Tolerance → Acceptance → Understanding → Love

Some years ago, when I had had two heart attacks within a week, I decided that part of my recovery would be to visualize my heart healing, moving from damaged to strong. I painted two watercolor pictures, one very literal, showing my sick heart developing collateral circulation (which it did) and the other more abstract. And I thought long and hard about broken hearts.

There are many ways hearts are broken. Some, like mine, are literally, physically broken. Hearts are often broken by hardship and despair. When our emotions are severely damaged, we are broken-hearted. Failure and loss can cause heartbreak. Relentless conflict can break us down.

Right now, the political conflict in our country makes a lot of us feel as if we’ve suffered a collective heart attack. Pain, along with shock, followed by disbelief, fear, and anger. Weakness and anxiety. The knowledge that nothing can ever be quite the same. Dread of what may come. Uncertainty about what may and may not be possible. A recognition that recovery and rehabilitation will require a lot of very hard work.

That hard work has barely begun. Severe damage has been done to our assumptions about who we are as a nation, and to our concepts of civility, government of the people, and human unity. Political action from all directions may spur us to deeper thought about these things, but more is needed in the long run. Resistance, hate-filled rhetoric, and the reiteration of established biases, both right and left, won’t heal our hearts. We need to stop complaining and begin building bridges, not citadels.

The movement we need as a nation, and as a world, isn’t political. It isn’t a matter of institutions, parties, and religions. It’s a matter of consciousness and spirit. We need to find the sacred wholeness that underlies everything. Then we can move from tolerance to acceptance, and from there to understanding and even love.

The world can seem to be full of violence and hate. In such a world, too often about the best we are able to manage is tolerance. Tolerance says, “I acknowledge your right to exist, but I don’t really want anything to do with you. I’ll leave you alone, as long as you stay in your assigned place and don’t annoy me with your differences.”

In our real, ordinary, daily lives, we often do much better than mere tolerance – with people around us. We may truly accept people we know, even when we disagree. People at a distance, people we don’t really know, may be a different story entirely. It’s not so very hard to distance ourselves from people we don’t encounter at all, and label them as “different” or “enemy.”

Even at its best, acceptance has its limitations. Acceptance says, “I’m willing to interact with you, even to care about you, but there are boundaries. When your ideas and convictions are in conflict with mine, I don’t want to hear about them. Keep to the safe subjects, and we can be friends.”

The positive aspect of such acceptance is that it recognizes the important things we have in common. It acknowledges our common humanity, in spite of our different opinions. The problem is that it doesn’t let us see one another wholly. We walk around with blinders on, happily assuming that everyone else is just like us. We rarely feel a need to consider the value of our own ideas, because we don’t even hear the alternatives. And because we are imperfect creatures shaped by what we have been taught and by our experiences (and therefore biased – yes, all of us), we can be startled and repelled to find that someone is different in some way. When we discover that someone we have accepted is in some way contrary to our biases, we feel betrayed, or angry, or badly confused. Our acceptance changes.

We need to go deeper. We can’t take our own beliefs to be some sort of monumental truth that everyone should agree to. Acceptance is a normal human need. But deeper than that, we all yearn to be understood. Not just recognized, not just accepted, but truly known. We need understanding, understanding of ourselves and understanding of those who think otherwise.

Understanding requires that we listen to one another, at all possible levels. We can’t refuse to hear the ideas of others, even if we find them repellant. We don’t have to agree with them or keep quiet when we disagree, but we do have to listen and accept that those ideas are as real as ours are, and as sincere. It helps to remind ourselves that others can disagree and not be wrong. Ignoring or belittling sincerely held beliefs and concepts only leads to deeper division.

When we truly listen to others, we come to understand not only what they believe but also why they believe it. With that understanding, we can begin to see one another’s true selves, and our hearts can begin to heal. As understanding grows, so does our awareness of our connection. Whether or not we are in agreement, we are connected, and we can build on that connection. We can build bridges and discover our underlying unity. Diversity doesn’t undermine that human unity – it makes it richer.

