June 10, 2012

Rev. John Watts

Nampa First UMC


Luke 15:11-32

The fifth in a series of five sermons.

I want to begin this morning by addressing a subject that I am guessing is on some of your minds.  Parents want so badly to succeed as parents.  Parents love their children and want what is best for them.  This parental instinct is very strong.  You parents live to protect and nurture and guide and prepare your son or your daughter to live a great life.  But here’s one of the hard realities of life.  Children grow up and they are free to do their own thing and to go their own way.  No matter how fabulous your parenting skills might have been, it doesn’t guarantee that your child will turn out the way you had hoped.  Or to say it the other way, even children who grow up with terrible parents can and often do turn out just fine!

This isn’t to say what we do as parents doesn’t matter.  Not at all.  It matters a great deal.  That’s why I’ve taken time for this series on the family.  Our families, however strong or weak they are right now, can be stronger.  There are things we can do, there are things God can do if we’ll let him, that can and will make a huge difference.  But I do know that parental guilt is a huge burden that weighs many people down and that often is misplaced.  It’s not necessarily your fault that your child made some poor choices.  Even children of great parents make poor choices.

One of the best books on the family I have ever read is Strong Fathers, Strong Daughters by Meg Meeker.  She writes about our tendency to think we all belong in “the worst parents inAmerica” club.

Here’s what she said to one couple who were beating themselves up over the trouble their daughter had gotten herself into.

Okay, I know you believe in God.  What about him?  He’s a perfect father, isn’t he?  Isn’t that what you believe?  Well, look at all the messed up kids he has! (page 126)

So, even though we may remain messed up kids who are raising messed up kids, here’s another installment, our final one, in this series about strong families.  Today we’re going to be talking about expressing appreciation.  Again, I want to emphasize that everything we are talking about applies to every kind of family, even if yours is a family of one.  These are relationship skills that we can all apply.

An airline passenger had just been brought a soft drink and one of those peanut-free snack packages.  It happened to be pretzels.  The passenger took a sip from his soft drink and was startled by a voice coming out of nowhere.  It said, “Nice tie!”  He looked around.  There was no one looking at him.  He shrugged his shoulders.  Then the voice came back.  “Hey, I like your haircut!”  Again, he spun around trying to locate the source of this strange voice.  He saw nothing.  Then the voice again.  “You look like you’ve lost some weight.  Nice job!”  This man thought he was losing his mind.  He jumped to his feet and said to a passing flight attendant, “What’s going on?  I’m hearing voices!”  She said, “Oh, don’t worry. That’s just the pretzels.  They’re complimentary.”

Today we’re going to talk about being complimentary.  Compliments are important.  Again, I’m quoting from the National Study of Family Strengths:  “We had not anticipated this finding, but it leaped out at us.  Expressions of appreciation permeate the family relations of strong families inAmerica.”

Appreciation.  William James said, “The deepest principle of human nature is the craving to be appreciated.”  John Trent and Gary Smalley have co-authored a book called The Blessing.  They write:

No matter your age, the approval of your parents affects how you view yourself and your ability to pass that approval on to your children, your spouse, and your friends.  Many people spend their lifetime not even aware of it but looking for acceptance that the Bible calls “The Blessing”.

“The Blessing” is a recurring Biblical theme.  It’s found in the story of Jacob and Esau, those twin brothers who compete for their father’s blessing.  It’s also found in the Parable of the Prodigal Son.  This is another story of two brothers competing for the blessing of their father.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son backs up what I said earlier about how our children don’t necessarily grow up the way we would want them to.  Here we have one father who we can assume treats his two sons the same.  But the two sons do not turn out at all the same.

The younger son is the one we call the Prodigal Son.  Prodigal means wastefully extravagant.  This refers to how he takes his share of his father’s inheritance and blows it all in wild and foolish spending.  But the deeper issue with the Prodigal Son is that he is estranged from his father.  He is separated from his father not just physically when he runs away but also emotionally while he is still home.  There is a barrier between them.  And then the surprise twist in the parable is that the older son is estranged from his father, too.  He’s the one who stays home and seems to be the one who “turned out just fine”.  But when his brother is forgiven and welcomed home and given the father’s blessing, he cannot believe it.  He won’t even attend the welcome home party.  He is furious.  And the way the parable ends, it’s is clear that the younger brother is now back in the family.  It’s unclear whether the older brother, the obedient one, ever forgives his dad and allows himself to be welcomed back into the family.

