Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Which Road Will You Take?

Photo by Katie Martinez
The need for conversation among believers on justice issues just got greater. Social media has been blowing up with the release of the news that World Vision is going to hire gay married couples.

Franklin Graham put out a statement in response. His is shorter but he is no less clear in his view.

Many of the comments I've seen aren't as well thought out. One Facebook discussion took the issue in many different directions, most of which were not biblical.

To be honest  Richard Stearns, the president of World Vision, wrote the book I was struggling to read (see "Crossing the Political Bridge to Nowhere, 3/22/14). The Hole in our Gospel focuses on issues related to poverty--one of the primary causes of human trafficking--and one of the challenges being addressed by Transform World. So it seemed good to see what the president of World Vision had to say. Stearns quotes Scripture liberally; in every sense of the word. He even goes so far as to rewrite it to support his agenda. In my opinion he goes too far, and so did his editor. On p. 65 he says: "Jesus' strongest denunciations were directed not at thieves, murderers, and adulterers, but at the faith leaders of the day, the very men who had studied the Scriptures most (in today's terms, the pastors and seminary professors). Yet in just twenty-one verses (Matt. 23:13-33) Jesus called them hypocrites seven times, blind guides twice, blind fools, sons of hell, whitewashed tombs, snakes, and a brood of vipers!"

It's troubling to me that Stearns' book was endorsed by Bill Hybels, Max Lucado, and John Ortberg (along with other notable faith leaders who have spent years studying Scripture) yet Stearns makes a blanket statement condemning them. This may be the editor in me--but he didn't say some, he made a blanket overgeneralization. In other places he makes oversimplifications of very complex issues rather than give a more balanced view. So how did he get such fine endorsements? For those who don't know, I'll tell you an insider secret. Most famous people trust the integrity of the person writing the book and often don't read but a small sample. I can't help but wonder if these and other endorsers would have said the same things had they read the entire book using critical thinking skills.

On p. 223, Stearns revises Scripture to write a letter to the Church in America, in Jesus' name. I find that problematic. Not only does it seem presumptuous, but it's terribly judgmental of all the Christians and churches doing incredible work around the globe. Stearns is certainly not the only one fighting poverty, and he cites fine examples of churches and pastors caring for the poor. Editors typically find and correct such inconsistencies. Yet, as an editor who has worked with notable authors, I'm all too aware of how easily mistakes can be made and how fallible all human beings are--even editors, even those in leadership.

That's one reason I'm finishing the book--because Stearns also makes some very valid points. The Church in America can do much more. On Sunday we took a missions offering at my church and though I sat halfway back, when the offering container came to me, it only had one check in it. That's shameful.

This is why believers need each other. We need to be talking to get the best each individual has to offer. It's a known leadership principle that conflict can lead to a better place. And true leaders bring people together. We don't make progress or reflect the light of Christ through condemning hateful words. 
That's why I wrote "Let the Conversation Begin, Parts 1 & 2 (see 2/26 & 3/9).  "The Other Part of James 1: World Vision, Gay Marriage and Fighting Christians" also fleshes out this need. Thank you Alison Buzard for pointing us all in the right direction. 

I hope the conversation begins soon and welcome your contributions as long as they are respectful. (To leave comments, click on "[#] comments." If anyone knows how to change that feature to be more clear, I'd sure like to know.)

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Crossing the Political Bridge to Nowhere

Photo by Katie Martinez
Did you and/or your Christian friends or family vote for Obama and support his policies? Or perhaps you and/or your relatives and colleagues are ardent Christians who support the tea party.

Most Christians probably know believers on either side, and we ourselves likely have strong political views informed by our faith. Yet to keep from arguing, we avoid discussing our differences. That's why I've been wrestling with how believers in Jesus Christ can be so far apart on how to best help the poor, support the family, take care of orphans and so forth. Both sides can't be biblical or can they?

This past month, I've been reading a book by a well-known Christian leader. It's taking me awhile to finish because I disagree with much of what he has to say. In my opinion, he's offensive and judgmental with a lack of respect for Christians who don't agree with his politics. In my opinion, he makes overgeneralizations about people and oversimplifies the issues. However, I don't doubt his transformative journey as a follower of Jesus Christ. And his willingness to sacrifice for his beliefs. If he heard my story, I hope he'd feel the same about me. Yet from the ways his views were communicated, I suspect we hold very different positions on many justice issues.

So I'm pondering the question--is the political divide between Christians too great to cross. Is the idea of unity simply a bridge to nowhere? In 1 Corinthians 13:25 Paul writes "that there should be no division in the body, but that the members should have the same care for one another." I'm fairly certain that means, we need unity to function properly. Going way beyond polite small talk, God expects His children to be a living temple honoring and glorifying to Him. How can we be that temple when we are at such odds we can't even discuss important issues?

