Listening without Fixing


One of my favorite authors currently is Parker J. Palmer. If you are not familiar with his work, I highly recommend him to you. In his book “A Hidden Wholeness, the Journey toward an Undivided Life,” in Chapter 7, he contends that:

We should stop trying to fix people.

When we listen with the intent to fix, what presents itself initially as caring, actually may be our “shadow-side” saying something like this:

 

  • If you take my advice you will surely solve your problem.
  • If you take my advice and fail to solve your problem, you did not try hard enough.
  • If you do not take my advice, and you do not solve your problem, I did the best I could.

 

And no matter what the outcome, I no longer need to worry about you or your problem. When we listen with the intent to fix, what initially seems like caring, is really a way for us to keep the other at arms length, and distance ourself from their problem.

I concurr with much of what Palmer says. Many of us love to be answer-givers and honestly love the sound of our own voice. But often it is not what people really want or even what they really need. This was never more apparent to me than when my house burned down, and again now in the wake of my divorce. My friend Eddie modeled this as he physically stood beside me as my house was burning to the ground. He stood there silently, without saying a word, with smoke and emotion circling my head. I did not want anyone trying to make sense of it all in that moment. Not that there wasn’t things that could have been said, he just didn’t feel the need to say them. His silence spoke volumes to me. And inside the space of that vacuum without words, I was cured of answer-giving.

The common cry of our culture is that “no one understands me, no one really listens to me.”

And if you work with teenagers, or are a parent of one, you know how especially true this is for them. A few years ago I was sitting with a friend who was battling depression, and he was expressing how I was one of the few people who actually still took his calls anymore. How tragic! Not that he was battling depression, but that nobody was willing to walk with him in his pain. I responded by saying something like: “Of course! You are one of my favorite people. I may not have the answers, but I will always listen to you.”

Early in my journey, I would have tried to fix him. Now instead of giving answers, I try ask questions. Not to feed my curiousity, but to clarify their own thoughts. More than anything I try to just be present. To be someone who will walk with them in their pain. And if you beleive in God, and I do, Scripture says He is our “ever present help in our time of need,” and “a friend who sticks closer than a brother.” Often times, well-meaning Christians feel they need to be the voice of God for people. But that’s rarely the case. In fact, when God wants to speak, he generally does not have any problems communicating. And when you presume to speak for the God of the Universe, you better be damn careful what you say. Perhaps instead of presuming to speak for Him, we would represent Him best by simply being present with people in their pain.

The Jews have something in their culture called “sitting-shiva.” Shiva is a seven-day mourning period that occurs after the death of a loved one, often an immediate family member. People come and “sit-shiva” with the bereaved, often times sitting low to the ground, or even on the ground itself, to identify with the person’s suffering. Visitors do not ring the doorbell, do not speak, do not even greet the bereaved; they simply sit with them. They only speak when the bereaved initiates conversation, and often it is to simply share stories of the one who has passed.

Our culture could use a large dose of “sitting-shiva” with people in a culture of pain. It is the one of the few things in our culture that we have in common.

 

 

We have not all experienced the same pain…. but we have all experienced deep pain.

 

As people we would do well to learn to listen again; really listen. And to resist the temptation to fix people, but instead to simply journey with people in their pain.

In a culture of answer-givers, be the one friend who really listens.

I don’t believe everything happens for a reason


Our house burned down in August 2006

I hear it all the time. “Everything happens for a reason.” Both churched and unchurched people alike seem to believe this similarly.

The problem is I don’t believe it.

Not the way that people mean it anyway. When people say: “Everything happens for a reason,” it implies that good is always the end result of our pain. It suggests that everything is connected in some type of butterfly effect and that Someone is orchestrating and controlling it all behind the scenes.

That is untrue. And it’s unBiblical.

If God is in control of everything, then what do you do with starvation, genocide, the Holocaust, rape, sexual abuse, AIDS, cancer, the Sandy Hook shootings, tornadoes…

If God is in control, and this world, with all its pain and suffering, is the result of His being in charge, then I’m out. No thank you. This is not a God that I want any part of. And He is not the loving God I imagine Him to be.

