So You Want to Be a Better Listener

I cried through communion yesterday and I still don’t know why. Instead of falling into the  pattern of feeling either apologetic about my tears or grasping for a way to explain them to myself, I’m learning to embrace this sometimes oddly timed emotion and allow it to simply be. Everything doesn’t need an explanation.

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While I think it’s important to listen to our tears, that doesn’t always mean we’ll get a diagnosis. I chose instead to let them fall, took the bread and the cup and thought about the kingdom of heaven.

“Jesus promises us the kingdom of heaven: more compassion, more, love, more spirit, more mercy, more justice, more courage, more surprise. Everything but more money. The regular practice of Communion is meant to help move us from being the citizens of an empire to the citizens of heaven.”

Nora Gallagher, The Sacred Meal: The Ancient Practices Series

Being a citizen of heaven means living upside down. We already know the first are last, the last are first. The rich are poor, the poor are rich. The strong are weak, the weak are strong.

Maybe being a citizen of heaven also sometimes means the talkers will learn to listen. Maybe I’m making that up.

I wrote about listening at (in)courage this weekend because I believe good listeners can change the world. I know this because they’ve changed mine.

Communion is a kind of listening. We may come to the table distracted and bustling on the inside, but the elements remind us of a different way to live, offering a different kind of food that comes from another land, the original comfort food.

We eat and drink and remember Christ, not just who he was on earth but who he is within us today – stumbling through Monday, jotting down the grocery list, planning out the week. More importantly, Monday brings the opportunity again to see people and to listen to them. Do we really know how to do that?

Communion is a reminder that God hears us and came down to be with us. The company of Jesus is stunning, really. How can we offer his company to others? The simplest (and also the the hardest) way I can think of is to learn to listen without an agenda.

Want some good books on listening? I have a library of them. Here are three I highly recommend, using affiliate links because that’s just good business:

Listen In: Building Faith and Friendship Through Conversations That Matter // My friend Rachael Crabb and her two friends Sonya Reeder and Diana Calvin wrote this one together. As a woman who is emotionally allergic to small talk, I deeply appreciate this book. It’s a real-life example of what can happen when friends ask curious questions and cast a hopeful vision. I want to be the kind of friend that Rachael, Sonya and Diana are to one another and I’m thankful that they have generously let us listen in.

Let Your Life Speak: Listening for the Voice of Vocation by Parker J. Palmer // I mean you’ve already read this one, right? Surely you have. It’s short and small and easy to tuck in your bag on your way to anywhere. I come back to this one again and again when I need a reminder to pay attention to the shape of my own soul and let Christ live through me whatever way he wants to.

The Listening Life: Embracing Attentiveness in a World of Distraction by Adam S. McHugh // This one hasn’t yet released so it feels a tiny bit cruel to tell you about it. I offered endorsement for this gem and if you pre-order it now you’ll get it in time for Christmas.

Basically if it were possible to combine the voices of Dallas Willard, N. D. Wilson and Jim Gaffigan, then what you would get is Adam S. McHugh. His writing is profound, lyrical and self-deprecating in all the right ways. There are few books I want to start again once I’ve finished. The Listening Life is now one of them. I adore this stunning, important book and want to give it to everyone I know.

May we learn to build in pauses before we speak and sometimes decide not to say all those words at all. Happy listening!

How Being Specific is Changing the World

We count the growth rings in a tree stump to see how old it is, skipping over the blanks between. We’re looking only for the darkest circles, pointing to them as proof of growth. But the dark circles only show one piece of the story, leave marks of the slowest summer growth.

How Begin Specific is Changing the World

Count them and  you learn something for sure. But pay attention to the trunk as a whole and you get a better picture of the life of the tree.

Sometimes writing feels like the darkest rings of a tree. It’s like laying down evidence so I can look back and point to something tangible, something I can count. Writing leaves behind proof of the wrestling, the longing, the learning, and the hope.

But the time between the writing tells a story too, and lately I’ve been floundering through that part of the story in my own life.

Even when I’m not writing here in this space, I’m paying attention, watching for themes. Over the past several weeks, one theme has woven itself through my reading, conversations, and thought-life so strongly that if I don’t write it down, I fear I’ll begin to forget the impact it’s having.


It started when John found a pearl in his Oysters Rockefeller, bit down right on it and pulled it out of his mouth. We though he was joking at first as it just looked like a small, over-sized pebble.

But he asked our waitress to confirm it and after close inspection she announced it was. She’s worked at the crab shack for many years and knows what to look for. After trying in vain to use it as payment for our meal (dad jokes abound), John put his found treasure in a to-go ramekin and we all gathered around to get a good look.

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It wasn’t necessarily impressive and, if it wasn’t found inside an oyster, we would have ignored it. It could maybe even fool the tooth fairy in dim lighting and pass for a child’s baby tooth.

the pearl

Around the time we were inspecting this newfound treasure outside the restaurant on Hilton Head Island, a man walked into a church a hundred miles north and sat down with a group of believers. He was welcomed into their midst and an hour after that, he killed them because they were black.

