Communication & Brushing Teeth

Communication is a science or maybe an art form.  Whatever it is, I’m still working on it.  I know this because it keeps coming up in my life and ministry, though never directly and never, in fact, with reference to any particular group or situation.  Just: “We need to communicate better.”  Or: “This should have been communicated.”  Still yet: “Remember what we said at the Vestry retreat of [enter any year here]; we’ve got to work on communication.”  Thinking about it, “communication” might be the most often used piece of passive-aggressive advice the church tosses around.

Look, I know little about communication, but I do know one thing — it’s about speaking and listening.  No, wait a minute, I know a great deal about communication; I’m the father of a three-year-old daughter.  Take, for instance, the twice-daily ritual of brushing the teeth (and, yes, somedays it’s a ritual, not necessarily following the exacting orders of a pediatric dentist who, I’m still convinced, has not yet parented an actual, flesh-and-blood child who is not otherwise frightened to be sitting in that chair.  But I digress…)

I’ve tried everything when it comes to communication about brushing teeth.

I’ve tried speaking unilaterally:  “Carter, brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.  [Insert moment for child in question to notice repetition and be so overcome by its rhetorical sweep that she starts brushing her teeth.  Resume…] Brush your teeth.  Brush your teeth.”  And so on and so forth.  This has limited success, but sometimes it makes you feel like you are, actually, communicating.  (Hint: you’re not.)

I’ve tried listening and, based on what I hear, negotiating:  “Daddy, first I have to kiss and hug Phoebe [the dog], then I have to place my stuffed animal on the pillow, then I have to cover the baby doll, then I have to…”  And so on and so forth.  This has even more limited success than speaking unilaterally, above, and you will feel like you are being driven crazy, especially when you say to your daughter, “You’re driving me crazy!” which, it seems, you say to her so often that she chuckles and parrots your “driven crazy” voice in a way that actually resembles you.

I’ve tried reinforcing good behavior (brushing the teeth, duh!)  with rewards.  I’ve tried punishing with timeout the bad behavior (hugging the dog, harrassing the cats … I’ll admit, the list is amazingly long for a child only three years on this planet!), and that also comes with limited results.  Most parenting resources I’ve found are not concerned so much with the well-being of the child in question but, rather, building up the damaged ego of the 30-year-old, and restoring to him / her a sense of agency and meaning after crushing defeat by an honestly beautiful child, flesh-of-my-flesh, yeah, yeah.  Come to think of it, most congregational growth and development literature (lots of words better than ‘literature’ should be inserted here) has this same focus on the practitioner, and restoring a sense of activity and power to the one person who is, sometimes, vulnerable, broken, open, and, well, Christ-like in the system.  Those adjectives are not altogether bad.  And sometimes they are genuinely holy, beautiful, and lasting, and can pave the way to even greater holiness.

That’s why I started this blog.  I am committed to communicating better, but I also came to terms, long ago, with the reality that I’ve got no power over that.  Sometimes someone has to shut up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person’s me.  Sometimes someone has to speak up and sometimes, I’ll admit, that person is decidedly not me.   But whatever it is, an art form or science, we’ve got to continue to find that balance between listening and speaking, and that’s the delicate thread of communication.  We can’t get it through bulletin announcements, website updates, or Facebook status checks, although those are helpful.  We also don’t communicate by endless announcements in church, Vestry meetings that drag on, or a sermon that’s pushing 15 minutes, although those are not without their merits (except for the sermon which exceeds normal expectations).  No, communication is something else entirely, something deep and, I think, pretty darn inarticulate.

As for me, I’ll continue to speak, lots, and listen, tons.  I’ll try to be the conduit between the meta-church and what I call the real church — gathered right here in funky Valley Lee, Maryland — but I’m not going to expect that because we say something we’ve communicated it, or because we’ve listened to one group we’ve heard them.  I’ll keep an eye out for the Holy Spirit, who strikes us on the heart and says “listen…”  And in that moment it doesn’t matter how we define the word, but we have been communicated, and that’s all that matters.