Archive | August, 2013

In Conflict? Pass the Pencil.

31 Aug

My words stuck, unable to pass the lump in my throat. How well I remember the first time I tried important communication with George. We’d been dating only a few months. He encouraged me with these treasured words, “You can’t say the wrong thing.”

That was thirty years ago. Since that day, I’ve said the wrong thing more than once. So has he. Yet the underlying truth remains. We genuinely want to know each other’s thoughts and feelings even if we don’t agree.

Close relationships present more possibilities for conflict than casual associations. The paradox is that loving confrontation increases intimacy. Confrontation forces us outside our comfort zone into transparency and vulnerability. It’s risk-taking of the most dangerous sort. If we ask for changed behavior or expose our true feelings, we risk anger, rejection, or even a lost relationship. However, when we find mutual vulnerability and an eagerness to preserve the relationship, the rewards are staggering.

Sometimes conflict is simply a miscommunication or mistaken motives. We may have an emotional reaction based on a prior relationship or an earlier stage of our current relationship. We may have incomplete facts. That’s why the first step in resolving conflict is to identify both viewpoints. I’ve found the pencil technique to be an effective tool for couples, families, and co-workers. (This is a communication technique, not a substitute for professional counseling.)

Couples choose a pencil, couch pillow, or other object. The symbolism counts. As long as I have the pencil, I know I’ll be heard. I hold on until I feel understood.

Remember God’s communication wisdom.

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4:29 NIV).

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry” (James 1:19 NIV).

“A gentle answer turns away wrath, but a harsh word stirs up anger” (Proverbs 15:1 NIV).

Good communicators give eye contact, focused attention, and encouragement. Remember both people can be right based on different underlying (and sometimes unknown) assumptions and dreams. Believe the best of each other.

The person who finds communicating difficult goes first—in this example, the wife. Wife holds the pencil and explains her position. Husband doesn’t interrupt, defend, or explain. His first priority is to understand. Wife sticks to one subject without bringing up other problems. Her responsibility is to be honest and thorough without rambling. Then she asks Husband what he heard. He summarizes or paraphrases her words. (Parroting exact words doesn’t equal understanding.) If he gets it right, he takes the pencil and they switch responsibilities. If not, she retries explaining her feelings and he listens more closely. Repeat as necessary, then switch. Remember, defensiveness is a conversation killer.

Include appreciation for each other’s honesty and effort plus assurances that conflict and a great relationship aren’t mutually exclusive. Such conversations help us understand ourselves as well as the other person.

When our heart’s desire is to understand and to be understood, we tear down walls and build intimacy. In the context of unity and maturity, Paul urges Christians to “speak the truth in love (Ephesians 4:15). We don’t have to agree or completely understand. However, we need to respect and appreciate each other’s values, hopes, and dreams.

Please let us hear from you if you have the courage to try the pencil technique or have comments or suggestions.

Say Yes to Confrontation

24 Aug

Recently, I’ve prayed for several people in conflict. Some situations are heart-rending. Others are frustrating or irritating. None of these people enjoyed conflict or desired confrontation. Here are some reasons used to avoid confrontation.

  1. Christians are supposed to be self-sacrificing. Confrontation seems selfish.
  2. He won’t listen anyway.
  3. She will get mad.
  4. They might not come back to visit.
  5. I’m afraid I’ll lose her love.
  6. I don’t know how to confront. I’ll only make things worse.

As a recovering people pleaser, I understand how dreading confrontation can immobilize us. Jesus says staying in biblical truth sets us free (John 8:31–32), so for the next few posts we will renew our mind regarding conflict and confrontation.

First, let’s be specific about terms using the Encarta Dictionary. Conflict is “a disagreement or clash between ideas, principles, or people.” Confrontation is “a face-to-face meeting or encounter, especially a challenging or hostile one.” It’s often necessary to confront someone regarding a conflict.

The Bible has much to say about conflict because it’s unavoidable. We’re not clones or cookie cutter Christians; neither are we perfect. Since we can’t avoid disagreement, God wants us to utilize His way of managing conflict.

I believed all six reasons above, so I “handled” conflict by rolling over and playing dead. Experience taught me some hard truths.

Refusing to confront

a)      Conveys silent agreement and approval.

b)      Denies truth and the impact of the other person’s behavior.

c)      Withholds relevant information necessary for decision-making.

d)     Is disrespectful because it assumes the worst response from the other person and doesn’t give him/her the opportunity to change.

The depth of relationship determines our level of confrontation. We confront our children who exhibit poor manners in a restaurant and ignore the person at a nearby table doing the same thing. We must earn the right to offer constructive criticism.

