Dan R. Dick

Author's details

Name: Dan R. Dick
Date registered: March 3, 2012
URL: http://doroteos2.wordpress.com

Latest posts

  1. United Methodeviations: To Read Or Not To Read… — April 10, 2014
  2. United Methodeviations: The “Must” Questions — April 4, 2014
  3. United Methodeviations: Doing and Discipling — March 28, 2014
  4. United Methodeviations: The Obvious Truth Nobody Seems to Know — March 18, 2014
  5. United Methodeviations: Miracle Eye — March 13, 2014

Most commented posts

  1. United Methodeviations: Time For A New Mission? — 2 comments
  2. United Methodeviations: God Bless You, George G. Hunter, III! — 2 comments
  3. United Methodeviations: Fruititude — 1 comment
  4. United Methodeviations: Hitting the Hard Stuff — 1 comment
  5. United Methodeviations: Safety in Numbness — 1 comment

Author's posts listings

Apr 10 2014

United Methodeviations: To Read Or Not To Read…

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/04/10/to-read-or-not-to-read/

angry-reader-467x267I am a reader, and proud of it.  I rarely spend less than 3 hours each day reading, and I mean books, not just emails, articles, blogs, letters, ads, magazines, Post-It® Notes, etc.  On days off, I read more like 6-7 hours.  I am an eclectic reader.  There are few things I won’t tackle, and I voraciously seek books that are “over my head.”  In two recent settings, the conversation turned to reading, and both startled/troubled me.  Sitting with friends and colleagues, I mentioned that for the past fifteen years I have read at least 200 books each year (and in 2006, when I broke my leg, I read 365 — a book a day).  Someone I well-respect immediately responded, “What a waste of time!”  I asked what he meant, and he said, “There is virtually nothing of value in books.  Books are just a passive way to avoid life.  I don’t think I have read more than three books since I graduated seminary.”  I couldn’t believe this attitude, and it got worse when others around the table chimed in.  “I simply don’t have time to read.”  “I only read romances.”  “I read about two or three books a year, but I don’t really retain much of what I read.”  “Reading puts me to sleep.”  One female colleague very sheepishly said, “Well, I enjoy reading, and I think it helps me improve myself.”  In a group of a dozen, only two came out strongly in favor of reading, and a few were actually opposed.

In a very similar setting, I recommended a couple of books I’ve read recently that I felt were exceptionally good.  Again, the reaction was along the lines of “I don’t read/don’t have time/don’t enjoy reading.”  One person said, “Sum it up.  I only take time to read a paragraph or a few sentences.  If what I am reading can’t communicate in 50 words or less, I figure it’s not worth my time.”  In our information bloated culture, sound-bites and data-bits are all many people take time for.  In this setting, one person was actually fascinated by the idea that I could not just read, but finish, multiple books in a week.  She asked, “How do you do it?” as if I had performed some miraculous wonder.  A second person, who knows me well, said, “I’m not just impressed with how much you read, but with how much you retain and your ability to synthesize it.”  (If you want to truly flatter a reader, there is simply no higher praise than this…)

These two conversations reminded me that for many people reading is not a normal, natural, regular activity, but is exceptional and all-too-often rare.  While illiteracy has decreased in our country, non-literacy has boomed.  Poll after poll, survey after survey indicates that reading is minimal and on the decrease (even as book/e-book sales increase).  A recent poll on reading habits used the following choices to their questions about books read in a year:  a) 0, b) 1, c) 2, d) 3, e) 4 or more.  More than four books in a single year was offered as the high-bar…  Yikes.

Other surveys show that many of the people who do read either limit themselves to recreational reading or to the reading of thoughts and ideas that agree with their own opinions and worldview.  Among Republican males, age 55 and older who read four or more books in a year, 87% read a book by Bill O’Reilly, Newt Gingrich or Glenn Beck (21% read a book by all three).  The implication is that what reading is done is not done with the hope or intention of expanding one’s horizon or having one’s assumptions challenged.  Reading is divorced from learning or personal development.  Another survey offered respondents five choices:  love reading, enjoy reading, will read if necessary, dislike reading, hate reading.  The breakdown?  Love reading — 5%; Enjoy reading – 21%, Read if necessary — 39%; Dislike reading – 25%; Hate reading – 10% (13,151 = sample size).  Twice as many people hate reading as love reading?  More people dislike reading than enjoy reading?  Seventy-four percent (3-out-of-4) will only read if absolutely necessary and required?  I live in a different world…

