Are you listening?
Listening: give one’s attention to a sound; take notice of and act on what someone says; respond to advice or a request; make an effort to hear something; be alert and ready to hear something.
In recent years, mostly since the pandemic began, I have become aware that the people I had been most comfortable speaking to – i.e., bearing my soul to – are not good listeners. Not only that, there’s no evidence they take the time to hear any of the words I actually speak.
All my relationships have relied heavily on telephone time for the last twenty years. None transitioned to social media well. I’ve rarely been in the same space or state with family or friends for well over a decade.
Nearly two years ago, I returned to Milwaukee where I lived for high school and college, for what was supposed to be a summer stay. My goal was to purchase, renovate and flip a property while spending time with my sister. For nearly twenty years prior, home had been elsewhere. There were two old friends I had maintained contact with over the years. I had last seen them both in 2018. Neither were interested in connecting upon my return. After the initial sting, I was and am completely okay with that. Above all else I did not want to get wrapped up in the lives of people who hadn’t grown much in twenty years. My focus was my first real estate investment project and seeing where that would lead.
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Listening to Still, Small Voices
Still, Small Voices was the title and content of my pastor’s sermon on December 14, 2014, delivered a week after I posted my fury over lack of indictments for the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner in Let Ferguson – and the United States – burn!
I have long believed that either my pastors are paying attention to what I write and respond via their sermons or God is answering me directly through them. I truly believe the latter. 😉 Honestly, when I began listening to this sermon that Sunday morning, I was still burning in anger and frustration. I literally put my hand up and said, “I’m not even trying to hear you! There’s nothing still and small about me right now! My rage is too loud!”
But even as my hand was raised to push the message away, I apologized immediately for my rejection of it. So after sprouting my anger, I opened my ears and prepared to receive the message that was for me.
I didn’t take notes then, but I listened.
God is good. He maintains His hold on those who belong to Him.
I accepted His gentle rebuke just as I accepted my anger, outrage and frustration. I know everything in my life works to my good and my life works to glorify God.
Trust that there is a purpose for whatever passion threatens to consume you. Submit your passions to God and He will mold you into the instrument He needs for such a time as this.
Know you are blessed as you walk in your purpose and your passion.
To God be the glory,
SERMON: STILL, SMALL VOICES by Pastor Carter Conlon
Quote: In a place of graciousness
Therefore the Lord will wait so that He may be gracious to you, therefore, He will be exhalted that He may have mercy on you. For the Lord is a God of justice. and blessed are all those who wait for Him.
When you finally discover that you have no strength inside of yourself, that your own palns, mannerisms are not going to work for you in this hour. I will wait for you until you’ve exhausted all your efforts – even righteous efforts – and I will be gracious to you there. In a place of graciousness – a place where the strong and the weak negotiate; and the poor and needed are shown kindness. When you finally run out of gas, I’ll come to you and I’ll speak to you. I’ll speak to you in soft, quiet confident way that will settle your heart and give you the strength to go forward. There is such incredible power in a small, still voice.
~ Pastor Carter Conlon.
Amen. And thank you, Pastor Carter, for being an instrument and a messenger.
Combating Spirits in the Church
For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. ~ Ephesians 6:12
God is good!
This report is over two years in the writing. I didn’t dare write a word of it for over a year while I was in the midst of it. Then once written I wasn’t comfortable sharing – my disappointment was too raw. As I’ve been told since, there’s no hurt like a church hurt. Now the tenderness from this episode has eased and I can share in hopes of offering support for your walk.
I joined my first church in April 2007. Before that I was what I call a “professional” visitor. I visited one church for nearly eight years. Another I popped into on special occasions. Others I walked into by invitation or curiosity. I never thought of joining any of those churches. Within three months of visiting my current church, I felt the Spirit encouraging me to join. I remember my conversations with God during services – He was urging me to get up during the Invitation.
I don’t think now is the time, I told him. (This was before I started working on my obedience!) What if this isn’t the right church? What if these people aren’t the right people to fellowship with? What if… I was listening to Him, but I wasn’t ready to obey. The urge to get up for the alter call didn’t stop, His voice got louder. After a few conversations, I realized the decision to join wasn’t really mine. That was the church I was supposed to be at. My only “choice” was when I was going to obey His directive. By that point I knew I was going to do what I was being told to do. In an effort to buy time, I started bargaining. I’m not dressed right today, Father…. I wore the wrong shoes… my hair isn’t right… everyone’s going to be looking at me…. Can’t we do this another way?
