My wife, Karen, and I now have been married 39 years, as of yesterday, August 22. I said, “That’s how long old people are married!” Yesterday, we were reminiscing about my sabbatical in 2016. Then I had walked the Camino de la Santiago, began this blog, and spent weeks watercolor painting in Ireland. In the conversation, Karen observed, “I think your sabbatical saved our marriage.” I agreed. Not that we might have divorced, but we would have unhappily lived in something broken, unstable, not knowing how to make it whole.
During the sabbatical, we were separated for two months. In those months, Karen said, “I realized how much I had begun to experience your energy as something which pushed me away. I felt like I had one corner at home, as if, I was a tree in a corner of the bedroom with roots straight down and limbs straight up, and the rest of the house was yours.”
She knew I had not intended this for her, but this was how it felt. “While you were gone,” she continued, “It was like those branches lowered. I tentatively left the corner. I began to make the bedroom home, I reclaimed the craft room, I changed the decor in the living room and began to love being in the dining room and made creative meals in the kitchen.” The home is an extension of Karen’s soul, it is a haven, a safe place. For me to have pushed her into a corner, meant one thing as I listened, I had stomped on her very soul.
Major shifts in relationships don’t happen all of a sudden, but slowly, over time. Six years prior, in 2010, Karen had begun work as a pastor. It was this huge shift in life. As she adjusted to the new reality, the exhaustion, the long drives, the late meetings, etc., she asked me to do some of the home care. I would make dinner, clean house, do dishes, etc.
Unwittingly, I absorbed aspects of the home which she had felt were hers fulfill. I was not seeking to displace her, but over the years the subtle adjustments became permanent changes. I’d assume I knew what she needed, without asking. I’d be taking care of things while she was feeling like a visitor in her own home. Hence the image of the tree in the corner of one room.
Karen described this to me with some trepidation in our first days together in Ireland, 2016. This was during the last three weeks of my sabbatical. She thought I would be angry. But, I was immensely grateful. Clearly, I had been blind. I saw how I needed to practice with her all I had learned through five years of Simply the Story storytelling training. There I had learned to ask questions, listen, and respond with questions. How I wanted to make reparations!
We worked to identify what had happened and how to make changes. Some of these would be subtle. I’d ask about plans for dinner, and ask if she wanted me to help, not just assume it. Some were more major. After two years, in 2018, we adjusted more. She then communicated how my quick responses and opinions made her feel unsafe in our relationship. Then I adopted what I call “rules,” such as: Don’t assume. Don’t use “should.” Don’t interrupt. Don’t give advice. These boil down to just two: ask questions and be curious. So, in the two years since, through practice, we have rediscovered a solid place to stand in our relationship.
Questions and Answers
In the three year ministry of Jesus, we find a record of him being asked over 200 questions. But amazingly Jesus, God with skin on, who knew all the answers to everything, answered only three of those questions directly. Three. To the rest, he either asked a question or told a story in response. Ponder this. Do you treat questions as an invitation to further dialog or something inviting your opinion?
I realize, sometimes a question needs a direct answer. “When would you like dinner?” “Are you hungry?” “Do you want to go on a hike?”
But most often, a question is an invitation to more deeply understand another person. So, how often do you answer questions directly? How often do you ask open-ended questions in response?
Physically, we already know we have two ears and one mouth. Shouldn’t the ratio alone tell us something about how much more listening we ought to be doing than speaking? Asking a question is a chance to listen. Apply just these two things to any relationship, they will add value:
- I will ask open ended questions instead of giving answers. (Try: “Tell me more…” or “Is there anything else?”)
- I’ll listen to understand not to respond.
Karen and I can testify, these deepen any relationship.
I come back to all this in the season of COVID-19. I find the disparate opinions, the fears in the air, the negative restrictions, the views on masks, etc., allow me to frequently relearn the lessons I have learned with Karen — to listen and to ask open-ended questions. Instead, unfortunately, I allow anger to bring me into opinions that help no one and bring my stress into the house. So, again, as I wrote last week, I need to lay it all down. Hold others in a good light, telling myself, “They are doing the best they can with the wisdom they have.”
