Monday, December 05, 2016

Sorting-Hat Questions: Fighting against polarized discourse

In our era, civil discourse is rare. And as we have seen, heated rhetoric can spill over into widespread violence. Over the last few years, riots have become more common than I have ever known them in my lifetime. Some of them are sponsored, and they have become increasingly coordinated, which is troubling. Once the infrastructure has been established for nationwide demonstrations-on-demand, will it ever be deactivated? Will its exercise make a fragile situation even more unstable? (How many would welcome that goal?)
Against this background, in a seemingly-civil conversation, a greeting is often followed by a question: What do you think of such-and-such?

In my experience, there is typically no interest in learning what the other person thinks on the topic: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. The question is not asked in order to gain understanding of the topic or of the other person. It is asked in order to sort the person into Gryffindor or Slytherin according to the views of the person asking. Possibly the questioner has already decided that people failing to give the "right" answer are defective and dangerous -- deserving of hatred, according to leading voices. There are some in Texas who have considered secession as a way to preserve the right of self-determination; there are some in California considering the same. In our so-called culture war, the two sides may not be compatible. What is considered progress by one side is seen as a shocking devaluation of life by the other, and that cuts both ways. In our nation, if we can be said to have peace right now, it is a fragile peace.

Against this background, while there is hope for peace, I think I should work for peace. While there is hope for understanding, I think I should work for understanding. Which means that, when someone asks me: "Halt! Gryffindor or Slytherin?" I would like to find out, "Do you want to understand my reasons?" And if not, I think that the time is more suited to pushing back against the practice of judging people without hearing them, rather than the long list of things over which people judge each other.

I hope to write posts that honestly reflect the things that are overlooked in a "Friend or foe!" challenge: the reasons why, the personal perspective, the pros and cons, the deciding factors. I hope to be fair and honest even about views that I firmly believe are wrong (not supportive, mind you, simply fair and honest; that shouldn't need justifying). I have no wish to relativize the truth on divisive topics; I do wish to place the humanity of both sides at the forefront of the conversation. Right now there's not quite enough goodwill or trust to move the conversation forward, and so my focus is on those. I hope we can de-legitimize the "Friend or foe!" challenge; it assumes we're already at war.

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Enter His Gates with Thanksgiving

Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. (Psalm 100:4)

It has been an exceptionally rough year this year. It has been affecting my attitude, and my "spiritual life" if you want to call it that. When a friend suggested that I try practicing gratitude, I wasn't very receptive to the idea. Without realizing it, I had started counting my curses instead of my blessings. Still, the friend challenged me to try for 30 days, each day writing down 3 things for which I'm grateful.

My first few days were fairly surly. They were in the "thanks a lot" category. As I continued day after day, I realized that I had been focusing on negatives -- which had been more common this past year -- while ignoring a lot of good things as if they didn't matter. Everything in my field of vision had looked dark. I was focusing on the things that were going wrong to the point where I couldn't even see the good, even though it was there. The rough season in my life is clearly not finished. But neither is everything 100% dark. And it turns out that a certain amount of my misery was self-inflicted by giving all my focus to worst.

I've come to believe that gratitude is the art of appreciating life. If we don't enjoy the good, what's the point of it? Enjoyment seems incomplete without gratitude. With gratitude, my spiritual life is not completely stuck in dark-night mode. "Bidden or unbidden, God is present." But it was gratitude -- or "thanksgiving" -- that re-opened that door for me. So when I hear Psalm 100 now, I hear it differently. Thanksgiving opens that gate, and praise opens us to God's presence.
Enter into His gates with thanksgiving, and into His courts with praise. (Psalm 100:4)

Sunday, November 13, 2016

The Perks of Being an Introvert

Over at CADRE Comments, BK has an excellent and piece that I'm sure many of us can relate to, about being an introvert at social gatherings, and how he is intrigued by the thought of going into a social setting with a particular kind of Christian agenda: being a blessing to those around him.

He brings up an excellent point, so I wanted to continue spreading that message. Over the years I have slowly gone from "painfully introverted" to "somewhat introverted" to "somewhat extroverted." These days I generally enjoy being around a group of people. What moved me to that point was awakening more to the idea that my involvement could be positive or even welcome. I didn't have to focus on my insecurities. And once I stopped focusing on them and getting tripped up by them, they gradually started to fade away.