This is a parable about human estrangement and what God has done to cure it.  What God has done to cure it is to love us unconditionally.  That’s the way the father in the parable loved both his sons.  And that’s the way we are to love all the children in our families.  No telling what your children will do with that love, but still we love.  We extend the “blessing” before it’s even been earned.  That after all is the way God extends the blessing to us.  And one way we extend that blessing to our children and to all the people who are part of our lives is by expressing appreciation.

Expressing appreciation is just good manners, it’s just the way people are supposed to be treated.  But it’s much more than this.  We all have a basic human need to be appreciated.  For several reasons.  For one, it builds our self-esteem.  It’s hard to believe we’re worth very much if those closest to us take us for granted.  For another, it builds a positive, pleasant environment.  A place you want to come home to.  And it gives people in your family a reason to be home.  We say, “He’s never home.  She’s never home.”  Could be a case of “keeping up with the gerbils.”  Or it could be a case of appreciation starvation.  They’re not getting it at home so they’re going somewhere where they get it.

We need appreciation in our families also because it creates an environment where people can grow up emotionally as well as physically.  Families are balanced environments designed by God where people can grow.  We have raised a generation of young people inAmericatoday who have grown up physically and socially but who are still dwarfed emotionally.  Not all of them.  But way too many of them.  I think it has a lot to do with families where the children don’t regularly hear things like:  “I’m sure glad you’re my daughter!”  “I’m sure glad you’re my son!”

What keeps us from expressing appreciation?  Many things.  Those who come from families where they didn’t get much appreciation generally have a hard time giving appreciation to others.  In many families, the blessing is always related to doing.  You have to earn it.  Sometimes it’s impossible to earn it.  You try so hard but the blessing is always just out of reach.  Like the fake rabbit the greyhounds chase at the track.  And the problem is people are smarter than dogs.  Eventually they will give up and stop trying.

Single parent and blended families present unique challenges in the area of appreciation.  Forty percent of the children born today are born into single-parent families.  Many of them will never have the blessing and approval of one of their parents.  In blended families, it’s often feast or famine.  One is appreciated, the other isn’t.  Step-parents struggle with treating all their children the same.  Sometimes they try so hard not to play favorites that they end up playing favorites with the one they’re afraid they might neglect.  It gets complicated.

In all families, favoritism is a common reason for unequal distribution of honor and recognition.  One child can do no wrong and the others can never measure up.  Sound familiar?  Some of you have been there.

Busyness is a very common reason we don’t express appreciation.  Habit is another.  Old habits are hard to break.  Sin can be the reason.  More and more people are getting in touch with abuse that occurred when they were very young.  The pain and the scars are still there.  And if it was a parent who did this to you, how will you ever get their blessing?  There is a way.  It is called forgiveness. I won’t pretend it’s easy.  It can be the hardest thing you ever do.  Without God’s help, you will never do it.

There are many reasons we fail to give and receive appreciation.  It’s important to understand why our families are the way they are.  But it’s so much more important to use this understanding to make our families different than they are.  Better than they are.  To break out of old patterns and cycles that have blocked the blessing.  How do we do that?  I have three suggestions.

(1) Appropriate touch.  Touch can be inappropriate.  We all know that.  The Jerry Sandusky trial begins tomorrow inPennsylvania.  We parents and church workers, especially with a pre-school that’s part of our church, have learned to be very vigilant.  But we must never go to the extreme that we are afraid to touch or be touched.  Touch is a basic human need.  All kinds of studies document this.  Premature babies used to be whisked away from their parents and kept in incubators in the neo-natal intensive care unit.  Now we’ve learned how important it is that we allow these tiny people as much physical contact with their parents as possible.  On  the opposite end of the life-cycle, nursing homes have started identifying patients without family or friends who regularly visit and touch them.  They have found that if they provide these patients with pets for them to touch and hold, they live longer.   And probably the pets do, too!   A recent study at UCLA concluded that to maintain emotional health and equilibrium we all need 8-10 meaningful touches every day.  How many have you had so far today?

Virginia Satir wrote this:

It can be vital for your emotional well-being.  Everybody feels skin hunger throughout their lives, and unless that hunger is satisfied by touching, there’s a vital void in the emotional makeup that’s going to cause deep unhappiness.  We all know that babies thrive on frequent stroking.  Well, adults are no different.  When they’re not patted on the hand or embraced around the shoulder or hugged, they withdraw into themselves. I prescribe four hugs a day for survival, eight for maintenance, and twelve for growth.

