Difficult Dialogue in Distressing Days

This post originally appeared at Conciliar Post.

Another week, another round of things for people to vehemently and caustically disagree about. Whether it’s politics, economics, social issues, or religious news, we can’t seem to disagree with one another fast enough. We’ll pick up a cause and champion it for a time, only to have something else catch our attention and demand our outspoken criticism or support. Why can’t we seem to see eye to eye?

Obviously, worldview divergences stand at the heart of some disagreement. You and I (and everyone else) see the world in differing ways, which leads us to come to different conclusions or explanations for the various crises occurring in our time.

But I wonder if there’s a deeper issue at work too. An anonymous quote came across my newsfeed the other day, one that I think summarizes our current predicament well:

“Being taught to avoid talking about politics and religion has led to a lack of understanding about politics and religion. What we should have been taught was how to have a civil conversation about a difficult topic.”

We’ve been taught to avoid having difficult conversations for so long that we’ve actually forgotten how to have those conversations (or never knew how to have them in the first place). We fight and quarrel amongst ourselves so readily because we don’t have the ability to have productively difficult conversations with one another. Now, I’m not the first person to point this out. Indeed, one of the major reasons that Conciliar Post was founded was to provide a space for thoughtful, faithful people to have difficult discussions. Promoting “meaningful dialogue across traditions” is what we’re all about.

But this leaves open the question of how. How do we have meaningful dialogue in today’s world? How can we make sense of our world while challenging other people in loving ways? I want to offer eight suggestions:

  1. Listen in order to understand. Instead of hearing what someone else has to say for the primary purpose of defeating their position, we must learn to listen to others in order to understand what they are actually trying to communicate. Only then can we productively explain our own viewpoint.1
  2. Listen to people with whom you disagree. Pay attention to people who think differently than you.2 Read their books. Listen to their podcasts. Subscribe to their blogs. Follow them on social media. Take them seriously. Don’t offer strawmen—engage what real people really have to say.
  3. Reflect. This might be the hardest thing to do in our social media age. Everyone wants news and reactions immediately. Immediately. Eschew the fixation on immediacy (and the posturing that comes along with it) and take a moment to reflect on what is actually going on before making a judgment about it. As human beings, we’re mostly terrible at making complex snap judgments. Take a moment to think before you engage.
  4. Verify your facts. I take it back—this is the hardest thing to do in our social media age. It’s so easy to share something that gets our blood boiling without ever pausing to see if that information is true. Last week, in the wake of the horrible violence in El Paso, Dayton, and other places, my social media feeds filled with people spouting statistics about gun violence (from both sides of the aisle, mind you). Almost no one provided any sort of verification. Sure, saying that there has been more than one mass shooting in America per day sounds enticing and horrible—but is it true? No one wants to be disseminating fake news, so make sure that you’re verifying your facts.
  5. Commit to civility. Make the decision not to debase people, engage in ad hominem attacks, interact disrespectfully, or otherwise use the relative anonymity of the internet to say horrible things about other people. Just don’t. Seek a more excellent way and communicate with other people respectfully. And on that note….
  6. Have face-to-face conversations. Don’t just interact with other people online—have face-to-face conversations with people. Get out of your bubble. Grab coffee with someone. Have people over for dinner (have your neighbors over for dinner!). Have conversations with people with whom you agree—and with whom you disagree.
  7. Do something. Don’t just share a post on social media and think that you’ve meaningfully contributed to the resolution of a problem. Do something about it. Hashtag activism that doesn’t lead to actual action is nothing short of hypocrisy. Now, you obviously can’t fix every problem; but you can do something about some issue or issues. So do it. Get involved.
  8. Pray. In my less charitable moments, I wonder how many of us say things like “you’re in my thoughts and prayers” and then never give the person or situation another meaningful thought—let alone pray for what’s going on. Don’t get me wrong; I understand and appreciate the sentiment. But as followers of the risen Jesus, our prayers must not be meaningless platitudes. We must actually throw ourselves before God in prayer. You think abortion is evil? You think mass shootings need to end? You’re not pleased with a government official? When was the last time you prayed about those things? Are you consistently bringing them before God? The people of God must bring their concerns to Him in prayer, not just in platitudes.

