Second in series: Why this matters
CONNECTION: A NON-SILOED EXISTENCE
Last week, Kyle introduced our new series of talks here on Sundays: Why this matters He referred to the way that, despite much of the behavior of many of Jes us’ followers throughout history, Jesus taught that pronouncing judgments of who is in and who is out is something humans should avoid — that that job is above our pay grade. At this church we take this teaching from Jesus very seriously — we are not in the business of pronouncing people in or out here. But, because, to most of us, religion and spirituality and church has always seemed consumed by the question of in vs. out and we can’t imagine religious or spiritual people caring so adamantly about anything else, this begs the question: if the focus of this church isn’t “in vs. out”, are the stakes pretty low here? Like: Great! You’re not about in vs. out. Awesome! So, everything’s just the same then, right? Like: It’s perfectly nice to want to follow Jesus, but in the grand scheme of things it doesn’t actually matter that much, right? Is that what we’re saying?
Actually, we don’t think so. Our experience following Jesus in this church is that setting aside the “in vs. out” question doesn’t make faith matter less… It makes faith matter more -- and in a much more understandable way. To us, pursuing faith and pursuing a faith community are matters that demand our attention and investment… this is very high stakes! Not because it’s the difference between in and out. Because, to us, it’s been the difference between finding or not finding the kind of lives everyone seems to want -- lives that are deep and full and resilient.
We’ll touch on a number of ways we find this to be true in this series, but for today, I want to pick up where Kyle left off last week He talked about having faith and having a faith community being the difference between: You experiencing life as an echo-chamber where everyone around you thinks and believes just like you, OR You experiencing the richness of diversity, interaction with people truly different from you -- who may disagree with you -- That’s what a faith community like this can offer us: a non-siloed existence
And Kyle dreamt aloud for us about why this matters immensely… He said “every one of us is wrong about something”... How will we ever be challenged in our personal biases or our incomplete perspectives or our broken thinkings? Without this, we won’t! If we want to grow, mature, be lifelong-learners, consider the findings of social scientists: By and large, new information rarely changes minds. It is being in relationship with people who are different than us that changes our minds. Robert Putnam, in his book American Grace (an analysis of the largest-ever study of religious behavior in America over many decades), takes to task answering how certain strongly held beliefs of certain American religious groups have changed over time… Has it been new information? Conviction because of activism? To a small degree, yes, he concludes, but the best answer he says somewhat jokingly is: "Aunt Susan" What changes people’s beliefs over time is prolonged relationship with people different from them... aunts, cousins, neighbors… Stereotypes and strict in-out judgments are hard to maintain for long when they apply to people we hold dear. So a non-siloed existence is essential if any of us hope for learning new things, for life-transformation. More than that though… If, as Jesus taught, all humans are made in the image of God, This isn’t just a matter of being nice (as one of our church’s stakeholders recently put it in one of the new videos on the front page of our website, this isn’t just a matter of mere tolerance)... This is a matter of experiencing God If we don’t learn from others different from us, if we don’t allow others to challenge and expand our views, we limit our access to and understanding of God Expanding our respect and appreciation for the diversity of human experience is essential to knowing God more... because God has placed pieces of himself in all people, all cultures
So does this mean we try to be neutral? Is neutrality how we’re hoping to accomplish the type of community we’re talking about? Are we saying “Let’s just get beyond divisive and partisan stuff and change the world.” That sounds nice in a lot of ways. But it’s been noted a great deal, mostly by scholars and thinkers from oppressed-minority perspectives, that neutrality is a pretty removed and privileged approach to talking about problems. It essentially trades partisanship for “we stand for nothing” - In the worst form, this is mostly a convenient PR stunt to hide behind so neither liberals or conservatives have enough ammo to support why they’re mad at you.
To put the question more bluntly, let me quote activist and Archbishop of South Africa Desmond Tutu: “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor” So, when I describe the community we’re trying to be, are we falling victim to this?
Perhaps so, and God help us if that’s the case, but at least as a statement of what we want to be here, I’ll say this:
When we talk about the kind of community we are trying to be — holding together people who differ — we do not “stand for nothing”.
We stand for something very specific that we think is at the core of the way of Jesus: we stand for the respectful conversation. And standing for the respectful conversation is not a PR stunt. It is about vulnerability, humility, listening before speaking. It is not neutral. Yet, at the same time it is operating on a different plane than partisanship as usual.
Let me show you what I mean. I’ve put in your program the text from a document we use in small groups here: Guidelines for Respectful Conversations... Confidentiality. We want to create an atmosphere for open, honest exchange. What is said in this space stays in this space. What is learned in this space can leave this space. Seek to learn from each other. We will listen to each other and not talk at each other. We acknowledge differences among us in backgrounds, skills, interests, and values. It is these very differences that will increase our awareness and understanding of life and of God. Speak from personal experiences. Use “I” statements to share thoughts and feelings. You cannot always speak for others. When you do, even though it may be unintentional, you can often demean or devalue others around you for their experiences, lack of experiences, or difference in interpretation of those experiences. Take responsibility for your impact. Our good intentions do not negate the negative impact we may have on someone. We will hold ourselves accountable by challenging ourselves to be quick to sincerely apologize and then open to learning what we do not understand. Assume best intentions. Trust that people are doing the best they can. Challenge the idea and not the person. If we wish to challenge something that has been said, we will challenge the idea or the practice referred to, not the individual sharing this idea or practice. Speak your discomfort. If something is bothering you, please share this with the group. Often our emotional reactions offer the most valuable learning opportunities. Monitor your airtime. Be mindful of taking up much more space than others. On the same note, empower yourself to speak up if others are dominating the conversation. Be fully present. Everyone has significant contributions to make and we need you to fully participate with both your head and your heart. Redefine the term “Safe Space.” Conflict and discomfort are often a part of growth. Try to differentiate between feelings of discomfort and experiences of being unsafe.
In small group settings, we read this and then talk about all that hits us from it, and it is always amazing conversation.
But for the purposes of today, I’ll get to my point: all of this, to us, is the reason we are so moved by the life of Jesus and the story of the New Testament of the Bible.
Jesus and St. Paul (the writer of much of the New Testament) definitely don’t present as neutral Jesus consistently demonstrates he is on the side of the poor and outcasts, not those in power In Paul’s letters to the earliest Jesus communities, we see him regularly encouraging the leaders of these communities to make safe space for those who didn’t have safe space in the Ancient Roman world Most striking is the way he does this for women Many read Paul’s words from a 21st century perspective and take him to be uncomfortably-patriarchal But historians and scholars suggest that when you read Paul in the appropriate context (his 1st century Roman world), you get just the opposite picture: for his day, Paul was a feminist, creating spaces of status and impact and safety for women in a world that had virtually none (outside of being married to a well-off Roman man).
So they are not at all neutral… and yet we also see… Jesus hold together in his closest group of friends: Radical Jewish zealots & tax collectors for the Roman empire (a that-day equivalent of liberals and conservatives together), Jewish fishermen & Roman citizens with status (a that-day equivalent of working-class and educated-elites together) And Paul writes this in one of his letters: “There is neither Jew nor Gentile, neither slave nor free, nor is there male and female, for you are all one in Christ Jesus.”
That is striving for a non-siloed existence and talking about it in the most grandiose way! BUT it is not neutral, is it?
In this church, in our city, in this day and age, the Respectful Conversations Guidelines are as helpful a concept as we’ve found to follow in the footsteps of Jesus and Paul.
I’ve gotten to be impacted personally by this so many times through this church I’ve talked with many of you about my experience of a group I was part of here in which we discussed Racial-reconciliation, and made space for everyone in the group to share their stories of racial/ethnic identity This group changed me through respectful conversation At the first meeting of the group, Anna Cruz (one of our amazing leaders here) laid out clear guidelines for how to have good and respectful conversations about race Now, where I was coming from was this: Because I had grown up in very diverse circles of friendships and relationships, I was pretty proud and sure of my racial awareness. And, as Kyle will explain more about next week, growing up specifically in the city of Evanston (immediately north of Chicago), I had inherited an Evanston identity, which is: we are racially-progressive, other places may have bigger racism issues, but not us Evanstonians I thought I was pretty “#woke” But then… I heard the racial identity stories of others in the group and learned that my experience in Evanston was not the experience of everyone. And then I learned from our group readings that that Evanston “we are progressive" identity was actually just a classic example of a flawed approach to racial-reconciliation… sociologists have even given it a name: “colorblindness" I was not nearly as “woke” as I thought. This is important: just because I didn’t need a 180 degree change in thinking doesn’t mean I didn’t need a change in thinking. I now think so differently about racial-reconciliation as a result of the respectful conversations we had in that group I hear about these sorts of “being changed in relationship with others different from me” experiences all the time in this church… Through our community’s regular small groups in particular Some of my favorites have to do with the diversity in religious experience in our church People with Catholic backgrounds, Protestant backgrounds, non-religious backgrounds, backgrounds in Eastern religions, and more… all helping each other expand their perspectives and their connections with Jesus.
So I want to be clear about why this feels so important to us, and why I think this is high stakes for your life:
Jesus is often presented as a competitive figure - the captain of the Christian team in the great religious soccer tournament of life. But our read is just the opposite. Jesus is playing a different game...
The stakes of which are far more important: A game not focused on in vs. out or win vs. lose… but focused on life-transformation A game about the expanding of our lives and worldviews through the learning of others’ perspectives A game about the expanding of our connection with God, who has put pieces of himself in all people
Championing the respectful conversation is how we pursue this here
It is not a neutral approach to life and to our world It favors those willing to learn over those certain they know And we can tell you from our own experience leading this community that some people feel threatened by this lack of neutrality...
BUT to most we meet, we’re told it feels refreshing -- Because while it’s not neutral, it’s also NOT operating on the same plane as most of the divides we experience in life today. This is not intentionally partisan This is not biased or slanted This is equal opportunity in the way it calls us all to account
Here’s the question I want to address to end today:
How can I experience for myself and help others experience the benefits of a non-siloed existence?
(1) Master the respectful conversation with us
Commit to these guidelines. Put them on your fridge. Breathe, eat, live them. We’ll post the entire document on facebook this week.
(2) Use today's Community Fair to find a safe space to practice this, so you can then take it to your whole life
A big gift that church community can offer you, beyond the gift of connection itself, is that this is a safe space to try things out before you take it to other circles of relationship in your life: family, work, your neighborhood.
And our community fair today will offer just that opportunity. We’ll tell you how it will work at the end of the service.
(3) If you’re ever in a situation where respect is not returned, remember Jesus’ words:
“Do not give dogs what is sacred. Do not throw your pearls to pigs. If you do they may trample them under their feet, and turn and tear you to pieces.”
What I mean is: Exit situations where respect is not returned for your own health. You are not a bad person if you do this. You are not shirking responsibility because if you don’t try to help this person expand their perspective who will? Choosing a willingness to learn is on them, not you. And engaging is respectful conversation is sacred stuff (this is why I feel so helped by this saying of Jesus) — This is the stuff of life transformation and connecting with God — Do not let the energy that requires of you be wasted on someone who is just letting it fall to the ground and trampling it underfoot
Alright, I’d like to pray for us. Would you please stand with me...