Sunday, July 29, 2012

A Dialogue about Dialogue (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection was published by the Sojourners God's Politics Blog on July 23, 2012, and can be found at: http://sojo.net/blogs/2012/07/23/dialogue-about-dialogue

It is difficult to discuss "hard topics" with people with whom I disagree.

When someone supports a political candidate whom I resist, holds to a theological understanding that I find confusing, or when I hear opposing points on climate change, poverty, global economics, human sexuality, etc., it is challenging to listen with a genuinely open ear.

However, what I have found is that, even if I feel passionate about a particular point of view, when I am able to open up and genuinely listen to others, great things take place throughout the exchange. Through honest and open interaction, an increased level of mutual respect and understanding is achieved, we learn to understand why things are perceived the way they are, and the overall strength of the relationship grows.
In our current North American climate of political polarization, religious division, and socio-economic seclusion, it is time to have more dialogue on — among other things — dialogue.

A friend of mine once said, “a true and genuine dialogue only takes place when each person is willing to be ‘converted’ to the other side of the argument.” At first I was skeptical of this remark, as I wondered how I could ever open myself up to being “converted” on certain topics about which I felt strongly. But now I am beginning to see the wisdom in such a statement.

When we discuss “tough topics” such as politics, religion, etc., the temptation is not to truly listen, but rather only to look for “holes” and/or “gaps” and “cracks” in the other person’s argument so that we can “charge back” with a strong opinion and thus show the other how they are holding an inaccurate view.

In my opinion, this is not “dialogue” or “discussion." It is instead “debate” or “dispute," and it ends up being more of an emotional fight that tears apart relationships than anything that resembles something constructive.
When it comes to debate, people are not truly “listening” as the other person speaks, but simply using those precious moments to formulate their next statement. On the other hand, if we put our guards down, allow ourselves to be vulnerable, and consider for a moment that the other person might have something worthwhile to offer (and thus something valuable we can learn), instead of “loading up” for our next argument, we offer a genuine ear, true dialogue, and a discussion takes place.

There are many topics in our world today that cause a great deal of division. People disagree about abortion, the death penalty, human sexuality, political affiliations, global economic policies, and of course — in a pluralistic world — many of us disagree about the nature of who Jesus is and what God does in and through the human race.

And to make matters worse, all too many television programs and radio broadcasts cash in by providing a platform for people merely to argue about these types of topics. My hope is that, instead of debating and fighting over who is “right” and who is “wrong,” we could open ourselves to the possibility of gathering around tables of true and genuine dialogue and discussion.

Instead of demonizing those who think and believe differently, or refusing to consider something new, why not value those who are unlike us and actually listen to what they have to say?

I believe that to surround ourselves only with people who think the same way we do is an easy temptation and a dangerous thing. While it takes boldness and courage to intentionally engage and listen to those who think differently, it is a true blessing to us all. Respectful discussion allows us to see the world through different eyes, and in the end, I believe God is able to do amazing things in and through the positive interactions.

People may be different from one another, but through conversation we are able to see our commonalities, value each other’s humanity, and work toward common progress.

And so, as the Earth continues to get “smaller” via the Internet, population growth, global travel, and other forms of globalization, whether we like it or not, we all will be faced with an increasing number of people who think, look, and act differently from what we always have known.

From inner city New York to the farmlands of Wisconsin, we find ourselves in a “salad bowl” of amazing diversity. As a result, instead of pointing fingers and immediately trying to get people to “act like us,” “talk like us,” and “look like us,” and thereby keep things “the way they always were,” my hope is that we would first learn to listen to others in a genuine manner, celebrate our diversity, and allow true and honest discussion to take place around tables of fellowship.

We should not shy away from the “tough topics” that too often divide us, but rather, reconsider how to discuss them, and move forward together. While we may not agree, hope abides that we may learn more about others and ourselves, and together consider how it is that we can live and serve side by side.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Be Who You Are. Always. Everywhere. Some Thoughts on Re-Entry: Part 2 (Brian E. Konkol)

The following reflection can also be found at "Living Lutheran: A Daily Blend of Stories, Culture, and Community".  See the link at: http://www.livinglutheran.com/blog/2012/07/be-who-you-are.html

A few weeks ago I participated in Global Village Camp, an event sponsored by the Companion Synod/Global Mission Task Force of the East Central Synod of Wisconsin, ELCA, and Crossways Camping Ministries.  The camp was attended by people of various generational, cultural, and religious perspectives, and included participants from South Africa, India, Ethiopia, China, and Uganda.  Among other things, I was asked to make a keynote address, lead Bible Studies, and facilitate a number of smaller-group workshops.  While much can be said about the overall insights gained through this wonderful experience of fellowship, one portion of the event – a conversation with the youth in attendance – provided many sparks for continued thought and prayer as Kristen and I pass through this incredible period of transition from South Africa to North America.

In specifics, one of the workshops during Global Village Camp surrounded the topic of youth and discernment, and I was pleased to observe such a large number of interested participants.  As the conversation began, I asked those gathered to define the term “discernment”, and what ensued was a dynamic dialogue surrounding the connections of life, faith, identity, and daily actions.  As the workshop progressed, and as the youth grew in confidence to share their views more openly, I realized that I was being shaped deeply by the experience, and once again I – the so-called “teacher/facilitator/leader”, became a humbled “student/learner/receiver” sitting at the feet of gifted young people.  In other words, as has happened at various other times in my life, I realized that Jesus was not joking when he told adults to become more like children! 

