Throughout history, many parents never had a choice about leaving their children in someone else’s care while they worked to support their families. But, as more mothers who did have a choice began working outside the home, a debate sprang up over the merits of “quality time” vs “quantity time.” “Is it the amount of time a parent spends with a child, or is it the way they spend their time together that counts”, the argument goes? Dr. Alison Clarke-Stewart, an education professor at the University of California-Irvine, published the first major study about the issue back in early 1970s, and the debate still rages on today.
There’s no debate, though, over whether or not quality time is important, however you define it or however much of it you have. It’s so important to healthy relationships that Gary Chapman describes “quality time” as one of the five love languages, in his book by the same title. Although it’s usually a term that comes up in parenting discussions, quality time is a factor in all our relationships—in our marriages, in our friendships, and even in our relationship with God. Like the other love languages, the love language of quality time was created by God as an expression of God’s love for us and a way for us to express our love for each other and for God.
When we speak the love language of quality time, Chapman says, we give someone our undivided attention. We are focused on the fact that we are together. This doesn’t mean you have to spend the entire time holding hands and gazing into someone’s eyes (although you could!). Quality time can also include doing activities together. The key factor is that, whatever you choose to do with someone, you do it together and the focus is on being in each other’s company.
Chapman uses an example of a father rolling a ball to a toddler. However long the game lasts, it meets Chapman’s definition of quality time if the dad is focused on his child and interacting with his words, facial expressions, and body language. But, if Dad is rolling the ball with one hand and staring at the phone he’s holding in the other, that is not quality time. In the same way, watching TV with a loved one can be quality time if your focus is on the fact that you’re enjoying the program together. But if you’re watching in such a way that the other person could vanish into thin air and you wouldn’t notice, that is not quality time.
Or, picture going out to eat and watching two nearby tables of diners. At one, the diners are talking and laughing with each other, maybe sampling each other’s meals and comparing notes. At the other, each person is glued to the screens in their hands or on the wall, paying no attention to the people they’re sitting with. Both tables are occupied by people spending time together, but only one group is spending quality time together.
Just as there are different ways of speaking the other love languages, there are different ways of speaking in the language of quality time. Chapman calls these dialects. One of those dialects is quality conversation. This is different from the language of affirming words. The language of affirming words focuses on what you’re saying to someone else. Quality conversation is about how you listen and what you share. It includes sharing experiences, but it goes beyond a simple report of the day’s activities. It goes deeper, to thoughts and feelings and desires. It’s a friendly and uninterrupted dialogue, where we actually listen for what’s going on beneath the words, and know that someone is listening just as closely to us.
Have you ever had a day when all you wanted to do was vent about what happened? Maybe you were unfairly criticized or had a new project dumped in your lap or the repairman who was supposed to show up at ten didn’t arrive until six. All you wanted to do was to get your frustration off your chest so you could move on. Instead, you barely had the words out of your mouth before the person you told began giving you instructions about what you should have done or how you should respond. That is so annoying! You knew how to deal with the problem, but you just wanted tell someone how lousy your day was. You wanted someone to listen to how you were feeling, and then to let you know that you’d been heard and that you had their support. That happens in quality conversation.
I remember one time when Marc and I were eating out, and a table nearby was occupied by a mom, a dad, and their teenaged daughter. We could clearly hear every word they said, so we knew the daughter was finishing up her first semester at BGSU. The parents kept up a running stream of criticism about their daughter’s performance at school, although from what little the daughter was able to say, it didn’t sound like she was doing that badly. Her grades were decent, and she was making friends. But, every time the daughter tried to tell her parents what she was experiencing and feeling as a new college student they interrupted her and shut her down. This family was spending time together, and they were interacting with each other, but there was no mutual enjoyment of each other’s company. They were not speaking the dialect of quality conversation.
