The late motivational speaker, Charlie “Tremendous” Jones used to say, “You will be the same in ten years as you are today, except for the books you read and the people you meet.” That has always been true in my life and I’ve kept a list of the Top Ten most important books I’ve read and Top Ten most life-changing people I’ve met over the years. Today, marks a 20-year “anniversary” of a friendship that many would have considered “unlikely” for both of us. It is a friendship with a person who ranks in my “Top Ten” of people who have changed my life.
My friend, Candy Hatcher, reminded me over the week-end that it was 20 years ago today that I wrote a rather “pointed” “letter to the editor” in The Palm Beach Post that was published. I took substantial umbrage from what I felt at the time was an unfair characterization of the “Religious Right” in Florida politics. Candy was a special features writer (and an excellent one at that) who would do series on tough topics ranging from deficits in the Child Protective Services program in the state, to issues of crime and punishment and on this occasion, into politics. I’m known to have a sharp pen at times. I defend myself by noting that no one reads boring prose. Others will point out that the pen can be mightier, and even more painful, than the sword. I will confess that I have swung back and forth on how to reach a balance on that observation for years. I still have a level of writing dualism that can be both offensive and effective, so the journey continues.
To my surprise, within hours after publication of my letter, I received a phone call from none other than Ms. Hatcher asking to come sit with me in my office and discuss my letter. Oh….and she was bringing her editor. It was the beginning of a friendship. The meeting was emotional. We both left that meeting and those that would follow with a broader perspective of those who might be on their other side of some imaginary fence politically and professionally. I hope I changed the way she viewed pastors and people who sincerely hold to an evangelical/fundamental view of Scripture. I know she changed the way I viewed journalists and those who might be a bit more left of the political center than I had previously experienced.
A lot has changed in twenty years. Neither of us still live in Florida. Candy got married to a great guy the week of 9/11 and her professional life has taken her to Seattle, to Chicago and now to Virginia and she continues to do the kind of writing that she’s best at — human interest stories that poke you in the heart and punch you in the brain. As for me, I’ve distanced myself from most of the political connections I’ve previously had and while I am still keenly aware of (and vocal about) political matters, it’s more of a hobby with me and no longer a cause. I don’t know this to be a fact, but I hope our friendship has provided Candy with a window into the world of conservative evangelicals in general and the pastor’s perspective in particular. She has earned my respect professionally and personally though I’m sure we differ on things politically still. I hope I have earned enough respect from her where she can see that conservative Christians really want a lot of the same things that more liberal people do, we just differ significantly on who should take the lead on achieving those solutions.
I wanted to list a few things I have learned from this friendship today. Because of that initial interaction, I have changed my behavior when I am at odds with an opposing view point. Since that day, I’ll have lunch with gay and lesbian activists, I have had good conversations with my US Representative and mayor (now Governor of NC) on areas in which we disagreed, I have allowed myself to even be interviewed by so-called “alternative” magazines like Creative Loafing and survived the experience and actually enjoyed the interaction with the reporter and I find myself more anxious to talk about differences personally than simply lobbing missives across cyberspace.
Here’s some of what I learned:
1. Those who don’t think like me are more like me than I realized.
Journalists are people too. They have feelings, they have hobbies, they live in neighborhoods and they are just trying to do their job most of the time. I’m still convinced there is a leftward bias over-all, but I’ve changed as to why I think that is the case. I think it is because too few journalists know conservatives in general (and conservative Christians specifically) and many Christians are so cloistered in their own little community, we have no occasion to interact with others who don’t think just like us. But I’ve enjoyed discussing travel with a leading gay activist in our community, I enjoyed debating philosophy with a lesbian Unitarian pastor at a luncheon, I have appreciated learning of how others go about helping others who are in need even if we likely vote completely opposite. In the end, we’ve got families, friends, hobbies and interests that form bridges of communication and friendship and that’s important whether we are on the same side of other issues or not. And when I realized how we conservatives are viewed by those left of center, I understand why they might not want to have lunch with us. That coin of perception has two sides and both of them aren’t accurate.
2. It’s foolish to believe stereotypes.
My “liberal” journalist friend, Candy — she’s been a Baptist about as long as I’ve been a Baptist. All journalists are not atheists. Most of them love God, their church and their country. And lest you be tempted to lump then together with a few bomb throwers on cable news or the internet, let’s not do that so we don’t have to be lumped in with the likes of Benny Hinn or Mark Sanford. I think Candy discovered that evangelical Christians don’t want a theocracy. They aren’t trying to control everything. Not every pro-lifer silently cheers when someone does something outrageous outside of an abortion clinic. We aren’t intent on thumping people with Bibles and we’re not some sort of evangelical Taliban. We just love God, our family and our country — in that order. We want a healthy place to raise our kids. But then, so do journalists. We each probably make really good neighbors, in fact.
