In my book, Moral Values: What I Learned Growing Up in Church, (available as an eBook), I ask the question: “Can the Christian church, divided over different beliefs about moral values, create safe places so people can live together in love?” My answer, in part, includes a “Safe Place Covenant” to guide congregations in learning how to create places where people will feel safe enough to talk through their differences with love and respect. You can find the full covenant here.
Grace is love freely given, with no restrictions and no demands on the person who is loved. Grace chooses to accept and respect other people simply because they are part of God’s creation, made in God’s image, and because God loves them. Grace is not only God’s gift to us individually, but our gift to other people.
God’s path of grace winds gracefully through the woods of this world filled with the sounds of people crying out for simple respect and for love freely given.
Gracious thoughts flow more freely for me now than ten years ago. I confess to a natural tendency to be critical of people, to see them do something “wrong” and to quickly “know” what they “should” do. Because I am naturally passive, I usually would not tell them, unless they asked. But the thoughts and judgments were there.
As a child I learned what Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount: “Do not judge” and “First take the log out of your own eye so you can see clearly to take the splinter out of your neighbor’s eye.” Yet I did not live up to those words. Judgments, even condemnations, came easily.
In the past ten years, an important path of my journey has been to move toward grace, toward love freely given, toward a non-judgmental and gracious attitude toward other people. It is not an easy path to walk.
THE GRACE OF GOD
We hear grace in these words from John’s gospel: God did not send [the] Son into the world to con-demn the world, but to save [heal] the world through him. [John 3:17] God loved the world and sent light into the darkness of this world because of divine grace, as a gift because of God’s own choice and not because of anything we had done. This is the gospel of grace.
If some choose not to accept that grace and choose not to come into the light of God’s love, they are like people given a wrapped present who set it down and never open it and never enjoy it. … Continue reading here
What I know about moral values I learned growing up in Protestant churches and in a Christian home. We went to church on Sunday as a matter of choice, perhaps of habit. Whether out of choice or habit, we went both to Sunday School and to worship. And as a teen, I went to youth group and to choir. Some years it seemed we were at the church more evenings than not. After 40 years in ministry, my heart and mind still yearn for confidence that God is behind my convictions and moral commitments, that the Spirit guides my moral choices.
Given the changes here and there in how I live out my fundamental values as a Christian, the moral values I hold and the choices I make still come out of the core of what I learned as a child growing up in church and in a Christian home. I learned early in life simple lessons like these:
- Be kind to others.
- Be patient.
- Respect everyone.
- Forgive people who hurt you.
- Stand up to bullies without fighting.
- Be honest without hurting people.
- Let other people be who they are.
- Be faithful to your friends.
- Love God and other people.
These simple values form the concrete foundation for the life God calls me to live out in the church, as well as in the world. I am convinced that God calls the whole church to live by them as well. As I experience the church today, I see a large crack in the foundation.
When church leaders are faced with change, they often look around for some model for adapting to change that other churches have used successfully. In a time of declining congregations among mainline denominations, especially, pastors and other leaders wonder why some other church in town is growing and their congregations are not. A common reaction of leadership is to say, “We need a different style of worship” or “We need to add on to our building” or “We need to be a ‘missional’ church.”
The essential need, however, for responding appropriately to change – and the inevitable conflict – is for people who are personally and spiritually prepared for effective leadership. The 10 Life Practices we teach (see menu bar at the top) will prepare you for that kind of leadership.
When you are centered in God and within yourselves and aware of who you are and what you bring to this situation, you can be both empathetic toward other people and assertive in what you say to them. When you are emotionally mature – meaning that you respond rather than react under stress – and when you connect with the people and your surroundings in a holistic manner, you are able to lead people in a way they can trust. You can listen to their stories and tell your own and help everyone learn to reframe what’s happening and see things from a different perspective, and you can guide people in creatively imagining a new future together. And with an underlying commitment to nonviolent engagement – to actively engage other people in a way that will not harm anyone – you can successfully guide your church into the good future God wants for it.
Today is the 70th birthday of Alcoholics Anonymous and the vast networks of 12 Step programs of all kinds. One church in Arizona has a motto that “We’re all in recovery.” All of us have some kind of addiction that compels us to engage in behavior that is not healthy for us. It may be eating or working too much, watching TV or surfing the net far more than is good for us, or even engaging in religious practices in unhealthy ways. Most addictions may not do the same physical and relational damage that chemical dependency or sexual addictions often do, and some are socially acceptable and even admired – like workaholism. But the spiritual, emotional, and relational impact often undermines our leadership more than we admit.