Under my “Best Books — April 2014″ tab I review what I consider to be a classic — Mortimer J. Adler and Charles Van Doren’s, How to Read a Book.  Most adults today might wonder about the need to read a 400+ page book on how to read.  We all assume we know how to read, but I realize that my deep enjoyment of reading is due in part to my discovery of this book when I was in high school.  I read it again when I was in seminary.  Reading it again last week reminded me why I love reading so much.  I am an active, syntopic reader (for definitions, read my review — or better yet, read the book).  I engage information and work to own it, processing and synthesizing so that information becomes knowledge.  I retain as much as I do because of the influence of this book.  I truly believe that the value, benefit and pleasure of reading is so enhanced by Adler and Van Doren’s treatment, that many who dislike reading or only read what they must could become avid readers.

We live in an information age, but we are caught in a paradox: the more information we receive, the less we know and understand.  We do not live in a knowledge age.  We do not live in a wisdom age.  We are being trained, shaped and cultivated to create an attention deficit hyperactive disorder (ADHD) culture.  We are losing the capacity to read and interpret at anything beyond an elementary level.  And we are paying a very steep price.  We are not stupid people, but we are ignorant people.  At its root, the concept of ignorance is a willful disregard (ignore-ance) and a rejection of what we dislike or disbelieve.  We choose not to know.  We choose not to learn.  We choose not to grow.

Are books the only way to know and grow?  Of course not.  Should everyone be a reader?  No, but everyone should be a learner, and books are a phenomenal way to learn and be challenged to think.  As a people of faith, and as a people “of the Book,” reading should not be an option, but a discipline.  There is not one feature of How to Read a Book that could not (should not) be applied to the reading of Hebrew and Christian scripture.  In fact, if you love God and wish to understand God’s Word and Will better, tackle How to Read a Book first, and see what happens the next time you enter scripture.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/04/to-read-or-not-to-read/

Apr 04 2014

United Methodeviations: The “Must” Questions

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/04/04/the-must-questions/

While working for the General Board of Discipleship, I developed a resource that was never published called “Your New Appointment: The First Hundred Days.”  Not a flashy title, but very descriptive.  It was rejected because “it wasn’t practical.”  I will outline it here and let you decide.  It was predicated upon a very simple process and plan, and its core thesis was a guiding question:  “What must I learn/know to be effective in my ministry in this place at this time?”  I did not offer a prescriptive list of answers to such a question — context and chemistry are powerful variables that rule out a “one-size-fits-all-answer” — but I did offer suggestions and tools for pursuing worthwhile answers.

I used a simple contextual frame for pastoral ministry — pastors-in-charge equip, empower and enable congregational participants to engage in ministries of nurture, outreach and witness (the foster disciples of Jesus Christ who transform the world).  Thus, a finer focus emerged:

  1. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in nurture ministries?
  2. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in outreach ministries?
  3. what must I learn/know to effectively equip, empower and enable people to engage in witness ministries?

I developed the following two graphics to identify a healthy, balanced model contrasted with the “lived reality” of the average United Methodist pastor I discovered when doing research for my book, Vital Signs: A Pathway to Congregational Wholeness.

Pastoral Time

The basic premise is that a balance of inward and outward focus is preferred, and that the pastoral leader will spend approximately equal time in the following pursuits:

  • Congregational Leadership — preaching, teaching, equipping, training, providing spiritual guidance and direction, visioning, strategic thinking, prioritization and goal setting, personal development and continuing education
  • Congregational Care — leading worship, fellowship events, social events, visitation, counseling, attending meetings, confirmation, baptisms, presiding at the Lord’s Supper, newsletter/email/written communications, ministry of presence
  • Community Engagement — ecumenical & interfaith relationships, community development, social services partnerships, community events, rallies, service projects, missional outreach, funerals/weddings/baptisms, teaching, networking

Our healthiest and most effective pastors establish and maintain a 1/3-1/3-1/3 balance between these three areas.  Sadly, these are few and far between.  Surveys and interviews of over 1,100 United Methodist clergy revealed that the chart on the right is a more accurate reflection of the day-to-day lived reality, with over 2/3 of the time given to inward focused nurture and care functions, about 1/4 given to forward-focused, future-oriented equipping/empowering/enabling leadership, and a meager 5% left over for community involvement and engagement.  This is the profile of most declining and struggling congregations.

