Shuck and Jive

Friday, February 09, 2007

Sermon for Evolution Sunday

I have been thinking about my sermon for Evolution Sunday. I am not going to debate creationism, or intelligent design or defend evolution like I did last year. I think for most folks in my congregation, evolution is a given. They recognize that the Universe is at least 14 billion years old and Earth is over 4 billion years old, and that species have evolved and died off and it is on-going and random.

What I find myself struggling with is the consequence of science for our self-understanding. Science can make us feel small. Things formerly explained by the gods, now have more naturalistic explanations. Humans are not necessarily the apex of creation. In the scheme of things we have more in common with our mammal cousins on Earth than we have differences with them. Evolution and astronomy in particular have also taken "the end" out of things. We can't think of an end to history. Perhaps human history, but even without humans the planets will spin and the Universe will continue.

I think that can create anxiety. How could it go on without me? It might also make us question ideas such as eternal life or the survival of my memory or self-hood after death. Science doesn't necessarily eliminate that concept, but it does challenge us to question it and to re-frame it. Not only do we think of ourselves as small in light of science but our social settings can also make us feel small. We are consumers, citizens of varioius states, mostly less than adequate and not very powerful. We feel that we have little control over much of what happens to us or to our world.

How do we find (or create) meaning and peace given this? Those are some of the questions I am going to address on Sunday. During our adult forum at 9:45 am, Jim Bitter, counseling professor at ETSU and a member of our church, is going to facilitate a discussion on conflict resolution. I think much of what he says may be helpful in creating meaning for ourselves as individuals and as communities of people. He said I could put his notes on a web page. So here they are. If you are in the neighborhood, join us!

Peace Within, Peace Between, and Peace Among
--Jim Bitter

Peace Within: A Review

All of us are in a more or less constant movement from normal feelings of being less than we believe is possible to becoming more of what we want to be; that is, our life is a movement from perceived minus-positions to desired plus-positions. In the end, we hope to become complete, whole, self-actualized, or even perfect. Most of us know we will never get there, but it is in the striving that we form the basis for our living. It is in the striving that we declare who we are, what we are worth, and how we want to be remembered.

Each of us is unique, and it is impossible, therefore, to say that there is a right way for everyone to live. There are, however, some general guidelines for living a meaningful life and for achieving a sense of peace within. Coming to a place of internal peace is the starting point for achieving peace between individuals and among the multitude of others.

The Guidelines:

We are social being and interdependent. We cannot do everything alone, nor can we leave others to fend for themselves: The meaning of our lives is the contributions we make to others.

We are all unique and different from each other and yet we are more or less the same. The human genome for every person is 99.9% the same, and all of our differences are accounted for in the .1% that is left. Interest in and appreciation for differences in others is essential for peace: These are the capacities that replace fear and prejudice.

We have the capacity for intimacy and intimacy flows from other capacities for friendliness, trustworthiness and sharing.

We have the capacity to think, and thinking rationally is generally better than being in a state of triggered emotional reactivity.

We have the capacity to feel, and having access to a full range of emotions is generally better than not feeling at all or turning off our feelings.

We are bound to this earth, this planet, and it provides so much of what sustains us in very real ways: Those who live more peaceful lives find ways to spend at least a half an hour quietly in nature almost every day. Appreciating nature also means living in harmony with the planet so that it may sustain us and future generations.

If we must compare ourselves to others, we ought to compare ourselves to those who are less fortunate and be thankful for the gifts we have been given.

In general, when we seek goals, we will be happier if the goals we choose are realistic and reachable rather than perfect and flawless.

Happiness is supported by our courage to be imperfect. We are human beings. We make mistakes. It takes no courage to be perfect. It does, however, take courage to accept ourselves as merely human. Our goal in life ought to be to embrace our humanness, to become more fully human, not to burden ourselves with goals of perfection. Being more fully human is reflected in our willingness not to take ourselves too seriously and to have and express a sense of humor.

Mistakes require of us only that we correct what we can, apologize when appropriate, and forgive self and others for real and perceived transgressions.

Peace within is intimately connected to being fully present. It encompasses awareness of self and others; contact characterized by caring, connectedness, cooperation, confidence, capability, compassion, and courage (the 7 C’s); and experiencing that enriches us and opens us to further experiences rather than constricts. Being fully present means trying to love as much as we can from whatever position we are currently in. Peace within avoids self-absorption.

