Lessons from Bird Watching

There's an endangered species that's been on the list for a long time, but has rarely been top of mind for most of us. And that animal is civil Christian discourse. This was made abundantly clear to me through a recent Twitter conversation between author/blogger Rachel Held Evans and Joe Carter of The Gospel Coalition.

The details of how this engagement came about are unfortunately lost in the mire of the pervasive venom which clothes it. But needless to say, the two folks involved share a mutual dislike of either each other or each other's opinions (they're so easy to distinguish). Which is a shame since Jesus told us that the world would know us because of our love for one another. Sadly, love is often the last stop on the express train to our own preconceived destinations. The silver lining, though, is that as with all public mistakes, we can learn something from it. Here are three lessons to help forestall the impending extinction of friendly discussion.

1. Don't Make Assumptions

More than once during the conversation, Joe accused Rachel of not having the courage to express her opinion on the matter at hand. Don't ever do this. None of us know what's in Rachel's heart, mind or whatever organ you choose to seat responsibility for opinions you don't like. She has her reasons. And she's chosen to not disclose them. Fair enough.

Because guess what, personal experience affects how we think. Before my parents got divorced, I looked down on other divorced couples who couldn't get their act together. And while compassion has never been my strong suit, I've become less willing to make such harsh assumptions about other people's failed marriages. Unlike God, I can't know those things. And I have to believe this was intentional.

2. Do What You Say

At one point during Joe's goading, Rachel said, "not taking that bait." Joe seemed to think he was entitled to knowing her opinions, and she appeared to put a stop to this. Good for her. Except that the conversation continued. And while she never conceded her opinion, she did fall prey to an unnecessary and uncharitable game of tag. Joe, too, indicated that he was willing to let go of the conversation. Neither did.

Now, I may be tempted to assume that their own egos got in the way, but we should just be satisfied with a simple principle: do what you say you're going to do. If you say you're done with a conversation, be done with it. Because if you felt compelled to tell everyone that the conversation has progressed beyond being helpful, it follows that anything said further is unhelpful.

3. Keep Public Matters Public

For those familiar with how important context is to me, you're probably surprised that I have yet to mention the context of the conversation in question. Well, I'm ignoring it on purpose. Why? Because most of the people who stumbled upon it on Twitter probably didn't check it either. One of life's many oddities is that the importance of context is inversely proportionate to how much people care about it. What matters is public perception.

Unlike private discussions where context is usually evident to all parties involved, public discourse only has one face. And just to be redundant, this is something that EVERYONE will see. Including unbelievers. Including critics of religion. Including people who need Jesus and are looking for those who represent him.

Remember, the world will hate us because of Jesus. It doesn't need our help.