Bringing Positive Change by Seeking to Understand First

Some years ago there was a young lady who traveled for the first time to a very poor part of the Dominican Republic. Her name was Rebecca, and she went with a group that volunteered their time to build homes for the poorest of the poor. When I speak of “homes,” keep in mind functional simplicity. The finished product was a basic structure built upon a crude concrete slab, hardly a home by most standards, little more than a shed in most places. But for many of the recipient families, these structures might be the first reliable and safe homes they have ever known.

In recalling this first visit to the Dominican Republic, Rebecca shared that she knew very little Spanish at the time,  but each day she made every effort to communicate and practice her language skills as she went about her duties during her stay. One day, while walking to a job site, she encountered one of the many children that played in the streets. The young girl was about ten years old. She asked what Rebecca’s name was, so she told the little girl that her name was “Becca,” thinking it would be easier for her to pronounce than “Rebecca.” The little girl looked perplexed and said “Bocca?” Rebecca replied; “Becca with an ‘eh’,” she told her. The girl seemed surprised as her mouth slowly formed “Bocca” again.  After a “conversation” that was part verbal and part sign language, they parted ways each going about their respective day.

The following day they once again met, but this time at the work site. On this particular occasion there where a bunch of kids that had joined the little ten year old to watch Rebecca help build a  house. During the course of the day, Rebecca noticed that every time she walked by the kids, they would ask her her name and then whisper “Bocca.” Immediately thereafter, everyone in the group would break out in uncontrollable laughter. The laughter would soon die down until she had to walk by the group again, and the entire process would repeat itself.

Finally, in mock anger, Rebecca tossed down her gloves in frustration and asked “what does ‘Bocca” mean?” One girl looked at her and slowly replied, “Cow.” That’s when it hit her, they where saying “Vaca,” Spanish for “Cow.” It was then that everyone, including Rebecca, broke out in laughter. It was an amusing moment and illustrated for her how difficult it was at times to understand some of the nuances of  language. But it also proved to be a learning experience for her as well, and in the end this clarified understanding of her name resulted in a deepening bond between her and the families she was serving.(Reflections: A Journey to the Dominican Republic)

One of the greatest challenges we often face in life is in the ability to simply understand accurately what another person is attempting to communicate. While we may not always agree with what someone might share, it’s important that we at least ensure we understand and can articulate their position back to them. In this way they we might confirm our understanding of what they just shared to us.

Over the years I’ve found there are times when I’m not the best listener, and I don’t always practice good communication skills like feeding back the topic to the speaker to ensure I actually understand their perspective. I have a feeling I may not be alone in this regard.

As followers of Christ we are actively living in a culture for which we and others we encounter may not always agree. If we are to influence our culture positively, we need to start by first ensuring that we understand and can distinguish our own views from that of the popular culture around us. This first step is necessary so that we know upfront where we are in agreement and where we might be out of alignment with popular ideas.

Scripture says that just as we have been brought into a right and healthy relationship with God through Jesus Christ, we’re to help those around us see the same love and grace that God has bestowed upon each of us, and to communicate His desire to be reconciled with each person. In that way, we are to be  “ambassadors” for Christ. (2 Corinthians 5:18-20)

Our credibility for engaging the culture around us must be founded in our genuine love for those with whom we engage. Jesus said that our love for one another would be the way in which others would know that we are followers of Christ. (John 13:35 ) The scriptures share that if our love for others is not real, than we’re no better than a loud gong or clanging symbol. We’re just another voice in an already noisy world of erroneous beliefs. (1 Corinthians 13:1 )

When we encounter a contrary cultural viewpoint, we should always start our conversation by asking the Lord for wisdom and knowledge on how best to respond. Secondly, we need take the high road and not plan on “winning over” the person for whom we are in conversation. Rather, our goal is to hear out the other person’s position completely without interruption, and then to respond in a manner that leaves them with something worthy of consideration that cannot be easily swept aside.

Greg Koukl, author of numerous resources on apologetics, suggests that our primary tool in separating fact from fiction in any conversation is “reason.” In his book, “Tactics” he pointed out that the Apostle Paul often appealed to reason and other practical approaches to engage others around him. (Acts 17:2-4) Koukl also suggested that our conversations should be handled fairly, reasonably, and with a high degree of grace. In fact, we should allow enough room for our own views to be challenged with evidence, reasoning, and from Scripture.

The bottom line is that when discussing cultural values that run contrary to God’s desire for those whom he loves, we need to keep in mind that our goal is to testify by word, deed, knowledge, and reason. We’re not to take personal responsibility to change a person’s heart. That’s the job for the Holy Spirit. Heart change is something that happens from within, and only God can move a person’s heart. But that movement often starts by engaging the mind. That’s our job.

Don’t be discouraged when conversations don’t go as planned. Each encounter is an opportunity for us to learn. Accept that we personally may not succeed in seeing a person’s perspective change immediately, instead remember that in love, and as an ambassador for Christ, the purpose of our conversation may simply have been to lay the groundwork for positive change in that person’s life for some time in the future.

Differing Measures

One of the largest and most powerful warships of its day, and the pride of Gustav II Adolf, the King of Sweden, was launched on August 10, 1628. The “Vasa, named after the ruling Vasa Dynasty, boasted an array of 64 bronze cannons, was crewed by 150 sailors and capable of carrying some 300 soldiers. She was in excess of 200 feet in length with a displacement of over 1,400 tons. With over 13,000 square feet of sail, this 17th century vessel was a force to be reckoned with.

An excited public watched and celebrated along the shores of Strömmen, as the great ship prepared to depart on its maiden voyage. On that particular Sunday morning, the Vasa hosted over a hundred crew members, along with family and guests, which were allowed to join the ship for the first leg of its passage through the Archipelago.

