Preachers are not often very good matches for the stereotypes. “Preachers are lovers of words” I have heard it said so many times. Yet I have learned that many of us grow weary of words. We do not want to hear any more, and we do not want to speak any more of them. After a days work spading out words from the hard soil of truth, gathering words in baskets of leftovers from counselees, and picking out words from a lineup in meetings we may not feel like “people of the word” at home. We neither want to think deeply about which words to use, nor do we want to hear a blather of words spread like too much frosting on too little cake in every room. A little quiet might be more in order.
Our families if we have them, and close companions if we do not, deserve the careful attention to words we offer others. Have you noticed how many rituals we have to “prepare for the day” or “get the day started well” in terms of the working day? Coffee or tea to jump start our energy and help us at least act like we enjoy people. Quiet solitude for at least a few minutes poring over a passage for our soul. Planning out the day with lists lettered and numbered by importance and urgency. Professional but un-rushed greetings and pleasantries to give each person a human touch. All of these things set us up for “the day.”
A friend of mine got in the habit when his kids were young of saying “back to job #1” as he left the ministry offices each day. Whether the sappy sentimentalists want to admit it or not, there’s truth to that with two year olds. They are a job some days. A blessed one, but a job. I like the sentiment that it is “job #1” though. So, that’s the first word for your family. Consider it job #1. If you don’t like calling it a “job” it might be because your theology of work is out of whack. Give it seriousness. Find meaning within it. And find ways to set up rituals of preparedness for it. Should you take five minutes for silent reflection before going home? Would there be worth in making a prioritized list for connection and time spent with people who are closest to you? What if you did devotions every now and then just before leaving work? How about this: what if you helped those you live with discern a vision for life together that was compelling and Christ-centered? You do it at work after all. Don’t turn home into an office. Don’t turn children into staff. Don’t turn your house into a narcissistic extension of ego. That’s not the idea, but perhaps considering it’s work meaningful, and it’s engagement worthwhile would be a good “word” for us.
Now for a few words we might use with those we are closest with:
- If it’s important to you, it’s important to me. This little phrase has the power within it to undercut arguments, pull debates up short, and sacrifice or preserve sacred cows at the proper time. I am not sure these words should ever be the sermon our family hears from us, “That’s what is important to you, not to me.” There is truth in that statement of course. Civility is the restraint of truth for the purpose of respect and deference to another. The use of truth “bluntly” is the definition of rudeness and the end of loving words unless permission has been given. How many times might an argument be ended well with this sermonette based on principles of love “Well I love you so if it’s important to you, it’s important to me.” Your child’s middle school band concert is probably not important to you. It is important to him. So it becomes important to you, even if they cannot even “warm up” well. It is important to you insofar as it is important to him. Your spouse’s desire to eat out tonight is important to you. It may not be your desire, but if it is important to them it is important to you. The tradition of the family you would like to discard, might become important to you when you look in the eyes of your child and say, “dear, if it is important to you then it is important to me.” Now that doesn’t mean what is important to you loses importance. It simply means both desires are on the table with significance, no one’s feelings or dreams are discarded easily. And every person is important, so their feelings, thoughts, wishes, and fears become important as a result.
- You are fun to be with. Many pastors kids (just like any kid in general) get the feeling that time spent with them is a duty, not a joy. There are days when this is true. We do sometimes force ourselves to give quality time to those we love. That is an act of love. Of course, the success of that act of love is directly dependent on how well they sense that our time with them is enjoyable. That’s the rub. If we force ourselves to be with those we love, but do not force ourselves to enjoy it we have missed the point and wasted the effort. It might be better to take a break from our closest relationships from time to time than to always be with them and guilt them for it. We do have power over our emotional world. It is not absolute power, and we shouldn’t “knuckle under.” Instead, make the conscious choice to focus on the person not the activity, the beauty not the difficulty, the moment rather than what else could be done. And then…make yourself say often with a smile, eye contact, and a sincere heart “You are so fun to be with. Thanks for spending time with me.” Exchange this with “I like you” (which is different than obligatory love after all) every once in a while and watch your loved ones flower under that spring rain of words.
