Healthy Communication and the Kingdom of Heaven

Healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community.  Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls.

As a leader, then, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding.  If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here’s where I’d start:

Say more.  By some strange quirk of fate I,  as a southerner, do not drink sweet tea. I only make it when family comes to my house, and then I make it poorly because my idea of “sweet” and their idea of “sweet” are worlds apart. “Good tea” by southern standards means adding more sugar than any human could conceivably consume.

What works for sweet tea works for communication. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it.  Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Affirm more. This is the pattern Paul teaches in his letters: start every conversation with affirmation. Doing this well will right-size your expectations, so you’re not constantly noticing the gap between what people are doing and what you think they ought to be doing.  We can all learn to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say. In fact, we must learn to do that before we can say anything at all that will be heard.

Blast less. Blast people enough and they will stop trusting what you say. Send enough email bombs and you’ll produce someone who cringes when they see your name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and you’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

If you’re prone to sending angry emails or venting on social media, find a way to stop yourself. Get a system that checks your intentions. Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned:  I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ Facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes Facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across. If I have serious words to share, I will always do that in person. And always covered in prayer.

Ask more questions.  This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

Finally, assume the best. In the absence of information, most folks assume the worst. That’s human nature. The nature of Christ, however, is to assume the best in others. In the absence of information, assume that those in your circles are doing the best they can, that they are not out to offend you, that they are working out their salvation daily just as you are. Give the people around you the benefit of the doubt and you’ll discover that the grace you give flows both ways.

By saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions, we develop a Kingdom perspective. I am convinced that healthy churches and organizations are built on a foundation of healthy communication. In a season when so much communication is destructive and negative, I challenge you to make it a priority to build an intentionally healthy system of communication that models grace, sensitivity and understanding.

 

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Ghosting and the Prince of Peace

Ghosting is a thing. ghosting2

Though the term wasn’t around in my dating days, the concept certainly was. Ghosting is the word for what happens when the person you’ve been seeing simply disappears. One day, you’re enjoying dinner together, hopeful this relationship is going someplace; the next day it is as if the person has fallen off the face of the earth. They have entered some other zone you can’t crack. You text to say you enjoyed time with them and you get crickets in return. You call and get voice mail. You check in on Facebook and discover you’ve been unfriended.

No conversation, no closing arguments, no “Dear John/Jessica” text. It is as if they have disappeared, leaving you without closure. The lack of “why” is maddening. Peace-sapping.

In Adele’s hit song, “Hello,” this is the storyline. It is a heartbroken woman having a conversation with a man who won’t answer the phone. The resonance of that song with this culture is startling. It won the distinction in 2016 of being number one on Billboard’s chart for longer than any other song by a female vocalist.

That ghosting is now an actual word says a lot about how relationships are evolving in a hyper-connected world. Because so much of our communication now happens in snippets and emojis rather than real conversations, there is a certain tacit permission to distance ourselves emotionally. It has long been a fact that folks are bolder when they are two steps removed from personal contact. We say things by email we’d never say face to face. We drop hints on Facebook rather than picking up the phone to have an honest conversation.

Once-removed communication is fanning the flames of passive aggression in our culture. It is passe to say that we’ve never been more connected and less authentically relational. I find in my own work as a pastor that I have to almost beg folks to pick up the phone and call. We seem to have lost the art of conversation. Or the heart for it.

I’ve also discovered that ghosting is a thing in the one place where it ought not exist at all. The Church is supposed to be a model for what real community looks like — real, honest, messy, vulnerable community. Walking away without a word is absolutely antithetical to the notion of grace; it shows a disastrous lack of understanding of what it means to be part of the Body of Christ.

Can you imagine Jesus giving someone the silent treatment? I’ll admit there are times when I feel like God is not present or audible but I can guarantee you that those times are more my fault than God’s. If anyone is ghosting anyone, I’m the one who is likely to ghost him.

The whole point of his promise to be with us always is to prove his love for us. No matter how wrong we’ve been, no matter how far from him we go, he will not leave us. “If we are faithless, he remains faithful, for he cannot disown himself” (2 Timothy 2:13). That’s the mirror opposite of ghosting. It is the promise of eternal presence, no matter how badly I behave.

ghosting1When I check out of relationships without maturely resolving issues, with no concern for offering the ministry of reconciliation, I commit a grave sin — the sin of denying the work of Christ in my own life.

Claiming Christ is a self-limiting act. It is a conscious decision to no longer allow my wounds to take the lead in my decision-making.

Hear that: My wounds don’t get to make my decisions.

When I claim Christ, I submit myself to the leading of Jesus, the Prince of Peace, who has called me to the ministry of reconciliation.

Paul and Barnabas are a great example. The story of their conflict in the book of Acts is a testament to how grace works. How they worked through that conflict made all the difference in how God used them to impact the world for Christ. Acts 15:40 says that as they parted company, they commended one another to the service of the Lord.

I am concerned for how we who follow Jesus function in our relationships with one another. We have allowed the culture to inform our responses; yet as Christians, we are given the ministry of reconciliation by Jesus Christ himself, who came expressly for that purpose.

