“That” Family in the Neighborhood

Every neighborhood has the family on the block that is… interesting. I was driving through my church’s neighborhood one evening and saw a family getting into a huge yelling match in the front yard. I looked around at the other homes near this home/this family and everyone started to make their way inside to their own homes to avoid the awkwardness of the event. I realized that this may not be the first occasion that this had happened in this neighborhood.

I imagine that as someone is driving down that street and sees a “For Sale” sign in a yard in the distance that a private “optimism” would well up in their souls… “please, please, please be in that house’s yard…”

It made me think of how outsiders may see us as the family of God, the body of Christ. I’ve noticed (self-confession included) that we struggle to “fight well.” Instead of working out differences through meaningful dialogue and discussion, we make things ugly. Ugly things are usually seen by everyone and they are hard to forget.

Outsiders are looking at the way we fight with one another and are asking themselves, “Is there anything within me that wants in on that?”

Scary idea… perhaps the Outsiders are also the ones who are squinting their eyes and hoping that the “For Sale” sign is in our front yard.

Working things out through honest, informed, passionate discourse is important and has been a catalyst for beneficial developments among the people of God throughout our story. We need to do this better.

So, here are a couple of suggestions that I have and hope to implement:

1. Own our perspective – Christianity is not monolithic, there is a “topography” in our faith. So own where you are from in the Christian discussion. My friend Adam Penner is good at this. In our conversations, he says, “I’m a dyed-in-the-wool Anabaptist…” What he is confessing is that he embraces the warts and wonders, the tradition and progression of his faith stream, and he isn’t ashamed of it, nor does he expect that everyone has to be like him.

2. Use labels correctly – only refer to someone with a label that they comfortably embrace. Nothing says, “I am not listening to you,” like giving someone a “compliment” that they would rather not have. Also, let’s not suppose that someone’s label (even though we don’t agree with them) disqualifies them from helping our discussion. In the midwest (where I am from), it is quite common for someone to call everyone that they don’t agree with either a “liberal or fundamentalist” (said with smugness and disdain- usually with an extra syllable or two). These labels don’t really match the person’s system of thought, exactly, it is just a short-hand way of telling everyone on their team that the other person is an “intellectually-inferior-yet-dangerous person.” To suggest that a different point of view has nothing to contribute or to aid our further development is immature and lazy. We need to quit that.

3. Use the adjective “biblical” wisely – nothing can both inspire and shutdown a conversation like “biblical.” I think of the Harper Lee’s commentary from To Kill a Mockingbird, “Sometimes the Bible in the hand of one man is worse than a whisky bottle in the hand (of another).” Putting “biblical” on something is not an entirely easy process. Sometimes when we ask the Bible a question, we get back a few answers, which is why the Bible should be read with tradition, in community, and in prayer.

3a. Speaking of the Bible, avoid “clobber passages” when debating it. There are certain discussions within our faith family that provoke one side to champion one passage concerning the issue and the other side(s) relying on another passage concerning the same issue. In the scuffle, each side tries to “clobber” the other with their passage, claiming that the other side(s) are “taking their passage out of context.” After further inquiry, it seems that all sides of the conversation could stand to listen to the other and do a bit more investigation of their own “clobber passage’s context.”

This is evidence of a strange way that we read the Bible. Scot McKnight suggests that we read the Bible through our Maestro, or preferred part (or author) of the Bible. It seems apparent that, since the Reformation, different faith groups have suggested that they have the right way to read the Bible against “those other traditions”… well, 31,000 (and counting) divisions later, the endeavor of finding a scientific, objective method for interpreting an ancient text (hermeneutics) appears to be a challenge and no one appears to have the corner on it. Refer to suggestions #1-2 above to find a more healthy way to engage in biblical discussion. After all, it was Aristotle who said that it is “the mark of an educated mind to be able to entertain a thought without accepting it.” Go and do likewise.

4. Remember, we are family. As a pastor, I see the aftermath of families that unravel. A common thread in these disruptions is how easily one is offended and how hard we make it to love one another. Do you think that it is too much to ask each of us to assume that the person across the table (or across the spectrum from our particular ideology) isn’t trying to wound us? To paraphrase Pope Francis, the more we chase ideology, the more we lose Jesus and chase away people. The lowest points in my life are when I strained out people in order to swallow an idea. Isn’t it interesting how the fruit of the Spirit appear to be absolutely concerned with relational qualities…

To paraphrase a famous line from the apophatic tradition of Christianity, “We are speaking of God, so we should not speak. But, because we are speaking of God, we should never stop speaking.” Friends, let’s continue to speak AND continue to suggest that I see things not as they are but as I am. A portion of our conversation about “ideas” is a way for each of us to be known, just like a family member is known both alongside and apart from the rest.

Perhaps with a bit of curiosity shaped with humility we can be the house (and the family) that the neighborhood finds valuable and wise.

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