Becoming a Healing Community
An Interview with Jen Hatmaker
By C. Christopher Smith
For the Love: Fighting for Grace in a World of Impossible Standards
ERB: I read your book last week and thoroughly enjoyed it. I was particularly intrigued by the central theme of grace. Why is the message of grace so important and so timely today? Why is it worth, as you say, fighting for?
JH: I just turned 41, and am likely halfway done with my life, more or less. What I see at this point is that everyone is doing their best. When I was in my twenties, I knew everything. I had all the right answers. Now I see that we are all trying hard. We are doing the best that we can. We are loving our people, and trying to use our gifts.
I think that our culture has become so critical. It is the most cynical, snarky culture. Our access to one another online has made that worse in a lot of ways. Now it’s safe to be ugly to other people. It can even be fully anonymous. I like to live my life by a couple of rules. Number One: I think that this person is genuinely trying to do their best, which is a grace-based approach to another human being. Even if we are wildly different, or if we have completely polar opposite opinions on something, or if we have different styles or preferences, I tend to think that this person is trying their very best. And the second rule for me is: I wish them well. I really do. Maybe they are making choices that are different than I would make. Great, I wish them well. Maybe they are going to go about it in an alternative route. I wish them well. What a beautiful community we could create, if we approached people like that, seeking the best in others and giving them the benefit of the doubt. I really think we could turn the tide of this cynical culture that we find ourselves drowning in.
ERB: Wow, that is a timely message! Grace, when we typically talk about it in church or in other Christian settings, is a very abstract sort of theological idea. I appreciated the way that you, in For the Love, offered very practical ways that we could extend grace to one another, in the home, in the church and elsewhere. Can you talk a little about how we can do that?
JH: You’re right, we can talk about grace in a loosey-goosey way that doesn’t give us a path toward how we should live in our communities and our neighborhoods. If grace is not tangible in any way, if it doesn’t have an expression that you can get your arms around, then I’m not sure if it’s anything at all, other than a lovely idea to talk about. I think grace is best expressed in the challenging places, with people that we disagree with, or with people that we don’t understand. For me, grace looks like sitting down across from someone, who is in an incredibly different place than you are, with no other agenda than to listen and to understand.
How often do we come to a challenging conversation, really truthfully just to be sure that we are heard? As the other person is talking, we are just biding our time, waiting to rebuke or to refute or to offer a rebuttal. I think there’s something really powerful about saying “It’s not my responsibility to change you, or to fix you, or convince you, or to even defend myself.” What if we just sat down and said “I just want to understand you; I’m going to sit down here as a listener and a learner.” Just that posture alone can take a lot of the wind out of the sails of dissension and contention. But, it’s hard to do that, it’s not a fluffy concept at all! It takes a lot of maturity and a lot of internal fortitude. It is so powerful though, and I think that we can heal a lot of what is broken in our communities by this approach.
ERB: I think you’re absolutely right. Conversation in the way that you describe it here is something that is really important to me and to our church community. I totally agree with you that it can be really transformative, if we take it seriously.
Even if our churches are largely homogeneous, there almost always exists some degree of diversity: theological diversity, or economic diversity, for instance. What are some ways that we can create space within our churches for the type of conversations that you’re talking about?
JH: I’m married to a pastor and we’ve been in church-work our whole lives. I think that the church is an important tool in the healing and the restoration of our communities and our culture. I think the danger in looking to the church – and I know this as an ordinary believer and as a pastor’s wife – is that we tend to outsource the hard work and the heavy lifting to the church staff. When we start to think that the church needs to do better, we ask questions like “what program are we going to institute?” or “who are we going to hire?” We want to hire a consultant or have a pastor manage all of this for us. These approaches ultimately fall short, I think, because this is the sort of work that happens around dinner tables, or on a porch. It’s the sort of work that happens over coffee. This is the work of the average believer; it is not the work of a church program. We constantly try to set up the church for discipleship, for growth, for service to our community, and churches in general do that in a beautiful way. When we talk about getting down into the nitty-gritty and the places of struggle, with our neighbors who believe differently or don’t believe at all, this is not something that the church can do for us. This is the work of a neighbor. I am always wanting to put this work back on our plates as Christians. Who do you live by? Who do you work with? Who’s hurting in your community? It’s really that simple. I think if we wait around for the church staff to figure this out for us, we are not going to move the needle forward on becoming a healing community.
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