A Failure to Communicate

As I stand up here before you this morning, I am communicating much more that my words can say. In fact, you might be listening to my voice, but you’re picking up a much bigger message than a string of words, punctuated by small pauses. You’re also taking in the tone of my voice—how it rises and falls—and considering my posture, my expression, and the energy I express when I speak.

Communication is a multi-channel business, and only a small part of it registers for us consciously.

Researchers in the 1960s discovered that our language—the way we understand one another—is 55% body language, 38% tone of voice, and only 7% words. So I communicate a whole lot without even opening my mouth.

Am I standing up straight? Am I looking directly at you? Are my hands open, moving (always!), unclenched? Does my voice match my expression? What happens when I do this (slouching, looking down, saying, “What a wonderful day!” in a sad, low, Eeyore voice)? Something inside you says, “That’s not right,” doesn’t it? That’s because the way we communicate—posture, gestures, expression, and tone of voice—all need to be consistent with the words we say. Otherwise something inside us sends up a red flag, indicating that something is wrong. Either the person isn’t telling the truth or there’s more to the story. That feeling of incongruence causes us to look closer with a more discerning eye.

Those same researchers later discovered that when that kind of red flag arises—the posture, tone, and words don’t match—body language becomes even more important as we try to figure out what’s going on. Now we look really closely at the facial expression—now 60% of what we understand comes from the expression—and 40% comes from the words we hear them say. Isn’t that fascinating? Theoretically, with those percentages, should be able to tell whether we think someone on television is being truthful simply by muting the sound and watching their body language and facial expressions. Our gut should tell us how well their communication lines up, even without the words.

The important point here is that whenever we are with another person, there’s a whole lot of communicating going on in every single moment. And only a small sliver of that has anything to do with words.

Our Old Testament story today is what scholars call an origin myth because it tries to explain why humans in this world speak so many different languages. As Sherry read for us, the story goes that following the great flood, humanity spread and flourished (we won’t think of the genetics of that—all humans tracing back to Noah’s family on the ark). Everyone spoke the same language and, we can assume, understood one another. As the civilization of that time spread eastward, the people decided to build a great city with a tower tall enough to reach heaven. But God, knowing their plans, confuses their speech so they can’t understand each other anymore and then God scatters them all around the world. Their plans are dashed. There’ll be no tower to heaven now.

There are so many fascinating things about this story. Other cultures have origin myths that are very similar. There is a Sumerian myth in which the people ask the god Enki to restore their common language. In Mexico, there is the story of the building of the Great Pyramid of Cholula, a real place which is an architectural site today, which was said to be built by a giant after he escaped a great flood. There’s also a Native American story from the Arizona desert that says Montezuma (the heroic god of tribal mythology) escaped a great flood but then became too full of himself and tried to build a magnificent house reaching all the way to heaven. To thwart him and put him back in his place, the Great Spirit destroyed it with thunderbolts.

And really, that’s not a bad reading of the Tower of Babel story. We were getting too full of ourselves, relying on our own strengths, forgetting God and full of self-congratulation on how smart we were, how good we are at organizing, how beautifully we could build. God knew the limits of his children—he is same one who told Adam and Eve not to eat that apple, remember—and God might not have wanted them to be able to reach all the way up to heaven without a bit more maturity and humility. God, then and now, desires relationship—which means hearts and minds, not just brains that are able to make plans and gather materials and work together to share the effort.

God’s idea of redemption is much bigger than that. God wants to be a part of our daily lives, blessing and teaching and loving us as the whole, quirky, unique people that we are. We can’t really know God with that kind of intimacy and trust until we recognize and learn to quiet our egos. The ego is the part of us that keeps trying to build towers and be great. But when that striving part of us quiets, our hearts and minds begin to listen for and welcome and be receptive to spirit.