How can God be in control of the entire world when He’s not even in control of me?

We have this ongoing discussion in our home group regarding “the will of God.” Does God control everything? Does He cause pain or allow it? Is there a difference? Is everything that happens to us both good and bad, part of God’s blueprint for our lives? Is it all part of His plan? Or on the other hand, is this life a battlefield, a war zone, in which our Enemy “prowls around, seeking whom He may devour,” thus bringing pain and death into our lives? Good arguments can be made for both.

Sometimes, pain is a part of God’s blueprint for our lives.

The story of Joseph, for instance, is a good example of that. His brother’s sold him as a slave. He was falsely accused of rape and sent to prison for many years. Then through a series of events he is elevated to the #2 position in Egypt, and administrates a plan that saves the entire region from starvation, including his own brothers and father. Sometimes our pain is part of  God’s bigger plan. At the end of the story Joseph makes sense of all his suffering when his brothers discover who Joseph has become and are afraid for their lives. They beg his forgiveness and Joseph makes this unbelievable statement to them.

“You intended to harm me, but God intended it for good, to accomplish what is now being done, the saving of many lives.” 

Genesis 50:20

There is no question that there are examples in Scripture where pain is part of God’s plan. Does that bring you comfort? It should. Sometimes He is accomplishing His purposes through you and your pain.

Sometimes though, pain is the result of our own stupid decisions.

Let’s say you go out and get drunk tonight, and crash your car on the way home. Some will say well, “Everything happens for a reason.” Yes. And the reason is that you were stupid. Sometimes the pain in our lives is a clear result of our own poor choices. Please don’t blame that on God. Or  think it happened because it’s all part of some unseen plan. It’s you, it’s you, it’s you. Take responsibility for your choices and your actions.

Sometimes pain is the result of other people’s stupid decisions.

Let’s say that a drunk driver runs into you? What did you do to deserve that? You were doing everything right, and someone else’s poor choices brought pain into your world. Was this part of God’s plan, His design for your life? I don’t think that’s always the case. Much of the pain in today’s world is because other people have chosen to sin, thereby inflicting pain on others. Child abuse, rape, murder all are a direct result of one person choosing to sin, choosing to operate outside of God’s laws, thereby inflicting pain on others. War, disease, famine, genocide, and the like, often can be attributed to corporate sin by groups of people; countries, governments; generations of sinning that brings macro-level pain into our world today.

BUT, sometimes pain IS part of Satan’s plan for our destruction.

I don’t like to over-spiritualize everything, but there is NO QUESTION that as Christ followers that we have an enemy. He hates us because He hates everything that God loves. He thinks by hurting us, he can hurt God.

“Be self-controlled and alert. Your enemy the devil prowls around like a roaring lion looking for someone to devour.”

 I Peter 5:8

You have an enemy, and your enemy hates you, and has a plan for your destruction.

And in John:

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” 

John 10:10

As a youth worker, I’ve done several funerals of teenagers over the years. When I’m standing in front of a thousand people in pain, they are hoping I can bring some sort of understanding to the pain in their souls. Often times this is the verse I turn quote to help people process. John says here that Jesus is the giver of life, and it’s the thief Satan, who is the one who comes to steal, kill and destroy. This is exactly what I feel when a child dies… that something, someone has been stolen from us.

So, pain can be God’s fault, our fault, someone else’s fault or Satan’s fault. It’s dangerous to say it’s always God’s plan or that it’s always Satan’s fault. And it doesn’t have to be one or the other.

One last word of advice. People’s theology around this has been forged through the furnace of their personal pain. Be extremely careful when you talk to people about their pain. Our house burned to the ground in 2006. It was amazing to me how many people felt compelled to help bring meaning to my pain. They tended to land in one of two cosmic camps: either it was God’s fault or it was Satan’s fault. Actually, it wasn’t either. It was my fault. My mistake caused the fire. And in that painful rubble of that situation, as in any painful situation, God wants to use it to bless me, and conversely Satan wants to use it for my destruction. My response, is the single greatest contributing factor that determines the outcome. 

