I began my career as a Chemical Engineer. I helped to design pilot plants – small versions of larger chemical plants that were going to be built in the future. I worked with computer programs that simulated what would happen as chemicals traveled through the plant, so that I would know what kind of products and emissions were going to be produced. And this was important to me because I was interested in protecting the environment.
I first became interested in protecting the environment as a child. I remember sitting at the McDonald’s in Baden, Pennsylvania and watching orange dust from the steel mill across the river settle onto our car as I ate my cheeseburger. The hillside behind the lead smelter where I worked was totally devoid of vegetation because of the poisonous emissions that had been released by the plant.
But now, being environmentally conscious is all the rage, isn’t it? We are concerned about what comes out of the tailpipes of our cars and burning coal has become taboo. We are supposed to buy energy-efficient lightbulbs and set blue cans filled with recyclables at the end of our driveways each week. Scientists have become increasingly concerned about greenhouse gases as rivers that supply drinkable water to tens of millions of people fall to record lows. We even send cleanup crews out to pick up trash along highways because some people just roll down their window and throw trash from the moving car.
Jesus was, also, concerned about emission standards. He once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside will defile. It’s the things that come out of you that can defile.” It’s not the types of food that you eat or the things that you decide to drink that can make you unclean in the eyes of God. What makes you unclean are the things that come out of your heart and that, eventually, come out of your mouth: Your verbal emissions.
We are living in strange times, aren’t we? People are on edge, and little things are suddenly becoming big things. A lot of people don’t care about how they are using their words, and social media has made it even worse because it’s easy to type words onto the screen of an electronic device that you would never speak to someone face-to-face. Political debates are destroying friendships, are dividing churches and are even tearing our families apart. The space between “being on my side” and “being on your side” has become, for many of us, a nearly impossible chasm to cross.
Today, as a pastor, I’m telling you that it needs to stop.
We need to work together, as God’s people, so that the way that people are using their words these days doesn’t become normalized and an acceptable part of our society. We need to stop defining ourselves only in terms of “us” and “them” and believing that verbally attacking “them” (whoever “them” may be) is OK. As Jesus people, we need to be drawn back to the base of the Cross where Jesus calls us to confess whatever part we have played in creating the divisions around us; and then, we need to repent and change course. As Jesus people, we need to hear God’s call to look for the good in each other, to encourage and build each other up, to search for what we still have in common when we disagree, and to do our best to speak words of truth to each other in loving ways.
I guess that there is still a Chemical Engineer inside of me. But now, my calling as a pastor is to speak as clearly about what comes out of our hearts and out of our mouths as I used to speak about what escapes from a chemical plant’s smokestacks.
Jesus once said, “There is nothing outside of you that by going inside of you can defile.” St. James once wrote, “Be quick to listen and slow to speak. And remember: If you think that you are religious and do not bridle your tongue, you are just deceiving your heart and your religion is worthless.“
Let’s think about those words as we move through the coming week; and let’s, also, allow those words to lead and guide us as we live and interact with each other in these strange and unusual times.
My wife enjoys buying picture frames in antique stores.
She has a keen sense of observation and an even more deep awareness of how picture frames can enhance the things that we hang on the walls in our home. She, also, leaves many picture frames hanging on the walls in antique stores because she does not like the frame, or because she decides that a particular frame will not enhance our home décor.
Do you realize that you frame things every day?
You frame everything that happens in your life, and then you decide whether what has happened is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. We all think about life in certain ways because of our past experiences, because of our personality, because of the ways that we’ve learned to interact with others, and because we want to continue to be a part of groups that are important to us.
But the challenge is that how we frame things affects the ways we interpret almost everything that happens in our lives.
Think about a story from the life of Jesus. Jesus taught and healed people in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus preached in Galilee, cleansed a leper, healed a person who was paralyzed, calmed a storm, and even raised a little girl from the dead. And Jesus tried to do the same thing in Nazareth – his own hometown. But then framing became a challenge. We read that people were astonished by Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2), and people were amazed by the incredible things that Jesus was doing. But all of a sudden, people began to put a different frame around what was happening. “Is not this the town carpenter?” (Mark 6:3) “Isn’t this the son of Mary, and a man whose own brothers and sisters are still living in town?” (Mark 6:3) And, suddenly, people who were astonished by what Jesus was doing became offended because of the way they framed things. In fact, Jesus even says to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) And it is all because of framing. The ways that we interpret what happens in our lives are always shaped by our past experiences. And, when we put a nice frame around the things that are happening to us, all is well. But when put an ugly frame around things, we can be drawn into conflicts, disagreements, and broken relationships.
