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“The Adaptive Challenge of Love”

by Mike Kinman, Rector of All Saints Church

I’m noticing that the whole conversation about praying for our president-elect (including our little piece of it at All Saints Church) has attracted considerable energy. While a passionate conversation about prayer could be a wonderful thing – it feels like something more is going on.

Maybe it’s just because we are in one of the eyes of this particular hurricane, but it feels like there is a special intensity to this conversation on all sides – and that always makes me wonder what that’s about. Makes me wonder if something else is going on here that isn’t about prayer or pastoral care – two topics that I would hope people of faith could disagree about in good faith.

For years, I have found the wisdom of Ron Heifetz helpful in times such as this. Ron distinguishes between what he calls Technical Problems and Adaptive Challenges

A technical problem is where we can identify the problem and a solution is possible. My car won’t start. I might not be able to fix the car, but someone can figure out what is wrong with it and get it going again – or assure me it has gone to the great beyond. Either way, an answer.

An adaptive challenge is much trickier. An adaptive challenge is when not only is the solution not readily available, we are having a lot of trouble even identifying what the question is. Young people aren’t connecting with faith communities. Addressing a challenge like that isn’t a quick fix but instead challenges us to key values, practices, approaches and even questions of identity.

We love technical problems because they give us chances to show mastery – and mastery makes us feel strong. Mostly, we don’t like adaptive challenges for the same reason – they involve so much of a shifting of foundations that we feel about as far from mastery as you can get. Though some people thrive on them, for many people, adaptive challenges are scary. They are new worlds that make us feel far from brave.

Because of this, in the face of adaptive challenges, we tend to concentrate on technical problems. Not because that’s the right thing to do (it’s usually a pretty big mistake) but because it allows us to replace the anxiety of facing the adaptive challenge with the strength of solving the technical problem. It’s human nature to prefer feeling strong to feeling anxious and weak. So, in the face of a challenge like young people not coming to church, we will put all our energy into technical solutions like new websites or worship music … instead of engaging in deep conversations and listening (and giving away power) that would involve us being fundamentally reshaped as the church.

Which brings me back to this conversation about praying for the president. It’s not that it’s an unimportant topic. It’s certainly about some important things – prayer, leadership, trauma, pastoral care. But I can’t help feeling that we are being tempted to hyper-focus on a technical problem so we can avoid the adaptive challenge.

The election of Donald Trump as president represents the latest stage in a world that is changing rapidly. In many ways, it is a backlash against rapid change that has been happening for a while. And as I listen to people from many different quarters talk, one things seems clear and that is while there are many fears from some and hopes from others, nobody really knows what is going to happen after he is sworn in Friday morning.

Even the people who are paid to fill our airwaves and bandwidth with their predictions are hedging their bets. We really don’t know what is going to happen – but we have a pretty strong feeling it’s going to be very, very different. There are some pretty awful worst-case scenarios … particularly for the most vulnerable among us. There are also those who feel left behind by changes of the previous decades that are putting great hope that change will finally work in their favor.

This is nothing new. What we are experiencing now is not about Donald Trump – it is about huge shifts in society and culture that have always been a part of life. Shifts that began way before him and will continue way after he is gone. Shifts that are adaptive – and call us to look ourselves in the mirror deeply, ask ourselves key questions of identity and calling … and what – and in whom – we truly believe.

Shifts that are an opportunity to engage in life-changing work … if we will allow ourselves to face them.

And yes, there will be plenty of technical problems … particularly how we care for those who are most vulnerable and wounded in the midst of this. But if the technical problems don’t lead us more deeply into the adaptive challenges — how we care for each other at times when we act out of fear and hatred instead of trust and love; how we stand up against injustice and, in the words of Dr. King, work “not to defeat people but to defeat the evil that is within them.” – then we will be ignoring the most important work before us to all of our great peril.

So here’s the Good News:

Perhaps the biggest adaptive challenge in all of human history was – and remains – the birth, life, crucifixion and resurrection of Jesus Christ. In not seeing equality with God as something to be grasped and emptying the divine self into human form and lovingly offering Godself even unto death on a cross, God shook the very foundations of human existence. In Christ, God proclaims a system of restorative justice over a system of retributive justice. An economy of grace over an economy of transactionalism. The power of love over the power of coercion. A dream of liberation over a reality of slavery.

As followers of Jesus, we are made for the adaptive challenge … because love is the ultimate adaptive challenge. It’s messy and vulnerable and scary. It will lead us to strange places where we have no firm ground under our feet and nothing to trust but the person whose hand rests in ours and the God who blazed the trail before us to the cross and beyond.

As followers of Jesus, we are made for the adaptive challenge … and that means we are well prepared, as our preacher, Delonte Gholston, reminded us yesterday, “for such a time as this.”

So yes, there will be plenty of technical challenges – and how we pray for the president is certainly one of them, and it deserves some attention. But it is not the primary challenge ahead of us. The primary challenge ahead of us is the same challenge that has always been ahead of us, behind us and all around us. The challenge of being followers of Jesus and vessels of Christ’s love in a world that mightily resists it … and yet also contains a billion examples of its power.

The primary challenge ahead of us as we face this week – or any week — won’t be solved in a technical fashion. It won’t be argued to a conclusion on social media. It won’t have any sort of simple answer at all.

The primary challenge ahead of us is the adaptive challenge of Christ. How are we – each of us and all of us – going to give ourselves in love for each other. How are we going to meet the living God in those who are most marginalized, targeted and oppressed. How are we going to get down in the dirt and put our bodies between the woman who is being singled out for her exercise of sexuality and the men holding the stones over their heads.

How are we going to, like Christ, not see our privilege as something to be grasped, but empty ourselves and give ourselves for the life of the world, knowing that is the path to Easter joy.

There will be plenty of technical challenges … and we will address them as they come. But I pray we will let them not distract us from but, in how we approach them, lead us more deeply into the great adaptive challenge of Christ, the great adaptive challenge of love.

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