Direct or Indirect, Part 2: What is the best way to resolve conflict?

Growing up, my parents developed the “I don’t like it” conflict-resolution style for our family of five. When anyone in the family said these 4 magic words, you had to stop the offending behavior. “I don’t like you poking me.” Boom! You had to cease and desist immediately, or face much worse consequences. “I don’t like it” was direct, clear, and left very little room for confusion about what you meant. This worked well for all types of overt, irritating behaviors: unwanted kicking, wrestling, stealing each other’s stuff, entering one another’s rooms uninvited, etc. However, it did not help with interpersonal pain or disappointments. “I don’t like you ignoring me?” “I don’t like you being aloof?” “I don’t like how you break trust with me?” These words never came out of our mouths.

Then I got to college. In InterVarsity, we had direct ways of resolving conflict. We loved to teach Matthew 18: 15-20. There is a proper way and order to go about conflict resolution, and it is directly from Jesus’ mouth after all. This was not one way to resolve conflict, but rather it was THE “biblical model.” Go directly to them first. Be direct. Then involve others second if one-on-one doesn’t work. Go public third. This became my conflict resolution grid, my mandate. The only way to resolve things. Except I was not good at it. In this grid, if you are articulate about your feelings and quick on your feet, you would always win. You could always get me to feel guilty and admit that it was all my fault. (I was ill-equipped to articulate my feelings of pain, confusion, disappointment, regret, shame, anger, etc.) Our “Direct InterVarsity” way of resolving conflict favored certain personality types and was very awkward for others. Don’t worry…I intentionally applied myself and I got better at these difficult, direct conversations. But it took years of hard work.

There are many styles of conflict resolution. Some people freely express lots of emotion, others show almost no emotion at all. Some express anger, others think that expressing anger is a sin. Some are succinct, others want to keep talking for hours. Geography certainly shapes your approach, as you’re your family of origin, and Meyers-Briggs (and other) personality types. And culture shapes how we do conflict, often more than we think. I think of these as different ends of a spectrum. We have preferences as to where sit on the direct/indirect spectrum, for example, but we also can learn to slide up and down depending on your context, audience, etc. I prefer to say “direct/indirect” rather than Asian/white because I have some white friends who are very indirect, and I have some Asian friends who are super direct. I also have had uncomfortably direct conflict resolution with African American friends. I thought I was direct until those experiences. I had to learn to go their direction. That story will wait for another time.

Indirect conflict resolution is also in the Bible, it turns out. Think about Esau and Jacob in Genesis 32. Jacob had previously stolen Esau’s inheritance, which is a pretty wicked thing to do. If anyone needed the Matthew 18 step-by-step process of conflict resolution, these brothers did. But that is not how they reconciled. Jacob sends gifts, God seems to work, they embrace. They are reconciled, more or less, and they did not even mention the earlier egregious sin.

Some of my indirect friends prefer the approach of “I just stop talking and see if you notice.” If you care, you will ask about it. You will draw me out. I have tried using this approach in complicated team settings or with really angry people. It helps me avoid feeling like I have to win the verbal game. I just get quiet. It is a powerful new teaching for me.

I was talking to my new friend, Audrey Chan. She helped me understand “volume” in conflict. She might say to a white friend, “That interaction was a little awkward.” On a scale of 1 to 10, that sounds to my ears like volume level 2 in terms of how much she is bothered. But she means it at a 9. She does not want me to feel embarrassed about what I have done to her, so she understates the impact. I have to learn to turn that volume up for myself. “Doug, she is saying that was a little awkward. That probably means it was VERY awkward for her. Pay attention!”

She also explained there is apologizing for one’s intentions, and then there is apologizing for one’s impact upon another. We white people are much better at apologizing for my intentions, but we are very slow to apologize for our unintended impact upon others. If I didn’t mean to do that to you, then I played no role in it and there is nothing to apologize for.

Wrong! Like Audrey said, I need to pay attention to my intentions and also to my unintended impact on others. And sometimes gift-giving can replace words. Audrey said, “If someone leaves me bag of oranges by my front door, I know they have apologized.”

You and I have a style of resolving conflict. You may never have considered some important questions about that style:
What are the ways that I think that my way of resolving conflict is “normal?”

How do I expect that others will bring up issues with me if I have hurt them? How do I expect that the burden is on them if they have been hurt, versus the onus is on me to ask first?

