So here was yesterday’s bottom line: delay criticism to deliver affirmation.
And how to apply that, concretely, in the immediate aftermath of the sermon?
By placing a blank piece of paper in the program and allowing people time to write notes to people in their lives who may have received more “advice” than affirmation. All while listening to Tobymac’s Speak Life.
And here’s what a Good Shepherd friend texted me Sunday afternoon:
“I asked God to open my ears to hear what he wanted me to hear this morning before you spoke. And he did. I could not stop writing!”
Praise God. Here it is — how to add value to your closest or relationships.
So I deeply suspect that almost everyone here has a brain (!) that functions something like a hard drive on a computer. Because what does a hard drive do? It stores stuff up! They are collectors of memory! It’s where you store documents, photos, games, records of web sites visited (!) as well as programs that make the whole thing run. And I suppose that just like a hard drive on a computer, the quality of memories stored goes a long way to determining the quality of life lived. You store junk and viruses on your hard drive & won’t be long til you’re in the market for a new computer. And if you what gets deposited on your brain’s hard drive is full of junk and viruses and despair, well, you’ll be in search of some kind of new life as well.
Though for the human brain, what gets stored is not so much documents, photos, and websites, but WORDS. Because is it not true that words spoken to you, both in their CONTENT and their FORM, are the most powerful of memories that you have. Spoken in judgment and in love, uttered in kindness and in anger, delivered under the breath and over the top, words you’ve heard from infancy on form the mold into which your life fits. We’ve been speaking on the value of souls at Good Shepherd and I sense that in many relationships more value gets taken than is added. Our brains filled with words that, while they take but a moment to speak, take a lifetime to forget. I suppose that’s why Proverbs 18:21 says this: Life and death are in the power of the tongue.
And when you realize the truth of that verse – life and death are in the power of the tongue – then you understand that so many of us have been killing the ones we love the most and we take a lifetime to do it. It’s the constant criticism that parents deliver to kids, spouses deliver to one another, even co-workers in the workplace. And so often in our households, that constant criticism is disguised as “suggestions for improvement” or “because I care” … that forms a steady stream of death from the earliest of ages.
Whether it was under the breath or over the top, for a whole lot of you that stream of criticism was for all intents & purposes the soundtrack of your youth. For someone here, your mom was never satisfied with your weight. And you remember the comment here, the diet suggestion there, the gym membership offer, and it retrospect this is how part of you died. It was death by 1000 dietary cuts. For others here, it was dad not quite content with your level of accomplishment. Not athletic enough, not competitive enough. With dad, he tended to be more over the top than under the breath. And then for others it was the choice of clothing or personal grooming or even selection of friends.
And then for a lot of you I know it zeroed in on a choice of mate. You desperately wanted approval, it was painfully withheld, and the criticism of that selection was like a toxin pinched under your skin. And worst of all . . . sometimes those parents were proven right! But when they weren’t, that pattern of criticism that includes the person you’ve chosen to love even more than mom & dad & with whom you are sharing life continues to drive a wedge. It’s like the memory that never fades.
A lot of you had a parent or parents who did this kind of criticism – from the cradle & beyond – almost without thinking. They weren’t malicious – usually – but they were consistent! Yeah, life and death are in the power of the tongue, Proverbs says, and slowly but surely this is how you died. Criticism disguised as helpfulness is one of the most lethal weapons we’ve got.
And here’s why I’m bringing this up. You remember how your brain is a hard drive? Memories are downloaded there permanently? Well for a lot of you parents & spouses & siblings & even supervisors – your brain has been so conditioned this way that you are now giving the very thing you got. You’re not doing it as part of a plan, not with strategy, you’re doing it because that’s how your brain has been conditioned and programmed and you can’t help yourself. Without thinking, without spacing, without pausing, you’re doling out the same kind of stream of criticism that was doled to you. You think it, so you say it. You don’t do it to be mean (usually) but because those patterns were downloaded into your brain, you’re now doing the same thing to the brains of the next generation. Stealing value when you should be adding it, and I want to stop it before it gets worse.
Which is why I think growing that distance between thought & expression, extending the gap between what occurs to you and what proceeds from you, having a strategy in place at the outset, is just so essential if our nooks & crannies will be filled with words that bring life rather than those that cause. Because Proverbs 18 has a first part, too: Life is in the power of the tongue. Life.
