Vocation Begins with Listening

It Begins with Listening

Everyday upon waking, we have three questions to respond to:

Who am I? What do I have to offer? And, who is my neighbor?

When these questions are asked by followers of Jesus Christ, the answers are transformative.

As each day opens up to unimagined diversions and distractions, a guiding intention for life must be in place.

Then the curves and detours are navigated, not with dread and fear of what lay behind the next corner.

Anxiety is reduced simply because we know what we are here for.  We have a purpose.

We have experienced times, though, in which the old approaches of the church fall woefully short of satisfying the apparent needs of the day.  Participation in church across the country continues to decline.

Financial support for congregations and denominational agencies is flagging.

The role of the church in society has changed.

Culture has become more complex and multifaceted.

Religious and spiritual concerns of people have become more individualized and pluralistic.

Facing the challenge of making the reign of God real among our neighbors and communities has become more complicated.

Sometimes we just try to work harder doing the same things we have done before. A definition of insanity… In these experiences, joy wanes, freshness is lacking, but transformation is waiting as we hear God again.

As our calling - as we have understood it - seems less effective, we may grope to "discover" our call, our vocation.

The discovery of a calling is not like constructing a building or crafting a work of art.

But more like a child find her way home by listening to her parent’s call, closing the distance the voice become clearer.

Discovering a call, it would make sense then, begins and ends with listening to a voice.

A call is not a committee’s work to forge and wordsmith, but a people’s work of listening.

Rather than crafting a vision and mission statement, we can actually listen and receive.  Listen to the voice that grants us our identity, and find out what that is calling us toward.

As we hear God calling us to engage in God’s mission, we find that we already have a mission statement.

It has come from God.

Jesus didn't speak in terms of vision and mission statements.  He granted us an identity, and he told us what to do with it:

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled by men. You are the light of the world. A city on a hill cannot be hidden.  Neither do people light a lamp and put it under a bowl. Instead they put it on its stand, and it gives light to everyone in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven (

Matthew 5:13-16


Jesus has granted us an identity and a purpose in life.

Growing out of our God-given identity, we come to understand who we are and what we are being called to do.

We take stock of our resources, and discover who our neighbors are.

Listening to God, to each other, and to our neighbors, we begin to hear outlines of God’s mission and our invitation to join.

Reflecting on these listening experiences transforms our understanding of our identity, our calling, and who is around us as neighbors and partners.

What IMD Can Help You Accomplish

Through a series of conversations with scripture, your congregation, and your community, we can help you begin to distill and refine what you are hearing.

We will help you listen to the word of God by dwelling in the Word.

Dwelling in the Word is a specific corporate spiritual practice of encountering scripture as a living voice speaking fresh insights to our present experiences.

We help you listen to one another in the context of listening to God’s.

This will lead to a greater sense of clarity about what God is speaking into being through the community of faith.

Then we guide you in listening to the wider community to understand the needs and hopes which surround us, but not only in order to do good things for others.

Rather, we listen to the wider community to hear what God is already engaged in beyond our activities.

And in the process, in unexpected places, we find partners in extending the grace of the kingdom of God.

As we listen, we begin to hear God’s calling for us.

Instead of ending with a written mission statement, you will continue with an awareness of the mission God is calling you toward.

As this awareness grows new forms of congregational life will be considered as God’s Spirit transforms individuals and the congregation’s structures and systems.

As you begin to live into your new identity and call, helpful resources, practices, and structures to move forward will be developed, such as:

  • Staff configurations.
  • Transforming conflicts to energize you to engage in God’s mission for your church.
  • Charting short and long range transition plans as you move from a “maintenance” form of church life to a “missional” form can be charted.
  • New ministry resourcing and fundraising

A new awareness of God’s missional calling for your congregation does not end with ideas and awareness, but lives on in new practices and structures.

And many of these behaviors and practices are going to be unique to each individual church and parish.  

Listening to Eccentrics

From Latin, "eccentricus" derived the Greek, "ekkentros" meaning out of the center.


                                Out of the center. 

Out of 




Not quite like "normal".

Some eccentrics are famous, wealthy and reclusive billionaires. Others live on the streets and speak to passersby with emotion and confusion. But the vast sum of eccentrics are all around us. Literally, around us, not in the center of us.