Maybe we should start with conversations that revolve around the common ground that trumps our divisions--Jesus Christ and His work on the cross. Reading the Christian leader's story has been softening my heart and helping me appreciate the good things he has to say on justice matters. That's why I'm determined to finish his book. This man's heart for compassion surely exceeds mine, and I'm learning some things I didn't know. If we interacted, perhaps he could learn some things from me, too. But before that can happen, we'd have to start communicating.

God's view on biblical justice should bring His children together. To achieve unity, we'll certainly have to work harder to understand the biblical position and the lessons God's been teaching each of us. With His ways so much higher than man's, our human view is far too small..

King Solomon got it right when he asked for the wisdom to understand justice. 1 Kings 3:10-12 elaborates: "It was pleasing in the sight of the Lord that Solomon had asked this thing. God said to him, “Because you have asked this thing and have not asked for yourself long life, nor have asked riches for yourself, nor have you asked for the life of your enemies, but have asked for yourself [discernment to understand justice, behold, I have done according to your words. Behold, I have given you a wise and discerning heart, so that there has been no one like you before you, nor shall one like you arise after you" (emphasis mine).

There will never be another Solomon. He alone had the wisdom to understand justice. Now I wonder if believers might gain increasing comprehension by pooling our biblical insights. What if God gave some of us certain components (such as compassion and empathy) and others different aspects (such as practical applications). Could combining a variety of biblical views produce a fuller understanding of God's "righteousness," which Scripture often mentions in the same breath as justice? What if by learning from each other, we began cultivating the discernment of Solomon?

This king resolved complex justice issues in ways that have spanned the globe and the ages of time. Who would threaten to cut a baby in half so its rightful mother would protect its life by rescinding her claim?  His approach went beyond the ordinary. So did Hannah More's.

Photo by Katie Martinez
Rather than focus on the infighting Hannah More built "bridges with others vastly different from herself. Many of the longstanding institutions, structures, and hierarchies of More's world were—like many today—crumbling. Rather than quail in the face of such challenges, More strengthened herself through faith and friendship. She provides a timely example for Christian women [and men] today, who likewise find ourselves in a culture marked by shifting roles and assumptions."

In the process More was instrumental in fighting alongside William Wilberforce against slavery. She
worked to increase literacy among the poor--one of today's most effective weapons to keep men, women, and children from becoming the targets of traffickers. Much was accomplished as More worked alongside "co-belligerents of divergent political and religious affiliation, including Quakers, liberals, freethinkers, and unbelievers."

Shouldn't believers view unity as the means toward the ends of justice? By working together in unity we, too, could overcome mountainous obstacles turning a political bridge to nowhere into a biblical bridge to a far better place for those in need of justice.

What do you think? What should be the focus for Christians when it comes to a biblical view of justice?

Sunday, March 9, 2014

Let the Conversation Begin, Part II

Photo by Andrew Schalin

Over this past week, thoughts from the Justice Conference 2014 have continued developing. I can almost imagine a respectful conversation about various aspects of justice where the vitriol of political agendas can be set aside and Christians can focus on a biblical view. Sure we might have differences, but by loving one another and respecting each others perspectives, we can actively draw the Body of Christ to work together in unity. And maybe, God in His great pleasure might bless such efforts beyond anything we can think or imagine..

In large measure, the workability of this idea is being fed by personal transformation taking place within the context of my own family. My sisters and I were raised in an environment where children were seen and not heard. We were told what to do, and there was no discussion, no questions asked. This approach to communication has been so deeply ingrained that even decades later, all of us still struggle with genuine dialogue. 

Yet over the past few months God has been transforming us as our elderly mom increasingly needs more help. As with justice issues, the concerns are many and complex with no easy solutions. Because we all want her to have the best quality of life possible, my sisters and I have recognized the need to change the way we talk to one another, and the Holy Spirit has been helping us change.

This transformative journey began as my sister Valerie and I tried to convince our mother that we had found the best senior apartment for her. She didn't pay much attention and chose to move to a different place. However, with hindsight there's no doubt that was the right decision. Val and I were also convinced most of her furniture wouldn't fit in the new apartment. Yet it did and that makes her feel more at home.

On the other hand, the time came when we had to convince our mom that she should no longer be driving. That conversation was definitely a challenge. And, it was only the tip of the iceberg. There were decisions to make about healthcare, grocery shopping, money management and so on. Our old way of making pronouncements frequently left all of us frustrated.