But I didn’t know this at the time. Before I went to bed that night, I saw a passing headline of a shooting in Charleston, but I didn’t pay close attention and simply pictured a mad gunman in the street, shooting into the air. I don’t know why I didn’t imagine victims or motive. I just heard “shooting” and thought “gun pointed into the sky.”

The next morning I woke up early and walked out to the coast, continued reading where I had left off the day before in A Circle of Quiet by Madeleine L’Engle:

“I find that I always listen carefully to the weather: this affects me. If there is some kind of strike going on in New York — there usually is — which will inconvenience me, I get highly indignant. I am apt to pay less attention when the daily figures for deaths on battlefields are given; it is too far away; I cannot cope emotionally . . . It has to happen close at home before I can truly feel compassion.”

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Later that morning, I saw along with the watching world the details of the shooting from the night before, that the gun was not shot into the air but into the bodies of nine believers at Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church.

I’m not sure anyone really knows how to process this kind of evil. What compartment do you place it in? Who can hold the weight of this sadness?

The whole thing was heartbreaking and that sounds dumb to even say because of course it was more than that, is more than that.

I carried a vague sense of sadness with me for the rest of the week – for the families of those who were killed, for the people living in Charleston, for our broken country. I was sad and sorry for the ways I’ve contributed to racism in our country and my own community, ways I’m not even sure I fully see or understand, and other ways that are embarrassingly clear to me.

I saw the names and faces of the victims on the news. But it wasn’t until we arrived home and I sat in my usual seat at our home church on Sunday when I heard their names read from the pulpit by my friend Wendy – in her voice and with her accent – that I started to cry.

“We are lost unless we can recover compassion, without which we will never understand charity. We must find, once more, community, a sense of family, of belonging to each other.”

– Madeleine L’Engle

The gunman was specific.

The only antidote to a specific evil is a specific Hope.

Jesus came to a particular girl at a particular time in history. He was not frantic about it, he wasn’t late or early or in a hurry. Jesus grew inside his mother just as every baby has and will grow inside their mothers – at a particular place in a particular time.

God wrote all the details of humanity into the body of Christ, His words becoming literal flesh in the secret, hidden place inside Mary, tucked beneath her heart.

I have realized this week, even in the last 24 hours:  I am afraid to be specific. 

emily p freeman

Specificity feels vulnerable and intimate. Asking for something particular is more risky than asking for something in general. Longing and desire are lovely when spoken of in an over-all, wide-ranging way. But start to name those longings one by one and things get terrifying quickly.

What if I don’t get a pearl in my oyster?

It’s too much to ask for, too detailed to hope for, too much to lose.

So prayers sound more like please God bless rather than please God, THIS.

I didn’t realize how my unwillingness to be specific keeps people at arms length, keeps me from having to be involved in complicated issues, and keeps my head a clean distance from my heart.

“Compassion is nothing one feels with the intellect alone. Compassion is particular; it is never general.” – Madeleine L’Engle

Now that I’ve called it out, I’m seeing it everywhere.

Sandra Peoples wrote a post about being helpful and community, saying “the more specific you are, the more helpful you are.”

Shannan Martin said this on Saturday, that “We cannot love what we do not know. And we cannot hate what we refuse to acknowledge.”

Yesterday standing at my front door, my friend and assistant Traci tells me she is praying through some things, but she always prays specifically “because how can I pray for people if I don’t know what their needs are?”

At church on Sunday, a few in the prayer ministry – Kevin and Erin – talked about cultivating an “imaginative hope” for the needs we see around us, that prayer is simply taking up the burdens you see and then re-releasing them into God’s hands. But to take them up, we have to know what they are.

We pray because we have hope for change, so faith means imagining what that change might be.

Imagination requires specificity.

Evil is specific. Our hope must be specific, too. Specificity is changing the world in both good and bad ways. I want to be part of the good. I want a front row seat to the miracles.

I’m not sure what all this means yet. This space here is where I begin to work things out and it helps to do it with other people which is why I didn’t just write this in a journal. I don’t have clean answers or even something specific to share with you in closing, but I do have a deep conviction that it’s time for me to clear the decks of my soul and make a little room to listen to the details.

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For When You Just Can’t Let it Go

They’re searching for Amelia Earhart again. They call her disappearance “one of the most enduring mysteries in aviation history.” I certainly can’t argue with that.

Some unknowns are just too hard to let go.

Hilton Head

Standing on the beach as the sun lifted over the water this morning, I thought of a few things I’d like to leave behind, a few mysteries I’d like to stop trying to figure out. But as we headed back to the house through the sand after over an hour of quiet, I realized I was still carrying some things with me.

For a moment, shame stomped on the floor of my soul. Gotcha.

But I remember how Jesus goes with me even when I’m not yet able to release everything. Just as the sun will rise up in the morning, he will go with me wherever I go, even when I’m carrying a burden I know better than to carry.