Recently I have had fun in my Introduction to Psychology class.  I begin my first lecture by trying to define what we mean when we speak of the "self." Where is your "you" and my "me"? I try to lace my lectures with simple experiments that students can perform with minimal preparation. One that I find particularly interesting deals with the attempt to locate the self.

William James wrote about the self as that to which we attach ourselves.  In Richard Lipka's book, The Self: Definitional and Methodological Issues, he lines out the three selves James works with. First, the "material Me (body, clothes, family, home, property), the social Me, and the spiritual Me," (page 45). In his 1890 publication, The Principles of Psychology, William James spoke of the self as:

In its widest possible sense, however, a man's Self is the sum total of all that he can call his, not only his body and his psychic powers, but his clothes and his house, his wife and children, his ancestors and friends, his reputation and works, his lands and horses, and yacht and bank account.

The first experiment we do is a variation on the kid's games of "Sweet and Sour". This game tests the expectations we have for reciprocity. The rule of reciprocity, an expectation that my actions toward another will affect in the other a response. In the game, Sweet and Sour, one waves at people driving past. My kids have played on the street and in the back seat our car on the highway. As someone sees you, you wave at them. If they ignore you, they are considered sour, if they wave back, they are sweet.

But the shortcoming is the we extend ourselves to all those we acknowledge. And from those we acknowledge, we expect reciprocity. But first, there are the many we do not see. We miss them for lack of time, or attention, or interest. Second, there are those we do not see, because in seeing them, we might not like what we feel; whether it be obligation, confusion and misunderstanding, or even disgust.

When we come out of our centers, edge ourselves to the threshold, to the liminal spaces will we be able to respond, with reciprocity, to those acknowledge us? What stories might we tell of "living on the edge"?

Blowing off Steam: Listening with Limbics

Blowing Off Steam

I wonder if there's a real connection between the ears and anger. Why else would we come up with these images of steam blowing out the ears? 

Have you ever had the experience of making a comment, or hearing someone else make a comment, which left you blank, mundane, neutral, or at least not agitated? But then, another person having heard the same thing has a volcanic reaction

Limbic Listening

Nathan Bauman, PhD, wrote to The Hearing Journal to highlight the role of the limbic system in listening. While Dr. Bauman writes about the unsettling effect of hearing aids for a person with partial hearing loss, it also makes me curious about the emotional reactions we may have to what we hear. Does communication breakdown, not because of the content, but because of the emotional reaction we have to the sounds, or perhaps the connotation we place upon what we hear?
As Dr Bauman notes,
"Part of our regulatory auditory mechanism, which tunes and de-tunes our attention process, is the limbic system. It is responsible for assigning more or less attention to a given auditory input. So, if there are multiple auditory inputs, the input most relevant to our conscious and subconscious mechanism receives top priority. When the limbic system detects new and/or more relevant information, it passes it on to the auditory cortex for processing. At the same time, a certain emotional association is assigned to it." (http://journals.lww.com/thehearingjournal/Fulltext/2004/07000/The_Role_of_the_Limbic_System.16.aspx)

Emotions and Discernment

By connection, I've lately been wondering about the role of the limbic system in discernment and if we are led by the emotional responses that are processed in the limbic system by what we hear, and the emotional connotation we attach to it. One of the primary roles the limbic system provides is the fight, flight, and freeze reactions, i.e., fear-based reactions. For instance, the limbic system is the system that creates the feeling in us that the roller-coaster ride will kill us. But the process of having the same or similar set of reactions on subsequent trips on the roller coaster may result in "fun" (not me, though). 

Why are the two reactions different? The first is pure emotion and a panic response for survival. The second response engages in "cognitive appraisal" and uses the higher thinking portions of the frontal cortex. 
  • What if we are working with people for whom fear, panic, or anxiety is a present reality?
  • What does hope do to engage more critical thinking and less emotional reactions?
  • How does an anxious church or organization "hear"? 
In my work with congregations experiencing anxiety, I've been impressed by the predisposition they have had toward fear. My immediate role has always been to allay fears. One of the questions that usually emerges in one way or another is, "is there any hope for us?" I always have to say "yes." But I also have to realistically prepare them for difficulty and change. Hope is always a gift. Especially to those with steam coming out of the ears. 

