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Tuesday, August 27, 2013

Humble is Great

At the 2011 Internet Retailer Conference, Arianna Huffington said, "Self-expression is the new entertainment."  
Huffington was talking about the exponential growth in the use of social media platforms.  She was also, however, describing a fact of our contemporary culture.

Now for a second pithy quote: "For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble
themselves will be exalted" (Luke 14:11).  We preacher-types get to tear into that one again--and in the framework where self-promotion is not only entertaining but expected.  If you aren't marketing yourself in some way, then you must be hiding some terrible flaws (or at least that's how it looks in our worldview).

All it takes to be a media superstar is the willingness to be "out there" in some flamboyant and often pathetic fashion.  Social media platforms exploded after the highly "self-expressive" performance offered by Miley Cyrus and Robin Thicke at the 2013 Video Music Awards.  It may be impossible for Miley to stop twerking (whatever that really is--forgive me, I'm old), but it was even more impossible for viewers to stop tweeting.  The "performance" blew up Twitter at the rate of 30,000 tweets a minute.

The platforms may be different, but the principle is the same.  Any publicity is good publicity.  And in this environment we lucky preacher types get to talk about humility.


So, let's talk about what it really means to be humble.  The marks of real humility are made clear in Luke 14:
  • Availability to serve
  • Hospitality
  • Generosity
  • Being teachable and open to new input
This isn't about being some sort of doormat or wilting wallflower.  Jesus' humility is very assertive and even confrontational.  But humility is not about self-promotion.  It is about serving others.  Humility is not about collecting "Likes" on Facebook.  It is about offering help to anyone who might need it. Humility does not depend on a persona or a performance.  Instead it is about being me in the fully glory of my God-created being.

In the church, humility may be nothing more or less than believing that someone might have something to tell us that we don't already know.  I have been around too many churches lately where the knowledge quota has already been filled.  There is no room for any new input fro outsiders, thank you very much.  Many churches would rather die than learn.  In such places real humility is not an option.

Others will gauge and recognize authentic humility.  Self-promotion will result in social demotion.  We all recognize the efforts in ourselves and others to climb whichever ladder happens to matter to us at the moment.  And we all get a bad taste in our mouths when that climbing happens.  We all recognize the people who want to do nothing but help others.  And we can't help but elevate such folks in our thinking and often in our churches and businesses.  Humble people really do often get "called up higher" in the end.

Of course, that's not why they do it.  They are just trying to be the best persons they can be, using what God has given them for the sake of others and for the life of the world.  That's real humility.  That's true greatness.

They are the same thing.  I think I read that somewhere.

Monday, August 26, 2013

Giving is not Getting

"I'll sum up the key to success in one word: generosity.  If your interactions are ruled by generosity, your rewards will follow suit"--Keith Ferrazzi, consultant, author and motivational speaker.

In Luke 14, Jesus also mentions the connection between giving of ourselves and getting rewards.  So, is the cat finally out of the bag here?  Isn't this the same old give something to get something system--just with the rewards delayed until the "resurrection of the just"?

No.  It isn't.

Let's assume that Jesus wants what is best for us.  Let's assume that Jesus isn't opposed to happiness, fun, joy, pleasure and celebration.  Let's assume that when his adversaries accuse him of being a glutton and a drunkard that they had some basis for their accusations.

Most of all, let's assume that Jesus wants FROM us only what is good FOR us.

If we pursue giving as a means of getting, we will fail in the end.  Adam Grant quotes a University of Michigan sociologist to illustrate how this works for networking.  "If we create networks with the sole intention of getting something, we won't succeed," notes Wayne Baker.  "We can't pursue the benefits of networks; the benefits ensue from investments in meaningful activities and relationships." (Grant, Give and Take, page 34).

Jesus is talking about pursing social networks for the sake of personal benefit.  He anticipates contemporary social scientists by two millennia.  We have been told that giving is for suckers.  Some of us belong to the Gordon Gecko generation.  The character from the film, Wall Street, put it quite directly: "The point is ladies and gentlemen that greed, for lack of a better word, is good."

In fact, greed is, for lack of a better word, bad.

Research reveals that givers live longer, have better immune response, sleep better, earn more money on average over a lifetime, have more stable families and less mental illness.

In short, givers are "blessed."  

I pray for more givers in our churches.  Let's do a little thought experiment in that regard.  A family attends our worship service.  It's clear they don't really know "Lutheran."  They have spiritual habits and needs that it will be hard for our congregation to fill.  Do you

a) ignore these facts and pursue them aggressively as prospective members?
b) treat them with benign neglect because they will be more bother than they are worth?
c) start a new service with them in mind?
d) help them find a church home that will meet their needs even if it's not ours?

Most of our congregants would opt for a) or b).  A few might go for c) if enough of the strangers show up at one time.  Almost none of the congregations I know would go for d).  After all, what's in it for us if we do that?


In the business world, successful companies more and more are choosing d).  We will do whatever it takes to meet your needs, even if it means sending you to our competitors.

Can you imagine most congregations even considering that strategy?  I can't.

But that's one of the shapes real humility would take for us.  So, can we trust Jesus enough to work at being real givers?

Getting Called Up

"And you will be blessed, because they cannot repay you, for you will be repaid at the resurrection of the righteous." Luke 14:14

How do we treat the people who cannot and will not benefit us in any way?  Brenda and I were crossing the street in Nisswa, Minnesota yesterday afternoon.  The street is under construction, and there are no marked crosswalks.  There was not a great deal of traffic, and we are on vacation.  So we weren't sprinting across the street.

Along came a motorist with places to go, people to see and things to do.  A toot of the horn made it clear that we were in the way and should move along for our own good.  If anything, the driver sped up in order to make the point.  You can imagine that we did not have a warm and fuzzy conversation about that stranger once we made it in one piece to the other side.

We were objects, an impediment to progress, a bother, a pair of roadblocks in shorts and flip-flops.  In order to treat another in rude and unfeeling ways, most of us need to reduce the Other to something less than a person.  With that transformation complete, empathy is no longer possible and bad behavior makes good sense.

St. Augustine would be horrified by the culture we Westerners have created.  He urged us to love people and to use things.  Our commercial worldview urges us to do the opposite.  Now, perhaps we are finally experiencing the snap-back against that worldview.  Every management and business book I have read recently describes how critical it is to build a relationship with the client, customer and consumer.  The goal is not merely to know what that person wants.  Rather the goal is to see the world from that person's perspective.  Most of us are done being market targets.

Empathy is the new "hot app" in the business world!

If only that were so in the church world.  Most church visitors have experienced the "meat market congregation."  We show up the first time and all eyes turn upon us with a sort of organizational hunger. New givers!  New Sunday School teachers!  New choir members or ushers or committee members! "We're so glad you are here with us this morning!"  

So glad, indeed.  Glad in the same way that I was glad to see my dinner in the restaurant last evening.

"When you give a luncheon or a dinner, do not invite your friends or your brothers or your relatives or rich neighbors, in case they may invite you in return, and you would be repaid" (Luke 14:12).  Jesus spent his earthly ministry in what Adam Grant calls a "matching" culture.  You give something in order to get something in return.  All relationships are transactions with honor and shame as the currency.  Dinner parties were given as opportunities to create debts on the part of the guests--markers to be called in later.

Of course, all manner of "networking events" operate in the same way.  Attend any local Chamber of Commerce gathering and be ready to exchange business cards with two dozen people.  And know that the expectation (or at least the fond hope) is that you will call on them for paid services or products in the future.

The Reign of God is a different sort of place.  We gather around the table for love, not for profit.  Other people are ends in themselves, not rungs on the social ladder.  The poor, the lame and the outcast have the same or perhaps more value in the system than the rich, the healthy and the well-connected.  The outsiders have been brought in.  The insiders may be cast out.  There is only giving--no taking, no matching.  

We can always set a few more chairs at the table.  And there is someone who will say to us, "Friend, come up higher."  His name is Jesus.

Sunday, August 25, 2013

The Rock (Bass) of Hope

This plaque follows me wherever I go: "The charm of fishing is that it is the pursuit of what is elusive but attainable, a perpetual series of occasions for hope."  (John Buchan)

Indeed, it is the hopeful nature of fishing that I find so attractive in the end.  I do not mean "hope" as a code word for wishful thinking or fond imaginings.  I am talking about real hope--the stuff that is made up of agency, pathways and goals (as C. Richard Snyder has shown us).

The agency element is obvious.  I am a person who can fish.  There are ways to enhance that capacity. I can find my way to a lake or river.  A fishing video once reminded me that no one catches fish by climbing a tree.  You have to go where the fish are.  So I can get into a boat.  I can read the books and magazines and web-based resources that are obsessed with fishing techniques and strategies and tricks.
I can get the proper equipment.  I can do what I need to do in order to be able to fish.

The goal is also obvious.  I am not a great fan of fishing.  However, I am a great fan of catching.  That goal doesn't change.  I may adjust my strategies based on what I hope to catch.  Fishing for catfish is a quite different activity from fishing for walleye.  There is, however, little ambiguity about the goal.

The really attractive part to me is the alternative pathways to the goal.  There is no end to the options available to competent and well-equipped fisher person.  

We who fish are constantly ridiculed and disrespected for the sheer amount of equipment we accumulate--rods, reels, lures, fish detectors, fish attractors, and thousands of other pieces of paraphernalia.  This panoply of tools is required to meet the dozens of variables in any fishing situation--species, water conditions, light conditions, weather conditions, depth, temperature, phase of the moon, season of the year, and more.

That is the attractive part for me.  There is always another lure to try.  There is always another technique to use.  There is always another cast to make.  There is always another fish to catch.  There is always an alternative path to the future when the current one seems blocked.  The possibilities of fishing are only limited by the creativity (and the size of the tackle box) of the fisher person.

I am well-served when I remember this in my life.  There is always hope.  There is always another path to the future.  There is always another way to look at things.  There is always, as the speaker and photographer so memorably said, "another right answer."  This is one of the keys to real life

When am I the most unhappy?  When I am sure that all the paths forward are blocked.  How do I get out of that dead-end thinking?  I can remember that brand new floating perch-colored lure in my box that I haven't yet tried.  I can remember the joy yesterday of catching my first rock bass in my life.  I didn't even know what it was until we asked someone else.  Can you believe it? Another kind of fish to catch!

It doesn't get any more hopeful than that.

Living in the No-Wake Zone

We're spending five lovely days on the Gull Lake Narrows just outside of Nisswa, Minnesota.  You can see where we're staying if you go to  The cabins front on the connection between Upper and Lower Gull Lake. We are staying next to a very highly traveled "No Wake Zone."

So I wondered.  What precisely does "No Wake Zone" mean?  

According to the 2008 Minnesota Statute, Subdivision 16a, "'Slow-no wake' means operation of a watercraft at the slowest possible speed necessary to maintain steerage, but in no case greater than five miles per hour."

Seems clear enough--or so I thought.  Then I began reading some boating listservs, FAQ's and blogs on the web.  "Slowest" is a matter of significant debate and confusion.

First the purposes of a no-wake zone:

  • to reduce erosion on nearby shores, especially those with homes on them;
  • to minimize disturbance to other watercraft, especially smaller ones;
  • to protect boats and other watercraft at anchor;
  • to provide safe swimming spots along the shore;
  • to minimize conflicts between users of the waterway;
  • to protect fish spawning areas; and
  • to protect wetlands and other fragile environments.
At least half of those purposes are at play here on the Narrows.  Of course, that makes no difference to the boaters who buzz through the Narrows early in the morning when it seems that no one is looking. One of our neighbors took the opportunity to engage me in a hundred yard rant about the selfish $*/#-ers who couldn't slow down even for five minutes.

I was struck by how closely his indignation matched the waves being produced by the passing boaters. I started wishing for an emotional "no-wake zone" to match the one posted out one the water west of our cabin.

I discovered that the boat operator is responsible for the impact of the wake and any resulting damage. This is federal law, not just common courtesy.  One site suggested the golden rule of no wake zones: "leave a wake behind your boat that you would want other boats to leave for you."

This sounds like a good rule for life, not just for lakes.

"The key is to slow down all the way," wrote one newsletter author.  To leave no wake, a boat must be operating at idle speed, about 600 to 800 rpm.  So why do people go faster--besides the fact that they are frantic to get to the fish or the wake boarding or the party down the shore?  It's pretty simple.  Slow boats steer much harder.  The running idle speed of about 1300 rpm makes a boat easier to steer, especially if you have a beer in your off hand.

That running idle speed, however, produces far more wake than the true idle.  Thus the counsel to slow down all the way.  In addition, boating regulations specify that craft passing within 500 feet of one another need to slow down as well.  I have never once observed that happening out on the lake.

It is important to anticipate and slow down before getting to the no-wake zone.  That, however, rarely happens either.  Most boats roar up the marker buoys and then slam the throttle down to the bottom.  All that accomplishes is sending the wake into the channel ahead of your boat.  So much for protecting that fragile environment.

That being said, we are spending time here in the real, emotional, spiritual no-wake zone of quiet, reflection, walking, resting, reading, eating, playing and laughing.  When I return, I hope I will be a little more careful about the impact of the wake I create.  It is important to slow down for the smaller craft and the fragile shorelines around us.  It is life-giving to create no more wake than necessary in emotional as well as nautical terms.