Understanding says, “I see you as you are, and I respect your being even when we don’t agree. I value you as a person, and I can see your truth, even when it isn’t mine. We are all flawed and incomplete, but we are connected, and together we are more than the sum of our individual selves.” Understanding is not totally sequential, nor is it a straight path. It’s a spiral that grows upward and outward and deeper and richer as it progresses. We move back and forth and around on that spiral, and as we reach fuller understanding of others, we also gain fuller understanding of ourselves. The two go together.

Love grows out of understanding. It’s very hard to hate or despise someone whose deepest beliefs and feelings you not only know but understand. When we truly understand one another, we recognize our mutual humanity and the spiritual reality that connects everything that is. And what is that but love?


Finding Peace

The past year has been a hard one. Strident. Violent. Frightening. We’ve seen the worst human impulses acted out in public, sometimes by what seem to be fanatics and sometimes by people very like ourselves and our friends. The future seems uncertain, with threats of further violence and injustice looming. Where do we look, then, for peace? How can we find inner peace in a turbulent world?

True peace is never external. For one thing, there has never in human history been a time when any society has been free of conflict. Tension and disagreement are natural characteristics of human existence. There has never been a “golden age” of peace and tranquility. We can’t recapture a time that never was.

Yet most of us have experienced times of peace and joy. Moments so filled with love and beauty that they linger with us, enriching our lives. We can choose to live in the elements of those moments, even though the moments themselves are past. We don’t have to live in the conflicts and threats of violence that surround us.

If enough of us choose to live in peace and connection, we can draw others away from the desire to act out their worst fears in violence and injustice. Inner peace leads to connection, and connection leads to peace in the world.

So how do we find peace within? That’s the first question.

Peace is individual; we each have to make our own way to it. I can’t speak for anyone but myself, but I do believe that what I’ve experienced is not very different from the experiences of others. So when I speak for myself, I’m hoping that you will find resonances there that connect with you.

For me, peace begins with the spiritual practice of looking for God’s presence everywhere and in everyone. I find the sacred in everything that is beautiful, and in everything that is ugly but has the potential for beauty within it. That covers just about everything I encounter.

It was easy to love God in all that was beautiful.
The lessons of deeper knowledge, though,
Instructed me to embrace God in all things.
– – – – – – – – 
St. Francis of Assisi

When the potential for beauty is not realized, it can be heart-wrenching and even tragic. But the potential is still there – God is still there – and I can choose to love the presence of God in even the worst circumstances. People don’t have to be good or lovely or admirable or “right” in order to be loveable. God is present in suffering and in what appears to us to be evil. And it’s that presence of God that makes it possible for us to connect, to be aware that we are all part of the interconnected and interdependent universe.

A vitally important component of that awareness is self-understanding. I have to know and understand my own emotions and the behaviors that grow out of them before I can be truly aware of others and live out my connection to them. That means that I have to look closely at what I most dislike in myself, not just at what I like. I have to examine my own fears, anger, grief, hatreds, shame, and guilt, as well as my own joys, passions, and loves. And I must apply what I learn about my feelings to my own behaviors. In every circumstance, I must ask myself, “What in my own self and in my experience has led me to feel what I feel?” “Why did I act the way I did?”  When I understand myself and my emotions, I gain a new perspective that makes it possible for me to find peace within myself.

We are all often afraid – or sometimes just wary – of what we don’t understand and foolishly think we should somehow be able to control. Understanding diminishes fear. When we see our fears clearly, we can learn to lament them, express them fully to ourselves, and let them shrink in importance.  All of this is hard work, and it takes time.  But it is truly worth the effort.

The second question is this: how can we find peace in connection with others, and build greater peace in our world?

When I understand myself, it becomes much easier to understand others and be aware of our connection as part of a shared universe. Human emotions are universal. There are dark places in all of us; claiming my own dark places makes it possible for me to understand and forgive the dark places of others.

We all have light places in us, too. The connection that grows out of self-awareness makes it possible for us to share light with others, both our light and theirs. And in that shared light, we can see the real proportions of our conflicts and disagreements. They generally turn out to be much smaller than we had thought, and our shared connections much larger. After all, we don’t have to think alike to be human together.