Will these practices and approaches solve all the world’s problems? No. Only the Second Coming of our Lord will do that.3 But committing ourselves to having productively difficult conversations in these ways will help us make better sense of our world—and enable us to serve as faithful and fruitful lights within it.

What about you: what practices and approaches help you productively dialogue with other people?


Notes

1 Relatedly, much of our media intentionally perverts this idea. Dramatic films or shows are often all about perceived (rather than real) problems that could easily be solved through conversation. Even our sports news is now filled with dramatic talking heads whose sole purpose seems to be shouting at one another rather than having an actual conversation with another person.

2 This doesn’t mean that you have to listen to everyone of course. But finding a couple of well-respected voices from “the other side” is an excellent discipline. Robert P. George and Cornel West are a fantastic example of this.

3 A fact that, it seems, Christians must do a better job of remembering in the public square when we promote this or that cause as the thing that will turn society around. As Jesus reminds us in John 16:33, in this world there will be trials and tribulations.

Seizing Moments of Transition

“Whatever you do, work heartily, as for the Lord and not for men.” — Col 3.23

Everyone experiences transitions from one thing to another. We put down the old (or have it wrenched from us) and pick up the things. No one can live a completely sedentary life (nor would that be good for us). Whether it involves our jobs, homes, cars, stages of life, churches, or geography, we all encounter moments of transition.

While many transitions result in joy, not all are. Some transitions are sad, uncomfortable, or even depressing. Changing jobs, for instance, could indicate a step forward in a person’s career; it could also represent a changing career field that is now fraught with uncertainty. Other transitions are bittersweet; you are excited to move forward with a new opportunity, but recognize that somethings (and perhaps some people) will be left behind.

In fact, even the best transitions are often accompanied by feelings of anxiety and loss. Right now, as we transition from life and work at Rooftop Church to life and work at our church plant, Arise, my wife and I are reflecting on the bittersweet-nature of this transition. We are extremely excited for what stands ahead of us; but we also see some coming changes and know that things will not ever be quite the same moving forward.

But even in their discomfort or bittersweet-ness, moments of transition can stretch us, helping us grow and learn. It’s critical, therefore, that we seize the opportunities afforded us by these transitions.

Carpe Diem

How do we make the most of every opportunity? How do we seize moments of transition and use them to help us grow into the people God has made us to be? I don’t have any hard and fast answers. But I do have five practices that I have used in times of transition that may be beneficial for you as you tackle the changes ahead of you.

Begin with Prayer. Begin each day—or each moment, if necessary—in prayer to God. He will bring you grounding and peace amidst what may be a tumultuous time. Consistently communing with the Almighty through prayer, Scripture, and devotional reflection will help you begin each day with the most important part of your journey in mind.

Keep a Journal. Write down what you are thinking and experiencing. Journaling functions both as a means of processing what is going on in the moment and as a way to remember those experiences later on. Personally, some of the most valuable time I spent in moments of transition have turned out to be the reflective journaling that I have undertaken. Journaling helps process and it helps you remember for the future the lessons you learn through the transition.

Form Positive Habits. Use the transition to foster positive habits. This can be general lifestyle changes—eating better, exercising more, not spending as much time on your phone—or changes specific to your  situation—for instance, beginning each week at your new job with an evaluation of your weekly, monthly, and yearly goals. One of the families at our church, for example, uses the new school year as a time to take a close look at their calendar and family goals, adjusting things as necessary. This is also the thinking behind New Year’s Resolutions (which might serve as a reminder that all of these suggestions only help if you put them into practice).

