Archive for ‘Listening’

August 26, 2018

To Educators, everywhere

by Rod Smith

Etched in the Heart

To the Teachers I Know And Those I Don’t

Thousands of lives are enhanced because you demanded your students do their homework, tell truth, stand up straight, and look you in the eye.

You showed them how, and when, to use commas, solve x, and how to exercise and care for their bodies and run on and on and on, but not with their sentences. You helped little hands measure, cut, paste, and draw, and, then, when they got a little older and their hands were a little bigger, you taught them how to march and blow a bugle or beat a drum and pass a baton in relay races and score touchdowns and dance and sing on a stage to crowds of proud and adoring parents.

You showed them why bullying is not a good idea, and why it is wise to share, and unwise to dig in your nose, but wise to cover your mouth when you cough, and to turn away from others and say “excuse me” when you sneeze.

And to wash your hands. Always, wash your hands.

You taught them the power of “please” and “thank you,” and calculus, algebra, and pi, and that “i comes before e, except after c” and how to apologize and to play fair and how to make a paper doll and a paper airplane.

You told them about the planets and volcanoes and why Rome fell and about the International Date Line and salmon in Washington and Oil in Texas and corn in the Midwest and why the Big Apple is called the Big Apple.

You told them about the painful history of our nation and of its victories.

When they told you something was unfair you told them, as if for the very first time it has ever been said: life is not fair.

They cried on your shoulder when a crush crushed them, or a friend betrayed them, or a parent walked out never to return. They cried on your shoulder when you stood with them at a graveside as a body was lowered into the waiting ground; the body of a friend, or a dad, mom, brother, sister. They cried on your shoulder, yes, your shoulder, because they trusted you.

Why? Why did and do they trust you?

They trusted you because, because you trusted them. They trusted you because you had an ocean of patience when you taught them and you demonstrated the necessity of humility, generosity, kindness, and grit, and why we need verbs and adverbs and conjunctions and why we learn things we will never need once we leave school.

A thousand times, when they asked, “Can I use the restroom?” you said, “I don’t know, CAN you?”

Yes, teacher, yes, head of school. Yes, principal, librarian, coach, administrator, referee, custodian, lunchroom lady, superintendent of schools. They trust you because you taught them to play and to win with grace. You taught them that when they lose they could applaud the opposition and lose with courage. You taught them to hold their heads high in defeat or victory.

You taught them to look life in the eye and not back down.

You taught them to forgive when people didn’t deserve it and to love the unlovely, and to respect their elders and to protect children.

You taught them the difference between “lend” and “borrow” and you corrected them when they said “me and my friends” when they really meant, “my friends and I.” You taught them to love books and stories. You showed them they are made of the same stuff as the greatest writers and heroic sports figures world has ever known. You showed them that they too could win a Nobel Prize, the Booker Prize, a Pulitzer or the Superbowl.

You told them they had it in them to be astronauts, artists, acrobats, architects or all of them all at the same time.

You gave them the greatest gift of all: your faith, your trust. You believed in them and, by believing in them, you paved the way for them to believe in themselves. You showed them that if they did none of these things, like write a best seller or score the winning touchdown or get a call from the Oslo and the Nobel committee, their value and worth as humans was unsullied, because they were loved and treasured for who they are and not because they could spin a fine sentence or write a water-tight thesis or slam dunk a ball or run like the wind or play a piano like Beethoven.

When a woman or a man who is not your mom or your dad teaches you to tie a shoelace or how to be nice or helps you read a difficult novel to the very last page and get the thrill that only reading a novel to the very last page can offer – that person gets etched into the heart of a student, forever.

And that’s you, dear Educator.

Thank you.

August 2, 2018

The power of impartial listening

by Rod Smith

If you can find an impartial listener when you are troubled, or when you are embarking on new adventures, facing tough decisions, or find yourself in a relational impasse, you have found gold.

This person will listen attentively and ask probing questions. Questions will serve to drive you deeper to the heart and core of what you are facing. He or she will be unafraid to challenge you, evaluate your logic, and draw your attention to your blind spots.