Listening to an Ass

There are times when I just don't want to listen anymore. Some bozo is blathering on about some issue, some hot topic, some rumor, some half-digested gristle of a bone-headed idea. Not only that, but this individual is passionate about it. And there are few things as irritating as the passionate pontificating of an an annoying ass.

I decided to look up on Google the answer to the question, "how do you spell the sound a donkey makes?" I was surprised to find the wiki.answers.com had the answer in over 20 languages. I guess there are pronunciations in other languages that just don't transliterate well.

For the Danish, the donkey says, "aeslet skryder" which would actually be pretty amazing. Apparently though, to most languages donkey's say something like "hee-haw".  The inverted sounds of Ukrainian and Turkish donkey's undoubtedly make for some lame arguments as Turkish donkeys bray "a-iii, a-iii" while the contrary Ukrainian donkeys counter with "ii-aa, ii-aa." However the Hindi donkeys may be my favorite with their unique "si-po, si-po" (see wiki.answers for more).

Perhaps the best way to listen to an ass, is to figure out where it is from. Maybe Ukrainian donkeys pronounce things differently because of their experiences. The Scandinavian donkeys with their complex sounds may be some evolutionary derivation from long dark winter nights and the desire to talk about something else other than the same old same old.

Even an Ass Needs to be Heard

Somewhere along the way, we have to realize the ass will keep braying loudly, just so it can be heard. Even an ass needs to have a voice. But even more, maybe the lone voice of the one ass is actually the one voice that is most needed.

Several years ago I learned a consulting technique from Pat Taylor Ellison of Church Innovations. We had a process of gathering stories from a local congregation or parish. It was a form of local ethnography. We listened to the storied responses to key questions from which the congregation wanted to gain insight. The questions were always framed with appreciative inquiry in mind, so the "answers" were actually responses to prompts asking for stories.

In democratic societies, we tend to to think that which ever story or opinion is provided most often must be the correct answer, the most insightful answer. We tend to conflate the prevailing narrative into being the correct, important, or key narrative. But what I learned from Pat and the process she taught was that the lone voice with a unique story was important as well, and could actually be the most important voice to listen to.

That Braying Ass

In the story of Balaam, a non-Israelite prophet, we learn that he rides upon an unnamed donkey. It is the donkey here that is the hero of the story. In The Message, the story is told from Numbers 22:21-33

Balaam got up in the morning, saddled his donkey, and went off with the noblemen from Moab. As he was going, though, God’s anger flared. The angel of God stood in the road to block his way. Balaam was riding his donkey, accompanied by his two servants. When the donkey saw the angel blocking the road and brandishing a sword, she veered off the road into the ditch. Balaam beat the donkey and got her back on the road.

But as they were going through a vineyard, with a fence on either side, the donkey again saw God’s angel blocking the way and veered into the fence, crushing Balaam’s foot against the fence. Balaam hit her again.

God’s angel blocked the way yet again—a very narrow passage this time; there was no getting through on the right or left. Seeing the angel, Balaam’s donkey sat down under him. Balaam lost his temper; he beat the donkey with his stick.

Then God gave speech to the donkey. She said to Balaam: “What have I ever done to you that you have beat me these three times?”

Balaam said, “Because you've been playing games with me! If I had a sword I would have killed you by now.”

The donkey said to Balaam, “Am I not your trusty donkey on whom you’ve ridden for years right up until now? Have I ever done anything like this to you before? Have I?”He said, “No.”

Then God helped Balaam see what was going on: He saw God’s angel blocking the way, brandishing a sword. Balaam fell to the ground, his face in the dirt.

God’s angel said to him: “Why have you beaten your poor donkey these three times? I have come here to block your way because you’re getting way ahead of yourself. The donkey saw me and turned away from me these three times. If she hadn’t, I would have killed you by this time, but not the donkey. I would have let her off.”

How do You Listen to an Ass?

1. Where's that sound coming from, part 1?

Most likely that braying sound is not coming from your ride, or from the sound of those with whom you travel through your days. More likely, it is from beside the path or at a distance. It might be coming from the places others don't usually visit, aside from the crowd, from the outlier. The outlier is one who is not reflected in the prevailing statistical averages. They are the anomaly, the odd ball. As a result, they are sometimes in social isolation. I'm reminded of a church marquee during a national election week. The message on the sign stated, "The majority is rarely correct." There are times that those who are not enmeshed with the staus quo actually see things with greater clarity. Who are those who are alone, isolated, odd-ball characters in your life? What are they saying? Might there be a kernel of wisdom worthy of of consideration from their unique perspective?