May I seek to idle my motor at 600 rpm as often as possible.

Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Thanks, Dad (and Will Rogers)

"Good judgment comes from experience, and a lot of that comes from bad judgment."  Will Rogers

My father was a connoisseur of the good quote.  He was also shameless in attributing them to his own wit and wisdom.  It was years before I discovered that Dad had stolen the line above from Will Rogers.  Lest I be too harsh, I am (after all) a preacher and public speaker.  Good public speakers know how and when to steal quality material and to put it to good use.

The failure to learn is perhaps the greatest of all failures.  It may be a sign of our overwhelming perfectionism.  One of our devotions this morning put it this way.  "We're more likely to see a setback as a sign that we're a complete failure than as a necessary learning experience from growth" (In God's Care: Daily Meditations on Spirituality in Recovery, August 21). 

So resistance to learning is a sign of the emotional extremism that often keeps us in bondage.  I must either be a complete success or a total failure.  If I am not one, then I must be the other.  And since I cannot avoid the reality of failure, I am regularly impressed with my utter lack of perfection.  Being reminded that I don't know everything, then, is one more way that my inadequacy is highlighted.

Learning requires abandoning perfectionism.  Useful experience often comes from "bad" judgment.  We all know that we learn most and best from our failures.  I have days that are filled with continuing education opportunities.

The only question is, will I benefit from the opportunities or not?

This has a couple of implications.  One of the best ways to have a difficult conversation is to turn it into a learning conversation.  "Help me understand more of what you are saying, thinking, feeling," is the royal road to reconciliation and hope.  Asking that question requires that I am vulnerable.  It requires that I am OK with being incomplete and less than perfect.  Asking that question means that I am asking the other party for help in learning more about my world.

That's why it works so well.  And that's why it is so difficult to have such conversations without help from a third party.  I don't like being vulnerable, incomplete and imperfect any more than anyone else. But I can deal with the fact that you are in that position, and I'm then willing to join you there as a facilitator.  And I'll do my best to guide you to the new information and connections that make the risk worthwhile.

In addition, this is why learning organizations flourish.  Businesses that describe themselves in terms of what they offer will not do well in attracting consumer attention.  Those organizations that seek to learn from their market and then describe themselves in terms of that learning--those are the organizations that will stand out and get ahead.

I find this so painfully obvious in congregations.  When I have worked with congregations in planning processes, I have encountered the greatest resistance when I have suggested that they go and talk to the community.  "Ask the community what the real ministry needs are in this area," I say.  "Why would we want to do that?" is often the response.  

Many congregations believe that the outside world has nothing to teach them.  They strive to be absolutely self-defining.  Is it any wonder that the outside world looks in other places for healing, help and hope?  Humility, vulnerability and openness will serve churches just as well as any other business or nonprofit.

May God bless us with good judgment and equip us to deal with the bad judgment that gets us there!

When Learning is Gaining

I want to think some more about the "learning is losing" perspective on life.

We tend to think that learning is for the people who don't know anything about a subject.  In fact, the most avid learners in any discipline are always those who are already experts to some degree. I think about the stories of Michael Jordan and his desire to become a better basketball player.  That desire continued to increase, even when he was regarded as one of the greatest players of all time.

The desire to learn is a sign of strength, not weakness.  I think about myself.  I am most interested in learning more about those subject I already know.  I am interested in those topics and want to know more. I have more than a nodding acquaintance with theology, with the psychology of hope, and with several other subject areas.  And I want to learn more about these areas.  I am open to that learning because I already have strengths in those areas.

I think about those who resist learning.  They (we) often live in a closed, self-contained, self-sufficient world. They already know everything they need to know.  New input is an intrusion and a destabilizing force.  This is the root, for example, of the seven most deadly words in the church: "We've always done it that way."  Keep your new information to yourself, thank you very much.  We are quite fine as we are.

Of course, no one can survive without new information.  The world continues to change.  Let me use this image.  I can try to stand in precisely the same place in a river.  The river, however, continues to flow.  Even though I am standing still, my surroundings will change despite my preferences.  Remaining in the same place is simply not an option in this life.

Why, then, do people regard learning as losing.  This perspective is relies on a scarcity mindset.  If you have something of value to share with me, then I must be lacking.  After all, there's only so much knowledge to go around.  If you have more, then I must have less.  If you have something to teach me, then I must be stupid and ignorant and defective.

In fact, when we learn from one another, everyone gets smarter.  The pie gets bigger and there is more to go around.  The smartest people learn the most from others.

A scarcity mindset is always rooted in shame.  Shame is that sense that I am not enough--and that eventually everyone is going to find that out.  If I have something to learn from you, then I am not enough.  There is something I don't know.  There is some way that I am deficient.  And when you share some new information with me, you are simply pointing out my deficiencies for everyone to see.

Think about all the angry ways that we respond to new input.  
  • "Well, of course, I already knew that!"
  • "So, what makes you so smart?"
  • "That may have worked in your last job, but this is a different place."
  • "Don't tell me what to do!"
It's one thing to have some legitimate skepticism.  But most of our responses to learning opportunities arise out of our sense that we are not enough.  Most of our responses to learning opportunities demonstrate the deep sense of shame so many people have in general.

In fact, it takes great security to engage in real learning.  I must be humble enough to know that I don't know everything.  That humility is rooted in the sense that I may not be everything, but I am enough.  So then I don't have to threatened by new information or insights.  I must have confidence that I can absorb and integrate the new information.  That takes the flexibility that only a clear sense of self offers.  I suspect that some resist new information because they don't know who they are.  They fear that their fragile sense of self will be eroded by the new perspectives.

Learners know first of all who they are and what they are worth.  When that is the case, learning is gaining.

Tuesday, August 20, 2013

Save the Masks for Halloween

"I'm a mediator.  I work to help people bridge their conflicts and build hope for the future."

My listener smiles indulgently.  "Isn't that wonderful!  I'm sure that is a valuable service for those people who have conflicts.  Of course, we don't have conflicts in our relationship."  The smile is now accompanied by rapid eye-blinking--a sure sign of (self) deception.

I sigh and walk away sad once again.

Most of what people describe as conflict management is actually conflict suppression.  I frequently work with people who make it clear that conflict doesn't happen in their work or marriage or church or club.  What they don't acknowledge is that conflict doesn't happen because conflict will simply not be permitted.  They model their interactions on this classic scene from the movie, Cool Hand Luke:

People are willing to have failures of communication.  People can admit to disagreements.  People can have differences of opinion.  But they never have conflicts.  Ever.  End of discussion.

How does that actually work out?  When conflict is suppressed, the person or party with the most power dictates the conversation.  The result may not be the kind of violence evidenced in the movie clip.  But there will be violence nonetheless.  The party with less power may surrender and acquiesce. More likely, the party with less power will find subtle ways to resist passively.  When that happens, there will be more violence.

A supervisor insists that all the staff members are happy and productive.  There is never conflict or dissatisfaction.  "We always talk everything out and come to an understanding," she says.  I hope that is the case, but I am pretty sure it is not.  Human critters are not wired that way.  If we have relationships, we will--repeat, will--have conflicts.  The only variable is in how we deal with them.

If the employees hear the message, as they certainly will, that conflict is not to be permitted, then that is how they will act.  They will suppress their frustrations and anger.  They will go around the supervisor to get their needs met.  They will spend time and energy enacting the conflict even though they cannot discuss it.  Some will move, quietly, to other work.  Some will play games at their desk rather than do their jobs.  Conflict will go underground, but it will not go away.

This understanding highlights the difference between transactional and transformational mediation.  The goal of mediation as transaction is an agreement.  The purpose of that agreement is, by and large, to make the current conflict go away.  

That is well and good, perhaps, for parties who will never interact again.  In most cases, however, the parties will remain connected in some way.  Will that connection be painful or productive in the future? Transformational mediation seeks to build capacity for acknowledging and embracing conflict both now and in the future.  The question is not whether we have conflicts.  We do.  The question is whether we can make conflict productive--whether it can be an opportunity for deepened relationships, closer connections and fuller understanding.

I am committed to mask-removal.  Conflict suppression that masquerades as conflict management is more destructive than the conflict itself.  Let's save the masks for Halloween.

Is Learning Losing?

I enjoyed Daniel Cohen's TED talk, "For Argument's Sake."  You can view that talk here:

What are our goals when we argue?  Cohen notes that we tell several stories to answer this question. Most of us, most of the time, argue in order to win.  We make our points in order to defeat our opponents.  We triumph in a debate.  We achieve supremacy for our ideas and opinions.  In this view, argument is combat.  It is adversarial, winner-take-all, and completely focused on the self.  

We argue to win.

Cohen notes that there is a profound disability connected with this image of argument.  If the goal is to win, then learning equals losing. Cohen describes an argument. One party asks questions in order to gain a deeper understanding of the other party's position. Then that party asks more questions...and even more questions.  After a time, the questioning party has a full understanding of the other party's position.  The questioner concedes at least some points to the other party.

The responding party has, in one sense, "won" the argument.  But who really came out ahead on this deal?  Certainly, in the long run, it was the person who gained deeper understanding and empathy.  But in our short-run, combative, and ego-driven culture, the winner was the one who actually learned precisely...nothing.

What's wrong with that picture?

I sit with two parties in a dispute.  At stake are issues of property or child custody or parenting time or where an elder parent is going to live.  The parties are focused on winning.  They shoot "facts" at one another like missiles.  The defenses go higher and higher to fend off the attacks.  They know this isn't working.  It hasn't ever worked before.  But argument is about winning, and they are not going to lose.

What if we simply change the frame?  What if argument is really about learning and problem solving? Suddenly the process ceases to be a battle and becomes a project.  The combatants can become collaborators.  The parties stop lobbing accusations at one another and begin asking questions.

How can this happen?  It isn't magic, but it is a sort of emotional alchemy.  Generally, people aren't very good at doing this on their own.  A third party--neutral, patient, calm and mindful--can begin to ask those learning questions of each participant.  One of my best facilitation tools is the simplest.  It is the request, "Help me to understand..."  

I'm not asking the parties to understand each other at that point.  But they are free to listen in as my understanding is broadened and deepened.  When each party can tell a mediator or facilitator their story, this creates some healthy distance between the parties.  They can step back far enough to hear what is being said without formulating a barbed response halfway through the comment.  

Sometimes, they will seek to do just that.  But all I have to do is gently say, "I'd like to hear the rest of this comment first, and then you can have your say."  There is a polite pause, in most cases, and the conversation continues.  And learning often happens.

I was shaken at first by Cohen's observation that we see learning as losing.  My number one strength is that of the "Learner."  I wondered if that made me a loser in our contentious culture.  Then I realized that it makes me and folks like me a resource.  Learning is not losing. Learning is key to real living.  

Learning requires openness to new ideas.  Learning requires humility.  Learning puts my perspectives in the service of some larger framework and goal.  Learning means that someone else might know something I don't.  Learning means that I might actually still have something to learn.  Learning means that I might need to consider changing something about me.  Paradoxically, learning is an acknowledgement that the world really isn't about me.

So go ahead and argue.  And if you are like Daniel Cohen, you'll look forward to losing a lot.

Friday, August 16, 2013

Stepping On To the Invisible Bridge

The first step in bridging conflicts is to believe that a bridge exists. Otherwise parties to a conflict will stand on their respective sides and simply hurl insults at each other.  This is often how mediation begins--with one or both parties assuring me that "nothing is going to come of this."  They politely thank for my time and effort and often why in the world a grown up would spend his energy on such fruitless pursuits.

I don't debate the proposition at that point.  I simply ask the parties to keep an open mind and give it a try.  Sometimes the bridge doesn't appear until you act like it is there.

Early in a mediation I sometimes think of a scene from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. I think of that scene where Jones has to step out in faith in order to save his father's life.  He faces an unbridgeable chasm.  He can turn back, or he can step forward in faith.  When he takes the step, the bridge appears.

You can see the scene at

Perhaps we mediators appear to the parties at first to be floating in thin air.  Neither of them has been willing or able to take the first step.  They are stuck on opposite sides of the chasm with no way back or forward.  One of the early functions of the mediator is simply to encourage one party or another to begin.  "Which of you would like to start?"  It's often as simple as that.

One of the things that helps people step on to the bridge was not available to the good Doctor Jones. He had to take the step all by himself.  In mediation that isn't necessary.  A neutral facilitator is there to assure the parties that neither will fall off the bridge once they step on.  As a mediator, I take each of the parties by the hand (sometimes quite literally) as we step on to the bridge of conflict that will bring them toward one another and perhaps toward a deeper understanding of the problems they want to solve.  

It is part of my job to make sure that the parties don't have to work without a net as they cross the conflict bridge toward one another.  It may be necessary for them to say hard things to one another.  It may even help the process if they can express their strong feelings out loud to one another.  But the process must be safe for everyone involved.  The bridge may sway a bit at times, but the facilitator dare not let go of the brave people who are trying to work out their differences and achieve a different relationship.

A few people can step out in faith on to a bridge they cannot see.  Very few of us, however, can imitate Indiana Jones when we are in the midst of a conflict.  A mediator or conflict coach can guide our steps until the bridge appears.

Who do you know who needs a calm hand to guide them across the conflict bridge?

Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Over 10,000 Page Views

Friends, thank you for reading and following.  We just passed ten thousand page views for "Choosing Hope."  If I could identify the 10,000th reader, I'd offer a prize!

Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Memories, Opinions and Oprah

So, you made a bad joke during the announcements before worship.  You offended a parishioner grievously.  Now you have to explain that event to your pastor/parish relationship committee.  And you find yourself in the "spin cycle," adjusting on the fly your report of what happened, why it happened, and how people should view you now.  All the adjustments are designed to make you look better.  And you aren't aware of making any of those adjustments to the "truth."

Are you a liar?  Are you a hypocrite?  Are you a coward?  No, you are a normal human being in quite good and even world-famous company.

Oprah Winfrey claims that she was a victim of racial profiling in a Swiss boutique.  The clerk, named at this point as "Adriana N" is shocked, baffled and distressed by the report.  Winfrey has tried to defuse the situation with a Twitter-driven attempt at humor.  The clerk has lost sleep and has expressed great emotional upset in response to the report.  A report of the uproar can be found at

I was particularly struck by this sentence in the report: "Winfrey and Adriana clearly have differing opinions about what happened in that store visit, not just in outcome, but details" (emphasis is mine). The news reporter treats an objective event out in the public world as a matter of "opinion."  

If we take a few moments to reflect, we can see how unhelpful that description really is.  One of the details has to do with whether Winfrey was accompanied or alone.  Clearly, one fact or the other is an accurate reflection of actual events.  No one is discussing whether the decor of the store is appealing or not.  That might be a matter of opinion.  The events related to this encounter cannot be.

The memories that each party has of the events, however, are indeed quite different.  Winfrey remembers that she was treated as a lone, cash-strapped black woman who really had no business looking at at thirty-eight thousand dollar purse (a voice inside of me said, "Well, who does, really?"). The clerk remembers that she treated the customer--and her companion--with care, patience and respect.

Shameless self-promotion of Mosaic bags
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What is happening here?  Of course, I have no idea.  When I saw the initial report in the media, I was inclined to believe it as sadly accurate.  Now I must live with some healthy skepticism.  Oprah Winfrey, regardless of her current wealth, status and power, has been primed to be alert to demeaning responses from white people.  She noted this in her interviews where she mentioned this incident. While Oprah is not subjected to the "N-word," she remembers and honors all who have suffered through the indignities of racism.

Was she primed to experience something that in this case didn't happen?  Have her memories been revised to reflect her ongoing and proper commitment to identify and resist racism wherever she sees it?  I don't know.  But that may be part of the situation here.

What about Adriana?  She would have strongly self-interested motives to remember the situation quite differently.  Her job is certainly at stake here, and she notes in the report that she is the one on the low end of the power differential.  Does she remember herself as nicer than she actually was? Does she remember a companion for Winfrey who wasn't there?  Did she engage in some unconscious behavior that, as a white person, she has the luxury of ignoring?  I don't know.  But that may be part of the situation here.

Public leaders are well-served to remember the limits of memory.  This is particularly true when we are prompted to offer self-justifying defenses and descriptions.  If you are a parish pastor, please read Tavris and Aronson's book, Mistakes Were Made (But Not by Me).  Here's a critical quote: 
"Our convictions about who we are carry us through the day, and we are constantly interpreting the things that happen to us through the filter of those core beliefs.  When they are violated, even by a good experience, it causes us discomfort..." (page 31).
Read the book.  And then consider training your lay leaders, staff and other influential folks regarding the limits of human memory.  Better yet, ask me to come and do the training!  I wonder how many church fights have been launched simply based on revised memories, built on the basis of self-interest.

I am not suggesting that the objective facts are merely in the eye of the beholder.  I am suggesting that when we are sharing information with high emotional content, we want to be very careful about communicating too much certainty--especially when that information could be damaging to someone else.  When we are in positions of power, we must recall that what we say always has explosive potential.  That's true if one is Oprah Winfrey.  That is also true if one is a parishioner in a highly anxious congregation.

Keeping quiet and thinking about our words is always a viable option.

Thursday, August 8, 2013

Words with Friends

"The most common mistake that most of us make when it comes to finding meaning in life is that we think big.  We wait and hope for a transformational moment to shake us up and change the way we live, such as a near-death experience that suddenly reorganizes our priorities.  But that's just one way to develop meaning in our lives.  There's another, more powerful way--by focusing on the small things in life." (Ori Brafman, Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail, page 78).
To make our moments and days more meaningful, we can:

  1. Divide our activities into smaller tasks and focus on the impact, purpose and meaning of each moment and each accomplishment;
  2. Focus more on the questions than on the answers--let the thrill of the chase be the real source of meaning and purpose;
  3. Make sure that we share our journeys with people who engage with us in the pursuit of meaning and purpose.
The third item is the focus of this post.  Brafman describes an experiment with three groups of subjects.  One group received encouraging feedback after a task.  The second group received challenging feedback after a task.  The third group received no feedback.  Instead, the partners of the third group simply counter the number of times the test subjects uttered "th" as part of the conversation.  So the respondents were distracted and disengaged.

The group that found the exercise least meaningful was the group that was in it "alone."  Even challenging, contradictory and disagreeable feedback is preferable to speaking to an empty room. Having no one with which to share the joys and challenges of life is, for most of us, a bleak prospect at best.  Being for all intents and purposes ignored was the least meaningful condition.

It is true that apathy is the most painful of all responses.

I resonate deeply with this element of the pursuit of meaning.  I had become so accustomed to sharing the joy and challenges of life with a partner that when Anne died I couldn't conceive of life in another way.  I probably could have figured out some other path, but I didn't want to do that.  At the time I knew that I needed to get a "life" before I could go back to work.  And getting a life, for me, meant having someone with which to share the love, the life and the adventure.

It's as simple as playing "Words with Friends."  I don't much care to play such things by myself with others.  However, when I can serve as a personal consultant to my spouse, Brenda, as she plays seven games at once, I find the whole thing great fun.  It is the collaboration, the mutual problem-solving, the shared sense of triumph, the joint amazement at the creativity of the opponents.  Meaning that is shared is not additive.  I think it is logarithmic.

Antoine de St. Exuperay said that true love does not consist of gazing fondly into the eyes of another. It consists, rather, in looking in the same direction together.

I have a much deeper appreciation now of the sense of loss of those widowed.  I think about the decades of partnership for some of those couples.  I know the sense of amputation, of truncation, and of pointlessness I experienced.  John Gottman notes that allowing one's spouse to influence a person is one of the seven keys to marital success.  I suspect that is the case because such mutuality deepens the meaning of the things we do together.

I am not suggesting that only married people can have such a sense of shared meaning and adventure.  That's how it works out for me.  But meaning is both a personal and a communal enterprise.  By the way, I'm looking for a word...

Finding Meaning in the Middle

In my adult years, I've been a big "meaning of life" kind of guy.  That has especially been true when things haven't gone so well.  The existential crises in my life have always come down at some point or another to "So, what's the point of it all anyway?"  At a few of those moments I have considered--at least at an intellectual level--taking my own life and answering the question myself once and for all.

To celebrate the obvious, I have not followed through with that academic exercise.

Where do we find meaning?  Ori Brafman describes the ways that resilient people--the ones he names "tunnelers"--find and maintain meaning and purpose in their lives.  I find his analysis to be helpful in many ways.

One way to derive meaning and purpose that can sustain me is to break my life down into smaller tasks and goals.  For example, I may find that my current work situation is not all that meaningful or purposive.  I can take that as a given for now and put it on the emotional shelf.  In the face of that, I can identify smaller and specific tasks and goals that are important and produce some good.  

For example, I can make a visit to someone who is ill and provide comfort and support.  I know that I am engaged in something that makes life better for that person and makes the world a better place.  I may be unable to place that activity in some cosmic or even personal framework at the moment, but that is beside the point.

I wish in hindsight that I had been given this orientation much earlier in life.  I was so bogged down with big picture meaning that I could easily lose track of the small things that give joy and hope every moment of every day.  Now I know, for example, the healing power of making lists and marking things off the list.  When I am overwhelmed with the sense that life isn't going anywhere and I'm not doing anything that matters, I make a list.  I start with items that I know I will accomplish.  Sometimes I even list things that I've already done just to be able to mark them off.

Giggle if you must (I will join you), but it works.

A second strategy that Brafman describes is one that I love.  Meaning is not equated with certainty. Meaning is found in the search itself, not in the discovery of the answers.  

For example, I am meeting with young people soon to be confirmed in our congregation.  To each of them I have issued a challenge.  Please share with me and with the congregation at least one question about your faith journey that remains unanswered.  If you can't come up with such a question, I'll be glad to supply one for you.

Of course, I love the questions.  But I am North American enough to still connect meaning with certainty and success with the security of answered questions.  So when life throws at us an "unanswerable"--the death of a loved one, a debilitating illness or injury, the end of a relationship, the loss of a business or job or farm--we are often plunged into an emotional abyss.  

"I thought I knew how things work.  I was sure I had the path figured out.  I believed that I understood the nature of existence."  Brafman points out that this becomes more and more of a crisis for some of us the older we get.  In most of human experience, however, age is thought to produce the wisdom that embraces the mystery.

That is my experience now.  Would I like to have abundant security and certainty?  Of course!  Am I finding the resources to embrace the adventure of later life with fewer answers?  Well, that's coming along.  And when I can be comfortable with the mysterious adventure, then this meaning business comes clearer.

So, I don't know what it all means for me, how it all works for me, where it's all headed for me.  But I do know what I can do for someone else today.  And I do trust that it all comes together in the end. That's how to find some meaning in the middle, eh?

Wednesday, August 7, 2013

Taking the High Road

It's a mantra in the parenting class I teach.  "In the long run, the high road is always the best road." Parents nod their heads in agreement.  Then one of the honest souls says, "Yes, that's true.  But it's awfully hard when the other parent has just told your kids that you are a no-good, deadbeat who doesn't love them and who never wanted them.  How can I keep from setting them straight on this?"

I have not experienced this personally, although I have been the subject of more than a few attempted character assassinations.  How, indeed, do we keep from responding in kind to such deliberate broadsides?

One of the real marks of healthy resiliency, as Ori Brafman notes, is maintaining the locus of control (what he calls the internal limelight).  He urges that instead of putting the spotlight on how another has wronged us, we can examine our own responsibility in the situation.  "This doesn't mean that we should absolve others from responsibility," he quickly adds.  "It simply means that no matter what happens, in the end the only person we have full control over is ourselves." (Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail, page 57).

This isn't, however, merely the council of despair.  In fact, maintaining that sense of agency is one of the ways to be healthy and hopeful.  After all, why should I allow the behavior of another person to dictate how I act?  If I am in charge of myself, I have choices about how I will respond (see my previous post).

In fact, taking the high road is one of the ways to maintain a full sense of personal agency in a difficult situation.  Any fool can let the barbs of the opponent push him into a corner.  That is, in fact, often the goal of such poisonous remarks--to goad someone into a response that will result in bad behavior.

This is, of course, just one long truism.  But that doesn't make it any less true.  No one can make me do anything.  Period.  End of conversation.  I choose my actions, and I am responsible for what I think, do and say.  Feelings may overwhelm me like a flood.  But I can still decide whether to go along for the ride or to swim against the tide.

Healthy and resilient people opt for swimming.

How can I do this?  One way is to become your own consultant or coach.  How would you advise someone else in your situation?  We mediators call it a form of "going to the balcony."  Step back and observe your situation from a third person perspective.  If you were supporting a friend through this difficult time, what counsel would you give?  After a few moments of such reflection, you will certainly come up with a better answer than simply responding in kind.

When we make such choices, we do better in our lives.  For parents in difficult situations this is critical.  Children are emotional sponges.  How we manage ourselves will have a direct impact on how they cope.  Parents (and others) who are able to maintain their agency will feel better and do better.

The high road is always the best way to go.

You Still Have Choices

It is one of the three most hopeful statements a human being can make: "But I can still make choices."

I may be unable to live any longer in my own home.  I may need help to get in and out of bed. I may have surrendered financial and medical decisions to someone else.  In larger frameworks I may have chosen to give up my choices.  But I can narrow the framework of my perception.  And then I still have choices.

Ori Brafman has a lovely little book that describes the psychology of human resilience. How is it, he and other psychologists wonder, that some folks can endure horrific circumstances and still flourish?  What characteristics do they exhibit, and how can the rest of us learn greater resilience from their examples?

One of the characteristics of the resilient, those that Brafman calls "tunnelers" (because they find a way through the obstacles in life that might inhibit the rest of us) possess is the power to live with an "internal limelight."  Tunnelers never surrender their perception of choice.  In technical terms, they maintain their sense of themselves as a "locus of control."  In terms of the psychology of hope, tunnelers maintain their sense of agency.

Other folks have an "external limelight."  Externals, Brafman writes, 
"believe that in life, as in the formation of a weather system, many different elements come together; chance plays a major role.  Just as it would be ridiculous to expect that you can influence the weather by flapping your arms to create the wind, the argument goes, it's futile to believe that you play a major role in determining your career track. According to externals, the only thing that's certain is that believing that you have significant control over life's complex events is nonsense."  Ori Brafman, Succeeding When You're Supposed to Fail, page 45.
I was struck by Brafman's description.  I have often listened as folks described how life was somehow just "happening" to them.  I have, based on my own experience, noted that feelings and responses are not like weather fronts.  They don't just happen to us as passive observers and recipients.  Life when properly lived is not a spectator sport.  We can still make choices.