I attend a sister church of a church that was founded over thirty years ago in California. When I joined, my local church was about five years old. At that time we had guest pastors, no permanent local pastor. The founding pastor came to New York every once in a while to conduct the service. I visited the church because of the founding pastor – I had watched his televised sermons for some time prior to moving to New York.
So I looked up during one service when the founding pastor was visiting and said, “Ok, Father, how about the next time Pastor is in town I’ll go up, accept the invitation and join the church?” That was my bargain. I sat back satisfied, thinking I had bought myself a couple of months of maintaining my visitor status. That was a time the Pastor came every two to three months.
The following week, there was a surprise announcement at the beginning of the service: The founding pastor had flown in and was going to conduct the service. I looked up and said, “Wow! You are really serious about this!” I stood up and joined the church that day. The day was made even more special because the founding pastor had flown in to announce the appointment of our new permanent local pastor, Pastor Starks. I had been attending Pastor Starks’ Bible studies since the beginning of that year, so I was beyond pleased with his appointment.
I had already been active in church activities, but after joining I put a finger into as many pies as I could. I knew right away that I was interested in teaching the New Members class eventually; I wanted to be one of the smiling faces greeting those new in Christ or simply new to our church. Anyone applying to teach the New Members class was required to participate in all of the church ministries (2-3 meetings or events per ministry). I attended each meeting and event cheerfully. From the summer into the winter I threw myself into learning all about this new entity I had committed myself to. We were only required to observe, but I usually participated. From the first meeting I attended for the Arts Ministry, I knew I would end up spending a great deal of my time with them.
Another Kind of Spirit
Mrs. W. was the leader of the Arts Ministry. She had a twenty year history with the original church in California and she ran the Arts Ministry as if it was her whipping post. This person did not have the heart, mind or spirit to lead anyone in Christ’s church, certainly not a ministry touching on so many lives. It didn’t take long for me to see Mrs. W for what she was – a bitter, mean-spirited, nasty bully. She was abusive to everyone – children, women, I had even witnessed her talking slick to the new pastor. I was horrified to see her yanking and pulling on people; outraged to hear her talking down to people. I had been at the church for less than a year at this point and didn’t think it was my place to check an elder. So, I spoke with the other women in the Arts Ministry. They all shrugged and turned away, “That’s just how she is. She don’t mean nothing by it.”
Then I spoke to the children. I told them they didn’t have to accept Mrs. W’s treatment. I encouraged them to speak to their parents about her treatment of them. Soon the children were getting kicked out of the Arts Ministry for questioning Mrs. W’s authority. Her retaliation was to ban and shun people when they spoke against her treatment of them.
One night we were working on a ten foot banner for the Christmas program. Mrs. W and I had already had some words earlier in the evening. I had been there since early afternoon listening to her foul comments so by the time she came at me around midnight the sugar and deference for my elders had worn off of my words. This was our last confrontation and I can’t remember any that came before it.
Mrs. W had a habit of snapping on people so hard grown women would start crying or stand in front of her quaking. I’m talking about women within her age group, 50’s to late 60’s. She did everything but curse you and your descendents – you’re stupid, you’re ignorant, you don’t know nothing, this is my world, you’re just a squirrel…on and on ridculousness. Then she’d end each meeting with a group hug and prayer. Her prayers were wonderful, eloquent and beautiful. However, I didn’t trust the speaker and tried to stay towards the outside of the group hug and if possible avoid touching anyone touching her. During most of these prayers, she would offer an apology at large for her abusive language and behavior. She would claim, “That was just Satan showing himself and I had to beat him down.”
Well, on this particular night before Christmas, we are sewing, pinning, and decorating a ten foot banner. Six of us were still working around midnight. Mrs. W started complaining about my speed. “Move, girl, you’re moving too slow!” I maintained my pace and told her, “You need to be happy I’m still here. I should’ve been in bed a couple of hours ago.” A short while later, I asked someone to pass me some stick pins. Mrs. W was closest to me. She grabbed a handful of pins and slammed them into my open palm.
