I have spoken before about words that we now use as part of our workaday jargon – words which have long existed, for some time perhaps not in everyday use, but which have recently become enshrined in our everyday language. One of many such words is “Communication”.
Talk to teachers and they will tell you of the importance of teaching Communication Skills. Go to a college or university and a major series of courses will be built around communications. Businesses of all kinds stress the need to train their staff in the art of communication. Voluntary bodies, be they religious or secular, charitable or educational, with aims that are social or objects that are political, all underline the importance of communication.
Though the fashionable use of the word communication may be of recent times, the idea is as old as the hills. Schools and other education institutions have, down the ages, been concerned with teaching communication skills, though they were once called reading and writing, and the art of conversation. The other day some-one said to me that they would be in communication over the next few days. They meant they were going to write a letter to me. Teaching and preaching are about communicating. Buying and selling a washing machine or double glazing is an exercise in communication. Indeed much of life is about communicating in one form or another.
Communicating is expressing ones own ideas, feelings, fears, aspirations and knowledge to others in such a way that they can understand the signals that you are giving.
Speech is the usual medium, though not the only one. Long before the baby learns to speak it will communicate its feelings to its mother. The mother will recognise hunger, contentment, discomfort, pain, tiredness – a whole range of emotions – within the baby who has no verbal language in which to express them. And as adults, consciously or unconsciously, through what the technically minded call body language, give and receive signals without a word being spoken. We frown or smile, shudder or cringe, embrace or shake hands, and immediately communicate a message.
But normal, everyday life becomes more complex, and so the need for communicating effectively, and with clarity has increased. We talk on the telephone, we instruct our bank manager we go for interviews, we complain to the supervisor or the shop assistant, we write for samples, we book a holiday, we buy tickets for the theatre, we plead for charity – in all these ways and in a thousand and one different ways, we daily communicate with others. And the satisfaction we receive or give is related to the skill with which we make known our needs, and the manner in which they are responded to.
But communicating is not merely about making known wants. It is also about understanding the needs of others. As well as a broadcaster, a receiver is required. There are those who are skilled in the art of expressing their opinions whether in speech or writing, but whose ability to listen is impaired. Put in today’s jargon phrase, communication must be a two-way process. The mouth is not superior to the ear.
When I was active as secretary of an organisation, I used to receive regular telephone calls from one of our members, a Mr. Sellers. I would pick up the telephone to be greeted by “Ah, you are there.” Before I could confirm or deny this, Mr. Sellers would launch into a non-stop dialogue, and I would have no opportunity to speak for the next twenty minutes, even though Mr. Sellers was ringing up for advice, or so he said.
He used to ring others up in the same way, though I think I was the most frequent recipient. Perhaps he thought I was a good listener. In fact he continued to ring occasionally even after I had retired and he had moved out of the city.
The point I make is that though we may express our thoughts with perfect clarity, it is in vain if no-one listens. We have a Tower of Babel – what is sometimes referred to as the dialogue of the deaf. What is the point of asking for advice if we have already determined not to take it. Why complain if the one addressed is unprepared to listen. Cries for help are useless if all ears are firmly stopped.
Sunday by Sunday congregations gather in our churches. We come to communicate. We come to communicate with one another. Sometimes we are full of joy and we wish to express that joy. We sing with enthusiasm, we smile upon others, we greet our friends with delight, we are glad to be alive.
Other times we come in different mood. Perhaps we grieve, possibly we are perplexed, we are anxious, we are weary, conceivably we are angry, maybe we are sad. We communicate our mood, whether by word, expression or action, and we hope others are listening and responding.
But we come to church not only to communicate with our fellow worshippers, important as this is, but to communicate with our maker and creator. Others have spoken and written with far more scholarship and wisdom on prayer than I could hope to do, so I confine myself to pointing out that one of our means of communication with God is through prayer. But it is not the only way. Our demeanour, our unspoken thoughts, our actions are all communications with God, as is our silent meditation.