- I’ve never met anyone quite like you. As with any word, the delivery can mismatch the content and therefore destroy the message. This is true of this phrase as much as any other. But imagine if you grew up knowing you were the first priority, that what you thought was important was important, and that you were a fun person to be with. Wouldn’t that have made a great difference for most of us? Now add to that a sense that your life was a unique life. Not in an egotistical or self-centered way, but in a beloved and treasured way. There was something about you that no other person brought into your loved ones lives. That is a gift worth giving those you love. And it is worth giving because it is patently true! I’ve never known a person quite like anyone else. Now I have met plenty of people who seem just like other people of the same type. They fly across the novels of our lives like stock characters we recognize. “She’s a Margie Younghunt” or “He’s an Ethan Crawley” or “There go the Gatsbys” or “He has become Theron Ware.” The truth is though, they only seem that way until I know them. The beauty of all of those characters is they are so well developed that we find so many people identifying with them…without being them. Once we come to know someone they never seem quite like anyone else we have ever met. If they do, we do not know them yet. Some time soon, shake your head as you smile and laugh. Then say to the person you are with, “I have never met anyone quite like you” while you look them in the eye with truth in your heart. Then celebrate God in them as you do and your prayers of celebration will meet your words of celebration giving you deep satisfied joy.
- I am proud of you. It’s one thing to put up with someone, it’s another to like them. It’s one thing to like a person, it’s another thing to like them for things you don’t like others. It’s one thing to find a person unique, it’s another thing to want others to know about them, connect you with them, and to know that you take joy in being connected with them. When it isn’t a mechanism to encourage performance or finally give long-withheld approval, “I am proud of you” communicates these things. I love you, I like you, I enjoy you, I want others to connect me with you, and I hope they do. It is approval bathed in relational connection. It is love you want the world to see. Have you read the “One Minute Manager?” If you have, then you know the value of catching people doing something right. Catch your closest relationships doing something right. Then let them know in a way that doesn’t sound like a “supervisor” checking in that you are proud to know them, proud to love them, proud to be connected with them.
- I didn’t know that. Preachers teach. We often fail to learn. That’s a dangerous combination don’t you think? Abraham Lincoln is credited with saying “Every man is in some way smarter than me, and in that I can learn from him.” If that great president and intuitive leader could make such a sweeping claim surely so can we. Preacher deal in “indicatives and imperatives” all the time. The is and ought of our world often makes others feel intimidated, small, insignificant, and insecure. After all, owning both is and ought is like having a monopoly on truth. When we give words to our limits, give refrain to our ignorance,
- I am sorry, I was wrong. Gut check: When was the last time you said something like this to someone in your innermost circle of relationships (think Christmas morning or wedding party relationship). If it’s been a while, it might be time to dust off the old humility garment and wear it as the outfit for the day. I remember asking someone once to think of one thing they could say they were sorry for in the last thirty years. It was a long, awkward, painful silence. In that silence, I realized brokenness ran so deep it had fractured their core. They were not able to see the narcissistic incurvatus in se that became painfully obvious to those involved. There was nothing they were sorry for. Nothing they saw as wrong. That would be understandable in a conversation, or in a moment, or in a season, or even in an issue at large. However, for thirty years of life with the person in question they could not think of a single wrong, not one apology. I hope and pray that is not true of you. Look for something this week. Be it large or be it small, confess your weakness and own it all. Say “I am sorry, I was wrong.” Then leave it there. The sacrifice of personal pride out of love for another is important. Otherwise our “I am proud of you” moments will leave a sour taste in our loved one’s mouths. They will begin to reinterpret that as simply “I am proud.”
- Create your own. These mantras for our closest relationships are actually born out of theological reflection on God and our fallenness. They are not merely self help or psychological babble. God makes what is important to us (and very small these things must seem to Him) important to him. He asks us to pray after all. God enjoys us, “for the joy set before him….” God takes pride in us we know since the rest of the creation receives a “good” and we receive a “very good.” Each one of us is “fearfully and wonderfully made” and Augustine says we are loved as though “there were only of us to love” in the heart of God. And the Godness of God teaches us that only God is the one who has no apologies to make. Even sinless beings like the Cherubim cover themselves in the presence of God and declare the perfection of his Holiness compared to them, “Holy, Holy, Holy.” So certainly we can say were are sorry. These are theological truths brought into practical words for our loved ones. Create your own now. Reflect deeply and do not come to conclusions easily, about the way God loves differently and more beautifully then we do. Then seek to love like that. We do not learn what it means for God to be “Father” by being parents. Heaven forbid! We learn how to be parents by witnessing the radically different way God is parent to us. We do not learn what it means to be “friends of God” because we are friends. God preserve us! We learn to be better friends by seeking to align our loves with God’s. Mediate on the Word of God, then seek to live out that word as a living word among those you love most.
Do not forget that your greatest sermon may be the one you preach “on the side.”