Kathy Khang is an author, speaker, and yoga instructor. Her expertise in college ministry, spiritual formation, and writing gives her a unique lens for viewing the complicated dynamics in conversation today, from the church to social media to her extended family. We caught up with Kathy and chatted about her recent book Loving Disagreement: Fighting for Community through the Fruit of the Spirit, which she co-authored with Matt Mikalatos.
is structured uniquely as an extended conversation between you and your co-author, Matt Mikalatos. What lessons can the reader glean from the structure of your book as they seek to engage in discussions with others?
Matt and I are writing the book as practitioners, not experts. Our words are as much us processing what we have learned from past experiences as they are trying to apply and make sense of the world we currently inhabit.
We both have read books written by co-authors, and we both have published our own work. We wanted readers to have a clear sense of our individual perspectives and voice but wanted to interact with each other, which is how we eventually landed with the format of a conversation at the end of every chapter. We hope readers will see the back and forth exchanges as an example of how we can enter into potential disagreements with a desire to understand the other person.
The fruit of the Spirit from Galatians 5 serves as the backbone of your book, organizing the chapters. How can our understanding and practice of the fruits of the Spirit transform our experience of community?
Paul is actually addressing the disagreement between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians in the church of Galatia. Even in Paul’s time, we are reminded that the Church disagreed about practices, traditions, and theology. It’s in this disagreement that Paul steps in and writes to the Galatians about the fruit of the spirit, not about whether or not circumcision should be required of all believers.
The focus isn’t on the specifics of the disagreement but of the way Christians should act and what inner work should happen in the context of community. Matt and I hope readers understand that the fruit of the spirit is not a goal to be achieved but an actual practice of being changed and transformed into individuals and communities that commit to the fruit of the spirit first.
It’s also important to remember that Paul’s words are to the CHURCH, not just to the believers on one side or another. These aren’t words just for the people we disagree with. The fruit of the spirit is something the entire body of Christ is invited to practice.
There is a lot of mean-spiritedness in the world today, even among self-professed Christians. But you’ve written a book that invites the reader to go beyond mere civility and instead to embrace true community. What are some first steps we can take?
Matt and I have both joked that one of the more challenging parts of writing a book about disagreement is how our words may come back to haunt us, but that’s part of it. One of the first steps we all can take is to embrace community as a place where we will be called “out” for harmful behavior and called “in” to deeper conversations so we can come to a fuller understanding of one another.
The mean-spiritedness isn’t new. I believe social media and our ability to be “connected” through technology allows a certain anonymity and distance from the things we might post on social media or even the type of media we consume. One of the first steps I’ve taken is to limit my time in virtual spaces interacting with people I don’t actually know and reconnect with people in person when possible and virtually. My real-life relationships and community ground me and remind me of our humanity so that when I’m on a social media space and feel the urge to make a comment I remember there is most likely a person behind the post.
Another step is to recognize my own defensiveness, what I call “prickliness.” What are the things that activate or trigger me and why? Sometimes that requires pausing, taking a few breaths, and even saying a silent breath prayer before I respond to a tense situation.
Ultimately, Matt and I think civility is too low of a bar for Christians.
Social media can quickly become a swamp of negativity, especially in today’s political climate in the U.S. You write about learning from 1 Corinthians 13 as an antidote to this kind of virtual community experience. So intriguing! I’d love for you to say more about this.
Social media is overwhelming, and I have several friends who over the years have opted out and deleted accounts. But for those of us still in social media spaces, we can see the clanging gongs and clashing cymbals and forget that we can be that, too.
When I log into my Instagram or whatever-we-are-calling-Twitter account, there is an urge to present myself as something I’m not. To be honest, that pressure was there two decades ago when I started blogging. There is research around social media and what “likes” and the number of followers can do to the adolescent and developing brains, but adults are not immune to that. None of us are.
1 Corinthians reminds me that the key is love. It’s not about being “right” or winning the argument or having the best response. It’s about love. How can I lead with love?
So what I’ve learned in the more than 20 years of communicating in online spaces is I can’t control other people’s behavior (besides blocking or filtering comments on my posts), but I can control mine and invite the Holy Spirit to continue to form me and my interactions. Am I going to go for the snarky zinger and not have love for the other person? Sometimes. Am I going to pause before responding with angry words? Sometimes. Am I going to check myself for both intention and possible impact? Sometimes. Again, this loving disagreement thing is a practice.
