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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Just how angry are you?

The Institute for Ethics at Duke University conducted an online survey of about 1,500 people as part of a project designed to measure the morality quotient of Americans. They asked people to rate how likely they’d be to do certain morally questionable things like, for instance, kicking a dog in the head. As it turns out (happily), seven of eight respondents would refuse to do that and in fact, would turn down any amount of money up to $1 million to kick Fido in the noggin.

However, half of the participants said they could be motivated to throw a rotten tomato at a politician they dislike. For free.

Would you be among them?

There is no denying it: we have a maddening political climate. We also have anger issues. Anger is not a secular issue; we who follow Jesus are not immune. Just check your Facebook page. In fact, more and more, anger is becoming part of our caricature. Angela, the token Christian on The Office is an angry, tight-lipped, buttoned-up woman. In most cartoons and commentaries, we’re known as the ones who sling condemnation.

So really … are we that angry?

(You’ve heard the old joke– right? — about the shipwreck survivor they discovered on an uncharted island. The ship that spotted him sent a rescue team to shore and found the man alone among three huts. They asked what the three huts were for, since there was no one else around. The survivor explained, “Well, I live in one and go to church in another.” “What about the third hut, then?” asked a rescue team member. “Oh, that,” growled the man. “That’s where I used to go to church.” It is funny only because it is familiar.)

Face it. Christians have something of a reputation and it is only getting worse. I suspect we’re operating out of fear. We’ve pitted our values against a permissive culture and it has left us feeling powerless. In the comparison we’re accused of being angry, condemnation-tossing haters. And to some extent, we deserve the criticism. We who follow Jesus too easily pander to the reputation of being known for what we’re against more than what we’re for.

Wouldn’t it be exciting for Christians to be known more for the infectiousness of their faith than the accuracy of their tomato-tossing?

George Barna is a researcher who does ethnographic research on churches, and one study he did showed that only 4% of adults make their decisions based on the Bible. In his book, Think Like Jesus, he says, “the primary reason that people do not act like Jesus is because they do not think like Jesus … We’re often more concerned with survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.”

Hear that again: We are often more concerned about survival amidst chaos than with experiencing truth and significance.

“Survival amidst chaos” hits close to home, doesn’t it? These last couple of years have been hard on our country. I hope we are on the healing edge of a long season of chaos, and chaos has not brought out the best in us. We are not thinking like Jesus. We have become so focused on what is in front of us that we’ve forgotten what is beyond the horizon. We’ve engaged emotionally with difficult issues but have failed to speak with integrity, offering emotional responses that are more defensive than intelligent. Our go-to response is more fear than faith.

But you say, “A person can’t sit idly by and let the world roll over them.” Or more personally, “You don’t know my circumstance — how hard I’ve had it and how much it hurts. I can’t lose this war, too.”

To that, Jesus would say, “It doesn’t matter. The ground of our forgiveness is not our circumstances. The ground of our grace is not emotion.” Jesus told a whole story to make this very point (Matthew 18:23-35) saying that grace is a mark of the Kingdom.

Here’s the thing: If it all depends on circumstance, we are right to be desperate. Circumstances can seem hopeless but circumstances do not control my capacity for joy. We who know the end of the story should be responding to life and news and “rumors of wars” with a faith that proclaims something greater than our immediate circumstances. In other words, I don’t have to wait for folks to act right so I can have peace; I can live there now, by faith.

What I am responsible for is the character of my responses to life, and what those responses reveal about the character of Christ in me.

Brothers and sisters, whatever the current circumstance, we know how the story ends. We know what is beyond the horizon.

Let’s live and speak as if Jesus is who he says he is.

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Biblical … or superstitious? Which are you?

Consider how the following three numbers are related*: 2, 4, 8. What would you say is the likely relationship between these three numbers? Is there a pattern (hint: yes)? To confirm your guess, write three other numbers you think follow the same pattern (or rule) as the three above.

