Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Accentuating Accents

Last night, I overheard a phone conversation between my wife and her grandmother.  Grandma is a little hard of hearing, and I think it's because of this that she was speaking so loudly into the phone that I could actually hear both sides of the conversation.  At times, Grandma would ask Lily Beth to repeat herself because she couldn't hear properly.  I had to chuckle that whenever Grandma asked her to repeat, she would say it again, exactly the way that she had said it before.  Grandma would ask her to say it a third time, and Lily Beth would oblige.  But if she had to say it a third time, she would adopt Grandma's thick mountain accent.  And then Grandma could understand.

I chuckled at this because I've had the same experience many times over.  Because I deal with so many elderly people who are hard of hearing, and because many of them have had similar thick Southern accents, I know exactly what Lily Beth was doing.  I even remarked about this phenomenon at a recent funeral I performed for a dear lady of our church.  

When they can't understand you, mirror their accent and your speech will become clear to them.

This isn't only true for the hard of hearing.  Years ago, when I lived in the Roanoke valley of Virginia, I found this to be true in sales.  I didn't do it intentionally, but when I was trying to sell my product to a customer often I would adopt a similar accent to theirs.  The result was that it put the customer at ease and established rapport.  Lily Beth says that during the years that we lived in the valley, my accent changed.  It became thicker than hers--and I presume that this was because I was doing sales and she was not.  I had a reason to change my accent, and she did not.

Come to think of it, this principle is true when it comes to spiritual conversation as well--and not only in terms of adopting another person's speech patterns.  In 1 Corinthians 9.20-22 (NIV), the apostle Paul says:

20 To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law (though I myself am not under the law), so as to win those under the law. 21 To those not having the law I became like one not having the law (though I am not free from God’s law but am under Christ’s law), so as to win those not having the law. 22 To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some.

In spiritual conversation, Paul employed this same principle that I discovered with people's accents.  By establishing commonality with a person, you gain their trust.  Trust breaks down barriers of understanding, and makes it more likely that people will receive your message.  

Now, don't get me wrong.  I'm not saying that you should become something you're not.  Don't lie to a person in order to establish that commonality.  Beth and I are both Southern, and we both have slight Southern accents.  At various times, she and I have accentuated our Southern accents, either intentionally or unintentionally, in order to make ourselves more easily understood by Southerners.  It would be quite another thing to travel to London and try to pass ourselves off as English!  Paul was Jewish, so he could accentuate his Jewishness when he was dealing with fellow Jews.  Yet, he also felt himself free in Christ, so when he was talking with those not under the Jewish law, he made himself like them.  In neither of these cases was he pretending to be something that he was not.  To the weak, Paul accentuated his weaknesses, but I imagine that he spoke with confidence to ruling-class people of high esteem.  When I'm with fishermen, I talk about fishing (which I love).  When I'm with hunters, I talk about hunting. Even though I've only been hunting a few times, it's enough--and it establishes rapport.

Do you have someone you'd like to share Jesus with, but you've found that your message has not been understood.  Maybe you've been speaking perfectly clearly but like someone who's hard of hearing, they've been asking you to repeat yourself.  Don't put on a show and try to be something that you're not.  But if there's something that you are, and accentuating that can help you communicate more clearly with them, then by all means accentuate your accent.  It might make the difference between them simply hearing and actually understanding.

Monday, February 17, 2014

Absalom and Ittai

Susan has been at her job for twenty years.  She started at the bottom and rose to the top because of her skill and determination.  A year ago, Ashley came to work at the office.  She was new to the company, and needed to be trained.  Susan's supervisors thought that because of her knowledge, she would be the perfect person to train Ashley.  So for ten weeks, Susan worked one-on-one with the new recruit.  She thought she had a pretty good relationship with the youngest, newest member of the office.  She showed her the ropes and taught her everything she knew.  Then, six months after the training period was over, things began to change.  Susan began to catch wind of rumors circulating in the office...rumors about Susan...rumors that could only have come from Ashley's lips.  In front of the manager, Ashley began to make little remarks about Susan, that called her competence into question.  Pretty soon, Susan's boss began to act as if she believed the rumors, and as if Ashley were more capable than Susan was.  Then Susan found out what it was all about.  When a new position opened up, complete with increased salary package, Ashley was given the position...and Susan was enraged.

Sometime in your life, you've felt betrayed, as Susan was.  You may have been betrayed by a co-worker, a friend, or a family member.  You may have been betrayed by a fellow Christian and church member.  Perhaps you're experiencing betrayal in your life right now.  Betrayal is common to everyone.  David knew the feeling of betrayal as well.

In 2 Samuel 14, we read about David's own son Absalom, who betrayed him and led an armed revolt against him.  The young man had swayed public opinion by flaunting his good looks, his wealth, his fame, and his political ideas.  Now, because of the rebellion, David and his household had to flee for his life.  

Among those who went into exile with David was a man named Ittai the Gittite.  2 Samuel 15.17-22 (NRSV) says:

The king left, followed by all the people; and they stopped at the last house.  All his officials passed by him; and all the Cherethites, and all the Pelethites, and all the six hundred Gittites who had followed him from Gath, passed on before the king.
 Then the king said to Ittai the Gittite, “Why are you also coming with us? Go back, and stay with the king; for you are a foreigner, and also an exile from your home.  You came only yesterday, and shall I today make you wander about with us, while I go wherever I can? Go back, and take your kinsfolk with you; and may the Lord show steadfast love and faithfulness to you.”  But Ittai answered the king, “As the Lord lives, and as my lord the king lives, wherever my lord the king may be, whether for death or for life, there also your servant will be.” David said to Ittai, “Go then, march on.” So Ittai the Gittite marched on, with all his men and all the little ones who were with him. 

