differing graciously

Last night, Ricky and I had the opportunity to hear Brian McLaren speak with Amy Butler, pastor of Calvary Baptist in DC, as part of their Compelling Conversations series. Brian’s books have had a meaningful presence in our lives for quite a few years now, ever since our friend Heath lent us his copy of A New Kind of Christian. I didn’t know at the time just how much I would come to appreciate progressive Christian voices, or how much of a lifeline they would be for me.


The conversation centered largely around the tension between evangelical American Christianity as it’s more commonly practiced and the folks who have grown increasingly uncomfortable with it…emergents, progressives, post-evangelicals, or whatever else you want to call them/us. I had to laugh when Brian mentioned that when people accuse him of heresy or falling down the slippery slope, he can only respond, “it’s much worse than you think.”

It’s been painful but liberating to realize I’ve spent most of my life entrenched in two types of Christianity that tend to fancy themselves the only type of Christianity: fundamentalism as a child and evangelicalism as a young adult. Those systems are not all bad or all good, of course, but there are good things outside of them. There are other ways to be faithful, to seek, to serve. I think that’s good news for all of us.

I’ve realized something big lately–I desperately want to be understood, especially by my friends who are still “in” systems from which I’ve stepped out. This desire grew so much over the years that I wanted to scream out my thoughts sometimes. Brian spoke some words last night that helped me to see how I might handle this better.

He offered this suggestion: when a friend, family member, etc. says something that you disagree with, maybe even find wildly offensive, say this: Wow, I see that differently. Then, leave it alone. If they ask you to explain, do so at another time, but not right away. In this way, you show that you’re willing to speak up but you don’t have to try to convince them of anything. It’s refreshing, and it opens up some space for dialogue. I think my favorite line was this: it’s really a gift when you can be different and not uptight about it. I have some work to do in that area.

In the same vein, he spoke of what an African theologian once told him: “Have the courage to differ graciously.” Brian noted that because this man approached theology from an African perspective, it might be called African theology, as when a woman approaches theology it might be called feminist theology, or when a gay person approaches theology it might be called queer theology, but a white European-based male approach is simply called theology (probably with a capital T). People approach theology differently, but some think their way is the way. We differ, meaning we are able to voice our disagreements, but we do it graciously, not defensively, not to prove a point, but as an effort to build something over time.

Not everyone can or will acknowledge their own bias and influencing factors. We should try to, and we should have grace for those who can’t see it yet. We should have grace for all the things we haven’t realized yet, too, as well as all the obtuse things we may have said in the past (yeah, that would be me).

I think I need to work on contentment with this: I am understood well by a few people. That is a gift, and it is enough.

Listen is my word for 2014. I’m learning that there’s nothing passive about listening–it’s a daily choice to acknowledge that whoever I come into contact with has a point of view that their life has given them, and to treat that gently. It doesn’t mean hiding my disagreement, but it does mean seeking to understand, and discerning well when to speak and when to refrain.



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31 responses to “differing graciously

  1. Differ graciously; I really like this notion. Too few of us do this; too few of us take the time to listen. Too few of us remember Jesus’ call to love one another, and that love is an act, not just a feeling. Great post. And yeah, McLaren rocks, no matter what you call him. Me? I just call us followers of Jesus.

    • Followers of Jesus. I like it 🙂

    • Katrina Soto

      I have a son-in-law who does not identify as Christian (he may be agnostic or atheist) who, when asked (aggressively) if he had been “saved”, simply said that he believes in following the teachings of Jesus. What a gracious and honest reply.

      • And a beautiful one, too! What a loving answer. Sometimes those who identify as Christians forget to follow his teachings. In that moment, the Holy Spirit was definitely with your son-in-law.

  2. Jane

    Love this. Thank you.

  3. Kelly Mittelmeier

    very well said! I struggle with all these exact same things and I appreciate your openness and suggestions!

  4. Shandi

    This is such a beautiful post. I know that as my views have changed over the past few years I find myself in a constant struggle of silence. Should I open my mouth in disagreement and alienate the ones I love the most? Or should I continue living an inner lie that leads to a certain bitterness?

    The approach of say a little now and expound later somehow balances the two, although the courage to even admit I disagree is still growing and pulsing in my veins. Thank-you for your vulnerability. It’s a very precious thing.

    • I was terrified to disagree openly for a long time. Blogging helped–I found that if I could work up the courage to write something, I could say it later. Learning to do it graciously though–that’s an ongoing struggle. Wishing you grace and hope in your journey, Shandi. Thanks for reading.

