Thursday, August 04, 2005

Staying in the construction zone

To become neighbours is to bridge the gap between people. As long as there is distance between us and we cannot look in each other's eyes, all sorts of false ideas and images arise. We give them names, make jokes about them, cover them with our prejudices, and avoid direct contact. We think of them as enemies. We forget that they love as we love, care for their children as we care for ours, become sick and die as we do. We forget that they are our brothers and sisters and treat them as objects that can be destroyed at will.

Only when we have the courage to cross the street and look in one another's eyes can we see there that we are children of the same God and members of the same human family.
(from Henri Nouwen's daily meditations, Bread for the Journey, July 22)
A new command I give you: Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another. (John 13:34-35, NIV translation)
In physics, the strength of a signal (radio, TV, electrical current) degrades over distance. Bill Hybels believed that this concept applied to human communication, as well - that the distance between the pulpit and the first pew was much greater than the distance across a dinner table. To steal Henri Nouwen's idea, the shorter the gap, the easier it is to bridge it.

For the last month of my stay at school, I lived with a Turkish Muslim man named Erkan, who arrived in the US for the first time July 1st. Whenever I would mention this in company, at least one child-of-God would say, "You're living with a terrorist?" And my first reaction (which, thankfully, I never voiced) was "No, but I'm talking to a moron..."

Folks who spoke like that simply refused to bridge the gap between their prejudices about one group of people who happen to have the same faith as my former roommate, and the real-life experience of a devout, kind, gentle, Allah-loving doctoral student. They haven't seen his revulsion at violence, his sadness at the death of any creature, or his belief that there is One above us all, even though we understand that One differently. Thirty days of talking - and listening - showed me this truth, and Erkan is a friend with whom I hope to remain connected. We met as strangers - we parted as brothers. I hope that bridge remains strong for the long haul.

Even in the midst of the chaos of moving, I saw this happen. Several (not all) of the people who helped me move were guys from AA - but two were fellow Lutheran seminary students, and one of the AA guys was definitely not hiding his sexual orientation. One of my sponsees talked to me over dinner last night, and told me again how he really enjoyed meeting the two seminarians, and how they really seemed like neat people. And he found a lot of powerful connections with my gay friend, as well - both are farm boys at heart, and both long to return to the joys of rural life. It was neat to be able to see bridges being built, even as we watched.

I firmly believe that if I refuse to see and hear my neighbors - my sisters and brothers - then I cannot love them. I can talk about them; I can even contribute to their welfare. But if I refuse see the person across the dinner table (or the U-Haul loading ramp!) as they are and not as I suppose them to be, then to it is impossible to bridge the gap between us - gaps built by ignorance, fear, and prejudice.

God, grant me the willingness to continue to build bridges with the neighbors I do not yet understand. Help me to see Your presence in all of them.


Kat said...

absolutely...we are so quick to judge and keep our prejudice views without ever hearing the story behind the eyes. love is meant to be freely is a gift that God has given us to give to others. how dare we pick and choose the benefactors as though they must earn it. we never have to earn God's love...he loves us in spite of ourselves, loves us in our messes, loves us because of who we are. we need to be willing to give the same kind of love. thank you for your words....

Unknown said...

Excellent post.

I must confess that I am struggling with rising prejudice against Muslims. I know that most do not approve of the violence.'s an ongoig struggle.

This reaching out to neighbors also would be wonderful if it could happen in our political process, in which people demonize Right, Left, Libertarian Democrat, Republican, Green. Everybody seems to know what the other thinks just because a label has been attached.

Reaching out doesn't make for good radio or TV, though.

Thanks again for your posts.

Michael Dodd said...

Getting to know people as people is always risky. I once heard communication described as opening oneself up to the possbility of changing one's mind. Sad that so many of us who search for Truth think we already have it -- and so don't dare change.

dudehead said...

Implicit in the first two words of Christ's prayer: "Our Father" - brothers and sisters - all of us.

I wish I was a better brother to many. But, I am grateful for some progress in pursuit of His perfection.

wesd said...

