Transformation of Grace

[It was] one of those moments where reality sort of spills outside its boundaries, and you become aware of a happiness that you don’t deserve. Which is grace. When that happens your soul swells up a little, and you want to be worthy of that happiness.

-David Brooks, on seeing his family in an idyllic moment playing in the backyard. He was speaking with Krista Tippett for the On Being podcast.

I think of grace as winsome beauty, natural hardiness, and long-lasting robust love all rolled into one. Capable of withstanding momentary stresses and deep human error.

When David Brooks and E.J. Dionne were speaking to Krista Tippett about this subject (listen here: http://www.onbeing.org/program/david-brooks-and-ej-dionne-sinfulness-hopefulness-and-the-possibility-of-politics/9001) it was in the context of religion and politics. They made the point that even in a context of separation of church and state, our political views are still informed and shaped by our religious ones.

What could happen if the spiritual understanding of grace dominated our politics? What could we do to regain the category “grace” as a practical and conceptual guide? What if it was a cultural imperative alongside of other words like “freedom” or “hard work”? What if we had ways to ensure its presence in our legal system, our tax code, our educational system, and our penal system?

Grace can be a robust thing, brought forward from nice-sounding Bible quotes and cute pictures of ballerinas, into the tough realm of the every-day world. It has the power to change us by making us want to be more, to rise to a higher level.

How could we be transformed, if we adopted the beautiful and strong thing called Grace as our governing reality? If our heroes were not Supermen but Grace-Men? Not Wonder-Women, but Grace-Women?

Who are grace-heroes for you? Take a moment and talk about one here.

Grace, Wellspring and Compass

‘Tis grace shall bring me home.         –Amazing Grace, Spiritual 

My Lutheran heritage brought me in contact with a theological tradition that talks about grace. We defined it as undeserved love. It was one of the things that demarcated Protestant faith—no penance, praying rosaries, no elaborate ecclesiastical hierarchy. Just grace, plain and simple, accessible to all, given to all, accepted by faith.

But it went deeper than that. It was a whole outlook on life, a way of being that gave forgiveness and compassion because you yourself were forgiven and deeply loved. I felt this from my parents. I was taught to look for it in scripture. I sang about it in church, and later, taught it from the pulpit.

Grace is a powerful thing. As a concept, its theological roots run deep, and it can be found across religions. As a practice, it is a both a spiritual wellspring from which to draw and a moral compass for how to treat others.

Christians anchor God’s grace in the person and work of Jesus. The importance of the crucifixion story, as I now understand it, is as an expression of a universal consciousness of grace as lived out in a singular life, in a particular place and time, and how that life and that time can be in a way redemptive for us all.

There is much to be gleaned from the Bible when it is read from the lens of grace. If by meditating on the Word we find grace, we are the better for it. When the Bible is not read from a place of grace, and for a message of grace, it is easily subsumed by fundamentalism and fearful, protectionist dogma.