  5. Valerie

    Listen to Love; Love to Listen
    © Valerie Leuchter , 2014.
    I was raised as a church- going child, ruffled dresses and curls every Sunday morning, to smile and greet everyone I meet, to create that welcomed feeling that says without words, “I respect you as an individual and am blessed to be in your presence at this moment in time. “ As others listened to me, I learned to listen and as an adult, I have come to understand that listening is profitable. From an “I” statement, one can gain a great wealth of perspectives based on additional experiences that have not yet been afforded or for that matter, may never be afforded in this walk of life. I have also learned that it is best to listen as if mutually orchestrating a composition with the speaker – as if the listening has to be done to be able to complete an electrical circuit. God would most likely say this is to listen to love and love to listen.
    We sat in church, a group of like-minded worshipers presenting to God our gifts the best way we knew how. The script changed as the Sundays passed, as new pastors and church members came and went, but there was a traditional sequence of events that occurred. The way in which we worshiped was not the contributing factor which helped me gain an understanding of God and his expectations for my life. No, it is the collective personal relationships that breath the truths about life, love, and God. It is the experiences shared with fellow humans in and outside the church doors, especially those relationships outside of my realm of comfort….those experiences shared by people who were outside “the group”. Both spoken and unspoken oppression amplified my need to understand others even more because it conflicted with my morals.
    It was a hot day when my mother taught me one of the most important lesson in life….not through reading scripture or through a lesson on the proper way to worship and serve God, but by an act of selfless love. While driving, she suddenly pulled over to the side of the street when she noticed a drunken man stumbling down the sidewalk. She got out of the car and offered him assistance. He fell off the curb and cut his head. She picked him up and sat him down. She called for medical help. Her compassion for this stranger, a man physically and emotionally broken, coupled with her sense of personal responsibility was an essential lesson in my life. I was amazed by her empathy for this man. He was just as important as she was….and that’s what I believed. In fact, I still believe that we are all equally important today. I am no more important than any other person on this earth.
    Love….no strings attached…..unconditional love ….free for the giving and taking….free to listen and share. We are of all equal value and so are the opinions – all sides just as valuable as mine. In fact, because of that, I have a lot to learn by listening to others because we all have different experiences to share with each other….life’s lessons you might say.
    I like this article and your honesty with your struggle. It is a struggle that I see many Christian’s face today…in fact the struggle in which is “right” way to worship God has led to battles across the globe. I can’t help but wonder if we seek the wrong target and miss the mark altogether. It is less important to argue the theological values and methodologies in which we worship and more important to love to listen. It is easy…so easy…to love to listen to a Christian, especially if they speak the same language, belong to the same group, and have a lot in common. They “understand”. While it may be constituted as a challenge to learn to listen to other perspectives within that group – to come to a determination about what one mutually is in agreement with, the true challenge really is to love to listen to those that do not have faith at all The truth is, as Christians, we have no other greater job than to love to listen to everyone. That does not mean to listen and preach because our opinions are valuable or better for them…but to love to listen and that is that. God’s commandment is love.
    I find that in our quest to love God, sometimes we get lost…in more ways than one. Like a river, we flow until we find a pocket that circles around and around in isolation against a sturdy shore line created by our own waves because it is comfortable and unchanging. It takes a lot of energy to move out of the pool to understand why waters flow in a different directions….so too it takes a lot of energy to be a Christian that loves to listen so that the personal relationship can be built naturally so that love glows. Listening to others without strings allows energy to flow freely – energy that has mercy written all over it……mercy that is bathed with a blanket of grace covering those that we come into contact with no matter who they are and what they believe or don’t believe in. The kind of mercy that overrides our own thinking because God is in charge…the kind of grace that glows so that those that don’t know God will come to know him not by YOUR beliefs but by the simple act of loving through listening. The kind of mercy that escapes the boarders that we create through the institution of any believing body because it cannot be contained. God’s mercy.

    Thank you for sharing this piece. I’ve been thinking about this topic since December but hadn’t taken the time to put my thoughts in writing.

    • Thank you, Valerie. So many good insights here. “To love is to listen.” I’m so glad you wrote some thoughts down because they’re good ones–hope you write more!

    • Beth Hawkes

      Val, thank you. You eloquently captured so many of the thoughts I have had lately, well if I’m honest, the last few years. I shared this story in church last Sunday, about a friend I grew up with, I loved this guy, he was very funny and always made me laugh. He never really had any use for God or the church, although I’m not sure how much exposure he had to spiritual things.

