The following Musing is the first in a series of eleven weekly musings that are abbreviated versions of various portions of my recent book “Let’s Talk: Bridging Divisive Lines Through Inclusive and Respectful Conversations.” It is my hope that you will find my sequence of Musings to cohere and flow well toward the goal of building a strong case for creating safe and welcoming spaces to listen to and discuss disagreements with those who disagree with you about contentious issues as a deep expression of the love for others to which Jesus calls all those who aspire to be his followers.
I was emerging as a Christian big-shot during my early days teaching mathematics at The King’s College in Briarcliff Manor, New York; or at least that is what I thought at the time.
In addition to my teaching responsibilities, for which I received laudatory evaluations from both my students and faculty peers, I was heavily involved in important institutional service assignments.
I also had the opportunity to speak at a few of the daily chapel services at TKC, after which it was not unusual for someone to say “nice talk Harold.”
My sense of self-importance came to a grinding halt one evening next to the bathtub in our apartment as I bathed our three J’s (Jonathan, Janice, and Jeffrey), all at the same time, prior to dinner. Our J’s were unusually rambunctious that evening and soon there was more water on the floor and me than was left in the bathtub.
Rather than joining in the fun, I lost my cool, yelling at my kids. That seemingly trivial incident in my life took on immense importance. For, as I was ranting and raving at my kids next to the bathtub, soaked from head to toe, a life changing thought occurred to me: My colleagues at TKC, who I had fooled into thinking that I was a Christian big-shot, should see me now, outside of public viewing, yelling at my fun-loving kids.
The false start that I had made in my attempts to follow Jesus reflects the erroneous view that my fidelity to following Jesus should be measured by my behavior when on public display. Rather, the better measure was the kind of person I was when no one was around to applaud me (no one was around to say “nice bath Harold”).
As a result of this apparently mundane experience, the biblical teaching about some foundational Christian virtues (what Galatians 5:22–23 calls the “Fruit of the Spirit”) became central to my understanding of how I should seek to follow Jesus: Whatever I am doing, wherever I am, whether or not there is anyone one around to see, I ought to exemplify “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” That has been a fixed point in my evolving beliefs about what it means to follow Jesus.
Since that moment next to the bathtub many years ago, I have aspired to be that kind of a person. Although I have often failed to measure up to that ideal, I know for sure that it is the ideal.
The reason that the Fruit of the Spirit is foundational is that our attitudes (our enduring dispositions, like the Fruit of the Spirit) deeply inform what we see needs to be done or said.
Consider first the general example portrayed in the story of the Good Samaritan (Luke 10:25–37). The priest and the Levite who passed by the wounded man lying in a ditch were characterized by an attitude of indifference, at best, which is the opposite of love. The good Samaritan, characterized by attitudes of compassion and love, stopped to help the wounded man. Being characterized by the Fruit of the Spirit will help you to know what to do, which is a cardinal feature of the dynamism of Christian living. It is as you live faithful to your current understanding of what it means to follow Jesus that you gain greater understanding as to how you should continue following.
Consider also the more specific example of trying to orchestrate inclusive and respectful conversations across dividing lines within an American culture characterizes by a rampant tribalism; an us-versus-them mentality where “me and my folks” (e.g., my church, my political party, my circle of friends) possess all the truth about the issue at hand, and “those other folks” possess none of the truth. Not only are they “all wrong”: they are evil and should be demeaned and demonized.
In stark contrast, a Christian approach for orchestrating inclusive respectful conversations across dividing lines starts with you creating a safe and welcoming space for the person who disagrees with you that starts with careful listening as a deep expression of the foundational Christian value of love.
As the next few Musings will reveal, my goal of building a strong case for creating safe and welcoming spaces for navigating disagreements will require not only a commitment to the Fruit of the Spirit. With primacy given to the Christian value of love. It will also require commitment to two other Christian values, truth and humility