The way you frame what happens in your life is often far more important than what has actually happened.
You are far more likely to be drawn into conflict with people when you wrap things that happen in an ugly frame. You are far more likely to close your ears to the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you when you frame everything with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The frames that we put around the actions of other people can be shaped by our biases about the color of a person’s skin, the language that a person speaks, the religion that a person embraces, or even the place of a person’s birth. Ugly frames can be created by political differences, by different visions of the future, by a fear of the unknown, and even by the always-shifting sands of time that bring unwanted change.
But framing can also help us to live our lives in a better way.
We can try to remember that most people are trying to do their best in life even during times of conflict. We can try to unravel the “us” versus “them” type of thinking that is so prevalent these days and try to listen more carefully to the ideas and opinions of others. We can try to remember that people who have a different skin color, who speak another language, who embrace a different religion, or who were born in another county have experiences in life that we do not fully understand. We can try, as the 16th Century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, suggested, to put better-looking frames around the things people do by trying to interpret their actions in the best possible way.
And so, I would like to challenge you to think about framing this week.
What kind of frames are you putting around things that happen in your life? How are the frames you put around things affecting your relationships? How are the frames that you put around large groups of people interfering with your ability to see that we have been created by a God who tells us that we all have both dignity and worth? How can the frames that you put around the things that create conflict in your life be changed, so that times of conflict can lead to deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for people who do not always agree with you?
We have been journeying through a time in our lives that none of us could have predicted. The pandemic left us scrambling to find ways to remain connected to each other and made us find new ways to do almost everything. We stretched our wings, and we embraced new technologies. Many of us adjusted to the pandemic by wearing masks in public and by not eating in restaurants. The pandemic forced us to find new ways to do things like shopping for groceries and it even closed our churches. And now, at least in the United States, we are moving toward brighter days, even as people continue to struggle in other countries.
If you are at all like me, you are tired and overwhelmed. I am tired of adjusting my life to accommodate something that I cannot even see. I am tired of a wearing a mask in public and of remaining distant from people I love. The political atmosphere in America wearies me, and I have noticed that many people are both edgy and more critical. Conflicts fester when people are tired and overwhelmed. We find it more difficult to interpret the actions of others in kind and generous ways when we are stretched and exhausted. And when that happens, relationships in every part of our lives can become strained.
And so, what are some things that we can do to keep moving forward together?
We need to begin by realizing that we are all tired; and that, when people are tired, they sometimes do things they normally would not do. This is a time when grace and forgiveness are important in our relationships. I’ve often used the image of people being like porcupines. We can live and move about relatively painlessly, even in times of challenge and uncertainty, when we are alone. But, when we begin to draw close to one another – especially when we are tired and overwhelmed – it is easy for us to stick each other and to be stuck by the quills of other porcupines. People who are tired sometimes say things in less-than-helpful ways. People who are tired sometimes misinterpret the words and actions of other people. We are not always grace-filled when we are edgy; and, because of that, our relationships with other people can be dramatically changed. That is why grace and forgiveness are both necessary and important right now. Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, taught that the 8th Commandment is all about learning to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way. That is something that we can all try to do to keep moving forward together.
We need to remember that people who are tired need other people to come alongside of them and to help them to carry the load. Healthcare workers, teachers, pastors and other people who live their lives serving others are both exhausted and burned out. A teacher told me, just last week, that she feels like she has been drinking from a firehose for more than a year. Another teacher told me that he wishes that people could understand how much needs to happen behind the scenes to make an Internet link work. Healthcare workers, pastors and other people who have devoted their lives to serving others have decided to switch jobs or retire early. Many churches and other organizations have battled their way through the pandemic with a very short front line. This is a time when the frontline needs your help, your support and your encouragement. That is something else that we need to remember as we keep moving forward together.
