In today’s scripture, Paul is begging the people of Corinth to talk. Living the Christian life is filled with practical principles having to do with respecting and getting along with each other. As Christians, our calling is to go the extra mile to resolve problems, in this case, to communicate. Communication is telling your story, and listening.
Let’s start with listening. Paul speaks his mind to the Corinthians, but he ends, open wide your hearts. I.e. “I want to hear your story, I want to hear your thoughts.” Paul is writing this letter to the Corinthians from a distance, and he is saying to the people, “When I get there, I want to hear your side, I am going to listen intensely.” If we have a problem with someone, our natural instinct is to go and give them a piece of our mind, to tell them what we think. Paul shows us a better way. You want the Lord to use you as an instrument of reconciliation and to be an ambassador of the gospel, then learn to listen. Listening is a gift. Anyone can learn to practice this discipline. When you listen well you will become one of the most loved and needed ministers in your world. Learning to listen will deepen your own relationships. Listing is an art!
I found out the importance of listening a few years ago; one of the great experiences I had was to go with Esther and Forest to Mississippi in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. We thought we were going to help tear out moldy floors and wall-board, and we did some of that, but surprisingly, the biggest impact we made was to listen. Walking the streets of Bay St. Lous, folks would stop us just to talk. We were a fresh set of ears.At one point, in Walmart, there was literally a line of 5-6 people to tell me their stories. It was amazing.
The scripture today can be easily summarized… COMMUNICATE. If you are in a fight with somebody, COMMUNICATE. TALK. LISTEN. Paul is fighting with his friends who are accusing him of being a braggart and only looking out for his own interests. Paul says, “wait just a minute, let’s talk this through…” In the first part of today’s scripture he lays out for the folks at Corinth how he sees himself, his motivations, and his experience (2 Cor. 6:3-6, 11-13). Do you see what he is saying, “Let’s talk this through, let’s get on the same page, let’s seek to understand each other." Paul cannot force the Corinthians to talk, but he is attempting to drag it out of them. “Make room for us in your hearts” he says in 7:2. If you have a broken relationship with someone, the starting point of reconciliation is to talk. Paul practices the oldest counseling technique in the book as he uses I statements: "I was beat, I opened my heart, this was my intention…" In real life theother side is not always willing, but it is up to you to at least start the process. Paul makes himself vulnerable by sharing what is going on in his heart. Last week the message was about being motivated by love, this week the point is to let others know your motivation.
The opposite of COMMUNICATION is ASSUMPTION… We assume we already know everything we need to know. What keeps you from COMMUNICATING? Stubborness, not wanting to be vulnerable. Paul is risking giving the Corinthians more ammunition to doubt his word. As Paul opens his heart to the Corinthians, a number of qualities emerge.
Vulnerability is a key. Start sharing your feelings and you make yourself vulnerable to the other person. Get rid of the tough guy syndrome, pretending like nothing bothers you. I don’t know why we have decided in our culture the ideal person has no feelings. I don’t know why we so quickly close our hearts to others. Yet when we risk sharing our hearts to others, amazing things happen. Permission is gven for others to talk, which leads to understanding, which leads to connecting with others, which leads to healing and restoration. Yet it’s a risk. Those who are closest to you have the power to hurt you the most.
Honesty. When you read Paul’s words, they are honest. Paul is not holding back. People know when your words are heartfelt. When I am talking with people, I sometimes sense people are telling me what they think I want to hear. None of us would ever be less than honest in our communication (sarcasm). Once upon a time I was playing on the roof of the Christian Reformed Church parsonage with Keith Peterson. I fell off and sprained my ankle. At least that’s what I said at the time. I was pretty sure we weren’t supposed to play on the roof of their house. And I didn’t want people to think I’d done anything wrong, so I told everyone I fell off. All these years later I can now admit I jumped off the roof. For real give and take communication, there must be honesty, otherwise it’s manipulation.
