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Wednesday, April 19, 2017

What We Can Do In A World Consumed By Division

In light of the recent news headlines of shootings, a high-profile former athlete committing suicide this morning, church divisions and other things going on in our world, I felt I had to post this...

As most of you readers know, I don't tend to post on divisive topics. While I do realize that the truth is, in and of itself, divisive in a hostile world that hates God, I try to present the truth to my readers in the least aggressive and threatening way possible. Because we're all on equal ground when it comes to matters of the heart and soul - we've all fallen greatly, and we all need a Savior who will rescue us and give us life. As a result, I feel like this knowledge puts us in a unique and special place to dialogue issues here on this blog. Nobody is above anybody else. We're all on this journey to grace together. 
 That being said, I'm increasingly feeling led to address the escalating division that is sweeping our nation and our culture at large. All one has to do is turn on the news and see people picketing, people yelling, people destroying property and souls...all for the sake of what they believe to be true and just. It's happening everywhere. There can no longer be simply a civil disagreement, a discussion sown in respect even while those involved see an issue differently. All that people have been taught to do now is to shout louder than somebody else. To be more aggressive than the other, just so that you're own point is heard and received. There can be no healthy debate or discussion unless one side agrees completely with the other: either embrace my position, or I'll shoot you down and demean you until I've proven that my side to the argument is true. Being right is more important now than loving well.
Sadly, this spirit is becoming associated with people of the Christian faith. Churches are divided over matters of personal interpretation of core values instead of coming together around the shared absolute truth of the God they believe in. And, on top of the issues themselves, church people are no longer watching the manner in which they state their point of view. While the statement may be accurate, the attitude behind may lack in all things compassionate, caring, understanding, and respectful that, for fear of being seen as "tolerant" of a false point of view, people make the other side feel demeaned, disrespected, hurt, and unwanted. 
 Fear. Fear drives us all to become this way. We're either afraid of being too tolerant and not standing up for truth when we should, or we're afraid of being intolerant and unloving, so we say nothing at all. Either approach is wrong. And we're causing people to take sides because of it. We're driving people away from our Jesus because of it. In this, we have made a grave mistake: out of a desire to defend God and His truth, we've lost sight of the tone in which He would have us to speak and act. We have lost sight of the balance of His character and the simple fact that truth offsets love so that they are designed to assist each other.  
 Impatience, too. Oh...the ever-present feeling that we must hurry to make our point. That we don't have time to wait out a potentially lengthy process with someone of differing viewpoint so that our loving way equally draws them to God as our words! So frequently, we let the emotion of the moment get in the way, and we try to win the other side over in a single blow, only causing more hurt and never achieving what we desire. 
 Over the years, I've been involved in many political, church, or social settings where this aggressive approach to making one's point turned a common vested interest of a group into a divided shouting match where both sides only left with hurt hearts. I've seen it too often, and it's got to change. 
 Three examples of the proper way to compassionately make one's point without disrespecting the other person or group changed the way I view a discussion of sensitive sort. 
First, the example of a pastor who once wrote a letter in response to a article he'd read written by a lesbian college professor: When the author of the article received this letter, she later said that she immediately threw it into the trash after reading the pastor's response. He had spoken truth, but she didn't want to hear it. However, something made her pick it out of the garbage and set it aside. Weeks later, she'd be nearly to the point of throwing it away again, but something would make her read it over and over... and save it. Eventually, after quite some time had passed, the professor reached out to the pastor and they met in person at his house to discuss the issue of homosexuality. To make a long story shorter, his kind and sensitive manner over the course of many weeks and months, eventually drew the professor to attend his church...to listen for herself about who this God was that the pastor kept referring to. In time, she left her life as a lesbian and became a Christian. She married and now has several children. She's also become a best-selling author on the topic of how Christians can relate to the homosexual community, detailing her story and her unlikely conversation. (You can read her story in her books Secrets Of An Unlikely Convert and Openness Unhindered.) The gentle and patient approach of that pastor drew her into the community of faith. He was willing to take the risk of reaching out, yet was also willing to answer her many questions in the most gracious yet truthful way possible.
 Second, the example of a college diving coach and one of his athletes. The Olympic-Caliber diver had everything going for him in terms of talent and recognition in the world. He had already been to an Olympics and was still chasing the elusive gold medal he'd always dreamed of. But he also had an insatiable desire for acceptance, and this had led him to the college party scene. Living this dual life of athletic success but also doing drugs, smoking, drinking, and looking for love in all the wrong places had finally caused him to land himself in a very depressed and dissatisfied state of mind. Finding himself one afternoon in bed and contemplating suicide, the diver reached out to a fellow female diver in the same college program as he, having noticed a big change in her life in recent months. She directed him to the diving coach. Desperate for a solution to his problems, he reached out to the coach. He was invited to the coach's house for dinner. Expecting a quick-fix to his depression, he was surprised when the coach and his wife gave him Jesus. But they did so while asking questions and trying to help the young man to come to conclusions of faith on his own. Over several months time, the diver started to realize that what he needed wasn't fame, or the college party scene, or women. What he needed was God's redemption. He surrendered to the Lord some time later and eventually went on to write a book about his experience called Greater Than Gold. He is now happily married and has a little girl and another child on the way. The coach's approach was centered in truth but was equally intentional as it was direct. He was as much concerned with building a relationship with the young man as helping him to see Christ. 