Lastly, we need to realize that people who are tired and overwhelmed need other people to encourage them, not simply criticize what they are trying to do. We need to remember that we are all trying to do our best in these challenging times. A little note, a text message, an email or even a short telephone call can brighten someone’s day. The spirits of people on the front line are lifted when other people point out what is working and what is going well. I have, fortunately, been blessed by many encouraging messages throughout the pandemic. What can you do, right now, to expand the circle of appreciation? What could you do, today, to ensure that someone who is working hard to make good things happen knows that her/his time and efforts are appreciated? Part of moving forward together includes lifting up what is working well, encouraging people who are working hard, and spurring others on with kind thoughts and caring words, so that they know that they are appreciated – even when things that are happening are not quite perfect.
We are moving forward together and our journey will carry us toward better days. And, if we can just keep these three simple things in mind, we will find new and exciting ways to come out of these challenging times stronger and more healthy than we were before the pandemic hit. Who can you lift up today? How could you stand beside someone who continues to pour out time and energy both freely and willingly in these challenging days? How is God is at work in your life, right now, to help you to be an encourager who blesses and stands beside people who are doing their best to make good things happen?
“The body is a unit, though it is made up of many parts; and though all its parts are many, they form one body. So, it is with Christ. For we were all baptized by one Spirit into one body – whether Jews or Greeks, slave or free – and we were all given the one Spirit to drink.” (1 Corinthians 12:12-13)
The church in Corinth was traveling through a difficult time when Saint Paul wrote these words. Some people believed that their spiritual gifts were better than spiritual gifts that God had given to other people. Saint Paul was under personal attack because everyone remembered the things that he had done before he became a Christian. Deep divisions had crept into the Church. Christians were busy suing each other. Sexual immorality was common, and some people believed that they were free to do things that other Christians did not think they should be doing. It was a real mess!
I find myself writing this message to you about two weeks before we elect the President of the United States and many members of Congress. It has been a hard election cycle. People in our nation are deeply divided, and many relationships have been pushed to the breaking point. I, sometimes, feel very overwhelmed when I listen to the news and hear about our continued struggles with the coronavirus. I miss having the chance to see people in worship and the opportunity to visit with them in their homes. And many people in our nation are asking about what is going to happen next. Are there going to be protests and violent clashes, no matter who is elected? What is November 4th going to be like? What are we going to do to mend the fabric of our society? What role will the Church play?
A handful of my ancestors came to America with John Winthrop in 1630. A small fleet of wooden ships filled with Puritans sailed to America and established the Massachusetts Bay Colony about ten years after the Pilgrims landed in Plymouth. I often think about what it must have been like to listen to John Winthrop remind people that they had come to America to establish a new society that would shine, like a “City on a Hill,” and provide a beacon of hope for the rest of the world. I often think about the fact that, just a little bit more than sixty years after the Winthrop Fleet arrived, Puritans were hanging people who had been accused of witchcraft in Salem.
America has never been a perfect place. What many people today call the “American Experiment” has been a journey filled with ups and downs. People in America fought two wars together (and sometimes against each other) to gain national independence. Family members fought against each other and even killed each other during a bloody Civil War. Americans stood beside each other and found their way through the Great Depression. Some of us remember violent clashes that erupted during the Vietnam War, the murder of President John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., race riots that marked the early 1970’s, and the impeachment of President Richard Nixon. And who can forget the horror of 9/11? The “American Experiment” is built upon the hopes and dream of many people, but the “American Experiment” has not always been easy.
We are people who live in a diverse nation that is filled with many ideas and beliefs. We do not always agree with each, but we have always worked together as a nation to find a path forward. We live in a society where many people have stopped trusting each other and where many people no longer trust the institutions that have made our nation great; and yet, surveys still indicate that nearly half of all Americans trust the Church and look to it for guidance and direction. This is a time when we need to stand together and to live into John Winthrop’s vision. This is a time when we need to shine as the “City on a Hill” that John Winthrop said would shine as a beacon of hope in the world. We are one. God has made us one. Jesus continues to work in our world to draw people together into one body called the Church. In the Pledge of Allegiance, we call ourselves a nation that is indivisible, and that is filled with liberty and justice for all people. These are fundamentals. Humanity has prospered and our nation has thrived in times when we have drawn close to each other and when we have worked together with hearts and minds that are committed to a common purpose and a common good.