Now, we’re not all huggers.  And hugging isn’t always the kind of touch that is called for.  The idea is to communicate warmth and love to another human being in a way that will not make them or you feel uncomfortable.  It wouldn’t hurt for some of us to stretch our comfort level a bit.  But sometimes a simple pat on the hand can say a lot about how you feel about another person.

(2)  We need to speak words of appreciation.  This is a common way we get in trouble.  We feel the appreciation.  It’s most sincere.  But we don’t let the one we appreciate know.  In fact, we don’t say anything at all to the one we appreciate until they do something we don’t appreciate.  Then we let them know.  And no wonder they feel unappreciated.   Even if they really are appreciated.  Because we have not bothered to tell them.  All they have heard from us is criticism.

I’m going to share with you an equation that you never learned in math or science, but it’s an equation that will help you more in life than any of the equations you have learned and forgotten.  It takes ten “atta-boy’s” to equal one “you jerk.”   Ten “atta-girl’s” to equal one “you dummy”.  Do you understand that?  You can say nice things to me ten times but those ten positive comments will have about the same weight as one single negative, critical comment.  I don’t know why that is.  Maybe we brush off compliments because we think people are just saying the nice things.  They don’t really mean them.  But one single hurtful remark — we’ll hear that.   We’ll pay attention to that.  So say the appreciative words you feel.  Don’t keep them inside.  Don’t assume that other person knows how you feel.  Keep that ratio where it needs to be.  I’ve heard 10 to 1.  I’ve heard 5 to 1.  The point is, make sure the positive is expressed far more than the negative.  It will do wonders for the happiness and harmony of your home.

(3) Finally, attach value to people and not to actions.  We tend to wait for someone to do something praiseworthy before we will give them our praise.  When we do that, what are we communicating?  That I value you for what you do, not for who you are.  That my love, my acceptance, my blessing awaits satisfactory completion of certain performance objectives.  After all, how else will I encourage excellence?  If I give out praise too freely, you’ll stop working for it. But see, it really doesn’t work that way in our families. We don’t encourage excellence by being stingy with our blessing.  We encourage despair.  Don’t drive people to perfectionism in order to win your approval!  Don’t starve people emotionally by holding back your appreciation!

The Apostle Paul talks about this.  He says, “For you know that we dealt with each of you as a father deals with his children . . . ”  Well, how does a father deal with his children?  ” . . . encouraging, comforting, and urging you to live lives worthy of God”  (I Thes 2:11-12, NIV).  Some of you probably heard the word “urging”.  That’s your idea of parenting.  And that is part of it, but notice that the encouraging and the comforting come first.  When we comfort and encourage unconditionally, our urgings about what ought to be done carry greater weight.

The Parable of the Prodigal Son is about one son who thought he had lost his father’s blessing through his actions, another son who thought he had gained his father’s blessing through his actions, and a father who loved both sons just the same without regard to their actions.  His blessing was extended to them for who they were, not for what they had done or failed to do.

As we close, five quick testimonies of parents who have done this — who have let their children know they are valued in simple but meaningful ways.  One kept a picture of his son in his office.  His son saw that picture one day and thought, “My dad is proud of me!”  A mother reports that part of her daily agenda is to pay at least one sincere compliment to every member of her family.  A father who travels a lot doesn’t leave home without placing under the pillow of his wife and his children a note reminding them of how special they are to him.  There’s the single mother whose child said, “When I go over to my friend’s house, my friends’ parents tell me wonderful things that my mother told them about me.”

And then there’s the four-year-old boy who was given a birthday party.  His mother asked him what kind of a party he wanted.  He said, “I want one where everybody is a king or a queen.”  So his mother made crowns out of aluminum foil and robes our of purple crepe paper.  She got sticks and painted them gold for scepters.

On the day of the party, each guest was given crown, robe, and scepter as they arrived.  It was quite a sight.   A whole room filled with royalty.  There was cake and ice cream.  Everyone had a great time.  The party ended with a royal procession outside, to the end of the block and then back home.

At the end of the day as the mother was tucking her son into bed, she asked, “What did you wish for when you blew out the candles?”  He said, “I wished that everyone could be a king or a queen.  Not just on my birthday, but every day.”

Dear God, you have created us to be a little less than the angels.  You have crowned us with glory and honor.  You have given us your blessing.  Not because we’ve earned it, but before we even started trying to earn it, just because you love us.  If we have been so blessed by you, help us to be generous in blessing others.  In Jesus’ name,  Amen.