Moving into a new appointment is an ideal time to “reboot” and work toward balance in the three spheres, but it is not impossible to reestablish healthy balance even in a long-term appointment.  I suggest pushing the “must” questions — for each of the three sections, the same core questions apply:

  • who must I talk to in the congregation, the community, the church to be more effective in my ministry?
  • where must I go to learn/know what is most important in the congregation, community, and larger church?
  • what must I do to establish key connections in the congregation, community and church?

When I last pastored in the local church, I charted a course for my first 100 days, and three years in repeated the 100 day plan.  In three months I made appointments with every other clergy leader in a ten-mile radius.  I invited them out to lunch, asked them to give me ninety minutes, and I asked the following five questions:

  1. what is the most important work you do as a pastor?
  2. what is the most important your church does as a congregation?
  3. what do you find most challenging in your ministry and the ministry of your congregation?
  4. what are you attempting to do that is currently a struggle, but with more resources (human or material) you would be able to do better?
  5. where do you see your own ministry in five years?  where do you see the ministry of your congregation?  do you see yourself still in ministry with the same congregation?

I also made appointments to speak with someone in each of the following areas, and to have one or two lay people accompany me:

  • police force
  • rescue workers/EMT/fire brigade
  • area hospital
  • social services
  • school board
  • chamber of commerce
  • welfare/human services agency
  • assisted living/retirement home
  • funeral directors
  • community theater/performing arts
  • substance abuse centers

and I made it known that I was available to come speak to Kiwanis, Elks, Rotary, business associations, women’s groups, youth groups, etc., and made a list of topics I could address.  Wherever I was invited, I took one or two lay people with me.

With each group, I asked three basic questions:

  1. what are you focused on?
  2. why is it important?
  3. what’s working well and what isn’t?

The twofold impact was simple, but significant.  First, people got to know me and they got to know the ministry of the church I served.  They got to know people from the church, and the people from the church got to know community leaders better.  Second, I got a picture of the church in relation to the community mission field.  I was able to connect the gifts, knowledge, experience, skills, talents, and passions of the congregation to the needs, desires and priorities of the community.  Two or three critical partnerships formed that allowed the church to engage in ministries impossible in its own.  On a regular basis, we invited people we met into the church to preach, teach or share information and invitations to serve.  This focus on community engagement helped the church maintain a healthy balance of inward and outward focus.  It also benefited the church in terms of membership and money.  The win-win was powerful.

In my experience, this is a valid model, and it is a much clearer metric of vitality than how many people come to church and how many people attend a small group.  I have yet to find a congregation that maintains such a healthy balance if the pastoral leader does not model a healthy balance.  But where pastor and congregation blend nurture, outreach and witness, amazing things happen (regardless of the size of the membership).


Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/04/the-must-questions/

Mar 28 2014

United Methodeviations: Doing and Discipling

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/03/28/doing-and-discipling/

Slowly, but surely, I am plowing through old files in a feeble attempt to clean and organize my office.  This process is entering its third year, so success is a remote hope.  However, I do come across some interesting artifacts as I dig through each new (old) layer.  Just this week I found work I did for an old GBOD (General Board of Discipleship) project on clergy effectiveness.  I developed seven measures for clergy effectiveness related to our denomination’s mission of “making disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world.”  Let me go ahead and spoil the ending before I reveal my seven standards — my list was soundly rejected by the powers-that-be.  Here is the note from my General Secretary at the time scrawled on the front page: “Start over.  We need to focus on things that are easier to measure.”  On a later page, I offered the rationale that each of these metrics could be defended in the gospels.  The note here read: “Use modern evaluation standards — benchmarks and best practices.”  In other words, don’t evaluate clergy leadership by biblical standards, just secular business standards need suffice…

