By Jeff Wilson
A Common Understanding
My wife and I experience confusion and frustration around the very simple words “turn it down.” This small and seemingly clear phrase can raise our blood pressure in a matter of seconds. When we say “turn it down” while listening to the radio, the meaning is clear: make the sound from the radio less loud. When managing temperature in the car everything is out the window when we say “turn it down.” For my wife, “turn it down” means to make it less cool. In my mind, it has to do with both the intensity and whether we’re talking about heat or cold. The problem is (and don’t tell her I said this), I sometimes get lost in my own definition to the point I have to ask, “Do you want it warmer or cooler or less blowy?”
Who is right?
What we lack is a common understanding of these words, which leads to an inability to decide or act unless and until we work through the confusion and frustration.
There are other words and phrases that really mess us up. Unity—is it the absence of diversity or conflict? Division—is division necessarily the result of differences? Civility—does it mean not speaking your mind? Argument—does it mean yelling, trying to verbally corner the other person, or is it winning at all costs lest you end up losing the argument?
Listening to God’s Word
Read Mark 10: 35-45.
- How do you define unity, diversity, division, civility, and argument?
- How might Jesus’ definitions of these terms be different?
- How does Jesus move the disciples toward a common understanding?
Where We Get Stuck
What are the topics we’re not supposed to talk about in polite company? Politics. Religion.
What are the most important, personal, and significant things in our lives? Among them are politics and religion. Closely related to these are issues of race and poverty.
Exactly why are we not supposed to talk about these things?
Do they make us uncomfortable? Other people? What role does fear play?
If we don’t talk about these things, what do we talk about? The weather? Sports? It’s ok to argue about sports because that’s close to our hearts but not nearly as vulnerable as politics and religion.
I’m guessing most people would say they are open to the perspectives of others. Most people would likely agree we need to come to a common understanding. Most people would also likely agree the division that we are experiencing is destructive and not in the best interest of our society or congregations.
And yet we get stuck. Why?
Think about some of your recent conversations and where they get stuck. What role do the following play: buzz words, labeling people and groups, fear (real or perceived), honest self-reflection, and change?
Is a common understanding that allows us to experience unity just an elusive hope?
Is it possible for us to disagree and yet have enough in common? Is it possible to be a diverse community that argues and yet is civil—that is diverse yet has unity?
Listening to God’s Word
Read Colossians 3: 1-5, 12-15.
- How does this reading inform our approach to difficult conversations?
- Why is it helpful to avoid talking about these subjects?
- What reasons do we give for avoiding them?
- Why might it not be helpful to avoid these subjects?
- What is the position you’re trying to defend?
- Why do we want or need common ground?
- In what ways has our avoidance of talking about these topics left us less capable?
What is Our Goal?
When people engage in therapeutic or coaching relationships, simply being able to talk it out is significant. As people talk, they hear themselves articulate their position, clarify connections between ideas, and they process what they hear themselves saying.
When people don’t articulate, it is easy to hold onto a vague set of ideas that may or may not be connected in any logical or faithful way. Talking helps us put the pieces together.
What is our goal? To be “right”? To seek after “truth”? To convince the other to change their mind so they can see the “truth”? To be a safe space for open dialogue?
Do you agree with the following statement?
A sign of true faith
is being willing to risk conversion
for the sake of the truth.
We tend to expect the other to convert—to change their thinking. But are we willing to do the same? Are you willing to change your perspective? If you’re not, why on earth should you expect another person to change theirs? They likely believe their perspective is “right” or “true” just as much as you do. Let’s face it, for many of us being convinced that our position is not correct or even wrong is a vulnerability. It may be accompanied by shame and embarrassment. Yet, the most frequent approach I see is almost a militant confrontation that’s in your face! That approach itself causes people to protect themselves and dig in rather than be open to any ideas you have.
Listening to God’s Word
Read John 17:20-23.
- In John 17, what is the purpose of “oneness”?
- A number of questions were raised in the paragraphs above. Which strikes a chord with you? Share what’s on your mind.
Coming to a Common Understanding of Community
One of the most divisive issues of the early church was that of circumcision. The sign for male Jewish believers was circumcision because it tied them to the covenant with Abraham. The question for first-century Christians was what to do with Gentile believers who want to follow Jesus? Do they have to be circumcised to be true followers of Jesus? The Jewish followers of Jesus couldn’t imagine following God and not being circumcised just like Christian can’t imagine being followers of Jesus and not being baptized.
By the time this controversy arose, Jesus had already died, resurrected, and ascended. Now the disciples were on their own to live out and carry on this faith. Even though they followed, listened to, and believed Jesus, Jesus didn’t answer all of their questions and provide direction for every situation they would encounter. We have that in common with them. The world is constantly evolving and new questions arise challenging how we understand Jesus and our faith.
