A Timely New Word In This Election Season

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn

At Palm Beach Atlantic University we’ve coined a new word, one to help us explore and practice a powerful aspect of worship. Before I tell you about our new word, I must explain how at PBA we have precedent for creating such a special word.

The founders of the University saw community service as a pillar of the Palm Beach Atlantic ethos. They believed serving others is one important way we worship God. So founding President Dr. Jess C. Moody and his wife, Doris, coined a word by combining work with worship. Thus they christened the PBA community service program Workship.

Workship began in 1968 as PBA opened its doors. Since then our students have volunteered more than 3.5 million hours of community service. They’ve made it a joyful service of worship that has blessed the community, built student camaraderie and often helped them explore their career direction.

Now it’s time for a new word, at a season when we observe deep-seated fissures in our increasingly polarized society. Anxiety is everywhere, with the airways and social media crackling in raw, divisive, hurtful speech. Amidst all this, how can Christians help in practical ways?

 

Grace and truth

In his book To Know as We are Known: Education as a Spiritual Journey, Parker Palmer reminds us that we are people of The Word, “and the Word became flesh and dwelt among us, full of grace and truth.” Even though we can’t fully understand the miracle of incarnation, we can grasp the power of it as we allow the Spirit of Christ to work in and through us with grace and truth. Especially in this anxious time, I pray the Spirit will guide my words and the words of my brothers and sisters.

What if we learned to sow peace and love by our conversation – in person, and also across the many electronic screens that tend to dominate our lives? What if we followed the Apostle Paul’s directive to let all our words be tastefully “seasoned” and full of grace? What if we became committed and skilled to speak like this:

“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen” (Ephesians 4: 29).

At Palm Beach Atlantic we’re studying how to listen and speak with love, learning to cultivate conversation that brings others together and heals. We seek to speak in such a way that we respect others even when we disagree with what they are saying. We seek to do this as a form of worship, so we’ve decided to call this practice WORDship.

 

Practical steps for dialogue

Dr. Stephanie Bennett, professor of communication and media ecology and PBA’s fellow for student engagement, offers the following acronym for word to outline steps in this communication process.

Wonder: to be caring and curious about the other person, instead of just watching for the first chance to blurt out my opinion.

Observation: really looking and listening to understand what’s on the other’s mind.

Revelation: from my listening, discerning some common ground and a place where we can meet in conversation.

Dialogue: two parties meeting in an open space, without pushing themselves on each other, but receiving what one another says.

I fear that last step, dialogue, is becoming a lost art. We must reclaim it because it is key to building community. Learning to work our way through wonder, observation and revelation all the way to true dialogue will take intentionality and much practice, but it will be worth the effort.

At Palm Beach Atlantic, I’ve invited students, faculty and staff to celebrate October as WORDship Month as we gather each Tuesday evening to explore this craft. Professor Bennett will lead us through a study of Parker Palmer’s ideas surrounding “circles of trust” and “communities of truth” to advance the deep relational resonance that is embedded in the beauty and power of the word.

 

Together, cultivate new habits

To those outside the PBA family, I invite you to form your own study group. Prayerfully seek God’s help to cultivate habits of truly listening and then using your words to build up, not tear down.

During the fractious 2016 presidential election, Student Government leaders at Palm Beach Atlantic saw an especially great need for edifying conversation. They instituted a year-long program called “Be Civil” and tackled this question: How do we engage our divided nation?

Now, obviously, our nation remains divided. So PBA students are rebooting their “Be Civil” campaign to ensure we can dialogue together respectfully, listening with love (whether we agree with the speaker’s position or not), as the election comes up this fall.

I sometimes think that young people like these are better than their elders when it comes to recognizing the often empty rhetoric of our society’s systems and politics. They also recognize hypocrisy when they observe an adult who claims to love God but who speaks words that are anything but loving.

We’re supposed to be the adults in the room. Let’s set a godly example for these students. Let’s practice speaking love. Let’s use our words to encourage, to comfort, to build bridges, to be the healing balm of Gilead. Join us at Palm Beach Atlantic in developing this very special way to serve God through WORDship.

Dr. Debra A. Schwinn is president of Palm Beach Atlantic University (www.pba.edu). A physician, researcher and innovator, she began her role as university president on May 4, 2020.

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