THE HALO EFFECT

            I was at a meeting a while ago where someone was talking about the situation that prompted the meeting and made a comment concerning her understanding of how the problem developed.  Essentially, she was pretty sure that older pastors had caused the problem.  I didn’t pay a whole lot of attention to the comment because I was trying to focus on the problem at hand which was and is more complex than any of us realized–and besides, I have been working on this particular problem for a long time and had no sense that I had actually caused it.

However, a friend was sitting nearby and was quite upset by the comment.  He has been in ministry almost as long as me and I heard his mutter something like, “I am tired of being blamed for everything that happened in the past.”  He had heard the words and took them personally–and when I looked at it from his perspective, I understood his hurt.

We tend to make sweeping statements that inaccurately and unfairly include a wider group of people that we realize.  Part of that comes from falling into a psychological trap that I learned about early in my university days.  Some psychology book or professor referred to something called the “Halo Effect”.  This effect has nothing to do with the contemporary computer game and had no theological base.  It refers what happens when we assume person with one characteristic has several other characteristics.

So, the speaker at the meeting recognized that the problem we were dealing with was often associated with older pastors–and was suggesting that anyone possessing the characteristic of being an older pastor was therefore also responsible for creating the problem.  Since my friend has been involved in trying to fix this particular problem almost as long as I have, he felt upset at being “haloed” into the other group.

There are a great many people who do bad, evil, stupid and wrong things.  Some of them fall into neatly defined categories.  Older white males have managed to create some serious problems over the years.  But to assume that all older white males are equally guilty of all the offenses that have been committed by some older white males is really no different than assuming that all people of a certain colour or ethnic background or age or gender or sexual orientation are guilty of whatever current evil some members of the defined group are accused of committing.

But it is easier to make use of the halo effect than it is to be honest and discerning.  It is easier to make blanket statements than it is to sort out the real causes and perpetrators and issues.  It is simpler to tar a whole group than it is to deal with the reality that people are different and unique and that one polka-dotted individual who secretly pulls the tags off mattresses isn’t a sign that the whole group does the same thing.

It seems to me that our western culture is moving in two directions, neither of which is overly helpful.  While we are becoming increasingly individualistic and demanding,  we are also becoming increasing unwilling to see others as individuals.  While we want our personal rights and freedoms to be given sacred status, we are increasingly willing as a culture to say and act as if “their” rights should be limited because “they” all do that.

Fortunately for all of us, God doesn’t lump us into groups and treat the group the same based on some characteristic of one or some of the group.  He is aware that although my friend (and I) are older pastors, we didn’t actually create the problem and have actually been working hard to change the problem.  God sees us as individuals; God loves us as individuals; God responds to us as individuals; God rescues us as individuals.

God, in fact, created us with individuality in mind–the fact that I am left-handed doesn’t make me exactly the same as all left-handed people. The fact that I am an older pastor doesn’t make me the same as all older pastors.  The fact that I am colour blind might make me wear strange combinations now and then but it still doesn’t make me the same as all colour-blind people.

God celebrates our diversity and doesn’t use the halo effect–thank God for that.

May the peace of God be with you.

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IT’S RAINING

The weather forecast was right–it predicted rain for today and when I got up, it was raining, something that is putting a bit of a down spin on my day.  Now, I really don’t have any plans for being outside today.  I mowed the lawn earlier in the week based on the long range forecast that predicted rain for today.  I have a bunch of things to do that require me to be inside various buildings or the car for most of the day.

About the only ways the rain today affects me are I probably won’t go for a walk if it is raining hard but since the majority of my exercise is accomplished on the exercise bike, that isn’t a big issue.  But nonetheless, the dark and drippy day is making me feel a bit down–not depressed and nothing serious but just a bit down, a different feeling than I have when the sun is shining.

I am probably not alone in my reaction to the weather today and by itself, that really isn’t all that much to blog about.  But when I had been up for a bit and realized my emotional response to the rain, I realized that there have been times in my life when the same kind of day produced a very different emotional response.

