It takes me a while to get the point. I’m grateful to be a member of Federated Church, but joining after my first Inquirer’s Class was not a slam dunk. I was the lone hold-out. I had been attending Federated for over a year, but had never joined a church before and wanted to make sure that my choice would be a true spiritual home. Hamilton’s gently prodding personal notes that accompanied subsequent Inquirer’s Class announcements added amusement to my decision making process…”We’d love to have you as a member”…followed by, ”Hi Randy, no pressure, just want you to know that you’re welcome when you feel ready”…and finally, ”You know, you don’t have to take the classes again!” That one did it!
As we learned about the various ministries that Federated offered, Helen Pointer’s description of Stephen Ministry hit home with me right away. Stephen Ministers are church member who provide a comforting empathetic ear to those who may be suffering loss, going through grief, or even just need the presence of another person with whom they can share time. Needless to say, listening, not necessarily talking, is a skill the Stephen Minister needs to hone. For musicians, it is the art of listening that fuels our advancement. We spend countless hours in the practice room applying listening to what the author Geoff Colvin refers to as “deliberate practice,” that is, evaluating, correcting, and analyzing objectively each playing before the passage is repeated. This objectivity can be challenging to maintain, especially since the expression of music is so personal and subjective.
So, what is learned through this applied listening? Well, for me, understanding that the process can be more important than the goal, appreciation of delayed gratification, perseverance, recognizing limitations, exercising patience, developing creative solutions, and learning the meaning of the word “increment.” All of it is achieved through the art of listening, not passively hearing or mindless repetition, but actively learned, objective, compassionate listening. Frank Weinstock, Professor of Piano at the University of Cincinnati’s College Conservatory of Music, once stated, “Your technique is not in your fingers, it’s in your ears!”
Stephen Ministry has guided me to applying these skills outside of music and outside of myself in order to help others. And there have been many times when private piano lessons have morphed into mock therapy sessions, particularly around final exam time.
I find there to be great sanctity in the care-giver/care-receiver relationship on which Stephen Ministry is based. Although communal worship is important, for me, the closest I feel to God is when interacting with another person through words, music, or even silence. I’ll speak more about silence in a moment. Although it takes two people to communicate this way, I feel that a third divine element is needed in order to complete this interaction.
If I were to describe Stephen Ministry in musical terms, I could reduce it to individual tones, also intervals, the distance between these tones, and chords, three or more tones sounding together. The smallest and most efficient type of chord we encounter is the triad, which consists of three distinct pitches. When we interact, we provide the interval, but God’s presence among us completes the triad to create a true sense of harmony.
If there was a work of art that depicted Stephen Ministry, I would have to refer to a sketch that I observed hanging on a friend’s wall. The sketch shows a non-judgmental God seated in a chair, leaning on his hand, and studying the world from a distance. He was not imposing or condemning, but observing, caring, and empathizing. Unlike many other paintings, he was not glaring down upon the world, but taking it all in with a child’s curiosity at eye level.
While my experience as a Stephen Minister has been as a care-giver, my role as a care-receiver has also deepened my understanding of this ministry. April 12th was my brother Gary’s birthday…he died of a massive heart attack at age 52 in 2005.
Now, I don’t know why this particular year of 2014 prompted my tears to flow as uncontrollably as they did nine years ago, but they did. And they proved to me, once again, that grief is not perishable and has no expiration date. Of course, at the time of his death I was unintentionally assaulted with the usual poorly chosen clichés spoken by well-meaning people…”Well, just keep busy…Just give it some time…God picks only the prettiest flowers from his garden, etc.” But fortunately there were those who were able to personally identify with my loss. “This is so rotten!” said one friend…you have to know him, believe me, it was very comforting coming from him. Or, “I don’t know what to say.” Or, crying together. And finally, saying nothing at all. And with this I return to the beauty and healing power of silence. If you give it a chance, it’s revealing how comforting silence can be. As the care-receiver, it allowed me the time and space needed to sense another heart beating along with mine in the same room. Eventually, I realized that when two people are sincerely united in the zone of comforting each other, we provide the heartbeats and God lights their paths to each other.
Stephen Ministry has deepened my understanding and involvement with trust, the healing process, listening, and personal interconnectedness. While it is essential for the care-giver to remember that it is a faith-based ministry, the spiritual aspect is optional for the care-receiver. But as a care-giver, I feel God’s presence whether his name is spoken, or not, as he lifts us into his realm of healing.
Please join me in prayer…
God, you have given us numerous blessings that make us uniquely yours. Help us to embrace these blessings as we provide for others. Help us to look, not just see; to feel, not just touch; to savor, not just taste or smell; and to listen, not just hear. Thankfully, You are still speaking…and we will strive to keep listening. Amen.