I try to remember a few things in a conversation:
  • If someone is hurting: Listen. Really listen. Just listen. Don't plan a response, don't question whether they should feel the way that they feel, don't intellectualize to hide from uncomfortable emotions, don't fix, just listen. 
  • Not zombie-listening, but validating-listening. Acknowledge the point of their story. Maybe they tell a story about being ignored, treated unfairly, or not being taken seriously. Make it right for them: be the one who pays attention, treats them fairly, and takes them seriously.
  • We listen better when we have an active mind, so here's an agenda in a conversation: try to understand. Try to empathize. Try to see things through their eyes.
  • If we find ourselves listening for points for followup in a conversation, find something good to acknowledge or recognize about the other person: find a way to encourage them. 
  • Lots of people really do want to tell you how their day was. Or, more to the point, they want someone who will actually listen and care if they can't honestly say "Everything Is Awesome!" 
  • "Rejoice with those who rejoice, mourn with those who mourn."
Kudos to BK for a topic that I imagine is helpful to many of us. We can be a blessing just by being truly human to each other. I'd be glad to hear additions from people with their own experiences there. It would be a worthy project to build a collection of Christian insights into how to season our conversations.

Sunday, November 06, 2016

The Middle Ground is the Humanity of the Enemy

"Let your light so shine" : I'm concerned that we're nearing the critical mass of hatred. We're at a dark time. Before it gets any darker, if you see someone promoting hatred, please try to counteract it -- with gentleness and respect. Bless those who curse us, pray for those who persecute us.

I beg your pardon for again mixing religion and politics. The tension in the U.S. is thicker than I've seen it in my lifetime. The issue is that the candidates are a little on the disturbing side this time around, which makes it tempting -- and so easy -- to mix religion and politics in order to justify hating people who have a different opinion of which is the lesser of two evils. I have heard both candidates called "Satanic" by people trying to incite hatred of the other team's candidate -- and the one inciting the hatred had been successfully inflamed by someone else's hatred. I have seen two people who are for the most part decent people -- and even consider themselves Christians -- make jokes about wishing the other party's candidate dead (I've heard that from one friend or relative on each side of the aisle). By a steady stream of dehumanizing messages about "them", we are being conditioned to hate, trained to despise people over the faults of candidates that, for the most part, nobody is defending. And there is nothing Christian about that.

When I talk about "middle ground" I don't want anyone to misunderstand. I am not saying that there is middle ground on (for instance) whether we should tolerate a public figure being lewd (language I'd prefer not to quote but I expect everyone has heard by now), or whether we should tolerate a politician's publicity team discussing "If the objective is purely to undermine the Benghazi hearings, I think these spots will certainly help do that." I'm saying that the best argument for Hillary is Trump, and the best argument for Trump is Hillary, and we should not be drawn into denying the humanity of another person by pretending that they support their candidate's flaws. There is something about the political process -- especially when the stakes are this high -- that tends to distort our view of "the other". I truly believe that we can't have that distorted a view of someone else unless we have first let someone else distort our perceptions and therefore to some extent distort us and our own worldview.

The middle ground is not to pretend that any of the awful stuff is ok; it's not. The middle ground is to remember that "the enemy" that voted for "the monster" (pardon, "the Satanic monster") is still human, and would probably have gladly voted for someone else given more (viable) choices. (This would have been such a great chance for a third party, if they had bothered to field a serious candidate.) The next four years are going to be rough enough no matter which of those two wins this election; we have to stick together better than that. If there is no middle ground, what options remain except deadlock, oppression or civil war?

According to Jesus, the greatest commandment is love of God, and the second is love of neighbor. Therefore Jesus -- and any religion that actually takes guidance from him -- will not provide top-cover for our hatred of our neighbor. If anyone cannot bear the thought of one or the other candidate escaping justice, we can take comfort: whoever escapes accountability for their crimes in this world, there is a Just Judge they will meet one day who was not appointed by a politician or bought by political groups, and no PR campaign in the world will help on that day. The same goes for us all, which is a thing that we can keep in mind, whenever we're tempted to hate.

Seriously, please help push back against the hatred when you see it on Facebook or elsewhere. 

Monday, October 31, 2016

The most important things for us to support this election

In a normal presidential election year, I save an election post for election day. This election year is so unusual that I thought it might be better to say this before things get any more interesting than they already are. The most important things for us to support would not be Flawed Candidate R (rude, crude, and lewd) or Flawed Candidate D (so dishonest and corrupt that even long-time political insiders express shock repeatedly; for the full story see WikiLeaks). It's unfortunate that the alternative parties didn't nominate anyone particularly qualified; this could have been their opportunity.

This election -- of all elections that I can remember -- we should be able to see why people would have reservations about whichever candidate we ultimately vote for (or already voted for, to recognize the early voters). Hateful rants about the opposition candidate are even more unhelpful than usual when both candidates are so deeply flawed. This election -- of all elections that I can remember -- we go into the election knowing that, whoever becomes our next president, most of us sincerely wished for better options. This election -- of all elections -- we need to firmly reconcile with the people who voted differently, and if we presume to think they need forgiving, then forgive them already. As a nation, we're awfully close to the edge of the cliff.

