often times we are too quick to try to fix others. We offer platitudes and wise sounding advice as if we have a “magic bullet” to solve someone’s problems. Most of us like to see cure and change in someone else’s life. But what we do not want to see is that other people’s problems often aren’t fixable in the short-term.”

Michael added, “What most of us need most of the time, instead of problem solving, is someone to care for us by walking with us through our pain and brokenness. We believe that we can all do this by listening well and entering those dark places with others.”

He continued, “In fact, the word “care” finds its roots in the word “lament.” We can all lament with those who have experienced loss, those who are feeling lonely, those who are uncertain or doubtful, those who are searching for meaning. We can mourn with them. We give them a shoulder to cry on. We can cry out in anguish with them.”

She didn’t seem too interested in our response; her head started scanning the room as if she was planning her exit strategy.

Knowing that there wasn’t an easy exit, we decided instead to engage her in conversation. We asked her a question about her area of expertise: communications. She had shared, just a few moments before, about the books, seminars, and trainings she does for organizations to enable better communication with investors and employees. Later that week we would be speaking to a large group of our financial supporters at our annual fundraising banquet and we thought she might be able to help focus our message.

“So how might we best approach things?”

The question was barely finished when she chimed in,

“Ok, so, you need to do this…”

“Do this….”

“Do this, this, and this…”

“Make sure…you don’t do this…”

“And definitely, definitely, don’t do that…”

“Oh yeah, and one more thing, make sure you do this!!!”

By the time she had finished her debriefing, our heads hurt. Lunchtime was over and so was her instruction. Tom whispered “What just happened?” Even though she offered some real inspiration and wisdom and gave us a few things to ponder, we were stunned.

With our minds (and hearts) still reeling, the afternoon session commenced. The next speaker spoke about valuing those around us by celebrating their individuality. He asked a question of the audience, “Who on earth needs encouragement?”

He waited a few moments, letting his question really sink in, knowing that everyone in the room needed to hear his answer.

“EVERYONE—ON—EARTH—DOES!”

We weren’t sure if the speaker’s words spoke to everyone else in the room but it was a healing salve to us.

During an afternoon break, we joined a huddle around the bathroom with several others. Again, the same inevitable question comes up:

“So, what do you do?”

“I am a architect. I design eco-friendly skyscrapers in Asia, a woman responds. Another man chimes in, “I am the CEO of a food chain. I work with government officials to get food distributed to countries where people are malnourished.”

“That’s amazing! That sounds like very fulfilling and important work. We have no doubt that you are making a difference,” Tom says.

They ask us what we do.

“We listen and help bear other peoples’ burdens.”

“So, you…just listen to people? Do you offer advice or solutions?”the CEO retorts.

What amazes us about that question is not the words themselves, but rather the tone with which it is often asked. What we have found, quite often, is that those who ask that question are typically not the best listeners.

We aren’t offended by the question; in fact, we appreciate being asked about what we do because it helps us better communicate the importance of our ministry and how we use our spiritual gifts. But like everyone else, there are days when we don’t feel as if who we are and what we provide is meaningful.

In those moments, we have been offended and discouraged by the skeptical, condescending nature of some peoples’ responses. Maybe it’s because everyone else seems to be “producing” something tangible. What we offer is intangible and many times that seems to be devalued by the world. Thankfully, we remind one another that our gifts come from God, not from anyone else, and so God obviously thinks they are important enough to give them to us! We also realize deep down that others do not convey worth on any of us. Only God can do that. Each one of us has gifts and abilities that the world needs. We celebrate and believe that every one of us has something of great value to offer and we are called to encourage one another.

Theologian Dietrich Bonheoffer, before dying in a Nazi prison, wrote an amazing book about Christian community called, Life Together. In the book, Bonhoeffer writes about the art of listening to one another (as opposed to “just” listening). He states,

Christians, especially ministers, so often think they must always contribute something when they are in the company of others, that this is the one service they have to render. They forget that listening can be a greater service than speaking.