This is probably a good time to say not every conflict is worth confrontation. Remember love covers a multitude of sins (1 Peter 4:8). Many times a conflict isn’t a question of right or wrong; rather, it’s a question of preference or opinion. In such cases, compromise and trade-off is appropriate. Love doesn’t insist on its own way (1 Corinthians 13:5) and in many cases we are to turn the other cheek (Matthew 5:39). However, people sometimes behave in a way that is detrimental to the family, the community, and themselves.

Jesus didn’t avoid conflict. He went head-to-head with religious hypocrites calling them a “brood of vipers” (Matthew 18:15) and “blind guides” (Matthew 15:14). John 2:13–16 tells how Jesus drove out the moneychangers who turned the temple into a marketplace. I’d call that some pretty intense confrontation.

However, the thing that freed me from my fear of confrontation was realizing reason #1 above was incorrect. Confrontation can be the most loving response to conflict. Most people would agree that ignoring drunken chaos in the home enables the behavior to continue. Yet we overlook disrespect, irresponsibility, or verbal abuse because we don’t want to appear selfish. In fact, our silence says, “Go right ahead. I approve of your behavior.” We have to care enough to confront. It takes emotional energy and courage to confront someone we love.

I hope some of you will confront my opinion. Please respond with comments and questions. We will continue the discussion in future posts.

Saving Sunshine—Part 2

15 Aug

IMG_0547
Look at the birds. They don’t plant or harvest, they don’t have storerooms or barns, but God feeds them. And you are worth much more than birds . . . Consider how the lilies grow; they don’t work or make clothes for themselves. But I tell you that even Solomon with his riches was not dressed as beautifully as one of these flowers (Luke 12:24, 27 NCV).

God says pay attention to His creation; we can learn something.

Months ago, I began asking God if I should get another dog after my little Sunshine died. I got on rescue websites and even made a call or two about specific dogs. In every case, someone else adopted the dog. Maybe I wasn’t supposed to adopt. My busy schedule combined with my husband’s reservations caused me to have second thoughts. Then I realized that three of the four local rescue shelters kept dogs alive; the fourth euthanized them after one week. I couldn’t save them all, but I could save one.

I still had my list of preferences: female, small, doesn’t shed. I went back to the Humane Society website and found Bambi who met my first three “qualifications.” I called; she hadn’t been adopted. When I got to the shelter (25 miles from home), she wasn’t there.

“She’s been taken to another shelter,” the rescue worker told me, “but I can give you that number.”
“No thank you. The point is not to have a particular dog, but to save a life.”
“You’re welcome to walk around and see if there is another dog you might want.”

So I found the cages marked FEMALE and walked up and down the aisles asking God to lead me to “my” dog. Nothing. Disappointed, I returned to the office.

“Did you find a dog?”
“Not this time. I was hoping for a small female, maybe part Shish Tzu.”
“Did you look at number 21? She’s a Shish Tzu-terrier mix.”
“I thought that row was males.”
“They’re next to the males.”

I went back to #21. A small dog put her nose against her cell and licked my fingers. Her entire backend wagged in welcome. She never barked once, though surrounding dogs howled, barked, and whined. I let the workers know I’d be praying about #21.

The next afternoon I went back to see #21 without stopping in the office.
She was gone!

Tears of disappointment surprised me. Surely, I hadn’t formed an attachment so quickly. I ran back to the office as I dried my eyes and put on a calm exterior.
“Number 21 wasn’t there,” I explained.
“Oh, she’s in the TV room.”
“Do dogs watch TV?” (I know. Brilliant response.)
(Smiling) “No. We were making a TV spot to encourage her adoption.”
Huge relief. “Could I meet her one-on-one?”
We got acquainted in the penned patio. Number 21 was a bit rambunctious and covered with bloody ticks and scabs—but she stole my heart.

“I think I want to adopt her. By the way, what’s her name?”
“ Sunshine.”
“Are you kidding?”
“No, that’s her name . . . Are you going to cry?” (Obviously, a rhetorical question)
“Sunshine was my dog’s name; she died a few months ago.
I signed the paper work and wrote a check.

So God made the wild animals, the tame animals, and all the small crawling animals to produce more of their own kind. God saw that this was good (Genesis 1:25 NCV).

Saving Sunshine—Part 1

10 Aug

In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words (Romans 8:26 NASB95).

When they found my brother Jim, we estimated he’d been lying on his floor for at least five days. Considering the sores on his hip, shoulder, and elbow, he hadn’t moved. He was barely breathing. Every chemical, blood, and body fluid measurement was off the charts. If he lived, what would be his mental and physical condition? Hundreds of prayers went up for Jim, even when we couldn’t find words (Romans 8:26).

