A few weeks ago I sat on a folding chair among a circle of women. When I read the first question from the sheet I held in my hands, a petite, middle-aged woman on my left, her thin hair pulled back into a sparse ponytail, hands clutched tightly together in her lap, launched into a long litany of complaints and lament — a story of illness, suffering, depression, and anxiety that burst from her in a breathless torrent.
The other women in the circle nodded sympathetically. I nodded, too, and tried to look encouraging, but inside, I fretted.
“This isn’t what we’re supposed to be discussing,” I thought to myself. “We need to stick to the agenda. We’re running out of time.” Only 30 minutes were allotted for this portion of the retreat. I was desperate to stay on schedule.
Janet wasn’t answering the question I’d asked. Instead, she rambled on and on, seemingly unable to stop herself. She shared more details, careening off on tangents and then returning to the original thread of her story.
When she finally paused to take a breath, I interrupted and tried to steer the conversation toward the questions listed on the sheet. But Janet persisted. She rehashed details she had already shared, admitting to us that she didn’t know what to do. She was exhausted, she said, hopeless, despairing, and out of options.
We didn’t answer any of the questions listed on my discussion sheet that morning. After trying unsuccessfully to direct the conversation, I finally gave up and let Janet talk. I listened, along with the other ladies in the circle. We occasionally offered a suggestion, but mostly we nodded and listened.
Ironically, obedience was the theme of the retreat I was leading that weekend. During the morning session, I had talked about the biblical Greek word for “obey” — hypakouó – which literally means “under hearing,” and is translated as “to listen attentively.” Yet for a long time, I failed to do that with Janet. I failed to obey the nudge of the Holy Spirit; I failed to listen to someone who needed to be heard.
I am not always open to interruptions, especially when I am busy. Often I’m so wedded to my schedule, to staying on task, I miss these opportunities to minister simply by being present and listening to a person in need. Even when I recognize these moments as a prompt from the Holy Spirit, more often than not I ignore them. I press on, bent on fulfilling my own agenda.
This is the first week of Advent, a four-week period in which our to-do list increases exponentially. We shop, wrap, bake, and socialize, write out cards, fight traffic, and drape the shrubs with lights. Yet it’s during these weeks that loved ones, acquaintances, and even strangers need our attention.
The holidays can be difficult – isolating, grief-filled, fraught with unrealistic expectations. Now more than ever we need to take the time to stop and listen to the lonely elderly person, the disgruntled coworker, the sullen teenager, the grieving friend, the harried cashier – the people around us who are yearning to be heard.
As we walk through Advent, let’s remember that the holidays, while the busiest time of the year, are also the time people most need compassion, empathy, love, and a listening ear.
This year, let’s not let our busyness get the best of us. Instead, let’s embrace the holy interruptions and listen, really listen, to those around us who need to be heard.
This is an edited version of a column that originally ran on December 5, 2015 in the Lincoln Journal Star.