In that shared light, we can find peace. Even though conflicts continue, we can choose not to be defined by them, choose not to live in them, be consumed by them. We can choose to live in our shared humanness. And the flow of peace in the universe increases.

Moving Toward the Sacred

We find the sacred all around us, in nature, in the works of human hands, in our actions in community, in other people, in all the movements of grace.  One of our great challenges as human beings is to learn to see the sacred around us and within us, and to move toward it.  But how do we do that?

It seems to me that moving toward the sacred requires a certain amount of introspection.  For some people, this is difficult.  We’re not an introspective culture.  We tend to be focused on doing, accomplishing, striving to survive and thrive in a world that often feels hostile or at least challenging.  Some people just don’t see any benefit in introspection – they imagine that they know what they need to do, and they want to get on with it.  Others are frightened at the thought of going within, of finding things in themselves that they may not like.  But the inward journey is a joyful one, because it leads to peace, harmony, and acceptance.


Look Inward

Come, heart, look inward.
What do you see?  A human soul, with all its flaws,
Imperfect as a sunset sky striped with bright clouds,
A soul so made for love that no tight scars
Of grief, abuse, regret can fully bind it,
But love will gush out in streams of light
Or glow softly in hidden embers, ready to flame up
At the first breath.

Look inward, heart, and find the One
Who makes a home and lights the rooms with joy.
Look inward, find the threads of life
That connect the soul to everything that ever was,
Reaching out through time and space
In intricate, interwoven dance,
All wrapped together in the embrace of God.

Getting Lost

Two days ago, a friend and I drove out along the Old National Road – US 40 – to photograph a few of the churches in our presbytery for a project I’m doing.  It was a beautiful day, filled with sun and clouds, but bitterly cold for November, and very windy.  We found the first two churches on my list with no trouble.  And then we got lost.

I had gotten directions from the pastor of Ebenezer Presbyterian Church, but still we found ourselves wandering among the cornfields on narrow county roads, dodging the huge semis with their trailers full of the last of the corn harvest.  Roads in this part of the old Northwest Territory (that’s NW of the Ohio River, by the way) are generally laid out on a grid, for ease of navigation.  Ha!  While roads may follow a grid pattern, streams don’t, and there’s never a guarantee that a given road will go as far as you hope it will.  On the other hand, it’s hard to get truly lost, since the grid will eventually lead you to a main highway.  Commercial maps, of course, don’t show the county roads, and the online maps often fail to show them accurately.  Since we were looking for a church that had no street address, out in the middle of a vast stretch of fields, even the online maps were no help.

I drove around for half an hour or more, stopping at intersections to consult with my friend.  Finally, we found our way back to US 40.  Having thoroughly confused myself, I headed west.  We shortly began to recognize landmarks and realized we were too far west of the one-stoplight town that had been our take-off point for the cornfields.  So I turned around and drove east.  Once again, I turned south at the stoplight.  This time, we kept a sharp eye out for the road we needed.  It turned out to be hidden just beyond a small hill with a farmhouse on top of it, across from a large farm next to a road that had a different name.  My friend spotted the road we needed and I saw it just in time to turn.  Two miles on, as promised by my friend the pastor, we came to the church.

When the men of Israel went out from Mizpah into the countryside and defeated the Philistines (I Samuel 7), the prophet Samuel set up a marker stone or cairn and named it Ebenezer, which means “stone of help.”  I think that Ebenezer is a fitting name for this particular church, set out in the countryside among the corn fields, even though the church is built of brick.

This was the third day-long trip to photograph churches that I’d made in the past month.  On each trip, I got lost.  The first time was out in the hills and fields south of the city, where the landscape is closed in and roads and streams meander around the hills and through woods.  I found the church I was looking for, but then the online map sent me onto roads that didn’t exist.  I tried to use my native sense of direction – and the grid.  Ha, again!  I found myself on the aptly-named Maze Road.  Finally, I spotted Frontage Road, and the Interstate beyond it.  Wonderful, I thought – surely the frontage road will take me to an intersection with the highway, and then I’ll know where I am.  So I followed Frontage Road for several miles, until it abruptly turned away from the highway without ever giving me a glimpse of an interchange.