Ittai offers David his support
The pain of being sabotaged is very real.  But just as surely as there will be saboteurs in your life, God will also bring supporters to your side.  I can think of many times when I've had people subverting my ministry, and I can remember the emotional agony that accompanies such behavior.  But at the same time that the Absaloms were working their woe, Ittais were giving me their love and support.  David's servant Ittai was a foreigner.  He had only moved to the palace the day before.  But his loyalty amazed the king.  Perhaps your Ittai is a new friend.  He might be the least likely person you could imagine.  But God will bring an Ittai into your life, when you're suffering the pain of betrayal.

When you struggle as David did, you've got to decide where you're going to put your focus.  You can choose to wallow in your feelings of betrayal and defeat.  You can decide to go around all day, feeling rejected and hurt.  Or, you can say, "Look at all the Ittais around me, who do care for me and who want the best for me!"  You can listen to the voices of criticism, or you can listen to the voices that build you up.  One way or another, you choose your focus.  The person is, what kind of person do you want to be--someone who's defeated all the time, or someone who feels supported and confident?

Or, perhaps there's a David in your life.  David made many mistakes along the way--so many, in fact, that it wasn't a stretch for Absalom to imagine he could run the country better.  Maybe your David is a person of influence, or a person of authority over you--and it's easy for you to find fault with their performance.  You have a choice to make:  Are you going to be an Absalom, plotting the overthrow of a leader that you deem unfit?  Or are you going to be an Ittai to the struggling leader, offering your help and support in order to make him a better person--the leader that God truly wants him to be?  The choice is up to you.

Proverbs 18.24 (God's Word Translation) says, "Friends can destroy one another, but a loving friend can stick closer than family."  We have to understand that there's a difference between a person who calls herself a friend, and someone who's a true loving friend.  "Friends" can destroy, but true loving friends bring life.  I pray that when you feel rejected and betrayed, subverted and sabotaged, you'll lean on true loving friends for your support.  I pray, too, that you'll be a true friend to people in your life who are struggling.  Rather than turning against them because of their failings, I pray that you'll be an Ittai--pledging your help and support, and helping them to be better than they are.

Friday, February 7, 2014

I Am Among You as The One Who Serves

Everyone has heard the stereotypical expression "I live to serve."  Though intended to mean that the speaker genuinely enjoys providing the needs of others, it is generally muttered under the breath with a tone of irony, indicating that the speaker would rather be doing anything else.  The truth is that most people do not live to serve others, but live to serve themselves.  Occasionally you may meet the rare waiter or nurse who truly enjoys taking care of other people's menial tasks, but these people are few and far between.  We would much rather be served than serve.  Who of us would not prefer to go to a restaurant and be waited on, than don an apron ourselves and refill someone else's coffee?  Yet Jesus teaches the radical virtue of service.  Luke 22.24-27* records:

A dispute also arose among them, as to which of them was to be regarded as the greatest.  And he said to them, “The kings of the Gentiles exercise lordship over them, and those in authority over them are called benefactors.  But not so with you. Rather, let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.

            As a pastor, I've seen this same situation played out numerous times in the congregations that I've served.  Becky is new to the congregation, and is welcomed because she has plenty of money to give.  Consequently, she expects that she can purchase the right to sway opinions in business meetings.  Samantha, on the other hand, has been in the church all her life and is descended from one of the church's founding families.  Although she doesn't have much money, she feels that her pedigree gives her importance in the church.  Then there's Robert, who is influential in local politics, and expects that same influence to extend to the congregation.  Each one expects the church to follow their leadership, and feels entitled to that position by virtue of their unique gifts to the church.  But Jesus has a different definition of leadership.

Jesus said, "If anyone would be first, he must be last of all and servant of all (Mark 9.35b).”  He commanded His disciples not to take the place of honor at banquets, but to sit at the foot of the table instead of at the head (Luke 14.7-11).  The apostle Paul echoes this sentiment in Philippians 2.3-4: "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."  The Lord modeled this kind of humility in John 13.3-9:

Jesus, knowing that the Father had given all things into his hands, and that he had come from God and was going back to God,  rose from supper. He laid aside his outer garments, and taking a towel, tied it around his waist.  Then he poured water into a basin and began to wash the disciples' feet and to wipe them with the towel that was wrapped around him.  He came to Simon Peter, who said to him, “Lord, do you wash my feet?”  Jesus answered him, “What I am doing you do not understand now, but afterward you will understand.”  Peter said to him, “You shall never wash my feet.” Jesus answered him, “If I do not wash you, you have no share with me.”  Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, not my feet only but also my hands and my head!”

If I may take a little license with the words of Jesus in Luke 22.27, let me point out that when the Master says, "I am among you as one who serves," He speaks the holy name of God, and indeed gives God a new name.  We might read this statement as, "I AM is among you, as The One Who Serves."  Yes, God is among us.  This is the incarnation—that God took on human flesh and not only dwelt among us, and came not to be served, but to serve (John 1.14; Matthew 20.28).  And He calls us to follow His lead.

For the Christian, incarnational living means being like Jesus—taking up the towel and serving.  It means considering others as more significant than ourselves.  It means not flaunting your donations to the church or trusting in your ancestry or your political strength in order to gain influence in the church.  It means putting yourself at the foot of the table instead of the head.  When you can say, "I live to serve," and mean it, then you embody the person of Christ.  Then, I AM is indeed among you, as one who serves--because He serves through you.

I wonder—how will you behave at the next church banquet or business meeting?  Will you be like Immanuel—God With Us?  Will you bring I AM into that gathering, as you take up the towel?

*All scriptures are taken from the ESV.