I do not know what the next few weeks and months are going to bring. But I do know that we can move into a bright future, as individuals and as a nation, when we stand together and emphasize the things that unite us and make us one. Jesus once told us that a house that is divided against itself cannot stand, and those words are as true, today, as they have even been. The last 250 years have shown us that the great “American Experiment” can work when we are committed to working together and to finding the things in life that continue to bind us together in a world where other things are trying to tear us apart. And that is what I want you to think about no matter what happens on November 3rd, and in the days and months that follow this year’s Election.
We need to be looking for the threads that bind us together as Christians and as citizens. We need to remember that maintaining relationships with other people is, often, far more important than being right. We need to listen to each other. We need to care about each other. We need to remember, as Saint Paul once wrote, that we are one body – not only as Christ’s Church, but also as a nation.
May God bless you and may God bless our land in the coming weeks and months.
I began this series of posts about conflict by stating that none of us can avoid conflict in our lives and in our relationships with other people. We are like porcupines who can travel through life without much angst and confusion when we’re left to ourselves; but, when we begin to interact with other porcupines, we need to realize that there are going to be times when we are stuck by the quills of others and when we are going to stick a few people ourselves. This is a natural part of human relationships and there is not much that we can do about it. However, we have many options and opportunities during times of conflict with others. And so, as I bring this series of posts to an end, I would like to summarize some of the things that we have explored together:
First, in times of conflict, we need to remember the Eighth Commandment, and we need to be able to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened. Some of the conflicts in our lives are created by the things that other people do and some of the conflicts in our lives are caused by our interpretations of things that other people do. Perhaps the tension and stress in our lives would begin to decrease if we learned to separate what has happened in our lives from our interpretation of what has happened? Perhaps we can find a sense of peace and calm in our lives, even when we are feeling weary and frazzled, by stepping back and by trying to interpret the actions of others in a more kind and gentle way?
Second, in times of conflict, we are all going to need to choose a path forward after we have carefully reflected upon what happened and have tried to interpret the actions of other people in the kindest way. Can we accept the fact that porcupines cannot avoid sticking each other with their quills? How do we decide if our strained relationship can be mended, or if the fine china plate has been so severely damaged that it can no longer be repaired? There are three different kinds of conflict: (1) there are conflicts that arise simply because porcupines cannot help but stick each other once in a while, (2) there are conflicts where the relationship has suffered some damage, but can be repaired, and (3) there are conflicts where the relationship has been so severely damaged that there is no longer a road back. Which type of situation are you facing in this time of conflict? How is your understanding of what has happened going to shape your End Game? Your End Game is, ultimately, your choice.
Third, in times of conflict, we can return to the teachings of Jesus for guidance. The person who has hurt you may want to apologize to you if you simply talk to him/her one-on-one. If that does not work, you may want to take one or two level-headed and fair-minded people along with you the next time you talk. Please remember that this is not about finding allies and Triangulation. This is about level-headed and fair-minded people being asked to help to keep the discussion on track as a path toward resolution is sought. If that does not work, you may need to get other people involved. If you are a part of a church, synagogue, mosque or temple, you can probably rely upon some sort of governing board. If you have experienced sexual abuse within the Church, you may want to contact the Bishop, another leader and the police. You have the right to be heard and to be taken seriously, but moving conflict to higher and higher levels of hurt, distrust and embarrassment may not be necessary. Remember: The goal of Jesus’ teaching about how to handle conflict is to help you to regain your brother or sister. Dragging more and more people into the middle of a conflict may not be the most fruitful approach.
And fourth, in times of conflict, you need to clearly ask yourself if you are being physically or emotionally abused. You are precious and valuable. God smiled on the day when you were born and God is cheering for you, right now. You are a good person who deserves to live a good life. God created you to have good relationships with people who love you; but, maybe because of what is happening in your life right now, you have begun to doubt that. Abuse changes people’s lives and abuse changes how people think. If you think that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, I want to assure you that that is not true. If you are confused and doubting yourself, I want to remind you that God has given you a wonderful mind and the ability to think. If you are feeling both alone and isolated, please remember that there are still people who care about you and who want you to have a good life. If you are feeling trapped right now and believe that you don’t have any options, I want you to know that there are people in your community who are more than willing to help you to escape what’s happening and who are willing to help you to get back on your feet and move in a better direction. And, if you have been told by a religious leader that it is your duty to submit to the person who is abusing you, I want you to know that you have been told a lie. You are precious and valuable, and there is no kind of relationship in your life that is so important for you to maintain that you need to jeopardize your physical or emotional health – or even your own life.
