Handle with Care
by the Rev. Lee Woofenden
Bridgewater, Massachusetts, May 4, 1997
Isaiah 50:4-8 Let my
adversaries confront me
Matthew 5:21-26 Be reconciled to your brother
Arcana Coelestia #7042 The Divine never opposes itself to anyone
are offering your gift at the altar, if you remember that your brother has
something against you, leave your gift there before the altar and go;
first be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.
(Matthew 5:23, 24).
and Tuesday, I attended the East Coast ministerial Peer Supervision
meeting, which is held each spring at Blairhaven. This is a chance for the
ministers in our church who serve on the Atlantic seaboard to get
together, support and share friendship with each other, and talk about
issues that affect our ministries and the church. We are fortunate in this
part of the country to have a large complement of ministers--at least,
large for Convention. There were eleven of us at the East Coast Peer
Supervision this year.
that we discussed this year came from some guidelines that Convention's
Council of Ministers adopted several years ago for its ministers to
follow. Among other things, this statement puts forth the ideal of
practicing direct and caring communication. I would like to
spend some time this morning considering just what it means to practice
direct and caring communication--especially with people and in situations
where we might have a hard time communicating at all, let alone in a
direct and caring way.
we look at times of conflict and confrontation, it is a good idea to
consider what communication is all about in better times, with people that
we are close to. If we cannot engage in direct and caring communication
under these circumstances, then we will certainly not be able to do so
during times of tension. On the other hand, if we do practice direct and
caring communications during better times, it may be just the practice we
need to communicate well under difficult circumstances.
certainly many different factors in direct and caring communication. We
could not cover them all even if we could name them all. I would like to
focus on two that are so basic that without them, none of the others would
make any difference. Those two are love for the other person (or
people) and respect for the other person.
and respect are related to each other, they are not the same. We can love
someone that we may not respect, such as a close family member who,
through stubbornness and bad choices, has made a mess of his or her life.
We can also respect someone that we do not love, such as a boss who is
very competent and professional, but lacks a sense of warmth and caring.
something we do with our heart. It may be conditional or unconditional;
but the most genuine form of love is unconditional. We love our children
whether they make good or bad choices; and like a parent, God loves us
whether we make our bed in heaven or in hell, to use the Biblical phrase.
something we do with our head. When we recognize skill or integrity or
some other good quality in another person, it makes an impression on our
minds. Because of that, we give him or her respect.
conditions for direct and caring communication are when we are with people
that we both love and respect. Our love for them gives us a strong desire
to communicate with them--to share with them our thoughts and feelings,
our ideas, aspirations, and concerns. Our respect for them prompts us to
share these things in the best way we know how. When we are with people we
respect, we put all the clarity and depth that we can into the things we
say to them--or that we communicate to them in non-verbal ways, such as
through a gesture, a touch, a hug.
especially important to have open, direct, and caring communication with
the people that we share our everyday life with. The members of our
family; the people we work with each day; these people--especially our
family members--form the core of our interrelational world. Without direct
and caring communication, we do come into contact with these people, but
we do not really touch them, nor do they touch us. With direct and
caring communication, we share ourselves with each other; we share both
our minds and our hearts. In this way, we form a network of mutual support
and care that adds richness and depth to our lives and keeps us going
through our more difficult times.
think that communication is something that happens automatically. That is
a big mistake. As too many of us have found out, it is all to easy
to spend days, months, or years in the same workplace with each
other--even in the same house with each other--and still be like
strangers. We get caught up in our own work, our own hobbies, our own
concerns, and before we realize what has happened, we no longer know the
people that we share our daily lives with.
One of the
first things we need to do to have direct and caring communications, then,
is to make time for it. We may think that we have too many things
to do; that we couldn't possibly carve the time out of our day just to
"sit around and talk." However, this is a decision we make. Of
course we have work to do. Of course we have hobbies and other interests.
It is a question of priorities. How important are our relationships to us?