I was meditating on Hebrews 11 a couple weeks back, the Faith Hall of Fame in scripture in which we find a long, long list of real people who lived real lives in real times all “by faith.” Therein, we see faith is not a doctrine, so much as a part of the story of a lived life. It is a knowing, certainly, confidence in Who God is and What God will do no matter what we are experiencing.
Since it is part of the story of each of our lives, faith will look different as it is expressed. But here’s the rub, either we are living by such faith or we are living motivated by something else entirely. We can be living “by anger,” “by fear,” “by hate,” or “by selfishness.” Today, many, many are living “by fear,” for this is the popularized, promoted belief system regarding the current world pandemic. Currently, the greater pandemic is the fallout from this belief system of fear. My naturopath told me of all the patients she has seen in 2020, the majority suffered from liver malfunction caused by too much bleach in the atmosphere (hand sanitizer and cleaning agents) and from depression more than of anything else.
When I get wound up, upset, angry, I’m no longer living by faith. Faith is described by the author of Hebrews as the “evidence of things hoped for…” Am I evidencing a certainty of hope when I am upset, angry, and wound up? Hardly. By faith, Noah obeyed God’s command to build an ark to save him and his family from something which had never before been seen on the earth. Can you imagine this? He didn’t question God’s command, he simply obeyed it, yet a flood had never before been experienced. He didn’t know what was coming, but for 120 years, he kept building the ark.
This project was Noah’s faith expressed in the ordinary activity of his life. His faith looked like a building project. And this project proclaimed to all those around him his faith.
Faith in your life won’t look like Noah’s nor Abel’s nor Enoch’s nor Abraham’s nor mine. It is the expressions that will differ. No one story of those in the Hall of Fame in Hebrews 11 is the same. There was only one Abraham, one Moses, one Enoch. Each knew, followed, obeyed the same God, yet their lives differed even while being characterized as “looking forward to a city with foundations whose architect and builder is God” (Hebrews 11:10).
If everyone’s faith is going to look different, perhaps I don’t need to be as stressed about what I see or do not see in the lives of another. What I do need to be concerned with is this, “How am I living out the faith I have in my own life? Am I living generously? Am I living with a heart open to asking questions, open to listening?”
For faith is characterized by hope, and when Karen is asking me what I am upset about, or why the energy in the room is tense, clearly, I am allowing something other than faith to lead my life.
So, I need to return to God. I need to return to the God who said through the prophet Jeremiah this amazing statement. It was during dismal times. Times experienced because the people had dumped faith and turned to worship all kinds of other false and hopeless gods and goddesses. Times of exile and destruction and death and weeping. It was worse than this pandemic.
But, in that time, recorded in Jeremiah 32:27, God spoke through the prophet saying this:
“I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for Me?”
What’s the answer to this question?
For me, coming to this question in my read through scripture this year has been such an encouragement. God has us and has this, and there is NOTHING too hard for God. Nothing. So, as you hear pundits pandering fear, as you see people walking in hopelessness, as you encounter discouraging news, like 10,000 lightning strikes in California and the multiple fires, as your loved ones are in difficult times, come back to the God who asks, “Is anything too hard for Me?” Remember who your God is.
Remember who your God is.
That’s all. Just remember. Get back in touch with the character of the God who asks questions and tells stories. Get back in touch with the God who knows EXACTLY what is going on even when you do not. And breathe deeply. And do something by faith — slice a cucumber; take a walk; eat some chocolate: build a boat. Do it by faith, as an expression of your hope that God has you and has this season.
Strip off the clothing of doubt and pick up the clothing of faith again. And as you do so, listen for the voice of the One who is always speaking to you and hear this God say, “Son, Daughter, I love you. I have you. I have this season. Trust me.” And just do that. And you will find therein something solid.
As David wrote in Psalm 40, God will do for you: