What I said:
“No matter how well we are doing, we can always do better. There is virtually nothing we do that cannot be improved.”
What people heard:
“No matter what we do, it’s never good enough.”
“Our best efforts are doomed to fail.”
“We’re obviously doing it wrong.”
“We’re failing as a church.”
What I said:
“There is absolutely no reason to believe that God stopped speaking when the canon was closed on the Christian scriptures.”
What people heard:
“So, you don’t believe in the Bible?”
“Why do you stay in the church if you don’t believe in the adequacy of scripture?”
“So we should listen to all these nuts who say God told them to kill the pope?”
“Isn’t it dangerous to think you can improve on the Bible?”
“The Bible says woe to anyone who adds anything to what is written. Why do you teach against the Bible?”
I am always somewhat amazed by these bizarre and completely unexpected times when I will say something I believe is innocent or even positive and the response is uniformly negative. I hear in a statement that “we can always improve” a very hopeful note, not a condemnation. I think the idea of a living God continuing to teach, guide, and reveal new knowledge and wisdom exciting, not heretical. I will often talk about the Holy Spirit, and even though it happens frequently, I am always startled when people hit me with, “You don’t really believe all that crazy stuff, do you?/So why aren’t you Pentecostal?/Jesus Christ is my Savior!/Do you speak in tongues?” The point is that communication is much more art than science — and navigating the rich and varied range of filters people employ is extremely demanding and challenging.
One of my mentors and favorite people, Ed Wynne, used to say, “The problem with preaching is that you think purple, say blue, people hear green and see red.” It is such a simple yet descriptive statement on the breakdown of so much communication. I remember once being shocked and confused by an evaluation to a presentation I did that accused me in no uncertain terms of using sexist and violent language. I was horrified. My topic was spiritual development and growth toward spiritual maturity. I offered that there is a parallel between physical maturing and spiritual maturing — that we pass through phases of total dependency to independence to interdependence, and that real strength and maturity can only be found in interdependence. The woman who filled out her evaluation stated that my sexist view that women needed to be dependent upon men perpetuated a long, tragic history of disrespect and violence. To this day I confess that I don’t fully understand her interpretation of my concepts, but one thing I have come to know — she has as much right to her interpretation as I have to mine. Once my ideas leave my mouth, they are no longer in my control. Therefore, I have an important responsibility as a Christian communicator to understand that what I mean and what someone else thinks I mean might be as different as day and night. Like magic, the dove of wisdom and truth I think I am releasing into the world may be received by someone else as the buzzard of heresy and falsehood. It makes communication a real challenge.
There are times when I think people misunderstand on purpose. It is the only explanation I can come up with for the obtuse and unassailable point of view some people hold. (Other people, I mean. I never hold an obtuse and unassailable position. No matter what you say, I know I interpret rightly. There’s no way I wouldn’t understand exactly what you mean. This is about people who misunderstand me…) Anyway, I talked to a man named Rich who called me about an article I wrote saying that I thought allowing people to carry handguns into bars was a bad idea. This is a brief exchange back and forth between Rich and me that left me wondering if I had lost my mind:
R: Gun owners are reasonable people. No one is going to pull their gun in a bar.
D: Then why carry one?
R: To protect yourself?
D: From what?
R: Well, if somebody else pulls a gun, you need to have yours.
D: But I thought you said no gun owner would pull their gun in a bar.
R: I did. But the only reason someone would pull a gun would be to defend himself.
D: From someone who DID pull a gun in a bar.
D: But we don’t have to worry because gun owners won’t pull their guns in a bar?
D: Then in your scenario, who pulled the gun in the bar?
R: Another gun owner.
D: But not the one who wouldn’t pull a gun in a bar…
No matter what I said, Rich couldn’t see a flaw in his logic. He knew I was being unfair, needed me to know it, and he thought he gave me a compelling argument that put me in my place. I come away from an exchange such as this (oh, yes, we have these in the church, don’t we?) shaking my head and wondering “what am I missing?”
A few years ago, I met with a congregation that received an unexpected windfall of a $2.5 million dollar gift. No one knew it was coming, and there was no policy in place to deal with such a large gift. On the surface, this would seem like a real godsend — who wouldn’t like a couple million dollars dropping in their lap. However, in this case it absolutely tore the church apart. Among the differing points of view:
- save it. There are so many uncertainties in life. This guarantees the church will always be able to keep its doors open.
- spend it. This is a rare opportunity to remodel, repair, renovate, restore, and expand. It is found money. A blessing.
- give it. Pass it along. Use it to serve others. It was unexpected to us, and think how exciting this has been. Let’s pay it forward and make it exciting for others.
- invest it. Use this as seed money to launch new ministries. Build an endowment. Multiply it in the short run to do more good in the long run.
This was a classic example of, “where your treasure is, there will be your heart as well.” Once the money showed up, no one could focus on anything else. Passions erupted, and even those wanting to use the money compassionately lost all compassion for their brothers and sisters in the congregation. Today, the church sits with 1/3 its former membership and almost 4 million dollars in the bank — the save it/hold it/invest it people “defeated” the spend it/give it/use it for mission folks. Who’s right? Who’s wrong? Why does it always have to devolve into argument and debate?
Reductionism is not a healthy way to relate to the world these days. Seeking simple, single solutions is a loser’s game. Total agreement is highly unlikely — we’re a consensus kind of culture. We talk a lot about the strengths and joys of diversity, but anyone too different annoys us. We want harmony and unity, but at no cost or disruption. We want new people in our churches, but only if they’re exactly like “us.” The reality is that we’re all snowflakes. There are as many unique and different brands of Christian belief as their are Christians. Are some healthier or more mature than others? Certainly. Are some more rational and reasonable? You bet. Are some kinder and gentler? Oh, man, you better believe it! But right and wrong? I believe everyone is right — to some degree. People have reasons for their attitudes and beliefs, and the beauty of our faith is the free will that even gives us the right to be wrong.
I believe the solution to the dilemma is in community, not by avoiding it. Certainly, you don’t get into nearly as many disagreements when you’re all by yourself, but where is the fun in that. Our Christian church, by definition, is a community of believers united by their love of God and faith in Christ. It is part of our mission and our work to seek to understand, accept, respect, and encourage all people to grow in the faith. We can’t do that if we waste precious time bickering and backbiting. Churches that model a different way of living in the world do not so so by whipping everyone into shape, forcing them into a mold, making little Stepford Christians out of people God created the way God wants them. Churches that model this different way are those who make space for differences, who develop healthy ways to disagree and debate, who affirm the dignity of every person in spite of their petty differences. It is hard work, but that’s why it falls to the church. We take on what the rest of the world says is impossible. At least, that’s my perspective… I could be wrong (but I’m sure I’m not!)