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Kindness in meetings

December 2008

Dear friends,

A brief reminder: the last date for overseas Christmas mail is 5th December for some areas. Addresses for our members working abroad are on p. 15. A card or modest gift means so much when one is away from Scotland: a book or music you have enjoyed, a little something edible, …

This is our twelfth Christmas with you. It is a tremendous privilege when a people have wept and laughed together over a period and are increasingly glad to belong to one another in the bonds of Christian service. The pains of any of us hurt all of us, and our joys likewise gladden us all. We would not have it any other way.

Christmas 2008 will be a bereaved Christmas for some, a time of great joy for others; but for all of us may the Lord born at Bethlehem be born afresh in us. ‘He shall be called Immanuel: God with us.’

Such sharing is what God engaged in at the first Christmas. He reached out to us in our weakness and joined us there, to redeem us into Life in all its fullness. Christmas is so familiar, our danger is that it will lose its wonder; so let us pause and consider what astounding, awe-filling grace brought the birth of the Bethlehem baby. In the words of the children’s chorus,

He did not come to judge the world, he did not come to blame,
He did not only come to seek; it was to save he came,
And when we call him Saviour then we call him by his name.

It is about this spirit of grace in Sandyford that I wish to write in a practical way.

A little while ago I commented in a Proverbs sermon that meetings in Sandyford are not always painless. It is not that pain is the normal or dominant effect of our planning together; I bless God for the freedom and love with which we plan and discuss. So I have decided to describe a little more fully the kind of considerations we face when doing so.

There are so many different ways of seeking to further the kingship of our Lord Jesus, and it is a task so momentous, that different opinions on the best approach are both inevitable and desirable. Comparing alternative proposals is an excellent way to choose wisely, so putting forward differing ideas is a good and necessary first step.

In what spirit are we to do that?

There is a difference between offering a different viewpoint for consideration as one of several, and putting it forward dogmatically as the right one. Compare these statements:

  • That would be a disaster! It’s bound to fail if you do it that way.
  • Can I explain my concern about the current proposal? As I see it, we would be in danger of …

Actually you can probably see that there is more than just the issue of dogmatism on display in that comparison; there is something about the attitude being shown to others in the meeting.

There is a difference between assuming the worst about an action or a person’s motives and assuming the best. That seems obvious but compare, for example, statements like these:

  • But you should have done it by Wednesday to achieve that!
  • Can I ask what day you arranged it for?

One statement assumes it was not done well and makes the hearer defensive; the other is finding out the facts so as to explore the best way of achieving something. In the first the speaker is facing the hearer and effectively pointing a finger; in the second, the two are side by side exploring the issue.

This matter of what we assume about another person applies also to what we think are their reasons for doing something. I have felt pain when people’s motives are impugned (‘she avoids humble tasks and only does that other job because she loves being in charge’), not because I agree or not with the assessment but because it is made at all. We cannot see into one another’s hearts.

There is a difference between a general statement and a more restrained and detailed one. Compare these two:

  • I have felt frustrated on the two occasions this week when you were not there as we had agreed
  •  You’re always late, you never keep your promises!

Actually ‘never’ and always', as we know, are words usually best avoided at such times.

There is a potent second distinction in those last bullet points: the difference in spirit between an ‘I’ and a ‘you’ statement.

That is worth exploring further.

‘I’ statements are often the wiser choice because they are less likely to make people defensive. I think there is even a difference in ‘feel’ between the next two statements, even though they seem so similar:
• You are so often late! It upsets me.
• I get upset when you come late.

There is a difference between speaking just for yourself and including others. Consider the next pair of statements:
• Many of us are concerned that…
• I’m really feeling rather angry with the way things have worked out.
Which is more accusatory, and which more constructive? Which is kinder? Which is more likely to make the other person want to be helpful?

To say the first of those things can be almost irresistible especially when true! But the choice between speaking just for oneself, and adding what others think, is vital if we want a person to be able to cope with what we are saying.

I realise that some Christians pride themselves on talking straight – ‘that’s the way I am’ – although some can be pretty prickly if treated in the way they treat others! And perhaps some of you have been thinking ‘this is just jargon; what has it to do with Christian behaviour?’ If so I want to suggest that it is grounded deeply in the Gospel:

  • This love of which I speak looks for a way of being constructive. It is always kind, has good manners and is not selfish.
  • Let him who is without sin among you cast the first stone.
  • The servant’s master took pity on him, cancelled the debt and let him go … shouldn’t we have mercy on one another just as he had on us?
  • In humility consider others better than yourselves.
  • Do not give the devil a foothold.

Within those quotations is an urging that God is so gracious towards us, let us consider how to converse in a similar way: a way that does not bruise but blesses.

Let us therefore make Isaiah’s testimony our prayer: ‘The Lord has given me an instructed tongue, to know the word that sustains the weary.’ And Proverbs 15.4 our vision: ‘The tongue that brings healing is a tree of life.’

With much appreciation and very best wishes for Christmas and 2009 from Liz and me,

Yours sincerely,
C Peter White

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