- you’re not the kind of example I would expect from The United Methodist Church.
- I have never heard such nonsense about the church before.
- The kind of change you’re talking about would make us a completely different church.
Are these three sentences (each lifted from an email I just received this morning) positive or negative; praising or condemning? The first two are (apparently) praise, the third angry — though without tone, inflection, facial expression, cadence and other cues, it took me awhile to catch on. The first woman commends me later in her email as being “a breath of fresh air in a stale, musty church,” though she also earlier said, “I’m not sure where you get some of your ideas from,” and “what do you think would happen if we threw away all our time-tested beliefs?”, so I wasn’t really sure whether she was happy with me or not…
The second woman led her email with “I have never heard such nonsense about the church before,” and went on to cite four or five things I have written in my blog, so I thought I was being torched until the second paragraph where it became apparent that she was merely incredulous about some of the things I have written — until she checked into them for herself and confirmed they are indeed true. From there on, the email was filled with praise and questions.
The third, from a pastor, ripped me up one side and down the other for trying to change the church. Apparently my conviction that God is love and that we should treat others with respect, dignity, compassion, kindness, and acceptance makes me “the lowest kind of liberal democrat dog that is trying to destroy this fine country and God’s holy church.” I have yet to figure out how kindness makes me a liberal, but I am okay with it. It will come as a blow to my conservative and republican friends that they are “acting liberal” when they are being kind, but we will cross that bridge when we come to it.
Our emailing/blogging culture is taking us some pretty fragile places. I marvel at people who seem to gleefully jump on any ambiguous phrase to misread, misinterpret, and misrepresent something someone else has written — taking innocent statements and making them something completely different. Clear, effective communication is difficult enough without going out of our ways to make it harder. It seems we will not allow the same grace to the written word that we might to the spoken word. We are much quicker to “climb the ladder of inference” and ascribe negative intentions and meaning to words in print. Many read to argue and debate, not communicate.
Because communication is hard, and good communication is often painful. Being clear takes work. One mentor of mine said of preaching, “you think purple, say blue, people hear green and see red!” What we mean, once it leaves mouth, pen or keyboard is no longer ours alone, but is at the mercy of the hearer, the receiver, or the reader. What we say and mean may be perceived very differently.
One of the best courses I had in college was a communication class where the professor talked of the five parts of communication: the creation of the message, the transmission of the message, the reception of the message, the interpretation of the message, and the application of/response to the message. Elegant and sublime, simple and problematic. Problematic because we only “control” two of the five essential elements of communication. A common failing of modern communication is it is ALL about creation and transmission — we don’t take the time to find out what people receive, how they interpret it, and what they do with it. We ASSUME our wonderful ideas and communiques are being received and read unfiltered — that people are hearing us and knowing exactly what we mean. This is why dialogue is so often superior to monologue — it gives us immediate feedback about the last three essential elements of good communication.
We so often end up talking “at” each other rather than “with” each other. My understanding you is sadly not as important as your understanding me (at least in my mind…). I have a right to my opinion, you have a right to my opinion, but I have no real interest in your opinion. (A common blind spot of blogging.) I don’t want you to get upset with what I say — I simply want you to know what I mean and agree with me completely. This, alas, is not communication, but narcissism.
It is even worse when we are sure we are right. Then, what I say is “truth” while what you say is “opinion.” What I say is “right” and what anyone else says differently is “wrong.” This is where communication ends and debate begins. I have yet to meet anyone who has “won” a communication, though I know many who pride themselves on “winning” a debate. Healthy relationships — the best reason I know for communication — are not about winning and losing, and our life in Christ is about relationships. If the body is to remain strong, then our communication matters. We need to get good at it. We need to care as much about what people hear as what we say. We need to seek to understand as much as we seek to be understood. And we need to make certain that our communication reflects our most deeply held values, so that the grace of God, the love of Christ, and the renewing power of the Holy Spirit might be felt by all.