It is right, just and gracious to offer peace in every circumstance. “When you are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother or sister has something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go; first be reconciled to your brother or sister, and then come and offer your gift” (Matthew 5:23-24).

We who claim Christ do not have the option of ghosting, not in our personal relationships nor in our relationship to the Body of Christ.

Why? Because shutting off our emotions will shut down our hearts. No matter what the cost to our pride, schedule or plans, we are called to make peace with anyone who has hurt us or whom we have hurt so that our hearts remain open to the love of God.

Yes, ghosting is a thing, but it is also a sin. It may be culturally acceptable, but it is not the way of the Cross nor the language of the Prince of Peace.

Are there unresolved relationships in your life waiting for the ministry of reconciliation? Who do you need to call so you can offer the gift of peace?

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Six Ways to Communicate Like an Adult

I believe healthy communication is the key to growing a healthy, mature community. Good communication is also the best weapon against the enemy of our souls. And good communication proves we are the adults in the room, and not just children with adult bodies.

As a leader, it becomes a high priority for me to develop a habit of communicating in ways that foster grace, sensitivity and understanding. If I learn to do this, those around me will not only respond with good will, but will hopefully adopt those habits and pass them along in their circles.

If I want to make the practice of healthy communication a priority this year in my church, home or organization, here are six things I’d do to get started:

1. Say more. What we think of as “over-communicating” is likely the amount needed for someone to get it. Never mind what you think they need; start with what they actually need.

Are your meetings under-attended? Do people in your church have a habit of saying, “I didn’t hear about that”? Even after you’ve said it more than once? It is possible they are dumb, but more likely they are just good people who haven’t heard.

Try this assumption: Assume people have a lot going on in their lives, a lot more than just the stuff you want them to pay attention to. And with that assumption in mind, give your folks the benefit of more information than you might think they need. I guarantee it will build good will. People will be grateful for your sensitivity to their over-crowded lives.

2. Affirm more. I learned this from Paul. You’ll notice that in most of Paul’s letters, even those where he’s obviously frustrated, he begins with encouragement. From that biblical pattern, I glean that I need to do as my mother taught and find something nice to say before I can say anything at all.

Start every conversation with affirmation. It helps right-size expectations, so the gap between what people are doing and what we think they ought to be doing is less noticeable.

3. Blast less. When I assume the worst and blast someone with a lot of negative words, I erode trust. Send enough email bombs and I’ll produce someone who cringes when they see my name pop up on the screen. Yell enough and I’ll produce kids with a defensive crouch.

Here’s the decision I’ve made where corporate communication is concerned: I will not send any emotion by email/ text/ facebook message/ twitter that isn’t positive and affirming and I will not communicate negativity in public (which includes facebook and twitter). It just doesn’t seem like a mature or healthy way to get a message across.

(Note to self and anyone else who needs a reminder: I will also not allow myself to react out of my woundedness in meetings. When I feel defensive, I will let God take care of my reputation and allow only the adult in me to respond.)

4. Check yourself. If you’re prone to sending angry emails, make a rule about that. Decide that any negative email must wait 24 hours before it is sent (the angrier you are, the more time you should take). Or find someone who will agree to read anything you send before you send it — someone who won’t mind being honest. Or write out what you’d like to say, then mail it to yourself and see how it feels when you’re reading it as if written to you.

Then, delete your email, pick up the phone and make time for a face to face conversation (I can’t overemphasize the value of person-to-person communication), which leads to the next idea …

5. Ask more questions. This ends up being a Kingdom-building habit. Far too late in life, I’ve learned that most of my frustration and miscommunication is a product of not asking enough questions before jumping to conclusions. Remember: The Kingdom of Heaven is big, hopeful and focused not on me and my feelings, but on God and His Kingdom. When I invest the time it takes to ask clarifying questions, seeking not so much “to be understood as to understand” (a prayer of St. Francis), I am reaching for God’s vision, God’s perspective, God’s Kingdom.

6. Assume the best. Maybe I don’t know all there is to know about the intentions even of those closest to me. Perhaps I would do better to assume the best in them, to assume their intentions are good and their hearts are for me, not against me, even if their approach to a situation is not what I’d have chosen. I can accomplish this attitude if I keep a “Kingdom of Heaven” perspective – big, hopeful and focused on God. If I’m willing to begin back where this piece begins — by saying more, affirming more, blasting less and asking more questions before making assumptions — I set myself up to assume the good intentions of those around me, believing they care as much as I do about what really matters.

The bottom line is that what Paul teaches is never more relevant than when we are talking about communication: take every thought captive, and grow up in every way into Him who is our Head. If I can get that right, then those around me will be more likely to get it right, and the ripples will extend to their circles of influence. And on it goes.

The Kingdom of Heaven works like that.