When was the last time you apologized simply for your impact on someone (even though you had no intention of making them feel that way)?

Do you agree with my assertion that we white people tend to prefer to apologize for our intentions rather than for our unintended impact on people?

Going home for Thanksgiving after This Election?

It’s an understatement to say white folks were divided this election. So if your family is anything like mine, you’re going to face somebody at your table who voted for our President-elect, maybe because of abortion, or maybe because of their own bank accounts, or they like some things he said, or perhaps, they just ignored other things he said.

And you’re probably steamed, if you are a white person who wants to be in healthy mutually-respectful relationships with the rest of humanity. How do you get ready to go home for the holiday?

I heard some wisdom from an African prayer partner, and then the same story, from a Black preacher-activist I watch online. One time in the Old Testament (or Hebrew Bible), Samuel came to God and was praying his heart out. He was in a lot of pain because he felt that his values were being violated and he felt rejected. I feel my values are being violated, this election cycle. The prophet Samuel was leading God’s people in a certain direction, and the people of God said no, they didn’t want a prophet, they wanted a King. And what God told Samuel was, these people haven’t rejected you, Samuel, they have rejected me. And they will pay the price of having a king – a king will tax them, and send their sons to war, and generally take advantage of them. Then God continued to be at work, with His or Her infinite creativity.

My prayer partner, and the preacher I follow both said, America wanted a king. And so God has given us a king, we’ll learn what it means to have a king…. what a king will cost us.

My thought for you, as you gather with your family for Thanksgiving is this. If you have white family and friends who voted for this political leader – they can’t vote away your values. God is still infinitely creative; still in charge, still redeeming and saving us all. You and I can walk into our dinner conversations with the decision to practice – and speak about – our value of respecting all races, respecting and including immigrants, finding some common ground with people who practice other faiths, and even, perhaps, some compassion for our family members who just voted for the winning candidate.

Orlando, Intersectionality and the way of Jesus

Everybody is talking about Orlando this week, as we should be. After we express our concern for the victims and their loved ones…after we pray and keep vigil… I notice we all start to make claims.
-was it a gay event, and we need to beware of homophobia?
-was it because of guns, and how easy it is for Americans to obtain them?
-was it a Latino event, and we need to be less racist?
-was it a Muslim event?
-was it simply untreated mental illness?
-no, it was a domestic violence thing…

Doug and I were talking about all this, and what strikes us is that the folk making claims using these various lenses tend to use their claim to give themselves power.

How different that is, from the way of Jesus, who related to everyone uniquely how they were. Paul said let’s be like Jesus,

“Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility regard others as better than yourselves. Let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others. Let the same mind be in you that was in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God
as something to be exploited,
but emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
being born in human likeness.
And being found in human form,
he humbled himself
and became obedient to the point of death—
even death on a cross.
Therefore God also highly exalted him
and gave him the name
that is above every name,
so that at the name of Jesus
every knee should bend,
in heaven and on earth and under the earth,
and every tongue should confess
that Jesus Christ is Lord,
to the glory of God the Father.” (from Philippians 2, NRSV)

So first of all, Jesus practiced and invites us into a downward movement… becoming humble, considering others better than we are. I can’t think of a more effective position to take, in cultivating relationships with people who differ from us – listening, serving, learning.

But secondly, to go back to Orlando, it’s not that one claim is true, and another isn’t. It’s that they’re all factors. The tragedy in Orlando rose out of a complex intersection of all of those things.

Our lives are also like that. I’m white and straight, but I can use my experiences as a woman to empathize with what might be happening for people of color and LGBTQ people. I can use my racial power in listening, serving, learning: “emptying myself” like Jesus. As a pastor, usually when I walk into church, I have more power than others in the room. I can use that power to give others voice. Being alert to the intersections of my life, helps me become a more faithful person and leader.

Earlier this week (in part in response to Orlando, but other events in my city), I organized and moderated an interfaith (and interracial) teach in. Two Rabbis, a Pastor (Black), an Imam (African)… and me. Here we are answering folks questions.



Left to right, Rabbi Bonnie Margulis (speaking), Pastor Stephen Marsh, Imam Sheikh Alhadjie Jallow, Rabbi Jonathan Biatch, and myself.