Such invaluable encounters usually lead to greater objectivity. The very act of preparing and then articulating an issue can expose necessary steps or unearth essential nuggets to finding resolution, with or without the impartial listener’s help. Talking helps. Listening, even to your own voice can lead to new insights that may be unavailable otherwise.

Great comfort can be found in spending time with a person who has no ulterior motives, who can help you to reflect and act as your sounding board.

Perhaps even better than finding such a person is to be such a person.

Offer your mature, impartial ear to those who need it and you will be offering, and discovering, gold.

July 18, 2018

Good with people?

by Rod Smith

Do you want to be an excellent employee especially when working with people?

  • Look people in the eye. Listen with your whole body. Listen to others before you speak. When you do speak, speak up and speak clearly. Avoid thinking you already know what a person is going to tell you or is trying to tell you.
  • Anticipate needs and wants of your clients (customers) while simultaneously being aware that you may anticipate incorrectly. It’s a fine balance. When you near perfection at this you will regard your work as art and not a job.
  • When faced with complaints or problems do not escalate matters, take sides, or assign blame. Focus on understanding and solving, not diagnosing.
  • Don’t chew gum at work, ever. Dress well and be well groomed, always. Shower, often (not at work).
  • Tell the truth efficiently and kindly. A good reputation, which can take years to build, can be permanently ruined with one lie.
  • Don’t date co-workers or anyone with whom you work. You’re at work to earn a living not find a spouse.
  • Turn your phone off at work.

Seeking a fellow teacher: A teacher, whom I know well, wants to have her 40 students (eight and nine-year-olds) correspond with similarly aged students in KwaZulu-Natal. Teachers, please reach out to Stacy directly at SGraber@SRESDragons.org.

May 16, 2018

Finding your voice (1 of 2)

by Rod Smith

Every person has a voice designed for full expression. Some have allowed their voice to be stolen or silenced and might find it necessary to take time to find or re-establish the voice they have chosen to deny or ignore. Thankfully, suppressing a voice seldom kills it. It can usually be found even after years of denial.

Any person who refuses to hear what you have to say or who tries to silence you doesn’t love you even if he or she proclaims otherwise. It is never a loving act, except in extremely unusual circumstances to stop another expressing who he or she is. Likewise, it is not a loving act to withhold your contribution to the world by maintaining your silence.

You were not created to be silent. You were not created to silence others. The world will benefit for hearing who you are and what you have to say. Part of having a voice, and using it, involves the process of discovering how best to package and express your voice so others can hear what you have to say.

One should not confuse talking with having a voice. Many talk and talk and talk and yet have never found their voice.

March 27, 2018

The Art of Leadership

by Rod Smith

I read, think, observe, leadership a lot. I’ve seen dismal attempts at it and men and women who seem to fully understand its art. Here are a few observations. Please, send me yours. I am always interested in new perspectives and approaches others have found useful:

  • Having your name on the top of the list or possessing the title leader does not make you a leader. You are a leader if your constituents are following you or are doing what you are commissioned to lead your constituents to do or to be.
  • If you are authentically leading your group, church, or business, and you are doing it well, you will sometimes (even often) feel a strong sense of isolation. It comes with the call of authentic leadership. It’s lonely. It is unlikely you are leading well if you are not facing some, if not strong, opposition. Authentic leaders stimulate necessary imbalance and some humans, those who set in their ways, will naturally resist such provocation for growth and change and may even portray you as an enemy.
  • Your own growth as a person within your family (all of your family) will do more for your effectiveness as a leader than anything you implement at work or at your church or wherever it is that you are supposed to be the leader.
March 27, 2018

Prayers for our children

by Rod Smith

Prayers and desires for our children, young and older….