Are they as important as our work? Are they as important as our sports or
When we opt
not to take the time to communicate with the people around us, we are
making a decision that those people are not as important to us as all the
other things we do. We may not want to recognize it, but when something is
very important to us, we devote time to it. Often, we devote as
much time to it as we possibly can.
pay close attention to the things we devote our time to, since they are
the things we really consider important. We should also pay
attention to the things we do not devote our time to. Perhaps we
assure ourselves that we care; but if we really do care, we will
express it by making sure that some of our time is spent with the
people we say we care for. If not, we are in danger of losing what we
profess to love. All too many divorces and breakups in other kinds of
relationships come after a long history of neglect.
positive side of this is that if we do care enough to make time for
sharing and communication--and for simply spending time together doing
things we enjoy, or pursuing interests we have in common--our
relationships with the people we love or work with will continue to grow
stronger and deeper. There is no end to the levels of connection and trust
we can achieve if we devote ourselves to a relationship in this way. Once
we have felt the deep rewards of sharing honesty and love with others, we
will wonder how we could ever not have taken the time to build up
this wonderful kind of relationship.
return to our consideration of love and respect. At its core, love applies
to all, and brings all together into connection and unity; respect is a
function of truth, which distinguishes between good and bad, better and
presents us with a problem. I said earlier that without love and respect
for the other person, we might as well forget about direct and caring
communication. But what if we have no respect for the person we are
attempting to communicate with? When we do not respect someone, we
generally do not think that person is worth the effort it takes to combine
directness--meaning honesty--with caring. In fact, there may
be reasons we do not want to be honest at all, such as a fear that the
other person will use any information we may give him or her against us or
against other people who are innocent. So the problem is, if we do not
respect the other person, how can we possibly have direct and caring
communication with him or her?
where our communication skills are put to the test. But it is more than
simply communication skills that are being tested. It is our willingness . . .
our commitment to love others as we love ourselves. What is being tested
is our ability to care about and love others even when we tend not to
respect them. If we cannot find it in our hearts to love the people that
we are in a confrontation with, we will never be able to find enough
respect for them to serve as a basis for direct and caring communication.
It may seem
like too much to ask that we should love the people that we consider to be
our opponents or enemies. But this is exactly what our Lord asks
us--even commands us--to do. Jesus said, "Love your enemies, do good
to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then
your reward will be great, and you will be sons of the Most High, because
he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked" (Luke 6:35). It is easy to
love those who love us; it is very difficult to love those who hate and
abuse us . . . or those who we think hate and abuse
We would be
wise to keep in mind what Swedenborg says about our perspective and the
Lord's perspective when there is a conflict. When we are in the wrong, we
tend to blame the other person for any difficulties or conflict. However,
we may simply be projecting our own wrongs onto the other person. This is
one of the first steps toward developing some respect for those we
consider our enemies. If we can recognize that we also may be mistaken, or
at least partially in the wrong, and that those we are confronting may
have some valid grievances against us, then we have a beginning that can
develop into respectful communication.
side of this coin--and this is what can enable us to develop the respect
needed as a basis for direct and caring communication--is that we must
actively look for the good and the right in the other person's
position, and actively work on understanding the other person's
grievances. Perhaps we are right and they are in the wrong in certain
areas. But in other areas, we may be mistaken, and they may hold the key
to helping us fix a problem that exists within ourselves and in our own
tendency is to see only the good in ourselves and only the bad in those
who oppose us. In order to engage in direct and caring communications, we
must balance that. We must also be willing to see the wrong, or bad, in
ourselves, and the right, or good, in the ones we are confronting. If we
can do this, no matter what the outcome of the confrontation, our
"opponent" will have done us a valuable service. He or she will
have given us an opportunity to overcome some of our self-centered
tendencies, and develop our capacity to love those we consider our
enemies, as our Lord commands us to do.
with others must always be handled with care. There may be times to shout;
there may be times to cry; there may be times to grow angry; there may be
times to yield. If, during peaceful times, we develop the ability to
express ourselves directly and honestly, yet with concern for the other
person's feelings, then perhaps during the more turbulent times we will
have had enough practice at it that we can avoid a destructive blowup, or
even worse, a cold war. Perhaps we can instead turn confrontation into a
time to develop our character while building mutual understanding,
respect, and even love.