As we launched on our Lenten theme based on Bishop Reuben Job’s book, Listen: Praying in a Noisy World, I was clicking along with my usual busy schedule. Lots of things going on with church … two studies starting at exactly the same time. Lots of things going on with family … dealing with an aging mom and her finances and the absolute necessity of having time for the new grandbabies.
Then there was the pain I was feeling in my hip and lower back. After having had back surgery in 2012, I remembered the old symptoms of spinal stenosis. And my answer was simple: “I don’t have time for this. Body, you will just have to wait.” Then my body spoke to me a different way … a way that I had not heard before. The stomach pain began to build and by the end of last Wednesday, I was in the ER at a local hospital about to be admitted for partial small bowel obstruction. My body was no longer talking to me … it was screaming at me!
During my hospitalization, I realized once again the trap that befalls many clergy. We are so good at listening to the needs of others … our church families and even our own families … but we are not so good at listening to our own bodies. With that realization, listening has taken on a whole new meaning.
As I returned from the hospital, I started thinking about the many ways I am good at listening. Throughout the years, I have been known as someone who listened well. That’s what shaped what I came to call a ministry of presence where people began to believe I was doing a lot for them when all I was doing was listening. It helped me shape my current personal mission statement: my mission is to practice a ministry of presence that reflects the light of Christ on the paths of those seeking a better future. Listening. That’s all it really is.
Then there is the spiritual practice of listening, which is a big part of our theme for Lent. How do we listen to God in a very noisy world? Where and how does God speak to us? Admittedly, there are times when I consider that I have done much better at this task. There are those seasons in my life when I have taken time each day and spent days in personal retreat listening for God. During those times, I have experienced considerable growth. Those are times that have often been nothing short of transformative. My personal commitment during this season of Lent was intentionally to spend more time listening to God.
But it now appears that God has spoken to me through my own body … and in many ways is speaking to me through the church, the Body of Christ. The message I now have is a message to practice self-care. In a conversation with the chair of our Church Council, Avis reminded me that it is not possible to help fill someone else’s bucket if my own bucket is empty (a saying she attributed to my predecessor). My staff and lay leadership have stepped up to encourage me to take the necessary time to heal, and I highly suspect that they hope I will listen to them, even if I am unwilling to listen to my own body.
So I am learning to listen all over again. I am building upon the skills I have at listening to God and to others, and I am now learning anew how to listen to my own body. The problem, of course, is that the clergy, like many in the service sector of our society, have been taught that we are supposed to care for others first and ourselves last. That is, we are trying to help fill everyone else’s buckets when ours are bone dry.
But if I am truly on a journey with God during this season of Lent, perhaps the first person to whom I should listen is Jesus, who himself took time to listen. He took time for his primary social support group. He took time to be alone with God. Even on his way to the cross, took time to care for himself and allow others to care for him. In Matthew’s 26th chapter, Jesus is visiting in the home of Simon when a woman approaches him and begins to pour expensive perfume on his feet. When she is chastised by the disciples for wasting this expensive perfume, Jesus told them, “Why do you make trouble for the woman? She’s done a good thing for me?” Even as he stood in the shadow of the cross, he took the time to let her care for him.
So I am listening. I am listening to my body and learning to care for myself, and I am learning to let others care for me. I am listening to the Body of Christ … that grace-filled family of faith known as Wellspring, in which I find this great joy … and I am listening to God who beckons me to walk (perhaps a little more slowly) in the footsteps of a Savior whose bucket was full, yet who was poured out for me and for you.
Listen. Do you hear it? It’s the voice of God … it’s the sound of love!