Creative Redemption

This blog seeks to explore themes from the Bible, theology, spiritual formation, creativity, and responses to change and conflict to discover how to promote God's redemptive work in his creation.

Archive for the month “April, 2013”

The Special Case of “Religious Change”

One of the courses in my conflict management program was entitled “Conflict in Religious Settings.” This venue presents two distinctive challenges. On the one hand, religious people tend to be especially averse to conflict because “we are good and nice and conflict damages our image.” Such suppression of conflict, of course, does not make it go away.

On the other hand, the intensity of conflict depends to a large extent on the stakes of the issues at hand. What could raise the stakes above one’s view of God and the determination of one’s eternal destiny? When conflict does emerge, therefore, it can be particularly intense. It didn’t really surprise those of us in the class that those who mediate conflict find religious conflict the most challenging.

How does this reality relate to our theme? Let’s consider the relationship among three words: change, conflict, and growth. Change originates either from the impact of forces or people largely outside our control, or from our own attempts to bring it about. Change can make the previous situation better or worse, although the result of change can be mixed and can take time to become fully evident.

The complexity of many situations also makes it difficult to establish a direct cause-and-effect relationship between a given change and its impact. Unfortunately, public discourse on issues such as poverty, climate change, or the economy fails to take this complexity into account.

The complex nature of change partially explains why people disagree over what changes should occur, as well as how they should be implemented. These disagreements, in turn, fuel the close tie between change and conflict.

At present we find ourselves in a period of change that has been characterized as rapid and discontinuous. In other words, not only has the pace of change continued to accelerate, but in so doing it has also disconnected us increasingly from our former moorings. Computers, the internet, smart phones, and social media both reflect and fuel this change. As a result, conflict results not just from a particular change, but from “change fatigue” in general.

The concept of homeostasis highlights why constant change creates such stress. Homeostasis refers to a base state of stability. It applies to the capacity of the human body to maintain a safe equilibrium of temperature, for example. Homeostasis has also been applied to systems such as families and organizations. As a result, such systems tend to resist change unless “the pain of staying the same becomes worse than the pain of change.” 

The relationship between change and conflict, therefore, leaves us with a dilemma. Change may be necessary, but determining the proper change will be difficult, and it will almost inevitably meet with resistance. Someone has an investment, even if it only involves comfort, in the status quo.

The importance of growth in the Christian life adds to the dilemma. Not all change is growth, but growth, by definition, necessitates change. Beyond personal growth, if we want to “make a difference” (presumably a positive one), we seek to make things different that they are at present. 

As we further consider change and growth, we should acknowledge that, especially today, resistance to change is understandable and, to a degree, normal. Yet even homeostasis requires some measure of response and adaptation to changing circumstances. Our hands and feet get cold, for example, when the outside temperature drops because blood flow focuses on keeping our most critical organs warm.

After I shared some thoughts at church on change, a woman nervously asked me, “What are you planning to change?” I responded that I was not laying the groundwork for some bombshell change, but attempting to cultivate an openness to change as needed. Better questions include: “How does God want us to respond to the changes in the world around us?” “Of what is God calling us to repent?” “In what areas does God want us to grow?”

Next: What Is the Biblical Perspective on Change/Growth?

The Price of Fear Is Too High

There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear.

1 John 4:18

Many Christians see in the verse above a contrast between an Old Testament emphasis on “the fear of the Lord” and the New Testament way of love. In reality, however, the New Testament commends the fear of the Lord, and the concept in the Old Testament is much more positive than it might appear on the surface.

Exploring the meaning of the fear of the Lord awaits a future post. For now I want to call attention to another perspective on the interesting juxtaposition of fear and love that John places before us. It has been pointed out that “Do not fear” is the most frequent commandment in the Bible. The two great commandments, on the other hand, both focus on love. The acid test of biblical love is the scandalous call to love our enemies.

Some might be surprised to find that we don’t have to wait until the New Testament to hear the command to love our enemies:

If you come across your enemy’s ox or donkey wandering off, be sure to return it. If you see the donkey of someone who hates you fallen down under its load, do not leave it there; be sure you help them with it.

Exodus 23:4-5

Note, however, that the passage from Exodus does not mention the word “love.” We tend to think of both fear and love as emotions, but the Bible, as in this passage, focuses more on actions. In Luke 6:27 Jesus teaches, “Love your enemies,” but he immediately elaborates what he means with “do good to those who hate you.”

We cannot conjure up feelings on command. Treating an enemy in a loving way, on the other hand, can be extremely difficult, but it is possible. Similarly, we cannot turn off feelings of fear like a light switch, but we can face our fears and do what needs to be done.