Peace Between: The Process of Conflict Resolution

Conflict flows from the recognition that we are different; we speak of having differences with each other. In and of itself, conflict is neither good nor bad, but we can make it one or the other. Successful conflict resolution starts with internal peace and extends that peacefulness through mutual respect to others. Love is very helpful, but it does not prevent fighting or conflicts that diminish the individuals involved in the conflict. Mutual respect does prevent these things: It is expressed in a valuing of self and others.

Some signs that mutual respect is missing:

Blaming & Criticism: Sacrificing others to preserve self

Placating: Sacrificing self to preserve others

Super Reasonableness: Sacrificing self and others to preserve what is right

Irrelevance: Sacrificing self, others, and principles to distract, distort, and avoid

Contempt: Diminishing others to elevate self

Defensiveness: Protecting self at all costs

Stonewalling: Passive resistance—Taking the stance that no one can make you do anything

Withdrawal: Avoiding conflict by refusing to face it

Seeking power rather than agreement

Some signs that mutual respect is present:

Interest in the point of view of others

Caring about the well-being of self and others

Confidence in being able to speak for self

The courage to listen to others with appreciation

A desire to be heard rather than to win

A willingness to consider alternatives to personal desires

Trusting in the good will of others

Replacing judgment with understanding

Seeking agreement rather than power

Four Basic Steps to Solving Conflict:

1. Approach conflict resolution from a position of mutual respect

Don’t try to problem-solve when you are angry: To fight with someone is to empower their oppositional stance

From a calm state, try to understand the other person’s point of view and still express your own clearly: The goal of any discussion is to be firm, but kind.

Be willing to listen and ask for a respectful hearing yourself: Neither fight nor give in.

No one can be humiliated if they do not feel humiliated: You cannot always choose what will happen to you, but you can choose how you will respond.

Effective problem-solving starts from a position of well-being and high self-esteem (peace within); it includes the conviction that we are valuable and valued human beings who can stand up for ourselves without resorting to power over others

When possible, validate the other person’s position without losing your own: “If I saw the world/life/problem the way you do, I can certainly understand why you would hold the position you do.”

2. Pinpoint the real issue

In what way, am I feeling less than? In what way is the other person feeling the same way? In what way do both of us feel like we may lose before we even start?

What goal or desire or agenda do I have in this conflict? What goal or desire might the other person be trying to express?

What is the private logic that underlies the other person’s position? What is my own private logic about?

How can each person make the other person feel understood?

3. Seek mutual agreement

There is no such thing as a lack of communication or a lack of cooperation: Everything happens in relationship, even conflict and fighting. I cannot have a fight with you unless I communicate my interest in fighting with you, and you agree to join the fight and cooperate in maintaining it.

Start with the conviction that the only person you can change is yourself: It is the first lesson we all need to learn and the generally the last one we enact.

Think outside of the box: The answer does not have to be either your answer or the other person’s answer: What is a third, fourth, or fifth possibility? Brainstorming can include even bad ideas at least initially.

The goal is to answer the question: How could we both satisfy our needs? How can all parties come out ahead?

4. Seek mutual responsibility in decision-making

Unless all parties to a conflict participate in the decision-making, there is no agreement, and the conflict will continue

What ideas can each person offer as a solution?

What is each person willing to do to solve the problem?

You know what a person is really willing to do not by what she or he says but by what is actually done.

The conflict is over when each person feels understood and valued.

A conflict-resolution conversational format:

“I have something serious I would like to discuss with you. Is this a good time for you, or is there another time that would be better?”

“Here is a problem I am having: (state it using I-statements as much as possible).”

“Do you understand what I am saying? Does it make sense to you?”

“Thank you for understanding what I have said.” Or “Let me clarify what I said or meant so I will be clearer about what is important to me.”

“I would like to know what you are thinking and feeling about all of this.”

“Let me see if I am understanding you: Do you mean . . . ?”

“If I am understanding you, the important issue for you is _______.”

“Do you have some sense of what the important issue for me might be?”

“If I am understanding myself well enough, I think the important issue for me might be _____________.”

For problem-solving:

  • “How could we both get what we need/want in this situation? What are your ideas—all of them?”
  • “I favor trying this idea. Which one do you favor?”
  • “Thank you for taking the time to work on this with me.”

