Radical Hospitality through Empathy

“15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.” (Romans 12:15-18)

This has been a remarkable and historical week in our country. In fact the two decisions handed down by the U.S. Supreme Court in a 24 hour span are some of the most dramatic events ever in a city that thrives on drama. Yesterday the court upheld the Affordable Care Act by a surprising 6-3 margin, and today same sex marriage was ruled a constitutional right in all 50 states. To be clear, I agree with both decisions. If I were a member of the court I would have voted with the majority on both cases. The two decisions are cause for great joy and celebration by those who agree with the court. For many others they feel like a bitter defeat and cause for great alarm and concern.

Knowing those two radically different perspectives exist, the verses above from Romans 12 have been running through my head all day, especially verse 15, which says “Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep.” Notice Paul is not saying we have to agree with others or embrace their views; we just need to empathize and understand the feelings of others. These verses are in a section with the heading “Marks of a True Christian” in the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, and they lift up a high standard of radical hospitality. It’s easy to rejoice with those who rejoice if we agree with them. Everyone loves a good party. Likewise it is easy to weep with those who weep if we share their grief.

Where the hospitality gets radical is when we disagree, when we don’t identify with those who are celebrating or mourning something we don’t agree with. To have empathy for those with whom we vehemently disagree is very hard, but without respect and understanding for those we differ with, there is no hope to “live in harmony with one another” or to “live peaceably with all.” Those qualities of living in community define the very essence of Jesus’ teaching and of the early church described in Acts 2. So whether you are rejoicing or weeping over the recent Supreme Court decisions, the bigger goal of unity and peace in our diverse nation and world depends on our ability to be empathetic and understanding of those on both sides of the issues.

Empathy requires some creative imagination. I have been blessed with the good fortune by accident of my birth as a white male in a prosperous family and country to never suffer oppression. I have never been without adequate health care and my freedom to marry the person I am in love with has never been questioned or denied. So I have not experienced the realities that the people most affected by these court decisions have. Empathy requires me to make the effort to imagine what those experiences have been like, and even more so it requires me to get out of my comfort zone and spend time with people who have lived that life. Only then can I overcome my fear of those who seem different from me and discover and embrace the common humanity we all share if we can get past the exterior differences and stereotypes. Easy? No. Necessary? Yes, and we are privileged to be living in an historical moment when radical hospitality and empathy are calling us to live into the love of Christ.

Almost forgotten with the big news out of Washington is the latest terrorist attack at Emmanuel A.M.E. church last week. The 24/7 news cycle threatens to overwhelm us with input. Much has been said and will be said about the Charleston tragedy as the 9 victims are buried this week. I personally went through at least 5 stages of grief when I heard that news—disbelief, anger, sorrow, fear, and finally a resolve to move forward speaking out for justice, facing my own racism and prejudices, and refusing to let the forces of evil go unchallenged. Praying for the victims and the killer and his family and for our nation and world is good, but it is not enough. We must find ways to live our faith as disciples of Jesus Christ, the Prince of Peace, who lived and died and rose again for all of God’s children.

I do not believe it is a coincidence that the name of the church in Charleston is “Emmanuel.” Emmanuel means “God with us.” It is a name we use to describe the incarnation of God in Christ. Most of all today it is a reminder that no matter what the tragedy or where we stand on controversial issues, or how divided we may seem as a nation and world, the one constant truth is that God is still with us, always, forever, and anchored in that presence we move forward with confidence and faith. Thanks be to God who gives us the victory.

Distracted Living

This week I feel like a walking proverb. I keep relearning lessons I should have learned by heart years ago, and almost always the hard way. Yesterday’s lesson was the old English proverb “Haste Makes Waste.” The teachable moment occurred as I was hurrying out to our shed to jump on the lawn tractor and mow some overgrown grass before an approaching rain storm arrived. On my 30 second walk to the shed I realized my new I-phone was still attached to my belt, and my gut instinct was to take it back into the house and not risk having it fall off my belt and get lost.

But to save the few seconds that would have taken I ignored that notion and hurriedly mowed for 30 minutes or so before the rain started. The grass was very heavy due to a lot of recent rain and at one point I knew I mowed over something that I had not seen in the long grass. Thinking it was a stick or a plastic plant container near the garden I hurried on, not realizing I had chopped my new phone into a million pieces until I finished mowing and realized the phone was no longer on my belt.