I hope that this series of posts has helped you to think about conflicts that you have, or may have, with other people. Please remember that conflict is an unavoidable part of human relationships; however, conflicts come in many different shapes and sizes. Some conflicts can be resolved with a simple apology, but other conflicts can create enough damage in a relationship that there is no longer a way back. Please choose your End Game wisely and remember to pray as you are trying to decide what to do. Jesus has promised to be with us in times of conflict, and Jesus will surely point you in the right direction when you ask for His help.
We have been discussing ways to journey through times of unavoidable conflict in the last three parts of this series. We have talked about the fact that people are a lot like porcupines. We can usually sail through life pretty smoothly on our own; but, once we begin to interact with other people, we cannot help but stick other people with our quills once in a while, or be stuck by the quills of other people. We talked about the fact that, during times of conflict, we need to be able to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened; and we talked about the fact that, at some point, we all need to assess the damage that’s been caused by the conflict. And then, in the third part of this series, we talked about a method of conflict resolution that Jesus provides for those who follow Him. And, if you recall, each step of this process involves trying to regain your brother or sister. Think about the fact that, when Jesus was asked how to pray, He included these words: “And forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” Many conflicts can be resolved if we’re simply willing to accept the fact that other people are no more perfect than we are and that most people are not trying to intentionally hurt and offend others any more than we are.
But it is not always that easy, is it?
We have talked about the fact that our relationships can be like pieces of fine china. A piece of fine china that has been dropped on the floor might be able to be glued back together. However, pieces of fine china that have been dropped on the floor may not be able to be glued together. Sometimes, quite sadly, our relationships with other people need to end; and this is most certainly true when some sort of physical or emotional abuse is occurring.
Abuse can be very confusing. People who are abused sometimes think that they are causing the person who is abusing them to hurt them. Abusive people often use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people that they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own sound reasoning. People who are abused often believe that there is nothing they can do to escape the horrible situation that they are facing because they cannot imagine what it would we like to leave. A lack of money can cause someone who is being abused to put up with what is happening. The lack of a place to live can be problematic. Uncertainty about the future of little children can create great angst. And, of course, many people who are being abused believe that the person who is abusing them will simply track them down and terrorize them if they decide to leave. The reasons to stay are many and the way to leave may not be clear. People who are being abused sometimes do not know what to do.
Let me remind you that you are precious and valuable. God smiled on the day when you were born and God is cheering for you, right now. You are a good person who deserves to live a good life. God created you to have good relationships with people who love you; but, maybe because of what is happening in your life right now, you have begun to doubt that. Abuse changes people’s lives and abuse changes how people think. If you think that you somehow deserve what is happening to you, I want to assure you that that is not true. If you are confused and doubting yourself, I want to remind you that God has given you a wonderful mind and the ability to think. If you are feeling both alone and isolated, please remember that there are still people who care about you and who want you to have a good life. If you are feeling trapped right now and believe that you don’t have any options, I want you to know that there are people in your community who are more than willing to help you to escape what’s happening and who are willing to help you to get back on your feet and move in a better direction.
Many people inside the Church have been told that they need to continue to make the best of horrible situations. I once heard about a pastor who told an abused woman that it was her Godly duty to continue submitting to her husband. Many Christians continue to remain in horrible situations because they can remember the day when they stood before God and said: “Until death do us part.” Many people continue to look at a divorce as a personal failure. And the Church has not helped. The Church continues to tell women to submit to their husbands and to keep their mouths shut. The Church continues to tell people who are divorced that they are not welcome to receive the Sacrament of Holy Communion. The Church continues to proclaim that every relationship can be mended by forgiveness. The Church continues to tell people who have been sexually abused by members of the clergy that the problem is being fixed; and yet, the Church continues to protect members of the clergy who are named as perpetrators of sexual abuse by keeping files that contain important information sealed and by offering solutions to the problem that are far from clear. If you have been told that you need to continue to endure abuse, you have been told a lie. God weeps with you when you cry, and Jesus feels the pain every time someone hits you. God created you to live in a relationship where you are respected and loved. God understands that you may need to walk away from a relationship because of the physical or emotional abuse. God understands that you are lonely, and God will send people to support you. And guess what? No matter what you have heard from a pastor, priest, rabbi or imam, I want you to hear, right now, that God understands that a divorce is better than death.