During the times when we have lived in Kenya, rain produced a very different reaction.  Most of Kenya is dependent on rain for its water supply.  There isn’t a lot on the way of water infrastructure and what there is depends on rain.  At times, our water supply was two 1000 gallon water tanks filled by the rainwater off the roof of our house.  During the long six month dry season when those tanks were empty, our water supply consisted of two five gallon jerry cans that went everywhere the car went that there was a chance of getting some water.

The last time, we lived in a town that had a municipal water system.  A couple of times a week, the town turned our water on and the 500 liter tank in the attic filled with enough water to keep us going until the next time the water was turned on.  This depended on how many breaks there were in the water line, how careful we were with our water, and how full the rain-filled town reservoir was.  During the long dry season the twice a week water supply dwindled and stopped and our water supply consisted of the two buckets I carried up three flights of stairs from the backup reservoir in the parking lot.

So, when we are in Kenya, waking up to a rainy day produced a feeling of pleasure and a sense that this was going to be a good day.  Rain in Kenya produced the kind of emotional uplift for everyone that a bright, warm sunny day does here in rural Nova Scotia.

This suggests many things to me, among which is the deep reality that we human beings are much more adaptable and flexible that we often give ourselves credit for.  And if we are more flexible and adaptable that we think, that means that we probably don’t need to get as bent out of shape about things as we sometimes do.  The problem isn’t really the external events or circumstances but the way I am choosing to react to them.  Am I looking at the rain as a Nova Scotian or a Kenyan?

And because I am a Christian, that suggests to me that I need to work at making sure that my Christian faith plays a big part in how I look at life and its realities and in how I respond to life.  Rather than seeing my faith as an add on that only kicks in when I am in worship or somewhere where being a Christian is required, I need to work at placing my faith in the centre of my response to life.

Do I view the stranger in town from a basically mono-cultural Nova Scotian, a multi-cultural Kenyan or a supra-cultural Christian viewpoint?  My response to the stranger varies depending on which set of cultural norms I bring to the front.  I would like to say that my Christian norms trump all the others but I try to be honest here.  Like my response to the rain today, I need to work more on what I respond with.

May the peace of God be with you.

WHAT IS GOSSIP?

I love digging into the meanings of words–but I generally don’t bother much with dictionary definitions of words, unless it is a totally unfamiliar word to me or it is a Swahili word I haven’t used in a while.  Dictionary definitions of words are important and significant because they tell us what the general population means when the word is used.  But there are two problems with dictionary definitions.

The first problem is that that what words mean to people changes over time.  For some reason, people seem to shift the meaning of words in ways that no one can predict.  As an example, consider the word “gay”.  At one point, it was a synonym for “happy” and was used that way–a Christmas carol says, “Don we now our gay apparel” and the old Flintstones cartoon show promised us “a gay old time” in its theme song.  Today, the word has a very different meaning, one that can give a very ironic meaning to these old songs.

The second problem with words is that words also have another meaning, one that can be harder to define but which people tend to understand.  The meaning can have an emotional content, a practical content, a contextual content–all of which can go well beyond the dictionary meaning.

All of that is to lead into a discussion of gossip.  Dictionaries suggest that gossip is the passing along of information whose validity is in question.  But as I have been thinking about the word and the practise–or, to be perfectly honest, my own practise of gossip–I think that definition really only scratches the surface.

When I gossip, the issue generally isn’t whether what I am saying is true or not.  In fact, I have an aversion to being wrong so I try hard to have my facts straight, even when I am gossiping.  Generally, the issue for me is why I am saying something about someone.  And after some soul-searching this week, I realized that the times I can be accused of gossiping are the times I am saying something to make myself look good–I want to be seen as someone in the know, someone with knowledge, someone who has a superior grasp of the situation.

In my desire to look good, I turn another person into a tool.  I can climb on them to get myself higher.  Ultimately, I am guilty of disrespecting and dehumanizing the other person so that I can gain some selfish advantage.  And that selfish advantage doesn’t generally have to be some grand and long-lasting thing.  Just getting the best comment at coffee with someone by showing how much I know about another person’s issues is sufficient.

I don’t like that–and am not too happy that I wrote myself into the corner of having to admit not only that I gossip but also making myself look at why I do it.  Now, I could make myself look better by saying that I don’t do it very often and I at least try to have my facts straight and–well, there are lots of other ands but nothing really changes the fact that I actually abuse other people for my own temporary and minor gain.