Bottom line, the minute I “saved” by not taking my phone back into the house cost me several hours to file an insurance claim, a $199 deductible, and another $60-80 to replace the case the phone was in. Later today I will spend more time activating and updating the new phone when it arrives. Very costly lessons learned.
Ironic that the ever-present cell phone that represents so much of the nano-second, 4G driven pace of life today should be the sacrificial lamb to remind me again to slow down and trust my instincts – you know, that nagging little voice that tells you what you should do that we/I so often override with the cultural norm of faster is better. I have learned that I can actually survive without my phone, but I can’t tell you how many times I’ve been reminded of how dependent/addicted to it I am as I reached for it or thought of something I could do if I had it.

A good friend helped put things in perspective when I sent him a picture of my phone’s remains. He said, “Well at least it wasn’t a body part.” Very true, but I must admit sometimes it feel like it is. We hear warnings all the time about distracted driving, and that is a major concern. But it is only a symptom of a much larger problem – distracted living. My minor mishap reminded me that there is much more at risk from distracted living than a shiny new I-phone.

When I am not fully present while driving or when talking with another person, I am risking far greater damage to myself and others than the loss of a marvelous handheld computer. When I am not fully present and appreciative of the beauty of God’s creation and my responsibility as a steward of that creation because I’m too busy or too preoccupied to savor and save it, I am disloyal to the one who has given me life. When I am in too much of a hurry to play with a child or notice a homeless brother or sister or to be sensitive to the needs of my neighbors, I need to be reminded to be still and breathe in the awareness of what really matters in life.

Poorer and wiser, I pray for the sense to remember those lessons long after the new phone restores my life to “normal.”

(Note: Part of that return to normalcy will be to continue my series on Pentecost very soon.)

Look, We CAN Communicate: Pentecost, Part 2, Acts 2:5-13

My Ph.D. in Communication is both a blessing and a curse. The curse is that when people know I studied communication at the graduate level they actually expect me to be able to communicate. My excuses that my research was theoretical and in rhetoric and public speaking, not in “normal” interpersonal discourse always fall on deaf ears. I sometimes feel like the undergrad who signed up for a course in interpersonal communication only to be very disappointed the first day of class when he discovered that the course catalogue description of a course about “human intercourse” was not exactly what he expected.

You don’t need a doctorate to know that communication is hard. Words are just symbols that represent objects or feelings or relationships. As symbols they can only point to the reality they represent. Communication goes through different filters of both the sender and receiver of the communication, and those filters are unique to each person. And of course communication occurs on multiple levels – verbal, non-verbal, emotional, rational, and all of those are culturally conditioned and affected by other environmental and genetic factors. This explains the popular success of John Gray’s book, Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus.

Sometimes the challenges of communication produce humorous and embarrassing results. For example, “The V-for-victory sign was immortalized by Winston Churchill in the early, dark days of World War II, and the proper form is with the palm facing outward. But, a simple twist of the wrist puts you in dangerous cultural waters. Throughout much of Her Majesty’s realm, the palm-in V sign is the equivalent of the more infamous middle-digit salute.” (See the article by William Ecenbarger of the Philadelphia Enquirer for many other valuable tips on cultural competence, http://articles.philly.com/2009-02-22/news/25280966_1_taxi-driver-mumbai-desk-clerk.)

The Hebrew Scriptures explain the origins of different languages in various parts of the world via the Tower of Babel story in Genesis 11. In that story it is human pride, a belief that humans could build a tower tall enough to reach to the heavens and establish their importance that leads to this judgment from God: 6 And the LORD said, “Look, they are one people, and they have all one language; and this is only the beginning of what they will do; nothing that they propose to do will now be impossible for them. 7 Come, let us go down, and confuse their language there, so that they will not understand one another’s speech.”

That story is a mythical way of explaining the reality that languages are unique to different cultures, countries and ethnicities. While I don’t believe God would throw that kind of monkey wrench into the communication machinery as a punishment for our pride, the language barrier is a major challenge to communication. There is a joke that defines “multi-lingual” as a person who speaks 3 or more, “bilingual” as a person who speaks two languages, and someone who speaks only one language as “an American.” That unfortunate state of affairs was demonstrated in a grocery checkout line when a woman finished a cell phone conversation in her native tongue. The man behind her in line said to her, “Excuse me, ma’am, but this is America and we speak English here. If you want to speak Spanish, go back to Mexico.” The woman calmly replied, “Sir, I was speaking Navajo. If you want to speak English, go back to England.”