Because there are a few of you who haven’t really connected with me yet. Your hard drive was NOT filled with criticism but with affirmation. Like my wife Julie, who is without a doubt the single most secure person I know (opposites attract, right? Insecurity, meet Total Security.) The reason she is so secure is because of her dad, who spoke an unending stream of affirmation and love into her hears. That’s her hard drive: I’m loved, I’m smart, I’m valued. DO YOU KNOW WHAT A BURDEN IT IS TO BE MARRIED TO SOMEONE LIKE THAT?!?!
Some of you – I hope a lot, but I suspect just a few – know what that is like. You know about the words of affirmation and strength that are STILL music to your ears . . . and still the downloads on your hard drive. And so I put situations like that, and what & who I am married to, and combine it with Proverbs 18:21 and here’s what I’ve learned and what I want and what I pray: Delay criticism to deliver affirmation. A critical spirit is a habit, it becomes second nature, and UNCHECKED it will take a lifetime to kill the ones you actually love the most. So with a strategy put in place ahead of time, you will learn to catch yourself, to edit out the unnecessarily painful and to opt in the eternally hopeful. Don’t be Shelly Long in Modern Family. Deliver words that don’t bring out lingering death but instead those that bring life.
Now listen: by affirmation, I DON’T mean flattery. Flattery is flowery words that actually are designed to get the flatterer something in return. Affirmation is seeing and naming what is good & right & true in the other. Building them up so they will be built up and not for what you can get in return. Flattery exaggerates, but affirmation tells the truth from God’s perspective. Think about it: God could dwell on our flaws. Instead he chose to die for them. And then he focused on in our beauty. Parents and spouses and siblings: how can we do anything else or be anything less? Delay criticism to deliver affirmation.
And along those lines, affirmation is also NOT the path to self-esteem. Lord, we don’t need more kids with high self-esteem. We need them with high self-awareness . . . the kind that leads to a life of honoring God. See the goal of affirmation is not so that young people will feel good about themselves, but instead that they would be so secure, so love-shaped, that they would feel good about God. Because you can feel-good-about-yourself all the way to hell; feeling good about God obviously takes you the opposite direction!
Did you know that studies have shown that for every one negative comments parents make to children, it takes nine positive ones to balance it out? Nine to One! Which means that some of you parents, grandparents, and even mates & siblings have A LOT of catching up to do. And it’s more than just replacing one kind of words with another; it’s replacing that which has become second nature – critical, complaining – with a brand new you.
When this works right, it really does come from all sources. You will realize it impact all kind of relationships. I remember living in Kentucky during seminary (ministry school) and having an internship at a small church in our town. It was an African American church and I was . . . well, not. Anyway, the pastor of that church, a man named Elgan Reynolds, was very kind to me and allowed me to preach for him once per month. Very generous. Except he was NOT generous with telling me I was doing any good. He must not have known that I live and die by words of affirmation! So I kept monthly preaching and kept getting no positive feedback. And then I watched him preach one more time, noticed something, and decided: “that’s it! The next time I preach, I’m not going to use ANY NOTES AT ALL! Maybe then he will see that I am fabulous!” So I did it – a first for me – working harder, internalizing better, and delivering without a note in the world. When I was done he leans over and says, “You’re gonna be OK.” Lofty stuff from him! But Delay criticism to deliver affirmation and I got the favor.
Or that time my son, on an Easter Sunday morning, had left a note for me on the kitchen counter. He was probably 18 at the time and so came home on Saturday nights later than I went to bed (meaning, like 8:30!). Anyway, I got up that Easter Sunday morning and as I was getting breakfast ready saw that note. It said, “Kick some . . . today, Dad.” Ha! What I needed. REFRAIN
Or even my mom, now 101, who to this day will send me emails – and can we acknowledge how amazing it is to get ANY email from a 101 year old woman? – that are so kind and so affirming I have to ask, “How did she become such an affirmation machine?” In fact, here’s a portion of one I received on Thanksgiving (when she was only 100):
Thanks, Talbot, for the great computer picture parade. I smiled warmly and laughed out loud at some and enjoyed them all. Never forget that I am so thankful for you and your family and your church and congregation and far flung charities. Every day is thanksgiving for me.
Huh . . . if she can do that in her second century, what’s to stop you in your first? Whatever your age, whatever your history, Delay criticism to deliver affirmation.