Incredibly, after having been under construction for over two years, the maiden voyage lasted only twenty minutes. The Vasa traveled less than one mile before a gust of wind unexpectedly caused the ship to heel over to its port side. The resulting massive flooding, as water rushed into the open lower gun ports, sank the ship within minutes, taking with it the lives of thirty people.

Subsequent inquests spread the blame for the untimely sinking amid a variety of people and causes, but no one cause or person was identified as the primary reason for the ship’s demise; the inquest concluded that the ship was “inherently unstable.” The actual mechanical reasons that caused the instability of the Vasa would remain entombed with the ship for nearly four hundred years.

In 1961, the remains of the incredibly well preserved Vasa were located and raised, and over a period of several years the ship was restored and ultimately placed in a Swedish museum for others to view and study. Archeologists studying the Vasa identified several factors that might have contributed to the ship’s sinking; including a lack of adequate ballast and a top heavy design. But these factors by themselves did not possess sufficient explanatory power to fully explain Vasa’s hasty demise.

In June of 2012, a major four year study was completed in the hopes of identifying the source of her instability. The study was headed by Vasa Museum’s director of research Fred Hocker. The project set out to document and measure all the timbers used in the construction of the Vasa. Doing so required the team to map some 80,000 separate points on the ship, using advanced digital 3D technology.

To their surprise, after analyzing the data, the project team learned that the ship was actually built in an asymmetric shape.

The ship was built lopsided.

In this case, there were more ship building materials on the port side of the ship, than on the starboard side. If this had been unknown at the time of construction, then the ship would indeed have been highly unstable, and likely to roll to the left side when faced with a strong wind or rough ocean.

But how did such an error, which resulted in this unstable shape, insert itself into the final construction work at the shipyard?

As part of their examination of the Vasa, Hocker and his team had earlier discovered within the ship, four rulers left behind by the original shipbuilders. The significance of this piece of historical evidence had not been fully understood at the time of its discovery. But that would change.

Upon careful examination, it turned out that these rulers were based on two different measurement standards.

The team also determined from historical records that the carpenters who built the Vasa, originated from both Holland and Sweden.

Two of the rulers were in Swedish feet and the others were in Amsterdam feet, which were slightly different in lengths. As the ship was being built, it was speculated that each carpenter used their own measuring standard to cut the timbers used for the ship.

Because no single objective measuring standard was used, the resulting vessel that was built came out lopsided and therefore highly unstable. This final part of the puzzle provided the last explanatory piece of data to close out the mystery behind the mighty Vasa’s demise.

Scientists concluded that the lopsided ship tended to naturally lean to its port side, because it was built based upon two different definitions of how long a “foot” was, and when the gust of wind arose on that fateful day, the ship simply keeled over to its naturally heavy side. Because the ship was not balanced properly, and was considered top heavy, when the water flooded in, it was not able to recover and return to an upright position. Instead it remained on its side and immediately sank.

Thankfully, in today’s world, we generally have agreement on objective standards to determine how long a foot is, how much volume a gallon actually contains, or how hot or cold something might be. Having objective standards allows us to operate in a predictable and safe manner.

But are such objective standards limited only to physical attributes in our lives? What about behavioral standards of conduct that govern how we relate to God and one another? Are there objective standards available for us to live our lives by? If so, what are the consequences of attempting to live outside of God’s ideal for us?

Jesus was once asked by a religious official, with respect to the laws and commandments they lived by, which one was the most important? Jesus responded by citing not one, but two commandments; “Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with your entire mind and with all your strength.’ The second is this: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:30–31)

In his response Jesus looked past the legalistic and religious intent of this official, and responded by summarizing all of the commandments into two simple objective relationship truths.

In essence, these principles state that the most important relationship we could ever have is the one we have with God. We need to give our all to God, our heart, Soul, and Mind. If that relationship is healthy, we will have the foundation to carry out the second great relationship truth, and that would be to love those around us and to love ourselves. Choosing to adopt God’s objective truths about relationships permits us to live our lives fully, as Jesus intended us to do. (John 10:10)

Of course, when we as a people choose to reject God’s truth claims, and substitute our own personal truths, our relationships in this life inevitably become unstable. In the end, by choosing to use a multitude of differing “measurement rulers” to live by, we are left with no objective standard to assess what is healthy in our relationships, no basis in which to grapple with real world issues. Instead we are armed only with a shifting social framework, dictated by the winds of an ever changing public opinion. Frequently God’s “Truth” with a capital “T” becomes lost in the myriad of individual truths, with a lowercase “t.”

No one has to be a sociological expert to recognize that we live in an incredibly unstable society. For the most part, much of our society has accepted, as normative, a variety of unhealthily relationship models that lie outside of what God desired for his creation. Additionally, our news is filled with stories of theft, corruption and embezzlement, along with a seemingly endless list of violent acts that we as humans seem so easily and capable of perpetrating upon one another.

Yet despite all of our poor choices, Jesus still loves us. (Romans 5:8) He knows that true love can only be true, if the object of his love responds willingly and voluntarily to Him and his offer of an eternal relationship. With that relationship, and obedience to God’s objective truths, come peace and purpose in this life. (Proverbs 3:1-2)

God will never force his plan for our eternal salvation upon us. It becomes our choice entirely as to how we will choose to respond to His love for us. Our behaviors are ultimately a product of our choices. Our choices a product of what we believe is true.

In this life we have the choice to either humble ourselves and willingly trust and obey God’s objective truths, or to trade these truths for our own contrived, and often self-serving concepts of truth with predictable results. (John 3:19)

How do I want to live and build my life? Do I want a life built like the Vasa was built, with many differing standards, or will I anchor my life securely in God, resting upon His set of objective principles as revealed in the Scriptures?