Many people are looking for an ear that will listen… One who cannot listen long and patiently will presently be talking beside the point and be never really speaking to others, albeit he be not conscious of it. Anyone who thinks that his time is too valuable to spend keeping quiet will eventually have no time for God and his brother, but only for himself and for his own follies.

Surely, we aren’t taking anything away from what others bring to the world. In fact, we celebrate, very much so, the uniqueness of all of our skillsets. The apostle Paul, in 1 Corinthians 12 (New Living Translation) used the illustration of a body to talk about the significance of what each of us presents and how the body wouldn’t be a body without all of us:

12 The human body has many parts, but the many parts make up one whole body…

14 Yes, the body has many different parts, not just one part. 15 If the foot says, “I am not a part of the body because I am not a hand,” that does not make it any less a part of the body. 16 And if the ear says, “I am not part of the body because I am not an eye,” would that make it any less a part of the body? 17 If the whole body were an eye, how would you hear? Or if your whole body were an ear, how would you smell anything?

18 But our bodies have many parts, and God has put each part just where he wants it …

25 This makes for harmony among the members, so that all the members care for each other. 26 If one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, and if one part is honored, all the parts are glad.

27 All of you together are Christ’s body, and each of you is a part of it.

Some of us may not be wired in such a way as to be able to build bridges, cook magnificent meals, write plans and procedures to design things, but others of us can. (We especially thank those of you who are mathematicians because Lord knows we don’t have that gift! You can ask our wives!!)

Some of us have been given the gift of being present and offering a listening ear. Here is a thought:

What if you looked at every person you interact with, no matter where they find themselves on life’s journey, as if they have something important to teach you? Wouldn’t that level the playing field?

We all have unique gifts, important gifts. And one of the primary ways we show compassion to one another is by celebrating each other’s exceptionality. Everyone has something to offer and deserves to be invited to the party.

Author Frederick Buechner, another hero of ours, once said:

The grace of God means something like: Here is your life. You might never have been, but you are because the party wouldn’t have been complete without you. Here is the world. Beautiful and terrible things will happen. Don’t be afraid. I am with you. Nothing can ever separate us. It’s for you I created the universe. I love you. There’s only one catch. Like any other gift, the gift of grace can be yours only if you’ll reach out and take it. Maybe being able to reach out and take it is a gift too.

If you find yourself doubting your gifts or questioning whether or not what you bring to the party is significant and meaningful, we invite you to surround yourself with people (like we do for one another), who can remind you that the party wouldn’t be a party without you. Using the body illustration, each of us plays a very important role in making the body a body; without eyes, we couldn’t see where God wants to take us; without feet, we couldn’t go to those place He has asked us to go; without minds, we would lack creativity in how to get to those special places. All of us are of sacred worth. All of us bring value to the world. All of us make a party, a party worth attending.

Here’s something that we believe is important to remember:

“The thing I remember best about successful people I’ve met all through the years is their obvious delight in what they’re doing and it seems to have very little to do with worldly success. They just love what they’re doing, and they love it in front of others.” 

Fred RogersThe World According to Mister Rogers: Important Things to Remember

Every one of us is uniquely, wonderfully and generously made. We have all been endowed with very special gifts to share with the world. When we are able to recognize our gifts and are given the encouragement and opportunity to offer them to others, we will delight in what we are enabled to do. We will love each day, even the hard days. When we are able to do what we have been created to do, it is remarkable what can be accomplished and how much we can enjoy the journey.

The two of us are privileged to have that experience every day. Make no mistake, some days are challenging, frustrating and long. They’re not always fun. But because we are able to do what we know we’ve been created to do and can certainly delight in it, even those hard days are gifts that make us more resilient, stronger and better listeners, caregivers and men.

It’s a joy and privilege to be at this “party”, doing what God has called and given us to do.   We wouldn’t have it any other way. We are supremely grateful that we know who we are, why we’re here and who God calls us –always – to be.

Every one of us brings something meaningful and essential “to the party”. When we can recognize that about one another, and ourselves, “the party” is infinitely richer and more joyful because of it.