All or Nothing : Building Bridges in an Age of Extremism

22 years ago when I lived in California a dear British friend used to call me her “all or nothing friend”. She’d say “I ask you what time it is and you give me the workings of a clock.” And she was right. Back then I was very interested in all the “back story” and things for me were always quite extremely “right” or “wrong”. I still love a good back story. But the extremes have faded.

Now I’m not so all or nothing. Living for long and short stays in 4 different countries over the past 22 years, struggling to learn to say “go” in a dozen ways in just one language (!!!), adjusting to one culture that deems it rude to sniffle while another has no problem hocking up and spitting on the street…I have very few “all or nothing” points in my mind and heart anymore. The ones I have are sacred, and are the same yesterday, today and forever. But all other opinions of mine that used to seem so important (what size to cut your potatoes for potato salad? THIS is a BIG deal in some countries where I have lived!) most all those mountains are molehills now, they have been crushed out of me by the myriad of cultural differences in each country I’ve lived and visited.

But as some cultural understandings were being driven out, I was gaining others. After awhile not only did I think nothing of walking the same streets Doestoevsky or Gogol once had, some things in my every day life that seemed straight out of their fantastic novels began to feel quite normal to me.

Nuanced Thinking
So if my thinking wasn’t complicated and nuanced before moving overseas (and it was) it really is now. Some people find it annoying, offensive or fake. They accuse me of playing games, of being condescending or passive aggressive, of being too analytical. That’s sad to me because none of that is my intention. For me, clarifying what is meant in a conversation has simply become a way of life. I have little “base” culture left. I haven’t been living in America for over two decades, and yet I’m still a foreigner anywhere else I have lived.

“…clarifying what is meant in a conversation has simply become a way of life.”

For 20 years I had proportionately little time speaking in my native English. In Kyiv I typically spoke Russian, while the Ukrainian girls I lived with spoke Russian or Ukrainan to me. When I visited and lived for a few months in Kyrgysztan my “surzhik” (Russian / Ukrainian mix) was often not understood. The church in Bishkek was bilingual (Kyrygyz and Russian!) and the one back “home” in Kyiv functioned predominantly in Ukrainian. The majority of “English speakers” that I have spoken with over the years in my time not in the US are usually not native speakers, so I’ve gotten used to hearing broken English, often asking clarifying questions. (And that’s just for the communication hurdles on “their” side of things, there’s just as much or more on “my” side.)

I can’t tell you the amount of words or phrases I said for years in Ukraine only to find out – (in my last months or weeks living there!) – that I had been saying them wrong all that time. (And I’m sure there are many more I’ll never know!) There were two phrases in particularl – “neh- skolko” and “nee-skolko” that mean almost the same thing, but are not the same thing at all! The first means “a few” and the second means “NONE”! I thought they were just different pronunciations (between the two languages there) of the same word. So many times I would be at the open air market and think I was asking for “a few” bananas and in reality was saying “give me NONE bananas, please”. When the seller would ask me, repeatedly, how many I wanted, I would get irate thinking “Man! I’ve told them so many times! What is the problem?!” Really, what was the problem? Me! And I didn’t even know it.

“What is the problem?! Me! And I didn’t even know it!”

Different Culture / Different Communication
So since I have lived with, worked with, worshipped and done life with people from many different languages and cultures over the years it has changed the way I think. I wish I could say I never said anything stupid or wrong in any language – foreign or native! – but I have and I do. We all do. But it’s not my goal. So that’s why I ask questions.

You can’t even believe how many times over the years I have had to say (after intently listening to a long, emotional story someone has poured out to me in a foreign language to me) “Ok, IF I understood you correctly you said this and that.” It’s hard. Probably more so for them than for me. They wonder if I even heard them and they feel silly or even angry for wasting their time to try and share their heart.

