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.

How to live in these partisan times

Has anybody noticed that the quality of political conversation has gotten pretty bad? Actually, that’s an understatement. Maybe we should simply recognize that it has gotten really difficult for people who disagree to talk with each other. So most people just don’t. They watch the news channel they like best. They hang around with others who think like them. And so, it’s easy to either: block out a person we disagree with, or simply ignore them.

But is that the way it should be? Shouldn’t we who are Jesus followers be different? Shouldn’t we be able to hear from, and interact with, those who see things completely differently than we do?

Clearly, living in our Christian bubble isn’t the answer. So, what can we do?

Let me make four suggestions:

  1. Listen. It’s amazing the difference truly listening to someone can make. It shows openness, grace, hospitality. Listening might be a doorway to seeing something through another person’s eyes. It does not mean you have to agree with the person. In fact, listening might only confirm your beliefs. But listening shows that the other person is first: a person – not an issue, or an opponent, or even an enemy. And listening is the first step in receiving them, not as an issue, but as a person made in the image of God.
  2. Learn. True listening isn’t just sitting silently until it’s your turn to speak. It is really seeking to understand the other person, who they are, what they’ve experienced, and why they believe and feel what they believe and feel. My guess is that there is hardly a person out there that I can’t learn from – but I have to be willing to actually hear them, and what they say. Again, learning is not the same as agreement. Listening does not lead to uniformity; but it does lead to understanding.
  3. Love. And listening leads to love. In fact, listening is love. The more I open myself to another person, the more opportunity I have to show them the love that Jesus showed everyone. Here’s the thing: it’s very hard to love people while yelling at them, or dismissing them, or ignoring them, or recounting how stupid they are. Love meets people where they are, with grace and truth. It’s what Jesus did, so it’s probably a good approach for us, too.
  4. Lead. Finally, if we are able to do the first 3 “Ls” – we can then get to the fourth. Now, it’s not a formula, nor is it a checklist. We don’t say: Ok, I’ve listened to you for 10 minutes; I’ve learned something new; I’ve expressed the fact that I care about you – Now, let me show you where you’re wrong! Truly leading someone is not like that. Instead, when we do the first three, naturally and sincerely, it then opens the door to providing leadership. When you truly have a listening/learning/loving posture, then the opportunity to guide the person into a new way of looking at things – well, then, that becomes possible.

Anybody think it makes more sense to yell, or ignore, or caricature others – than to love? If so, good luck with that. You might feel better about yourself and your beliefs, but real relationships and real change doesn’t happen when we adopt the ways of the world. So, as followers of Jesus, let’s make sure we are living a different way. One that listens with a learning posture. One that loves, no matter what. And one that allows this to open doors to leading others to a new way of thinking.

In the midst of a toxic political culture, we’ve got find a different way forward. In fact, this approach doesn’t just work in the world. It might work rather nicely in church, too.