In your chapter on “joy,” you spend a fair amount of time writing candidly about your own struggles with depression and the need to acknowledge pain. Similarly, the idea of “anger” comes up a lot in your chapter on peace. Can you unpack these dichotomies for us?
I can focus on joy and depression right now as I am in a time of managing some heightened depression a week before the book launches! In the Christian world there can be a bit of pressure to be “happy” and grateful, which can set ourselves up for some toxic positivity. No one can always be happy even if we can put up a front. And I have found it discouraging that often it is in faith spaces where folks are uncomfortable talking about our personal pain, disappointments, etc. and staying with people in pain. I also believe that our culture in the US doesn’t lend itself to acknowledging failure, pain, grief, etc.
So when I wrote about joy I had to do a lot of digging and acknowledge that I don’t come at it from a place of smiles and butterflies but from a place of pain and depression. Joy is not the opposite of depression. We can and should be able to hold both in our personal lives and collectively. Mourn with those who mourn and celebrate with those who celebrate. Look at the headlines and maybe your personal calendar and see how that plays out.
And as people of faith, we see that example throughout Scripture and in Jesus who took comfort and I would suspect joy in his friendships with Mary, Martha, and Lazarus and grieved at the news of Lazarus’s death. One emotion does not negate or erase the other.
Our readers are mostly women connected with academia. What are some unique ways that women in university contexts can foster the kind of real community you’re describing here?
Several friends have had to find and create their own affinity groups — women with whom they share a field of expertise, area of research, hobby, etc. and then prioritize that connection. Even as the number of women in the university as students is exceeding the number of men, it’s a different situation in academia as a career and even more so for women of color. The community might not be at your institution and it may not always be IRL, but if there is a lesson to be learned from the global pandemic is that technology can be used to foster and maintain connection.
Can we ask one more question? You write about your family a lot, and I know you have some experience with the transition into empty-nest life. Can you offer some tips for those of us on the cusp of sending kids away to college and beyond?
Even when we launched our oldest off to college, I was surprised at how the absence of one out of our three kids impacted the dynamic of the home. I had to remind myself that the quiet, which got louder and louder with each child leaving, was not bad or worse but different and new. It wasn’t the same silence before having kids so I had to get used to that and give myself permission to be uncomfortable and confused and eventually delighted.
Keep the lines of communication wide open and remember you can always call, text, Snap, etc. Each of my kids have a different preferred way of communicating, and that requires me as the parent to flex and learn instead of molding them into my preferences.
When I found myself in a bit of a funk post-launch, I would ask myself what was the point of raising children if not to launch them into adulthood? And I write this with the understanding that my kids have been able to follow what is considered a traditional path into that adulthood - college, graduation, work, etc. Our middle is in his mid-20s and lives at home while looking for his next opportunity. Still, launching is not linear and does not follow a set schedule. Our oldest went to school out East and has stayed out there. Our youngest graduates from undergrad next year and we don’t know what’s next. Remember they are learning how to do this as much as you still are.
My husband and I also decided as the oldest neared college graduation to prioritize opportunities for our family to be together. We take an annual vacation together, and for now Christmas Eve/Christmas is the holiday everyone is home.
Launching kids also meant time for me to figure out what might be the next act in my own life. I’m still figuring that out, but for now it seems I am focusing on teaching yoga and writing — yoga being the career path not at all on my radar when my kids were all at home.
And finally parenting doesn’t stop, it changes. If you loved the infant and toddler years, you had to do some mourning when kids left for school, etc. But with each stage there is a new set of challenges and opportunities. I struggled as the mom of young kids, but I LOVE BEING THE PARENT OF YOUNG ADULTS. I sobbed when my kids went to kindergarten AND college but it has been a delight getting to see them flourish and adult in ways I did not have to grow up in a different time and environment.
And maybe one very last question: You and Matt wrote this book without ever meeting one another in person! Have you still not met each other? Do you have plans to meet someday?
We finally met in August to record the audiobook!!! Matt and I have been podcasting with two other mutual friends, but Matt was the only one of the three I had never met in person.
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