The doctor later told us, “I thought I was treating a dead man.”

Jim’s two registered Jack Russell Terriers, Hoss and Daisy, had been confined to his back den during those five days. Overturned trash and partiality-eaten paper plates showed their desperation for food. Eventually, they chewed through a heavy paper bag of dry food; a small puddle of water from a leaking toilet seal kept them from dehydration. A month earlier, Daisy had given birth to one male and one female puppy.

Not knowing if Jim would live or die, we had to find homes for the four dogs. I decided to take the little female home with me. I certainly didn’t need another dog, but she might be my last connection to Jim.

For years Jim’s greeting to me had always been, “Hello, Sunshine.” Jim’s future looked dark, so Sunshine seemed a perfect name for this tiny black and white ball of fur. When I told Robin and Regina her name, each had the same response. “Oh, that’s what Uncle Jim called me every time I saw him.” Until that moment, each of us thought we held exclusive rights to that happy name.

Toward the end of two weeks in intensive care, Jim squeezed a hand. His first words were, “Love you.” The sun began to shine again.

Jim spent six more weeks in the hospital. Next came months in a nursing home, assisted living, and finally home. Added to encephalopathy and other diagnosis, tests revealed he had dementia with Lewy bodies, which has symptoms of both Parkinson and Alzheimer’s. He spent his final days in an Alzheimer’s unit, but he never forgot anyone’s name. Although Jim couldn’t discuss his last meal or the TV show he just watched, Sunshine‘s antics provided a source of conversation and reliable memories for him. I’m extremely grateful for the five additional years God gave us with Jim.

Sunshine eventually transitioned from a housedog to a companion for Jax, our oldest birddog. Last spring I began making plans to bring eight-year-old Sunshine back into the house because of Jax’s failing health and age. That wasn’t to be. She darted under the back wheels of George’s pick-up and was killed instantly. We were both devastated.

I’m never sure if I rescued Sunshine or if Sunshine rescued me. She’ll forever be an inseparable part of Jim’s memory. I am sure she brightened many lives with her playfulness and love of people. She left a hole in my heart and about a month after her death, I began asking God if I should get another dog. Next week, I’ll share God’s answer.

Has there ever been a time you just couldn’t find words to pray? Has God ever answered your prayers through a pet? Please share your thoughts.

Worry

2 Aug

I sat cross-legged on the bed in our inexpensive motel room, midway into our 900-mile trek. Our destination was the university where George hoped to get his doctorate. All our possessions were stacked in the rental truck and stuffed into the towed Datsun station wagon. Two dogs and a ferret occupied boxes in the back of our aging van, which pulled the boat. (“The Grapes of Wrath” comes to mind.) The university hadn’t yet accepted George into the doctoral program; neither house nor jobs waited. I read Matthew 6:19-34, which concluded with these words.

[Jesus said,] “Do not worry then, saying, ‘What will we eat?’ or ‘What will we drink?’ or ‘What will we wear for clothing?’ . . . for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things. But seek first His kingdom and His righteousness, and all these things will be added to you. So do not worry about tomorrow; for tomorrow will care for itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own (Matthew 6:31–34 NASB95).

I wrote in the margin, “Does this mean tuition, books, gas?”

I’ve heard the definition for worry is assuming responsibility God never intended us to have. Perhaps the key is distinguishing between God’s responsibility and mine. The passage above says our part is to seek God first. God knows us and adds to our life all necessary things.

Yet that’s an incomplete picture. Second Thessalonians 3:10b says, “Anyone unwilling to work should not eat” (NRSV). George and I worked extremely hard—maybe too hard. Remember how Martha worked as Mary sat at Christ’s feet? Jesus told her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her” (Luke 10:41–42 NRSV).

Ultimately, God is our greatest need.

Still, we spend time worrying about so many things; most never happen. I realize we have legitimate concerns and God is not our fairy godmother. However, worry changes nothing. I’ve learned to do all I know to do and leave the results to God. We can trust His love and intimate knowledge of our needs. “Give all your worries and cares to God, for he cares about you” (1 Peter 5:7 NLT).

Paul said, “I have learned to be content with whatever I have” (Philippians 4:11 NRSV). That gives me hope. Replacing worry with contentment is something I can learn. The three years it took George to get his doctorate taught us remarkable lessons in contentment versus worry and faith versus fear.

Several years after my encounter with Matthew 6, I wrote the answer to my own question. “Yes— tuition, books, gas and so much more!” In spite of discouragement and fear, God provided material needs, emotional support, spiritual strength, and encouragement—always in His time. Life is continually a matter of praying, trusting, and waiting.

“Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus” (Philippians 4:6–7 NRSV).