That is the case even when it seems that no choices are left.  Like many pastoral care givers, I have sat with folks who should have been dead weeks or months ago.  The family was called.  Hospice services were launched.  Physicians rendered their statistical predictions. But somehow the subject of all this activity had not gotten the memo that it was time to die.

Sometimes the dying person is waiting for that last family member to get home and say good-bye. Sometimes the dying person has simply never quit at anything in her or his life.  Choosing how to live and what to do is simply etched into her or his character.  And even comatose, that character will not be altered.  Lots of things are happening to such a person.  But even to the last, we can still make choices.  It is only the framework of those choices, the size and scale of the arena that has been changed.

Brafman summarizes the work of numerous psychologists who all agree that an internal limelight is crucial to flourishing in the face of adversity.  I know that reminders of this sense of choice were critical to my own survival in the face of crushing grief.  Nothing made a larger difference to me than the simple and regular reminder that I could still choose who to respond to situations and how to manage my feelings.

This is why self-determination is so critical to mediation processes as well.  "But you still have choices," is the most hopeful and helpful thing I can say to parties in a difficult mediation.  Conflict has a way of closing off our vision of what's possible.  My most important job as a facilitator is to help people regain their capacity for seeing alternatives where it appeared that none existed.

Be hopeful, friends--you can still make choices.

Monday, August 5, 2013

Dealing with Bullies

In this part of the country, primary and secondary schools re-open in a week or so.  I remember those days leading up the beginning of a new school year.  I loved school, and I will always love being a student.  So I was excited and energized as I looked forward to getting back in the classroom.

And I was terrified.

School meant another year of riding the bus for an hour each way.  This meant two hours per day of potential bullying.  I was often subjected to verbal abuse, "titty-twisters," getting punched in the groin and being made to feel useless and worthless.  I was sure that no one at home wanted to hear about this, so I kept it to myself and prayed for the day when I could drive myself to school and back.

It was a wonderful motivator to earn and save money for that first car!

So, perhaps we can think together a bit about the psychology of bullying--at school, in the workplace, and at church.

Many times I was told that bullies are people with low self-esteem who build themselves up by making other people feel smaller.  In fact, that is not for the most part the case.  Most bullies appear to be quite narcissistic and suffer from too much self-esteem rather than too little.  Most bullies live as if they are the center of the universe--the only real humans in their life dramas.  Everyone else is really just a means to their ends.

This doesn't mean that bullies are without their emotional issues.  Bullies are driven intensely by shame.  This is a different issue from lack of self-esteem.  Bullies have been told that they aren't good enough, and they rebel against this notion by proving that they control the universe.

Researchers find that bullies are born as much as they are made.  Children who engage in bullying behavior often have parents who engage in similar kinds of behaviors.  We can debate the genetics of this reality.  We can discuss the nurture dimensions.  Just know, as one wise person has said, that "dogs don't have cats."

I was often told that if I just ignored the bully, he would get tired of the game and go away.  That was not at all true.  Bullies take such treatment as a further challenge to their inflated sense of self.  Ignoring a bully is an effective way to generate even more negative attention.  "You WILL acknowledge that I am powerful and important.  If you don't, I will make you pay."

Now, bullying is not the normal rough and tumble of the playground.  Children are quite adept at hurting each other and then moving on.  Bullying is a systematic and repeated pattern of intimidation and manipulation designed to enhance the pleasure of the bully.  So bullying requires a systematic and repeated response from the community.  
  • Those in authority need to respond by challenging the bullying behavior publicly.  
  • The community needs to isolate the bully when possible from those who are being abused.  
  • Those who are not victims need to stop feeling relieved that they have been spared and to start being indignant that anyone should be treated in such a way.
Bullying cannot be ignored away.  It cannot be wished away.  It cannot be "niced" away.  This behavior must be confronted and counteracted--whether in the home, the school, the workplace or the church.

More to come...

Sunday, August 4, 2013

To Be Fully Human

The quoted paragraphs are from Robert A. Emmons, "Pay it Forward" in Dacher Keltner's The Compassionate Instinct:
"Gratitude serves as a key link between receiving and giving: it moves recipients to share and increase the very good they have received.  Because so much of human life is about giving, receiving and repaying, gratitude is a pivotal concept for our social interactions."
"Gratitude implies humility--a recognition that we could not be who we are or where we are in life without the contributions of others."
The benefits of working consistently at gratitude:

  • greater levels of optimism about the future;
  • fewer physical health complaints;
  • greater energy for exercising;
  • increased feelings of joy, enthusiasm, interest;
  • greater capacity to offer emotional support or help to others;
  • more hours of sleep and better quality of sleep;
  • increased frequency of helpful behaviors toward others;
Gratitude strengthens our ties to one another and increase our sense of personal worth.  Gratitude is an important antidote for anxiety and depression. 

 "We are receptive beings, dependent on the help of others, on their gifts and their kindness.  As such we are called to gratitude.  Life becomes complete when we are able to give to others what we ourselves received in the past...It is gratitude that enables us to receive and it is gratitude that motivates us to return the goodness that we have been given.  In short, it is gratitude that enables us to be fully human." 

The Training Wheels of Gratitude

Fatigue, too much people time, and too many calendar entries in one space make me grumpier than usual.  Way past the end of a long day, we were at a local big box buying a bike for the granddaughter. We had an hour or less of daylight, laundry to do, and an early morning work appointment.

I was not in a terrible frame of mind--but I wasn't in the running for peaceful person of the year, either.

The bike was assembled, which was a very good thing.  The only preparation was removing the tags and fitting the helmet to the rider.  Her bike riding experience is pretty limited, so this might have been an exercise in frustrated futility.  She hadn't yet learned how to work the coaster brakes, so there was more than a little physical risk involved.  I envisioned a trip to the ER and some tall explaining to do to her mama.

The first few trips down the driveway were movie stunt material, but no one was injured.  The best ride was the one where she took her feet off the pedals in a panic and still somehow guided the bike through the garage and out the walk-in door, ending up against the gate of our deck uninjured and shouting, "I'm OK!  I'm OK!"  She was OK, but I was descending into not-OKness at a lightning pace.

Then it all clicked.  She got the whole brake thing.  She turned the bike and headed back down hill.  She maneuvered through the obstacle course that is half of our garage.  She stopped and started on command and had complete control of the vehicle.  I watched her grow half a year in five minutes.  It was one of those moments of a lifetime.

And I thought, "Why do I embarrass myself by complaining?  what an ungrateful fool I can be!  We are drenched in blessings at every moment.  All I want to say is thank you."