3. Talking is better than shouting.
On this day when Washington is in absolute lockdown/gridlock, would to God that they would/could put aside the partisanship that makes the capitol so toxic and just sit down and have a decent conversation and look for agreement. I might have a penchant for verbal firebombs and even people like Ann Coulter and Stephen Colbert can make me snicker a bit with their acerbic wit. But let’s be honest….it does nothing positive. Nothing. It just creates walls. No one is ever going to be convinced to change because of shouted rhetoric and heated diatribes. The world would likely be better off if the talking heads at both MSNBC and Fox News would simply shut up.
4. You learn more from your critics than from your “friends”.
Both pastors and journalists can have a tribe of people who constantly feed them complements and blow petals of good will their direction. We also can get roasted by incendiary blasts of criticism that would make a steel girder wilt. But sometimes, those critics tell us what others don’t have the courage — or the observational skills — to tell us. Every so often I’ll pop off on Facebook or in some blog article or whatever that Candy will read and she’ll shoot me back a sharp little retort. She’s almost always right. I spouted some nonsense about a columnist from the Orlando Sentinel one time without reading the article thoroughly and Candy called me on it and made me look like the fool I really was. (Thank you, knee-jerk reaction — once again, you’ve delivered humiliation to me.) We can learn from everyone if we’re not too arrogant and bone-headed to realize that perceptions are as powerful as reality and that we’re not always right about every single thing that comes down the pike. Candy has earned the right to bust my chops when I need it and I hope I’m a more careful thinker and writer because of it.
5. Disagreement doesn’t have to be personal.
Now, anyone who knows me, knows that I have a tendency to run toward debates, not away from them. I love hardscrabble verbal exchanges. Until, of course, they become personal. Then it isn’t fun anymore. When I make someone cry because I’m being a jerk, it haunts me for weeks. When I get defensive about something, I find that it can make me isolate or get bitter. What happened? It got personal. Sometimes it’s OK to just shrug one’s shoulders and say, “I see it differently” and then move on. Not every disagreement has to be blown up to theological or philosophical proportions. So you like Obamacare. I don’t. Doesn’t make you morally superior because you care about those that fall between the cracks. It doesn’t make me morally superior because I believe in smaller government, free enterprise and rugged individualism. It just means we see it differently. Next topic?
6. Good friendships don’t have to have proximity to endure.
I love the internet age. Via social media, email and other new-fangled tools, we get to stay connected. You can criticize Facebook all you want and act like you are too sophisticated to enjoy it, but I like it. (And I bet you are a Facebook stalker yourself if the truth be known.) I like hearing how my former students are doing, who is having kids, who is running a business, who needs prayer and who is enjoying success. I haven’t seen Candy in over a decade — in spite of the fact that I keep asking her and her husband to swing by when they come back to her home state of North Carolina. But a couple of years ago, I was awake in the middle of the night, struggling with the state of my life at that moment and feeling pretty cruddy about things, when I got an email. (I just happened to be online at the time.) It was an email from Candy. She told me at about 4:00 in the morning that she had me on her mind for some reason and experience told her that when that happened, she should pray for whomever the Lord had placed in her thoughts. So she just wrote to tell me that I was in her prayers. I can’t tell you how much that meant to me. I mean, I’m the dude that blasted her work in a public diatribe. She hadn’t seen me in years. Yet, she not only was sensitive enough to God’s voice in her life to realize He was speaking to her, she let me know that we were good enough friends that she would resp0nd by praying for me. Now that’s a friend.
There’s more that I could share that I’ve learned, but I’m leaving for Vietnam in a few hours. I wanted to post this before I leave and because it was the anniversary of my letter. Here’s what’s cool. Everyone who knows me knows that I love Cuba and go there often for ministry. Candy and John love Cuba and go there for ministry as well. Guess who sent me a Facebook message this week telling me that she was praying for me as I go to Vietnam? Yep….Candy Hatcher Gregor. She’s my “liberal” (and she really isn’t all that liberal — I just like to tease her) journalist friend and she’s my prayer partner. I’m her “thinking fundamentalist” friend (and no, that term is not oxymoronic in my case— usually, at least) and I’m her prayer partner when she and/or her husband go to the mission field. I’m so glad she didn’t just ditch my opinion in her “stupid critics” file that day twenty years ago. I know if she had, I would be a far different person than I am today. And that wouldn’t have been a good thing.