So what’s your guess?  Are you thinking that each number doubles the one before it? If that was your assumption, think again. While your rule may work for the numbers you’ve chosen, the rule I’m thinking of is that each number is higher than the one before. So 1,2,3 also works. And 15,21,82 also works.

Back in the 60s, a psychologist named Peter Wason developed this test to prove a mental tendency he called confirmation biasIt is that tendency we have to pay attention to information that confirms our beliefs, while we ignore information that challenges our beliefs. You want to believe you don’t do this. You want to believe, in fact, that you always filter information objectively and see the world just as it is. The fact, however, is that we all tend to confirm our suspicions by gathering information that fits what we already believe. And that can be very dangerous to our worldview and especially to a right understanding of God.

How, you ask?

Have you had the experience of having several bad things happen in a day, only to come to the end of it believing the world — or God — is out to get you? Have you had a streak of bad breaks, leaving you feeling that God has abandoned you? Or that you’re not good enough? Or that God is punishing you, or doesn’t have enough power in your life, or that you’re somehow wrong as a person?

That kind of “bottom up” thinking is actually more pagan than Christian. By “pagan,” I don’t mean “sinful.” I’m talking about a worldview almost as old as the world itself — a view that promotes the idea that everything is hard-wired together. Everything. So the tree in your yard is connected to your chair is connected to your dog is connected to your car is connected to … you get the picture.

This view of reality not only connects things, but also events. It makes sense of the world by connecting unrelated events to explain why things are as they are.

Animist religions follow this thinking. Take this view of the world far enough, and you’re collecting the eyes of newts to cast a spell on a noisy neighbor. Or back off just a bit and you’re wearing the same Atlanta Braves hat every day because your team is on a roll and consciously or not, you’ve decided your hat is a contributing factor to their luck. You don’t really believe that … but you still wear the hat.

Do you get the idea?

In this worldview, I begin with events in front of me and reason outward from them into the  realm of cause and effect. When I’m thinking from creation up, I may actually begin to believe that I control the world, or at least my world. And I may even begin to use the condition of my world to define what I believe about God. A creation-up worldview even colors my understanding of scripture, when I require my personal experience to define for me what the Bible means.

Of course, this isn’t the way the world (or the Bible) actually works, though we often function as if it does. A biblical worldview teaches that when God reveals himself, it isn’t from creation up — we can’t conjure him or his power up by doing certain things that compel him to act — but from the Kingdom down. Things don’t define God; God defines things.

Hear this: There is inevitable mystery in the gap between God and the world and God is the one who chooses where to break through that mystery to reveal himself. God is the one who defines what is. 

In a Christian worldview, grace is the critical link that spans the gap and makes the unknowable knowable. We don’t generate grace; God does. And it is only by God’s grace — not by our actions — that we can know him. Any mysteries solved, any connections made, must come from the top down.

From God.

Do you begin to see why our perspective on the world and what controls it — how we see things — can have a major impact on how we understand God? It becomes vitally important for us to begin with God’s revealed character rather than with our circumstances, in order to build a right relationship with him.

And ironically, it is in our use of the means of grace (things like Bible reading, prayer, worship, community, service) that we are most able to connect. Think of the means of grace like bowls that catch grace. Or like “God glasses.” These habits don’t conjure God up nor do they define God, but they are places where God reveals himself.  When we wear these lenses we are likely to see him as he is.

So we come back to our thought experiment about numbers. What I learn is this: first, that the world isn’t always as we perceive it; and second, that while I can’t know the world by beginning with the world itself, I can know the world by beginning with the end in mind.

In other words: Don’t think from creation up. Think from the Kingdom down. This is the essence of Paul’s advice to the Corinthians: “Do not be infants in your thinking. Be infants in evil, but in your thinking be mature.”

 

* I first saw this thought experiment in an article in The New York Times.  You can find it here. The last half of this post is inspired by a lecture given in a Doctor of Ministry class by Dr. Joe Dongell (Asbury Theological Seminary).

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