A very wise mentor of mine was speaking to a packed house of care professionals. The room was filled with counselors and coaches, therapists and pastors. I knew he would be good, but I had no idea that his very first words would burn right in to my heart.
“How are you?,” he asked. Then he went on to turn his head and stare directly at me in the audience and follow up with, “How are you REALLY?”
I’ve never forgotten that seminar. The rest of his talk was amazing, but it was the first seven words out of his mouth that captured my heart. Words that have stayed with me forever.
You see, as a missionary, most of us are experts at wearing the happy face, at being stoic, and at putting on our best performance. We are accustomed to being performance driven and most of the questions that are asked of us are questions about work, about duties, and about how much success we are (or are not) having.
Most of the time, the question “how are you doing” is really asked with the motivation of finding out “what are you doing and how successful are you at doing it”? The times when people are most intent on listening to missionaries are when they are on ‘display’, when they are on home assignment and are asked to preach or speak at a dinner or be the guest speaker at a fundraising dinner. The stage is set and the script is prepared. The questions revolve around customs or food, what are the living conditions or questions about specific ministry initiatives. But the deep, “how are you REALLY” questions are not there. It is a rare and precious bird, indeed, that asks “how are you” and really means it with complete sincerity, who follows it up with the time and space to actually listen to the response.
Listening with your heart is perhaps the best gift you can give. It is a skill that must be practiced in today’s hustle bustle society. Listening requires focus. Listening is not a multi-tasking skill. You cannot be truly focused and listening with your heart if you heart and brain and ears are divided between your cell phone screen and your lunch date and your to-do list at work. The friend who asks “How are you?” and then waits to hear the answer, who looks me in the face and leans forward to hear my response, who engages in asking good questions and listens to my emotions – that is a true friend who is giving a blessing of a gift.
I have a good example from our home leave assignment this past year. Home assignment is always a whirlwind of speaking engagements and social events and trying to squeeze in way too many appointments into way too little time. It’s exhausting, honestly. One Sunday during home leave, we were asked to deliver the sermon at a local church. The time went as usual – we arrived early to do a sound check on microphones in the sanctuary and to chat with the pastor about the order of the service, then we milled about and socialized with the congregation as the pastor introduced us to folks when they arrived. At the appropriate time during the service, we were introduced and we gave the message. At the end of the service, the pastor announced that we would be available after church to stay and have a time to chat about missions and to answer any question, and all were welcomed to stay. The last hymn was sung and folks left the sanctuary. Only one woman stayed behind to talk.
My husband and the pastor’s family went to the foyer to chat while I stayed in the sanctuary and sat down to chat with the woman, Susan. I was prepared for the usual questions… what is Spain like? What is education like for your daughter? What do you miss about Texas? How many people are coming to your ministry initiatives? Etc. The usual stuff. The things I can answer in my sleep. What I didn’t expect was 45 minutes of really good questions! What blew me away was a woman who sat with me for 45 minutes and asked deep questions about really tough stuff. I hadn’t ever met this woman before, and here she was asking me honest, gut-level questions that had me digging deep for answers that I had not ever put in to words before. She leaned in and listened to my every word. A couple of her questions had my eyes filling with tears. No one had ever asked those things before, and I knew that this woman really cared about who I was and how my soul was feeling. No one, in our 9 years of being in Peru and Spain, has ever gone so deep in to my soul… and she did it in 45 minutes.
The next time you sit down to talk or Skype with a missionary, give them the gift of listening. With thousands of miles separating family and friends, mission partners and supporters, it’s sometimes tough to know what to say or how to listen well. Try a few of these tips:
- Give your full attention. Put away the smart phone. Don’t get distracted by your surroundings.
- Get a cup of coffee and settle in. Act like we’re sitting together in a café or at the kitchen table together.
- The only agenda is to be a good listener. Try not to put the missionary in the position of being on display or being the guest speaker for your phone call.
- Ask good open-ended questions that have depth and are not superficial. Good questions followed by good listening shows that you really care. Try a few of these:
- What has recently made you feel loved or appreciated?
- What has made you feel good about yourself lately?
- In what ways or situations have you felt alone or unworthy lately?
- How do you currently measure success? What has made you feel successful this month?
- What about the culture in (Spain) is the most difficult for you right now?
- What thing about your life is the most wonderful right now?
- What has rocked your world this month?
- What is heavy on your heart right now?
- Who is your closest friend in (Spain) and why? What do they mean to you?
- If you could change one thing about your schedule this week / month, what would it be?
- Name something that you are currently struggling with / fearful of… talk about that a little bit so I know how to pray for you in that situation.
- How are you resting / relaxing? How do you take care of yourself? Who takes care of you when you need love and attention? Who cares for you?
- If you were by yourself and could do anything that you wanted to for one day, what would it be?
- What are you most grateful for this week?
- Who has been the kindest to you?
- If you could ask God for one thing today, what would it be?
Listening is an incredible gift you can give to a missionary. To be focused and to listen with your whole heart, to give the gift of time… this is a priceless blessing.