The Transforming Act of Checking In

Not everyone has time to stop and talk these days, but now and then I stumble across a good, life-giving bit of conversation. There he was squeezed up against the doorframe to allow his 28 charges to pass through. My son’s teacher stood smiling over the rush of kids putting on coats and shoes—asking me how things were going.

 

He nodded as I assured him all was well. Then I took my kids for donuts, a short walk away. This was our routine: it was a good chance to talk, to stay in touch. Conversation has always been important to us as a family, but I never expected a busy teacher at day’s end to ask me how I was doing—and have time to listen! As I ate my honey-glazed on the way home, and listened to my son and daughter between bites of their own, I thought about what it means to host a good conversation, even one short and sweet.

 

What is it about the simple act of checking in with someone that goes so far? What is it about being heard that touches something deep inside of us? Often it’s in the midst of good conversation that we feel more alive, even loved, at peace with the world. When someone looks us in the eye and pays close attention, we move closer towards one another, away from being unknown and towards being known. This is profound gesture to make towards someone: to inquire and listen well. Having a conversation, in its best sense, only sounds simple. It is a spiritual act.

 

This is why asking someone, “How are you?” can have a visible effect on the other person.

 

Even well placed, genuine questions about the weather, the kids and today’s schedule of events can evoke a sense of being cared for, sought out. We can quite quickly move from being lost to being found. Good conversation, however, is easy to underestimate and therefore undervalue.

 

When I was on staff at my local church I asked the two senior pastors, both male, why they didn’t schedule phone calls to the young men of the church into their day-timers. I knew my hubby could use a check-in call once a month. If his pastor came downtown and took him for coffee now and then, his whole perspective on work, raising young children, being married and serving God would shift. I knew it would because he often let me know what a difference a call from a church leader would make in his week. To me, this was easy. I thought the pastoral staff (I was serving as the Children’s Ministry Director at the time) just needed to know the need. Monday morning staff meetings were 80 per cent about scheduling. When I met with blank stares and a host of explanations and excuses, I knew I’d touched a nerve. Conversation, especially of a spiritual nature, wasn’t always high on the list of ministerial priorities.

 

When I took time from my week to call the families on my Children’s Ministry list and ask if I could pray for them, I immediately saw half of my allotted hours go to this ministry of phone calls and check-in’s. It was tough to get paperwork done, which was also important. Without curriculum and teachers and bookings, our Sunday School program would come to a grinding halt. I did my best to balance logistics with open-ended, unhurried, prayerful conversations, but it was tricky. I eventually resigned over a clash of values. After that experience, I had more appreciation for the obstacles long-term pastoral staff faced.

 

I also came away from my post convinced that good conversation is at the heart of spiritual growth—and that it didn’t squeeze easily between the demands of the day. When my son’s teacher only had time to ask me a couple of good questions, I understood. That was a lot to give and I appreciated it.

 

A day’s demands can take a toll and often concerned conversation is the first to go.

 

When someone tells me they don’t have time to talk, I get that. I do not blame them for being distracted, busy or even too tired to talk. Leisurely conversation is associated with retirement and vacations and retreats for a reason. Daily life does not accommodate spiritual conversation. And yet, we need it. Regularly.

 

Tuning in to what and who matters most takes time. Yet, making space in our calendar for what matters most, can mean a radical shift. It is no small feat to get alone and spend time before God, each and every day. Yet, it is in this place of reflection that we discern our deeper priorities and truest needs. Slowly, we will begin to orient our days and lives towards these priorities and needs. A radical shift will take place, but often one step at a time. Spiritually, we grow by degrees, each measure trustworthy, solid.

 

Eventually we will have structured our lives differently to open up space and time for the people and projects that matter most to us—that need us to show up, fully present and rested and ready to respond. Thankfully, this whole-life process can begin with something as simple as someone asking us how we are and realizing all is not well. We are stressed. We are unavailable. We are lonely. We are imploding. We need a change. Thanks for asking.

 

A turning away from the pressures and pleasures more likely to consume us, than feed us is a great way to care for our souls. The more we care for our souls, the more we are able to care for the souls of others. A well-watered soul life means we will have something to offer in the dry times. The more we tune in to the needs of our own souls, the more clearly we will see and hear the needs of others’ souls.

 

You can often hear if someone is taking good care of his or her soul, by the quality of the questions they ask, and if they have capacity to listen well. Conversation quickly reveals who we are and whether or not we are fully present. It’s a very quick (and accurate) gauge on our inner life.

 

A friend with a well-watered soul life asked me how I was. That’s all he said, “How are you?” I said, “I’m fine,” but I found myself talking through a sudden flood of tears that sprung from a place I didn’t even know existed. In a word he had spoken to this part of me that was rarely accessed. It happened often to him; this wordless, tearful response from others, because he had dedicated himself to being immersed in the presence of God. It followed naturally: deep called out to deep. No other explanation was needed.

 

I have the same experience of being taken to this restful, thoughtful place of inquiry and knowing with a few good girlfriends that I have. Some live in different cities and I haven’t seen them in ages. No matter. Whenever we call or write or visit, we pick up where we left off. We easily attune to the movements of the soul within the other. We listen for what God is doing in each other’s life. It’s a beautiful thing: to be in life-long spiritual conversation with someone: to grow together in God.

 

Words may be few, but the depths they are drawn from make all the difference.

 

Good conversation brings peace and takes us to deeper places. It doesn’t pay much, this ministry of checking in. It truly is not glamorous. And it comes with no guarantees of outcomes. But I’ve yet to meet one person who isn’t thirsty to be heard, not one person, whether it’s someone I meet in the check-out line or an acquaintance out for a bike ride, a work colleague, someone in the coffee room after church, or a fellow mom on a class field trip. Everyone I meet appreciates the opportunity to tell me how they are doing and is glad when I have time and capacity to listen well.

 

The only reason I know how to ask good questions, make eye contact, block out disruptions and listen well is because I’ve had the extreme privilege of meeting people who know how to host a spiritual conversation; who are at home in the realms of my soul; who want to know me. I’ve seen it in action. I know it “works.”

 

Wanting more of this kind of connection, I am drawn to a quiet place with God each morning. For me, good conversation is one of the best things in life—first with God, then with myself, tuning in to my inner life, and then with others as the natural outflow of this time spent alone and away. One conversation builds on the next, until the whole body is built up in Him. I am convinced: good conversation only sounds simple. In truth, it is a spiritual gift we can all give and receive.