Scripture is full of examples of God’s love expressed through quality conversation. Think of God walking in the garden, calling to Adam and Eve, seeking them out. Think of the conversation Moses had with God, as Moses shared his fears and insecurities about undertaking the task God had called him to. Think of the story of Job as he poured out his grief and questions to God, and the prophets who were in constant conversation with God. And, this conversation isn’t one-way. God also shares God’s own feelings—heartbreak and anger and forgiveness, and love.
And then, we hear Jesus speaking this dialect. I think of Zacchaeus, and the conversation that Jesus initiated by calling him down from his perch in a sycamore tree. I think especially of Jesus in conversation with the woman at the well. His simple request for a drink of water led into a conversation about her life and faith—a conversation that led many people to come to know Jesus. And, I think of the conversations Jesus had with his disciples, on the road, on a hillside, in an upper room.
God speaks the love language of quality time in the dialect of quality conversation and wants to hear it from us. Prayer is the best and most obvious opportunity we have for quality conversation with God. But we need to be careful not to kid ourselves into thinking we’re having quality conversation with God when we’re not. When we pray, do we share what we’re feeling with God, or do we just report the day’s events and needs? Is prayer a time of simply being with God? Do we give God a chance to speak to us, or are we doing all the talking? We’re not used to turning off all our words so God can get a word in edgewise. We need to practice sharing all of our experiences and feelings, listening for what God has to say to us, and focusing on the joy of being in God’s company. When we do those things, we are speaking the love language of quality time through quality conversation with God.
The second dialect Chapman describes is quality activity. I like the way Chapman defines this. He says that a quality activity is anything that “at least one of you wants to do, the other is willing to do, and both of you know why you are doing it: to express love by being together.” My son-in-law is a huge hockey fan. I find hockey completely incomprehensible. But, during one of his visits, we all went to a Red Wings game together—not because we all love hockey, but because he does and we were willing to express our love for him by sharing an activity he enjoyed.
I think one of God’s favorite quality activities is eating with us. Do you remember the story of Abraham and Sarah, serving a meal to three guests, one of whom was the Lord? Jesus shared so many meals with friends and foes alike. —all of which also offered the opportunity for quality conversation. And, he continues to share a table with us every time we take communion.
I think God’s other favorite quality activity is being present with us when we worship. Worship is quality time we spend with God—uninterrupted time when we strive to give God our undivided attention, and we experience God’s attention to us.
Luke’s story about Martha, Mary, and Jesus is a great case study in the use of the love language of quality time. Of course, Luke didn’t include it in his gospel for that purpose. For Luke, it’s a story about what discipleship is. Actually, it’s a story about what half of discipleship is. It comes righ after the story of the Good Samaritan—a story about being in connection with our neighbor, which is half of what discipleship is. Then Luke tells the story we read today—a story about being in connection with God, which is the other half of discipleship. But Luke’s story does give us a wonderful window into what it means to speak the love language of quality time, and what happens when there’s a mismatch of love languages.
Martha was an independent woman who owned her own home. This meant that she had the resources necessary to host groups of Jesus’ followers, much like the Christian house churches that developed after Jesus’ death and resurrection. Jesus came to her as her guest, leaving the disciples behind for a change. Martha was busy with what Luke’s Greek calls diakonia. This word can mean meal preparation and waiting on tables. Preparing a meal for her guest would certainly have been one of Martha’s responsibilities, although there’s no mention of a meal in this story.
But, the word also means taking care of official duties, rendering assistance, doing ministry. As a woman of means, she was likely involved in the very work Jesus had commissioned his disciples to do—healing the sick, caring for the poor, and proclaiming the nearness of God’s kingdom. Welcoming Jesus to her home would have been important to Martha, but as one of Jesus’ disciples, she also may have been occupied with tasks she saw as her faithful response to the Lord. It sounds to me like her primary love language was “acts of service,” which we’ll get to next week.