We're still in the process of learning how to relate on different terms. But using some specific tools for good communication has been helping build our relationships instead of tearing them apart. These same steps could make a difference for Christians. We could achieve far more in terms of biblical justice if instead of judging each other's political agendas, we would:
  1. Listen to one another. This is probably one of the hardest aspects of my family's communication. For years we were so busy trying to defend a particular position, we couldn't hear what each other had to say. At the Justice Conference, Bryan Stevenson made a profound point that demonstrates the difference this can make in terms of justice. While trying to gain access to his mentally disabled inmate on death row, due to preconceived ideas, the warden treated Stevenson horribly and refused to listen to anything he had to say. But during the inmate's trial, the warden paid attention and learned information that completely transformed his attitude. He started treating Stevenson with deep respect. The warden's hardened heart was so transformed that after the trial on the way back to prison, he pulled off the freeway to buy the inmate a chocolate milkshake. (See Part I, 2/26/14.) Not only that but as Stevenson described some of the injustices he'd witnessed, I learned things that softened my heart, too.
  2. Ask questions. For many years, it didn't occur to me to ask why my mom or sisters believed the way they did. That's just the way it was done in my family. I suspect that quite often that's the way it's done in God's family, too. We make assumptions about those who hold different views without understanding all that's involved. I learned the difference asking questions can make while working for a science/faith think tank. When I took the job, the editors worked without asking questions about why particular changes were problematic for the authors. This poor communication polarized the entire "communications" department! Seeing the cooperation that resulted from asking questions helped me start asking my mom why she wanted things a certain way. This approach opens up communication and grows respect. Having the opportunity to ask committed believers why they hold certain positions could generate a healthier environment conducive to working together.
  3. Challenge the process.  After reading The Leadership Challenge by Kouzes and Posner, I began to appreciate how true leaders "challenge the process." Just because something has always been done one way, doesn't necessarily mean that's the best way. My family's communication is a good example. Regardless of how long we'd held our beliefs (in my mom's case 87 years), the way we communicated was not at all beneficial and only led to hurt feelings. Obviously when it comes to justice, for Christians to continue communicating in the same way will only make the great divide even wider. Not only that, but biblically it is just plain wrong. These issues are so complex we need to be brave enough to challenge the process and talk through ideas giving God the freedom to work among us and heal our differences.  
  4. Don't react. Proverbs 14:31 says "A tranquil heart is life to the body, But passion is rottenness to the bones." Sometimes I feel so passionate about my view, it hardens my heart. If my mom had done what I wanted when she moved, she'd
    Photo by Andrew Schalin
    have missed out on a balcony where she can continue to garden. She couldn't have sat there to drink her morning coffee while watching golfers play on the course below. In my "passion" for one particular idea, I'd had no idea of the possibilities.
  5. Respond appropriately. Being kind and gentle, asking questions, and taking time to think things through opens up dialogue and promotes unity.I can't help but wonder what would happen if Christians rejected all the political vitriol, believed the best about one another, and chose to keep a tranquil heart instead. Could it be that by loving our enemies, we'd discover our true neighbors or maybe even brothers and sisters in Christ?
  6. Cultivate teamwork. Achieving results is not a competition, because we're all on the same team. My sisters and I try to remind each other and our mom that it's not about "my way" or "your way" but that we're working together toward the best results. Unity builds relationships and makes problem solving easier.
  7. Be willing to change course. Being willing to learn and even accept positions we don't understand doesn't mean we will always agree. My sisters and I don't always agree with my mom, but we're learning to value her above our own agendas. By admitting that her way is sometimes better, we "model the way" (another key principle from The Leadership Challenge) for her to accept that sometimes our way is the best solution (e.g., selling her car). True leaders for the Body of Christ will occasionally change course, modeling the way toward unity.
  8. Pour out grace. Forgiving one another for our short-sightedness is imperative to opening up conversation. Whether with mothers and daughters or justice workers, meltdowns come from the frustration of not feeling heard or valued. Whenever people disagree, tempers can flare. That's part of being human. But anger shouldn't keep us from choosing to love one another. Sometimes there may not even seem to be a way to apologize without feeling like someone holding an opposing view might take it to an extreme. We can be sorry for our words but not the beliefs behind them. So as God's children admonished to pursue peace with all men (Romans 12:18, Hebrews 12:14), we must pour out grace.
Biblical justice--one thing to be certain of is that God wants His children to love one another and be the living temple with Christ as the cornerstone. We need each other. By the Holy Spirit's power if we listen, ask questions, challenge the process, and restrain hurtful reactions to respond appropriately; we'll become more fully functional. Plus, we'll cultivate the kind of teamwork that can change course as God guides. In the process, as we pour out grace and choose to love one another, people will see the light of Christ shine in the darkness.

So where do we go from here? Are there ways to open up conversation and move that two-way dialogue forward? I'd love to see your thoughts. As for me, because Transform LA/USA/World as a movement is a catalyst for networking the Body of Christ, I'll be discussing the possibilities with some key leaders. I'll keep you posted (especially if you subscribe).