Thursday, August 9, 2012

Finding God where we least expect Him

Why don’t we listen to each other?

Why don’t we engage in real conversation and dialogue?

Why don’t we consider the other person’s viewpoint?

Why don’t we try to learn from each other?

Earlier this week, I read a thoughtful, well-spoken op-ed article on a Baptist Web site. The writer expressed a strong position on one particular facet of a “hot-button” issue, using well-reasoned arguments to support his position. As readers, we should have been able to give the same serious thought and consideration to the issue – and to the writer’s arguments – as did the writer.

Then I scrolled down to the “Comments” section and saw nothing but attack-mode comments. “Comments” sections on Web sites, blogs, and Facebook pages would be a blessing if they resulted in serious, meaningful dialogue. But they are more often a curse, as commenters react emotionally and blow off steam at the writer. As in this case, they refuse to listen to any argument that causes them to question their own position – which, more often than not, is (as becomes apparent as the commenter rambles) motivated by self-interest rather than reason.

Such commenters call names and accuse the writer of saying things he/she never uttered. I know, because it’s happened to me – more than once!

I’m not certain just how we reached this low point in our public discussion, but I can identify a few "suspects":
  • Listening to agenda-driven TV and radio programs that masquerade as “news” but are, in reality, totally devoted to presentation of only one side of political issues
The solution? Be discerning in our viewing and listening habits. Don’t make a habit of listening to programs that consistently give only one side.
Remember: the truth usually lies somewhere in the middlenot at the extreme, either right or left.
  • Limiting our reading to material that reinforces our already-held beliefs . . . reading only for the sake of reinforcing our own arguments
The solution? Read books and articles that force you out of your comfort zone. Read for the sake of learning something new, learning about experiences and perspectives that are different from your own. Read for the sake of stretching yourself, not squeezing yourself into the same old box.
  • Talking at each other instead of with each other, using conversation as a tool for persuading instead of learning
The solution? Find a few friends who have different perspectives and backgrounds than you, and take the time to sit down regularly with them. Listen to each other; resist the temptation to argue your own point, instead taking the time to understand the other person’s perspective.
I have several such friends. Take three as examples:
  • An 80-something retired attorney and ex-Marine who is Jewish by heritage and deist by belief
We meet once every few months at Jason’s Deli to eat and talk politics and world events for a couple of hours. Faith occasionally comes up, and we talk about faith as it relates to civic issues. 
From him, I’ve learned a deeper appreciation for the U. S. Constitution, which is one of his great passions. But, as a Baptist who grew up in the suburbs of Kansas City, MO, I’ve also learned from him about the very different outlook on life that comes from growing up as a Jew in the Bronx.
  • A 40-something Baptist, who grew up Lutheran and has a radically different perspective than I have about matters concerning what he calls “sacraments” and I call “ordinances,” as well as political convictions that are on the opposite side of the fence from mine
As with my first friend, we meet once every few months, have coffee or a meal together, and spend a couple of hours talking faith and politics.
From him, I have learned to be more open to other faith traditions, that Lutherans (and others) have much to teach us about experiencing and practicing our faith in Christ. I've also learned that truth and integrity in political convictions aren't limited to one side of the aisle.
  • A 60-something African-American Baptist pastor
We meet several times a year for coffee at Starbucks and spend a couple of hours talking about matters of faith and Baptist life. 
From him, I’ve learned of the difficulties faced by African-American churches located in low-income areas, and the innumerable challenges taken on by their pastors. They are pastors not simply to their church but to their community, and they are never “off the clock.”
In describing these encounters, I’ve shared about what I’ve learned from these friends. But learning should never be in the past tense. It should be ongoing, and so it is with me. I’m still learning from these friends and others.
In a Texas Baptists Committed blog post in May, I wrote a few reflections on the trip to Israel taken together by Temple Emanu-El and Wilshire Baptist Church of Dallas. As I related in that post, I spent time one-on-one with several members of the Temple, as we shared our faith journeys with each other – not arguing, not trying to persuade, not pointing out each other’s errors. Rather, we simply listened and shared – and, I believe, learned from each other.

All of this requires intentionality; it doesn’t happen by accident or serendipity. And it takes discipline, too . . . to read or hear something with which you disagree, even strongly disagree, and then resist the temptation to react angrily, the temptation to argue as if you have a monopoly on the truth . . . which you don’t.

My daddy often said to me, “we should never presume to know the mind of God.” A little humility, an understanding that the other person might have something valuable to say – it would go a long way in improving our dialogue, strengthening our relationships. If we stay still and listen to the other person for a change, we might even hear the voice of God speaking to us through others.

That, it seems to me, is worth the effort.