the honor of listening

Have you ever had a conversation with someone that sticks out a part from all the others? A line, a phrase, or a monologue even that reverberates through your mind as you process life?

An older wiser gentleman recently told me that as he looks back on his life, he realizes that the only thing that really lasts and has meaning at the end of it all, is the relationships he has invested in. The trends change, the belongings or property people feel the need to own, or the accomplishments that we value as our ultimate goal, will all fade away. He said he remembers being young in his 20s and he had so much ambition. He had so much he wanted to do—and he did those things, but now near the end of his life, looking at all of his possessions, he sees that all of it means nothing.

Relationships. That is what truly holds weight.

Since he shared this with me, the world has continually shown me that this is true. The places in my life that fill me with the most joy are those where I have wonderful, thriving community. Now, don’t get me wrong, relationships can be really hard, trying, and filled with sorrow–but I think that only goes to show even more, how important they are.

When we recognize that people matter more than things or titles, we are more open to be intentional with the moments we have each day to engage with people–friends, family, coworkers, and even strangers. We are able to slow down and meet people right where they are.

Here is a good tangible example of what I’m talking about.

A few months ago, I went to a coffee shop near my house to work. I’d never been before and I set out with the intention to sit and study for a few hours to prepare for a class I had to teach in a few weeks. I read for about an hour before I switched from my two seater booth to a nearby couch.

One of the best things about hanging in public spaces is getting to do a little bit of people watching—you might say it’s creepy, but we all do it. A man in his sixties came in with a book in his hand, naturally striking up a conversation about literature with the barista. I was half listening, half studying, and minutes later he walked up to me and asked if he could sit in the single chair next to me. I said “sure” and continued studying.

We sat in silence for several minutes before he started talking to me. He said “That’s a well used Bible you have there” and I said “Yeah, I’ve had it since I was 14 years old”. There began a two hour conversation on faith, psychology, jobs, children, family, and everything in between. I shared more in the beginning when we were talking about faith, and the rest of the time he shared about his life and I asked questions. By the end of our conversation, I had learned that he was diagnosed with a terminal disease in 2018 and was living on borrowed time, he had several kids, two failed marriages, had been struck by lightning and survived, was a patent lawyer, and that today he was having a bad day.

At some points, I felt pressured to end the conversation so I could get back to work, but then I thought about the words from that wise old friend that relationships are what matter–so I kept talking with him and I am so glad I did.

When I got up to leave, I told him it was great meeting him and I hope his day gets better. He said, “It already has by getting to talk to you”.

But here’s the thing–I didn’t say very much during our conversation. Mostly, I asked questions. It struck me how much people desire to be heard and seen. It is so important. Still, I walked away feeling blessed by getting to listen to him. I think we should feel blessed when people share parts of who they are with us. What an honor to get a glimpse at someone’s mind and heart!

One question can open up so much. Twice in one week, I somehow ended up in “counseling sessions” with a customer service person at Walmart and a representative for my leasing agency. I could tell they were stressed, so I asked them if they were okay. That’s it. That’s all I asked—and then they began sharing all of the problems they had been facing lately. I am a complete stranger, yet they opened up to me. I am amazed every time.

Fast forward to yesterday—I am sitting in the kids section in Barnes and Noble reading a book I just bought. For whatever reason, the kids section is the only place where there is seating–and mind you it is those wooden green chairs meant for kids, because there is no adult seating anywhere. Weird, but thankfully just my size.

Well, as I sit there immersed in my new book, a little girl comes and sits in the chair right next to me. I glance at her out of the corner of my eye, catching her looking back at me. She’s holding a stuffed animal she found on the shelf, and having a conversation with it as she sneaks glances at me, too. She continues getting up, running away, then coming back to sit next to me. I am intrigued by this magical little girl, so I start talking to her, asking her questions about her stuffed animal, whom she cleverly named “puppy”.

A subtle smile crosses my face, as I think to myself how wonderful it is to be a child. They are so open to the world and people around them—and I will always think that is one of the most beautiful things. Even when awful things happen to them, they are not entirely aware of the depth of the experience until they are older and their innocence is stripped away. Of course, as we all know, it is a part of life for innocence to be taken away as the world bangs us up, but it still breaks my heart that in the process so many of us become closed off–to people, the world, and new experiences.

