May 20, 2012
Rev. John Watts
STRONG FAMILIES HAVE GOOD COMMUNICATION
James 1:19-20, 3:1-18
The second in a series of five sermons.
There was a mother who was sick in bed with the flu. Her little pre-school daughter was only too happy to play the role of nurse. She fluffed her mom’s pillows and brought her magazines to read. She even surprised her with a cup of hot tea. The mom said, “I didn’t even know you knew how to make tea!”
The girl smiled proudly and explained that she had learned by watching her mom do it. She said, “It was easy! I put the tea leaves in the pan. Then I put in the water. Then I put the pan on the stove. I turned on the burner and boiled it for 2 minutes. I remembered to turn off the burner. Then all I had to do was strain it into your tea cup. The only problem was I couldn’t find your tea strainer. But that was OK. I used your fly swatter instead.”
“You used what!” the horrified mom exclaimed.
“Oh, don’t worry”, the little girl was quick to explain. “I didn’t use your new fly swatter. I used the old one.”
Our children learn by watching mom and dad. And our children also have a wonderful way of going beyond what they’ve been taught and doing things in ways that surprise and amaze and exasperate! Life is never dull when there are children in the family.
Last week we started a series on the family. We’re using findings from the National Study of Family Strengths that came out of theUniversityofNebraska. Certain attributes are found in families that are strong, happy, and healthy. Last week we saw how these families have a strong commitment to their families. It’s a commitment of steadfast love that won’t give up, not unlike God’s commitment to us. This week we move to the second characteristic of strong families. They have good communication.
Our families, however our families might be configured, are balanced environments, designed by God for the growth of human beings. That environment is out of balance and growth is choked off when communication is not occurring regularly and freely. And not just communication when there is something important to talk about.
I tend to avoid stereotypes, because people are way too complicated to fit our stereotypes. But I think we have to admit, men and women are in most cases pretty stereotypical when it comes to communication. Men typically don’t do well with small talk. Women typically have an amazing capacity for keeping a conversation going whether there is anything to talk about or not.
It’s been estimated that the average woman speaks 32,000 words a day and the average man 26,000. So what happens when the woman has been home all day and still has 30,000 words left at 6 pm? And the man comes home and he has already used all but 300 of his? She is wondering, “Why won’t he talk to me?” He is wondering, “Why does she have so much to say about nothing?” And life goes on.
Men tend to handle family conversations like business meetings. They want to get the problem figured out and solved, preferably in 10 minutes or less, so they can get back to the ball game. And we wonder why the conversation ends in frustration. If we aren’t in the habit of talking, it’s going to be hard to solve problems through talking. The myth is that it’s not the quantity of the time you spend talking. It’s the quality. The truth is that without quantity you won’t likely have much quality. It’s only when you routinely talk about anything and everything that you will be ready when it’s time to talk about something that really matters.
It’s that way with prayer, too. The Bible tells us to “pray without ceasing” (I Thes 5:17). That might sound a little excessive, but I think what it’s telling us is to make prayer a regular part of our lives. Little prayers many times through the day. “Thank you, God.” “Help me, God.” “I love you, God.” That kind of thing. Rather than saving it all up until you find yourself in crisis and you really need to talk to God and you find you can’t. Prayer is not like water you can turn on and off at the tap. Neither is communication in our families.
Keep talking. That’s the first thing I have to say about the environment conducive to good communication. And “keep talking” implies that we keep listening, too. We don’t do all the talking. In fact, listening really is the key to good communication. It is with prayer. James has it right when he says, “Let everyone be quick to listen, slow to speak, slow to anger.” Listening comes first.
This analogy of the family as an ecosystem can help us explore the subject of communication. Family is a balanced environment that promotes growth. Certain condition must be present for that growth to occur, just as certain conditions must be present in our backyards for things to grow there. Here are three conditions that, when present, make the family environment more open and more healthy and when absent make the family environment more closed and less healthy.
(1) In an open family environment it will be safe to share your experiences. It will be safe to share your thoughts. Your family cares what is on your mind. In a closed, intimidating environment you learn that you can say whatever you want to but no one is really listening. You’d may as well be talking to yourself. You get the clear message that what is on your mind is not very important. Parents of teenagers often wonder why their son or daughter has so little to say. This may be the reason. They’ve tried to share what is on their heart, but it wasn’t really appreciated. I think a lot of wives feel this way, too. It’s not a healthy family environment where people learn to clam up.
(2) An open environment is one where people care about you feelings. In a closed environment, your feelings really aren’t valued. The question, “How do you feel?” means “Are you sick?” No one really cares about what is going on inside of you.
(3) An open environment is one where people are concerned about your needs. A closed environment is one where your needs aren’t recognized. You are there to meet someone else’s needs.
A father walks into the house and says, “Son, how did it go today?” And the son knows that the follow-up question is coming in 12 seconds or less: “Did you get the trash out?” And then, “How are you doing on your homework?” See, all Dad really wanted to know was if his agenda for his son was being met. Dad, never once tuned in to see if his son had any needs. Did he get beat up emotionally at school today? Is he struggling with something? What’s he dreaming about? What’s he looking forward to? Those kind of questions never come up in many homes.
So what’s your home like? Is your home the kind of place where you feel free to share anything and everything or is it the kind of place where you guard every word?
Your teenage daughter comes home. She’s had a terrible day. Someone made fun of her appearance. She’s all shriveled up inside. But when she’s home with Mom she starts opening up like a flower and beauty comes out of what was described as ugly two hours ago. And there are other homes where when people walk in the door it’s as if the flower just died and it’s shriveling up to nothing. What’s it like when you walk in the door of your house? Do you shrivel up and close down? Or do you feel open and free to blossom?