And so, what are some things that you can do if you are caught in an abusive relationship?
First, let someone that you trust know about what is happening. People who are being abused often feel isolated and alone. Abusers often try to isolate people that they are hurting to protect themselves and to limit the options that are available to the people that they are abusing. You may be feeling totally cut off from your family and friends. You may believe that people are not going to believe you. You may have already tried to reach out to someone that you know. Many people that you know are afraid to get involved in situations that involve physical or emotional abuse. Many people that you know find it hard to accept the fact that people who are prominent and beloved leaders in their community are abusive behind closed doors. Isolation is scary and it is sometimes difficult to admit you are being abused to another person. But please remember that God does not want you to be alone. In the very Beginning, God saw that it is not good for any of us to be alone as we journey through life. Is there someone that you can talk with about what is happening in your life? Make a list of possibilities and promise yourself that you are going to talk with one of the people on your list as soon as you have the chance to do it.
Second, it is probably a good idea to explore what resources are available to you. You may want to do some exploring yourself, or you may want to ask someone who knows what is happening in your life to give you some help. Many communities have shelters where women and men who are being abused can land if they decide that they need to get away. Many of those very same shelters can help people who are being abused pursue legal actions that can result in protection from abuse orders. Some of those same shelters offer free counseling services. Some shelters even help people who have been abused to settle into a new home and start anew. You may, or may not, want to do this research yourself. Many shelters offer toll-free telephone lines, but the telephone number remains visible in your cellphone’s call history. Please remember to clear your web browser’s history if you search for help on the Internet. Many abusers want to control the people that they are hurting, and spend time searching through telephone and web browser histories. Please be careful. Help is available, but you may need some assistance to find it.
Third, you may want to think about what you will do when you decide that you want to get away. Are you going to need the assistance of another person (i.e. do you have access to a car, etc.)? Where are you going to go and how are you going to get to that place? Is there anything that you need to take with you? What are you going to do if there are children in the household? At this point, these questions may be very overwhelming. Please remember that it is OK for you to feel overwhelmed at this point. But please remember that, if you decide to leave, you are going to need to have a place to go. Your trusted friend(s) may be able to help you. Many pastors, priests, rabbis, imams and counselors can help to point you in the right direction. You are not alone, but how and when you are going to leave is, ultimately, your own choice.
Lastly, if you decide you need to get away, please remember that you are going to hear many apologies and many promises from the person who has been abusing you. How many times have you already heard, “I’m sorry”? How many times have you been told that what happened to you is never going to happen again? People who are abusing others make many promises and offer many apologies, but their patterns of behavior seldom change. One of the best things that you can do is turn your cellphone off, so that you’re not tempted to answer telephone calls, respond to text messages and emails, or even respond to messages posted on social media. One of the things that you are going to need, if you decide to get away from the person who is abusing you, is some time to think. You will probably be numb and confused. You might be afraid of what is going to happen to you. Your head will probably be spinning. But I promise you that your mind will settle and you will find that you are able to think more clearly when you have some time and space. Lean on the people that you trust. Take advantage of free counseling or legal help that is being offered. And remember that you are both precious and valuable, and that you deserve to be surrounded and to be supported by people who care about you.
Conflict is something that none of us can avoid. But please remember that there is a difference between conflict and abuse. Times of conflict can be addressed and ended by using some of the principles that I have offered in my previous posts, but physical and emotional abuse are different. You cannot reason with someone who is continuing to abuse you. You cannot trust that the person who is abusing you is going to change after a heart-felt apology. We all deserve to feel safe; and, while times of conflict can be filled with both angst and discomfort, physical and emotional abuse cannot be explained away and ignored. If you are being abused today, you need to get away from your abuser, so that you have time to think and to clearly look toward the future. I, of course, cannot tell you what you need to do after you have gotten away from the person who is abusing you. The decisions that you are going to make are your own. But what I can do is offer you some insights and ideas that may help to save your life.