For requesting behavior change:

  • “I have a request to make of you: Would you be willing to hear it?”
  • “I would like to ask you if it would be possible for you to _________ .”
  • “Is there any part of this request that you could do or do you have another solution that might work?”
  • “Thank you for hearing my request and being willing to talk about this with me.”

Peace Among

The world in which we live is increasingly developing according to the democratic principles inherent in social equality. Social equality does not mean that we are all the same. We are not. We do, however, have an equal right to be valued and respected. This is true in all relationships: the ones between men and womyn, between adults and children, between labor and management, between races and cultures, between those who are heterosexual and those who are gay/lesbian/bi-sexual/transgendered, between political parties, between religions, and between nations. When we come to understand all problems as being social in nature, then the kind of relationships we generate can be the only focus of true conflict resolution.

No conflict can be resolved without understanding the other side better than or at least as well as our own. No conflict can be resolved by a resort to power rather than agreement. No conflict can be resolved with one side winning and one losing. For a conflict to keep going, all parties must agree that it should keep going. For a conflict to end, it takes only one party to withdraw or refuse to fight.

Fear is the great enemy of peace. Human connectedness, caring, compassion, understanding, interest in others, and courage mark the end of fear. I wish you peace within, peace between, and peace among.


  1. I am responding to your post regarding evolution and your words on Sunday morning. I heard you say you had trouble finding the heart in evolution. Consider this...the heart of evolution is in the details. Considering that this piece of Earth we call “my body” is composed of atoms that were propelled through space then gathered in a cloud and eventually found their way to become this planet. That blows my mind, I am connected to those events, I am a product of those events – way back, 13.7 billion years!! Evolution continues in me, what will I create? Who will I become? How will I impact the world around me? Over and over again the history of our universe offers stories of affinity, community, death, rebirth, sound familiar? We are connected in a wonderful, mysterious web of life. For me – God is the creative life force that has been at work over 13.7 billion years unfolding the wonder that surrounds us.

  2. Hi Rebecca!

    You blogged! I am all for what you just said. We are recycled and recyclable energy. What role do you see our consciousness (yours and mine) playing in this? What I was getting at is the anxiety of the shift regarding our individual "egos" from a creation/heaven/hell model to one that is defined by evolution--one in which our egos do not survive our death. I think you are pointing to a way in which we can be satisfied with that.

    I am not as hopeful as you, though, in describing evolution as the creative life force or God. I think it is amazing and wonderful, but not guided. It is what it is--random and bug eat bug--therefore, heartless.

    But, I am ok with that! The "heart" is my consciousness today and the consciousness we have collectively as humans and as Earth and the Universe itself.

    But then, catch me on a different day and I will think differently.

  3. Okay John - be specific, what makes it random and bug eat bug? bug eat bug is life and death, random ended up after 13.7 billion years with consciousness - pretty amazing in my book!

    There are so many amazing "random" facts tucked away in evolution or the "big bang" for instance, the location and magnitude of Jupiter's gravitational forces and Earth's provided a "meteor magnet" drawing large meteor's away from Earth toward Jupiter. Random? Of course but just one of many, many details of our Universe that offer connections and amazement.

  4. Hi Rebecca,

    I don't insist. I think your interpretation is quite uplifting.
    For me, I think that whatever meaning we attach to the universe is human-created. Whether or not I see it is as random and disinterested (as in there is no "meaning" to Hurricane Katrina--it is just is weather doing its thing), or whether I see the details of the universe as part of a divine plan or divine action that is headed toward some goal, makes no difference to the universe.

    At any day, ("It Could Happen Tomorrow" says the Weather Channel) we get whacked by a meteor the size of the ETSU mini-dome (that slips by Jupiter) and we smash into an ice age. A disease develops that wipes out all human life. Fragile, always changing, and no real sense to it. That's life.

    Bugs eat bugs. Cats eat mice. It is survival and we are lucky to be here. Some day we won't be. Amazing and wonderful. Yes. But only because we choose to see it that way.

  5. in the interest of clarity, I didn't say anything about divine purpose or plan. I am talking about living in relationship to the Universe which I am just as much a part of as any rock or volcano. You are right I am not talking about what is next now works for me. As you said, the universe will continue without me but my pieces and parts, atoms and such, will still be here as life unfolds.

  6. Hi Rebecca,

    Sorry, didn't mean to suggest something. As far as I can see we are saying the same thing. I was working on the concept of random. It appears the opposite of random is planned, designed, organized etc.

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