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).

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