 Lastly, the example of yet another pastor and a former World-class bobsledder. Much like the diver described above, the bobsledder had been living a dual lifestyle during his teen years. He was now around 20 years old and was watching his own father slip away after a lengthy battle with cancer. Angry at the situation, he had thrown himself into his competing and also into hanging out with his familiar crowd of gang members and party-goers. Just shortly before his father would pass away, he went to visit dad at the hospital. Hung over from a hard night of partying, he arrived to find a pastor there at the hospital room. For some time, the pastor had done ministry over at the nearby Olympic training center and had seen the bobsledder and his family around there. Hearing of their situation, he felt led to drive nearly three hours south to visit them and hopefully communicate God's love to them. He knew that they were not Christians, but he wanted to bless them anyway. The young bobsledder was blown away that someone would come that far just to show care to his father and family. After praying with them, the pastor left his card with the bobsledder and told him to reach out anytime. A few months after dad died, the young man thought he should go to the pastor's Bible Study at the Olympic training center as a way to say thank you...more out of obligation than personal curiosity. But upon getting there, he was surprised by the love that was shown to him by those participating. Intrigued by what he experienced, he began to attend more often and built a relationship with the pastor. Fairly soon after that, he quit his addictions and his connections with the gang. While he still struggled, within a couple of years, God had reached the heart of this rebel and, after nearly committing suicide, he dedicated his life to Christ and was baptized soon after...by the pastor who had first reached out to his family. He became a regular attending member of the pastor's church and allowed the pastor to mentor him deeply in his new-found faith. In 2010, about two years after they first met in a hospital room, both would go to the Winter Olympics together - the bobsledder in his sport, and the pastor as the official chaplain for the U.S. Olympic team. It was a culmination of God's goodness and a pastor's willingness to take a leap of faith and lovingly come alongside a hurting young man. 
 One common theme between all of these stories is that, in each case, the Christian had to take a risk. They had to be willing to enter into the pain that each of these people felt. But because that step was rooted in love, they didn't come in with the sole purpose of trying to "fix" the individual. They simply invited them to give God a chance...and they did so in love. They were intentional. They built a relationship that formed trust, giving them a greater platform from which to share God's truth. They came around these people with a shared sense of need before God and great awareness of their own shortcomings and weaknesses. Instead of taking the approach as many do of, "I'm better than you because I have Jesus and you don't..." they took the way of the Master and said, "I'm a sinner too. I have nothing good to offer anyone in this world except what God has given me. I can't fix you, but Jesus can. Let me introduce you to Him." 
 This approach would fix so many of the divisions we see today. We must realize that God doesn't need to be defended. He can defend Himself. He also doesn't need us. He can certainly make Himself known to a hurting world without our help. But He chooses to use us if we make ourselves available to let Him work through us. So often we act as though He isn't capable of speaking for Himself and it takes all of us to convince a hurting world how wrong they are and how much they need God. But in reality, we need Him as much as they.
 Perhaps we can take a step back and re-think the way we reach out to people of differing viewpoint than ourselves. Instead of picketing everything, shouting down the opposition, and being more concerned with winning an argument, maybe we start by showing the care of our Savior.  Instead of beating them over the head with the truth, maybe we start by simply building a relationship. Perhaps simply asking questions of them over coffee, or texting them a word of care, or inviting them over to a meal is where it starts. After all, the biggest complaint from the religious leaders of Jesus' day was that He chose to eat with sinners. He took the humble place...even to the point of washing the feet of the man who would betray Him. Maybe it's time we follow His example and commit ourselves to daring more deeply when it comes to who we reach out to and what we do. Maybe it's time we take a risk of our own and step out of our comfort zone in the way we reach out. Perhaps there is someone that God is putting in your life or your church that needs to be loved on but is feeling turned off by the aggressiveness of those trying to "fix" their problem. Just maybe the change in that person's life starts with you being willing to start the process of being intentional. Your willingness to follow God's leading and to resist the patten of aggressiveness, divisiveness, and demeaning may open doors to ministering to that person that you never thought possible. Living what you're for instead of stating what you're against will take you a long way. 
 So let us dare to face our fears, to admit our impatience and thus, to start fresh. Beginning from the place of being right or beginning from the place of loving well. Where we start from makes all the difference.