Learning to Listen and Be Present to Others


for a number of years, i wrote a monthly “Postcard from Marko” column for Youthwork Magazine in the UK. usually, these mini columns focused on a place i had recently visited and some observation from that trip. but today i was looking through some of these, and found this one. i was challenged and reminded of a few things:

  1. i want my self-centeredness to give way more and more. i want to listen and notice more.
  2. i have noticed some movement in this area of my life over the last year, noticing that with age, affirming and encouraging is coming more naturally to me.
  3. it takes SO little effort, really, to be present to people. and when we do that, we bear the kingdom of god with us, bringing all those resources along with us into that liminal space.

anyhow. here’s the postcard i wrote on 9/11/10:

I write these little “postcards” to you all from, theoretically, places I visit on my travels. But these days I’ve been traveling so much, my most-common place to think about life, faith and youth work is on a plane.

Sometimes my time on a plane is quiet, reasonably isolated (thanks to noise-cancelling headphones), and contemplative. Other times – usually due to a talkative traveler in the next seat – I’m engaged in conversation that brings about a different opportunity for reflection, insight or learning. A week ago, it was the latter of these.

I was on a tiny jet – one of those with 1 seat on the left of the aisle, and 2 on the right. I was on the right, on the aisle; next to me, by the window, was a small-ish older man in a dated suit and tie. As I stood and moved for him to take his seat, he said, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; Can I give you this?”

“Sure,” I responded, taking the small leaflet from him. As we sat down again, I quickly flipped through his personalized tract, finding it to be an overview of, and invitation to, his church that would, were I pretty much any variety of spiritual seeker or church shopper, have completely scared me away.

Before we even left the gate, he launched in with, “I’m a Baptist Pastor; I’d like to talk to you about salvation.”

Annoyed, I put by book down, attached a feigned smile, and said, “Yeah, I’m a pastor also.”

“What kind?”

“Well…,” I paused, shuffling through my mental files of possible responses. But apparently I paused too long. He finished my sentence for me, with a notably disapproving tone: “…I see – non-denominational.” He wasn’t finished.

“Do you know for sure that you’re going to heaven?”

I could see where this was going. Even though I’d told him I was also a pastor, he wasn’t convinced. I assured him of my assurance, but that still wasn’t enough.

“Tell me how you came to salvation?”

I could tell it was a test, but stupidly started talking about the wonderful Christian home I’d been brought up in, rather than the point-of-decision I knew he was looking for.

“But can you remember the actual moment when you made a decision? If you can’t, I’d like to help you with that now.”

I finally convinced him I was already a Christian, even by whatever his definition of that was. He rambled a bit about his church and how he’d been there 48 years. When he paused, I put my noise-cancelling headphones on and turned to my book, clearly communicating, “I am done with this conversation.”

But I couldn’t read. Something was poking my soul, like a child, trying to get attention.   I finally closed my book and gave the annoying child my attention. What came to mind – and I’m sure this was the Holy Spirit – was: “He said his wife died this year, and you ignored him.”

I sighed. Dang. I’m an insensitive idiot. I was so convinced of my spiritual, theological, ministerial superiority over this old, admittedly annoying saint (really, I’m guessing most of the saints were annoying) that I sinned against him.

I turned my headphones off and put them away. Just as the plane lifted off, I asked, “Could you tell me all about your wife?”

He lit up, and didn’t stop sharing about the woman he’d adored for more than 50 years until the plane touched down an hour later.

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