I tried to get back north and west to find an interchange, but by then the sun was going down, and the roads were getting narrower and the woods darker.  I was retracing earlier wanderings.  Finally I happened across a wider road that actually had a yellow stripe down the middle – and, wonder to behold, a big truck on it!  I followed the truck to the Interstate.  By then, of course, it was too late to visit the last church on my list.

On my second outing, on a beautiful cool, sunny day, I got lost again when the online directions I was following claimed that two highways were one.  I could find each of the two, but not on the same strip of asphalt.  After driving up and down one road twice over, I gave up and once again tried to grid my way to the state route I was hoping to find.  Eventually, I stopped at my third gas station to ask directions and found someone who actually knew where the highway was.  He pointed me in the right direction and told me to go three blocks to Madison Street, which would take me to the highway.  So I went three blocks, only to find that Madison Street was one way – in the wrong direction.  I went on to the next street, turned left, and found the highway.

So where, in all this wandering, did I find the sacred?  First of all, in three days of glorious sunshine, driving around the kind of countryside I grew up in but lived away from most of my adult life.  The sense of Home was profound.  Secondly, since I was alone on the first two trips, I spent a lot of time talking with God.  And on the third trip, my friend and I, who have been spiritual companions for many years, talked together about God, the unity of all faiths, and the interconnectedness of everything that exists.  And also about what’s wrong with the church and theology.

These days were a time of being, of letting the present moment simply fill my mind and spirit, lost or not.  It was easy to savor each moment, each new landscape, each view.  I stepped out of my everyday life into the larger landscape of God’s world, and it was a blessing.

Waiting for Transformation

The apples sit in my aunt’s kitchen sink, glistening with fresh water, evidence of the sacred in a suburban back yard.  They’re little – hard and sour beneath skins that are satiny, yellow-green, speckled with brown.  These are not apples for eating fresh.  But they can be transformed.  They cook up gloriously into apple pies, applesauce, apple butter; and the added sugar and spice bring out their quintessential apple flavor.

We’re hard little sour apples, too, with our own speckles and flaws.  But we too can be transformed – are constantly being transformed.  Life chops us up and cooks us down, but with the addition of the sugar of love and the spice of grace, we become – together – something more than we were.  Transformed, perhaps, into our truer selves.

Trust and the Church

Churches aren’t businesses.  Churches aren’t schools.  Churches aren’t civic organizations.  Churches are (or are supposed to be) sacred communities.  Trust is a vital component of life together in a sacred community – trust in God, and trust in one another.  What makes that trust sacred is our acceptance that circumstances and human flaws will violate that trust over and over again, and yet we go on trusting.

Trust doesn’t just happen.  The basis for trust may be a revelation (Saul on the road to Damascus), but more often trust is based on experience over time (the Hebrew people in the wilderness).  Even when a church community is eager to trust, its ability to trust will be strongly influenced by experience, particularly its experience of decision-making.  How decisions are made is a major factor in building trust in God and trust in one another.

Two major styles of decision-making seem to be dominant in our culture.  The first is goal-oriented, and the second is process-oriented.  With few exceptions, we each have a preference (which may be strong, weak, or somewhere in between) for one approach or the other.  Unfortunately, we generally have an inbuilt assumption that our preferences are shared by everyone else – or at least understood.  In addition, our culture places such a high value on the goal-oriented approach that those with this preference may have a hard time understanding why their decision-making processes are ever questioned, and those with a process-oriented preference may have a hard time trusting the more goal-oriented.  Understanding these two approaches to decision-making is vital if trust within the community is to be developed and maintained.

Goal-oriented people tend to make decisions based on their own judgment of how things ought to be.  They may seek advice, or consult with a trusted group, but once they’ve decided what the goal is and how it should be reached, the decision is made.  When leadership is strongly goal-oriented, a great deal can be accomplished, so long as everyone shares the leader’s goals and methods of reaching those goals.

However, every community includes a good number of people whose preference is for a process-oriented form of decision-making.  These people are likely to question the validity of the leader’s goals, since those goals are perceived as imposed, not as the product of shared discernment.  At this point, trust will diminish.  Even when these people agree with the goals, they may be uncomfortable with the methods used to reach them.  Often their discomfort has a valid basis, since strongly goal-oriented leaders are likely to regard method or process as less important than their goals.