What fascinated me was that each one of us spoke in different ways about the fact that our three great religions (Judaism, Islam and Christianity) all taught us that God created our diversity, to humble us, to help us struggle, and ultimately, to heal us. You doubt this? Think about the passages in scripture about reconciliation, about church unity, about learning to love your brother or sister.

So I invite you, as you read and think about Orlando, and other situations, to become more alert to the intersections, and the complexity of our identities. What if God created all this diversity, to bless us? And consider your own complex identity… where do you have power? Where are you disempowered (and vulnerable)? Jesus, I imagine, intends to lead you in both places to bless others.

Using the Book of Acts to get a White Church Talking About Race, Part 2

How do you get a mostly white church to grow in our willingness to cross cultures in the name of Jesus? We decided to use the book of Acts, and emphasize God’s missional call. We framed it with something we can all agree on, Acts 1:8, “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.” In order to do this job and be on this mission it was going to require that Jesus’s disciples break through barriers that had separated people from God and from each other for centuries.

We believe as a church that we’re participating in this same mission: to be his witnesses to our entire community.

Baby Steps: The 001 Series Outline

Week 1: Learn to Listen (Acts 6)
Week 2: Be Like Cornelius. Get off your Moving Walkway (Acts 10)
Week 3: Be Like Peter. Repentance is a Good Word (Acts 10, pt 2)
Week 4: Let’s Lean into our Antioch future (Acts 11)
Week 1: Acts 6—Listen

The key take-home here: when there was a complaint along racial and ethnic lines, the (Jewish) apostles did not ignore it or rationalize it or push it away. They listened.

Without listening to people who are different from us we will never break through the barriers that divide us. The importance of being a listener became the refrain for the whole series.

And here’s a good example of the discipline of doing an “001 Series” kicked in: in this passage there are so many great, important application points about power dynamics, race, and authority that we did not talk much about at all. It was week one of an 001 series, we just wanted to invite folks to have a listening posture.

Week 2: Acts 10—The Moving Walkway

We did two weeks in Acts 10—week one we looked at it from Cornelius’s perspective. Our culture operates with moving walkways that will divide and separate us along these same fault lines of race, class, nationality, all we have to do is stand still and we’ll be herded by our racialized society.

The only way break-through happens is if we’re intentional about getting off of the moving walkway and going in the opposite direction.

Cornelius as a Roman centurion does this by sending for Peter and submitting to him, even though Peter’s a measly conquered Jew and Cornelius is a man of authority and power.

This message was about passive racism. I never used that phrase, just wanted people to start to see that we didn’t have to be hood-wearing KKK members to be participating in and cooperating with a racially dysfunctional system.

Week 3: Acts 10—The Hardest Part of Breaking Through

The Greek word for repentances is “metanoia” which literally means to change your mind. In the Acts 10 passage, Peter goes through a massive ‘mind changing’ experience from the unclean “picnic” offered to him in his prayer-trance to standing in Cornelius’s house declaring “I now see that God does not show favoritism” between Jew and Gentile.

This week, I pushed a little bit harder to invite us to recognize that racism wasn’t just “out there” in the culture but in our own hearts as well. The hardest part of breaking through racial barriers for many of us is acknowledging and repenting of the racism that’s within us. That message set up a very powerful communion experience of recognizing our need for the cross.

Week 4: Acts 11—Antioch: A Community that Breaks Through

Here we talked about the combination of human intentionality and the unpredictable, uncontrollable work of the Spirit that is always much more interested in reconciliation and breaking through barriers than we ever will be.

Four weeks, that was it. Near-zero push-back. Lots of great conversations started. If you’re an over-achiever, you can check out the Breaking Through sermon series here.

And as an aside, during the course of the series we had three new ethnic minority families start coming to our church. Not because they knew anything about the series. I think the Lord just said to us, “Alex, now I can trust you with these my children whom I love.”

Amen, may it be so.

How do you talk about Racial Healing in a white Church? Part 1

How do you get a conversation started about race relations and God’s power if you are a white leader in a mostly white church? After 3 years as their pastor, I recently decided it was high time for me to do just that.

Discliamer: After a measley four-week preaching series from Acts, in no way do I fancy myself an expert. But as a friend of mine pointed out, given that most white pastors have absolutely zero experience in talking about this from the pulpit, I’m happy to share my recent experiment, to get the conversation going.

