Welcome to the holiday season. One of the best parts of Thanksgiving, Christmas and New Year’s is gathering with our family and friends. While the food is wonderful, the decorations beautiful and the presents quite nice, it is the quality of the connection with those we love that makes this a wonderful time of year.
Connecting with people can also be the most difficult part of the holidays. Politics and lifestyle values have become huge areas of divide. Most everyone has an opinionated uncle, niece, parent, child…whose point of view painfully clashes with their own. The most common strategy in dealing with these abrasive interactions is avoidance — of specific topics, long conversations or, worst of all, gatherings altogether.
For disciples of Jesus, the avoidance strategy is problematic. Christmas means “Christ with us;” it’s when we remember God becoming flesh and drawing near the mess of humanity. Celebrating Jesus’ coming to Earth while trying to avoid family members because they clash with our values and perspectives has a certain ring of hypocrisy. If God had done the same, there would be no Christmas, no Immanuel (God with us) and no salvation.
While talking with a very good friend recently, I found myself wanting to withdraw emotionally because I could see how his values clashed with mine. To be clear, this was a moral issue, a place where my values have been deeply formed by scripture and prayer, while his values have been formed largely by secular society. As I began to withdraw emotionally, I felt the Spirit ask, “How can you withdraw your heart in the name of Christian values? Jesus moved toward people, not away from them.” Almost reflexively my heart responded, “If I continue to invest myself, sooner or later I am going to get rejected or dismissed, and that will really hurt.” At that, I felt the Lord reply, “Just like Me. Merry Christmas.”
The holiday season is a great time of year for us to practice following Jesus by moving toward those who are very different than us — to know them and love them as they are, not as we want them to be. This might look like going to the office party when you know your co-workers will be drinking too much, or truly listening to your liberal relatives’ rants, or going out of your way to serve your conspiracy-spouting hyper-conservative family member.
Engaging in love across differences is easier said than done. Here are a few suggestions for how to grow at loving across the chasm of values and political perspectives.
HUMILITY – Remember what God has done for you. Your sin is no better than theirs. If that is hard to embrace, try this simple prayer, “Lord, will you show me how much I need Your mercy and grace so that I will have more for others.” I have found this to be a prayer the Lord loves to answer.
PRAYER – Instead of just showing up to events, especially the ones with difficult people, take some time in advance to pray for those you least want to see; give them to the Lord. When you feel vulnerable, ask the Lord to be your shield and defender. Ask the Lord for strength and insight into how to love them.
LISTENING – All of us love to be listened to, and the most difficult people are usually the ones most desperate to be heard. Focusing on what people are saying, rather than preparing a response, has become a rare and precious form of love. When it comes to conversations about politics and topics for which you disagree, keep in mind that one of the best ways to influence others is to ask them why or how they came to their convictions. I find listening to be far more powerful than voicing any argument.
My prayer for us is that in humility, prayer and listening, we experience a new and surprising quality of connections this season.