I don’t know if my Mr. Sellers was a religious man or not. I have no idea what church, if any, he belonged to. But if he did pray day by day, or Sunday by Sunday, or even only occasionally, God must have experienced some difficulty getting a word in edgeways.
If communication in everyday life is about listening as well as talking, receiving as well as giving, responding as well as reacting, then how much more is that true of effective worship.
In patience, and with invariable politeness, the congregation listen to the words I, or whoever else occupies the pulpit, speak. As preacher I try to find the ear of the congregation, on some occasions, I fear, less effectively than I would like. But my words are the least important part of the worship. In a place hallowed by generations of worshippers, in a peaceful setting on a quieter day of the week, we come together to communicate. We are in communion with one another and with God.
It is right that we should express our perceived needs, our fears and worries, our joys and our disappointments. But if we are in true communion, our inner ears are alert, our internal hearing aids are switched on, we are listening to what the old cliché calls, “the still small voice”.
Just as in life in the everyday world, what we hear is maybe not to our taste. As the businessman or woman may not want to hear a complaint, or the preacher receive a criticism, so may we prefer to drown out the message of God, or the pleas of those in need.
The world of business and commerce, the world of everyday living, has accepted that communications are all important. Wars are fomented, businesses go bankrupt, neighbours fall out, so hatred thrives, where communication is faulty. We have to learn to better express our thoughts; we must stop and listen to what others are saying to us. The world of politics and business, of diplomacy and international relations is learning that lesson. So must we not only in our worship, but in the practice of our faith in everyday social life.
But the most important communications are those between the individual and God, followed closely by exchanges between ourselves and those referred to in that omnibus word as, neighbours. It is the way in which we conduct our lives individually which will determine if and when what Jesus called the Kingdom of God will arrive. Too often we learn half the lesson; the part that is about asking and expressing our needs and thoughts. But we need to brush up on the complementary skill of listening and observing, and then reacting to what we hear.
As I have said often before, one of the most used books on my bookshelf is the dictionary. That is partly because I am not a very good speller, partly because of an addiction to crosswords, but also through curiosity about what words actually mean as opposed to what I think they mean. My dictionary defines communication as giving and receiving information. It also mentions a door or passage through which goods and information can pass.
We live in a world given to express needs, views and opinions loudly, in large black headlines and through powerful loud-speakers. The communication passage is in danger of becoming a one-way street leading outward, rather than a dual carriage way with free access in both directions.
Too often the message most often portrayed goes:- My needs are greater than yours. My views and opinions are more important than yours. My status is superior to yours. My mouth has priority over my ears.
There is an old nursery rhyme which reads;-
The Wise Old Owl sat on an oak
The more he heard the less he spoke
The less he spoke the more he heard
Try to copy that Wise Old Bird
I suspect that it was first penned to reinforce that Victorian injunction, children should be seen and not heard. But whether that is so or not, it contains more than a grain of truth. Telephones sensibly have both a mouthpiece and an ear-piece. Communication may be the fashionable word in a modern world, but in its true meaning it is an old-fashioned word. It forms a blue-print for a full, complete life.
Can I conclude with a verse from one of our hymns which goes,
“For eyes to see, and ears to hear,
For hands to serve, and arms to lift
For shoulders broad and strong to bear
For feet to run on errands swift”
Surely that is what we all request and give thanks for, or ought to, eyes and ears. But to make use of them eyes must be opened, and ears unstopped. Constant shouting of our own needs renders impotent our sense of hearing. One way traffic is not communication, nor is it being in communion.
There is a road sign which shows a small arrow pointing in the direction we are travelling, next to a large arrow pointing towards up. Give priority to on-coming traffic is the message conveyed. I reckon if Jesus was preaching today he would build a parable round that.
Mexborough 16 Sept. 1990; 15 Oct 1995
Fulwood 23 September 1990
Fulwood 22 August 1993
Hucklow 24 October 1993 26 May 2002
Chesterfield 5 November 1995