I would like to say that having forced myself to take this look at myself and confess my sin, I am now going to change and never gossip again.  I would like to say that  but I know it isn’t that easy.  In all honesty, I have to say that I will likely gossip again–but I am hoping my confession means that I will feel guilty enough that the gain from gossip is blunted.  I am hoping (and praying) that having confessed, I will be more willing to seek another path that leads me away from using other people for my own gain and benefit.

While there are sometimes when people experience overnight change, I have generally found that I have a slower, more incremental process which I hope I have started with this blog entry.  When I realized that my gossip is actually an abuse of others, that hurt me and my self-image.  Now comes the hard work of changing patterns and doing what I have been telling others to do and which God is obviously telling me to do.

May the peace of God be with you.

A PRAYER REQUEST

I mentioned gossip in the last post and that began a train of thought leading to this blog.  Mentioning gossip reminded me of a joke I sometimes use when talking about gossip and the church.  It goes like this:

Q:  How do Baptists (or whatever group you prefer) gossip?

A:  They say, “I have a prayer request to share with you.”

We humans love to gossip but since gossip is one of those things specifically mentioned in the lists of things we believers shouldn’t do, we need to find a way to do it that at least sounds acceptable.  We all know that the prayers are really a minor part of the whole process but it at least gives a veneer of respectability to something which is no different from what everyone does.

We humans love to talk about other human beings.  Sharing what we know, think we know or speculate we know is probably as old as speech.  Probably the first intelligible conversation between people was a warning about the predator hiding in the tall grass–but the second was probably someone telling about how so and so was so stupid that he almost got eaten by the predator.

Gossip seems to be almost a necessity for humanity.  Get people together, provide coffee, tea, wine, beer or boredom and the talk will almost always turn to someone who isn’t present.  Rarely will it stay on basic concern for that person’s welfare.  Eventually, the comments will become negative, pointed and exaggerated.  Depending on the status of the individual in the group, the comments can be gentle or nasty but in the end, the group members will feel something that made the process of talking about the absent one(s) worthwhile.  The person being talked about, however, rarely gains status as a result of the conversation.

And this is the real problem with gossip–it contributes to a lessening of both the one being gossiped and those doing the gossiping.  There are certainly legitimate times and reasons to talk about someone who isn’t present–but in general, the purpose isn’t to help anyone but to make the gossipers feel something–a superiority, a sense of being better, a feeling of being in the know, all at the expense of the absent person’s reputation.

As a pastor, I have an ambivalent relationship to gossip.  I think it is wrong to talk about someone absent without their permission and knowledge.  But at the same time, the gossip going around the church and community often provides me with important information that benefits my ministry–the gossip helps me anticipate and deal with issues that may or may not develop in the church.

But in order to get the information, I have to hear the gossip, which encourages the whole process.  I let people know that as pastor, I am not going to tell them anything I know about people and their situations because of confidentiality issues but in the end, it is as much gossiping to hear it as to say it.  I am still working on that dilemma because it does help me as pastor to know what is being said.  Could I do my work without hearing a lot of what I hear–probably–but I would likely be slower picking up on some things that are easier dealt with earlier.

If I could make everyone stop gossiping, things would be great.  But in truth, I can’t even really control myself in that area.  Give me a cup of coffee, some free time and a group of non-church friends and before too long, I am telling the group about our mutual acquaintance who….

So, at best I am a passive consumer of gossip (purely for professional reasons) and at worst, I am as involved as anyone on the giving and receiving of gossip.  But then, it gets even more complicated.

I am sometimes called upon to give a reference for people, a process that generally involves no more than writing a letter.  But sometimes, I get a call from the person who received the letter.  Or, I might simply be contacted about someone in the context of a job search, asking me about someone we both know.  Is it gossip to talk about the person to the prospective employer?

This is getting complicated.  Maybe I need to figure out just what gossip is–it might help me to know when I am receiving and sharing legitimate and important information as opposed to gossiping.   So that is my task and the topic for the next post–what is gossip?

May the peace of God be with you.