Okay, so my seven measures of clergy effectiveness:

  1. How many laity are you training and equipping to preach and lead others in worship, and what process do you use to evaluate their progress? (List those being trained/equipped by name)
  2. How many laity are you training and equipping to teach, and what process do you use to evaluate their progress? (List by name)
  3. How many laity are you training and equipping to share their faith story with those outside the congregation, and what process do you use to evaluate their progress?  (List by name)
  4. What is your process for discovering, developing and deploying the spiritual gifts, theological knowledge and thinking, and servant leadership of the laity in the congregation?
  5. What is your process for training and equipping laity to engage in missional service, healing ministries, and outreach within the congregation, in the community, and beyond, and how do you evaluate effectiveness?
  6. Describe your personal plan and process for spiritual development, continuing education, and skill development, and update your progress in each area.
  7. Describe your personal devotional life — worship that you have no responsibility to lead, prayer apart from vocational leadership responsibility, Christian/mission service beyond your appointment, sacramental engagement where you do not preside, etc.

I shared this list with clergy in two conferences, and they were received with anger, incredulity, frustration and contempt.  Here are some of the responses I wrote down:

“These are not the qualifications that our district superintendents hold us accountable to.”

“This is not what I was taught to do in seminary.”

“I don’t have time for all this — I am too busy leading the church.”

“These are unfair standards!  I don’t know of any clergy person who would fare well by these measures.”

“If this measured my ministry I would be out of a job — no one in my church is looking for me to do these things.”

“You’re assuming that laity want to be in ministry.  My experience is that the majority come to church to be served.”

“This is a list of practices that guarantees we will lead a very small church.”

“This is a very skewed definition of “clergy effectiveness” based on a narrow definition of “discipleship.”

“What about attendance, apportionments, giving and growth?”

Definitely, the list and the responses reflect two VERY different value sets and orientations.  There is a significant difference between “doing for” and “equipping, empowering and enabling” others to do for themselves.  There is also a huge difference between “activity” and “performance.”  The United Methodist Church has long confused being busy with being productive.  We cannot seem to differentiate between quantity and quality.  More programs, more people, more small groups, more money are our default settings for “effectiveness.”  Yet, with few exceptions, quantity is very rarely a true cause of effectiveness.  We often confuse this truth by comparing healthy large churches to dysfunctional small churches, but study after study shows that when you compare the impact of healthy-to-healthy, small churches come out on top.  Ten healthy churches of 300 are more effective in every metric but overhead costs than any healthy church of 3,000.  We are a people of the lie: bigger is better.

But, as many opponents (including my former bosses) point out, qualitative analysis and evaluation is hard — and it often makes us look pretty bad.  A full room of passive consumers looks more impressive than a half-dozen deeply dedicated and spiritually grounded disciples, but the impact each produces is very different.  Doing ministry for the passive masses is so much easier than motivating those masses to be in ministry to others.  But the “doing rather than discipling” model is the primary reason we are leaders in a declining denomination.  The spread of the Christian gospel and servant leadership is dependent on replication, development and deployment.  If clergy are NOT engaged actively and effectively in the seven functions listed above, there is little hope that we will ever grow again.  Methodism, and the roots of the Evangelical and United Brethren communities, were laity-driven, laity-dependent, laity-engaged movements.  When the laity were being formed as leaders, servants, teachers (i.e., were engaged in a discipleship process leading to radical stewardship) our church grew in substance, influence and impact.  When we professionalized the clergy and marginalized the laity, we changed course and entered a century-long decline.

I have long contended that the “pastoral” metaphor — shepherds tending sheep — has been detrimental and limiting.  No matter how earnestly a shepherd serves the flock, it is impossible for any of the sheep to become shepherds.  However, in our gospels, Jesus provides a very different metaphor — teacher and disciples.  Here, an effective teacher will be measured by one essential standard — how well are students trained and equipped to teach; followers to lead, apprentices to become masters?  Clergy are not the religious experts hired to run the church; clergy are the privileged servants placed in the position of greatest potential to unleash the gifts, knowledge, skills, experience and passion needed for the transformation of the world.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/03/doing-and-discipling/