When Copernicus and, later, Galileo, declared that earth was not the center of the universe, they challenged everyone’s current understanding and even the teachings of the church. People then didn’t accept this information immediately.
We know Jesus’ comments that a kingdom divided against itself cannot stand (Luke 11:17; Mark 3:25; Matthew 12:25). Are our only options to win over those who think differently from us or to be won over by them?
What if part of being one and having a common understanding is part of the process of being and becoming a community?
We use terms for churches such as “family.” What if such terms oversimplify the complex relationships that exist in congregations? What if such terms project a fallacy of unity?
Listening to God’s Word
Read Acts 15: 1-11.
- Can we let others have their thoughts and not have to judge them as right or wrong? Not have to change the other person’s mind?
Building with Diversity
At the end of the day, yes, we need to talk and listen and try to understand, but then there must be some kind of action. Organizations, including churches, tend to engage in endless study, conversation, and meetings as a show of action. In reality, these are forms of paralysis and indecision.
Can we as leaders decide together that we will move as a body – we will take at least one step no matter how small or seemingly insignificant?
The story of Nehemiah is inspiring. In the time after the Babylonian Exile (609–538 BCE), Nehemiah was serving the king as cupbearer and heard the plight of the people who already returned to Jerusalem. Nehemiah asked the king to allow him to return to Jerusalem to rebuild the city. The city was extremely vulnerable because the wall and the gates that used to surround and protect Jerusalem were all in ruins. We don’t get the detail in the Bible about the conversations Nehemiah had with the people or what objections they may have raised. If this was in our day, I can imagine people would argue about whether it was worth it to rebuild and whether it was even possible because of neighboring kingdoms that were watching and would attack them to keep them down. I can hear the challenges about which were the best method or materials to use and how long it would take to obtain the necessary materials.
Yet, they moved ahead and rebuilt the wall. How? Each person was responsible for rebuilding the part of the wall outside their home and they stood shoulder-to-shoulder with their neighbor. They were united—even with their differences, diversity, and even division—to accomplish a common task that would benefit the whole community. The people knew that rebuilding the wall by themselves or even with other like-minded people would be impossible. They needed everyone to accomplish this task that was both necessary and overwhelming.
Do differences matter? Yes, of course. But do the differences matter more than our call and what unifies us?
Listening to God’s Word – Nehemiah
17 Then I said to them, “You see the trouble we are in, how Jerusalem lies in ruins with its gates burned. Come, let us rebuild the wall of Jerusalem, so that we may no longer suffer disgrace.” 18 I told them that the hand of my God had been gracious upon me, and also the words that the king had spoken to me. Then they said, “Let us start building!” So they committed themselves to the common good.
- Why is your organization or congregation a community?
- What is your purpose?
- What do you feel you need to do as a community to fulfill this purpose that you can’t do as individuals or small groups?
- What are your next steps as a community of faith?
As people with varied backgrounds, experiences, and perspectives, there will never be a time when we see and feel the same as others in our communities. In light of that reality, we have choices:
- Break into smaller and smaller groups around common thought
- Get stuck in deadlock
- Move together but not up to our full potential or call
- Accept and celebrate the differences as blessings rather than causes for division and use that diversity to help discern the call of God
Jesus’ prayer that we would be one sounds simple. In its messiness, Jesus’ call leads to the impossible tasks of accomplishing God’s mission with other people. For us it is impossible, “but for God, all things are possible” (Matthew 19:26). We step into God’s future as we focus on God’s call and as we grow into a deeper, more honest, and meaningful relationship with our neighbor.
Pray together: O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, by paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where we go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
For Further Reading and Bible Study:
- Mason, Gary, “Peacemaking and reconciliation in divided spaces” (2021). Faith & Leadership. Leadership Education at Duke Divinity.
- Schweiker, William, “On Social Dissolution: Lost Threads and Forgotten Dogmas” (2021). Sightings. The University of Chicago Divinity School.
- Wigert, Ben, “3 Ways Managers Can Unite a Divided Workplace” (2021). Workplace Insights. Gallup.
- Wilson, Jeffrey M., “A Congregation Engaging in Missional Dialogue: Strengthening Discernment amid Diversity through Healthy Congregational Dialogue” (2017). Doctor of Ministry Theses. 18.
About the Author
Jeff Wilson currently serves as pastor of St. John Evangelical Lutheran Church in Riverdale, MD, in the Metropolitan Washington DC Synod. He received his Master of Divinity from the Lutheran Theological Seminary at Philadelphia in 2002, and his Doctor of Ministry in Congregational Mission and Leadership from Luther Seminary in 2017.
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