  • That they may find useful, positive passions, and spend their energies on things they really love.
  • That they may make their livings from using their talents.
  • That they may find and enjoy deep and lasting reciprocal friendships.
  • That they may have mutual and equal and respectful relationships with everyone they love and know.
  • That they may neither be intimidated nor intimidate others no matter who they are.
  • That they may know they are deeply loved and respected by their immediate and extended families to whom they owe nothing but the return of healthy love and respect.
  • That they may be enduring students despite their academic achievements and patient teachers when others are trying to learn from them.
  • That they may love powerfully and be loved powerfully in relationships that are free and open and devoid of jealously and pettiness.
  • That they may grow into generous and kind people who are trusted for their integrity and goodness.
  • That they may have each other’s backs while risking the natural urge to rescue each other from self-made difficulties.
  • That they may develop goals and ambitions that far surpass making a good living but that include serving others and enhancing the lives of people whom they don’t know and may never meet.
March 17, 2018

I will call her Mary

by Rod Smith

I’ll call her Mary. She is a woman with a highly specialized career. Her work, traditionally dominated by men, takes her to multiple countries every year for high-level negotiations with government officials. Mary is known as a force to encounter and is widely respected. She is seldom intimidated by the challenges of her career. Mary and her husband run a home. Their high-school aged daughters, like her parents, are high achievers. By all appearances the marriage is solid.

Mary’s parents live within blocks of their daughter and they have not seen each other much at all in years. They wee her husband’s family a lot.

This is a source of great pain for Mary’s family. Cordiality rules, but there is no vulnerability, no free exchange of ideas, no joy. The tenseness is palpable when the generations meet for more than an hour.

“I can talk to boardrooms full of scary people without a problem,” says Mary, “but meeting my parents undoes me! I cannot put my finger on it.”

I am reminded of family therapist Rabbi Ed Friedman who claims it is impossible to have long-term emotional wellness while a person is disconnected from significant people their family of origin.

Deep joy (and some pain) awaits Mary as she determines to remove the blockage she experiences but cannot now name.

March 8, 2018

Is your high-school student a leading executive already?

by Rod Smith

How to know your son or daughter “gets it” when it comes to his or her future:

  • Blame runs for the hills. You no longer hear her blaming teachers or textbooks or peers or parents.
  • She gets down to it, whatever it happens to be. She regards immediate hurdles as opportunities to grow.
  • He assumes personal responsibility – for the people he chooses as friends, how he spends his leisure time, and especially how he uses money.
  • She “sees” her future and plans for it – this means aligning herself with the people and institutions that can help her achieve her goals.
  • He remains connected to his family but it aware that these connections can trip him up and become a problem. He therefore clearly states where he is going without apology and invites those who love him to join him on the journey.
  • Her sense of ambition is neither cold nor callous but it is determined in ways that observers admire.
  • He is quick to learn from errors and is open to hearing about how he could have better handled a problem – especially as it relates to dealing with people.
February 15, 2018

Tribal code

by Rod Smith

Each of us brings to every relationships a backdrop of how we view the world, understand commitment, view, and value people, join groups, terminate friendships, love, and leave home, nurture babies, pack the dishwasher, engage in or avoid conflict, and many things too numerous to mention.

Everything about our relationships is influenced by who, where, and how we were reared – among countless other variables, including natural endowment, and deeply held dreams and desires.

From these countless sources, experiences, and codes, both known and unknown, each of us was handed a Tribal Code or our truth about how life ought to work. How life was done, how relationships were conducted, talked or not talked about, became the folklore, the “correct” or the “right” way to live.

Your formative years did what they were supposed to do: they formed (and informed) you.

They taught you what, and how, to see, think and feel. They showed you what “normal” is to your family, and your experience became your measure of how life is supposed to work.

Then, when entering relationships, be it in marriage or if you are talking with your child’s teacher – the person opposite you has his/her own, and different, tribal code. He/she has his/her own lenses through which to see the world.

No wonder we can have a tough time getting along!

February 8, 2018

My weekend sermon / The Prodigal’s Father

by Rod Smith

A sermon based on the parable of the lost son: The Father’s Heart

Luke 15: 11-32 / Lewisville Presbyterian Church

Rod Smith / 02-11-2018

ProdigalFather

I purchased this painting from a street artist in Gorky Park, Moscow  in 1992. The subject immediately brought the prodigal’s father to mind.