Mar 18 2014

United Methodeviations: The Obvious Truth Nobody Seems to Know

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/03/18/the-obvious-truth-nobody-seems-to-know/

Okay, here it is — the answer to all our problems in The United Methodist Church.  It is so simple, you probably won’t believe/accept it.  It comes in two parts — the first part is fundamental conventional wisdom, the second part, not so much.  It answers the question: “what is the key to successful, effective ministry in The United Methodist Church?”  Part one of the answer is “pastoral leadership,” but the second part is not “who is a stellar preacher, theologian, celebrity, visionary, organizer, fund-raiser, entrepreneur, or administrator.”  No, the second part of the statement is “that spends at least 50% of their time developing lay people.”  Scanning my own research and the research results of three other studies, the strongest correlation between congregational vitality and pastoral leadership is in empowering and equipping lay people to live their discipleship out in the world in their daily lives.  Who would have guessed?

Oh, sure, there are very high-profile exceptions, and in the 20-30 year short-term a shiny, perky celebrity pastor can carry the façade of health and vitality for a church, but for deep impact and lasting value, it is pastors who seek to work themselves out of a job who benefit the church the most.  To work with laity — to help them discern gifts and talents, then to work with them through training, practice and engagement to transform those gifts and talents into lived strengths?  That is the true key to congregational vitality.

But too many of our pastoral leaders have confused their ministry with the ministry of the church.  The laos – the whole people of God — are clergy and laity working together to discern and do the will of God.  “Pastor” means “shepherd,” and pastors who remember and embrace this are the very best pastors.  The laity are the church in the world.  Pastors stand in a unique, and critically important, position to equip, empower, and enable laity to be in ministry to all the world.  Pastors don’t do ministry for the church or for the congregation.  Good pastors enable the congregation to be in ministry — and not just a handful of representatives.  When you look at real “vital” congregations, the number one indicator (more important than worship attendance or small groups) is the percentage of participants actively engaged in service to others.  Some of our touted “vital congregations” struggle to get 1/3 of their membership to church on a Sunday morning.  However, we have hundreds of congregations where not only do 80% percent attend on a regular basis, but 80%+ are engaged in some form of leadership or ministry engagement.  This is the true definition of vitality — changed lives impacting the world in transforming ways.  Interesting that our denomination doesn’t see this metric as important as numbers and dollars…

This shouldn’t be an unfamiliar model.  If you want the textbook example I would highly recommend this great set of books on the subject — the gospels.  Jesus provides an intensive example of lay empowerment.  And his story is one worth studying for those of us hoping to produce fantastic results quickly with a minimum of effort.  (It doesn’t work that way…)  Jesus didn’t just teach it or preach it; he lived it.  Disciple-shaping is time-consuming and heavily interactive.  It isn’t information based, but relational/formation based.  It isn’t a “program,” but an unfolding.  It isn’t linear, but looping and erratic.  It isn’t about destination, so much as journey; not about being so much as becoming.

The day of the superstar pastor leading a church to glory is thankfully and mercifully coming to an end.  The myth of the mega-church as the Promised Land has been debunked.  Our future is not in materialistic commercialism and market strategies.  The hope for our future is in relational community geared toward shared service and gift-based fruit-producing living.  The institutional preservationist’s mindset is beginning to crack and crumble — even a few of our more spiritual and insightful bishops are beginning to say so.

I often hear people lament about the poor preaching or lack of charismatic leadership in the church.  Yet, I see some churches with mediocre preachers and milquetoast leaders motivating whole congregations of people to love, give, serve and grow in transformative ways.  What’s the difference?  These leaders understand they aren’t there to perform for the masses or build a business.  They get it that they are servant leaders — present in the community of faith to enable all to reach their fullest potential.  When pastors focus on developing gifted laity to be the church for the world, amazing things happen.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/03/the-obvious-truth-nobody-seems-to-know/

Mar 13 2014

United Methodeviations: Miracle Eye

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/03/13/miracle-eye/

eyeOn occasion, I catch the late-night ads for “Miracle Ear” — a hearing enhancement device that sounds (no pun intended) too good to be true.  I finally met someone who actually purchased and uses a Miracle Ear, and he is delighted with it.  His testimonial is simple, “I am no longer missing what everyone else takes for granted.”  What a lovely realization that there is something out there that has the power to improve a person’s day-to-day lived experience.  Wouldn’t it be wonderful if all our deficiencies were so easily addressed?

