Saturday, January 19, 2019

Rules vs. Trust

Rules and laws are inversely proportional to trust: more rules indicate less trust, while a greater level of trust is indicated by a relative absence of rules. 
Rules and laws usually come about in reaction to a hurtful interaction within a group, or to prevent its happening (again). Our United States Constitution was intended to prevent replication of the monarchial tyranny the colonists fled and against which they rebelled. The Constitution essentially limits government by establishing boundaries beyond which it may not go; but within which it is free to act.
Two ideologies clashed at the Constitution Convention. Situational revisions aside, those two groups continue today. They were born in animosity and that animosity has increased. It’s amazing that the Constitution got finished![1]
One group bore an unqualified distrust of government, but trusted individuals to be responsible and ethical in their dealings. They stumped for minimal central government, preferring to give more power to state and local governing bodies. That perspective is extended into today’s conservative political system.
The other group distrusted the integrity of individuals, especially in regard to unregulated commerce and banking. They advocated a stronger central governmental regulation against the threat of economic oligarchy . Today’s liberal principles emerged from that foundation.
Both ideologies remain virtually absolute, with neither crediting anything good to the other. Few, if any, voices call for acknowledging any good in both, and there is an ominous absence of any effort to find common ground on which to build consensus on anything. No political balance or trust is to be found.
Rules and laws are meant to restrict the influence of whatever entity is mistrusted. The power pendulum swings from left to right, and back. Endless partisan adjustments to and rescinding of laws, and the institution of more laws are meant to shackle the mistrusted “other party.” The result today is a convoluted system of laws, many of them self-contradictory, which transcends most human comprehension.
But, lack of comprehension does not discourage the hostile debates that indicate a gross decrease in trust and a consequent need for power and control.
In a pioneering study in group dynamics, Jack Gibb and others named four primary concerns for evaluating the level of trust within a group’s culture. The concerns determine the level of trust formation,[2] regardless of the group’s size. The following graph offers a visual guide to understanding the aforementioned concerns:
Primary Concern
Derivative Concern
Symptoms of Unresolved Concern
Symptoms of Resolved Concern
Information Flow
Strategy (often secretive or behind-the-back)
Goal Formation
Apathy/Competition (silencing innovation)
Enthusiasm/Creative work
Counterdependency that challenges for leadership

In my opinion the dynamics in the column labeled “Symptoms of Unresolved Concern” is a portentous description of our beloved United States of America.
So, what is the source of the mistrust, and how do we overcome it?
I suggest the mistrust is a product of hurtful experiences in our past. As a child I was pulled off my bicycle and chewed on by a big dog and, to this day I grow anxious when a big dog approaches me. I’ve learned compensatory behaviors to defuse any threat; but the mistrust is still present—until a relationship is built.
If building a relationship is key to overcoming mistrust, some concerns must be considered. Trust, by definition involves risk. So does love, which I believe should be the ultimate goal and intention of all human interaction.
Trust and love require—indeed, they are defined by—vulnerability. There is risk of betrayal and rejection. The alternative is to insulate oneself from betrayal and grief, but the payoff is fear and distrust. So I repeat: trust and love require—indeed, they are defined by—vulnerability.
A second concern in building trust is re-learning the lost art of listening. I’m not sure I could be a good listener had I not had extensive training in counseling and in conflict resolution. Even with the training and years of experience, it doesn’t always come naturally. Often, I have to be intentional about flipping on the “LISTEN” switch. 
Nevertheless, listening is a key requirement for building trust. Evidence is rampant on social media that people don’t really listen—not even when the message is written in clear script. Instead of listening, they are preparing their rebuttal (even though they may not—probably don’t—really know what’s been said). How many times, while reading a Facebook conversation, have you discovered, within relatively few exchanges, the focus has been diverted totally from the original topic.
Someone posts about compassion for the poor, and within two or three responses the conversation is diverted to how liberals are shoving a welfare state down our throats. The diversion kills a conversation that may have led to a charitable proposal acceptable to all concerned. And mistrust, if anything, has increased, along with animosity.
Or a Facebook conversation about illegal immigration is diverted to a condemnation vs. defense of President Trump’s wall. The conversation might—might—have been more productive if the responders had listened and stayed on the subject, which probably was a concern for national security and public safety. If the responders wanted to pontificate against the wall, they would be better advised to start their own conversation. But, then, in all likelihood that conversation would be diverted, too.
How on earth can we build trusting relationships if I don’t really know what you’re saying, and you don’t know what I’m saying? Without that knowledge, we’re left to assumption and opinion, neither of which is trustworthy.
At the infamous bottom line, while there is risk in trusting, there also is risk in listening. If I really hear you, I risk learning something new; indeed, I may hear something that requires me to reconsider previous convictions. 
But, then, that would mean I’d have to admit I am, at least partially, wrong—that my opinions are not absolute. And that may be the greatest risk of all.
That’s the way I see it through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] In many ways, it’s not finished, even yet. As a living document it is adjusted according to ongoing needs.
[2] Leland P. Bradford, Jack R. Gibb, and Kenneth D. Benne, editors, T-Group Theory and Laboratory Method (New York: John Wiley and Sons, 1964)  

