Lenten Conversations: Ken Medema on Really Listening
Another Way for week of March 17, 2017
Lenten Conversations: Ken Medema on Really Listening
Editor’s note: Fourth in a six-week Lenten series of interviews Melodie Davis conducted with influential Christians over several years.
I first heard Ken Medema’s incredible music and stories at a Mennonite Church convention but I’m not sure where or when. I say incredible because I don’t know of another excellent musician who can listen to someone telling a story and then make up meaningful lyrics and simple tunes while singing in front of a crowd and have them turn out so very well. Plus there’s the blind thing but he’s never let that stop him.
Now in his 70’s, Ken performs piano and voice concerts across the U.S. and Canada, and has recorded many albums. One of my close friends used to be a booking agent for a comedy duo at similar venues and through her connections and assistance, I was able to record an interview with Ken. He broke into a number of on-the-spot made up songs even during our interview, which I loved! My oldest daughter also sang in a teen choir at a youth convention and got to share a story with Ken while he listened, and then created a song from her story. Classic Ken Medema.
But I was especially charmed when he explained how that act of listening so intently until he caught the “nub” of a story is also a helpful and practical skill in relationships: with a spouse, children, friends, and even enemies. I dare say it was also a gift that Jesus possessed in spades—something to remind ourselves as we journey through Lent
For example, Ken and his wife Jane have greatly differing personalities. Ken is basically an introvert who, while he enjoys people immensely, after leaving a concert or crowd, needs to retreat into his own skin. He said Jane, on the other hand, is such a talkative people-person that she doesn’t know “what she thinks until she says it.” Jane needs people around with a lot of interaction, because that’s how she thrives. “And I can’t thrive unless I have lots of time alone,” Ken described.
So if Jane, for example (or either spouse in a marriage) is dishing out “a catalog of the ‘you don’ts,’ such as ‘You don’t send me flowers, you don’t seem to have interest in some of the things I talk about, you don’t seem to like the books I read,’ –how do I respond?” asks Ken.
Suddenly in that conversation, Ken said he hears an undertone of “I feel kind of second rate.” He said to look for a key like that in any discussion or disagreement. “I feel second rate” or “less than” or “not appreciated.”
Ken went on: “Rather than responding to her with ‘Oh yes I love your cooking, I love the books you read’—I can respond with ‘I feel kind of overwhelmed, because you are so full of energy and ideas and my mind is so slow sometimes, I feel overwhelmed.’” Those kinds of words—overhelmed, second rate, can be keys to turning a brewing fight into a conversation “and then we can work together at figuring out what’s going on rather than just making accusations,” Ken noted.
Ken shared how he listens to people and their stories the same way. “I hear a nub, I hear a little phrase, I hear the central focus of what the person is trying to say.” And that gives him a key phrase out of which to make a song!
In 2010, Ken and his wife were invited to move in with the family of one of their children. In this setting of living with loved ones but needing to work out some of the kinks of three generations in a household, he enumerated the advantages. “Kids are hard to raise,” Ken stated. “But when you’ve got four adults who basically agree on how to raise a kid, when one adult gets tired, another can take over” which is a huge help. In this setting he and Jane would say to the adult children, “You guys get out of here, go see a movie. We’ll take care of the kids.” Ken remarked, “The relief is palpable. It’s amazing how that works.”
He added, “When differences crawl all over us, we both can find our satisfaction being together among the kids and grandkids, and it brings us together in better ways.”
Ken and his wife have enjoyed many years together even though there were rough times. Their central focus has been serving God and the church. I can think of no better scripture for this little Lenten meditation than John 13:34 where Jesus says, “A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another.” Or as Ken sung at this point in our conversation:
“We’re such different people, but we’ve so much to share.
Sometimes I’m frightened, and sometimes it’s more than I can bear.
And yet I belong to you, and you belong to me,
And we both belong to Jesus, so let’s learn how to be a family.”
Have you met or heard Ken Medema? Stories or impressions?
Ken Medema’s music and concert schedule can be found at kenmedema.com. For a free booklet I’ve written called “Secrets of Long Marriage,” write to email@example.com or Another Way Media, Box 363, Singers Glen, Va. 22850.
Parts of this interview appeared earlier on the Shaping Families radio program and website. You can hear the interview here and hear Ken’s snatches of songs!
Another Way is a column by Melodie Davis, in syndication since 1987. She is the author of nine books, most recently Whatever Happened to Dinner. Another Way columns are posted at FindingHarmonyBlog.com a week after newspaper publication.