Message 46, “Positive Change for a New Year: Practicing Affirming Speech”, 1-23-11

© Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved

Service-Program, 01-23-11

As much as I sincerely believe that there are many pathways to find Divine truth or God, if you will, I continue to nevertheless be drawn to Jesus and his simple beauty as a human being.  His attitudes and teachings never cease to shock and amaze me for they are generally counter to my own flawed human nature.  As an immensely popular figure in his time, he refused to hang out with the self-avowed A-List or beautiful people.  He dined regularly with prostitutes, criminals and cheats.  He befriended common laborers, adulterous women, and Roman collaborators.  He physically touched, hugged and soothed lepers, people with contagious skin conditions, bleeding disorders, the sick and the blind.  It appears that he purposefully chose to associate with the worst, the weakest and the outcast members of human society while avoiding the rich and powerful elites who thought themselves superior to others.  By his example and his teachings, he encouraged others to act likewise.  This is the heart of the Divine, he seemed to say, to love, forgive and see the good in each and every human – no matter how supposedly immoral, wrong or diseased they are.   As a human being, Jesus was not perfect.  He got angry.  He expressed fear and worry.  He hated and called out hypocrisy in others.  But he was so radical in his love and forgiveness – especially for the least of humanity – that he stands out as an historically remarkable individual.  It is for that reason that I believe his followers later created a religion based on his teachings.  The layers of myth and supernatural power were only later added to his life story.

As I conclude this January series on “Positive Change for a New Year”, I want to focus today on an underlying principle behind Jesus’ actions and teachings.  The heart of the Divine One sees each of us from a perspective of love.  And in that love, there is no recognition of flaws, sins or failures.  People are seen for the innate goodness found in each individual.  That Divine heart, beating within each of us, is to see others with gentleness, love and respect.

I believe that practicing affirming or positive speech towards others is one important way we manifest such unconditional respect for others.  Positive speech reduces conflict, encourages cooperation, builds confidence, discourages negativity, and acts out our desire to be more loving.  Generosity of spirit, kindness, praise and respect bring out the best in people.  After all, as Jesus demonstrated with his life, everyone is deserving of kindness.

Dismissing, rejecting, disrespecting or speaking angrily to others only brings out the worst in them – and in us.  The language we use has a direct impact on the type of world in which we live.  Even more, according to the Law of Attraction that I mentioned in last week’s message, the words and thoughts we commonly employ in our speech will determine the kind of people and events – either positive or negative – we attract into our personal lives.

I believe that our culture and society has become too focused on finding fault, assigning blame and looking for reasons to be offended.  Before speaking, I want to seek understanding of the other and their actions, acknowledge that mistakes happen, accept that nobody is perfect – least of all me, and look for the goodness within that person.  To the one who has nagged me about a problem, I might see someone who is concerned and worried about my well-being.  To the one who is needy of my time or attention, I might see affection.  To the one who speaks with lots of bravado and over-confidence, I can see bravery.  In doing so, I hope that my words to him or her will then be laced with kindness, tact, forgiveness, empathy and affirmation.   And in turn, I will likely be spoken to in the same manner.  If I wish to be loved, I must be loving.  I must lead by example.

In practicing positive speech, I communicate first and foremost with respect.  First of all, I acknowledge that everyone has valuable ideas and, while I might disagree with someone, that does not negate the wisdom and value of the other person.  Instead of rejecting a comment outright with negativity, I can instead respond, “That is an interesting idea” or “That is an intriguing question.”   Speaking to someone about a subject on which we disagree, I might also seek further understanding.  My goal is to ask questions, seek solutions and think positively.  Often people react to a thought, idea or suggestion from others too quickly before they have all of the information.  Such quick reactions often lead to apologies.  I must frame my responses and my speech in a context of full understanding of an issue and then gently seek a mutually agreeable solution.

Positive communication with others also involves finding common values or beliefs.  I have often noted that despite the political differences that liberals and conservatives have, both sides share a common goal.  Each seeks to improve the overall well-being of our nation.  While specific ways to achieve that are different, conservatives and progressives share a love of country and of people in general.  If that essential premise is acknowledged, I believe the way we then speak across the political divide will be done with respect and civility.  We have a fundamental right to our beliefs but, most importantly, I do not believe we have a moral right to disrespect, name calling, violent language, or mean spirited words in our debates.

In speech with others, it is also helpful to season comments with honest praise and sincere compliment.  We can look for things the other person does well and then affirm them in that.  Praise should be specific so that the other person does not see it as merely being polite or even condescending.  A compliment is only effective if it is an actual observation of goodness.  Instead of saying someone is a good cook, for instance, we might instead comment that the dish just consumed had great flavor and was perfectly prepared.  In each person, we are able to find, and then specifically praise, excellence.   As Mother Theresa once said, “Kind words can be short and easy to speak, but their echoes are truly endless.”

Positive communication also involves staying focused on the specific issue being discussed.  Bringing up past hurts or disagreements will only add fuel to a negative atmosphere.  In addition, assigning blame makes an issue personal.  Instead, many experts encourage keeping discussions respectful by talking about our feelings and emotions instead of the actions of another.  We alone are responsible for how we feel.  Nobody makes us feel a certain way and so we must frame our discussions in that light.  We do not accuse.  We simply express how we feel.  This opens up the door to empathy – the other is able to know how an action or event impacted our emotions.