Process-oriented people tend to focus more on the method of reaching a decision.  They may have a goal in mind, but they are aware of how shared perceptions may uncover multiple possibilities that can modify both goal and process.  When leadership is strongly process-oriented, a real sense of community and shared decision-making can grow and flourish, nourishing trust.  If developed well, process itself can help build a culture of inclusion and shared responsibility.  It can also make good use of the unforeseen serendipity of diverse minds working together.

If the decision-making process goes on too long without results, however, the more goal-oriented people in the community will become impatient with what has come to seem an endless process of discussion.  If the process becomes much more important than the goals, goals may never be clearly set, and when they are, those goals may never be reached.  When people begin to think that nothing is getting done, and that no real progress is being made, trust declines and dissatisfaction sets in.

How, then, can we avoid both extremes and make good use of both styles of decision-making?  The most important factor is understanding the differences.  Since both styles of decision-making are likely to be represented in any group, a guided discussion of both styles can help develop respect for both approaches.  A strongly goal-oriented leader needs to be aware that simply announcing goals and process to a group charged with making decisions does not work for everyone.  And a strongly process-oriented leader needs to honor the desire of members of the group to set clear goals and reach conclusions in a timely fashion.

True shared decision-making, honoring and using well both styles, is an ideal foundation for building trust within the community.   We make much better decisions when we discern our direction together, using our pooled gifts, experiences, and ideas to open ourselves to the mind of God.  The goal-oriented leader must honestly seek the contributions of all members of the decision-making group, listening carefully and taking what is heard into full account in determining the process of decision-making.  The process-oriented leader must honestly value the need to clarify goals and reach decisions in a timely manner and be willing to conclude the process even if every detail is not fully agreed.

When a church community practices healthy shared decision-making, honoring the preferences in style of every member of the decision-making group, Christ is at the center of the decisions made and the Holy Spirit has room to work transformation within the community.  And trust grows.

In Harmony

One of the major criticisms of the church today is the ongoing conflict within and across traditional denominations.  We’re divided on issues such as the ordination of women and LGBT persons, birth control and abortion, and other personal issues.  We’re divided on issues of social justice, including education, war, immigration, investment policies, the minimum wage, same-sex marriage, and the roles of government and big business.  In other words, we as churches reflect all the disagreements and conflicts of our societies.  And we can forget the more important things that unite us in God.

We humans have a bad habit of turning disagreements into conflict.  Most of us find conflict uncomfortable, so we try to avoid disagreements.  Some even go so far as to seek a church where everyone thinks alike.  But conflict doesn’t have to be destructive, and isolation from conflicting ideas isn’t a solution.

If your ideas differ from mine on an issue important to us both, we might both seek to avoid conflict by not ever talking about that issue.  But is that really the best way to relate to one another, interacting on the surface and ignoring one another’s concerns and passions?  Even if we know we would do better to listen to one another more deeply, we may be afraid of losing the esteem or friendship we value.

And yet it is when we disagree – even to the point of conflict – that we encounter an important opportunity for growth.  When we use our disagreements not to try to convince another to think our way but to work for better and deeper understanding of each other, we can learn and gain in understanding, even though our different convictions remain to enrich the depth and understanding of our community.  And I believe that this deeper understanding of one another, including our disagreements, is how we are meant to live in community.

Think in terms of harmony.  Living in unity in God does not mean we all sing the same note.  Just as a chord is more interesting, richer, deeper than a single note, so is a community of diverse ideas and convictions more interesting, richer, and deeper than a community with a single set of beliefs.

When we define our differences as discord, we assume that there is a “right” way of thinking and that anything else is “wrong” – a false note in the chord.  So we seek to avoid this discord in one way or another.  But what happens when we define our differences as harmony?  What happens when we base our interactions with one another on the assumption that all of our voices belong in the chord – or the orchestra or choir – and that no one is “wrong”?  Then we can begin to value each voice, listen to it, and seek harmony with it – even when the note being sung is not our particular note.  Then, by listening, sharing, and learning to value our differences, we enter into the harmony of true unity in God.