Daniel W. wanders
I was greeting parishioners after worship and one of them said, "You preached a wonderful sermon; it has fed my soul. I wish my neighbor had heard it. I'm so glad that my husband was here this morning. May I have a copy to send to my sister?"
About 30 seconds later another parishioner said, "That sermon was certainly a waste of time. That was the emptiest thing I've ever heard. I'm glad we didn't have any new people in church today."
Because I had preached the same sermon to both persons, I concluded that their responses to the sermon had more to do with what was going on with them than with the sermon itself.
More recently I was a passenger in a car driven by a good friend. He was startled by the sudden emergence of a car from an alley. My friend was startlingly angry. He shook his fist at the other driver and said, "That makes me so mad." I said that if I had been driving I would not have been angry; so his anger must stem from something inside him rather than from the sudden appearance of that other car.
When my friend said, "That makes me so mad," he was putting responsibility for his anger outside himself onto someone else. If my friend had spoken more precisely, he would have said, "My response to that is to be so angry." That would have put the responsibility where it appropriately belongs: within himself.
Many social commentators tell us that we live in an age of not taking personal responsibility. I know that there are things that happen to us that are not our fault, but I think it would be well for us to consider that our responses to what happens to us may be our own responsibility.
To a large extent we are responsible for our own thoughts and feelings, for our own happiness and satisfaction, for our own anger and discontent. So long as I place responsibility for those things outside myself, I put the blame on other persons or circumstances, and I become a victim without much power or ability to change. When I take responsibility, there is at least the possibility that I can change the things I don't like and encourage the things I do like.
There is also the possibility that my relationships with others might improve because I am no longer blaming them for my unhappiness or anger. When I blame others, they are likely to become defensive or to distance themselves. When I share with others something of the dynamic of our relationship and take appropriate responsibility for myself, there is an increased possibility that they will respond with sympathy and encouragement.
If I am unhappy with something in any relationship and attack the other person about his or her behavior, especially if I use absolutes such as "always" or "never," I can almost guarantee a defensive response from the other and a further deterioration in the relationship. If I can talk about my own feelings and, maybe, thoughts, there is a lessened likelihood of defensiveness and deterioration in the relationship.
"You cad, you never think of anyone but yourself. All you ever do is always neglect your family." That is likely to get a different response than, "When you come home late after work, I am worried and feel concerned. I feel insecure and have a hard time not thinking that I'm not loved."
There are no guarantees. There is only the hope that being the right person in a relationship and doing things that increase the likelihood of strengthening a relationship will bear good fruit.
There are things that we should not and cannot take responsibility for, but we can choose how we are going to behave and take ownership of our own feelings and thoughts.
Daniel Wanders is pastor of Aldersgate United Methodist Church
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