People  really did have good intentions of helping to bring meaning to my pain, but all their pithy Christian sayings did was really bring me more pain. What I really needed was for them to be silent, and to walk with me in my pain. This is now my goal when I enter someone else’s pain, not to help them understand why, but simply to be present with them in their pain.  This is enough.

Some of you are thinking of a verse right now about how everything is going to work together for good. There’s a silver lining in every cloud right? Wrong.

God DOESN’T promise that everything will work out in the end.  Unless you are a lover of God.

Romans 8:28 does say that “And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him.”

Is that everyone? All people? All pain? Every tragedy and bad situation?

No. Not everyone loves God. For those that do not love God, He makes no promise that there is purpose behind their pain. Without Christ, tragedy really is tragic.

The good news here is that God can redeem our pain no matter what the source and whether you are a Christ-follower or not right now. When bad things happen in our lives, we determine whether it destroys us or makes us stronger. God wants to help us process our pain and can bring good out of the absolute worst situations. If you are going through something right now, take heart. Have courage. Stick it to the Devil who wants to use this to destroy you. This thing does not have to define you. Take one day at a time, one moment at a time, and allow Christ to walk with you in your pain, to the other side, where there is healing and wholeness. He will redeem your pain, and use it for good, perhaps not just for you, but for helping others who will walk a similar journey in their future. 

So in the end, the reason everything happens is not the important thing; how we choose to respond to it, is.

Stay in the journey my friend.

~Mark

If you like to read more about our house fire read my blogpost:  My House Burned Down Last Week

My House Burned Down last week.


It was my fault.

Our house burned down in August 2006.

Originally published as an article in “Take 5” -September 2006

by Mark Moder

My house burned down last week.

I was in a meeting.  My wife was working.  The kids were home watching cartoons while a stain rag spontaneously combusted in the garage and proceeded to consume my house and send my life into a tailspin.  Thank God my kids got out.  My 9th grader kept my younger son from opening the door to the garage where the smoke was coming into the house from.  He said he learned it watching cartoons.  Thank God for TV.  Just this once anyway.

It’s been interesting to be in the middle of a crisis from this side of the coin for a change.  As a youth worker we are constantly coming along others in the midst of their turmoil to offer help and support, but I’ve not ever been the guy needing help.  In fact, I’ve never been the kind to ask for much help at all.  I’ve always been a “Git R Dun” kind of guy.  Or In the immortal words of one of my earliest mentors, “There is no try, only do or do not.”  (Yoda).

Yeah, that’s not really working too well for me these days.

People are like, “How are you?” “What do you need?” And since it was so absurd for me to give my usual response, I’ve had to be honest.  “Um, I mostly need everything.”

As pastors I think we’ve been conditioned to not have many needs.  We are the ones who help… not the ones who need help.

It’s been amazing to watch the family of God surround us and support us in our time of need.  All the guys from my old worship team showed up at the scene the day of the fire, and while the house was still collapsing around us, they helped me salvage what we could before the ceilings caved in.  I didn’t have to call them.  They just showed up.  Another friend handed me $500 cash and the keys to an empty house.  And although we ended up somewhere else, it was a huge relief knowing that we had someplace to go if we needed it.  Another friend showed up that afternoon and just stood by me the entire time. He didn’t say much, for sure nothing profound came from his lips.  He just stood there with me. I needed that.  And although Job’s friends get a bad rap for their lousy advice, to their credit they did tear their clothes and sat quietly with Job for the first week after his world came crashing down.

It’s been funny to watch people’s response to us.  We were on the front page of a couple local papers.  It seems like almost everyone in town knows.  We can’t go anywhere without people engaging us.  It’s cool that people care, but I’m honestly almost sick of talking about it.  It’s the same conversation, a thousand times over and over.

After you get done talking about the facts, a lot of people want to assign some cosmic blame or find some kind of purpose in our fire.  Either Satan caused it because he’s attacking us, or God caused it because He has some divine purpose for our pain. Maybe it’s just me but I’d rather not do either for now.

