It’s not our job to change people

Years ago, when I was learning how to be a teacher, some of my motivations were quite idealistic: I want to change the hearts and minds of youth, and therefore change the world!!

Now, when I think back to the workings of my mind in those days, I almost want to scold my younger self, “get a grip!”

By no means were my motivations bad, but it was my ego that got me into trouble. Did I really think that I could change people? Of course I did–and I suppose most of us do, at some point in our lives. Maybe this thought is buzzing in the background of our interactions most of the time, without us realizing it. If so, we may feel like we’ve failed if we can’t convince others of our opinions, can’t get them to switch their views or can’t inspire them to join the cause about which we are super passionate.

When did this all change for me? When did I stop thinking I was supposed to change others? I suppose it started when I began to see myself more as a minister than a teacher, and when I began to understand that my role is to lovingly companion people and meet them wherever they are. I share God’s love, myself, my knowledge and experiences, but I hope to always provide the freedom for people to make up their own minds.

This stanza from “Prophets of a Future Not Our Own,” has helped me remember that saving others isn’t my job; Jesus already has that under control:

We are workers, not master builders; ministers, not messiahs./ We are prophets of a future not our own

 

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Photo credit: http://www.fggam.org/2013/03/devotional-for-resurrection-sunday-praise-god/

I am not the messiah. It’s not my job to free people, to save them. I am called to love and let God do this rest. This is freeing, good Gospel news!

But to tell you the truth, companioning others, and not aiming to change them, is a struggle. That’s especially true when I encounter people who have views that are offensive to my own, who say things that make me cringe. Do I just listen and let them speak, even if they are voicing something that is morally wrong–like a racist or classist idea?!

I’ve been thinking about this a lot lately. And, I have been grappling with these questions while in conversation with others. At a recent Theology on Tap event here, I sat around a table with about a dozen people eating pizza and burgers and having a deep and vulnerable conversation centered on the topic, “How to get along with people different than you.” We read an excerpt of a chapter of a book by Margaret Wheatley “Willing to be Disturbed,” which I highly recommend.

A few weeks prior, when I was at the Festival of Faith and Writing, I attended an excellent panel discussion called, “Writing about politics in an age of rancor.” Most of the panelists talked about the importance of listening, of practicing good interview skills. One speaker said that we’ve lost the art of persuasion in our culture. Everyone emphasized the importance of empathy.

Plus, I have been a bit fascinated by a radio program that I recently caught on my way to mass at the local parish. This part of the conversation, in particular, piqued my interest:

RAZ: You know, I find myself having, like, really serious conversations with friends about things we disagree on, and it can get pretty heated.

HEADLEE: Yeah.

RAZ: And I try to employ a lot of these rules. But what do you do when your core values are just totally misaligned with the person that you’re talking with – like, to such an extent that the things they believe just offend you to your core? Do you still engage?

HEADLEE: I do. And I can give you an example of this. So I am a mixed-race person. The last time my family lived in Georgia, we were owned. And I think most people would understand my feelings on the Confederate battle flag. But I have a number of friends that absolutely think that is about heritage, and it’s not about hate, et cetera, et cetera.

And I was having one of these discussions with someone earlier, and he started to say to me, well, I’m not going to talk about this with you because I know where you stand. And I said, you know what? That actually frees us up. Just tell me what you think because here’s the thing. Our views are opposed on this, but I am interested in your perspective, why this is so important to you. And if I can just start from the outset and allay those expectations that someone’s going to change my mind, sometimes it just sort of relieves that pressure. Then it just becomes about hearing someone’s perspective.

RAZ: So you wouldn’t respond to his argument. You would just listen to what he said.

HEADLEE: I might. I might, but I start by just listening and asking questions, but because he likes me and respects me, usually he leaves an opening for me to express my feelings, and I do honestly without condemnation. But, you know, it’s hard for people to open up like this. It’s hard. That makes you vulnerable.

Here is the entire TED Talk about how to have better conversations, about how to interview and listen:

As a Christian who is aiming every day to keep united with the power of the resurrected Christ, I am trying to keep all this in mind as I minister, listen and learn: listening and being vulnerable with others helps build community, and build relationships. When both parties are compassionately curious about one another, when our thoughts and beliefs can be clarified, then we can be in communion. We grow closer together when we share our wounds, when we create spaces of true hospitality where bread of all sorts can be broken and shared.

And somehow, along the way, by the grace of God, we all end up changed.

Following Jesus outside the box

Since I was a kid, good folks started challenging me to think “outside the box.”

In one case, I remember sitting in the shade on a hot day with a group of girls at Bible camp and our counselor offering a puzzle: I am going on picnic and bringing cookies and my glasses. What are you bringing? Can I bring chips? No, no chips on this picnic … The puzzle would continue all week until all of us in the group figured out that it wasn’t about objects or colors or any other typical category that defined what we could bring: we could only bring words that had double letters.

Now, decades later, I understand that playing such a game at Bible camp was not just a time-filler, not just a way to keep a bunch of girls out trouble. Rather, such puzzles were brilliant opportunities to introduce me and my peers to one of the most challenging aspects of Christian discipleship: following Jesus’ demands that we think differently.

“We Christians know that somehow or other, we are called to “think outside the box” regarding the problems that confront society and the world, but we don’t always know exactly what the box is or how to go about thinking outside it.”  ~ Linda L. Clader, Voicing the Vision.

Here’s a bit about the boxes that get in the way of following Christ.

