Dealing with difficult people

frustratedI’ve actually had people say to me, “Well you’re paid to be nice.  You’re a pastor.”  I suppose I should take that as a compliment.

In my own self-inventory, I know I am not a mean person.  I’m not a bully.  I try my best to be kind to every person I am around.  I work hard never to be condescending.  In spite of my humor and sarcasm, it is my goal that everyone knows I am joking.  I listen carefully to know if I am getting close to lines I shouldn’t cross.

I have been well taught to treat everyone with respect and to acknowledge their inherent worth in the way I think, act, and talk to them…especially those with whom I disagree.  This goes for public figures whom I will never know personally, as well as people I rub elbows with.

I’m not a fighter.  I’m not combative.  When something is wrong or a problem needs to be addressed, I’ve always found that patience and gentleness work way better than overreaction.  Maybe there really is something to this spiritual fruit thing.

The reality?  I live at theological and ideological odds with many, maybe even most, of my friends.  I sense that many have no clue how deep our differences are.  Those that do, don’t seem to care.  Our friendship always seems to win the day and I wouldn’t have it any other way.

If I might be so bold, I want to offer some advice for how to deal with difficult, opinionated, or seemingly incompatible people.

  1. Refuse to define people with popular labels (Republican, liberal, Baptist, Californian, hipster, whatever…) Labels create assumptions that could be wrong, don’t tell the whole story, and build walls.
  2. Learn to separate the intrinsic value of people from their opinions or ideas on various topics.
  3. Give people room to be different, imperfect, broken, under-informed, naive, or even total failures, without making yourself judge and jury.
  4. Anger, exasperation, irritability, outrage, aggravation, judgment, and feelings of superiority are all responses we choose.   We can also choose to respond with humility, grace, and kindness to the exact same people or situations. That’s the beauty of choice.
  5. In spite of what you might think, respect does not have to be earned.  It can and should be given freely.
  6. Stop justifying your ungracious, unloving, or unhealthy attitudes and responses by saying, “That’s just the way I am.” Either you believe God has the power to change you or not.
  7. Never assume you are 100% right and they are 100% wrong.
  8. Begin conversations with people who have opposing points of view with, “Help me understand why you think (about this topic) the way you do.  Help me understand why you feel the way you do.”  Leave room to learn something new.
  9. Stop seeing people with opposing viewpoints or opinions as the enemy.  
  10. Work to find common ground…and build your friendship on that foundation.
  11. Spend more time with gracious, loving people.  They have a tendency to rub off on you.

You can thank me later.

What I want

brainThe other day, I had a friend ask me what I hoped our church family would look like ten years from now.  That’s a question I’m not unfamiliar with.

I’ve been one of the ministers at North Point Christian Church for twenty years.  The past fifteen, I have been the primary leader of the staff and Sunday morning preacher-teacher-ringmaster (even though I didn’t fully stop doing youth ministry here until about three years ago).

When we moved our little SoCal family to the Great State in 1995, it wasn’t a conditional proposition.  It was clearly “all in” for us…and we have never, not once, regretted the decision, though our resolve continually gets tested during the disgustingly hot days of summer.  However, there’s no way I envisioned 2015 back then.  But over the past two or three years, I have thought a lot about the future.

I rolled out the answer to my friend’s question quickly.  “Ten years from now, I hope North Point is a just a better version of what we are today.”  My friend was not impressed.  I wasn’t either.  So he pushed a little more.  “Really, the one thing I want more than anything else is for us to be more diverse.”  Really.

Part of this desire is very natural for me.  I grew up in a racially and economically diverse community.  I have always been drawn to cross-cultural ministry.  But, as important as it is, the diversity I’m drawn to these days is way more than color and money.

I grew up in a church culture that strained for homogeneity.  I was raised to believe that my church was more right than your church.  And if you wanted to be right with God, then you needed to be right with us.  I hate admitting this, but I actually grew up holding every other faith group at arm’s distance, if they didn’t hold to the same doctrines we believed and taught.

Even though I got over that foolishness years ago, it took a while longer for me to come to the understanding that it’s in our diversity where we see the real difference Jesus makes.  If everybody in our church family is expected to think the same, interpret the Bible the same, and share the same behaviors and values, the power is in the hands of the governing leadership (the ones who establish the right interpretations, the right behaviors, the right values).  But that should never be.