That moment has been frozen in my mind. I heard some of the women sitting around the banner inhale sharply and exhale nervous laughs. That shocked me too – that women could witness such abuse and not say a word. I saw the pins spread out slowly across my open palm with one standing up directly in the center with a bead of blood pooling around the tip. And then there was silence. I couldn’t take my eyes off my hand. I couldn’t stop staring at the long stick pin standing straight up in the center of my palm, in my blood. In a bewildered voice I whispered, “You drew my blood.”
She reached for my injured hand, “Let me see!” I pulled my hand back. She reached for me again. Another astonished whisper, “My mother never drew my blood.” What I was thinking was my mother wasn’t abusive to me. If anyone had the right to punish me physically it would have been her. I got through my childhood physically unscathed only to be accosted in the church? That didn’t sit well with me. I am not a child to be cowed or disciplined. Not that a child should have been in such a situation, but hopefully, you get the gist.
She reached for my hand again, grabbing for my wrist. “Let me see! I didn’t mean anything by it. That was the devil coming out…”
I grabbed her wrist, removing her hand from me and held it between us. I looked her straight in the eye and continued in my quiet voice, “That was not the devil; that was you. Your impatience, your disrespect.” Her whole countenance changed, her face sort of drooped. She truly seemed to age before me. I dropped her wrist and moved away from her to continue working on the banner. A short while later, she cut her hand with a pair of scissors, letting out a near bellow. She looked over at me, down on the other end of the ten foot banner, her eyes fiery, “I know you’re probably thinking that was payback, uh?”
I flicked her a glance, “Not at all. I didn’t cut you.” The woman started crying. For the first time she spoke an apology to me for slamming the pins into my hand. I accepted her apology and went back to work on the banner.
We were a couple of weeks away from our first holiday performance. We were scheduled to perform for the Christmas and New Year’s Eve service. I decided not to approach the pastor about her until after the final performance. I called the pastor’s office on the first day it was open after the New Year. I made an appointment for the following week.
I started my meeting with him by stating that I am somewhat sensitive. Not big-baby-sensitive but rather, I have a sensitivity to undercurrents that most people don’t pay attention to. Perhaps I didn’t explain myself well, because I believe my pastor mistook me for meaning I am easily offended and as a result my female emotions had me in a snit. He suggested I speak to his wife about Mrs. W, which didn’t make sense to me because the crux of my complaint was about inappropriate behavior within church leadership. I wasn’t having a “female problem” that only another woman would understand.
That being said, I did as I was told and met with the pastors’ wife. She listened and reassured me that Mrs. W meant no harm, that was just the way she was and as a “creative-type” her demeanor and behavior was pretty much par for the course.
I listened in growing disbelief. I provided a couple of rebuttals that made it clear I wasn’t interested in what I was being told. I was explicit in stating that Mrs. W should not be in a leadership position in the church and most especially not in charge of children.
The pastors’ wife looked at me and gently said, “You’re looking for excuses to leave the church.”
I replied with a slight negative shake of my head, “No, I’m looking for reasons to stay.”
We’re told in Matthew 18:15, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over.” Mrs. W wasn’t interested in speaking privately with me. Her words were more venomous between the two of us than they were in a group. Matthew 18:16-17 says, “But if he will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses. If he refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if he refuses to listen even to the church, treat him as you would a pagan or a tax collector.” When I spoke to the pastor and his wife I gave them names of people who had had run-ins with Mrs W. and who had also complained and suggested they speak with those people.
I left the meeting with the pastors’ wife under the impression that she and the pastor had no intention of taking any action against Mrs. W.
My goal in looking for a church home was to find a place to fellowship with other people who loved God and who were trying to live Christ-like lives. I wasn’t and am not interested in a church home where I have to fight off abuse. And I’m certainly not interested in an abusive church home where everyone is okay with the dysfunction.
My mother only slapped my face twice in my life – age thirteen and sixteen. Both slaps were well-deserved. I had spoken to her belligerently and disrespectfully on those occasions. Prior to that, the last whuppin’ I had received was when I was ten years old. Overall, I was a very well-behaved child. So, when, at age thirty-two, Mrs. W took it upon herself to physically reprimand me for a perceived slight, I truly had to think back to a time my body had been assaulted. Certainly, my mother never caused me to bleed even in her extreme anger, frustration and hurt over the way I was made to be the center of the turmoil in her life. Mrs. W had no authority. She had no right. She had no justification to lay an ill hand on me. Even though I spoke up when she did it to others, her boldness in abusing me… well let’s just say, she didn’t know who she was messing with.