Push Yourself. Moments of change and new experiences may be hard. But they may also be the perfect opportunity to test your limits. Muscle only builds when you push it to the limit and stretch the bounds of what you can do. Do not use the newness of things as an excuse to take things easy—aim high and capitalize on the new as an opportunity to become even better. Transition is tough–but that toughness is accompanied by the chance to do things otherwise.

Learn What You Can. Not every transition is to something complete unknown; but most of the time, transitions involve something beyond the realm of our experience. It’s useful, then, to use times of transition to learn. If you are in a new city, go exploring. If you have a new job, see what new skills or competencies you can acquire. If you find yourself experiencing new (or long-dormant) emotions, devote some time to prayer and self-reflection. Do not simply try to conform your new to your old; rather, lean into the discomfort of your transition and learn what it has to teach you.

Transition can be hard. But as we adapt to our new environments and situations, do not forget all the good that can result. As Sons and Daughters of the King, after all, we belong to the one who will says that He will make “all things new” during the final transition of creation into its restored state (Rev 21:5). Whatever our anxieties and insecurities, we can celebrate new things in our life in the light of the One who made all things and will make all things new.

O God Our Refuge

Some more prayers for this morning:

“O God, who has been the refuge of my fathers through many generations, be my refuge today in every time and circumstance of need. Be my guide through all that is dark and doubtful. Be my guard against all that threatens my spirit’s welfare. Be my strength in time of testing. Gladden my heart with your peace, through Jesus Christ my Lord.”

–Originally by John Baillie

 

“Blessed Lord, who was tempted in all things as we are, have mercy upon our frailty. Out of weakness give us strength. Grant to us your fear, that we may only fear you. Support us in our time of temptation. Embolden us in the time of danger. Help us to do your work with good courage, and to continue as your faithful soldiers and servants until our life’s end. We ask all these things in the name of Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.”

–Originally by Bishop Brooke Foss Westcott

“Give Us Grace to Hold You…”

Another prayer from The Oxford Book of Prayer, this time from Fr. Gilbert Shaw:

Lord, give us grace to hold you

when all is weariness and fear

and sin abounds within, without

when love itself is tested by the doubt…

that love is false, or dead within the soul,

when every act brings new confusion, new distress,

new opportunities, new misunderstandings,

and every thought new accusation.

Lord, give us grace that we may know

that in the darkness pressing round

it is the mist of sin that hides your face,

that you are there

and you do know we love you still

and our dependence and endurance in your will

is still our gift of love.

Bede Prays for Rescue

I’m reading through the “deliverance” section of The Oxford Book of Prayer this week and came across this prayer by the Venerable Bede. Join Bede and I in praying this for our world:

O God that art the only hope of the world,

The only refuge for unhappy men,

Abiding in the faithfulness of heaven.

Give me strong succor in this testing place.

O King, project thy man from utter ruin

Lest the weak faith surrender to the tyranny,

Facing innumerable blow alone.

Remember I am dust, and wind, and shadow,

And life as fleeting as the flower of grass.

But may the enteral mercy which hath shone

From time of old

Rescue they servant from the jaws of the lion.

Thou who didst come from on high in the cloak of flesh,

Strike down the dragon with that two-edged sword,

Whereby our mortal flesh can war with the winds

And beat down strongholds, with our Captain God.

~Venerable Bede

A Prayer for Guidance

I’m currently praying through the Oxford Book of Prayer (edited by George Appleton) and came across this prayer for guidance this morning:

“In times of doubts and questionings, when our belief is perplexed by new learning, new teaching, new thought, when our faith is strained by creeds, by doctrines, by mysteries beyond our understanding, give us the faithfulness of learners and the courage of believers in you; give us boldness to examine and faith to trust all truth; patience and insight to master difficulties; stability to hold fast our tradition with enlightened interpretation to admit all fresh truth made known to us, and in times of trouble, to grasp new knowledge readily and to combine it loyally and honestly with the old; alike from stubborn rejection of new revelations, and from hasty assurance that we are wiser than our fathers. Save us and help us, we humbly ask you, O Lord.”