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Spin, excuses and denial (or, What pride sounds like)

“This is the crisis we’re in: God-light streamed into the world, but men and women everywhere ran for the darkness. They went for the darkness because they were not really interested in pleasing God. Everyone who makes a practice of doing evil, addicted to denial and illusion, hates God-light and won’t come near it, fearing a painful exposure. But anyone working and living in truth and reality welcomes God-light so the work can be seen for the God-work it is.” — John 3:19-21 (The Message)

Because I’m so hopelessly in love with the community of Christ, I’ve spent a bit of mental time contemplating how healthy community works. That line of thinking naturally leads to a conversation about pride and humility and the ways they manifest themselves in our relationships. Pride is the big killer of community and it affects our communication at a most fundamental level.

What do we know about pride? For starters, pride manifests as self hatred.

Self hatred distorts how we communicate, because it creates a focus on the SELF. We tend to feel threatened when our sense of self is weak. It is our nature to preserve our survival, whether physical or emotional. When we feel threatened — when the survival of our “self” feels attacked even from within — we will go to any length to protect it. Becoming focused on the self for the sake of self-defense necessarily means taking our attention off other things, including God.

How does pride or self hatred manifest in our conversations?

Self defense begins with denial. “It isn’t my fault!” How often do our responses begin there, even if only internally? To uphold my delusional sense of self I have to externalize the blame and make others the problem. This thing you’re saying about me or blaming me for can’t be my fault — not if I’m responsible for the survival of my identity.

To own responsibility means I’d have to my own woundedness or inadequacy. That kind of admission is a threat to a weak identity.

Externalizing leads to excuse-making — the language of victims. Now I am a victim of others’ bad behavior. If they would act right, we’d all be fine but since they won’t I now have to claim them as the problem.

So I make excuses.

Externalizing is a big issue for those whose sense of self feels threatened. We can’t afford the risk of taking responsibility (remember? We are already in a weakened state) so we flail about to find someone or something external to ourselves who must be the cause of our pain or inadequacy. It must be my parents’ fault or my spouse’s fault or maybe this is about a co-worker or team member or … someone. Just not me, because I can’t emotionally afford to take the hit.

A more subtle kind of excuse making is “spin” — the habit of changing the facts so they more comfortably fit my reality. I present a view that frames me and my behavior or circumstances in the most positive light. Usually my spin will be at the expense of someone else’s reality, but in my need to frame myself as positively as possible I must ignore the collateral damage.

Spin, excuses and denial are all ways we hide. Hiding is the habit of people who are threatened. We hide because we are convinced that if we expose the truth of our inadequacy we will be destroyed or at least further wounded. This is the point of John 3 (see above). Jesus tells us we’ll hide things, but only because we are afraid of the light.

We not only hide the truth from others; we hide it from ourselves. But here’s the thing: If a person can actually get to the place of asking, “Why do I feel threatened?” and can follow that out to its logical conclusion, s/he will likely discover the threat is not real. The defenses we launch wouldn’t survive rational analysis because our fearful, defensive thoughts are themselves lies, encouraged by the father of lies.

A more subtle and insidious form of self-protection is passive aggression. Passive aggression is another way to hide. It reveals a deep weakness in identity formation and is the opposite of courage. It is just what the name implies — a form of indirect hostility masked by a subtle brand of lies. Passive aggression looks like procrastination (“I will say I’ll do this, but I’ll drag my feet so I control if and when it actually happens.”), negative emotions (“I will express my feelings not with words but with how I love someone.”), ignoring responsibility (“I will listen to what is expected, but I will only do what I choose to do.”).

Passive aggressive communication is slipping unspoken signals into our behavior so we passively communicate a negative message. It is sneaking in our anger, disapproval or disagreement without actually owning the courage to state it maturely and directly. It is any behavior that keeps us from submitting out of reverence for Christ (Ephesians 5:21) to a relationship with which we’re internally at odds.

Passive aggressive people lie by not directly expressing their feelings or by hiding the script, as someone has said. When confronted, they often deny having a hidden agenda. What a passive aggressive person is after is control which manifests as silent rebellion.

The most glaring dysfunction in the communication of self-haters is conscious lying.

This is a hard, fast truth: addicts lie. What we don’t often acknowledge is the variety of forms in which addiction manifests. I can be addicted to myself and to self-preservation just as surely and destructively as I can be addicted to a chemical. In fact, self addiction is chemically fueled, in that the unhealthy stress hormones released by feelings of failure or inadequacy become compelling triggers motivating me to avoid truth.

All these levels of dysfunctional communication spring from the same root: self protection. We are guarding against any reality that might force us to change from our current ways of behaving while we desperately protect an identity we feel is in danger.

Self protection centers on one key word: SELF. It is the enemy’s first line of defense. He doesn’t care if I love myself too much (narcissism is a pathological form of pride we’ll save for another conversation) or hate myself even a little; either end of that spectrum works. In either case, my mental posture will keep me focused on SELF which means I will have less room for God.

What is the alternative? Here are a few questions to sit with in the presence of the Holy Spirit:

  1. Do any of my responses reflect a posture of self-defense? Do I have a protective crouch?
  2. Do I use my emotions in an attempt to manipulate others’ behavior?
  3. How do I hide? Why do I feel threatened?
  4. What prayer of confession will help me bring these things into the light of truth?

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