An evening that had self-induced misery etched into it was transformed into a momentary miracle.  And I was blessed enough to be present for the moment and the miracle.  It was wonderful that our granddaughter got to have this experience.  But the real miracle was that her crabby papa got to have a little conversion event.  It isn't often that we get to have a mood transmuted in minutes.  But when it happens, there's nothing better.

Sometimes it's good to go for quantity on a gratitude list.  I could certainly produce several pages right now.  But in truth, quality is just as good.  I am grateful to have my life, my heart, and my perspective changed by a little girl on sixteen inch wheels in a Hello Kitty helmet, shouting "I'm OK!  I'm OK."

Yes, sweetheart, you certainly are.  And so am I.

Saturday, August 3, 2013

Keeping It Human

"How can people be so mean to each other?"  If you have never heard that question or asked it, you probably live under a rock.  I have heard it over and over as I have worked with churches in conflict.  And it is a question worth answering.

In his article, "Hope on the Battlefield," Dave Grossman reviews the studies of battlefield kill rates in the history of western warfare.  In the wake of World War II, studies revealed that the majority of American soldiers did not fire at the enemy.  In fact, it appeared that only about fifteen to twenty percent of the soldiers did actually shoot to kill anyone.  What caused this phenomenon was "the simple and demonstrable fact that there is, within most men and women, an intense resistance to killing other people--a resistance so strong that in many circumstances, soldiers on the battlefield will die before they can overcome it."

This created problems for the military--problems that have been overcome through intentional training. According to Grossman, that training involves three elements: desensitization, psychological conditioning and denial.  This triad makes up what one expert described as "manufactured contempt."

How can people be so mean to each other?  I was struck by the presence of contempt as the determining factor.  John Gottman points to the same attitude as one of the coffin nails of a marriage in trouble. Gottman refers to contempt as the second horseman of the marital apocalypse.  Contempt leads to disgust.  These emotions permit us to regard another person as less than human.  That is the basic requirement for meanness on the part of most people.

In marital breakdowns, the same elements exist as in warfare.  Couples gradually lose their sensitivity to one another's pain.  They train one another through repeated dysfunctional exchanges to treat each other badly and to respond in kind.  And they begin to deny the humanity of the other person.  Once that happens, the end of the marriage is clearly in sight.

I see this in high conflict divorce situations.  When one of the parties curls an upper lip in disgust and derision, I know that we probably need to call for a brief recess in the process.  Once contempt is unleashed and disgust is expressed, it can be very difficult to pull the conversation back on to a civilized basis.  People who are disgusted with one another will say things that they would not say to other people even on their worst days.  Of course, if you are disgusted with someone then you believe you aren't dealing with people at all.

That's the point.

The same thing happens in church conflicts.  Perfectly reasonable people begin to describe each other as monsters, freaks and demons. That is the necessary condition for treating another human inhumanely.  Think about how the victims of genocide have been described.  The Nazis described the Jews as dangerous vermin needing to be exterminated.  Hutus referred to Tutsis as inyenzi, a Kinyarwanda word meaning "cockroach."  Couples in disintegrating marriages will use dehumanizing terms for one another as well.  It's easier to squasha cockroach than it is to hurt another person.

So in high conflict situations, it is always necessary to pull people back from the depths of disgust.  It can help in some mediations to ask--in private caucus--each parent if the other party is a relatively good parent.  That can restore some humanity to the perceptual mix.  Sometimes parties will become vulnerable enough through tears and frustration to allow the other to connect to them again as people. In church conflicts, I fight doggedly against ever allowing any conflictor to describe the other as demonic. A frenzy to kill is never far from any such description.

So, let's keep each other as human as we can.  Then it's not so easy for people to be so mean to each other.

Overcoming Stranger Danger

"We are a very friendly, welcoming bunch here, Pastor.  We are always so glad to have new people with us.  We go out of our way to make people feel at home here.  We're big on hospitality."

When I hear such descriptions, I know that I have my work cut out for me as a church consultant and coach.  That much protesting usually points to anxiety about being a closed off and unfriendly bunch.

We are wired to live in small groups and to be suspicious of strangers.  Studies using functional MRI data show that when we see the face of a Stranger, our amygdala gets activated.  We are preparing for a fight or flight or freeze response. This is the case even when subjects get the stranger images at a level beneath conscious perception.  

That little anxiety button heats up even before we know what's happening.  Then we create reasons for why we feel anxious.  I'm walking down a city street.  I pass a person or a group from the "Other" category.  Perhaps that category has to do with race.  Perhaps it was to do with economic situation. Perhaps it has to do with age or culture.  It doesn't matter.  If I am honest, I will admit my anxiety and my desire to move to the other side of the street.  That anxiety flares in advance of my conscious thought.

If that's the case, then is welcoming the stranger in church a losing battle at the physiological level?  Or as Robert Sapolsky puts it in "Peace Among Primates," "Is it possible to achieve the cooperative advantages of a small group without having the group reflexively view outsiders as the Other?"

Sapolsky's answer is a qualified yes.  He points to work done by Susan Fiske and colleagues on responses to strangers.  In one experiment the psychologists would "subtly bias the subject beforehand to think of people as individuals rather than as members of a group."  Sapolsky notes that with this kind of advance priming, "the amygdala does not budge."

So, welcoming The Stranger as a generic category may well be counterproductive in psychological terms.  But if we can prepare congregations to welcome individuals rather than categories, the whole game may change.  

I know this is the case in my experience with congregation-based prison ministry.  If we were dealing with generic Manacled Man or generic Prison Chick, then the response was negative and anxious.  But as soon as these folks became human beings with names and lives and stories, the response rotated one hundred and eighty degrees.  Suddenly, these were "our" inmates.  More than that, these were our friends, our neighbors, our fellow pew sitters and after a while our fellow members.

When I was a redevelopment pastor, I would routinely get pushback when I reached out to people who weren't white, middle-class and already churched.  The generic Other was frightening and alien.  But create the chance for actual and personal encounters and everything changed.  Suddenly welcoming that particular stranger became a snap for most folks.

This is why mission trips are so effective in building passion for partnerships.  This is why it is so important to bring real people, for example, from Tanzania to Nebraska.  Generic Tanzania person is a stranger, and the amygdala becomes unsettled.  But my friend from Moshi is not a stranger.  She has stayed in my home.  He has visited my school.  They have ridden in my combine.  And my amygdala no longer budges.

"Humans may be hardwired to get edgy around the Other," Robert Sapolsky concludes, "but our views on who falls into that category are decidedly malleable."  
"...remember that you were at that time without Christ, being aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. But now in Christ Jesus you who once were far off have been brought near by the blood of Christ. For he is our peace; in his flesh he has made both groups into one and has broken down the dividing wall, that is, the hostility between us."  (Ephesians 2:12-14).