I am impressed in that Paul is not afraid to commend himself. Don’t be afraid to commend yourself: ”We put no stumbling block… as servants we commend ourselves in every way…” and he goes on to say positive things about himself. What’s remarkable is that Paul is being accused by the Corinthians of being a braggart, so you might think he’d want to back off on some of this commendable accomplishments and his motivations, but instead he is showing that its all about attitude. Where did we ever get the idea that humility means groveling. When I first started watching professional football years ago, Walter Payton was in the later part of his carreer, a great running back. I can still see the man scoring a touchdown, which he did quite often, and instead of celebrating with nutty dances that you see so many do today, typically he would flip the ball onto the ground and go hide somewhere in a crowd of players, not wanting sole credit. To me, that is an image of humility when successful, success but not self promotion. Don’t be afraid to commend yourself, not in order to draw attention to yourself, but simply to show that you have motivations of trying to live with godly ideals.
Paul let’s his feeling be known. For some reason we have decided that feelings are a sing of weakness. Maybe it’s a man thing: boys aren’t supposed to cry. Let your feelings be known. Feelings drive our decisions. Paul asks the Corinthians how they are feeling…and he talks about affection (2 Cor. 6:11-12). Paul is not asking the Corinthians to do anything or say anything he isn’t willing to do or say himself.
I really like this quality of what Paul does with the Corinthians to encourage them to open up their hearts to him. Paul compliments the people of Corinth. He says what they are doing right and how much he appreciates them. Don’t be afraid to say what you see in them. Compliment those with whom you have a tense relationship. Our first instinct is to justify myself by trumpeting everything that is right with me and wrong with you. But Paul proudly proclaims, "I have great confidence in you; I take great pride in you. I am greatly encouraged; in all your troubles my joy knows no bounds" (2 Cor. 7:4). If you are at odds with someone, do everything you can to take the wind out of the sails. Refuse to engage in a puffing war. Go out of your way to find that which is right. Jesus talks about loving your enemy. How does one love an enemy? I think Jesus is saying that if you have an enemy, if you have somebody that is fighting with you, somebody who just doesn’t like you, somebody who is against you, do everything you can to make the tension one-sided. Love your enemy, compliment your enemy, commend your enemy, make a list of that which is right and good about your enemy.
Paul holds onto a high hope of what the relationship can be. Maybe its Paul’s personality, but I find so much good in how he handles the broken relationship with the Corinthians. If somebody is offended by me, my natural reaction is to take it personally andassume they don’t like me and don’t want me around. So I withdraw. It’s like my mother will tell you that when I was a child, my parents almost never spanked me, because my personality was that if I was spanked, I would take it so personally it would take me a week to get over it, and it made them feel horrible. That’s why I like Paul, used by God, to show a better way. My nominee for the most amazing sentence of today’s scripture: 7:3: “you have such a place in our hearts that we would live or die with you.” A high hope.
If somebody tells me they have a problem with me, my natural response is to put up a wall, to not show my feelings, to distance myself, to run away, to hide, to find a way to punish the other person. You have your own natural response: to defend yourself, to shout, to fight, to justify yourself, to tear down the other side. Paul continues to treat the people with strong affection, like a loving family, holding up a high standard of expectation, “I have such strong feelings for you, I will live or die with you.”
The book of 2 Corinthians, like so many books of the Bible, is written in a context, a story, addressing a certain people with a certain situation. In this way the Bible mirrors our lives. We grow in our relationship with God as we live the story of our lives. Relationships with others are a major part of our relationship with God, because God wants us to get along, respect each other, love each other, and build each other up. Broken relationships with others happens all the time. People of faith are called by God to a high standard of restoration. We may not always see reconciliation, yet we are called to be faithful in seeking wholeness. Focusing on honest communication is a major part of the process of reconciliation with others. Opening your own heart, vulnerability, sharing your feelings, and focusing on what is right with the others are some of the qualities that will lead to the other person responding with the same vulnerability so that the healing process can begin. To listen to the heart of another person is one of the greatest gifts you will ever give. Open communication, including a time to talk and a time to listen, is an vital part of a life of faith. Amen.