A CUP OF COFFEE

            When I am on the road by myself on a long trip, I am wise enough to stop regularly for a break, which generally involves a bathroom and a cup of coffee.  But because I don’t want to stop long, the coffee is takeout and I want to be in and out as quickly as possible so I can get on the road again to get to wherever I am going to do whatever I am going to do.  Generally, that involves some kind of ministry–visiting someone in the regional hospital, for example.

So, I stop for coffee and a bathroom.  I stand in the line for the coffee, getting a bit frustrated when the people in front of me haven’t looked at the signs showing what is available to make their choices.  Instead, they get to the counter as ask a million questions, ordering the most obscure and time consuming items on the menu.  The frustration grows as the counter person struggles with the process, quickly showing that this is likely the very first time this particular individual has worked here.

Finally, I get to the counter and place my order–only two things:  a coffee and a snack (you can’t drink coffee on the road without a snack, right?).  The counter person gets the order wrong and I have to correct it.  As it is being filled the counter person makes another mistake and another when punching in the prices.  And to top it all off, the card reader won’t read the gift card I want to use, the card I know has enough money on it to cover everything.  All the while, I am getting more and more frustrated, watching the time pass and the mistakes multiply.  I want to bolt out of the line and get back on the road–don’t these people realize that I have important ministry to do and that they are wasting my time with this “fast” process?

I would go somewhere else but I like the coffee here and anyway, somewhere else is probably going to be the same and then I would waste even more time.  I just want a cup of coffee (and snack) so I can get back on the road and get on with both my life and my ministry.

Hold that scene in your mind–I have confess that this has never actually happened to me this way.  All these things have happened but not all together.  This is the coffee stop from hell, the time when all that could possible go wrong goes wrong.  But it does provide a sense of what I sometimes feel and think when in a situation like that.

My question is, “What do I say to the counter person?”  I am always tempted to slam them with some comment about the service, their lack of skill or intelligence, or my decision never to return.  I would like to make their day as miserable as mine has become because of a simple coffee stop.  I want to grumble and complain and make them at least feel bad that they have inconvenienced me.

But I generally don’t do any of that.  I know that I will be back–I like the coffee and they have a convenient location.  Getting even won’t do anything much because most likely, anything I say will have been said before and with a lot more choice words than I generally use.  Making a scene of any kind just slows me down even more.

And besides all that, I am a Christian and my faith needs to be an active part of my life, even when I am suffering through the coffee stop from hell.  Even if the counter person doesn’t know or care that I am a Christian, I know I am a Christian and I know that part of my commitment to God is buying my coffee as a Christian.  I can’t leave my faith in the car while I run in to the coffee shop.  Mind you, giving a condensed version of the Christian faith probably isn’t a good idea in the coffee shop lineup either–that will only encourage others to act like I want to act.

So, I take my coffee and thank the counter person with a smile.  If they apologize for the confusion, I offer them a kind of forgiveness by telling them it’s okay.  Then, I head for the car, hoping they actually got the order right.  It might not be a big thing, but I feel that I did at least function in as Christian a way as possible, maybe shining some light in the darkness.

May the peace of God be with you.

WE ARE CALLED TO JUDGE

Christianity is often seen as a personal and private relationship between the believer and God, a relationship developed through faith in Jesus.  And that is true–or at least part of the truth.  But Christianity is also a faith where the private and personal relationship with God is to be expressed in community. We are called to love each other as Christ loved us (John 14.34-35) and even more, our ability to relate to each other shows the reality of our private and personal relationship with God. (1 John 4.20-21)

So Christianity is a faith in which the community pays a very important part.  When we are in relationship with God through Christ, we are also called to be in relationship with other believers through Christ as well.  And because we are all human and all at different stages of our growth in faith, our Christian communities are not always going to be harmonious places where everything is perfect.

There are going to be times when someone within the community goes against the standards of the community or of God.  There are going to be people within the community whose words or actions are not only troubling but move into the unacceptable.  Sometimes, because of the status of the individual in the community or the nature of the community, the unacceptable is ignored, overlooked or downplayed.