From a purely political viewpoint, I think the most important things for us to support this election are: 
  1. The acceptance that all law-abiding adult citizens are allowed a vote, regardless of whether they vote with you.
  2. The insistence that fair and legal elections will place the candidate elected by the voters, which is how we ensure the consent of the governed (usual disclaimer that we run the totals by state here, so that the little states don't get steamrolled by the big ones).
  3. That the legitimacy of the election is more important than our party winning. 

If our party membership supports the nation, then it makes the nation stronger. If our party membership takes precedence over the idea of equal citizenship or the consent of the governed, then the nation loses.

Sunday, October 23, 2016

Essential Bible Verses for Evangelism

I've added a few comments, though most of these verses are presented without comment. 
  1. Grace be with you/The grace of the Lord Jesus Christ be with you (and variations on the same). (Romans 16:24, 1 Corinthians 16:23, 2 Corinthians 13:14, Philippians 4:23, Colossians 4:18, 1 Thessalonians 5:28, 2 Thessalonians 3:18, 2 Timothy 4:22, Titus 3:15, Hebrews 13:25, 2 John 1:3, Revelation 22:21)
    Many of the letters of the New Testament end with nearly the same blessing. Religion, done right, is a channel of blessing because Jesus revealed his Father as the God who blesses. Our mission as evangelists is to bring good news, so that the person who hears is blessed. Evangelism, done right, is a channel of grace and blessing to the one who hears.
  2. It was right that we should make merry, and be glad: for your brother was dead, and is alive again; and was lost, and is found. (Luke 15:32)
    The lost are our own brothers and sisters in Christ. It helps to be conscious of both their loss and ours, and that rightly any two people should have a brotherly relationship.
  3. You are a letter from Christ, the result of our ministry, written not with ink but with the Spirit of the Living God, not on tablets of stone but on tablets of the human heart. (2 Corinthians 3:3)
  4. The wisdom that comes from heaven is first of all pure; then peace-loving (James 3:17)
  5. Christ is the wisdom of God and the power of God (I Corinthians 1:22)
    The Word of God has a human face, and compassion, and values love -- and values us.
  6. Let your light so shine before all that they may see your good works and glorify your father in heaven. (Matthew 5:16)
    In our worship, we glorify God. If we go to the world and live the way He teaches -- which is the worship He has asked of us -- we add to the number of people who glorify God.
  7. But sanctify the Lord God in your hearts: and be ready always to give an answer to everyone who asks you a reason for the hope that is in you (1 Peter 3:15a)
  8. Do this with gentleness and respect. (1 Peter 3:15b)
  9. Having a good conscience; that, whereas they speak evil of you, as of evildoers, they may be ashamed that falsely accuse your good conversation in Christ. (1 Peter 3:16)
  10. We are therefore Christ's ambassadors, as though God were making his appeal through us. We implore you on Christ's behalf: Be reconciled to God. (2 Corinthians 5:20)

Sunday, October 16, 2016

Essential Bible Verses for Healing Shame

Shame has different elements, from feeling dirty or exposed, abandoned, and disowned, to a loss of confidence about being accepted or valued, to the fear of rejection and being alone. The Bible speaks to these: 
  1. He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief. We hid as it were our faces from him; he was despised, and we assigned him no value. (Isaiah 53:3)
  2. God opposes the proud, and gives grace to the humble. (I Peter 5:5)
  3. There is more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who had no need to repent. (Luke 15:7)
  4. Create in me a clean heart, O God; and renew a right spirit within me. (Psalm 51:10)
  5. You are washed, you are made holy, you are made innocent in the name of the Lord Jesus, and by the Spirit of our God. (I Corinthians 6:11)
  6. And white robes were given to every one of them; and it was said to them, that they should rest yet for a little season. (Revelation 6:11)
  7. You shall no longer be called Forsaken; neither shall your land any more be called Desolate. (Isaiah 62:4)
  8. But as many as received him, to them gave he power to become the children of God. (John 1:12)
  9. He calls his own sheep by name. (John 10:3)
  10. That you may be blameless and faultless, the children of God, without rebuke, in the midst of a crooked and perverse nation, among whom you shine as lights in the world. (Philippians 2:15)
  11. To him who overcomes, I will give him a white stone, and in the stone a new name written, which no one knows except the one who receives it. (Revelation 2:15)
  12. The home of God is with men, and He will dwell with them, and they shall be His people, and God himself shall be with them, and be their God. (Revelation 21:3)