Structures – the perceptions, practices, and policies that support the way things are – exert tremendous influence on our lives in both positive and negative ways. Structures can serve as obstacles – when inefficient practices slow us down in line as the Department of Motor Vehicles – or supports – when others perceive us competent because we happen to be nicely dressed. In and of themselves, structures are benign. But they are everywhere.

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Our perceptions of others will set the stage for how we serve them and if we will try to be of help at all. Perceptions will similarly influence whether we are willing to receive from someone else or not. And, if we are serving as a volunteer, the practices of the organization with whom we serve will create the context and expectations of the service we provide. In each case, these structures are influencing our service.

According to a Princeton research study

(linkprevisou text to http://psych.princeton.edu/psychology/research/todorov/pdf/Willis%26Todorov-PsychScience.pdf,

it takes about 100 milliseconds to make judgments about someone’s likeability, trustworthiness, and competence. These split second decisions do not change within the first second of exposure, but our confidence that we are correct grows. This is a powerful structure.

Our culture of origin, upbringing, and personal experiences will deeply ingrain our structural perceptions which will push us towards making use of certain practices. We may have been taught that poor people are lazy, met a few lazy poor people, and then, in practice, avoiding asking someone who looks poor to do anything. It’s not as if these structures are determinant but they are remarkably influential and resistant to change. It benefits us to recognize that when seeking to help others.

The greater the cultural difference, the longer the time to trust. That is the principle in Lesson Four. Differences in background and current social situations tend to create barriers to dialogue and to building trusting relationships. These differences can even spark conflict, making our work all the more difficult. And when this conflict has ties to broader systemic and historical influences, the situation can get overwhelming and seem downright hopeless. But it is not hopeless at all. Given enough time, people from extremely different backgrounds can build deep, trusting relationships.

The bridge to building trust in our human relationships is our shared and desperate need for the grace of God. And God meets our need. He gives us all grace. Grace is an unexpected kindness, a gift that changes everything. When we embrace the fact that no one is more deserving of God’s grace than anyone else, we find ourselves on common ground where we can take the time to get to know one another and to celebrate our differences.

On common ground, our differences become a rich resource, an asset, for imagining what is possible and discovering the best ways to see our shared vision become reality. And nothing so much helps us build dignified interdependent relationships than purposefully serving with one another through thick and thin in the light of God’s grace.

 

FOR REFLECTION

Consider a time when you may have offended someone and didn't understand why. How were they different than you (race, gender, age)? How were they similar? Were you able to mend the offense? How so?

What does it feel like to receive the grace of God? How do you best extend that grace to others?