2. Where's that sound coming from, part 2?

As listening skills atrophy in our overly connected culture (see Together Alone, Sherry Turkle) our ability to "attend to" another person is correspondingly weakened. Attentional listening not only listens to denotative content (attentive listening, as it has been taught), but attends to the humanity of the person communicating. What is said from the history, perspective, the emotional center of the person is not always reflected in the words. Attentional listening forces the exercise of empathy and careful attention to the non-verbals, the context, and the timing. Where, then in the life of the person, is this sound emerging?

3. Learning the languages of asses (see above wiki reference)

Not everyone means the same thing when they use familiar words. I recall learning the difference between conversational questions, and rhetorical statements intended to hide criticism. Once I was asked if I thought my preaching was satisfactory. When I answered, I thought with humility, stating that I believed I knew the congregation, I believed I had studied the texts well, and that the applications and illustrations were helpful. I also stated that I wasn't used to preaching so infrequently and that I felt as if I was not in rhythm, was a little out of sorts. It was a couple years later that I was told that was an argumentative answer. That I had been criticized for not preaching well and I argued back. I was told I should have known that the question to me was not a question, but a statement; and, I should have been aware of the passive aggressive habit of the questioner and the culture.

Learn the language of the culture!

4. Some asses are quieter than other

Isaiah describes the quiet voice of the suffering servant (Isa 42), as one who "will not cry or lift up his voice, or make it heard in the street".  This simply make me wonder if there are important promptings we are just missing. 

Listen closely. Maybe the next ass you hear might be braying in Danish, "aeslet skryder, aeslet skryder!"

Listening: Is there anything to hear?

I was inspired by the second presidential debate. I'm not really sure what the opposite of "inspire" is, but this debate did it to me. Regardless of which candidate I wanted to win the debate, and which candidate I wanted to win the election, I was flabbergasted by both of the candidates.

the "talking-but-not-listening" epidemic
As I considered my frustration, it kind of poured out. I felt like I had hit some kind of limit. That all the noise of debating and arguing; posing and positioning had finally crossed some threshold.

Where did we begin to go wrong as a society in communicating? Since most of our culture is informed by commercial interests in competition for viewers, delivery of information is less important than viewers, readers, or listeners.  Was it the Springer Show? Was it the when Rush Limbaugh or Dr Laura went on the air? And more to the point, why did these manifestations of an "in your face" entertainment style actually gain ratings, receive sponsors, and build up market share.
Would it be a reach to be concerned that entertainers are simply giving us what we have asked for?

Over time, we have become a talking-at culture. Listening to the presidential debates and the discussions afterwards, there was little discussion about the source and origin of the positions taken by the candidates. As I listened to others at ball games, neighbors, and friends, I began to see how people were unable to discuss their personal interests and concerns about a wide range of subjects. When people opened up about their positions, they were more like pronouncements. Pronouncements about which there was no reasonable conversation.

Over the year, I want to look at communication, but especially listening. Along with listening, comes the need:
  • to create more effective ways of speaking
  • to create trusting relationships so people are willing to discuss their personal interests rather than positions
  • to understand what occurs in the brain when listening to fear inducing communication
  • to understand ways to speak in order to be more effective
  • to develop tests and tools to measure and assess different listening styles and skills
  • to develop better ways to listen for decision and discernment
  • to develop skills in listening to history, cultures, and experiences of others
  • to find processes that sharpen our listening and discernment for groups
  • to work at listening so as to begin to hear each other in peace
  • and to find confidence in faith that God, too, can be heard 
Next week, I'll be thinking about the time it takes to create listening environments. Listening can be slow and needs time.

Looking forward to hearing from you!

Listening to Strangers: An Experiment

What if we (okay, I) were to walk up to a stranger, a neighbor, and a friend, as ask an open ended question about a biblical text? Asking questions like "what do hear in this passage?" or "what words or images come to mind when you hear this...?" What would be the types of responses? Maybe a text like, "the earth is the Lord's and the fullness thereof;" or, "love your enemies;" or the "children of God... shining like stars."

I'll let you know if I do it. If you do it first, let me know.