Monday, January 7, 2019

Saying Goodbye to Christmas

Yesterday was Epiphany, which means Saturday was the “Twelfth Day of Christmas”. So, yesterday afternoon I took down the outdoor Christmas decorations—the last one in our neighborhood to do so. I suspect a large percent of folks don’t know about the twelve days of Christmas, or about Epiphany; even though, virtually everyone who has any familiarity with Christianity knows about the “Three Wise Men.”
Well, anyway, I took it all down yesterday. It was a bitter sweet exercise. The season has been busier than some in the past (or is it that at almost 77 years of age, it just takes more effort to do the same things?) So, I’m relieved that the pace is slowing; and, yet, I grieve the passing of what also has been one of the most enjoyable Christmases in memory. We’ve had all our kids, and they came in shifts, so we got to focus exclusively on one family at a time. Their trips to our home overlapped, so we also got to experience short times of “whole family” togetherness. It was good.
I’ve had what seems like a harder time than usual letting go of the season. I think I’m aware that, at my age, my usual assumptions about “next year” are not as solid as in previous years. Don’t misunderstand: I’ll still plan and anticipate and prepare for “next Christmas.”
Last Thursday (the Tenth Day of Christmas) I was at home alone. Jo Lynn had gone into Little Rock to keep a regularly scheduled appointment with her doctor, to do some shopping, and to meet some friends for lunch. 
I turned on all the Christmas lights in the living room, built a fire in the fireplace, and tuned in to my favorite YouTube Christmas channel: one final orgy of self-indulgent Christmas nostalgia. It was great; and it was even better when Jo Lynn got home and we could share the moment. She didn’t even laugh at me—too much.
So, now the cat’s out of the bag, and you know what a sentimental mush I am. I even like Hallmark Christmas movies.
But, yesterday was Epiphany. What has come into being 4in him was life, and the life was the light of all people. 5The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness did not overcome it.(John 1:3b-5 NRSV)
Light. Shining for all the world to see.
Christmas has been very personal for me this year—like birth. And now Epiphany calls me to acknowledge the universal manifestation of God’s love and grace. It’s easier to let go of something dear when there’s something drawing me/us toward something else that also is exciting and enriching.
I sense a new sermon series coming into the light: a series on “Light”. 
The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness— on them light has shined. (Isaiah 9:2 NRSV)
May the light shine on you, and may your own light reflect the One who is light!
That’s the way it looks through the Flawed Glass that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