Isn’t it just possible I made a mistake and threw the rag away when I should have doused it in water instead?  It bothers me that people have to move so quickly to find purpose and understanding in our painful situation.  I know this, in the future I will feel less pressure to have answers for people in their crisis and instead simply try to walk with them through their pain; I don’t want answers, I just want support.  Let me know you care, that you’re praying for me, that if there’s anything you can do to let me know… that sort of thing.  Honestly I don’t even know what I need.  I can’t think that far ahead, I have too much to do right this moment.  In the future I will simply drop in on people in crisis and give a hug and a card with a gift certificate for a movie or dinner or something.

Last night was our first night in our new place.  It’s a rental, a nice place near the lake.  We have rental furniture that insurance is paying for and are getting settled. It’ll take a while for things to return to normal, whatever that means, but I know it’s around the corner somewhere close by.

I can say this… God is good.  No doubt about it.

Job says in chapter two to his buddies.  “We take the good days as from God, should we not take the bad ones too?”  That’s so true.  I can’t see His purposes in this yet but I trust God and I believe in Romans 8.28.  I also believe that if nothing else, God wants to glorify Himself through me, even through my pain; maybe especially in my pain.

To quote myself from front page of the paper the other day:  “It’s just stuff.  We have everything we need: our family, our friends, and our faith.”

Like Mary, I’m pondering all these things in my heart, to see if God is saying anything else; but for now I’m going to stop asking the “Why?” question… it’s the wrong question…. I may or may not ever get an answer to it.

The question I’m asking God these days is this:  “What now?”  “How do you want me to respond to this?”  “Where do I go from here?”  A wise coach once said, “never look at what you’ve lost, always look at what you’ve got left.” I like that.

The last thing I think God is saying through all this is this:

Skip your next meeting and spend it with your family or he’s going to burn down your house. Okay, so maybe the smoke did get to me a little bit,… But seriously; it’s all going to burn someday anyway.

~Mark Moder

House on Fire


It was my fault.

Our house burned down in August 2006.

“Dad, dad. The house is on fire! It’s huge. I’m not even joking. Call me back. I’m scared.” The fear in my son’s voice was unmistakable. Now I was scared. I raced from the church to the house, breaking land speed records, and violating most traffic safety laws in the process. It only took most of 20 minutes, but by the time I arrived the house was gone. Twenty-seven firefighters, three firetrucks and a helicopter, had gotten on the fire in a hurry and thank God, kept it from spreading to our neighbors and the trees which surround our house. I quickly took in the scene. The house was in ruins. Smoked poured from what remained of the structure as firefighters continued to pump water into the rubble. Emergency vehicles, firefighters and hoses peppered the landscape. Dozens of lookeyloos were already in place, taking in the show. Photographers, newspaper reporters, concerned neighbors. It was quite a scene. Right away I spotted one of my friends. Actually, it was my builder, Greg, who also lives in the neighborhood. “We’ll take care of you guys, Mark. We’ll rebuild. It’s gonna be okay.” It seemed like we had just finished building our new house, even though it had been almost 2 years since we moved in. I didn’t want to think about all that needed to be done. I was told our boys had been taken to a neighbor’s house, which had been set up as a temporary staging area of sorts. I made my way down the street to their house where I was reunited with my family. My wife had just arrived as well, making her way from her office in town. We all hugged and prayed together, thanking God for His protection. About 20 friends were already there, looking somber. I was struck at that moment that this would be the same scene, with the same people in the room, had any of our kids died in the fire. Thank God it wasn’t a real tragedy… it was just a house. Sure it was “OUR HOUSE,” but in the end, it was replaceable. Still it’s been hard.

That was 9 months ago. The new house is almost finished being rebuilt. All that remains to be done is to build our deck and a finish a few other small things. I am actually writing this from the house today. It’s weird to be here… the last article I wrote was only a week after the house burned down. It seems appropriate that here at the end of the process, we put a cap on the story. People like happy endings. I hate going to movies where there is no resolution to the conflict. It even bothers me when we sing songs that don’t resolve, (finish with the chord you started with). You can call me a “type A” or write it off to me being a first-born, but I think that secretly we all want to believe that the world is fair. Or that at least God is fair. It makes it easier to deal with our personal pain that way. It gives us hope.