We all walk different paths.  Our personal stories will always shape how we understand the Bible and how we respond to Jesus.  There are reasons why we parent the way we do…spend our money the way we do…vote the way we do…fill up our free time the way we do…choose the friends we do.  All should be welcome.  All should have a voice.  All should be given love and respect.

I realize my critics could put words in my mouth.  “Mike, what I hear you saying is you want a church where people can believe and act in any way they want.”  Well…no.  That’s not what I’m saying.  What I AM saying is the list of non-negotiables needs to be really, really small…with lots of room for differences.  I have two reasons for wanting this.

First, when we are forced to share life with people who are different, sometimes significantly different, than we are, we are pressed into doing something that’s difficult…something that really cannot be done without the new life and presence of God’s Spirit that has been promised to those who come to him by faith.

Diversity is the sandpaper that can smooth out the rough edges of relationships.  Diversity is medicine for the sickness of narrow-mindedness and I’mbetterthanyouitis.  Dealing, face to face, eye to eye, with people with whom we disagree is surgery for the soul.  I’m convinced it’s what God uses to shape our character into the character of Jesus.

To put it in simpler terms, hanging out with people who always think, talk, and act like we do is easy.  You can do it in your sleep.  It really requires no effort.  Hanging out with “those OTHER kind of people” (and truly loving them as family) is impossible without supernatural help.  And who doesn’t need some supernatural?

Second, I believe when people see honest unity in the midst of obvious diversity, its life giving.  When people of different color, culture, values, politics, church heritage, education, social skills, socio-economics, interests, hobbies, and even loyalties to sports teams can figure out how to lay down what separates and give room for true respect (and belly-fulls of laughter), it’s a beautiful thing.

And isn’t it about time people outside our walls saw something attractive inside our walls?

My brain already has cramps…

brainI feel like I may need to introduce myself to you.  I’m just coming off the longest break from writing in the past five years.  It’s been over a month since my last post.  If you’ve missed me, sorry.  Lots going on in my life and writing just had to be put on hold.

However, if you haven’t missed getting your regular email, feed or FB post from me, let the pestering begin again!

I didn’t really intend to break the drought with this particular topic, but my hand was forced.

I’ve been preaching on Paul’s letter to the Romans through most of 2014.  It’s been a pretty invigorating study for me.  I have a totally different perspective on the teaching of the letter than I have had most of my life.  Hopefully, those who have studied along with me have benefitted.

(I had never grasped the fullness of the context of the letter before this year.  It is now my understanding  that Paul was writing to address the issue of unity in the Roman churchhelping his Jewish family to understand their right standing before God was not based on law-keeping and that Gentiles could be fully included into God’s familyand helping both groups live and serve side-by-side in the face of persecution.)

This past Sunday, we reached one of the most famous verses in the whole Bible.  Certainly one that people hold close to their hearts and lean on in times of difficulty:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose.  Romans 8:28

Truth?  Things don’t always turn out how we plan.  Sometimes they turn out horribly wrong.  Sometimes they end in rejection, failure, total loss, tragedy and even, death.  That’s just the way life is.  But for those who love God and are called according to his purpose (that means not just anybody), God promises to continue to work in our lives, molding and shaping us into the image of his suffering servant Son.  Here’s how Paul states it in the next couple of verses:

For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters.  And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.  8:29-30

When we read these verses, hopefully our hearts are filled with confidence and a growing love for a God who set a plan into motion that gives meaning and boldness to our existence.  These verses are also at the center of hundreds of years of argument, divisiveness, judgment and disunity in the church.

Over the next few days, I’m going to give you my simple take on the debate.  I don’t plan to write a second master’s thesis.  It will not come close to covering all the angles of the war.  Remember, I’m a lover, not a fighter!

I will try to define some terms as simply as possible.  I’ll work hard to accurately reflect the opinions and interpretations with whom I disagree.  Feel free to call me out, if you think I’m failing in that effort.

If the words, Calvinism, Arminianism, predestination, freewill, election, unlimited atonement, God’s sovereignty, and the like, capture your interest, maybe this will be interesting to you.

