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Posts Tagged ‘God’

A Miracle in Sonoma?

Sometimes, when we talk less, it’s amazing what we hear.

One highlight of my trip to San Francisco last month (to promote the book) was the chance to take part in “5 White Guys Talk about God,” a panel hosted by psychotherapist, author, and good friend Katy Byrne. (The title was strictly tongue-in-cheek.) When Katy heard I was coming west, she approached four of her clergy friends about holding a freewheeling “God conversation” in a local café. The six of us agreed that, in total, we’d talk for about 25% of the time, and let attendees take the other 75%.

Boy, was that a good call.

The comments from the audience came fast and from all over the map. One college-age church member discussed the active hostility to religion among people in her generation. Several ex-Catholics told us how badly the Church had treated them; several current Catholics traced their love of the faith to their childhoods. We heard from a man who has traveled the world to live with people in myriad faith traditions, and a woman who recently walked over coals for the first time. One fellow told us about the healings—and raisings of the dead—in his church.

It felt miraculous. Mostly, it inspired me to think about hunger—the emotional and existential kinds.

I sensed, for instance, a hunger for things of the spirit. Very few topics can draw 50 people to an indoor space on a luminous Sunday evening, as this one did. Moreover, the participants had clearly lived with and thought deeply about God, or at least the idea of God; I could hear the wisdom in even the most “ordinary” stories.

Take the Catholic who grew up in terror of missing Mass and committing mortal sin—until she realized her oh-so-devout mother never went to Mass. When asked, her mom replied, “Your father works very hard all week long, and he deserves a nice big family meal on Sundays. It’s my job to make that meal for all of you.” (Can we go so far as to call it her vocation?)

I also sensed a hunger for dialogue—and more capacity for doing dialogue than I might have thought. No one yelled. No one disparaged another’s faith. We mostly told stories from our experience and shared the view from our piece of the world. Precisely what you would expect in authentic dialogue.

Most fundamentally, though, I sensed a hunger to be heard. I wonder how much this hunger pervades all of us. We have these fascinating stories that are our stories, our contribution to the world. Many of us are, deep down, bursting to tell them—and they could make a difference in someone’s life if we do. Yet we have fewer and fewer places to tell our stories, thanks to the manic pace of modern life and our excessive individualism and a hundred other factors.

All of these hungers surfaced in one Sonoma café on one night. Seeing them filled, even if in part, was profoundly moving. It was a night that deserves celebration—a small sign of hope in a world that needs it.

Can Dialogue Pick Up Where Negotiation Leaves Off?

I was doing a live radio interview two Saturdays ago (Silver City Meetinghouse on WVBF AM1530 in southeastern Massachusetts; great hosts, fun show) when one of the co-hosts mentioned her work in labor-management relations. She consults with school districts using nontraditional methods of negotiation—specifically, methods that invite these traditional adversaries to work in tandem for a solution that benefits a whole, rather than against each other to get the most possible for their side.

As she described her work, I thought about the difficult position these negotiators must face. I suspect it’s a position many of us have faced, in other contexts.

When negotiators sit across from one another, at least two powerful forces conspire to draw them toward conflict and away from dialogue. First is the long history of adversarial relationship between the two sides: a great deal of hostility has flowed under the bridge over the decades, and mistrust has become instinct.

Even so, a negotiator deeply committed to dialogue might be able to overcome this personal animosity if not for the second force: she is beholden to someone else. Dialogue is not written into her job description; getting the very best agreement for her constituents is. If she dares to try understanding the other side, she risks facing hundreds of people who would accuse her of “selling out our interests.”

Could dialogue have any role in this? Is there any value in a negotiator’s stepping out into a virtual no man’s land to explore the issues together with the other side?

There may be, and it may have to do with what I see as a fundamental difference between negotiation and dialogue. Negotiation is all about compromise, giving up on certain points to get what you want. It is the natural choice for situations like labor-management relations, and of course it can be tremendously effective. The risk of negotiation, however, is that in the process of compromise the parties may never explore the deeper issues that underlie the points of disagreement. In the end, they may hammer out a mutually acceptable pact that addresses the details but none of the underlying issues. This is where dialogue—and its tendency toward exploration, toward mutual understanding—can have value.

And yes, there is no doubt that “rising above the fray” like this can bring a negotiator a lot of flak. It requires a great deal of internal fortitude (and/or external support) to face down the forces of conflict. Yet we desperately need people with that kind of fortitude—not only in the labor-management arena, but in the political sphere, interfaith dialogue, and many other places in the public square.

I think people of faith can play a significant role here, particularly those who have cultivated a deep connection with the Divine. These folks do not have to face the fray alone, because their hearts are full of the conviction that they are not alone. Their radical openness to God—an openness that, I have found, empowers them to let go of vested interests and “us vs. them” thinking—sets them free to initiate dialogue even in ultra-sensitive situations, heedless of the cost.

That’s the internal fortitude part of it. The external support is essential as well: finding allies who can nurture us even as we nurture them. It is much easier to let go of one’s position and deeply engage the other side when we know that people have our back. From a faith perspective, it is that same divine support expressed through the people around us.

So maybe dialogue does have a role to play in negotiating settlements. It certainly has a role to play when longtime adversaries meet to resolve issues in the public square. And the more our hearts and minds can be reoriented toward dialogue, the more readily we can enter the fray.

Moses and Where Change Comes From

But Moses said to God, “Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, and bring the Israelites out of Egypt?” God said, “I will be with you.”                           —Exodus 3:11-12a

 

Next Sunday, I have the privilege of returning to my old home church to give a sermon and then, over lunch, talk about dialogue. Like a good Episcopalian, I started with the prescribed scriptures for that day, and what emerged for me was a message about change. Two aspects of the message were clear right off the bat:

  1. God asks us to change: i.e., to repent—to leave our less-than-best selves behind and grow into God. Jesus hammers that point repeatedly in the Gospel reading.
  2. We’re not very good at change. Actually, you don’t need the Bible to tell you that. Just think about what happens to most weight-loss efforts and New Year’s resolutions.

If you’ve visited this space for any length of time, you know how important change is to this effort. As I see it, inner transformation can enable us to dialogue with a clear mind and an open heart. But…we’re not very good at it.

So what do we do?

I think one answer—for people of faith in particular—lies nearly hidden in that exchange between Moses and God. Moses, a shepherd and fugitive from justice, dwelling in an invisible backwater of the world, is suddenly asked to stare down a mighty oppressor and lead an entire nation to freedom. In response, he asks the question most of us would ask: “ME? Seriously? Who am I that I should go to Pharaoh, bring the Israelites out of Egypt, insist on justice and safety for transgender people, write a book, deliver a message to thousands, [insert impossible thing that God is asking you to do here]?”

The extraordinary thing about God’s response is where it starts. Moses asks a question about himself. But God’s response does not start with Moses; it starts with God. The issue is not “who you are,” it is that “I will be with you.”

For people of faith, at least, this changes the game entirely. We do not have to make the change alone—because we are not alone. Our lives are oriented toward a Reality that holds the power to make inner transformation happen. All we need to do is respond, consistently, day by day.

Powered by that Reality, inner transformation suddenly becomes doable. We have hope that, as people of faith, we can change. And that change can reorient us to engage others—not only in dialogue, but also in love.

Keeping Civil in an Angry World

In case you’re wondering…the manuscript for Why Can’t We Talk? Dialogue as a Habit of the Heart (available this fall from SkyLight Paths) was due June 29. Between that, my full-time job, and a few dialogue-related events, I never succeeded in finding a moment to blog. My apologies! The schedule is now returning to something like normal, thanks be to God. So, to get back on track…

 

It was only one word in an entire column. It wasn’t even a particularly important word. Yet it captured, in a nutshell, why I see dialogue as a matter of the heart.

Not too long ago, The Times Union ran an engaging profile of Rev. James Martin—a Jesuit priest, writer, and thinker—by one of its bloggers, Fran Rossi Szpylczyn. Right in the middle of the piece, Szpylczyn mentioned Martin’s pleasant and easygoing personality.

“With an ever-present smile, he is clever, yet perpetually charitable,” Szpylczyn wrote. “This alone is remarkable in a media culture where verbal swords are wielded in the name of some kind of justice or truth. Not for this priest. He is dedicated to keeping the conversation frank, but civil, at all times.”

There it was. Keeping. Keeping the conversation civil. It implied an attempt to restrain something powerful and potentially havoc-wreaking, as in “keep your temper,” “keep your head about you,” or “keep the children from running amok.”

Why should we have to keep conversation civil?

Because civility is not our instinct. Our instinct, rather, is toward defensiveness, anger, and debate. When people take issue with us, we often turn up the volume, which makes us appear more authoritative or more intimidating. To paraphrase Szpylczyn, we wield verbal swords.

Why do we lead with this reaction? Perhaps we’ve learned it over millennia of conflict with different people, tribes, and nations. Quite likely, it reflects our nature as a species, as exemplified in the fight-or-flight response.

This is where spirituality can help. Many of the world’s faith traditions focus on inner transformation: a fundamental turning away from self-centered concerns and toward an ultimate concern—which many people, me included, identify as God. As we turn toward God with our whole being, God transforms our whole being from the inside out. Transforms it into what? Faith traditions are well aligned on that too: toward compassion, toward wisdom, toward peacemaking.

Toward others.

When we practice this type of spirituality long enough, intently enough, our first reaction begins to change. We find ourselves instinctively reacting, not with hostility and defensiveness, but with curiosity, open-mindedness, compassion. Reflecting the God who embraces all, we start to embrace all—not just as an external practice, but as an impulse of the heart.

As a result, we no longer have to keep the conversation civil—because we already are civil. It becomes our nature.

And how much change can that make in the other? As it is written, “A soft answer turns away wrath” (Proverbs 15:1). If enough of us practice this spirituality, we can turn away wrath more broadly, on a larger scale. Maybe, just maybe, we can change the tone of our cultural and national conversations.

Dialogue and Language Makeovers, or, What Does “Died for Our Sins” Mean?

How do we know when our language needs a makeover?

One great thing about writing for the web is that it starts conversations with extraordinary people. Two months ago, Kathleen Turcic commented on an article I wrote for Huffpost Religion, and from there we had a most pleasant and stimulating email exchange.  In the process, she introduced me to her own venture, QuintessentialYou Design.

In a nutshell, Kathleen helps people live out their essential selves into their external circumstances, thus creating a life full of energy, passion, and purpose. While touring through her website, I was struck by how essentially spiritual and postmodern her language is. It’s not exactly light reading, but if you hang in there, I think you’ll find it expresses essential truths in words we’re all familiar with.

That got me thinking about the language of faith in general. How do we know when to keep using the time-honored words and phrases of millennia past, and when to update our language?

For instance: You may have noticed that I rarely use the word religion. Quite simply, it carries negative connotations for so many people that it can, I think, detract from my ability to connect with them. (The hordes of people who identify as “spiritual but not religious” serve as evidence to this point.) So I talk about faith, faith traditions, and spirituality, but I try to avoid the “R-word.”

Here’s why this matters. Most faith traditions have “good news” that cries out to be shared in, I would submit, respectful dialogue. Christianity, in particular, urges its followers to share the good news of Jesus. Yet these faith traditions, and their language, are at least two millennia old. Are we authentically sharing the good news in our postmodern world if postmodern people can’t understand our ancient language?

Wickedly controversial case in point: “God sent Jesus, his only Son, to die as a sacrifice for our sins.” To the ancient Jews, with their system of temple sacrifices and offerings, this faith statement probably made some sense; they at least had a point of reference from which to grapple with it. We postmoderns have no such point of reference. That’s why, to many people who are not Christians (and some who are), the statement makes God sound barbaric. What kind of God needs a sacrifice, let alone the sacrifice of his own offspring, to appease his anger?

Now, whether you take this statement literally or metaphorically, it does speak to the wild extravagance of God’s all-consuming love for humanity. But many people in our age can’t get past the seeming cruelty of the act itself. Do we need entirely new language, or perhaps a tweak of the old language, to make the same point? Can we change the language without changing the message?

I don’t know the answer, but I think this deserves discussion—not just on the “died for our sins” point, but on many others in many faith traditions. What do you think?

Mindshift Part 2: Dialogue and “the Poor”

A friend of mine is looking for a job. She has a wonderfully diverse background but, for various reasons, has spent years living around the poverty line. Recently she was asked to interview for a job in line with some of her prior education (law school). To me, it had all the earmarks of a calling.

I find vocation fascinating, because it’s such a wondrous process. Elements of your background fit together in a way no one could have predicted. Something triggers a yearning you never knew you had. A passing remark illumines a pathway for the next stage of your life. I think I see that happening with my friend, and I told her so.

She was having none of it.

In no uncertain terms, she expressed her impatience with talk of vocation. When you know poverty, she said, you’re not focused on some ethereal call; you’re looking for a job. Something that puts bread on the table and keeps body and soul together till the next paycheck. This friend of mine consistently seeks God’s will for her life, so the notion of calling is not foreign to her. But her concern here was more immediate.

See the key words in the previous paragraph? When you know poverty.

I don’t. I never really have. My one brush with poverty lasted only a year or two, and even then I always knew where my next meal was coming from. By bringing me up short, my friend shed light on an entire frame of mind that I had never even considered.

I need a mindshift. A big one, as I mentioned in our previous post.

This particular mindshift is essential for people of faith in general, and middle-class (and up) Christians in particular. The Bible is rife with evidence of God’s concern for the poor; some theologians call it the single most important message therein. The Magnificat, Mary’s glorious prayer in the Gospel of Luke, expresses this elegantly:

(God) has scattered the proud in the imagination of their hearts.
He has put down the mighty from their thrones,
and exalted those of low degree.
He has filled the hungry with good things;
and the rich He has sent empty away.

Churches can serve poor people without knowing them intimately—through financial support, for example. But if we stop there, I think we fall short of God’s call to stand in solidarity with the poor. That requires something deeper: face-to-face encounters, together with the mindshift in which we set aside our preconceptions, our experiences, our whole ways of thinking, and listen intently to the experience of the other.

If we do that, our eyes will be opened and our perspective expanded. We will stop thinking of “the poor” as a monolithic group and see the diverse humanity therein. Our approach to social issues surrounding poor people will change. So, in essence, will we—toward a more open heart, hand, and mind. All due to a mindshift that prepares the soil of our soul for authentic dialogue.

God’s Dialogue Command

If you pray the Daily Office, you may have run across this passage earlier in the week: 

You shall not hate your brother in your heart, but you shall reason with your neighbor, lest you bear sin because of him. You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge…but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord. (Leviticus 19:17-18, RSV) 

This comes from part of the Torah known to many scholars as the Holiness Code. According to the text, God has called the people of Israel to “be holy, for I the Lord your God am holy” (v. 2), and now he’s telling them how to do it. The list of commandments is an inspiration to anyone with high ethical standards: do not oppress your neighbor, do not be partial to the rich (or the poor) in judgment, leave produce in your field for the poor. 

And reason with your neighbor. 

It’s hard to reason without dialogue. Can we say, then, that God called the people of Israel—and, by extension, is calling us—into dialogue? 

Maybe. Speaking for God with certainty is risky business, of course. But it is interesting to find this command ensconced amid so many others that lay out the basics of just, fair, merciful behavior. 

Even more interesting is how close this passage ties “reasoning with your neighbor” to matters of love and hate. You shall not hate, so you must reason. You shall not hate, so you must love your neighbor as yourself. 

That says two things to me. First, dialogue is an alternative to hate—even a way through hate. It’s difficult to hate someone when she’s talking with you. 

The second thing keeps us talking: a commitment to love. When, in our hearts, we can commit ourselves to seek the other person’s good, for better or worse, we don’t give up. We might take a break from dialogue to clear our heads or let the emotion dissipate. But love keeps us coming back to the table—if not to agree, then to learn how to respect each other within our differences. 

Imagine what would happen if, say, the warring factions within the Christian Church acted this out. Might they actually find a way to live together, conflicts and all?

Getting to Openness…to Get to Dialogue

I wrote last week that for dialogue to work, we have to open our minds and hearts and keep them open, even when the discussion boils over. But how on earth can we do that?

I don’t think we can—not on our own.

Yes, there are things we can do. The longer we practice openness, for instance, the more it becomes woven into us. Eventually, we become open almost by habit. 

But practice alone is rarely enough to effect lasting change. One reason is the typical failure of sheer willpower: think dieting and you know what I mean. A second reason is the position in which openness places us: by definition, we become extraordinarily vulnerable—especially to those who attack us and defend themselves. The willingness to be open is one thing; the emotional capacity to be open is quite another. It calls for an inner strength that few can muster alone.

This is where the Divine comes in. 

As we seek to encounter God on an ongoing basis—in prayer, in meditation, in reflective reading of sacred texts, in communities of believers, in the world—the Divine Spirit fosters a connection with us at the core of our being. In the process, that same Spirit also molds us, gradually, into people more “in the image of God”: people of peace, of justice, of compassion. The Benedictines call this conversion of life: a slow, persistent turning of one’s life, from the inside out, to something better.

That has two profound effects on dialogue. First, through this conversion process, we find ourselves not so much practicing virtues like openness as watching them flourish within us. The connection with the Divine opens us automatically to the world beyond our own skin. We begin to see things from a larger perspective. We become acutely aware of our place in the universe: as one person among billions, with one perspective among billions. We almost can’t help but be more open.

Second, when we enter into this encounter, we no longer need to muster the inner strength alone—because we no longer are alone. In the Christian and Jewish scriptures, God continually reassures his people with the words “I am with you.”

This, I think, is why people of faith are uniquely positioned to lead the movement toward fruitful dialogue—because they are connected with a transformative Power than can orient them toward fruitful dialogue. How ironic, then, that many people of faith have developed reputations for the very shouting and contentiousness that plague us today.

It is time for us to act out the words of the magnificent Shaker hymn: “To turn, turn will be our delight, till by turning, turning we come round right.” If we turn toward God, we turn toward dialogue—and take up a critical role in transforming a world that so desperately needs it.