On the other hand, it appears that Martha’s sister Mary was fluent in the love language of quality time, expressed in quality conversation. She sits at the Lord’s feet, as an attentive student would do. She listened to what Jesus had to say. Luke doesn’t say that Mary and Jesus engaged in a dialogue, but I can’t imagine Jesus just sitting there, lecturing Mary. Surely there was some give and take, with both of them sharing what was going on in their lives and in their hearts. Imagine how loved Mary must have felt, as Jesus directed his attention to her. Imagine how loved Jesus must have felt, as she gave him her undivided attention.
But also imagine how unloved Martha might have felt. Martha was expressing her love in her own language, but there’s no indication that it’s being heard. And, love isn’t being expressed towards her in a way she can hear. “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself?” she asks. But, perhaps buried in her question is another. “Lord, do you not care about me? Do you not love me as I love you?”
Jesus then speaks to her in a way that shows he has been paying attention to her. He has seen that she is worried and distressed by all that she has taken on, and that it is preventing her from spending quality time with him and with her sister. He doesn’t scold her or tell her that her work isn’t important. But he does show her the value of a learning a new love language—the language of quality time expressed through quality conversation.
I wonder how differently Martha might have felt if Jesus and Mary had decided to speak the love language of quality time in the dialect of quality activity with Martha. How loved might Martha have felt if Jesus and Mary had joined Martha in her work, not because they had to, but because it was something important to her, and they simply wanted the pleasure of her company? What if these two, who spoke the love dialect of conversation with each other, had expressed their love of Martha by speaking her dialect instead?
Although Luke didn’t intend it this way, the story of these friends does show the consequences of not expressing our love in the language our friend or family member best understands. So, how do we get better at speaking the love language of quality time?
First, commit yourself to spending time with the person you care about. Then, if you want to improve the quality of your conversation, maintain eye contact with them when they’re speaking, if you can be physically near each other. Listen and watch for signs of how the other person is feeling; body language can tell you as much as their words. Multi-tasking won’t work here; you need to give the other person your undivided attention. Don’t allow yourself, like Martha, to be distracted by your many tasks.
Refuse to interrupt the other person. When Chapman wrote his book, research showed the average person can wait only seventeen seconds before interrupting. A more recent study showed that doctors interrupt their patients just eleven seconds into the patient’s initial description of their symptoms. In quality conversation, our goal is to understand the other person, not planning the next words out of our own mouths.
While quality conversation requires us to listen attentively, it also requires us to share our own thoughts and feelings. This doesn’t come naturally for many people, especially if you grew up in a home where expressing thoughts and feelings wasn’t encouraged or demonstrated. If this is hard for you, Chapman suggests a short exercise. Each day, jot down some of the events that happened. Next to the event, make a note of the feelings you had. Maybe you took a walk, and felt peaceful. Maybe you walked briskly and felt energized. Maybe a dog ran at you, and you felt afraid. Maybe you saw a bird you didn’t recognize and felt curious. Doing this helps you be more aware of your feelings, and more able to talk about them.
Improving your ability to express love through quality activity is even easier. Invite your loved one to choose something they want to do, be willing to do it (ungrudgingly, with a smile), and then enjoy the time you’re spending with them.
These same suggestions apply to our speaking the language of quality time with God, too. We need to be intentional about setting aside some time to spend in God’s company, undistracted from the day’s to-do list. Prayer is our opportunity to shar our thoughts and feelings with God. Prayer and scripture are ways God shares God’s thoughts and feelings with us. We also speak the language of quality time through the dialect of quality activity when we do the things God wants us to do, because God wants us to do them and because they give us an opportunity to enjoy God’s presence in our lives.
God speaks to us in the love language of quality time and desires that we will speak it too—with God and with others, through our conversations and our activities. The debate over the benefits of quantity time vs quality time may be far from over in our human relationships, but the good news is that God offers us both—quality time in unlimited quantities. Every moment of our lives is an opportunity to speak the love language of quality time with God and with others, and God is always ready to speak it to us. Amen.
~~ Pastor Carol Williams-Young