In the days following Global Village Camp, I realized that youth-inspired insights on discernment could not have come at a better time, for over the past months Kristen and I have thought and prayed long and hard about the next steps of our lives after years of service with ELCA Global Mission in Guyana and South Africa.  Since our return to North America, I have experienced many twists and turns, far too many sleepless nights, and countless words of advice from a wide variety of sources.  In the midst of it all, while I am indeed appreciative of the wonderful words of wisdom gathered from many trusted friends, family members, and ministry colleagues, I recognize that the best insights gifted to me were from the youth who participated at Global Village Camp.  In addition to the enjoyment I received from participating in their presence, they offered hope, inspiration, and a glimpse of the peace that surpasses all understanding.

In reflection upon my conversation with the youth at Global Village Camp, I recently sat alone and wrote the following words:

Always. 
Everywhere.

Be who you are.

Created in the Image and Likeness of God.
 Marked by the Cross of Christ. 
Sealed by the Holy Spirit. 

Be who you are.

Always. 
Everywhere. 

As someone who tends to find (…and enjoy) the complexities in most things, I was reminded that one of the joys of being “childlike” is recognition that certain aspects of life can be simple and straightforward.  In other words, over analysis in discernment can lead to awful paralysis in vocation!  While one could write hundreds of pages about discernment processes (…as many have), and I would agree that such in-depth looks can be helpful, what I appreciate from the youth at Global Village Camp was a refreshing ease to how being and doing are intimately and intricately related, and we should resist the temptation to super-scrutinize and compartmentalize our lives into various “dresser drawers”, as if our “faith clothes” can be separated from our work clothes, play clothes, family clothes, and so forth.  And so, one of the lessons I learned from the youth was that, instead of organizing the various aspects of our adult lives into nice, neat, and separate dresser-drawers, perhaps our lives are to be perceived more like a bicycle wheel, and while each spoke has a role in shaping the wheel, it all comes back to the center.  In other words, while there are many influences that shape who we are, there is one influence at the center that matters most of all – the wonderful reality that we are created in the image and likeness of God, marked by the Cross of Christ, and sealed by the Holy Spirit.  Always.  Everywhere.

I believe such thoughts are helpful in countless ways, for there are numerous times in life when we are called upon to make massive choices that alter the course of our journey: Should I attend college, and if so, where should I attend?  Should I get married, and if so, to whom?  Can I share the truth of my sexuality with loved ones, or must I remain silent?  What occupation should I pursue?  Should I have children?  Can my marriage be saved, or is divorce a reality?  What should I do about my illness?  What happens to my family after I die?  While such questions do indeed possess life-changing consequences, we also recognize that it is often the daily actions that shape us as well: Should I drive, walk, or bike today?  What should I eat and drink today?  Should I attend the party today?  Should I have sex today?  Should I share time with my children today?  Should I exercise today?  Should I put-in a few extra hours at the office today?  Should I get involved in the community today?  Should I donate for the sake of others today?  Should I find ways to assist those less fortunate today?  As the youth at Global Village Camp reminded me, it is often the so-called “smaller” daily decisions that often have a deeper impact on our lives than the so-called “larger” ones, thus discernment, identity, and recognition of God’s amazing grace and calling impact such decisions – and priorities – both large and small, each and every day.  

As for Kristen and I, we are delighted to announce that our ongoing discernment has led to a move from South Africa to Madison, Wisconsin, and I am energized to share that I have accepted a call to serve as Co-Pastor of Lake Edge Lutheran Church.  My “opening day” will be September 9th.  When I consider the fullness of who God is calling me to be and what God is calling me to do, I can think of no better place to be than Lake Edge Lutheran Church, a place that “dares to embody the Gospel” of Jesus, and in doing so, strives to restore community through radical hospitality by showing mercy, love, and inclusivity through worship, service, and stewardship.  I look forward to serving alongside Co-Pastor Stephen Marsh, and I fully anticipate many faithful and fruitful years of animation, facilitation, and agitation alongside the congregation and community.  My heart burns within me as we step closer toward the first week of September.  I look forward to this amazing opportunity.

All together, as Kristen and I embark on this new chapter in our lives, I wish to thank those youth in attendance at Global Village Camp.  I thank God for you, and I thank God for meeting you.  In addition, I wish to express my deep appreciation to those in Guyana and South Africa who I was blessed to serve alongside.  I thank God for your love and support, I look forward to our continued connections, and I ask for your ongoing thoughts and prayers, this day and always.  To those at Lake Edge Lutheran Church whom I will meet for the first time at 9am on September 9th, I recognize and value the sacred trust of serving as your Co-Pastor, and I promise to give you all that I am, nothing more, nothing less.  To my family and friends who have walked this journey of transition with Kristen and I over the past months, my hope is that you already know the special place you hold in my heart, and as always, I pray that my life of faith will make you proud and transform our world into a better place.  And finally, to those in Madison, the State of Wisconsin, and throughout North America and the global village that I have yet to meet, I will indeed be seeing you soon, I look forward to our continued walk together, and I am excited for all that God will to “to us” and “through us”.

Always. 
Everywhere.

Be who you are.

Created in the Image and Likeness of God.
 Marked by the Cross of Christ. 
Sealed by the Holy Spirit. 

Be who you are.

Always. 
Everywhere.