Twenty minutes go by and I wonder where this little girls parents are, then an older gentleman, probably 70 or so, walks over to where the little girl is prancing around in her own world. He starts fussing at her about not messing with the stuff on the shelves, and as he interacts with her, I’m studying him. I could tell that he was having trouble walking, and I could see that spiritually there was some sort of weight on him. I do not even know how we started talking, but he ended up sitting on the ground next to me, while his granddaughter Ivy kept making friends with stuffed animals and other little children. He told me about all of his grandkids, about how the education system has changed so much that his 13 year old grandchild can hardly write and count, he shared about working 10-12 hour shifts in the chemical fields, and he talked about how much he loves books–history, westerns, adventures, all kinds–no romance though, he was clear on that.

Then he looked me in the eyes and said “I could tell you some crazy, hard stories”.

I don’t remember if I said anything in reply, but I know I showed him in my expression and stature that I was there to listen. He said “That little girl right there, her mama (his daughter), called me at 2 AM several years ago and said her boyfriend kicked her out of the house. So I drove over there, and saw my daughter sitting on the curb in the cold holding her newborn baby in her arms and brought her back to my house, showed her a room, and said ‘keep it clean, that’s all I ask’. Two days later, she told me she couldn’t be a mom, and she went and lived on the streets”.

“Is she still on the streets?” I asked.

“Oh yeah– and my wife and I have had Ivy ever since. A year or so later, my daughter had another baby, a preemie. She tried to take some pill to get rid of him, and ended up in the hospital bleeding out, almost killing the baby and herself. This little baby was in an incubator, with little tubes coming out of every part of his body and man oh man, if you could see him now! He’s full of life, running around all the time. The happiest two year old you’ve ever seen!”

“So both of your grandkids live with you?” I asked.

“Yes” he said.

He got a soft look in his eyes, as if a million memories and possibilities flashed before his eyes and then he said, “Sometimes people ask me why I take care of these kids that aren’t my own–and well, I love ’em. They are mine. I don’t want them goin’ to someone who won’t love ’em as much as I do. I am seventy-two years old and I will love these kids with everything I have left”.

I felt overwhelmed in a good way by how much of his story this man just shared with me. It is amazing how with Christ, you can love someone you just met–but it is true, I love this man.

When I could tell he had reached the end of his story, I caught his eye and said, “Sir, I think that what you are doing for your grandkids is beautiful and incredibly brave. I know you said they might not remember all of the things you do for them, like checking on them several times a night, but I can promise that the stability and love you have given them WILL make a difference in their lives whether or not they are able to share specifically the things you did. Love always makes a difference.”

Then I told him he should write a book about his life, because I am sure he has years of wisdom to share. He replied, “Ahh It’s too late for me to do something like that”, to which I replied, “Nonsense! It’s never too late to share your story”.

“What’s your name?” I asked.

“Oliver” he said, “What’s yours?”

“Jessie,” I smiled.

“Jessie,” he repeated a couple times, committing it to memory.

“Well, Oliver, it has been lovely meeting you. Before I go, would you mind if I prayed for you?”

He smiled and nodded, and I prayed for his back pain, his family, and that God would bless him tremendously in the days to come with peace and joy, and I thanked God for allowing us to meet.

As I walked away, reflecting on the conversation, it brought me back to all of the other similar experiences I have had like this, where I am just sitting quietly somewhere, and I am suddenly captured in these heavenly conversations. The common denominator is God’s peace. I don’t think it has anything to do with me, but the God who is in me. I can sense in those conversations, that the gentleness and peace given to me by the Holy Spirit creates this safe space around me, where people can feel at ease to leave their burdens with a complete stranger.

But perhaps, I’m not entirely a stranger–perhaps these people have seen or experienced God in their lives at some point, so something about me feels familiar, feels safe, and lets them know they can let their guard down. When we are with Jesus, we can be like that little girl Ivy, who had no qualms about sitting next to a stranger and chatting it up. We are like a little child again–no walls, just open, easy conversation about all that our hearts and minds hold. How beautiful?

I don’t know what your relationship with Christ looks like, or if you have one at all, but I hope this story shows you a glimpse of the kind of relationship he wants with you. He knows everything about you, yet he loves when you trust him enough to talk to him about all the things he already knows. He wants to give you peace, joy, encouragement, and all the things required to navigate the ups and downs of life.

You are loved and seen by your Heavenly Father. That’s the truth.

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