Fearing others produces deadly consequences. Fear plays to our most basic, self-serving nature and inhibits our ability to think and act reasonably. It often leads to hatred. We can’t love our enemies if we fear them. As John teaches us, the experience of God’s perfect love drives out fear and frees us to love.

Unfortunately, the world teems with those who consistently and skillfully appeal to our fears to sell us something or persuade us to ally with their cause. Fear the Left, fear the Right, fear Muslims, fear homosexuals, fear the rich, fear the poor, fear big business, fear big government.

If we allow the merchants of fear to shape our hearts, we exclude Jesus from doing so. Do we spend more time exposing ourselves to those who feed our fears, or more time strengthening our security in Christ? Either perfect love will cast out fear, or the prevalence of fear will cast out love.

To Change or Not to Change: That Is the Question

This twist on Hamlet’s famous question might seem a weak alternative to the dilemma between the pains of continuing to live and the uncertainties of what lies beyond death. For some, however, the parallels appear much closer.

On the one hand, uncertainty lies at the heart of resistance to change:

It’s not so much that we’re afraid of change or so in love with the old ways, but it’s that place in between that we fear . . . . It’s like being between trapezes. It’s Linus when his blanket is in the dryer. There’s nothing to hold on to.

Marilyn Ferguson

On the other hand, a refusal to change can result in a death sentence:

Life is a process of becoming, a combination of states we have to go through. Where people fail is that they wish to elect a state and remain in it. This is a kind of death.

Anais Nin

Beyond a form of death that comes from stagnation on a personal level, a failure to respond properly to changes around us can also cause death, figuratively and literally.

The documentary film “Orchestra of Exiles” tells the story of Bronislaw Huberman, a Polish violin prodigy who, as an adult, saved about 1000 Jews from the Nazis. He did so by recruiting musicians from Germany and other at-risk European countries to form an orchestra in the emerging Jewish community in Palestine in the 1930s.

Kurt Singer, a prominent Jewish physician and cultural leader in Berlin, opposed Huberman’s efforts. He formed the Kulturbund, a collection of Jewish actors and musicians who performed for Jewish audiences. Singer and those who remained trusted that the Nazi threats would pass soon. Sadly, the Nazis disbanded the Kulturbund in 1941, and Singer and many of the artists perished in the Holocaust.

Change itself, however, represents a form of death:

All changes, even the most longed for, have their melancholy; for what we leave behind us is a part of ourselves; we must die to one life before we can enter another.

Anatole France

Jesus famously challenges us to this death that leads to life:

Those who want to be my disciples must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For those who want to save their life will lose it, but those who lose their life for me will find it.

Matthew 16:24-25

Which death, therefore, will we choose: the death that results from a failure to enter the uncertain world of adaptation and growth, or the death that results from the painful loss of a part of our former self?

First Do No Harm

“Good intentions may do as much harm as malevolence if they lack understanding.”

Albert Camus

The well-known saying, “First do no harm,” which is derived from the Hippocratic oath for physicians, aims to highlight and avoid the very real possibility that those who attempt to do good may make matters worse. Ironically, the widespread suffering resulting from the accidental or negligent actions of doctors and other hospital staff has led to the coining of a new term. An “iatrogenic” illness or death literally “originates with a healer.”

In a different context, most of us have been on the receiving end of well-intentioned but counterproductive “encouragement” at times of hardship such as illness or grief. (We’ve probably been on the giving end as well.) Comments like “She’s in a better place” or “It’s all part of God’s larger plan,” or attempts to help by sharing one’s own difficult experiences, for example, may prove hurtful rather than helpful because they deprive others of their own rightful process of grieving.

The previous post attempted to point out how a failure to address problems in a deep and holistic way can also produce counterproductive results. We see evidence of this failure on a daily basis in much of what passes for public discourse. One side presents its inadequate, simplistic solution to a complex problem and the other side responds with its own, similarly limited, alternative. “If only we would put prayer back in school,” or “If only we would raise taxes on the wealthy” or “If only we would pass tougher sentencing laws.”

Some blame the media for the proliferation of “sound bite” solutions. We, the general public, however, share the blame because we have demonstrated a lack of willingness or ability to listen to more detailed discussions.

