Today’s column for the Champaign-Urbana News-Gazette is a look back at my early days of learning that I was good at both listening to people and empathizing with them — skills that serve me well to this day. Read on …
Don Follis April 10, 2016 column: “Praying teaches us that life is as more about others than it about us”
When Villanova’s Kris Jenkins hit the winning shot at the buzzer to lift the Wildcats over the North Carolina Tar Heels in the men’s NCAA championship game last Monday, I thought back to my days as a young teen. My dad, my brothers and I watched the mighty UCLA Bruins repeat year after year as college basketball championships back in the late 1960s and early 1970s.
Looking back, I was baptized on Easter Sunday of my 9th grade year just days after UCLA big-man Bill Walton helped the Bruins secure yet another championship for legendary coach John Wooden.
Following my baptism, right in our very kitchen my mom put on a 6-week Tuesday evening full-court press. It featured high school star athlete Scotty Andrews meeting with me one-on-one and leading me through 6 lessons on how to live a Christian life.
The table that sat the 8 of us – dad, mom, 5 kids and one Grandma who lived with us – was reserved solely for Scotty and me for those Tuesday evenings at 7pm. That meant the dishes were washed and dried and the floor swept and mopped before Scotty arrived.
Our house had a full-length swinging heavy-wooded door that led from the kitchen to the rest of the house. It rarely was closed. Mom pulled it shut when Scotty came, leaving teacher and student alone in the kitchen. Everyone else went to the basement to watch television with Grandma.
The 6-week study included a fill-in the blank book. Scotty filled it out too. Around that table with pens in hand sat a newly baptized 9th grader and a high school senior who had run the 2-mile race in 9 minutes and 48 seconds during his junior year.
Indeed I thought we would mostly talk about sports. Scotty wanted to talk about God. He jumped right in the first week. “Have you ever heard God’s voice?”
I didn’t know what he met so I answered, “I guess.” Scotty immediately had me read these words from Proverbs chapter 3, “Trust in the Lord with all your heart and rely not on your own understanding. In all your ways acknowledge him and he will direct your paths.”
Scotty said if I trusted God and believed he could speak to me, I would start hearing Him. Scotty’s Grandpa, who I soon discovered was his chief teacher, told him that God often uses our own thoughts to speak to us. That’s what I should expect to happen to me, Scotty said.
Hearing God is not magic, Scotty’s Grandpa had told him. But it was normal, especially if I was willing to engage my imagination. Mostly I had to listen to that inner voice inside of me. In fact, one of the lessons during that 6-week period was centered on discerning the voice of God during prayer.
Scotty said he relied a lot on his imagination and inner thoughts when he prayed. He told me listened to his thoughts, especially when he lay in his bed at night. It could work that way for me, too, he thought.
Then he gave me an actual listening assignment he wanted me to try at school. When I went to school the next morning Scotty wanted me to practice listening to my classmates without relying on their words. He said his Grandpa said that this is an important life skill. The mission was for me to just watch people. Notice their body language. Are their arms crossed or their fists clenched? What about their eyes? Are they someone who cries easily? Do they pout? Do they glare?
Then observe how people breathe, Scotty said. Watch how people breathe when they are relaxed and then when they are excited or mad. So I headed off to school determined to try and “read the room,” as Scotty called it.
Wouldn’t you know it? One of the boys in my English class was asked to give a short impromptu oral report on a story he read. He stumbled badly over his words. I “listened” for the non-verbal indicators. The boy was embarrassed. When he sat down, I watched his eyes. He teared up but was trying to hide it. After class I approached him in the hall and said, “Don’t worry about happened. I couldn’t have done that either.”
Before we went parted, I patted him on the shoulder, just like Scotty did to me. I wasn’t friends with him, but he said, “Thanks.”
As Scotty and I continued our lessons each week, more wisdom from his Grandpa surfaced. One week we practiced shaking handing, looking each other directly in the eye and saying, “What are you excited about today?” Or, “You’re looking good today.”
The proximity of Easter and March Madness this year took me way back to my baptism and those lessons with Scotty Andrews around that big kitchen table. Scotty, and well, his Grandpa, taught me about listening to my inner voice, about watching for nonverbal cues and about realizing that in praying we discover that life is way more about others than it is about me.