Baby Steps

This series was not supposed to be racial reconciliation 101. It was going to be crossing-cultures 001. We decided to meet our congregation right where they were, as best as we could. Our goal was to start a conversation, not beat them up with how little they knew.

Framing this “Crucial Conversation”

Once I realized that our goal was an 001-level conversation starter series, I decided to steal a page from the book Crucial Conversations: I wanted to start by “establishing mutual purpose.”

My goal in the first few minutes of every message was to build trust and agreement around what we could all agree was broken in the world. That helped us to look at the problem of barriers between people groups as a shared problem that we all wanted to do something about.

Every week I introduced and re-introduced the series with some combination of these key phrases:

We’re talking in this series about God’s power to break through barriers of race, class, ethnicity, culture, and nationality, but especially around what we commonly call race.

In every culture and in every country all throughout history, people have been divided by these same set of barriers

For 5,000 years of human history, there is not one culture, not one people who group that has not had tremendous barriers between people along some of these fault lines

And these barriers have caused untold misery and destruction and pain for people in every culture ever

This is, quite frankly, one of the single greatest, constant, intractable problems for all humanity for all time

Unfortunately, we struggle to have this important conversation in the church.

Scroll through your Facebook news feed and on any given day we can see examples of how much tension and pain and anger and mis-understanding and frustration there is around these issues

But what if the church became that place where we could finally have a good, constructive conversation?

Together, what we’re going to do in these next couple weeks is see if we can start to solve a problem that millions of people before us have been unable to solve. No big deal, right? You up for that?

By framing this up as a global, historical problem it took some of the defensiveness and edge out of the room. This was a problem we were going to tackle and start to solve together. This helped them understand the conversation and “agree” to enter into a difficult topic with me.

God’s Cross Cultural Gospel

The church I serve is a wonderfully action-oriented church that very much desires to be outward-facing.

So when I was running the idea for series by a much wiser man than myself (thanks, Doug Schaupp), he suggested that I frame the series as God’s culture-crossing Gospel, with a clearly missional focus. I knew that would resonate with my action-oriented, outward-facing community.

Over the course of four weeks, we walked through three different passages in Acts but each week we started by putting Jesus’s final command to his disciples in front of us: “you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the end of the earth.”-Acts 1:8

In order to do this job and be on this mission it was going to require that Jesus’s disciples break through barriers that had separated people from God and from each other for centuries.

We believe as a church that we’re participating in this same mission: to be his witnesses to our entire community.

And I played off our church vision and even our name: in order for us to BE Chatham COMMUNITY Church, a church for the whole community, and not just one slice of our community, we’re going to have to break down the same walls that those first disciples had to break through.

By entering through the missional door, they could see and agree that this is an important four-week series, even if it would push them out of their comfort zone.

How do you feel about giving white Christians baby steps, or a 001 warm-up to this important conversation?

Here’s the hope

Race and racism are bigger than we are, but God has been involved from the beginning, setting things straight and teaching us a better way. The Bible is framed by mythic stories about people, in gardens and cities, showing us what God plans and intends for human beings. In the beginning there are two versions of the creation story – one poetic and ritualistic (Genesis 1) the other earthy and artistic: God making creatures out of mud pies and placing them in the garden (Gen. 2). What’s clear is that God made the “adam” (at first, a non-gendered word for human being) to reflect God’s image. I draw from this that every human person reflects the nature of God, and deserves our respect and dignity. God the creator divided the human, into male and female, and placed us into a garden to cultivate. As human beings began to know good and evil (3), to choose evil, violence and death (4-7), there was still one language, and presumably, one culture, nation and race. God did not create race, or racialized people. By the time people built the first city, a tower of power, God chose to “confuse their language” (or diversify languages) which caused people to scatter around the world (Gen.11). These stories fit what we know from science, that human beings originated in Africa, perhaps Ethiopia, and migrated from there into Asia and later, Europe.

The Bible includes many many examples of interactions between nations and cultures (not race, that’s newer), and pays careful attention to the status of immigrants. In the Hebrew Bible (or Old Testament) these stories focus particularly about Jewish people and their national neighbors, but promises of interdependent well-being are interspersed throughout. God says to Abraham “I will bless you and you will be a blessing,” and we read about his family’s interaction with the nations around them. Do a word search of the Old Testament for the word “foreigner” and read about God’s concern for immigrants and refugees. Reread the prophets and Psalms asking questions about cross-cultural interaction and God’s concern for justice.