      As I was walking with a friend a couple of weeks ago, she mentioned him as he is a friend of her Dad’s and she knows I like to keep up with what is happening in his life. She said my friend was coming to her church and had been for months. I stopped in my tracks and said, “No way, how could this be? How did it happen?” My experience being that people who don’t have a faith background rarely just walk into a church.

      She said that he works out regularly and so does her pastor. They became friends at the gym. I can only imagine their conversations and the listening and caring that happened there. Now I don’t know if he has a relationship with Christ or not, but I know that he has been shown the love of Christ. He has a story that matters, someone listened and loved. It just happened to be a pastor, we should be showing that same grace and mercy every day of our lives.

      It is incredibly easy to get trapped in the comfort of our own circle of friends with the same beliefs and perhaps even biases. Let’s move from that comfort and trust that God is in charge. Ask him to bring people into our paths. Showing God’s love to others by relaxing and caring to listen and really hear, is a gift like no other.

      Thanks for this challenge.

  6. Thanks. I must say this is a challenge for me too! I am going to try this idea of “I see that differently..” I am blogging my journey too.
    i am very interested in conversations with evangelicals and those who have left that system because I am trying to have a discussion with my brother and I am working on a book about my discussions.

  7. Nathan

    Thank you so very much…..I have been struggling so long with my silence too. Too often, I ‘disguise’ my true views and feelings on a number of ‘controversial issues’ that are brought up in my Evangelical circles. And I’ve felt sad and angry at myself that I haven’t found a way to really be honest with my disagreements. I have such a deep-seeded fear (more like terror) of being judged and alienated by my own community, family, and friends. So thank you…you have really spoken words and wisdom that I’ve been struggling a long time to express and to find….

    • I’m so sorry you’re living with this kind of fear, Nathan. Know that you’re not alone! Blogs helped me to realize that, when I was in a really low place. I hope that you find little opportunities to differ graciously, and that your thoughts are received with grace. I’ll say this too though: sometimes you have to step away, and that’s okay. It’s not something to rush, but sometimes it’s necessary. Don’t know if that’s an option for you. I’m happy to talk more.

  8. Tom

    Thanks I so needed this reminder!

  9. Reblogged this on myfullemptynest and commented:
    Thank you for this. Parts of your journey have crossed with mine. “It doesn’t mean hiding my disagreement, but it does mean seeking to understand, and discerning well when to speak and when to refrain.” Wisdom.

  10. On a regular basis my beloved wife and I often get into sometimes heated arguments over politics and theology. Obviously I need to take a new tack. Thank you for these gentle, Christ-centered thoughts.

  11. One of the problems I have with more progressive Christians is the older brother tendency to stand in condemnation of Christians who are still living with a narrow vision of God, man and self. I know they can be maddening and frustrating, but no one’s mind is ever changed because of condemnation. In fact, the harsher you are, the harder it is to be heard by those who need to hear that there’s a better way.
    I know the temptation and the justification for being confrontational. It makes sense. We’ll lose if we are silent. Etc. But it’s unfaithful and disobedient. We’ve been taught by Jesus to do the unnatural and foolish and turn the other cheek, to be at peace with others, so much as it is in our power to be so and to show others who we are through good works, not through who we go to battle with.Yes, is foolish and dangerous. The bible makes it clear that following Jesus always is.
    It’s not our job to go to battle for God. The victory’s already been secured. What is our job is to find and live out our identity in Christ. We’re the bride. Our beauty will show. People will notice our good deeds and praise God.
    So yes, we should speak our truth. But we should do it as a statement of what we are for more than what we are against. The world has been living under condemnation since the fall. Like MLK, we ought be about showing the world a better vision of what it means to be Christ followers and trusting that what it good in us is so good that the light in us will be more than adequate to overcome the darkness.
    All of which is to say, I very much approve of and appreciate the approach explained in this post.

    • I love this, Rebecca. It’s much harder to think/talk/write about what we’re for, and easier to bash what we’re against. I think the older brother mentality is just kind of our human default. It does take following Christ to snap us out of it. Thanks so much for reading and contributing to the conversation!

  12. I’ve requested the Mclaren book from the library since reading this. That desire to be understood is a funny thing: for so long I feared differing with nonchristian colleagues; and now, I get anxious about processing my questions in front of many Christians. Differing graciously, though, that’s a breath of fresh air. Thank you for sharing!

  13. Pingback: differing graciously | the Verity Paradox

  14. Malcolm

    Thanks for this. Your words are appreciated, all the way down here in New Zealand!

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