If not, I’ll be back to football, church goofiness, hamburgers and marriage soon.


anvilScot McKnight wrote this over at The Jesus Creed  the other day, in response to some words written by Dietrich Bonhoeffer:

Until we understand what the church is — a fellowship of sinners at different locations in a journey — we will not understand what the church could be and can be. No two Christians are perfectly compatible — in theology or praxis (process) — and therefore there will be tension in the church, which is precisely where we need to begin to see what the church is. Not a fellowship of those who agree or who are alike, but a fellowship of those who don’t agree and who are not alike.

In relationships, it is not in our similarities, but our differences, that we see the greatness of God displayed.

Being on opposite sides is what moves us to the anvil where our pride is pounded out and our humility is forged.  If we are truly followers of the Way, then treating people as Jesus would treat them is of highest importance… no matter what the issue of the moment is.

Living our lives around people who think, act, spend, drive, vote, pray, worship, and play the way we do is a big deal.  It can certainly reinforce the goodbut also the badof our day-to-day.  We can simply carry on without thinkingnever realizing the worth and value of the other side.

But when you are forced to drink from the same cup and stand side-by-side to contend for a kingdom that is greater than all your ideologies and all your preferences, with a bunch of people that aredifferent,  it is only then that you get to taste the breadth and depth of what God is doing.

Now that’s the church I want to be a part of.


DividedWhile doing some reading yesterday, I had an interesting thought about differences of opinion. People in our country are divided in their support of the president and our government.  Divided over war.  Divided over the economy. Divided over issues of race and poverty and education.  There is hostility.  People on opposite sides of the divisions look at their opponents with smug superiority.  “You’d have to be a complete idiot to think that…”, they say.

It saddens me, but Christians are no different.  In spite of what Jesus commanded (and modeled), we struggle at unity. We are divided.  Divided over politics and war and race and education and the economy.  We are also divided over denominations.  Divided over social issues.  Divided over theology. Divided over lifestyle.  Believers on opposite sides of the divisions look at their opponents with smug superiority. “You’d have to be a complete idiot to believe that…”, they say.

Could it be that none of us are as smart as we think we are?  Maybe we don’t have a “deed of ownership” on the truth. Maybe… just maybe… there are people who have totally different positionstotally different interpretations   totally different opinions than we doand they are using their brains also!

Truth is, I have changed my opinion on lots of things over the years.  Politics.  Theology.  Marriage. Parenting. Church leadership.  Social issues.  End times.  Music.  Tithing.  Barbeque.   However, I haven’t changed my mind on the essential wrongness of coffee, the designated hitter, and short-shorts (for menand women).

Maybe instead of shaking our heads in pitiful judgment, we could listen with compassionate understanding and respect.  I’m not suggesting that there is no truth, but I am suggesting that none of us is as bright as we want to believe we are.  Seeking truth is a lifelong process.  God’s revealed word is our only concrete guide.  I just think we need to walk the path without undermining the intellectual dignity of our fellow-travelers.

The greatness of a taco

imageAre you having trouble with another person?  Do you question their motives?  Have they said something you don’t understand?  Have their words cut in and done some damage?

Do you wonder where you stand with a person you thought was a friend?  Do they do something that annoys you?  Are you walking on eggshells?  Is trust broken or completely absent in your friendship?

Is there a wall?  Is there a break in unity?  Is there hollowness, fear, intimidation, sadness, hurt or callousness…where there should be peace, comradery, teamwork, loyalty and fun?

If you care enough to want things to be better, I have a plan.

Go eat a taco together.

Yup.  Call the person up and invite them to share a plate of tacos with you.  Amazing things can happen when you break tortillas together…with some fire-roasted salsa and a side of guacamole.

Guards can come down.  Listening can happen.  Fears can be dispelled.  Questions can be asked and answered.  Trust can be built.

Is it a fool-proof plan?  No way.  Some might come just for the taco.  Some might not come at all.  But at least you would have done what Jesus would have done.

He would have definitely had a taco and cleared the air.

Jesus understands the greatness of a taco.