It’s humbling for me, especially when it turns out I actually HAVE understood them correctly. I could’ve saved myself the embarrassment by just assuming I understood and going on with the conversation. But I wanted to make sure before I responded. I wanted to know that I had heard them correctly. I wish I did this so much more. All too often it is “open mouth, engage brain” rather than the other way around. But I try. And also I try to when (not if!) I mess up to then fess up, own up and try again.

So why am I going on about all this (not just because I like the backstory, either!) ? It’s because if there ever has been a time to really listen to each other, it’s now. If there has ever been a time to ask questions, to clarify, to make sure we understood the person correctly before responding – its now. We want protestors to be breaking barriers of communication and injustice – not windows. We want police to be pressing in to protect and serve, not on necks to kill. Many protestors are peaceful and many police are selfless, but sadly not all. So we can’t assume. We never could, but especially not now. And how we respond so often says more about us than it does about the person we are, hopefully, listening to.

“How we respond so often says more about us than it does about the person we are, hopefully, listening to.”

Questioning to Hear
So many times in the Bible people would come to Jesus and ask him a question and he, in turn, would respond with a question. That used to make me crazy when I read that with my Western mindset. Then I left the US and was surrounded by more eastern thinking people and I heard that type of conversation a lot! I began to realize that when questions are asked (or not answered!) it is not always about getting the RIGHT answer. Sometimes it’s not even about getting an answer. Often it’s about building relationship. It’s about letting the other person know that you did, in fact hear them. You may not be ready to answer. They may not be ready to answer. Neither of you may even know the answer. But you heard each other. This is one thing I think I’ve learned from the other cultures I lived in. (I confess it’s still a work in progress for me).

Questioning to Clarify
At other times questions from people in other cultures have been what they also have become for me now – a tool for clarification. Especially if it’s a new concept. So many times with the publishing house I started in Kyiv, in response to the way I wanted to describe a project or promote something, I would hear – “We don’t say it that way. We don’t do it that way. Our people don’t have that understanding.” And I would ask “You don’t say or do it that way because you think it’s wrong, or because you don’t have this concept here? Is it a new concept?” Sometimes my staff was right. There truly was no way to translate what made so much sense to me in English into Ukrainian. But sometimes there was. So we just kept talking. And so often it was simply a new concept. So we would find a new way of calling this new thing we were doing. (I mean, whoever came up with “fire” for that hot thing that keeps us warm was genius!) And right now in we have to find a new way to talk about new things. Even things that are painfully old to some people are frighteningly new to many others. So we have to keep talking until some of us understand the old things, and other of us aren’t afraid of the new things.

“We have to find a new way to talk about new things.”

Jesus Built Bridges
Things in our world now are anything but simplistic. There are myriads of views that I agree with and many that I strongly disagree with. I try to look for the things I can agree with. When I see something I agree with, even if it is woven throughout other things I don’t agree with, I try to jump on with “all fours” the point I can get behind. Like Jesus eating with tax collectors. Did he condone the greed and exploitation of the tax collectors? No. But he wanted to be with those people to hear their heart stories and to offer them his. He wanted to know what they felt was their truth in their lives and offer them The Truth, The Way and The Life – his life, death, and resurrection. When Jesus said, when asked regarding taxes, to “give to Ceasar that which is Ceasar’s and to God what is God’s”, he wasn’t so much extolling the unfair tax system as he was reminding his followers to not get all hung up on taxes to a mortal ruler when there was an immortal God who didn’t want something as meager as their money, He wanted their hearts, and everything that comes with it.

“God didn’t want something something as meager as their money, He wanted their hearts, and everything that comes with it.”

Or remember the woman at the well? She had been married 5 times and the man she was living with then was not her husband. THAT would have been what many might have led with if they started a conversation with her regarding faith. “Agree with me that how you’re living is wrong and agree to live by these moral standards or there’s no point in this conversation. It’s all or nothing.” It’s what I might have started conversations about faith with when I was younger, before I was forced to face so many of my weaknesses and failings. Being himself without sin Jesus is the only one that could’ve pushed her on those points, and yet he didn’t.