Tuesday, January 1, 2019

Lifting Up Christ

A common foundation for doctrinal absolutism is the dictum, “God said it; I believe it; and that settles it.” Too often, the reality is that God didn’t say it. Some fourth-grade Sunday School teacher or some preacher with serious control issues said it.
See, here’s the thing: too many of us Christians don’t trust God to be God and to do the things God does. Too many of us don’t really believe in Grace as unmerited favor. We think, in our arrogance, that Grace is dependent upon the inerrancy of our proclamation and the absolute necessity of our agenda. And so, we bang away at inflicting our tunnel-vision obsessions about how things “ought” to be, instead of lifting up Jesus.
Jesus said (my paraphrase) “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me;”[1] but, we don’t really believe that, so we bang away at abortion and homosexuality and correct doctrine and social justice, and we debate each other over issues of individual responsibility versus social responsibility. And we—not God—demand conformity to our understanding of eternal mysteries. Moreover, much of our babbling is informed more by political ideology and social prejudices than by the biblical witness!
In the process, our efforts have done more harm than good, and the result is a shattered Body of Christ. Today’s most visible and verbal manifestations of Church are driving more people away from Christ than they attract.
Jesus said, “If I am lifted up, I will draw all people to me.” What therefore is suggested by the fact that more people are fleeing the church than are uniting in a common extension of Jesus’ life and ministry? Do I need to spell it out?
In Luke 10:5-9, Jesus sent 70 disciples on their first mission, giving them specific instructions. While some would argue that it’s a different version of the same event, all three Synoptic Gospel report the sending out of the 12, with similar instructions.[2]
In his parting instructions in Matthew 28 and in Acts 1, Jesus commissioned his disciples to “Go … and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, 20and teaching them to obey everything that I have commanded you.” (Matthew 28:19-20 NRSV) And “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Luke 1:8 (NRSV)
My point is this: in every case the instructions were to go [without compensation beyond room and board; but that’s another issue altogether], to offer peace, to cure the sick, raise the dead, cleanse the lepers, cast out demons, to proclaim the good news of the kingdom, and to “make disciples” and “be my witnesses.”
The sum of Jesus’ instructions included serving and ministering to the sick and marginalized people (“the least of these”[3]) and proclaiming “good news” related to the kingdom of heaven. There is nothing in his instructions about judging or condemning. Indeed, he was notorious for hobnobbing with whores and Publicans, and said those people were more fit than the religious elite for the kingdom of God. It was about “lifting up,” rather than about “putting down.” That kind of gospel attracted followers and created disciples!
When Jesus’ ministry did involve criticism or condemnation it virtually always was aimed at those whose priorities elevated power and wealth over compassion and spirituality, who mistreated the poor, the widows, the lepers and the dispossessed, and who used religious authority (and/or a fusion of religious and political power) to benefit themselves and keep dissidents in their place.
Jesus described the kingdom and his own role in it as sacrificial service. He summed up his first sermon by saying (my paraphrase again), “Seek first the kingdom of God and God’s righteousness, and all your other concerns will find their proper place in your lives.” (Matthew 6:33)
But too many of us don’t believe that. The “spiritually yearning but institutionally disillusioned public”[4] avoids the church because they see us struggling to exert our political/religious agenda, using whatever ends-justify-the-means strategy necessary to accomplish the task. That’s what they see; and in too many cases their vision is accurate. Sadly, like most everyone else, they stereotype all expressions of organized Christianity on the basis of those impressions. Thus the reality of a fragmented church trying to minister in a fragmented world.
The most verbal proclaimers of Christianity don’t truly believe that if we simply point to Jesus, lift him up and seek first the kingdom, the kingdom will come, “on earth as it is in heaven.” And the harder they work at lifting up their agendas of condemnation and coercion, and as long as they insist on conformity to their ideologies and agendas as prerequisites to grace and inclusion in God’s kingdom, the longer the kingdom’s coming will be delayed.
That’s the way I see it through the “Flawed Glass” that is my world view.
Together in the Walk,

[1] I understand the context in which Jesus said this and acknowledge that his intention was much broader than my application here; however, I believe my understanding is not contrary to the overall teachings and ministry of Jesus. I am open to discussion on the matter.
[2] Matthew 10:7-11; Mark 6:8-13; Luke 9:2-6.
[3] Matthew 25:40, 45
[4] A term coined and developed by Thomas G. Bandy in Christian Chaos, Kicking Habits, Moving off the Map, Growing Spiritual Redwoods, et. al.