Sunday, September 11, 2016

Connecting

This morning’s sermon is a follow up to what I started last week, a series of sermons on one aspect of what it means to be a church. Last week I set the stage by talking about a basic fact of our being members of the church: ‘I need you, and you need me’. And we need each other so that we can become whole people. Today, I’d like to fill that out a bit more. I told you last week that I would be talking about communication today. That sounds a little stiff and formal. So, I’d like to say it differently. I’d like to talk about our connecting with each other. The Scriptures tell us that we are one body. We need to live that way. We need to connect. And we need to connect because: ‘I need you, and you need me.’


Let’s start with this. We all know lots of people. There’s family, co-workers, neighbors, schoolmates (ancient and current) and lots of others. Most of those people are not our friends, not really. They are actually only acquaintances. What’s the difference? There is a certain kind of connection with someone who is a friend, a real friend. That connection produces an openness with that friend that just doesn’t exist when it comes to someone who is just an acquaintance. Our hearts’ responses to the ups and downs of life are shared with friends but not usually with acquaintances. We enjoy the company of acquaintances and talk about lots of different things, but exposing the deep hurts and dreams of our hearts is something that is reserved for friends.

With that understanding in mind let me mention one goal for us as a church. We are to work at becoming friends. Now, some of you already have that kind of connection with some of the other folk here. But for the most part, the others here are acquaintances. You enjoy them and share things with them, but the secrets of the heart are off limits to them. They’re not your friends. We need to work to change that.

This goal makes sense when you remember that the Spirit has created a bond among us. As I mentioned last week, we have all been baptized into the body by the Spirit. Developing this bond, making connections, is not trying to create something out of nothing. It’s trying to nurture something that actually exists. Jesus wants us to develop these connections. He wants us to become good friends. And think about it. In the age to come we all will, in fact, be really close friends.

Now, why is it important for us to develop this friendship with the others here? This is where you remember how, last week, I said that the church has an important role in your maturing as a Christian, in your becoming whole as a person. There will be problems making progress toward that goal if our church is only a group of acquaintances. The Spirit will be much more effective in changing us if we are friends. He will use our friendships.

All of that was preparation to get to this practical question. How do we go about working at this goal of becoming friends? Here’s one important tool: words. There is great power in words, power to do good and power to do evil. So, Paul wrote,

Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear. Ephesians 4.29

If we are going to connect with each other, grow as friends, one thing we need to do is choose our words well. We need to speak words that will ‘give grace’, words that will result in ‘building up’ the person with whom we are speaking.

And that leads to this question. How do you know which words will do what Paul wrote about as you are talking with a particular person? Now there’s a good question. But the answer is not a matter of high theology. You’ll know by listening.

Again from Paul.

Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Philippians 2.4

The church in Philippi was doing pretty well. But there were some things that Paul wanted them to work on. One had to do with their care for each other as an expression of their unity as a church. Here, Paul reminds them not to be so caught up with their own lives that they forget to be concerned for the others in the church.

One important way of being concerned for others in the church is listening to them, shifting your focus from yourself so that you can find out how the other person is doing. We need to listen. But please understand, while listening with your ears is important you also need to listen with your eyes and especially with your heart. Their words might sound fine, but there are those times when you sense that something is off. There’s something going on that this person isn’t telling you. If we are going to do well when it comes to connecting with each other, becoming real friends, we will need to listen to each other, listen to the words and to all the rest of what is going on. It’s as you carefully listen in this way that you will know what words to use to give grace to the other person.

So, there will be times when you will need to use words of encouragement. There will be other times when it will be words of rejoicing with the person. And there may also be the occasional need for a gentle reproof. And of course, there are those times when there are no words to be said but rather an affectionate hug. It’s by carefully listening that we will know what words to say.

One way we can use our words is by asking questions. ‘You look real happy. Tell me about it.’ You’ve just given that person permission to share his joyous excitement. You noticed. And that showed that you care. You were listening with more than your ears. There are those other times when the question has to be different. It might be a follow up to a previous conversation where you were told about something that might become a problem. ‘So, how did your talk with the boss go?’ The response will tell you what kind of words you need to use next. It might be happy words because everything turned out really quite well. Or it may be words that comfort.

There are also those times when you need to ask an uncomfortable question. When someone has experienced a great loss or is afraid that he might soon experience such a loss, we need to ask, ‘How are you doing?’, and gently insist on an honest answer. Many people feel uncomfortable asking this kind of question. Why is that? One reason is that it feels like we are getting too personal. There are things that just aren’t our business. But wait. We are the body of Christ. Connections have already been made by the Spirit. We supposed to be working at becoming good friends. So, asking how someone is really doing is the right thing to do among the people of God.

There’s another reason why some shy away from asking these probing questions. What if the person you’ve asked actually tells you how he’s doing? What if he gives you an honest answer of how he is struggling with life? The loss that he’s experienced has overwhelmed him. What if he answers our question, but we don’t know what to say in response? It is fears like these that interfere with giving grace, interfere with being a friend. But think it through. If we don’t ask because of our fear, we fail to love. We are being selfish. We are looking only to our own interests. This other person needs some help. He needs to say out loud what he has been thinking. He needs to know that others care enough to listen. He needs our help. How can we refuse to reach out? How can we refuse to ask, ‘So, really - how are you doing?’

The fact of the matter may well be that we will get an earful. We may well be told quite graphically how hard life is and then not know what to say in response. Now what?!? If that happens, you actually do know what to say. ‘I really don’t know what to tell you.’ And then, you follow that up with something appropriate. It might be a hug. You might say, ‘Can I pray with you now about this?’ It might be saying, ‘I’m so sorry that you are hurting’. You don’t have to be the person who has all the answers. What is more important than that is simply being a friend, someone who cares, someone who listens.

So, Proverbs says,

A friend loves at all times … Proverbs 17.17

That includes when you have the answers and when you don’t, maybe especially when you don’t.

Up to this point we’ve been looking at our using words to connect with each other only from one side of the coin. It’s time to look at the other side. What do you do if you’re the one who needs help? What do you do and say then? Well, actually, there are things to be done before you need the help. One of these things is to work at making connections when life is going along pretty well. It’s fine to talk about sports, how hot it’s been, cute things that the little ones are doing and other things like that. These topics also help to develop that bond that we have. But we also need to talk about things that are a bit more serious. So, for example, when someone asks you, ‘How’s work?’, don’t just say, ‘Oh, it’s fine’. That just might be the time when you need to talk about some project that has really captured your interest. Or it may be the time to mention a particular frustration you’ve been dealing with. It’s not a crisis, but it would help to have a sympathetic ear.

You do these sorts of things when life is going along pretty well so that when life isn’t going along pretty well you’ve already made a connection with others. And that’s when you say something like, ‘I’ve got a problem. Can I talk to you about it?’ Ideally, you won’t have to say that because the people around you notice something’s up and are already asking you about it. But the fact of the matter is that there are plenty of times when we just aren’t listening very well to each other. So, if others don’t ask you, simply tell them. And that will be the time when developing connections when life was pretty good will pay off.

So, we’ve added another answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be a church?’ (Incidentally, I’ve also added an answer to the question, ‘What does it mean to be married’. Husbands and wives should also be friends in the way that I’ve described that. Maybe someday I’ll come back to that.) Today, I’ve talked about connecting as a church. We are to listen to each other with more than just our ears. We do that so that when it’s time to speak we can respond with words that will give grace and build up. We pursue these things to develop deeper levels of friendship, to develop our connections with each other, connections that the Spirit has created. And we do this because we are convinced, ‘I need you, and you need me’.

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