There are steps we can take to make our family environments more open and less closed. The first step is to acknowledge that there is room for improvement. It doesn’t help much to ask, “Why won’t my kids talk to me?” It helps a great deal to ask, “Is this an open or a closed environment?”
Words are very powerful. James writes about this in his letter. He says that powerful horses are controlled with little bits in their mouths. Great ships are guided by small rudders. “So the tongue is a little member and boasts of great things. How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire . . . from the same mouth come blessing and cursing” (3:5-6,10). With simple words we have the power to build people up or to tear people down.
Norm Wright in his book, The Power of the Parent’s Word, says this:
Abuse is the most devastating element of any dysfunctional family. When you hear the word “abuse” you think of physical and sexual abuse, but probably the most far-reaching kind of abuse in our homes is verbal communication abuse.
In our backyards at home, in our never-ending battle with weeds, we need to be careful. If you spray the weeds in your lawn with Roundup, you’ll kill the grass, too. So to create an environment conducive to growth, we need to be careful with toxic chemicals. And in our families, there are forms of toxic communication that pose great threat to the safe, open environment we want to create. Here are six.
(1) Screaming. The other day I was standing in a check-out line and ahead of me was a mother and her son. He may have been 4. He was tired of waiting in line as all of us were. He just felt a little freer about expressing it. His mom was embarrassed and was trying to control the situation without creating a scene. But the harder she tried, the worse it got. The volume of her voice kept escalating. She was creating more of a scene than he was. She kept yelling, “Why won’t you listen to me?” I felt like tapping her on the shoulder and saying, “It might help if you would stop screaming at him.”
Raising the level of our voices does not raise the level of the communication that occurs in our families. Just the opposite. It’s a good rule that should apply to children of all ages. No screaming.
(2) Next, condemning. “You always do this . . . He never does that . . . She will never . . . ” We make these sweeping statements. We think we’re just being descriptive. Maybe exaggerating just a bit to make the point. Actually, we are condemning the person and closing the possibility of real communication about your concern.
(3) We use conditional statements. The key words are, “Yes, but . . . ” The moment you say “but” after the “yes” you discredit whatever that person’s communication has been. And when you discredit what someone says or thinks, you discredit that person.
(4) Sarcasm. Some of us have raised this to an art form. The biting, cutting remark. The put-down. The harm is not erased by saying, “Oh, I was just kidding.” What makes this kind of humor so hurtful is that you are laughing at someone, not with someone. Sarcasm belittles people. In has no place in our homes.
(5) And then there is blaming. “You make me so mad!” The key words are “you make me”. In other words you’re the reason I’m mad. It’s your fault. You are responsible for what I am feeling. It’s so important to open and healthy communication that I take responsibility for my emotions and behavior and that you take responsibility for yours.
(6) There’s one more toxic chemical that poisons communication. “Should haves.” We use these on each other. We use these on ourselves. You should have done this. I should have done that. The problem with “should haves” is that they are in the past tense. You can’t change what happened yesterday. We have to start with today.
The Environmental Protection Agency has banned certain chemicals because they are so destructive to our natural environment. How about banning these six forms of communication in your homes? You might even make a sign. Put it on your refrigerator door. No more screaming, condemning, yes buts, sarcasm, blaming, or should haves. They’re too dangerous to allow in our homes. They do too much damage. They hurt people. They stunt their growth. They make them shrivel up inside. They block the open communication that is essential for the health of the family.
So now you have a long list of things to do and avoid doing. I’ve given you three things to do to create an open environment in your family and six things to avoid doing. Let me just close by telling you what you already know. It’s not as simple as just going down a check list. It is hard work to unlearn patterns of communication and behavior that have become deeply engrained into our personalities. It can be done. With God’s help, a lot of things can be done that seem impossible. But you’re going to have to get serious about it. And it’s going to take more than just you. You are part of a family system. You’re going to have to work together. This may well be a long-term project, not a sudden cure.
And we won’t get far at all without one critical ingredient. Forgiveness. A little forgiveness goes a long way. No matter how hard we try to build stronger, happier, healthier families, we are going to make mistakes. Little ones. Big ones. We’re not angels. We’re humans. And so when we say things we wish we could take back, when others say things to us that are uncalled for, asking for and granting forgiveness is the only way to move forward and to keep from getting stuck.
Here’s what it says in Ephesians:
Don’t let any unwholesome talk come from your mouths, but only what is helpful to build others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen . . . Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving one another as Christ has forgiven you. (4:29,32)
A father was filled with regrets over the kind of father he had been when his children were at home. Now they were gone. They were on their own. His task of raising them was over. If he had it to do over again, he would have done a few things differently. Quite a few. In particular, there was one painful memory of when he had lost his temper with his son. Things hadn’t been the same between them ever since. This was years ago, but still he was haunted by the memory.
One day he arranged to meet his son. He reminded his son of the incident. The son remembered. And then the father said to the son, “I’m sorry.”
They embraced. They wept. They didn’t say a thing for a long time. And then the son spoke. “Dad, today you stand ten feet tall. I always hoped you remembered and were sorry. But today you were man enough to say the words.”
Dear God, may we say the words we need to say to those who are close to us. May we communicate in ways that build people up, not tear people down. You have given us incredible power for good or for ill in our tongues. Help us to use that power for good. In Jesus’ name, Amen.