Anyone seeking to play a direct role in addressing problems, however, can choose to take a different path. Resources now exist to help us place needs in a broader context so that we can more effectively respond to them. Some excellent places to begin include the following:

The writings of John Perkins and information from the organization he founded, the Christian Community Development Association (CCDA)

When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself, by Steve Corbett and Brian Fikkert

Whatever It Takes: Geoffrey Canada’s Quest to Change Harlem and America, by Paul Tough

What About Starfish Savers and Fishing Instructors?

In the process of considering the possibility of change on a deeper level, let’s consider two well-known analogies for making a difference in the world.

The first analogy presents a scene in which a boy is walking down a beach, picking up starfish that have washed ashore, and throwing them back into the ocean. A man who sees him remarks on the futility of the rescue operation because there are so many starfish on that beach, as well as many other beaches, and the scene is repeated day after day. “You can’t possibly make a difference,” says the man. Tossing back another starfish, the boy replies, “I made a big difference to that one.”

This story addresses several issues. On the one hand, it illustrates the magnitude of many problems, a reality that can easily overwhelm us and discourage us from attempting to do anything. At the same time, it holds before us the optimism of youth that can reinvigorate those of us who have grown cynical.

Primarily, however, the story reminds us of the power of small acts of kindness that may prove anything but small to their recipients. Jesus speaks of the value of “even a cup of cold water” given to a thirsty disciple (Matthew 10:42). Especially in times of crisis and immediate need, we should not overlook the opportunity to help, even as we are striving to bring about more substantive change.

The second analogy reminds us of the superiority of teaching a person to fish over giving a person a fish. This picture reflects some fundamental aspects of deeper change. As a proverbial statement, however, it compresses a large truth into a small package.

In unpacking that proverb, we first note that people may need to receive short-term assistance before they are in a position to learn how to fend for themselves. Furthermore, “teach a person to fish” makes the alternative to a handout sound simple, but the path to developing self-sustaining skills is frequently long and difficult. Hunger, for example, may represent only a single symptom of a complex set of problems extending beyond the hungry person’s lack of skills.

As long as we avoid a simplistic application of the fishing analogy, however, it can point us in a helpful direction.

Next: First Do No Harm

Crabgrass and Change

The annual spring ritual of lawn care has begun again! I am not one of those neighbors with the pristine, perfectly manicured lawn. My primary goal is to mow the yard often enough that the weeds and the grass remain close in height and blend together in a somewhat harmonious green ground cover.

Our yard serves as home to plenty of dandelions and clover and other weedy plants I can’t identify. I draw the line, however, at crabgrass. In my first round with the mower this spring, I discovered two flourishing specimens in our yard that I attacked vigorously. Crabgrass possesses a strong taproot that must be killed or largely removed, or the plant will come back, often stronger.

Since “thorns and thistles” constitute evidence of the fall (Genesis 3:18), it is not surprising that dealing with weeds serves as a helpful analogy for dealing with problems and effecting meaningful change.

A weed like crabgrass invades healthy soil and jeopardizes the ability of more desirable plants to thrive, or even survive. To treat the visible symptoms by chopping off the broad, prickly blades of crabgrass leaves the root behind to sprout again. We must both attack “the root of the problem” and fill the cleansed space with that which is good. Remember what happened to “the house swept clean” of the impure spirit in Luke 11:24-26. Seven more wicked spirits took up residence so that the person’s condition became worse than before.

Unfortunately, although the world’s problems cry out for much greater attention, too little of the time, energy, and money that are being invested address the underlying causes. These causes are frequently difficult to identify, and even harder to address. Those who make the effort, however, have the potential to do more than “chop the tops off the weeds.”

Next: What about starfish savers and fishing instructors?

A Bit of Ancient Wisdom for April Fools Day

In a minor tractate of the Talmud (Soferim 16:8), the first-century rabbi Yohanan ben Zakkai is reputed to have said the following:

If all heaven were a parchment, and all the trees produced pens, and all the waters were ink, they would not suffice to inscribe the wisdom I have received from my teachers. And yet from the wisdom of the wise I have enjoyed only so much as the water a fly which plunges into the sea can remove.

This teaching not only injects a healthy does of humility regarding what we know, but it also reminds us of how little we absorb from the available possibilities surrounding us.

In more recent times, Chris Argyris has used the image of a “ladder of inference” to explain how and why we make bad decisions due to limited and skewed information. Out of an increasingly vast pool of data we can draw only a small amount, and what we draw depends on our existing beliefs and experiences. As we apply this information, it tends to send us back to the pool of data to draw more of the same. What might appear to us to be learning, growth, and a virtuous cycle is instead a vicious cycle that limits our capacity to learn.

This subtle cycle requires vigilance to break, but the wise at least recognize the problem.

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