The problem is it doesn’t always work that way. Life is unfair. It seems arbitrary at times. Why does the tornado hit this house and not that one? Why does one die in a car accident, and another does not? I have more questions than answers. Maybe someday I’ll understand; but probably not.

Honestly, this has been a year of pain for us. And the house burning down is probably 3rd or 4th on the list of most painful things that we’ve had to go through this year as a family. A year ago we had to leave staff at the church we loved, and my wife stopped sleeping for weeks on end. Then this summer, her mom got cancer. Our house burned down in August, and two weeks later our Dalmatian of 12 years died. I know, it seriously sounds like a country western song waiting to be written. You know what happens when you play a country-western song backwards don’t you? You get your wife back, your dog back, your house back…. Lol. I wish it were that easy. Anyway, it’s been quite a journey this year that’s for sure. My wife had the hardest time with our job transition and with her mom’s cancer. For my oldest son, it was our dog, Sebastian, whom he loved dearly. For my youngest, it was being separated from his best friend, who was our next door neighbor, and feeling he was being replaced at times. And for me the greatest pain has been watching my family go thru their private pain and not being able to do anything about it. I could rebuild the house. I could get new furniture. I couldn’t bring the dog back to life. I couldn’t fix my wife’s sleeping disorder. I felt helpless at times. Men want to fix stuff. It’s our role, as provider, as protector; it’s innate, it’s built into who we are. For me the breaking point was the dog. If you’re not a dog lover you won’t understand, but it’s like losing a family member. I’m tearing up even now, just thinking about him… I can’t believe it’s still that raw. God and I had some frank “discussions” after that. Meaning, I would go for walks in the woods and yell at Him. I felt He was being unfair. I felt He didn’t care. I felt like He was piling on. Someone should throw a flag here. I mean, come on, enough is enough. Just how much are we supposed to be able to handle?

And therein lies the rub. I was broken. Truly broken. For maybe the first time in my life I could not pull myself up by my bootstraps and dig myself out. This was way beyond my control, beyond what I could handle. I needed help, and though I hated to admit it, I needed God’s help. And I was going to need help from other people. I think that’s hard for most men to admit, maybe even more so for Godly men.

I’ve learned a few things through the process. Things I knew in my head before this year, but now I know through experience. It’s completely different.

Pain is part of life. We have been led to believe a lie as Christians in the U.S. We think that we can create a little piece of heaven here on earth; a relatively pain-free, suburban lifestyle, with 2.3 kids, a minivan and a dog. Happiness and the pursuit of it is our birthright as Americans. We think we deserve it. That life owes it to us. But Scripture says, “The rain falls on the just and the unjust alike.” We live in an outdoor world. And when it rains, we all get wet. The pain some people have to walk through is unbelievable at times. Have you ever had to do a funeral for a teenager? Counseled with someone who doesn’t want to live? Sat with a kid whose parents have just split up? Throughout this year I’ve held onto Psalm 23… “yea though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…I will fear no evil, for thou art with me” This verse reassures me that I’m never alone in my pain, which is half the battle by the way, and reminds me that the pain is not permanent…. God is walking with me through the valley. And your valley does not extend indefinitely. This is just a chapter in your life. It is not the whole book.

Whatever your pain, let God be your source. He will bring good out of bad if you let him. One of the youth pastors I’m coaching said something the other day that I’m going to hang onto… “you know God doesn’t waste anything.” I love that. In our situation God is bringing “beauty for ashes, the oil of joy for mourning.” I don’t really believe backward masking has invaded country music… but we are getting our house back, our lives back, and we have a new puppy.

~Mark Moder

Originally published in Network Magazine – Fall 2007 (a publication of National Network of Youth Ministries)

It’s not about guns.


My heart is broken over the 26 women and children who died during the school shooting in Newtown, Connecticut this week, just as my heart broke with Columbine, with Paducah, Kentucky and with every school shooting since the one that happened in nearby Moses Lake, WA on Feb 2, 1996. But this one is especially heinous. Little kids this time. Unfathomable. More innocence lost.