But there are times when it must be dealt with.  We need to make a judgement call.  In fact, Jesus calls on believers to be willing to police the community.  He even gives us a process to use for those occasions when someone within the community of believers goes outside the lines.  It is found in Matthew 18.15-17.  Briefly, Jesus gives a four step process to deal with sins committed within the community:  a private attempt at reconciliation; a small group attempt at the same thing; having the church as a whole deal with the issue and of all that fails, treating the offender as a pagan or tax collector.  This last step, by the way, probably indicates that we begin treating the person with even more love and concern than we have been showing, based on how Jesus relates to tax collectors and pagans.

The point of this is to say that we believers are called upon to pass judgement on people within our community of believers. I have sometimes tried to make this sound less pointed by saying that we are to evaluate each other; support each other; enable each other or some other nice sounding phrase but really, this passage calls us as believers to judge each other and correct each other.

And it is not an isolated concept.  We run into a similar sentiment in Galatians 6.1,”Brothers, if someone is caught in a sin, you who are spiritual should restore him gently.”  NIV.  No matter how we spin the passage, it requires believers to make judgements about the behaviour of other believers.  We are called to look at others and decide if their behaviour, words and attitudes are within the acceptable bounds of the Christian faith.  And then, we are called to correct those whom we judge to have crossed the line into the unacceptable.

Certainly, the Scriptures show us that correction–and presumably the judging–are to be done in an orderly way and “gently”.  But the evaluation or judging is to be done.  It is part of the nature of the Christian community–we help each other grow and develop in faith.  At least some of the time, that help towards growth and development will be the result of a judgement call by some other member of the community.  Neither Jesus nor Paul is dealing with self-reporting here.  They are both calling on members of the Christian community to become aware of and concerned with the lives of the rest of the community partly through making judgements as to the rightness and wrongness of the behaviour, words or attitudes of other community members.

This has the potential for disaster, which is probably why Christian communities prefer one of two approaches to applying these passages.  Some, perhaps the majority, prefer to ignore these words, citing the importance of not judging.  Others jump in with both feet and create a coercive and damaging community that generally takes itself in directions that neither Paul nor Jesus envisioned with their words.

Fortunately, there is a way to care for and even judge each other in the community in a way that respects both the Scripture and those involved–and we looked at that in the next post. Sorry about that–I mixed up the posting dates on the posts.

May the peace of God be with you.

WE CAN’T JUDGE

            One of the parts of ministry that I love the most is Bible Study.  When I lead a Bible Study, I try to create an open, caring and safe atmosphere where anyone feels free to say anything.  My role becomes a combination of traffic director and moderator.  I also love to play devil’s advocate, raising questions and making comments about the questions and comments that come as part of the group’s discussion.

One comment that eventually comes up in most Bible Study groups commonly arises when the group or some of its members begins discussion some group or individual whose conduct goes against the standards of some members of the group.  As the group begins to discuss the rightness and wrongness of the conduct, inevitably, someone will make the following or similar comment, “But we can’t judge others!”

Unless we are in the middle of a really important thought that just can’t wait to be dealt with, I generally respond to that comment by shifting from discussion moderator to a  more aggressive mode of leadership–I want the group to really look at that comment because it is one of those comments that sound really good and Biblical and loving and all that but which is in the end a too simplistic understanding of an important Biblical message.

The comment comes from Matthew 7.1-2 and isn’t actually a prohibition on judging.  Rather, it seems to be to be a good statement on the reality of the human judgementalness.  The passage says, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged. For in the same way you judge others, you will be judged, and with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.”  (NIV)

I think that while the passage views a lack of judgement of others as an ideal, it also sees the reality that we humans will be judgemental–all of us have a line between our accepting side and our judging side.  For some, the line is well defined and clear, with very little on the acceptable side and a great deal on the unacceptable side.  Others have a very big acceptable side and a very small unacceptable side–but the unacceptable side does exist and anyone on that side will be judged.

We are human and something about our human nature causes us to judge others.  Jesus might prefer if we didn’t judge others–but if we can’t stop our judgemental side, we need at least to be aware that the standards we use to judge others will be used on us.  I don’t think Jesus is telling us that God will judge us by our own standards–God shows his judgement standards through the grace of the cross and the resurrection.

Most likely, Jesus is telling us that the way we judge others will be the way they judge us.  If we are harsh, critical and unwilling to accept any deviation from our standards, we will eventually discover that that becomes the way people look at us.  Rather than see us as paragons of morality, we will be seen as small and critical people, whose lives will be under scrutiny all the time as people look for the chinks and cracks in our armour as avidly as we look for their chinks and cracks.