–Bishop George Ridding (1828-1904)

A Protestant Thinks About the Blessed Virgin Mary

Talking about Mary can feel dangerous, especially if you are a Protestant who adheres to Protestant orthodoxy. Sure, we sing about Mary at Christmas, feel her pain on Good Friday, and maybe even read a little about her in the gospels. But for most American Protestants, almost any other interaction with Mary is borderline Catholic. So we don’t talk about Mary, we don’t engage with Mary, and we don’t think about Mary. Life seems easier that way. But in truth, this approach is historically and theologically problematic.

Some Protestants are aware that there is more to the story of Mary than American Protestantism often lets on. Some might know that the Protestant reformers, for example, held views on Mary different than most Protestant churches today. Martin Luther affirmed Mary’s divine motherhood, perpetual virginity, and immaculate conception. Likewise, John Calvin affirmed the perpetual virginity and espoused (with qualifications) a view of Mary as the “mother of God.” Although these Reformers did not advocate the same robust Marian theology that Rome and the East did in the 16th century, these perspectives are nonetheless quite different than those of their spiritual descendants.

To assume—as many Protestants do—that everything the Church has always believed about Mary should be excoriated as a “Catholic corruption” is simply an error. We must take seriously the biblical and historical insights on who Mary is—and how she is to be approached. Modern Protestants cannot simply be content to throw the baby out with the bathwater. Continue reading

On Beginning

Everyone experiences new things. By nature of who we are and the world in which we live, no one lives a completely sedentary life. From new jobs to new cars, from getting married to buying a house, from having kids to moving across town, we all encounter newness.

While many new experiences are joyful occasions, not all are. Sometimes new things are sad, uncomfortable, or even depressing. A new job, for instance, could indicate a step forward in a person’s career; it could also represent a changing career field that is now fraught with uncertainty. Likewise, a woman who has been married for fifty years experiences many new things after the death of her husband, few of which will bring her any joy.

Even when an experience is new and exciting, it can be accompanied by feelings of anxiety and loss. My first semester of college, for example, was a wonderful time, full of adventure, excitement, and opportunity. But it was still difficult to transition from the comfortability of home and the routines of high school that I knew so well. Yet even in their discomfort, new things can stretch us, helping us grow and learn not only about them but also about ourselves. Continue reading

The Worrier’s Prayer

I came across this prayer several weeks back, and while the emphasis is clearly humorous, don’t miss the larger point: how often do we pray in these ways to our Lord?


Dear Lord,

Help me to relax about insignificant details, beginning tomorrow at 7:41:23 a.m. EST.

Help me to consider people’s feelings, even if most of them are hypersensitive.

Help me to take responsibility for the consequences of my actions, even though they’re usually not my fault.

Help me to not try to run everything – but, if you need some help, please feel free to ask me.

Help me to be more laid back, and help me to do it exactly right.

Help me to take things more seriously, especially laughter, parties, and dancing.

Give me patience, and I mean right now!

Help me not be a perfectionist. (Did I spell that correctly?)

Help me to finish everything I sta…

Help me to keep my mind on one thing … oh, look, a bird … at a time.

Help me to do only what I can, and trust you for the rest. And would you mind putting that in writing?

Keep me open to others’ ideas, misguided though they may be.

Help me follow established procedures. Hey, wait … this is wrong …

Help me slow down andnotrushthroughwhatido.

Thank you, Lord.

Amen

Mourning with Those Who Mourn

In what may be his most practical stretches of writing, Paul admonished the Roman church to “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn” in Romans 12:15.1

Modern Christians, as a whole, do a pretty good job with the first part of this verse. In just the past year I’ve celebrated birthdays, marriages, weddings, births, anniversaries, job promotions, home purchases, sports victories, and a whole host of other events with my Christian sisters and brothers. It’s pretty easy to rejoice with those who are happy, and the Church generally does a good job with celebrating the joys of life.

But what about the second part of Paul’s exhortation, to “mourn with those who mourn?” Continue reading