Over these decades AA and 12-step programs have helped millions of people realize the importance of admitting when they need help and finding that help in small groups and with someone who can walk alongside them in life. These are fundamental lessons for every leader to learn and to practice. Here are the 12 Steps as a reminder to us all:
- We admitted we were powerless over [________] – that our lives had become unmanageable.
- Came to believe that a power greater than ourselves could restore us to sanity.
- Made a decision to turn our will and our lives over to the care of God as we understood him.
- Made a searching and fearless moral inventory of ourselves.
- Admitted to God, to ourselves, and to another human being the exact nature of our wrongs.
- Were entirely ready to have God remove all these defects of character.
- Humbly asked him to remove our shortcomings.
- Made a list of all persons we had harmed, and became willing to make amends to them all.
- Made direct amends to such people wherever possible, except when to do so would injure them or others.
- Continued to take personal inventory and when we were wrong promptly admitted it.
- Sought through prayer and meditation to improve our conscious contact with God as we understood him, praying only for knowledge of his will for us and the power to carry that out.
- Having had a spiritual awakening as the result of these steps, we tried to carry this message to [___________], and to practice these principles in all our affairs.
Emotional maturity means that we respond appropriately to the other person in a conflicted situation. One technique I taught in business seminars on conflict resolution was what someone called “the 2-minute vent.” The idea is that very few people can “vent” their anger for more than 2 minutes. No matter how angry people are, if we don’t interrupt them or react in any way – if we listen quietly and wait them out – they will “lose steam” within that two minutes. Then we will have an opportunity to ask questions or respond appropriately to what they have been saying. It may not always work, but it’s worth a try the next time you’re dealing with an angry person.
Along with listening, though, we need to watch our body language. What are we “saying” to people by the way we stand or position ourselves or by our facial expressions, for instance? If my arms are crossed, that indicates I’m closed off and resistant to them. If I step away, it suggests I’m afraid or don’t have time for them. If I raise my eyebrows or look away, or smirk, the other person will interpret those expressions in a negative way. Any of that body language will probably escalate their anger rather than mitigating it, even if we don’t say anything. The other person will still believe we’re not listening.
The “open hands, open arms” stance can help as I listen quietly to angry people as they vent their anger. I stand (or sit) facing them, slightly at an angle so I don’t feel confrontational. As much as possible, I maintain eye contact. I pay attention to what my facial expressions communicate. I turn my arms so my hands are open toward them, physically assuring them of my desire to be peaceful, inviting them to return toward me a more peaceful attitude. If I am sitting, holding my hands in front and in the open with palms up invites them to join me in seeking a peaceful resolution to the tension between us. These techniques are ways of practicing emotional maturity.
Emotional maturity begins with being aware of what we’re feeling. That awareness often begins in our bodies, with what we feel physically. For instance, I know that when my back muscles – from the neck through the shoulders and down to the lower back – are tight and hurting that I am feeling anxious, worried, frustrated, maybe angry. When I’m aware of that, I often realize that I’m frowning a lot and that my hands and forearms also are tight because I’ve been literally holding on to those feelings, trying to “get a grip.”
Relaxation exercises will increase my emotional maturity – my ability to be responsive rather than reactive – at any given moment. Whether I am sitting, standing, or lying down, I relax the muscles in my body beginning from the top of my head and working down to the soles of my feet, and up again. My way of doing this is to first tighten an area of muscles (my scalp, eyes, facial muscles, ears) a bit, then relax them. Do that two or three times in each place. Do the same with my jaw and neck and upper shoulders. And so on down the body. As I do this, I also breathe deeply and slowly. And I imagine some pleasant scene, some place I enjoy being, someone I enjoy being with.
This relaxation exercise takes only a few minutes and can quickly achieve a lower level of anxiety and stress at the moment. Joining the physical with the spiritual exercise of prayer, offering gratitude to God for what is good in life, and with a meditation on a scripture of grace and gratitude, can enhance the effect of the physical exercise.
Whenever you are aware of being especially anxious, frustrated, angry, try this simple exercise. Then you will be better prepare to respond appropriately to some person or situation in your life which may be generating those feelings within you.