35 years of discovering nuance

Yesterday I turned 35, and I’m answering the question my father-in-law asks, which is “What you have you learned in your 35 years”, and this year it’s the value of understanding nuance. With the loud arguing happening on public forums, with often black and white dualistic thinking being the standard approach, I more than ever hold the importance of nuance close to my thought process. I’m incredibly grateful for the circumstances which lead me to this understanding. You see I’m a problem solver by nature, professionally, and in ministry (discipleship, counseling). Originally my primary motivation was to please people, but over time I discovered this was not fulfilling. This also lead to times of being used by people, and putting little value into who I was. Through the school of hard knocks, and a lot of grace, I eventually learned that my value was not in what I did, and that I couldn’t do what I did to please others to feel accepted.

The great transformation of realizing and owning my value came when I began to see the world while commuting to and from downtown Portland by light rail (MAX) in 2008. I had just started a new job at Smarsh (where I still work as a consultant). I wanted to know how MAX worked (and why it broke down from time to time), so I “geeked” out by researching how public transportation systems around the world were developed, built, and operated. By researching the reasons behind why different transport system were built, I learned about the incredibly complex world of public discourse, input, how some public entities are good at communications, while others fail miserably.

Often I would naturally try to solve all the problems I saw, and naturally I’ve always paid attention to details. What I didn’t always do was realize that within humanity, within individual people, the nuances and problems we each face, and the problems and friction in society are incredibly nuanced as well. While geeking out and learning about the human element of public transportation I learned the value in being slow to judge and apply “solutions” from a black and white perspective. From property disputes, “NIMBYism” (Not In My Back-Yard – ism), and needing to solve transportation problems in densely populated and land-starved areas the nuances and problems were never solvable by black and white answers.

So while I began educating myself on the incredibly complex decision-making, public outreach, and processes that are needed to build a successful transportation system, I learned more than just what makes a good government process. I also learned to apply listening, understanding, and the viewpoints of many into my problem solving skills. Which proved to be invaluable to me professionally, personally, and in ministry. The other side effect of riding MAX was that I saw many kinds of people, under various kinds of stress, and in various situations of social and economic status. The world went from being black and white to many shades of gray.

During this time I also read the book “Blue like Jazz” by Donald Miller, this book really put into words some of the feelings I was having about the intersection of the Church and society. From what I had learned about various kinds of public processes, my observations of people and society riding MAX every day, and being part of a large, and demographically/characteristically “evangelical suburban” church – I began noticing the overly simple way people in the church sphere would propose solutions to incredibly complex social conflict and problems. I also noticed (thankfully) that those in leadership usually were more keen to address the nuances, yet the typical “church goer” often did not demonstrate the same skills.

At the same time while I was undergoing this realization, one of my best friends entered a season of incredible struggle, caused by incredibly nuanced and complex actions by others and at the same time requiring him to take ownership and responsibility. For years I stood by, along with my wife and his wife, through scary times, confusing times, and incredibly hurtful times. Nothing I knew from my own life could be used to solve this problem, only walking along side. Some people took a simple approach, either based on fear, misunderstanding, or their own unaddressed problems interfering with the ability to humbly just walk.

It was during this season that the intersection of what my faith in Jesus and the very real and complex problems of the world came to a head. I was more and more irritated by the political tones that some in the church would propose for societal conflicts, often in a black and white way that failed to recognize the underlying nuances that were multiple problems. I was also incredibly encouraged by the leaders in my life who were well aware of the underlying issues, and were slow to propose overly simplistic answers, and willing to walk alongside individuals, rather than propose systematic/governmental/legal “solutions”. Just as Jesus walked alongside people.

In 2010 the same friend I mentioned earlier entered a very dark time of his life and deeply broke my trust. I was deeply affected and hurt – at the same time I knew there was only one way to restoration. In spite of our human emotions in the situation, and with the peace that only comes from the Holy Spirit I knew the only way forward was with full forgiveness. Without the lessons on nuance I don’t know if I would have had the capacity to seek forgiveness and restoration. It could have easily blown up into a drama that would have hijacked everything in my life and in my future, which makes it obvious it was a plan of the enemy. Thankfully Jesus had been preparing me.

It is essential for me today to never jump to conclusions (and to apologize when I do, or when I’m corrected by someone) because often it isn’t something of God. God is in the details (and in many ways, the ignorance of the details is where the devil is). Every person has unique circumstances, unique things they struggle with, and simple answers almost never fix the root issue nor bring true understanding, nor build the bridge to God we want for people. We must apply the principle of “root cause analysis” to nearly every conflict and problem in life and society. Ultimately the value we place on ourselves becomes what God sees, and we see people with (hopefully) the value he has for all people. When we realize there are nuances the black and white turns to gray, when we analyze and walk closely with the people involved, the gray turns to color. We apply grace to everything, and know that it takes trust, it takes faith, it takes patience, and in this we find peace, joy, and love – we find God’s Kingdom.

And that is what I have learned for my 35th birthday.