Instead Jesus let her make her points and ask her questions for some time before bringing the conversation up to the issue of her moral life, and then when it fit in the conversation. And what did this woman go away excitedly telling everyone she could about this encounter with Jesus? “Hey I met a man that had the answers to all my questions!” Or even “Hey! I met a man who pointed out my sins and faults and told me how I should be living?” Although he essentially did do both of those things, he did it in such a way, after hearing from her and letting her speak and question and doubt, that her response was “Come meet a man that told me everything I ever did!” Rather than running from Jesus she wanted others to run with her to him!

“Rather than running from Jesus she wanted others to run with her to him!”

With this woman’s specific life circumstances and in that time and culture I would be willing to bet that everyone in that area could tell her “everything she ever did”! They all knew her story…or thought they did. So what was the difference now with Jesus? Why did she go away rejoicing and wanting everyone to meet Jesus? Because he heard her. He knew her. He let her ask questions of him and he asked questions of her. They conversed. They connected. He showed her that she had value. He offered her that which would meet her deepest need. Something he could have only done once he had, in fact, heard of her deepest need. She had been seen, heard and although not agreed with, she had been treated with dignity. In short, he saw her for all she was and loved her.

Because isn’t that what we feel when someone – rather than sarcasm, snarkiness, assuming the worst or making accusations – actually listens to us? We feel valued. We feel heard. We feels seen. We feel loved. Jesus had the decided advantage that he “knew what was in men’s hearts”. We don’t. As much as we think we do, we don’t. We need to ask questions and then really listen. I need to ask questions and really listen.

Give an Account for Every Word
The Bible says that we will give an account for every careless word spoken. I have to believe that it is referring to those unfortunate words that remain unacknowledged and un-repented of, because God says that “if we confess our sin He is faithful and just to forgive us our sin and cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” (So from this we can take hope that it’s only the careless words that we don’t own up to and ask forgiveness for that will be kept on our “tab”.)

Maybe there was a time where we in the church could joke around roughly, insult one another with a “just joking” to cover it, be snarky, sarcastic, degrade or belittle those who think, live, look or vote differently than us, assume we know what people are thinking before they state their thoughts themselves or why they are doing what they are doing…I honestly don’t think so, but for the sake of this discussion lets make a horrendous leap and say there actually was a time when this was ok…if there was, it is not now.

“More than ever words are like the match that lights the fuse. And the bombs are exploding not just all over the internet but in families, in churches, and any place where there’s more than one opinion.”

More than ever words are like the match that lights the fuse. And the bombs are exploding not just all over the internet but in families, in churches, and anyplace where there’s more than one person breathing, (so therefore more than one opinion!) And the explosions are maiming and wounding many. The chasms caused by these explosions have set parents against their children, grandchildren and grandparents are estranged because families are divided, and on and on and on.

For some, rather than Jesus’ heart that said “they will know you are my disciples how you love one another”, we have begun to be known by what we argue over, more for what we stand against than what we live for, more for what and whom we hate rather than for by Whom we are called His Beloved.

There are points worth fighting for in this world, but not fighting over. At the very least, not between the children of God. And for goodness sake not from the children of God against those that we hope will see the love of God! This is why the Word of God pleads with us as followers of Jesus saying “My beloved brothers, understand this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.”

“Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to anger, for man’s anger does not bring about the righteousness that God desires.”

The Book of James Chapter 1, verses 19, 20 from the New Testament

So does that mean that we can’t discuss things, even passionately? For some of us, if we can’t stay walking in love, be listening to the other and respectfully responding to what we hear, maybe it is better if we don’t discuss some things. I don’t know. I can’t decide that for you, I’m working hard enough to decide it for me. But Jesus did say “if your eye causes you to sin, pull it out”.

