Archive for September, 2011

Clear Signals

The other morning I was driving down Highway 96 towards downtown Franklin. I moved into the left-hand lane, past Alexander Square and then noticed that the car in the right lane beside me was easing over toward my car, into my lane. No turn signal was flashing so I didn’t think he wanted to get into my lane, plus he wasn’t looking at me or the lane, like one does when one is trying to change lanes. Looking straight ahead, he pulled back into his lane, and then a few seconds later, was drifting into my lane again. No eye contact. I wondered if he was distracted because he was messing with stuff—you know, coffee, phone, children and that was the reason why he kept nosing into my lane. His “left lane drift” happened a couple of times more, when all of the sudden, his car roared ahead of me like at a NASCAR race, crossing into the left lane in front of me, and then crossing more lane over into the left turn lane. Now he glanced at me, glaring with an expression of disgust and threw up his arm as if to say, “What is wrong with you?” I noted, by the way, that as he made his left turn onto Mack Hatcher, that he didn’t use his left turn signal there either.
Well, I am not the best driver in the world but I know that if that man had simply used his turn signal when he was in the right lane, I would have let him pull in front of me. In the absence of a clear signal, however, and not even a physical clue (you know how in a desperate lane change moment, some people will wave, or wildly point at your lane when they want to change lanes? ), I assumed that he wanted to stay in the right lane.
What intrigued me about this entire incident was—after he finally changed lanes—how very sure that man seemed to be that he was right and I was wrong. Based on his reaction, he assumed his drifting into my lane was a clear signal of intent. I imagine that he arrived at his office or appointment fussing about this dumb woman who refused to let him change lanes even though he made his intentions perfectly obvious!
We humans are really no better at giving clear signals in our everyday relationships. We will throw out subtle signals, like drifting into someone else’s lane, and wonder why the driver doesn’t get our message. “I thought you could tell I had a bad day; I have been moping around the kitchen since I came home.” “You should have realized I wasn’t feeling well when I laid down on the couch.” “I made it perfectly obvious that I didn’t like that idea.” Southerners often pride themselves on giving off signals that are meant to be understood without speaking a word but I’ll confess that even though I’m from the South, I really don’t care much for ambiguity. I had a woman tell me once that she didn’t believe that I was from the South because I was far too blunt!
But clear signals don’t to be abrasive and harsh, just clear—as clear as using a turn signal. “I’d like to shift into the right lane.” “I’d like to lie down for a few minutes because I’m not feeling well.” “Could you lower the volume on the television, it’s hurting my ears?” “I had the worst day today.”
Admittedly, using clear signals in our relationships with each other is not the easiest thing to do—using a turn signal in a car is easier! We’d love it if our friends or family or co-workers could pick up on our intentions as easily as one can smell cookies baking in the kitchen. But chances are, they’ll be like I was as that man drifted and eased into my lane without a clear signal—thinking of every reason why he’d be drifting toward me except the real reason he wanted me to pick up on without a signal.
Which leads me to my final thought: maybe we need to develop signs which clearly communicate our intentions. When you see a car with a gas cap that hasn’t been re-attached, haven’t you wished you could hold up a sign which says, “Check Gas Cap”? Or when someone follows too closely behind you in traffic, to have a sign which pops up in the rear windshield, “Please back off.”
So what if we had those signs in our everyday life? We walk into the office carrying a sign that says, “My mind is a little fuzzy because the baby kept me up all night.” Or we arrive home wearing these words, “I need to talk about my awful day.” In the absence of signs, though, we’ll have to rely on clear signals and unambiguous communication. The Apostle Paul said it well when he said, “ Speak the truth in love.” Speak the truth (give a clear signal) in love (with regard for the other person’s feelings). With that in mind, both our traffic situation and our human situation might greatly improve!


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Weighty Words

One mark of a good sermon is that no matter how many times you hear it, you can still get something out of it. A case in point is our daughter Sara Anne’s most recent sermon which I have now had the pleasure of hearing four times—twice at worship, and twice at two Presbytery meetings.
Her sermon was on Jesus’ words to the Pharisees that they should not be worried about all the ritual cleanliness and dietary laws because it’s not what goes into the mouth that matters but what comes out. Specifically, Jesus was referring to words and Sara Anne’s point in the sermon was that words have great power.
Each time I’ve heard her sermon, I’ve heard something helpful or new. Last week, I focused on Sara Anne’s quote from an expert on bullying who said that people who were bullied as children remember quite clearly into adulthood the hurtful words they heard. This week I heard Sara Anne speak about the choices we make when we speak—do we use words which include or exclude, words which encourage or discourage?
Hearing her sermon(s) caused me to think about random words that I remember other people speaking to me. Do you ever find yourself recalling something someone said which wasn’t profound but was for some reason unforgettable? A relative who turns to you at a family gathering and says, “You probably shouldn’t wear yellow, that’s not your color,” and you avoid wearing yellow for the better part of your life? Or you watch your intake of bananas because someone said, “never eat two bananas in one day.”
We all have lots of unforgettable but useless phrases floating around in our memories, but I think that the breeding ground for unhelpful but unforgettable words is funerals. Words spoken with all sincerity to a grieving family members are some of the least helpful—and sometimes hurtful—words ever spoken. It is for that reason that I have advised people who don’t know what to say at a funeral to simply say, “I’m sorry.” “I’m sorry” pretty much covers it all—there’s no need to say more unless you were close to the deceased and want to add, “I’ll miss him/her.” There are, however, a million memorable but unhelpful things NOT to say at a visitation or a funerals like, “God must have needed her more than we did,” or “We can’t understand it, but this was all part of God’s plan,” or, these unhelpful but unforgettable words which were spoken to me last November at my mother’s funeral, “I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to you. After my mother died, I gained a ton of weight.”
I’ll confess that I didn’t quite know how to respond to that statement—it was more like a funeral fortune cookie, “may you stay thin in your grief.” The really irritating thing is that while I can also remember the kind and loving things that were said to me on the day of my mother’s funeral, those unhelpful and somewhat jarring words keep bobbing up in my brain. To make matters worse, I didn’t even know the speaker of those words! I’m guessing this woman knew my mother, but for all I know, she wandered into a fellowship hall full of good food and began randomly to speak to strangers. She didn’t introduce herself to me, and she didn’t say anything more than those ominous words of comfort/warning. But I can clearly remember that she stood before me, holding a full plate of food, leaning her face towards mine as she gave her peculiar condolence, “I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to you. After my mother died, I gained a ton of weight.”
Now I am not a large person but I’ll confess that her words alarmed me, and I’ll also confess that since I heard those words, I have indeed gained weight. I don’t know whether I gained weight because I am no longer pushing my mother about in the wheelchair, or no longer skipping lunch because I was going to visit her, but that unknown woman’s words have settled like a curse on me. I step on the scales, see my weight and hear those words, “I hope what happened to me doesn’t happen to you. After my mother died, I gained a ton of weight.”
I haven’t gained a “ton” of weight but I do so wish I had never heard those words, however well-intended they were. So going back to our daughter’s sermon, I would echo the importance of words. Think before speaking–or texting or posting on Facebook or tweeting! There is power in words, whether thoughtfully spoken or randomly tossed out like a piece of bad fruit. Words can heal and words can hurt—and some words just add unnecessary weight.

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