Using tact and wisdom in our speech is also good for creating positive discourse.  Too often people justify rude, curt and cutting remarks by saying they are merely being honest.  The contrary is usually the case – they have been unkind and judgmental.  A proverb by some unknown author states, “Say what you mean and mean what you say but don’t say it mean!”

Positive communication with others also requires forgiveness.  We all make mistakes and the ability to forgive indicates acknowledgement of that fact.  Once again, the practice and heart of Jesus comes into play.  If we truly wish to only see the good in others, forgiveness is a necessary step.  Forgetting someone’s negative actions or words is not always possible.   Forgiving someone who has caused hurt, involves letting go of the grudge and returning the relationship – and our speech – to that of respect and kindness.

Finding the right time and place to communicate with another is additionally important.  When bringing up a difficult subject, it is never helpful to discuss it in front of bystanders or to catch someone by surprise when they are busy.  By waiting and then seeking a quiet place to discuss a disagreement sends the subtle message of respect and gentleness.  And this involves self-control and self-awareness.  Simply because a person might feel offended in one moment does not mean that it is always best to address it then and there.  The heat of emotions suggests that we wait until such anger diminishes – precisely because people often say unkind things or act negatively when they are the most emotional.  Positive speech with others takes place best in situations, times and places where calm and peace can prevail.

We affirm others in our communication if we are also willing to accept responsibility and blame when we honestly perceive we are at fault.  If the circumstances or facts point to our actions as a cause, we can diffuse a negative situation by admitting blame.  Such an attitude reflects an open mind and a willingness to be honest.  It shows others a loving demeanor by accepting responsibility and then seeking solutions to what we have caused.

If we practice all these positive steps in communication – we speak with respect, we seek common ground, we offer praise, we do not blame, we forgive, we accept responsibility when appropriate, we speak only when calm – then I believe our better angels can truly do their work.  What great things might be accomplished with positive speech?  How many hardened and hateful attitudes can be changed?  How many conflicts avoided?  If our goal is to morally imagine a more perfect heaven on earth, shouldn’t it include communication with others that is respectful and loving?  Would that not increase cooperation and thus a solution to many of our personal, national and international problems?  Once again, Gandhi’s words which I mentioned last week resonate strongly – “You must be the change you want in the world.” If we advocate for gay rights, justice for the poor, rights for animals, healthcare for all – in other words, if we seek peace, love and understanding for all people and throughout all creation – we must ourselves first practice and speak peace, love and understanding.  As the song goes, let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me!

Dear friends, I recently ran across a true story that has become legend within a large supermarket store chain.  Several years ago, a grocery store manager called his staff together and encouraged them to put a personal stamp on their customer service.  Johnny, who is a grocery bagger with Down’s Syndrome, thought about his manger’s words but wondered what he could do since he was only a bagger – as he called himself.  A few days later, however, he thought of an idea.  Each day he looks for what he calls a “positive thought for the day” and, if he cannot find one, he makes one up himself.  His father helps him type them into a computer and print then them on strips of paper.  As Johnny finishes bagging a customer’s groceries, he smiles broadly and proudly hands out a strip of paper with his positive thought for the day on it.  The first thought he handed out was by Oscar Hammerstein, “Love isn’t love until you give it away.”

A few days after Johnny began this practice, the manager saw that the cashier lane at which Johnny worked was far too long – stretching well into the frozen foods section.  He immediately called for other cashiers and encouraged customers to shift lanes to save them time.  Nobody moved.  One man said, “We’re here to get Johnny’s thought for the day.”  Another woman said she did not need to get groceries that day but stopped in anyway to get Johnny’s positive thought.  Business at the store increased by over ten percent.   His act encouraged other staff members in the store to act the same – the store florist now randomly hands out carnations to customers.  Others take time during their breaks to wander the aisles seeking to assist the elderly or parents with young children.  A lane was permanently designated as Johnny’s lane and it continues to be the most sought after.  Johnny’s example has since been used in many motivational presentations about the power of positive actions and positive speech.

How we communicate with others and about others is so vitally important in our world.  It is important in our families, in our relationships with partners, lovers and spouses, in our church, in our community and in our nation.  I have encouraged you and me, over the last three weeks, to think about how we might better listen to one another – seeking to understand and empathize, how we can change the negative ways we think about events in our lives and, today, how we can practice loving and affirming speech.  I hope each of us will ponder these few ways we can change ourselves for the better.  You are welcome to check out our website and read these messages on positive change.  My suggestions are not the only ways to change for the better.  However, if we increase our empathy, if we learn to think about our difficult life events in positive ways and if we begin to speak to each other with respect, I believe we will have done a lot.  To recast a verse from the Biblical book of Psalms as our common prayer, “May the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts be pleasing in the sight of all…”

To each of you, many of whom I love as sisters and brothers, may we believe in our ideals with passion…….never forgetting to speak them with compassion.