She may have uttered eloquent prayers and statements, but I truly believe I am a child of God. If you’re coming against me, you’re coming against His power. I was just beginning to understand what that meant. Mrs. W. attacked me while I was just a newborn walking in the word. As much as I knew God was with me, I wasn’t looking for strife, most certainly not in the place I went to worship.
I stopped attending that church. I was hurt. I couldn’t pinpoint exactly where I was hurt, but I was deeply wounded by the thought that I had committed myself to a house of worship that would harbor anyone in leadership with such a disregard for her fellow siblings in Christ. Not only that, but harbor someone who openly claimed the devil took control of her actions every now and again. If the pastor couldn’t see the error in that positioning, I was not about to keep my own spiritual growth under his tutelage. If he thought Mrs. W was okay then I would be exposing my spirit to the taint seeping from hers if I allowed myself to remain in an environment that supported her behavior.
I visited the church twice in the thirteen months of self-exile. Both times I left even more discouraged. During that year of spiritual anguish, I felt as if I was running away from a fight. But I knew enough to know I didn’t know how to fight the spirit controlling Mrs. W. I spoke against her. I brought her ways to the attention of the church. I followed scripture. Yet she was still in position. That was a serious blow to me. Not to my belief in God, but to my belief in the basic good of man.
My main lessons during that time was listening and obeying. Though my flesh felt like facing down the bully, I heard “Stay away for now.” Truly, I didn’t want to stay away for that long. There were many Sunday mornings I got up and got dressed and walked to my door, but couldn’t exit. And those two times I made it to the church were from sheer willful disobedience. I hadn’t been released to return, which is why the discouragement was so acute both times.
One day, early spring the year following my departure, I was told to return. I was nervous because I knew I would cross paths with Mrs. W. By nature, I am a forgiving person, however, I doubted my ability to be cordial to Mrs. W when our paths crossed. When I was able to commit to myself that I would greet her in love and kindness no matter how she looked at or spoke to me, I felt ready to ease back into the services. I started with a couple of Bible studies. I was encouraged when the first two visits were uneventful. I got in for the Word and straight out.
Then one day I stayed after service to thank the Pastor for his message. His wife hugged me and said, “She’s gone. You can come back now.”
I was floored. I wasn’t expecting that. I thought the lesson was going to be on how to peacefully co-exist. I had been willing to let bygones be bygones.
The First Lady continued, “I’ve been praying that you would come back! I saw you a couple of weeks ago in Bible study and told the Father if I saw you again I would share this message. As a matter of fact, we received Mrs. W’s official letter of resignation the day before you first returned.”
I had a couple of other talks with her where she shared that the pastor couldn’t move against Mrs. W because I was the lone voice speaking against her. The people who had complained before me had dropped their complaints. The pastor wanted to be within the Word and required two to three witnesses. Two other complaints came in the months following my departure. And the church started efforts to remove Mrs. W from her leadership position and influence. By the time I returned she hadn’t attended in a couple of months and had officially severed her ties that week.
The battle wasn’t mine, it was the Lords’! That’s the lesson I came away with. That experience was all about listening and obeying. He wanted use of my voice. And I spoke. Then He removed me from the taint of the fall out. If ever there was a situation that gave me hope, this painful period with my church did so. It was during that time that I learned to simply sit still and know the great I AM is God. I learned that all things will work to my good in His time. I learned that even if I am the only voice speaking out, I will continue to speak, because one voice can change things. One voice can encourage. One voice can speak for God when He is being grievously misrepresented.
“Listen, King Jehoshaphat and all who live in Judah and Jerusalem! This is what the LORD says to you: ‘Do not be afraid or discouraged because of this vast army. For the battle is not yours, but God’s. Tomorrow march down against them. They will be climbing up by the Pass of Ziz, and you will find them at the end of the gorge in the Desert of Jeruel. You will not have to fight this battle. Take up your positions; stand firm and see the deliverance the LORD will give you, O Judah and Jerusalem. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged. Go out to face them tomorrow, and the LORD will be with you.’ ” ~ 2 Chronicles 20:15-17