This week I found out that I am really out of date. I googled “I messages” and got information about game-playing apps. Really? I thought. Are they still marketing games on such an old idea? Well, no. IMessaging is an IPhone alternative to text messaging. Wow! I didn’t know that!
But I do remember learning the concept of speaking in “I-messages” when I was in seminary. Parent Effectiveness Training, by Thomas Gordon, was required reading, I think in my small groups class. That book was written in 1970 and rocked the communications world. It was followed by Teacher Effectiveness Training and Leader Effectiveness Training. I could probably be titled, “Human Effectiveness Training.” It is another of the best books you could possibly read and practice to improve your communication with others.
When I was first introduced to the concept of speaking in I-messages, it sounded pretty self-centered. But it is the second step in a process of communication without conflict. The first step is Active Listening. That is what we talked about last Sunday. The first step in good communication is always listening. And that deep listening keeps listening until the other feels satisfied that you have understood what they are saying.
Then we get to I messages. The point is to communicate information about ourselves rather than about the other, which is often very tempting. It works like this: When a parent is troubled by their child’s behavior, an I-message is called for. It should include the behavior that is causing a problem, the effect on the parent, and how the parent feels about the situation. It should also include as little judgement as possible. The parent is talking about what is happening in herself. For instance, instead of saying “you are being rude and inconsiderate” the parent would say something like “I don’t like it when you talk this loud when I am on the phone because I can’t hear Grandma.”
We receive so little training in good listening or in speaking to build relationships. But we are a bridge building congregation and we can learn to use our interactions with others to build connections rather than divide and separate. We need these skills in a time like this. We need them for our nation which is so divided it seems like we are poised for another civil war. We need to know how to build relationships through conversation, as immigrants join our melting pot of American culture. And so we gather as a community at Mt. Tabor Presbyterian Church to remind ourselves that there is still good in this world and we see it in each other, we see it in the radical love of Jesus who welcomed all the outcasts, even with his final breaths. The kingdom of God happens whenever two or three are gathered in the Way of Jesus, encouraging each other to love and goodness, blessing the God of Love and pointing out the blessings which heal our world.
I read Psalm 24 for us today. It is one of three “entrance liturgies” which are found in the Old Testament. We read Psalm 15 last Sunday. The other is in Isaiah 33:14-16. It is believed that these were the Psalm songs sung by pilgrims as they approached Jerusalem and the Temple. It is possible that they were sung responsively with the Levites. The Levites were the ones who kept the Temple, took care of all its daily needs. The were also part of the Temple choirs and served as cantors, singing the Torah for the people.
I have the visual image of a whole line of people wending their way through the streets, approaching the great Temple wall. The doors are closed. And the Levites sing out: “Who ascends the hill of the Lord? And who shall stand in God’s holy place?” As if they are the guard calling out, “Who goes there?”
The whole throng then sings in joy: “Those who have clean hands and pure hearts, who do not lift up their souls to what is false, and do not swear deceitfully.” They mean themselves. We come in faithfulness and hope, and have prepared ourselves for this day. We are God’s people.
Then the Levites sing back: “Such will receive blessing from the Lord, and vindication from the God of their salvation.” Welcome beloved friends, come in! And the heavy gates begin to creak open. The crowd becomes hushed as they pause on the threshold, watching God’s own gates slowly open to receive them. What a thrill! The concept of having a Call to Worship in the bulletin every Sunday is based on this entrance litany.
The Litany in Isaiah 33 has a longer section of the qualification for entry, and Psalm 15’s list is even longer. While some are more detailed than others, the content of the three is surprisingly similar. There are essentially three expectations of the people in each litany.
1) Living a good and faithful life; 2) using words honestly and beneficially; 3) being generous with money.
In order to enter God’s presence the people were required to have benevolent speech. I would call it bridge building speech. I suppose that the practicality of this requirement can easily be lost. But imagine for a moment a city and Temple full of thousands of pilgrims who were not generous and benevolent towards each other. A brawl could break out around every corner. In fact, we know that the Romans at the time of Jesus always brought hundreds of extra soldiers into Jerusalem for the pilgrimage feasts because, they too, knew that so many people in close quarters can be hard to manage.
