What jumps out at you when you hear someone’s story? What is important? What isn’t?
Ten people can listen to the same story and hear very different things. Some might focus on past pain, others on present responsibility; some on a possible psychiatric diagnosis, others on worldview fallacies that must be corrected. Among those ten people, two or three might leave the person feeling known and understood because they identified what was especially important. The others will have given orthodox responses that were ineffective. What do you tend to do? What types of things stand out to you as you get to know someone?
Would you have made a big deal out of bananas?
Here is the story. I was talking to a wise Christian woman whose husband left her ten years ago. He left her and their two children, and never returned. Life, as you might imagine, has been hard. The children love their mom but blame her for their sins and inconveniences almost daily. Work is a grind and her boss is just plain mean. Dating relationships? She has, somehow, managed to be sought out by men who were less than marriageable. And everyone has an opinion as to what she must do.
If you took a careful look at her life, it would look like her desire to live for Jesus was “unfruitful” (I apologize ahead of time for that image, but it was the word we used when we spoke). She felt like a spiritual failure.
So you have a growing list of topics: parenting, men, work. Plenty of things for us to work on.
In passing, she mentioned an incident from Sunday morning. She works with the elementary school kids at church. And even there she feels like a failure. She loves the kids but always believes that she should be better prepared for class and more prayerful for her mini-members. Last week she was unprepared and, knowing how food can fill a lot of time in a long Sunday school period, she grabbed some bananas as she jogged through the kitchen on her way to the car.
Why bananas? Probably because they were the first edible things she found which would pass muster with health-conscious parents. By the time she got to church she thought the bananas were a stupid idea. Still jogging, because she was going to barely make it to her classroom before the kids showed up, she slowed long enough for one of the other Sunday school teachers to ask her this question: “Do you know if there are any bananas in the building? I have to have bananas for my class! I need them for the lesson. I have been praying this morning that I would be able to get bananas.”
A strange request indeed. I never asked why the other teacher needed bananas, but no matter how interesting the back story might have been, it certainly wasn’t the most important thing.
“Just one second,” and off my friend went to get the bananas.
When she handed them over to the banana-needy teacher, they both laughed. God hears his people and really does care about the details of life.
Here is a single woman, always within arms-length of despair. What is important? Where do you start? When in doubt, start with where you see the Spirit of God on the move. You are looking for something that might not be remarkable to the naked eye, but with eyes of faith it looks like power and love.
To me, this seemingly small story from Sunday was significant and I said something like this to her:
“I wonder how many times in a week – or in a day – if we really opened our eyes, we would see that the Spirit of God is close and on the move. You could so easily look around and believe that nothing ever changes and your desire to live for Christ has been ineffective. Well, look no longer. The Father’s love and care for you is in bright lights. How often do we discover that God has used us as a direct answer to someone’s prayer? I’m sure God uses you a lot, but you rarely get to see it. Then someone asks you for bananas—and you have some to give! Suddenly you can see that you are part of God’s good plan. You are a valued partner in his Kingdom work. This time, you saw it – now, so did I, and I am blessed by a great story.”
When in doubt, identify where you see the wind of the Spirit blowing. It would have been easy to push past this story and get on to “more important” counseling issues. But this relatively ordinary moment shows how God is at work in this woman’s life, and offers encouragement and strengthens faith more than any counselor’s insight and wisdom. It is in the details of a person’s life where you see the work of the Spirit. Listen for it and then hold up the mirror so the person sees it too.
I can’t resist one more story. Paranoia is a mystery to me. I have known people who seem to be doing well. Then, for no apparent reason they take a random comment personally. They extract a gesture from someone’s sermon and are absolutely certain that the gesture is a highly personal and condemning message from the preacher. They find a coin on the floor and believe it was intentionally placed there to drive them crazy. For paranoid people there are no mere coincidences. Small events explode with personal meaning and nefarious intent, and no one can convince them otherwise.
Recently, a friend who occasionally drifts into paranoia, and then lashes out in anger on whoever is present, began his quick descent. He was with a small group of Christians at the time. But this time, he knew he was getting suspicious and he felt the accusations against others rising within. In response, he walked outside the room. When someone from the group came to see what was happening, he said little – there might have been a slight edge to his voice – and walked into another room. Someone could have interpreted this as impoliteness, avoidance, or being aloof and distant, but it was something else entirely. Instead, that small group was witnessing the dramatic intervention of the Spirit whereby a paranoid young man held his tongue and didn’t accuse anyone. The paranoid thoughts were raging, but the words of his God overrode fear: “trust me.” And he did.
So we had a little celebration. High fives. Enthusiastic high fives. Then, as the significance of the event kept washing over us, we exchanged a few “Man, this is amazing, so cool” (the 1960’s still leak out of me when I get excited) until we didn’t have anymore words to describe it and we were left with goofy grins. There were other things to talk about, but this was most important. The Spirit of God was on the move. We were grateful that we had eyes to see and ears to hear.