Pierre Teilhard de Chardin suggests that our conflicts are evidence of our attempts to live more closely with one another.

True, this suggestion came from him over seventy years ago, but then we keep getting closer. The fact that we struggle as more is demanded of us is not a cause for despair, in his eyes.

Then he suggests something many of us have heard before - we can do together what we could not do alone.

Tom Scharbach said...

What divide exists between two men who are the product of a conservative, religious upbringing on a Midwestern dairy farm, one straight and one gay?

It seems to me that the divides that we "bridged" are, for the most part, illusory.

The divides we create are illusory, a creation of our human desire to think our ourselves as unique, as special, as outside the the rest of creation -- the product of self-created self-idolotry.

We have nothing to praise ourselves for because we build bridges across illusory divides; the bridges we build are needed only because we are usurping God, refusing to see ourselves right-sized in creation.

Better, it seems to me, to contemplate the divides we build, offending God.

Anonymous said...

Of course, the flip side of this is to refuse to be seen or to be heard -- which I'm willfully guilty of at the moment, I admit.

After you've been (mis)judged often enough, or made to feel unwelcome often enough, you stop showing people who you are. You close down. Shutters up, doors closed, hatches battened down, and all that.

So it all goes around and around...

I don't know the answer. I know I won't let myself be hurt again. Maybe we're all better off flyng solo. Don't know.

Michael Dodd said...

Flying solo is a great temptation -- but it doesn't seem to be in God's plan. At least, I assume that is what the whole "It is not good for man to be alone" thing means. Or, as I hear from friends in various forms of recovery, "It's a we-program. I alone can do it, but I can't do it alone." That sounds a bit like the church to me.

As for the divisions etc. discussion: I remember a scene in Camelot where Arthur explains to Guinevere about having been turned into a bird by Merlin in order to learn a lesson. [This is a scene in the Disney flick, Sword in the Stone, which was also based on TH White's The Once and Future King.] Only years later does the adult Arthur realize the point of the exercise: when he looked down on the earth from above, although there were natural divisions between types of land and so on, the nationalistic or political boundaries that were so much a part of war had no reality at all.

The earth (and humankind) is all one entity, though made of many pieces. That is one reason quilting is such a pouplar metaphor for some of us [and why a quilt was chosen as a symbol of the tragedy of AIDS deaths]-- the pattern is made of many different pieces, each identifiable in itself but each contributing to something larger than itself. The challenge is finding the way to put them all together.

Anonymous said...

Well, maybe...

But I don't live in the sky looking down. I live down here where the divisions are very real. And where they hurt. To the point where they defeat you in the end.

Right now, survival means staying away from people who think they have all the answers for me. I tried it their way and I almost ended up dead. I liked it a lot better when it was just me and God. Even the bad stuff wasn't that bad when I knew God was there. When people enter into the picture, all they do is shout God down and stand between Him and you.

But that's just me. Maybe it's all me. Maybe it has to be that way for me.

Steve F. said...

Maybe it's all me. Maybe it has to be that way for me.

Not the way I understand it, it's not. I surely believe that the biggest frauds I know are people who say they are God's true representative(s), and that you should just listen to them (instead of God).

Heck, even people in ministry have this problem! I can't tell you how many times I heard in seminary that "I love ministry - it's just the people that make me crazy!"

Richard Nelson Bolles, author of What Color Is Your Parachute and a minister for decades, has advice that I try to take to heart - and it adapts well to this situation, so forgive me while I paraphrase him:

In the end, there are two groups of people - the folks who would tell you, "Here are the divisions, here are the lines, here's the way you should understand God," and the people who say, "Here's how we understand God - feel free to join us if that seems to work for you." Your mission in life is to say, "Thank you very much" to the first group of folks, and then search diligently for the second group.

Trust me - there are people whose joy it is to build others up instead of tearing folks down, whose experience of God is one of love and acceptance, and who point toward God rather than stand in the doorway blocking God's light.

I've found 'em - and I pray that you will find 'em too. (Please drop me a line if you'd like to continue this conversation person-to-person.)