In the New Testament, a group of people begin to follow Jesus, out of the great variety of the mediterranean basin, forming the multicultural multilingual early church. Reread the book of Acts for stories about how the early church grew across national and cultural boundaries, and resolved cross-cultural conflicts to become one diverse community following the way of Jesus. When the Holy Spirit descended, first on His or Her agenda was to heal the communication rift between people of different cultures and races (Acts 2:3). Paul writes “in Christ Jesus you are all children of God through faith …there is no longer Jew or Greek, there is no longer slave or free, there is no longer male or female; for all of you are one in Christ… heirs according to the promise” (Galatians 3:26-29). The writer of Ephesians claims that the work of Christ Jesus on the cross was as much to reconcile us to one another, as it was to reconcile us to God (Ephesians 2).

In the very last pages of the Christian Bible, God gathers “a great multitude… from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb” (a sacrificial image for Jesus) (Rev. 6.9). In the end “a new heaven and a new earth” descend, “the holy city, the new Jerusalem” descend from God. God proceeds to make a home among human beings, in order to comfort, to wipe tears away, to end death and mourning. God creates a beautiful city, described with precious jewels and gold, and “people will bring into it the glory and honor of the nations” (Rev. 21:22) From the throne of God is a river, and on either bank grow the tree of life, and “the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations” (Rev. 22).

I take all this to mean that reconciliation, and healing between races and tribes and nations, is God’s concern and God’s work. Our hope, is trusting God. Our way, is to follow Jesus Christ, faithfully and actively, as he leads us forward.

How I learned: crossing cultures with Jesus is normal

When I was a college student, God drew me into an InterVarsity chapter where the staff helped us understand the cultural dynamics in scripture. I cannot express what a blessing this was for me to be trained up as a disciple of Jesus who saw that crossing cultures with Jesus is a normal part of the Christian life.

Here are a few snapshots that stand out to me from my undergrad years:

  • I remember being taught John 4. Jesus had to go to Samaria, even though all the other rabbis of his day never had to go there. Everyone else went around. But Jesus wanted to give his disciples an introduction to the power of his Gospel to break down all barriers. He wanted to help them taste the movement they would later lead. (Thanks Brenda Salter McNeil)
  • I remember being taught Ephesians 2. The course of this world to divide us and set us against each other. And the invitation of God to live into racial reconciliation. I did not really know what racial reconciliation was, but I knew it was biblical.
  • I remember studying the whole book of Galatians. I was amazed and transformed by the profound ethnic and cultural dynamics that Paul had navigate. I could not believe Peter shrank back from taking a stand on the Gospel’s power to cross-cultures. And I was so proud of Paul for confronting him publicly. I did not want a Gospel that was embedded in the distinctives of just one culture. And I prayed I would be courageous like Paul.

Because I was given a strong biblical framework on the power of God to cross-cultures, to heal racial pain, and to make us a blessing to all nations (ethnos), I was able to steer into the pain of the ’92 Los Angeles Riots with some degree of courage. The anger confused me. But my biblical mooring allowed me to proceed with hope. Hope that God was somehow at work in the chaos, somehow redeeming. And hopeful that God would speak to me through it. (For more on the LA Riots, see the Wikipedia page on Los Angeles riots. )

Fast forward to my first sabbatical, after 7+ years of serving with InterVarsity. I could study whatever I wanted. I picked the book of Acts. I knew there were amazing examples of God’s people crossing cultures in Acts, but I had never studied it for myself front to back. I slowly made my way through this life-changing book. I could not believe how intentional Luke was in telling this epic narrative to fill out the complexities of the Acts 1:8 vision, the thesis if you will: …you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth. Such a motivating vision statement, and such a wonderfully rich racial and cultural and ethnic journey to live that out. I realized that I cannot understand God’s work in this amazing book if I do not understand the power dynamics, the cultural barriers, the bias that held people back, and the power of the Holy Spirit to address all these things.
For more on God’s vision for moving us across cultures in the book of Acts, please see p. 57 of Being White.

How about you…what passages from scripture have been your stepping stones in crossing cultures? What gives you hope in the face of today’s racial pain and injustice?