I just came back from a family reunion. I like that sort of thing because you can generally find a few family members who really want to connect. The thing that concerns me is that you can walk away from those weekends feeling like you did not really connect with anyone. I started thinking about what the secrets are to making the most of our times with family and close friends. Most of us will have a weekend with old friends or a week with family members sometime this summer. I want to give you 5 ways to make that count. If you practice these simple habits you will likely think this was one of the best vacations, reunions, or times with family you have had in a while. I can say that because you can make or break family time based on how intentional you are to make the most of it.
First of all, ask people about things that matter. Nothing wrong with starting with weather, sports, or fishing stories, but if that is where you leave it you might as well be talking to the postman. Go deeper! This past weekend I sat next to a 90 year old distant relative who I had only said “Hi!” to in the past (my wife’s family is huge and you need a spreadsheet and family tree to get it all straight). I asked him how he was doing. He said, “Not so great.” I knew he was a believer, so I said, “Yeah but heaven is getting sweeter every day, isn’t it?” That avoided the 20 minute conversation about his aches and pains and moved us to talking about his much-missed wife who is waiting on the other side of glory. He shared how sweet his marriage was before she passed and how he is so ready to meet her again. We both wondered what we’d do to pass time in heaven. Each of us had some ideas about that. Neither of us will forget that talk anytime soon. I told him the next time I talk to him it will probably be in heaven. He agreed and we both look forward to it.
Second, make sure you have passport. People want to know you are a safe person to talk to and that you really care. If that is already known, you can dive in pretty freely, but if not, then start by humbly sharing some things about yourself that are real and commonplace. For instance, God is teaching me a lot about being a parent of teenagers right now. I have funny stories about my ineptness and questions about how to navigate things. Look for someone who has been there and done that. Even if they are stellar parents they will have some tips on how to avoid mistakes they have made. If you come in looking for advice or being vulnerable, people will generally be open not only with opinions but about their own lives. Don’t just share your successes but be honest with failures. That is refreshing and invites a deeper conversation.
Third, don’t settle for superficial. “How are you doing?” “Good, how are you?” “Good.” Wow, that was a profound interchange. I think we can and should do better. You need to be courageous and probe into specific areas. That could start with things at work but soon should turn to family, faith, or friends. Think about this progression. “How is working going?…” “…So, how do you balance your work and family time?…” Share some of your own struggles in those areas. Then ask, “How do you keep your marriage fresh and alive?” Those questions are going to do one of two things: start a great conversation or shut someone down. That really depends on whether they trust you and how mutual you are in your disclosure. In either case, be courageous and trust the Lord for the outcome.
Fourth, don’t be shocked by human brokenness. If you go down the road of intentionality in relationships, someone is going to share something hard eventually. You might find out a relative was married before and no one else in the family knows it. Maybe someone’s child is struggling with same sex attractions. You might hear about abuse or a depression that is deeper than anyone would have guessed. Some of you might be thinking, “Exactly! That is why I don’t go there!” But, if you are believer, that is exactly why you do go there! You are supposed to be ready in any season…and walking in wisdom with outsiders. But family is no exception.
Like Colossians 4:6 says:“Let your speech always be gracious, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you ought to answer each person.”
As Christians, our hope ought to eclipse the worst of stories, and their suffering gives us a great opportunity to lead them with gentleness and respect to the gospel for the first time or back to the gospel reality we live in. You have an opportunity to share how Christ is calling them to himself (Matt 11:28-30) and to pray right there and then. You can help them find a comforting passage in Scripture and follow up with a call or text to help them get the courage to seek a biblical counselor if needed.
Finally, let people know you like who they are or who they could become. I added that last part because not everyone is likeable but everyone has God-given potential. Pick the relative, child or small group member few are super fond of. Take them aside or go over and hang out with them. They will be suspicious that someone put you up to it as first. Then they will likely make the conversation pretty awkward for a while. But once you get past that it will become sweet. They will share things and some of them will make you think, “No wonder you are lonely and isolated…” That said, you can tell them about how God shows no preference and how He has a special honor for parts of His church that are less obvious or outstanding. You can help connect them to others and help others to befriend them. You can think the best of them and share the hope of the gospel. Try to see Christ in them where others might not.
So, when is the next gathering you are going to? Start preparing now. Is someone coming to mind that you need to approach like Christ incarnating His love? Are you willing to practice these five ways to connect more deeply? I pray that you will and that God will use it to bear fruit both in and through you.
Dr. Garrett Higbee