So, essentially, before they could enter the Temple, the people were giving their word – word – that they would be generous with their words and their resources, so that all would be blessed.
We say on the wall in the front lobby that we are a bridge building congregation. Then as we light a candle and declare that God is present, we are called to align our hearts with God’s goodness and prepare ourselves to worship and to be blessed by God.
We, too, do it by speaking words of peace and acting in generosity towards each other. These are the basic skills of bridge building communication. And it doesn’t just happen on Sunday morning. That is just the time when we practice together. And it is never too late to learn.
Let’s look at how we use words for a moment. There are some natural temptations, to which we often yield, in communication:
1. To do all the talking and never listening for the heart of the other. Or the other side of that is that we never speak at all and let the group-think roll over us. When we smile and nod politely or reply in politically correct phrases, we often go home unchanged by the story we have heard. It is what our world calls hypocrisy.
2. To rush in and begin solving the problem or giving advice to the person.
3. To be reminded of something that happened to us and spend the rest of the conversation talking about our own situation.
4. Rush to judgment. Sometimes we even do it by quoting the Bible. I have. Maybe you have too. We so quickly make a judgment about what the other is saying and it filters out the feelings of the other and disrespects their humanity.
Words play a key role in almost every conflict. When used properly, words promote understanding and encourage collaboration. When misused, they drive people farther apart, and away from mutual blessing.
But words also play a key positive role in almost every conflict, or even just to build a bridge with strangers. Here are a few principles of bridge building speech:
1. Speak only to build up others. “Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, so that your words may give grace to those who hear” (Ephesians 4:29). The challenge is to train our hearts to think and feel this way so that our speech honestly reflects our hearts.
2. Believe the best about others. Rarely does anyone do something because they really have an evil intent. Almost everyone is doing the best they can at the moment. Yes, we all have more to learn, but our hearts, generally don’t intend to do harm. Believe that about the other, even if you don’t understand how they can express it as they do.
3. Gratitude is one of the most powerful life-changers in the world. When you are preparing for a conversation, take a moment to be grateful for the opportunity, and for the person you will be connecting with. They will feel your preparation of a kind and grateful spirit. Do it every Sunday morning. Prepare your heart with gratitude before you come and meet your friends and strangers.
4. Pray for those with whom you have differences. “Bless those who curse you, pray for those who abuse you” (Luke 6:28).
5. Have the courage to speak first, even when it is hard. One of the best ways to build a bridge is to take the initiative to start a deep conversation – whether it is to apologize, or to admit to being hurt, or just to wonder about what the other values in life. All these things build bridges between people. It says that they are important enough for your time and attention.
Let’s get practical. Something I have been practicing for a while now is one to one conversations. Intentionally setting up conversations to talk with people about specific things. A time when I can listen deeply to discern their concerns, passions, dreams, hopes. The particular question I raise is: what does the church mean to you?, or what can the church be about which will partner with you in your spiritual journey? We can only build bridges with our community if we learn to connect. If we build programs, without asking what people want, it is like two crews building a bridge across a river and finding out that they don’t meet in the middle. It is kind of where the church is with our culture today. People outside still want to get into the Holy Presence. Church still wants to reach out. We can build this bridge and connect with God together. And we have to communicate in order to do it.
Take some time this week to have an intentional one on one conversation. Make an appointment. Have an agenda. Listen. It need not be long. It can be with a person who shares your home. It is an intentional opportunity to listen and build a bridge. There are instructions for such a conversation to pick up on your way out today.
The truth is, that when we learn to use our words well, we ourselves are changed. I leave you with this thought well said in a little poem by Winifred Webb, written about a hundred years ago.
It may be that the words I spoke
To cheer him on his way,
To him were vain, but I myself
Was braver all that day.