Reality Check

log eyehere’s a simple recap of yesterday’s sermon:

the jews were god’s only chosen people for centuries.  after the resurrection of jesus, god opened the door to gentiles to join the club.  the jews did not want to welcome them in.  there was a huge “wall” of hostility between them.  they were totally different politically, socially, spiritually, culturally.

jesus tore down the dividing wall of hostility between the two groups.  his purpose was to create one family of believers.  this was not an easy task for the jews.  it was no walk-in-the-park for the gentiles…and we have the same problems in the church today

the apostle paul wrote to the young, integrated church in ephesus some words that are as true for us today, as they were 2000 years ago:

 I urge you to live a life worthy of the calling you have received.  Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.  4:1-3

paul told the jews and the gentiles that, even tho they were incredibly different and even hostile towards each other, they were to bear with one another.  bearing with another person means we are to “put up with” our differences.  we are to “tolerate” those things that would ordinarily separate us.  we are to “make allowances” for the potential walls and simply love each other.

this is no small task for us today.  we are a divided and fragmented society and it spills over into our church family.  so many differences of opinion.  so many different interpretations of the bible.  so much personal life history and complicated stories.  so many shortcomings.

bearing with one another is critical.  it is central to unity in the body.  it is essential, if love is going to be evident.  the reality is our differences are many and the divide between us (in our church family) can be incredibly deep.  but putting up with those differences… making room for choices and opinions and convictions and even…sin…is when unity can really happen.

i’m not saying we are to condone sin or that there are not more “mature” ways of behaving.  i’m just saying that all of us are different and the more room we make…the more allowances we make…the more we learn to tolerate…the better we become as a family.

here is the “checklist” of people who make up our church family (that i read during my sermon).  these are all real people.  i think the more we understand how different we are, the more we understand how similar we are.  go figure.

  • I’m not sure I really believe in God
  • I never drink alcohol
  • I frequently drink alcohol
  • I’ve gotten drunk recently
  • I  yell at my spouse
  • I voted for President Obama…twice
  • I voted for Mitt Romney
  • I didn’t vote and never will
  • I’m an animal rights activist
  • I hunt
  • I have loving gay friends and family members
  • I’ve had an abortion
  • I have smoked marijuana
  • I look at pornography
  • I own an assault weapon
  • I am carrying my concealed weapon
  • I will never own a gun
  • I smoke
  • I like rap music
  • I have been divorced…
  • I have illegal immigrants as friends
  • I have no deep financial worries
  • I have huge anger issues
  • I am deeply in debt
  • I am attracted to the same sex
  • i cut myself
  • i am addicted to my smartphone
  • i flirt on facebook
  • I have problems with gossip
  • I seldom give any money in the offering plate
  • I am secretly addicted to pain killers
  • I have never been baptized
  • I speak in tongues
  • I dip tobacco
  • I regularly overeat
  • I don’t believe in a literal hell
  • We had sex (with my spouse) before we were married
  • We went too far before we were married
  • I’ve had sex with someone other than who I am married to
  • I spank my kids
  • I don’t believe in spanking my kids
  • I now have health care for the first time in my adult life
  • I believe the earth is millions of years old
  • I believe in evolution
  • I have never really shared my faith with another person
  • I have experienced the presence of a demon
  • I would have no problem with a woman pastor
  • I have lied to my spouse this past week
  • I have broken a promise to my kid this past week
  • I dodged the draft when I was younger
  • I don’t support the war in Afghanistan
  • I’ve lied to the IRS
  • I am deeply depressed, but nobody really knows it
  • I am really, really angry at God
  • I have no clue how to intellectually defend my faith
  • I haven’t read my Bible in weeks
  • I constantly judge others
  • I am afraid to die
  • I am deeply uncomfortable to be around people of other races
  • I cuss
  • I wholeheartedly believe in the death penalty
  • I am wholeheartedly against the death penalty
  • I fast regularly from food
  • I am fully tattooed underneath my shirt
  • I go dancing at clubs on the weekends
  • I pray the Lord’s prayer daily
  • I really only pray when I want something
  • I never raise my hands during worship
  • I never sing during worship
  • I don’t believe women should ever pray out loud or serve communion during worship
  • I don’t believe different races should marry each other
  • I have an unhappy marriages, but people have no clue
  • I am single and I am really lonely
  • I am jobless and on welfare
  • I have close Muslim friends
  • I smoke pipes and cigars
  • I break the speed limit regularly with no guilt at all
  • I love to argue
  • I contemplate suicide
  • I give money to people on street corners
  • I am contemplating not coming back this church

this list is why jesus said to take the log out of your own eye, before you try to take the speck out of another person’s eye.  this list is why jesus died on the cross.  this list is what keeps us humble.  this list is why anybody should feel welcomed into our church family.  this list is why there should be no dividing walls among us.

this list is why there is a command in the bible for us to put up with each other.

this list is why i love north point.