It got me thinking — what we need is a Miracle Eye.  This would be a device that would grant us the sight and insight of the divine.  Think about it for a moment: the ability to see creation through the eye of God.  How might our lives change were we able to see the divine fingerprint on all of creation — the good, the bad and the ugly.  No longer would we merely focus on the tragedy of a natural disaster, but we would be able to view the larger picture of nature’s awesome regenerative power.  In human suffering, we could begin to envision a healthier system that would alleviate pain and generate sustainability.  We would see the Christ in every human being on earth.  No longer would we be looking for flaws and disqualifications — all we would see is the Christ.  No longer would we feebly attempt to exclude individuals and categories of people through our petty labels, but we would finally have to admit that all are children of God, no matter their level of brokenness.  We would be forced to stop giving up on people we find offensive or unacceptable.  Through Miracle Eye, we would be allowed to see each blessed sinner as God sees.  It would truly level the playing field.

For those who have eyes to see, and ears to hear, the world becomes a very strange and troubling place.  Clarity of vision and deep listening moves us into a new relationship with the world.  To see clearly is to see completely, to move from the narrow and provincial to the systemic and global.  Now, we see in parts and pieces, we hear bits and snatches — but to have our eyes and ears fully opened?  We would connect with the larger relationships and connections.  If Christ truly breaks down the dividing walls, what’s left?  What would happen to us if all the humanly created artificial divisions between “us” and “them” suddenly disappeared?  What if we were faced with a new reality of “all of us?”

I am amazed at the number of people — who identify themselves as Christian — who see such a vision as threatening.  Many do not want such a reality to be true.  There are simply too many of God’s children they do not want included in God’s community.  They seek an exclusive, gated-heaven-community that requires an arbitrary check-list of who “deserves” to be included.  The desire is to take the “miracle” out of our sight and hearing; to simply be left with that which makes us feel comfortable, secure, and self-righteous.

Yet, who can spend an evening in scripture and believe that God operates this way?  Who can journey the gospels and perceive a Jesus who would go along with such a small and insignificant vision?  Who would care to face the wrath of Paul in attempting to defend such an ignominious assertion?  Those who desire judgment and  condemnation for those they dislike are at odds with every enlightened Christianity throughout the generations.  Oh, certainly there have been misguided aberrations and inquisitions along the way, but history helps us outgrow those in each era, until they emerge to test us anew.  Yet, they never last for long.  We have grown up in our attitudes toward women, children, minority races, other ethnicities, cultures and worldviews.  We no longer accept biblical tolerance for domestic abuse and slavery as acceptable.  There is evidence that we can grow up, that we can see and hear more clearly than we used to.

Perhaps it is nothing more than a choice.  Do we want to see more clearly?  Do we want to listen more deeply?  Do we really want to understand God’s creation with the mind of Christ?  I wonder.  The responsibility to love more, to forgive more, to share more, to spread peace and mercy and compassion and kindness, to judge less, to disapprove less, to condemn less — this is exhausting, this is hard.  It is so much easier to be blind and deaf and blunder through life with little concern or regard for others, especially those who choose not to like.

But I do believe that the majority of Christ followers do want to be led and guided and empowered by the Holy Spirit.  I actually do believe that the majority want to produce the fruit — love and joy and peace and patience and kindness and generosity and faithfulness and generosity and self-control.  I truly do believe that somewhere deep inside most of us want a world of mercy and compassion and forgiveness and grace.  God, grant us a Miracle Eye, that we might see what is possible, and stop settling for so much less.