The task of bridging cultural differences and communication challenges in our global village is very daunting. Technology offers help through on-line language lessons, apps and programs that automatically translate text from one language to another, and systems like the one at the United Nations where people from all over the world can hear a translation of a speaker’s words into their own language through a set of headphones. But those technologies do not solve the deeper spiritual divisions at the root of human suffering that manifests itself in prejudice, racism, economic injustice, terrorism and full scale war.

The on-going cultural and religious conflicts in our world are proof that we’ve a long way to go to overcome our failures to communicate. The Pentecost story in Acts 2 addresses those concerns, not from a technological or academic perspective, but from a spiritual point of view. Acts 2: 5-13 describes it this way: 5 Now there were devout Jews from every nation under heaven living in Jerusalem. 6 And at this sound the crowd gathered and was bewildered, because each one heard them speaking in the native language of each.7 Amazed and astonished, they asked, “Are not all these who are speaking Galileans? 8 And how is it that we hear, each of us, in our own native language?9 Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, 10 Phrygia and Pamphylia, Egypt and the parts of Libya belonging to Cyrene, and visitors from Rome, both Jews and proselytes,11 Cretans and Arabs—in our own languages we hear them speaking about God’s deeds of power.” 12 All were amazed and perplexed, saying to one another, “What does this mean?” 13 But others sneered and said, “They are filled with new wine.”

Jews and non-Jews from all over the world hear the apostles sharing their faith story in their own language. This is not some ecstatic, unintelligible speaking in tongues, but genuine communication made possible by the power of the Holy Spirit. These apostles are not educated linguists. They are common fishermen and tax collectors. They have not suddenly been empowered by Rosetta Stone; they are filled with the only force capable of overcoming human fear and division. At Pentecost the confusion of tongues from the Tower of Babel story is reversed and the response of those who have ears to hear the Gospel is both amazing and confusing.

People from all over the world have come to Jerusalem for the Pentecost Festival and some are apparently there on other business – Romans, Cretans and Arabs. The story shows us that as insurmountable as our communication barriers are, be they religious, cultural or political, we cannot just throw up are hands and say “we can’t do that!” Whatever happened in Jerusalem that day, this story makes it very clear the “this is impossible, we give up” excuse simply will not fly. It is easy to despair and say the hatred and divisions in our world today between Islam and the West, for example, are not amenable to any simple communication skills. Anyone who thinks so must be filled with new wine or smoking those funny weeds.

But this story counters with evidence that the Acts 2 audience is exactly like our multi-cultural world. A cross section of the whole world, people from Asia Mesopotamia, Judea, Egypt and Libya are identified; and the message is clear. Because they have received the gift of God’s spirit, a spirit of unity and love that is universal and offered to all of God’s creation, these apostles are able to overcome all of the cultural and communication barriers and share their amazing transformation stories in ways that are heard and understood.

That is a word of hope that our war-weary world desperately needs to hear. We may see no hope for peace and justice because we rely too much on human ways of dealing with our problems. We still think we can build towers or systems or networks that will make us the heroes and heroines of our story. The problem is it’s not our story. And when our best efforts fail, in desperation and fear we think destroying our enemies will bring peace in spite of centuries of evidence that violence and death only beget more of the same.

God’s answer that is blowing in the wind of Pentecost is that the transforming power of the God of the whole universe is the only hope for overcoming human differences and conflicts. The God of Parthians, Medes, Elamites, and residents of Mesopotamia, Judea and Cappadocia, Pontus and Asia, Phrygia and Pamphylia is still the God of Americans and Syrians, of Islam and ISIS, of every soul that breathes; and those who dare to believe that are not crazy or filled with new wine. We are filled with the Holy Spirit of the Source of our being, and we speak a language of peace and grace that everyone can understand because it is the message that the world is longing to hear.

Peter’s summary of that message follows in Acts 2:14-36 and will be addressed in the next segment of this series on Pentecost.

(All Scriptures are quoted from the New Revised Standard Version)