As a youth worker for 27 years, I have followed these tragedies with more than just a passing interest. Teenagers have been my life, my entire adult life. Good kids, troubled kids, kids at risk; I’ve literally worked with thousands and thousands of them and helped raised two boys of my own with my wife.

People are asking tough questions right now. How did this happen? Do we need police and metal detectors at every school? How can we make sure this never happens again?

Here’s what I know:

  • It’s much more complex than simply locking all the guns away.  I’m not a gun owner, but I know this: violence is bound up in the heart.  Ever since Adam and Eve’s son Cain killed his brother Abel, violence has been a part of the human condition. If it wasn’t guns it’d be knives. If it wasn’t knives it’d be rocks. You probably didn’t hear about the 22 children that were stabbed at a school in China on the same day as the shooting in Connecticut. (CNN story). In fact, Wikipedia cites 21 dead and over 90 injured in China’s school stabbing phenomenon since 2010, and sadly most have been elementary school children. Here’s a quote from the last paragraph of the CNN article. “A number of measures were introduced at the time, including increased security at schools across the country and a regulation requiring people to register with their national ID cards when buying large knives.” Similar questions, similar issues, different weapon of choice.
  • Societal Factors: While parenting is the single biggest influence in the life of a child, you and I both likely know some seemingly great parents with a teenager that has gone sideways on them and conversely a fantastic teenager who came from a horrible upbringing. It’s a bit of a conundrum. It’s not always a straight line from cause to effect. But something is happening in our culture that hasn’t happened before, so we need to ask: what has changed in our society in the last 15-20 years that could be contributing to this? I’m sure the loss of family is playing a role; but it’s more than just divorce; lots of kids are spending time isolated from what family they do have at home. Parents are overworked trying to stay afloat, while the internet, television and texting all contribute to kid’s isolation. There’s also no doubt that violence in our culture has increased exponentially; with video game industry equivalent to movie revenue now in the U.S., both taking in around 10 Billion each 2011. But there are millions of responsible gamers and movie hounds who don’t act out their fantasies in the real world. Mental Illness is also at an all time high in our culture. “Physicians wrote over 400 million scripts for psychotropic drugs in 2009, four times more than two decades ago, and enough to provide a script for every man, woman and child in the United States and Canada.”  [i]

It’s possible that any one of these could be a contributing factor in what we’re seeing happening in our culture, however, it’s also possible that the answer is:

  • D) None of the Above. Sin never makes sense. As deeply as we search, we may never really know what was going on in the shooter’s mind to drive him to do what he did. That’s because normal people under normal circumstances would never come to that same conclusion. Thankfully. That’s why the behavior is aberrant. We may never understand the reasons why.

Unfortunately, many times I have had the privilege ministering to a family who has just lost their child. It’s usually been a teenager who has died in some tragic accident. The parent’s pain is excruciating to watch. I’ve not seen any other pain that even comes close to losing your child. As a Pastor people often ask: Where was God when this happened? Why didn’t he prevent this? Why did God take my child?

First, I don’t believe God took these children. John 10:10 Jesus says that “The thief comes to steal, kill and destroy, but I have come that you might have life to the full.” God is the giver of life, Satan is the thief who steals it away.

Secondly, “Why did this happen?” This is a question that people can get stuck on forever. You will likely never get an answer to it other than that there is evil in the world and free will is God’s prime directive. Other people’s bad choices impact you and me. Why did this happen? is perhaps the wrong question.  At some point the question needs to morph into “What do I do now?”

Lastly, “Where was God when this happened?” I believe He is right there with us in our pain. He weeps when we weep. The Bible says in Psalm 23 “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me.” This verse tells us several things. First, God is with us in our darkest hours, even in the valley of the shadow of death, and secondly, that He will walk us through the valley. And while we will never forget, thankfully, this valley of death does not extend forever.

Please join with me in praying that Jesus will bind up the broken-hearted. And that this scourge of evil will cease in our Nation.

~Mark Moder


[i] Selhub MD, Eva M.; Logan ND, Alan C. (2012-03-27). Your Brain On Nature: The Science of Nature’s Influence on Your Health, Happiness and Vitality (p. 35). John Wiley and Sons. Kindle Edition.

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