Harsh judgement based on narrowly defined limits of acceptable and unacceptable always returns.  It is like a boomerang–we throw it out and mysteriously, it returns to us, occasionally hitting us if we are not careful.  If I let everyone I see know that I find this or that part of their behaviour unacceptable, they will let me know that they find my behaviour and attitudes unacceptable, either by directly telling me or more likely by ignoring me or going out of their way to ignore me.

And this is bad on many levels.  As believers, we are to be a positive model of the Christian faith–and being overly judgemental simply isn’t an attractive model of the Christian faith.  We end up not developing the kind of relationships that God can use to bring people to faith.  In some cases, we will actually drive people away from the faith–in my pastoral ministry is has not been unusual to hear people tell me that the ultimate reason they haven’t been open to the Christian faith is the judgemental attitude of some believer.

While judgemental attitudes should probably not be part of our faith, they are there.  But as Jesus warns us, we need to remember that the judgement we use will always come back to us. That by itself is probably a good reason to temper our judgemental attitudes.

May the peace of God be with you.

SHARING OR JUDGING?

While on the subject, I thought it would be a good idea to look at a difficulty often associated with the Christian community–the issue of judging. As believers, we have all heard and probably repeated Matthew 7.1, “Do not judge, or you too will be judged.” (NIV). And while we all know that we shouldn’t judge and certainly don’t want to be judged, the Christian community has often been accused of and is guilty of being very judgemental.

We have some justification, it seems, because we are told in Matthew 15.18, “If your brother sins against you, go and show him his fault, just between the two of you. If he listens to you, you have won your brother over. ” (NIV) On the basis of this verse, it appears that we have a responsibility to watch each other and correct each other.

Many believers have a difficult time reconciling the two passages and often solve the problem by ignoring one or the other. This creates all kinds of difficult and painful situations for individuals and congregations. In places where the responsibility to help each other is ignored, anything goes–there are no limits, no attempts to help each other reform or change things which are at odds with the faith because we can’t judge each other.

Where people choose to ignore the words about not judging, an equally bad situation develops where everyone is watching everyone and the slightest infraction is pointed out. Some communities go even further and assign punishment for every infraction. Living is such communities doesn’t enhance spiritual growth because everyone is too afraid of everyone else.

Rather than choose between the two passages, we need to look at them together and in context. The passages are not at odds with each other but are looking different things. Taken together, they provide the Christian community with a positive way of helping each other grow in faith.

We need to realize that as believers, we are part of the Christian community and have responsibilities towards each other. The first responsibility we have to each other is to love each other as Christ loved us (John 13.34-35). As we engage in this relationship of Christian love, we will see things in ourselves and others that are not congruent with our faith in Christ. Others looking at us will see things that we overlook intentionally or unintentionally.

When we look at these things in others or they look at the things in us and use them as a way of building ourselves up, we are judging. The command to avoid judgement is really a command to keep us from putting others down so that we can look better. It is a warning not to relate to each from an assumed superiority. Judgement looks down–and looking down on people is not part of Christian love.

We will see things in others that need work–sometimes, God will show us these things and sometimes we will see them because we have struggled, are struggling or will struggle with the same thing. Whatever we see, we need to remember that all of us have our sins and our struggles and therefore are in the same boat. We may not have the same issue, but because we too are not perfect, we are in the same boat.

Our approach to people is not one of superiority but one of love and concern that loves the individual more than we are upset by the issue we see. Whether the individual changes or not, we are to love them as Christ loved us. It is easier to do this when we remember all the things in our lives that are not yet perfect and that Christ has not and will not stop loving us because of those things.

Christian responsibility in the community means that we are concerned with helping each other and being helped by each other. It is not judgemental to offer help to someone in need when we remember our own need. It is judgemental when we begin to see ourselves as better and therefore not in need of help. We need to develop strong caring communities where all the members can have the love and support they need to grow in faith–sometimes, we are giving the help, sometimes we are receiving the help but always we are loving each other as Christ loved us.

May the peace of God be with you.