So much of the harmony and peace we seek—and the struggle and challenges we encounter as we try to find it–has to do with our language. Just a generation ago, parents thought words like “Cool!” and “Groovy!” were sloppy, imprecise, and disrespectful slang. Today there is new and similarly confounding language that makes sense to the younger generation but not the older. And words might not even be words—thanks to texting language, they might simply be acronyms for things we don’t understand. More than once I’ve looked up texts with shorthand like FWIW (for what it’s worth) or IMO (in my opinion). I had a friend who would text back “Love you too” when I texted something with LOL in it. It of course means “Laugh Out Loud” but she thought it meant “Lots of Love.” I think I like that better.

As people, we’re always adapting, always deciphering, always decoding each other. But we might not even realize that we’re using our old, familiar language—which could keep us locked in a tower that is tied to a certain age and a certain perspective. That’s not helpful if what you’re trying to create is a peaceable community.

In our New Testament reading today, Paul is writing to the people of Corinth to expand their understanding and vocabulary and give them a new way to think about community. Paul gives them ideas to help them move beyond a self-centered view so they can see God at work in the loving bonds of their early church. My commentary says that Paul stresses repeatedly that “God alone is the source of the Spirit-lived life,” and “each time the Corinthians want to take credit for their own wisdom, insight, or spiritual abilities, Paul reminds them of the divine source of their blessings.” Paul is concerned that the Corinthians’ behavior might keep others from understanding the true nature of God among them.

Paul suggests that we see ourselves as a vital part of the overall body, but not the most-important member, with the most important gifts, or the most enlightened viewpoint. It takes us all, Paul says. And God is the one showing up, providing the insight, stirring in the blessings, in the gaps between us. That’s what makes for real, lasting community. Not a tower of ego, erected to the heavens. But the fabric of God, the loving bonds of understanding, forgiveness, respect, and kindness that exist between us and grow, person by person, smile by smile.

In his book, The 5 Love Languages, author Gary Chapman describes five basic ways people express and experience love. He makes the case that we each feel loved in different ways. For example, think of a moment when you felt very loved. Chances are, one of the following things had just happened: you’d received a gift from someone, you’d spent good quality time with them, they’d said nice things to you or done something nice for you, or perhaps made contact by holding your hand or giving you a spontaneous squeeze. So each of those five things—gifts, time, words of affirmation, acts of service, and touch—is its own kind of love language. And typically, people in relationships have different styles. He might feel most loved when she tells him how wonderful he is. She might feel loved when he does something nice for her—like hanging the mirror or putting up new shelves in the pantry.

The trouble is, without a little help, we often are unaware of our own love languages, and we tend to think that the other person will feel loved when we do for them what we wish they would do for us. This can lead to misunderstanding and leave both people feeling unloved. Here’s why: if the woman in our example offers the man acts of service (which is her own love language)—she might iron his shirts or straighten his side of the closet—but he might not understand what she’s doing as love in action. His love language is words of affirmation, so he’ll really feel loved when she says nice things to him. When he sees her acts of service, even though she thinks she’s doing something loving, he might feel criticized, as though she’s hinting that he can’t keep his own things straight or his own shirts unwrinkled. And since her love language has to do with service, he can tell her she’s pretty until he’s blue in the face, but if he doesn’t back it up with actions—by putting up those shelves—she really isn’t going to feel the love he’s offering.

This idea—that we each have our own love language—is helpful as a way to climb down out of our towers and be open to listening and connecting in new ways. It takes us outside ourselves and our own unexamined language and invites us to consider how another will feel most loved and valued. If we don’t know which love language fits those we care about, we can ask them. When do you really feel loved by me? The author also has a free online tool you can use to evaluate your own love language. Once we better understand the languages we’re all speaking, we’ll feel more confident venturing out into those connecting gaps between us—that space in our communities where Paul pointed out that God is one who is weaving us together, this unique and complex mass of humanity, into a loving, flourishing, beloved whole.

This doesn’t happen by building a tower all the way to heaven, but rather by connecting, side by side and heart to heart. That’s what will bring the kingdom of God into the here and now, with no words, no gestures, no expressions needed. This reminds me of a lovely quote, which is often misattributed to St. Francis. It does sound like something he’d say. The saying reminds us that our lives are continually speaking to others, whatever we say or do: “Preach the gospel at all times,” the quote says. “And if necessary, use words.”


Thank you, Friends.


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