There are some discussions that I know I won’t be able to enter into and stay there in love. So I don’t engage. Other times I do and I fail. So I apologize and back out. So this is not something I’m saying to just to all of you, it’s something I have to remind myself every day. I’m starting with myself first. I can’t answer for you, because “every servant stands or falls before their own master only”. That’s what the Bible says of us as servants of God and it speaks of us belonging to God, being autonomous beings and yet joined to him in accountability and submission, out of free will and in response to His initiating a love relationship with us.

Ultimately, I am not responsible for how you think or act. Maybe not news to you, but something I openly confess that as someone involved in vocational ministry for over 20 years (and as many years of lay ministry before), I sometimes forget this. As a minister of the Gospel (as all believers are called to be in one way or the other) I do feel a great responsibility to try and challenge behavior of Christians that I feel like is not glorifying God or showing love to our fellow man (as I hope my brothers and sisters would do to me). Do I always get it right? Depends on who you ask. But my goal is to challenge the Body of Christ to “do justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with our God” on the internet and otherwise. Why? So you can all think like I think you should? No! The enemy of truth is not dissent, it is silence. When we quit talking to one another we lose the opportunity for all of us to find Truth.

“The enemy of truth is not dissent, it is silence.”

So why do I challenge myself and other followers of Jesus to reflect Christ and his love in our words? For so many reasons, but when I first wrote this I thought I wanted to urge us all to imitate Christ if for no other reasons than that because the world is watching. And when they watch me I hope and pray that they see Jesus.

But the more I think about why I want to watch myself with my words and actions and encourage others to do the same is because “God’s love is shed abroad in my heart”. And where there is love, there is respect for people and their opinions. Respect does not have to equal agreement. People felt the dignity that Jesus showed them. It was his unconditional love. “For God so loved the world that He sent His only Son…” you can only move on to hear the second life-giving part of that verse once you have come into contact with the first part – the coming of Jesus, into the world, into our posts and tweets and conversations and ultimately into our lives. This is the Gospel in action.

Pastor Justin Thomas, who pastors a church in the heart of the intense protests in Seattle ongoing when this was originally written, says that “We don’t love our neighbors as ‘bait’ for them into the kingdom of God. We’re loving our neighbors because we are the kingdom. It’s what’s happened to us that leads us to love our neighbors.” Or at least it should be…in both word and deed, in person and online.

“We don’t love our neighbors as ‘bait’ for them into the kingdom of God. We’re loving our neighbors because we are the kingdom. It’s what’s happened to us that leads us to love our neighbors.”

Pastor Justin Thomas in Seattle, WA

What is the Goal?
I hope I don’t hurt your feelings, my brothers and sisters in Christ, I truly do. My goal is to treat you respectfully. But even more than what I want for those of us inside the Family of God, is what I want for people who don’t yet know our Saviour – and that’s to see Him in truth and love. How each of us Jesus Followers will work toward that goal (if indeed we even share that goal, and I pray we do!) will be different for all of us. That’s not something I should try to or even can control. Sometimes I forget that, maybe you, too?

But however it looks for us, however we are convinced that our words and actions please God, what is the result in the lives of the people we are interacting with? Do they go away rejoicing saying “Hey, we talked about really uncomfortable things, some of my mistakes, even things they called sin, and yet they really heard me, really loved me and showed me where I could quench my thirsts in life! Come meet and talk with this person, too!”

“Is it more important that we ‘win’ or that we hear?”

Is it more important that we “win” or that we hear? I’m preaching to myself here. I have lots of things I think you all need to hear! (Ha! The disease of every writer!) And that’s not always a good thing. I desperately need to listen more, to ask more questions and to really listen to the answers. And I’m ok admitting that. Because I’ve met a man who told me everything I ever did…and loves me still. Jesus is His name . And I hope through my words here online others will meet him, too.

How about you dear Christian? What is your goal online and in life? “Beloved, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.”. (I John 4:11)

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