Luke 15

Now the tax collectors and sinners (rejected people, “other”) were all gathering around to hear Jesus. But the Pharisees (schooled, religious) and the teachers of the law (leaders, elite) muttered (expressed dissatisfaction, complaining), “This man welcomes sinners and eats with them.” (He does things that are against our religious laws and ways and things we would never do).

Then Jesus told them (he addresses them – they are important to him) this parable: “Suppose one of you has a hundred sheep and loses one of them. Doesn’t he leave the ninety-nine in the open country and go after the lost sheep until he finds it? And when he finds it, he joyfully puts it on his shoulders and goes home. Then he calls his friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost sheep.’ I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents (renewal, turns around) than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent.

“Or suppose a woman has ten silver coins and loses one. Doesn’t she light a lamp, sweep the house and search carefully until she finds it? And when she finds it, she calls her friends and neighbors together and says, ‘Rejoice with me; I have found my lost coin.’ In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents.”

Jesus continued: “There was a man who had two (this is a natural triangle – rivalry perhaps comes with the territory – it certainly has in my family) sons. The younger one said to his father, ‘Father, give me my share of the estate.’ (usually a disbursement reserved for after the father’s death – so the request itself is hurtful – this sounds like something many younger sons I know would do). So he divided his property between them. (I am sure this might have been a painful thing for the father to do. Notice that Jesus gives no inkling as to what it is that motivated the younger man to do the things he does).

“Not long after that, the younger son got together all he had, set off for a distant (perhaps he desires to be unknown) country and there squandered (wasted) his wealth in wild living. (Sounds like he had a plan when he asked for his share of the wealth). After he had spent everything (probably a considerable sum since the father is portrayed as wealthy – he has a large operation with hired hands), there was a severe famine in that whole country, and he began to be in need. So he went and hired himself out to a citizen of that country, who sent him to his fields to feed pigs. (We do know the young man understands the need to work). He longed (suggests cravings) to fill his stomach with the pods that the pigs were eating, but no one gave him anything. (I think Jesus is using a little shock value here to show just how desperate the young man had become. He is apparently friendless – perhaps when he still had money he was not. I have noticed Jesus has a way of rubbing it in – and with a handsome touch of perhaps playful and dramatic humor).

“When he came to his senses (implies he was not sensible to this point, when he got his sanity back), he said, ‘How many of my father’s hired servants have food to spare (my father’s servants are better off than I am), and here I am starving to death! I will set out and go back to my father (treasured words of repentance) and say to him: Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son (he is correct); make me like one of your hired servants.’ So he got up and went to his father. (An act that requires humility – loss of face – and effort.)

“But while he was still a long way off, his father saw him (notice the father sees him, it doesn’t say he sees his father – the father was looking out for him) and was filled with compassion (no anger, no recrimination, no lessons) for him; he ran (eager, undignified) to his son, threw his arms around (lets any other people who are nearby see his welcome and hi gladness) him and kissed him (the signs of a father who is overjoyed).

“The son said to him, ‘Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son.’ (He acknowledges his sin, he’s correct about having lost his place in the family).

“But the father said to his servants, ‘Quick! Bring the best robe (restore) and put it on him. Put a ring (restore his status) on his finger and sandals on his feet. Bring the fattened calf and kill it. Let’s have a feast and celebrate. (The father orders a party) For this son of mine was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’ So they began to celebrate. (The father does not have the same view of the son and what he deserves – his response is extravagant, over-the-top, and is in response to the son’s coming home, not in response to his waste or his prior senseless and uncaring actions).

“Meanwhile, the older son was in the field. When he came near the house, he heard music and dancing. So he called one of the servants and asked him what was going on. ‘Your brother has come,’ he replied, ‘and your father has killed the fattened calf because he has him back safe and sound.’ (We see his immediate jealousy – even understandable jealousy.)

