Five commitments for meaningful holiday connections
By Brian Wiebe
For the first time in 11 years, my parents managed to gather all their offspring for a reunion this past August. Much happens in 11 years: marriages, divorce, death, new life, empty nests, refilling nests and many occupational transitions. In that time the clan grew by half, from three generations to four. A gathering like that is both fresh and familiar, and each new face, whether newborn or new boyfriend, refracts the sparkling light of family life through a new facet.
Our family rarely gathers simply because of the great distances between us all. Yet as we enjoyed our time at a lake retreat, singing, eating, playing, catching up, laughing and eating some more, I marveled that some families, perhaps yours, do this with great regularity, even frequency. Some manage to pull together every Christmas or Thanksgiving or even every Sunday afternoon. And I wondered if gathering often would be as meaningful as this rare family reunion.
I don’t mean to glamorize family gatherings, because family is a source of great pain for some. But as you enter the holidays, there’s a good chance you’ll engage in some kind of family gatherings—whether your natural family or church family, perhaps your 12-Step Recovery “family” or work “family”—and any lingering value will be tied to this one word: connection. Sadly, it is not uncommon to gather and socialize, eat and be entertained and leave with no meaningful connection.
Yet a worthwhile connection with friends, colleagues or relatives over the holidays could lead you to holy moments, worthwhile encounters or even life-altering conversations.
Is the goal connection or distance?
Meaningful connection, however, does not happen by default. It is neither accidental nor automatic. In his book Keep Your Love On, author Danny Silk explains that every relationship has a goal, whether we realize it or not. The goal is a point somewhere on the continuum of connection or distance. In every relational encounter, my words and actions are moving me toward either greater connection or greater distance with the other.
For example, when I drive my relational goal with the police is distance, so I obey traffic rules to avoid a personal interaction with an officer. My relational goal with my wife, however, is absolute connection, so I pay attention to the actions and words that will move us closer together.
Even though the goal of relationship is connection, not each relationship will be the same. I want to have a meaningful connection with my neighbors, for example, but nothing like what I enjoy with my sons. Nevertheless, the neighbor connection can be meaningful, even if only visiting on the sidewalk and keeping an eye on each other’s homes when the other is away. The goal is an appropriate level of connection.
So as you meet up in various settings these holidays, I offer some suggestions to move toward gathering in ways that matter, whether an office party, family gathering or church banquet.
1. Ask and listen more than talk and tell. As you catch up with friends and loved ones, remember that each one has a story. Ask questions about what they are reading or what they love to work on in spare time or how the new baby is doing or what they enjoy about college. If they want your story, they’ll ask. You’ll be enriched, and they’ll be validated as you ask and listen. If you’re genuine about it, they’ll trust you to also share the real stuff in their heart and ask for yours. That’s where connection truly begins.
2. Show up as a giver not a consumer. Everyone loves Santa Claus, in part for his presence but mostly for his presents! People love to receive, and as Jesus said, “It is more blessed to give than to receive” (Acts 20:35). When you adopt a position of giver at your gathering, you are immediately in a position to be a blessing and to be blessed. Give your attention to the isolated ones, give your service to the servers, give your compliments to the hosts, give your laughter to the joke tellers—look for ways to give more than you take.
3. Remember the past, but don’t stay there. It’s easy for annual gatherings to be little more than reminiscing parties. We retell the same old stories that get a laugh, often at the expense of someone’s self-esteem or dignity, stories that glamorize a time long ago, ignoring that people and times have changed. It’s great to enjoy the best of our memories, but we can’t live there. Glorifying the past keeps us from moving toward better things, it excludes those who are with us now but weren’t then and it paints an unrealistic picture of the “good old days” that, truthfully, weren’t as good as we now pretend. I love our histories, but I’m more excited about our futures.
4. Be willing to open up. Small talk revolves around achievements and acquisitions, and there is certainly a place for that. If you asked, I’d tell you what my children are doing, or I’d boast a little about my wife’s career accomplishments. We may talk about cars or motorcycles or the house you just bought. Those are easy and fun conversations, but the connection happens when we crack open our hearts and talk about something we’ve learned or how we’re growing spiritually, intellectually and emotionally. Connection happens when we push through the fear of vulnerability. Let people see what’s inside of you.
For example, if your aunt lost her husband this year, share with her something meaningful you learned from your late uncle, and ask if and how she has experienced comfort. If it’s a work party, ask your colleague something new they learned about themselves this year, and add a sincere compliment to affirm them in their growth. Bonus: When grandpas and grandmas open up and share honestly, families are superblessed. Open up for meaningful connection.
5. Make the good news good! As you gather during the holidays, you will be with others who do not share your place in faith and spiritual practice. In these settings, a believer has an opportunity to elevate the good news of God’s love and salvation. At times, I know I’ve been guilty of contempt or judgment, but the gospel is not a message of condemnation—it’s the message that God’s love compels God to extend saving grace to those who need it most. As you are able to direct conversations to matters of faith, make sure the good news is good news. Help others to “taste and see that the Lord is good” (Ps. 34:8).
The goal of meaningful connection is more than a good social skill. God’s goal is connection with each person, and we are created in the image of God, with that same need and benefit of connection. Jesus said things like, “Come, follow me” and “Come to me, all you who are weary” (Matt. 4:19; 11:28). Connection. It’s in our DNA, and we are greatly enriched when we seek it and offer it to others. My hope for you is a well-connected holiday season, in each and every gathering.
Brian Wiebe has been the lead pastor at Bethany Church in Fresno, Calif., since November 2013. He is married to Becky, a neonatal intensive care unit (NICU) registered nurse in Fresno. They are parents to two sons who have recently left the nest—one to study in British Columbia and one working with Youth With A Mission (YWAM) in Germany.