An Important Message for Our Times

My friend Stevie sent me this link to a 2017 Ted Talk by Rabbi Lord Jonathan Sacks. The title is “How We Can Face the future without Fear”. In these days following the election, Rabbi Sacks offers words that can move us forward – together.

I hope you will listen to the 12:36 message. Please feel free to share your responses as well.

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Two days ago, I asked my readers what was on their minds.  I received two responses right away.  I wrote about the first response yesterday.  Today, I want to share my thoughts about the second response from Beverly.  She wrote: “I’ve been thinking a lot about accountability. Mostly my own accountability toward people who suffer from systems that benefit me, but also how to balance holding others accountable for their behavior against staying in relationship with them. How can I ensure that I don’t enable others’ bad behavior (toward me or those more vulnerable) by offering them an unconditional relationship? Or if I choose to make the relationship conditional on observing certain boundaries, how do I set those boundaries in a way that is healthy for both my own ethical well-being and the relationship?”

For the last several weeks I’ve been preaching a steady message of “love your enemy” and the importance of living in unity to the degree that’s possible.  Lots of folks have pushed back hard given these difficult and polarized days.  Beverly’s comments give me a perfect opportunity to respond to these valid concerns.

In talking with those who have pushed back against the words attributed to Jesus in the Gospels, I realized immediately that many folks equate “loving your enemies” with keeping one’s mouth quiet and not challenging a “loved” one’s positions.  They assume loving your enemy means we are supposed to an enabling doormat that encourages others with VERY different visions of – and values for – the world to take over.

Whenever I face these assumptions, I am so grateful for the opportunity I had to teach in a juvenile detention center when I was just 22.  Let me tell you about the experience, and how that experience helps me respond to the question.

The school in the juvenile detention center was based upon a strict behavior modification system that went to great lengths to separate a person’s words and behaviors from the person’s value and worth as human being.

Six hours a day – 48 weeks a year – I spent my time verbally addressing words and behaviors that were inappropriate and doling out consequences in a way that empowered the students/offenders to make choices that would define the nature of our relationship.  If, for instance, a student/offender decided to use her/his pencil as a weapon against another person; the student/offender knew that the consequence would be a security officer would be called to the classroom and she/he would be escorted to her/his cell where the individual would remain until the individual was ready to return to the classroom and abide by the rules.

At first, the students/offenders would lash out and blame others (i.e. the teacher or aide who doled out the consequence) for their punishment.  Over time, however, most students/offenders grew to understand that the staff deeply cared for them.  It was that genuine concern that motivated the staff to spell out the boundaries as well as the consequences for violating them.

When we disciplined the student/offender, we would typically walk them through the process.  The conversation would go something like, “What’s the consequence for using your pencil as a weapon?”  “Removal from the classroom.”  “So, what did you just do?”  “I used my pencil as a weapon.”  “So what am I going to do now?”  “You are going to buzz the security officer to come get me.”  “And what’s going to happen then?”  “I’ll will lose the ability to attend school until I’m ready to follow the rules.”

I can hear what some of you are thinking.  “That might work in a tightly controlled situation like a detention school classroom, Pastor Craig, but it would NEVER work in the real world.”

I know some think that.  I have used a similar approach, however, in a wide variety of situations over the past 31 years.

When I’m having a difficult political conversation with someone, for instance, about the recent protests and someone uses offensive language to talk about the participants, I will find a point when I can interrupt them and say, “I understand that the situation is frustrating.  And I get that it’s easy to use words we might normally not use when we get frustrated.  With that said, however, I don’t participate in conversations that use offensive words about people I care about.  And I personally care about those on the streets working for racial justice.  So, I’m going to end our time together now.  If we want to come back and talk about how to address the deeper issues that drove so many people to the streets – issues like systemic racial injustice and abuse of authority – I’ll be happy to talk AS LONG AS we both agree to communicate in ways that respect both of our perspectives.”

I have said words like that many, many times.  And when I said those words, I have not hated the person I said them to.  I might have hated the words they used.  I might have been angry about their unfair portrayal of a situation.  But I haven’t hated the person her or himself.

In those instances, I try to focus on the love that God has for that person.  And if I can’t figure out how I can tap into that love and exhibit God’s love for the person through my words or behavior, then I remind myself I’m a part of the Body of Christ (and for my friends of other faiths or no faith, a community bigger than myself) where another person might be able to express love for them in ways that I can’t.  That frees me up to move one and not get trapped living in a place of anger, resentment, or animosity.

So that’s how I try to deal with the challenge of loving my enemies in a way that does not enable my enemies nor violate my values and ethics.

So how about you?  How do you negotiate difficult relationships and times in ways that don’t cause you to lose yourself to hatred and anger?

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Feeling Overwhelmed …

Yesterday I asked readers what was on their minds.  Here is the first of two responses I received.  I will reply to the second response from Beverly tomorrow.