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Image courtesy freeimages.com

In the Kingdom of God there are no enemies because we’ve loved them all into our friends. Death and division don’t have to have the last word. We don’t have to pick a political party, wear the latest fashion or obsess over petty things. We don’t have to choose a side or declare right or wrong.

In the Kingdom of God we get to be compassionate, nonjudgmental folks and rebel against the crowds of judgmental people by loving everyone. We get to listen and love and see the good in everyone, no matter who they are or what they have done. We don’t have to fight back or run away when oppression or violence comes toward us; rather, we get to stand up for justice and peace with creativity and compassion.

To be free of these boxes means that we can let go of anything that blocks our imaginations from dreaming up a world where all human dignity is honored and protected, where peace and justice are abundant for every creature, where heaven is known and experienced in this world. To be free of these boxes means that nothing can contain the ways we work for Christ. There are no limits to how we offer mercy, kindness, forgiveness and love. There are no expectations either, for when we allow God’s power to work through us, we can be surprised again and again by what wonders can occur, how goodness can be triumphant.

May the Spirit of God help us escape the box of either/or and give us the grace we need to be active in the energy of both/and—all in the space where we see that every person (Yes, even that person!) is a sinner and a saint, where all of us are works in progress in need of God’s grace.

Then we shall be freed from the limits of our human understanding and imagination. Then we can follow the ways of Christ’s love and can live in joyful awe of God’s work in the world!

 

opening up to Truth of difference

I am great lover of diversity.

When I pray about the fullness of the kingdom of God, I visualize diverse people of every type gathering around huge open tables, communing by sacred bread, wine and laughter and uniting together in Love in their actions of justice.  The classic images of diversity come to mind for me quite quickly: different races, cultures, languages, and ages in particular.

I suspect, though, that for God the diversity that is needed is deeper than the visual differences.  We need everyone, no matter who they are, to feel free to sit at our tables with us.

Biodiversity can be pretty rad too.
"plain, open" by Julia Walsh, FSPA (Biodiversity can be pretty rad too.)

It’s beautiful when people who look different gather together and unite.  But, what about when people think and believe differently?

Certainly, there’s much tension and confusion when people just completely disagree about principles and values.  We don’t have to look too far into any political news to recognize how diversity can be damaging or even disastrous. Personally, the more I grow in understanding of who I am and what I believe, the more challenging it can become to relate to people whose lifestyles and values are completely different than mine.  When I admit this, I become embarrassed. Isn’t a point of Christianity to witness to what’s different?  When did I only want to hang out with people like me?  (Can you believe that in some circles I’m actually pretty normal? Ha!)

My life of Christian service and witness causes me to encounter people who are completely outside of my norm and bubbles, as it should.  It’s not a surprise to me that many- if not most- people live their lives without any experience of real Christian church and base their morality on what feels right and good. Sometimes when people behave in ways that I am strongly morally opposed to I feel like all can do is become awkward.  Likewise, friendship can feel nearly impossible when a person boldly tells me that he or she don’t want to believe in God nor does he or she like Christianity or religion at all.  Sometimes diversity can feel insulting. Sometimes I want to pull my hair out in the struggle.

Basically, I tend to prefer that my friends believe the same things as me. It’s easier and supporting. Or, is it?

I don’t want to be judgmental.  I try to love and listen when I am hanging out with people who spend their time and money on the things that I try to preach against.  Although I feel a sense of confidence in my faith and my opinions are quite strong, the real challenge is to remain open-minded and allow for my own conversion in the face of challenging diversity.  I try not to respond with criticism and instead only offer my opinions when asked.  I believe my loving presence is valuable, yet sometimes diversity can be so frustrating.  I bite my tongue so much it bleeds and pound my head against the wall so much that it bruises.

When God made us all different, I wonder how we were to live with it. Beating my head up against a wall and pulling out my hair is probably not what God had in mind.  I believe that we are called to lovingly accept all people but not all behavior.  I believe we’re to witness to the counter-cultural Gospel way through love and service.

I believe it’s all about openness. As I serve with an open heart, I must keep an open mind. As I live outside of my comfort zone and get stretched into weird shapes, I must remain grounded in Christ. Grounded in Christ and open to all, the strangest situations can bring me closer to Him.  I hope and pray that as I live in the openness of God’s love and diversity, I come to know the Truth that shall set me free from all that head-banging and social awkwardness.

As I fumble through this, I remain open.  As I open, I gain awareness. It’s a blessing that God can grace me with wisdom and guidance. After all, it’s a gift that there’s really no one else just like me.  And, it’s a comfort that my struggles and questions are sort of ancient stuff:

The LORD appeared to Solomon in a dream at night.
God said, “Ask something of me and I will give it to you.”
Solomon answered:
“O LORD, my God, you have made me, your servant, king
to succeed my father David;
but I am a mere youth, not knowing at all how to act.
I serve you in the midst of the people whom you have chosen,
a people so vast that it cannot be numbered or counted.
Give your servant, therefore, an understanding heart
to judge your people and to distinguish right from wrong.
For who is able to govern this vast people of yours?”

The LORD was pleased that Solomon made this request.
So God said to him:
“Because you have asked for this—
not for a long life for yourself,
nor for riches,
nor for the life of your enemies,
but for understanding so that you may know what is right—
I do as you requested.
I give you a heart so wise and understanding
that there has never been anyone like you up to now,
and after you there will come no one to equal you.” 1 Kgs 3:5, 7-12s