Permanent link to this article: http://methoblog.com/3_0/2014/03/miracle-eye/

Mar 03 2014

United Methodeviations: Jumping to Confusions

Original post at http://doroteos2.com/2014/03/04/jumping-to-confusions/

ObfuscationWhat is it about we human animals and our tendency to climb the ladder of inference and leap blindly into a steaming pile of assumptions?  Each and every day we create chaos, confusion and pain for ourselves by ascribing intention, assuming motives, projecting values and jumping to conclusions.  Compounding this behavior is a fundamental double standard — we believe the best of ourselves while believing the worst of those with whom we engage and disagree.  The “other” is never viewed with the same grace and munificence.  The unfairness and fallacy of this view leads to an unintentional malice.  Marc Gafni, in his book, Your Unique Self, offers an excellent definition of malice that underscores the miasma in which we often find ourselves — “Malice operates through a simple four-stage process:  Malice (1) perceives genuine flaws, (2) exaggerates or distorts them, (3) minimizes the good in the attacked person’s character, and (4) absurdly and insidiously identifies the person with their distorted caricatures, painted by the purveyors of malice themselves.” (p. 339)  Any time a label is used to describe “them”, it is evidence of malicious engagement.  And all sides do it.  Liberals/conservatives, Republicans/Democrats/Tea Party, Scientists/Theologians — any polarity of disagreement risks the slippery slope that descends into malice.  And the more we engage in distortion and caricature, the less fair and the more confused we become.

We are living in the “information age,” but lacking accountability, it is also the “misinformation age.”  The deluge of data and immersion in information actually results in less clarity and understanding.  TMI = TLW (too much information = too little wisdom).  This reminds me of an old poem I learned in grade school called “Why Study?”  If memory serves, it went something like this:  ‘the more you study, the more you learn; the more you learn, the more you know; the more you know, the more you can forget; the more you can forget, the more you do forget; the more you do forget, the less you know — so, why study?”  It is difficult enough to figure out what to believe with good information, but we are awash in bad information.  Mass media seems to play loose and fast with the rules, and the Internet is a mess.  Much that passes for research today is skewed and biased — market research mistaken for solid qualitative research.  Our own denomination is confused about what constitutes worthwhile information and reliable data.  As long as we can count (the sophistication level of most preschoolers) then we don’t have to measure (a skill learned as children) or evaluate (a proficiency developed in adolescence as we move from concrete to abstract levels of thought).

Whenever we can create false polarities and claim irreconcilable differences, we abdicate all responsibility to work toward mutually beneficial solutions.  Win-lose thinking is the lowest form of engagement.  (Note, I did not say “competition.”  There are some very healthy, exciting, and generative forms of competition.)  Where there is a lack of imagination and an absence of creativity, people choose to focus on differences and strive for superiority.  What we hold in common is displaced by what we choose to debate.  Common good loses to personal entitlement every time.

Look at the current conversation about “global community.”  The vision of one world, one people, one future is discussed endlessly.  But the day-to-day reality is “their issue is not our issue.”  The plight of immigrant refugees is a problem to solve, not an opportunity to embrace.  U.S. issues are not Africa issues.  Brutal violations of human rights in other parts of the world are not our concern.  We will toss some mission dollars at poverty in other parts of the world, but tackling root causes and truly sharing the unjust abundance of the northern hemisphere is out of the question.  When we get serious about economic inequalities, human rights, and restorative justice we make them political “issues” to divide us and mire us in senseless debate.  Doing good, doing what is right, doing what is “Christian,” doing what Jesus asks in the gospels is politicized — our excuse to do nothing but argue.  All we have to do is label compassion for the poor “liberal” or acts of social justice “communist” and we don’t have to continue the conversation or create a plan of action.  We obfuscate and confuse.  We twist and fabricate.  And we defend what we are doing as logical, reasonable, spiritual, and good.  It’s the other side — “those” people — who are goofy, incompetent, evil and defective.

Wesley’s General Rules come to mind (the originals, not the “simple” ones) — do no harm, do all the good you can, and attend to the ordinances of God.  These rules are both individual and corporate — what each of us should do, but most importantly what we do together in community.  Regardless of “those” people, it is our responsibility and privilege to commit to the highest possible standards for doing good and avoiding evil.  And we engage individually and corporately in activities that bind and unite us to God, to one another, and to those we seek to love and serve.  We do everything possible (and even things impossible) to unite, to merge, to harmonize, to understand, to accept, to affirm, to support, to respect, to bridge, and to heal.  We don’t have the time or luxury to waste life hating, hurting, insulting, judging, mocking, or condemning.  Malice or grace?  It’s up to us to cut through that which confuses and divides.

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