The first response came from Cheri.  She wrote: “So much! COVID – just learned I was exposed, the election and the likely unrest no matter the outcome, the ongoing riots, teaching grandkids and an extra 5th grader via Teams/Zoom. It becomes overwhelming.”

Thanks for your response.  I appreciate your honesty, Cheri, and truly feel for the depth of your challenges!

These days are some of the most challenging I’ve lived through in my 53 years – not just because of the number of challenges we face.  What seems unique is how many challenges are coming at us simultaneously.  We barely have time to catch our breath before something else is thrown our way.  It’s no wonder we are overwhelmed!

So how do we deal with it?

I know each of us has had to develop our own coping mechanisms.  I’ll share four strategies that have gotten me through the past seven months.  Please keep in mind that I know it is not possible to enact these strategies perfectly.  Rather, I use these strategies to inform the way I approach each day.

Strategy #1 – Resist my drive to multi-task 24/7 so I can be as present as possible to what I’m doing in any given moment.

Strategy #2 – Pour my time and energy into those things I can control.

Strategy #3 – Let go of those things that are beyond my control.

Strategy #4 – Carefully monitor what I am putting into my mind, body, and soul to ensure I’m consuming healthy, life-giving nutrients.

Those are the most important strategies I’ve employed to get me through the challenges so far.  What about you?  What strategies have you been using to survive these tumultuous times?

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What’s On Your Mind?

I know that many bloggers spend most of their time talking about what interests them. My passion – as a pastor and person – is to draw you into the “conversation”. So with that in mind, let’s see if I can begin a series of new conversations by asking, “What’s on your mind these days?”

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Maintaining Our Focus

While there are certain aspects of social media I love (i.e. the ability to stay in communication with loved ones around the world with whom I would otherwise not communicate), there are aspects of it that I dislike greatly.  Today I want to focus on one of those.

Social media has picked up on a quality that Americans have had for a long, long time (the inability to maintain our focus on a cause or issue) and made it much, much worse.  When I read Facebook, for instance, it seems like the primary issue of concern for Americans changes from week to week.  One week, most everyone is focusing on the need to address climate change due to the fires breaking out all over the West.  Another week, the issue is whether mail-in voting should be encouraged or discouraged.  Another week the issue of concern is whether people should feel good about the development of a vaccine for COVID-19.  Virtually every week or two, the issue of concern seems to change.

That was one reason why I was skeptical that our country would be able to maintain our focus on issues of systemic racism when the issue rose to the forefront following the deaths of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and George Floyd last Spring.  At the time, many people professed that those three events changed their entire perspective on life.  Before, they never understood that racism was such a big problem.  Now, many said, they were “woke”.

They also added that things felt different this time – different, say, from the summer of 2016 when the country experienced the deaths of Philando Castiel and Alton Sterling at the hands of police.  And yet, just a few months later after the deaths of Arbery, Taylor, and Floyd – for so many Americans, the latest issues have displaced their earlier concern.  So many are no longer “woke”; they have gone back to sleep.

All of this has me wondering how can we break this long-standing pattern for Americans of jumping from one trendy issue to the next and begin to maintain our focus long enough to affect lasting change?

For me, the answer comes from the example of a woman named Shannon Watts.  At the time of the Sandy Hook school shootings in December of 2012, Shannon Watts was a stay-at-home mother of five who was a former communications executive.  The morning after the shooting, Shannon started a Facebook group that said all Americans must do more to reduce the incidents of gun violence.  To this point, there is nothing that unusual in Shannon’s story.

Unlike many of us, however, Shannon didn’t stop there by merely expressing an opinion on social media.  She focused the energy of thousands of people who responded to her message in order to form a group call Moms Demand Action.  Today, that group that was founded by a stay-at-home mother of five has grown into the strongest organization in our country that’s working to prevent gun violence.  They currently have over 6 million members – and local chapters in every state.  The achievements which the group has been able to win regarding legislative actions to address gun violence are far too numerous to mention here.  If you would like to see their accomplishments, click here:

The story of Moms Demand Action is one that needs to be retold often.  For if we are ever going to get truly serious about addressing the myriad of problems facing our world including things like systemic racism, affordable housing, and global climate change; we will have to develop the ability to do what Shannon Watts did: focus and sustain our attention on a problem for a number of years.

And the beauty of it is that each of us can choose what issue we want to focus on.  Some may focus their attention on systemic racial injustice.  Others may focus on affordable housing.  Others may focus on expanded access to health care.  Still others might focus on global climate change.  The list of issues that need a passionate, focused advocate like Shannon is too great for me to list here.

My prayer is that each and every one of us might move beyond a “follow what’s trendy/trending” approach that social media tends to exacerbate – and instead develop one or two passions that we can pursue in the course of affecting true and lasting change.

Who will be the next Shannon Watts?

Who knows?  Maybe YOU!

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