“The older brother became angry and refused to go in. So his father went out and pleaded (sad that he had to do this) with him. But he answered his father, ‘Look! All these years I’ve been slaving for you and never disobeyed your orders. Yet you never gave me even a young goat so I could celebrate with my friends. But when this son of yours who has squandered your property with prostitutes comes home, you kill the fattened calf for him!’ (the older son is correct – but “correct” does not accommodate extravagant love – at least in this case. Extravagant love seldom makes sense. We see the distinction between a place of entitlement and a place of undeserved grace.)

“‘My son,’ the father said, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours. But we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’”

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Parable: Story, some long, some very short, to illustrate a larger or deeper truth, often humorous, often wild or outlandish. Once heard or read they seldom leave the searching reader alone. Parables niggle; present a counter view of a prevailing axiom; a good parable can be a bump in the brain of the thinking listener or reader. The upside is that parables are usually universally accessible. The downside, if there is any, is the church-reared has usually heard all the parables at some time or another and can therefore easily believe a particular parable to be fully milked. Jesus used parables as did and do many effective teachers.   

*******************

As you read and read and read the chapter over and over again (the underlining and the parenthesis are mine) kindly note several themes that emerge from the three parables: losing, finding, celebrating the restoration, in community. All three suggest rejoicing when what was lost is found. The man risks in order to find one of a hundred sheep (1/100) and rejoices and wants others to rejoice with him when he does. The woman employs great effort to find her one lost coin (1/10). When she does find it she rejoices and hopes others will rejoice with her. The father rejoices when his lost son returns and wants his family and the community to do with him (1 of 2). Each parable has something lost and something found and a reason for celebration. A wandering sheep and a lost coin suggests no act of will or deliberate action on the part of the sheep or the coin. The younger son is deliberate. His actions are an expression of deliberate rebellion. I will remind you that Jesus is addressing sinners (tax collectors, rejected, uneducated people) and the educated (Pharisees and teachers of the law) are watching and listening and muttering (expressing contempt) that he “welcomes sinners.”     

In the Biblical parable of the prodigal, the son who returns after squandering his inheritance, the father runs to meet the now-humbled penniless son and celebrates his return. A massive party ensues. He who was unreachable and in a distant land (no Facebook; no SnapChat) discovered the harsh truths of the consequences of diminishing and then vanishing resources. His desperation sends him home as one willing to be his father’s hired hand. The parable, the subject of a million sermons and interpreted by the greatest of artists over thousands of years, is about the father’s love. He is generous. He is patient. He is forgiving. He’s spent, we can safely presume, years watching for the son’s return, and when it finally happens, the father is overwhelmed with joy and there’s no a trace of recrimination expressed in his vulnerable, exuberant welcome. Of course the dad could be hurt again. He could use the return as a “teaching moment” but he doesn’t.

The Characters

FATHER: He never regards the son as anything other than a son even though the son has “bought” himself out, moved away, harmed himself, soiled his reputation, and squandered unearned wealth. His deliberate destructive decisions and the actions they birthed have succeeded in depleting his resources. They have have succeeded in knocking him from atop his high and entitled horse. They have succeeded in humbling his now-hungry self.

His actions have not succeeded in destroying or diminishing his father’s love. His father’s love for him is not about the younger son or his behavior. It’s about the father. The Father regards the son as a son and loves him as a son no matter what behavior the younger man has demonstrated. The father’s love is not in response to who the son is or what the son is. The father’s love emanates from who and what the father is. The father doesn’t buy into the son’s line that he no longer deserves to be part of the family. Once a son, always a son – is the father’s truth as revealed by his behavior.  

OLDER SON: He has no joy at his brother’s return. It is as if the return is a significant inconvenience, another expense, another drain on the estate. I can hear him asking, “Has he not cost us enough already? Are there no consequences for his behavior?”  The older brother is focussed on what he’s done (years of faithful hard work) and not who he himself is and what he himself has. He is filled with his own sense of righteousness. As correct as he may be, being right, being faithful, has not succeeded in transforming him into being a loving person, at least toward his brother. My observations and my experience tells me that love becomes generic. We specifically, perhaps naturally, love members of our family but the love we experience overflows into our lives and permeates all of our relationships and shifts everything about us and the way others experience us. Godly love is transformative. It transforms the source and the recipient. I suspect the older son’s attitude to his younger brother is something the father has tasted before today and about matters unrelated to his younger brother.   