Vacation plays tricks on you, tempts you to believe that rest will come if only you show up in a beautiful place. Even though I know this isn’t true, sometimes I’m still surprised by it. Today at (in)courage, I’m sharing a few good reminders for your soul (but mostly for mine) about vacation. Join me there?

Permission to be Unremarkable Today

Last night we made fish tacos and talked about the day while slicing tomatoes and warming beans. It was a good day, a full day, a hard day in part. We ate together at the table like usual, making plans for summer.

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After dinner John took two to the pool while our first-born twin, stayed home by choice and loaded the dishwasher. I left the kitchen and played Chasing Cars on the piano. I’ve been playing a little every night after dinner, finding comfort in the simple melodies I know by heart and the easy chords my hands gravitate towards, mainly the key of C.

Yesterday was difficult for reasons I’m not sure. Everyday in a thousand ways we see pain and injustice in a broken world pushed around by fear. I see it in myself too, how fear bullies me into corners.

But we have many exciting, fun things on the horizon for our kids, our family, and for me. Still, it’s good to remember how fun and excitement can live in the same house as anxiety, and that beautiful parts of life don’t cancel out the hard ones.

It helped to process some of that through conversation with John as well as through music. Sometimes the wrestling that happens beneath skin and bone takes a heavier toll on the body than physical wrestling ever could. And music has the ability to travel through small spaces that conversation can’t quite reach.

As I sat in front of the keys the phrase came to my mind – at least tomorrow is Tuesday.

Weird, right? But Tuesday is the most ordinary day of the week and when you’re hanging on to the tension of excitement and sorrow, that can be a comfort. Tuesday gives me permission to be unremarkable.

Maybe this simple Tuesday perspective is beginning to take root.

Later today I’ll share a little more about what has me jazzed this week. Two posts in one day?! That never happens.

Because June is as Good as January for Setting an Intention

Hopefully everything you read here will help to create space for your soul to breathe, no matter if I write it or if I invite someone else in. That’s why I’m happy to welcome Claire Diaz-Ortiz to the blog today. I love Claire’s gentle reminder that you don’t have to wait until January to be intentional about your life. Here’s one simple way to do that today.

Like most of us, I want to be happier. Whether it’s waking up with more spark or going to bed more satisfied with my day, I want to open my life to the opportunity for greater joy.

As such, I love to read books about happiness. Gretchen Rubin has written a few of those, and in one of them she recommends a small, powerful idea that has taken hold to become a big, strong force in my own life.

The Importance of Setting an Intention

That idea is to choose a word each and every year that represents the year you have in front of you. Rather, to choose a word for your year. (Oh, and take a cue from Gretchen: years don’t need to start in January.)

Choose one single word that imbues the type of year you wish to have, one word that can serve as a guidepost for what you want in the season to come. A singular word you can always harken back to in moments of darkness and doubt. One word that informs your decisions, crystalizes your passions and priorities, and embodies you—the new you!—in the months ahead.

Depending on the type of year you seek, there are many words that can do the trick. Words like Move, Pause, Breathe, Dance, Less, Family, Health, Travel, and Choose all hold a certain special sauce.

The guidelines are simple. The word can be a verb or a noun. It can be a long word or a short word. But it is key that the word brings together everything you fervently hope to live and breathe in the year to come. One word to inform and synthesize the year you have ahead of you. One word to mean everything you want the year to be, and one word that will help serve as a guiding light when times get tough and you’re not clear on where your priorities are.

A few years ago, my word of the year was Rest.

It was a word that meant the world to me in that season of my life. I was harried and overwhelmed from a few too many years of corporate globetrotting, and I needed a daily reminder to do less. And so I did.

Although my Rest might not have been as restful as the Rest that some might be able to enjoy (I saw nary a beach that entire year), my word still served as a key force in getting me to slow down. It helped me to make decisions, and to keep in mind what was really important when difficult choices arose.

Should I go to that social event—or stay home? Should I say yes to what could be a great opportunity, or pass it up to wait for something better to come along? Should I travel to that work meeting—or call into it instead?

When life and work calls for us to be busy, it is hard to slow down. However, by attempting to make this word forefront in my mind, I sought to make small strides that would lead to notable changes and positive transformation. I knew I wouldn’t be perfect. I knew I would never get it 100 percent. But I did know that by setting the intention, I could make some progress.

In the end, I did. And you can, too. Set a word now, and watch your year rise up to take shape around it.

51be5Z-MwOLClaire Diaz-Ortiz is an author, speaker and Silicon Valley innovator who was an early employee at Twitter. Named one of the 100 Most Creative People in Business by Fast Company, she holds an MBA and other degrees from Stanford and Oxford and has been featured widely in print and broadcast media.

She writes a popular blog at and is the author of several books. The above is an excerpt from her latest book, The Better Life: Small Things You Can Do Right Where You Are.