But more than that: it needs to be said that the Bible and the story of Jesus are not the only narratives of grace. In a time that seems to be ruled by the grace-less (in every possible sense of the word), we need as many narratives of grace as we can find. I’m looking for them, from all sources of religious thought, as well as from atheist and non-believers.

~~~

What are your stories of grace? Take a moment and share one here. Especially if it involves a character from a non-Christian background or source, I’m deeply interested in hearing that story now.

 

The Certainty Fortress: How To Dialogue With The Aggressive Right

As I’ve been in discussion with people who disagree with me, I’ve been looking for ways to deal with these conversations.

They often do not go well, especially if the person is ideologically to the right. A combination of cocksure attitude and combative stance, with lack of genuine interest in listening to another view, can make these attempts at conversation turn negative quickly.

I’ve realized we need some good conversation “markers” and “exit ramps” so that we can protect the relationship and still assert a different viewpoint.

I don’t see it that way, but I’m curious to find out more about why you see it the way you do.

This is one way to interrupt the argumentative pattern. Curiosity is gentler, and changes the dynamic from a contest to a more appreciative inquiry.

It is not always necessary to say “I don’t see it that way.” But sometimes we need to do that in order to arrest the aggressive talk. Saying “I don’t see it that way” is less inflammatory than “you’re wrong” and it provides a way to remind the other person that there is another view they haven’t accounted for.

Following up with a curious question, and then another, and another, is a way again to stop the flow of aggressive talk and require the other person to reflect.

Can you tell me what you mean by ______________?

This is another way to stop a running flow of Fox News talking points. Pick a word or phrase and ask them to unpack it. This accomplishes two things: 1) It forces them away from pre-packaged doctrinal views they’ve picked up from media, and 2) It establishes a human bond by opening space for them to talk about their own experience.

I feel like we are talking about two different things.

A good middle-conversation marker, if there is repeated lack of listening and lack of attention being paid to opposing views. Often I have to insert this statement multiple times before the other person realizes they aren’t getting anywhere.

Let’s stay in dialogue.

It’s OK to say you need to stop. (With a really aggressive person, say “I’m going to stop you there” while holding up your palm to them. This is remarkably effective.) We need to have an exit ramp from the conversation, especially if it is during the holiday and we have precious little time with family and don’t want to spend the whole time arguing about politics or other controversial subjects.

Emphasizing the desire to stay in dialogue leaves the door open. It says you care about what they have to say. It says you value the relationship above the ideas being discussed.

Remember, It’s A Process

We need to have these dialogues in order to be heard, and to help move our family, friends and country forward toward more open-minded views. But we can only plant seeds.

Know that by the very process of asking curious questions, being gently assertive, and having an exit strategy, we open cracks in the hard certainty of the other viewpoint. We can always follow up with a good factual article or reference by email, but the important thing is not to get caught up in the heat of the moment, and attempt to “win” at an argument.

Let’s pledge to find ways to sneak inside the “certainty fortress” of right-leaning family and friends this holiday and beyond.

Your Values Are Not YOU

Your values are not YOU.

It is a very hard truth to absorb.

When an ideal, a belief, a value, something we hold very dear is rejected by someone, it can feel as though we ourselves are being rejected.

I’ve been on both sides of this phenomenon, giving and receiving such rejection. It can hurt! Most of us have felt that sort of rejection. We can take it very personally, for example, when a family member chooses another road than we had in mind, when a child rejects the religion of her parents, or when half the country rejects the candidate you voted for.

In recent years in our political life I have observed people feeling personally rejected on a level they never have before. Those who were opposed to Obama felt so personally bad about him that for years they wanted nothing but to see him discredited, blamed, and obstructed. Now, those who voted for Obama and Clinton feel their values have been roundly rejected and are protesting even before the Trump presidency starts.

Your values are not YOU. The things you hold most important are concepts in your mind, they are not YOU.

This can sound very abstract, I know. But pull it down to earth – what it means is that you, as a living, breathing, human being, with a mind, have the ability to transcend even those values that you most hold dear, even the beliefs you think are the most bedrock, even the ideals you most treasure.

You also have the ability to stand apart from even the most important, meaningful, and life-defining goals, plans, and actions that are based on your set of values.

In practice, this means we can separate our being, our SELVES, from the beliefs we hold, and connect to other people who hold differing beliefs. It means we can see others who reject some of our values in a different light, because fundamentally we don’t base our selves or their selves on the values they hold. We hold them sacred apart from their values.

I may believe in heaven, you may not. I may believe in the fundamental value of diversity. You may not. I may reject the argument for the existence of god, you may support it wholeheartedly. I may be Democrat, you may be Republican. I may not care at all about Black Lives Matter, you may look at it as the most important movement around. The point is: none of these things really define us, internally, as human beings.

Values may govern our behavior. They may define how we choose to organize ourselves together as a governed society, and in turn those choices may determine results (sometimes life or death) for other people in practical ways that we do not always grasp, meaning we must still talk and learn about each other’s values, and write thoughtful policy based on our learning and our dialogue about our values. Values are very important.

But what I am trying to get across right now is, the values we hold are not essential to who we are.

What is left when we stand apart from our values? If we think the answer is “Nothing At All” we will fight tooth and claw for our values, and become really inept and insensitive to other viewpoints, because it seems like life or death. We will cut off opportunity to do the learning and dialogue that are necessary to govern together.

When our values are identical with ourselves, then when the value goes away, so do we. Our brains, with this slight-of-hand, go into fight or flight very easily. We are wired to self-protect, and those mechanisms go haywire when something as deep seated as our values seems threatened.

But if, on the other hand, our answer to the question, What are we without our most treasured values? is Something, a very robust Something, even if don’t know what that Something is and can’t wholly define it yet, we have reason to work together with those other humans whose values we do not share. We have reason to listen to their beliefs and to their arguments about what is good, right, and true. We have reason to respect what makes them happy, what they wish for in life, what drives them, and what they are trying to move away from, or fix, or solve.

Human beings are complicated, our bodies and minds interact in ways we have never previously understood. We form beliefs, we hold values. We begin to mistake those for our essential nature, our essential selves. We jumped to conclusions about our fundamental selves, and forgot that our value-forming process is just an aspect of ourselves.

This is how philosophical reflection can open practical ways forward. How do we live and move and have our being in the same spaces as others? How do we learn to exist peaceably (a value), in a kaleidoscopic world of competition (another value) and violence (another value). How do we arrive at somewhat of a consensus (another value) about the values we share, about which values we are choosing as the most important ones, which ones most serve humanity, both individually and collectively (more values)?

We cannot do so without first separating ourselves from those very values, so that we can stand back and evaluate them.

Can we engage this rational process, in the service of our ability to live and be together?

Can we access the parts of ourselves that simply exist, without and prior to values? I believe we can, but we aren’t very good at it. We need guideposts.

Future posts promised on this topic, and I would love to hear your thoughts as well.