YOUNGER SON: He is entitled to his share of the estate after the father’s death but wanting it sooner reveals something about him – perhaps he is precocious, has what we may call wanderlust, perhaps the wealth and the homestead are overwhelming for him. In many formerly British countries and in the UK it is quite common for a young high school graduate to take a “gap year” or a “walkabout” year – to embark on a lone adventure overseas. I know the feeling! Perhaps this is what he wanted.

It’s in being away that he becomes the prodigal (lavish spending, wasteful, extravagant) and is spending and carousing on resources he himself has not earned. In describing the younger son’s behavior Jesus is showing that he is unafraid to talk about such topics.

When he is at his most desperate place his eyes and his heart turn toward his father and his home. This tells us something (actually, a lot) about the father. We know at least that when he left the door was not sealed closed behind him.

Hunger drives him to humility and both make it possible for him to want to go home where at least he knows he will be fed and where at least he knows he will survive. There is no indication in the parable that he thinks he will be fully restored to his place in the family and be celebrated.     

Challenge

I don’t know what went on in his heart (and it is a parable) but I do know what it is like to receive my father’s love after years of distance and rebellion. Dads everywhere – please reach out to your sons and daughters today – young child adult, local or distant, and express the love for your sons and daughters that is burning beautifully in your heart.

What goes on in your parent heart?

I know what goes on in mine, I think. Mine’s like the furnace in middle of winter.

The furnace never turns off. My parent heart (or head) is working, thinking, planning, hoping, watching. There are times it’s distracted, but it’s never off duty. There are times it’s filled with anxiety and it can feel like it’s tumbling out of control. There are times love doesn’t always feel like love and feel like something quite different. It can feel like rising anger or a lightning jolt of protection. I see it expressed as I unwittingly scan the surroundings for dangers and potential dangers. I experience my heart as hoping beyond hope and wanting the seemingly impossible for my sons. I experience it as sometimes ignoring my own needs and placing all things on hold until I know what the boys may need. My heart (or my head) is constantly shifting through priorities, trying to identify what is crucial from what is necessary to what is mere waste. Sometimes, really only occasionally, it feels broken by a lapse in a son’s integrity or a harsh word or a moment of son-to-son betrayal – but it is thankfully, quick to recover.

I have come to see that a parent’s love has many seasons, a variety of intensities, and, while it seeks nothing or very little in return, when return-love and gratitude is expressed, even in the smallest and quietest of ways, the reward is wave-like, even overwhelming.  

Tell me what yours is like – please.

Application

May we all welcome all sinners and see the inner-sinner within us each. I find that I am both sons and I am the father – are you all three, too? I can be even more extreme than each son and fall short of the father but there are reflections of all three within me.

May the prodigal in each of us find the father’s welcome.

May the parent in all of us know how to welcome and celebrate all of our children (adult and youth and those who have left and those who are wasteful and those who are not).

May we have the hungry son’s repentant humility and none of the earlier haughtiness.

May we have none of the self-righteousness and harshness of the older brother.

May we learn the joy and the value of writing about our love on paper and then place it in the mail with a stamp and send it to out to the people we love, for their sakes and for ours.

I close with this quotation from one of my favorite South African novels, Cry, The Beloved Country by Alan Paton.  

The Reverend Theophilus Mismanage says, But there is one thing that has power completely, and that is love. Because when a man loves, he seeks no power, and therefore he has power.
Benediction – from Colossians, chapter 1:

15-20 The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him. He is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning and the firstborn from among the dead, so that in everything he might have the supremacy. For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.

Now, go out into the world, and may the Grace of the Lord Jesus Christ, and the love of God the Father, and the passion and the power of the Holy Spirit be with you, now and forever more.

Amen