An Unlikely Friendship

In my previous post, I looked at the importance of listening to those we disagree with. For many, that’s not high on the list of priorities. That’s understandable; it’s hard to listen to someone who has a completely different take on an issue of great importance to us. But I think it’s important to remember: listening to opposing viewpoints doesn’t signal uncertainty. On the contrary, I believe those who listen best are those who are most in tune with their core convictions. Those who reach out best are those who best know what they believe. On the other hand, those who hide behind facebook posts or only listen to their own echo chamber may be the ones who feel most fragile in their beliefs. Yelling at others isn’t usually a sign of confidence, but fear. The refusal to engage another person is often rooted in the inability to do so.

So, it seems to me, those of us who are Christian should be the ones who are most able to lead by loving others, and listening to them. Because our confidence is in Christ, we can hold faithfully to our belief in him AND love all people. If we’re serious about following Jesus, how could we do otherwise?

Years ago, Donna Red Wing invited Bob Vander Plaats to share coffee. Donna was a prominent LGBT activist; Bob is president of an organization that advocates for traditional Christian values. It’s not hard to see how awkward it would have been for Donna to invite Bob to sit down together – and equally difficult for Bob to join her. But she offered the invite, and he accepted.

In the simple act of getting to know each other over coffee, they had the opportunity to see each other as people – not as policies. Their first sit-down led to others, and through repeated conversations, Bob & Donna saw the humanity in each other – and over time, they actually became friends.

In the video, Donna says, “When people have the courage to show you who they are, something happens…. We can disagree without being disagreeable.”

For his part, Bob shares, “The only regret in all of that is that I wasn’t the one to ask her out for coffee. …I kind of feel like I should have.”

Watch the video. See if it doesn’t speak to you – not about what you believe, but about how you approach those who don’t believe what you believe.

Donna died two years ago. By that point, Donna’s friendship with Bob had grown to the place where she had arranged for Bob to deliver the eulogy at her funeral. It’s 11 minutes of humility, grace, and humor – and the fruit that results when we learn to listen to each other. I mean, it’s almost unimaginable that someone like Bob would be asked to speak at a service for someone like Donna. In our deeply polarized society, it’s the kind of thing that just doesn’t happen. Except it did.

So, how did Bob & Donna go from enemies to eulogies? How do we go from turning away to turning toward – from distance & anger to conversation & relationship? It happened – it still happens – when we are willing to listen and learn. It happens when we choose to lead with love.

Bob Vander Plaats gives eulogy for Donna Red Wing

Listening to Those On the Other Side

Can you learn something from someone on the opposite side of an issue?

Or, to put it another way: What would happen if people in our country chose not to demonize someone they disagree with, but listen to them? Really listen to them? Can a pacifist learn something from a lifelong member of the military? Can a Protestant learn something from a Catholic? Can a New Yorker learn something from a Kentucky farmer? Can a born-and-raised midwesterner learn something from an undocumented immigrant? Can a gun opponent learn something from a gun owner? Can a white evangelical Trump supporter learn something from a black evangelical never-Trumper? At the same time, flip each question around. Can anybody learn anything anymore from anyone on the other side?

Well, we can’t, unless we first listen. And we won’t listen until we first see the other person as a person – and not as an ideology, or a political persuasion, or a religion, or an ethnicity. It starts by seeing each person as God sees them – as someone made in His image – and full of hurts and hopes, dreams and desires, baggage and background. In other words, a person just like you: someone with a story – a narrative that has formed them, in ways seen and unseen, into the person they are, and are becoming. Even the loudest and most adamant among us arrives at their perspective in large part because of the bumps and bruises and blessings of life. They believe what they believe for a reason; they stand (and sometimes shout) because something has led them to that place. That something is their story. What would happen if, instead of yelling back, or ignoring them, or belittling them, or writing them off as evil or clueless, we instead listened? What would happen if, instead of pigeon-holing them because of what we can see, we instead sought to hear more from them about what we can’t see?

To be sure, listening is not the same as embracing what they believe – but it is the first step toward embracing them. It is the first step toward putting yourself in that person’s shoes. It may not lead you to agree with them, but it will lead you to walk with them. And in the walking is the understanding. On the journey, we come to see them as God sees them – a loved and unique creation, made in His image.

One of the things I do in my current job is lead a group for kids who are in a diversion program. These kids have gotten involved in a minor dust-up with the law, and to keep them out of court, they get six months of diversion. Before I meet them, I get an opportunity to hear from the diversion workers, as they share some of the background and experiences of these kids. Let me tell you, it changes things. It changes me; it changes my perspective. Instead of seeing them as a kid who did something stupid, I get a glimpse into their lives – the challenges they’re up against, the hurt they’ve experienced, the uphill climb they face. So, when one of the kids is distant and difficult – or hides behind a hat or the long, flowing hair that covers his eyes – I try to have some understanding.

I guess what I’m saying, is this: Put aside your preconceived notions. Get past the generational differences that keep you from engaging someone younger (or older). Look beyond the MAGA hat or the rainbow flag. See deeper than skin color or religious persuasion. See first the person, not their perspective or position.

What difference could we make in our country if we started with this simple idea? What would happen if we truly just listened to each other? What difference would it make if we all did this with just one person on the other side of an issue? In my next post, I’ll give you an example of two people who did just that.

Good Stuff I’ve Heard

I try to listen to every message John Ortberg preaches. This message on hope is worth a listen. It’s 27 minutes of encouragement, challenge, and … well, hope.

Then there’s this podcast interview with Bill Thrall, centered around a great question to ask someone you love: How am I affecting you?

I placed a request for the book You’re Not Listening by Kate Murphy. (I think I’m #11 in line – and libraries are closed, so it may be awhile before I get a chance to read it.) My interest in reading her book has only increased, though, after hearing her share insights like this:

…In a conversation, you’re always in control if you’re the one who’s talking, or you feel like you are. And it is an element of giving up control when you decide you are gonna listen to somebody. Because you don’t know what you’re gonna hear. You don’t know where it’s gonna go but, you know, that’s the grand adventure. And also, you know, that’s why we’re here. To connect with one another. And so you know that’s, that’s the difference, is having that courage and also having that curiosity.

We love to be in control. I love to be in control. How often do I bring that approach to a conversation? And how often is my attempt to control the conversation with someone really just an attempt to control them? The effort to move beyond control to connection involves humility – or, in Murphy’s words, courage and curiosity.

One more quote from Murphy: “You don’t have to act like you’re paying attention if you actually are.” Ouch. How many times do I need to remember that quote?

Speaking of listening, Storycorps is an effort to get people to tell their stories – building connections through listening and sharing. Separated from someone you love, and looking for a way to connect? Why not interview them, and share it with others through Storycorps?

One more podcast I’ve recently enjoyed: an author new to me, Diana Glyer. I was drawn to the conversation because of her work on The Inklings – the gathering of C.S. Lewis, J.R.R. Tolkien, and others. Her conversation focuses on how to have people around you to encourage your efforts on writing – but she reminded me that I need people around me, no matter what endeavor in life I’m pursuing. I expect the same is true for you. As for me, I need some folks who may simply just pray for me. Others might hold me accountable. Still others may work well as conversation partners for me and my wife. I can think of people who fit the bill in all three areas. I hope you can too.

Finally, this wonderful mash-up of dozens of British churches singing apart, but as one – calling on God’s blessing over their land. May that be true for ours, as well!