The holidays often include additional time with family and friends, and for some, those gatherings will include difficult conversations in addition to delightful Thanksgiving and Christmas festivities.
While the decorations and the menu may be similar to years before, remember that a lot has happened in the last nine months from a pandemic to a presidential election, and many of us are fatigued and frustrated, disappointed and disheartened. Patience is running low and stress levels are unusually high so as you enter the holidays, be mindful of how tired and tender we all are as we strain to see any light at the end of this long and arduous tunnel known as 2020 that we are in together.
Over the next several weeks, if you find yourself in a tense situation not of your making or preparing for a hard conversation you know you cannot postpone, consider these four encouragements inspired by Philippians 2 to guide you through to the other side of either one.
Above all, think of others as better than yourself and treat everyone with gentleness and respect…even when you disagree, even if they are being unkind, engage the golden rule and treat them the way you want to be treated. Do not lose your temper, raise your voice, or resort to insult or shame in order to be heard. Instead, choose your words and tone carefully, ensuring both are intended for the good of the other person and are above all, kind. And if you do not think you can be kind, then simply be quiet (or slow to speak) until you can. Kindness is more than being polite, it is one of the distinctive marks of genuine love (1 Corinthians 13:4).
Before making a statement or passing a judgment, ask a question. When we ask a question, we open up space for a dialogue as opposed to a debate and we shift the energy from arguing to exploring. The questions can be general or specific, but the point is to gather more information, express genuine interest in the person with whom we are talking and to create room for mutual understanding, if not harmony. Examples might include, “Can you tell me more about….?”, or “How could I learn more about your perspective on this, do you have resources to recommend?” or “I am not sure why you have such a strong feeling about this, but I want to understand, can you explain?” Whatever the questions, the practice of asking for more information or insight changes the focus of the exchange. If we are determined to learn something new about the person or the topic that we find difficult, we will have less time and energy to devote to making our point, being right or arguing the other person into agreement. Jesus set the example for us on this, always asking people questions in a way that got them to open their lives and their hearts to him. We would be wise to embody that Christlike curiosity, especially with the people and subjects we might prefer to avoid.
Give people the benefit of the doubt. If there are two ways to hear what they are saying and one option is negative and the other is neutral or positive, choose the interpretation that allows for the maximum amount of grace. When we encounter judgmental and inhospitable words or deeds, let us offer acceptance and hospitality in return. Grace is often defined as unmerited favor, and it is good for us to remember that we have been shown enormous grace by a loving God, despite our flaws and failings. When we stay conscious of the impact that grace has had on our lives, then when we are faced with criticism, incivility or even indifference we see it as an opportunity to pass along a portion of that grace and bear witness to the power of the Gospel when we do. Being gracious means we are not easily offended, we are quick to forgive and eager to find a way forward that focuses on the good and godly purpose of being in relationship with one another—and to make His joy complete in doing so.
When we share our thoughts, plans, hopes and fears with others, it is an act of vulnerability that requires courage. Vulnerability invites connection with others, but it can also trigger feelings of weakness and the possibility of rejection. Showing our true self to those we can trust is our best hope of accessing the growth, healing and transformation Christ holds out to us in the promise of abundant life. Jesus did not avoid or shy away from difficult people or conversations, but he was wise about the right time and place to reveal his true self to others and invite them into their own revelations as well. He did not fear people’s reactions to his identity or teachings, but was brave and humble when speaking his truth to those with ears to hear. Over and over in scripture, we are reassured by God that we do not need to be afraid, because He is with us and nothing can separate us from His love or derail is providence at work on our behalf. When we meditate on the unshakeable presence and purpose of God in our lives, it makes us brave to share who we are and what Christ has done for us and is doing in us.
So as you enter the holiday season and spend extended time with family and friends, I offer this reflection to you, hoping it will indeed be a source of encouragement, comfort, instruction an inspiration to embody the spirit of this passage in all you say and do…
So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interests of others. Have this mind among yourselves, which is yours in Christ Jesus,who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant,being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.
April Robinson has served on staff with Samford University in Birmingham, AL for the past 20 years. She began her career at Samford in the Office of Spiritual Life as a minister to students. Throughout her career at Samford, April has been focused on supporting students and serving the university community in hopes of strengthening the experience and expression of Christ in both. Since 2018, she has served as Assistant Vice President for Student Development and Support which has allowed her to promote and provide opportunities and resources for students to explore involvement, expand leadership competencies, enhance academic experiences, establish meaningful relationships and promote personal health and wellness. April earned her undergraduate degree in Religious Education from Samford University in 1993. She also earned a Masters in Theological Studies from Duke University. She was ordained by FBC Asheville, NC and is continually searching for ways to expand and deepen her vocational life. April is married to Mike Parrish (a savvy attorney) and is the mother to three spectacular daughters, Elizabeth (21), Emma (17) and Bella (16).