I have been encouraging you to think about conflict in my last two posts. I have encouraged you to keep the line between what happened and your interpretation of what happened clear. I have, also, encouraged you to try your best to interpret the actions of other people (even when they hurt you) in the kindest way. I have, lastly, encouraged you to think about what I’m calling your End Game. Is what happened to you the result of what happens when two less-than-perfect people interact with each other and step on each other’s toes, or is what happened to you the result of ongoing physical or emotional abuse? If you have decided that you want the relationship that you have with another person to continue as you travel through a time of conflict, Jesus has some wonderful words of guidance to offer you.
Jesus lays out a path toward conflict resolution in Matthew 18:15-20.
Jesus speaks, firstly, about going directly to the person who has hurt you before you drag other people into the conflict. As I’ve mentioned before, there may be a difference between what happened and how you have interpreted what happened. You may discover that the person who has hurt you realizes that he/she has done something wrong and wants to apologize. You may discover that the person does not even realize that something has gone wrong. It’s always best to go directly to the person who has hurt you during a time of conflict (unless some sort of emotional or physical abuse has occurred and you have a reason to fear for your safety). And remember: When Jesus lifts this first step toward conflict resolution before you, the End Game is to “regain” your brother or sister. Most people appreciate honesty and being given the chance to apologize when they have done something wrong, and most people will become defensive when they know that you have been talking about them behind their back. And so, if you are moving through a time of conflict and if you have been hurt or put off by the actions of another person, try going to that person first.
Jesus, then, speaks about what we should do if talking with the person who has hurt us does not work. Jesus tells us to take one or two other people along with us when we talk with the person who has hurt us. But even this sage advice can become problematic. Think about this second step as a paring knife. Paring knives can be used to pare a piece of fruit or to slice an apple. But a paring knife can also be used to open an envelope, to open a cardboard box, or even to cut plastic. The second step that Jesus recommends is just like that. We can reach out to one or two people who are level-headed and fair, or we can search for some allies. We can reach out to one or two people who are willing to listen to all of the people who are involved in the conflict, or we can select one or two other people who will simply take our side. When you try to get someone involved in a conflict that you are having with another person and to simply take your side, it is called “Triangulation.” And the neutral person can be one of your friends, your spouse, your pastor or even a counselor. But “Triangulation” does not work; in fact, “Triangulation” usually paints the person that you have asked to help you into a nearly impossible corner and will, most likely, deeply affect your relationship with that person, too. And so, if you believe that the person who has hurt you isn’t taking you seriously, you may need to take one or two neutral people along with you the next time that you talk with the person who hurt you. And please remember, again, that this step in the process is designed to help you to “regain” your brother or sister.
Jesus, lastly, talks about what to do when the first two steps in the process fail. Jesus talks about taking it to the Church; and, by “taking it to the Church,” I don’t think that Jesus means that we should stand up in the middle of a worship service and create a stir. Congregations have councils and elders who can provide a listening ear during times of conflict. Many Christian congregations have Mutual Ministry committees that can be consulted during times of conflict with church staff members. Many Christian congregations are a part of a larger denomination and have a bishop or president who can be consulted if an alleged incident of clergy misconduct occurs.
The road back to reconciliation becomes more and more bumpy as more and more people become involved in the conflict. If your End Game continues to be reconciliation and the restoring of the relationship, this final step should be considered as a last step in a longer process. People tend to become more and more defensive as more and more people are pulled into conflicts. The option of gracefully apologizing and searching for a path forward may disappear if too many people become involved and the person who has hurt you feels like he/she is being painted into a corner. But, sadly, there are times when things need to be taken to another level and when the relationship itself may need to end. And that’s why Jesus includes this step forward in His teachings about conflict.
In closing, I would like to lift one last idea before you.
Conflict can be difficult and can involve many different dynamics. But, at every step in the process, we need to ask ourselves: Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes? It is hard for us to open our hands and to let go of things that people have done when they hurt us. It is always going to be tempting to talk about other people behind their backs and to search for allies when we believe that we have been treated unfairly. But, sometimes, people are genuinely sorry about what they have done. People who have hurt us may offer an apology at any point in the process that Jesus provides. And so, as we move through the process that Jesus describes, we need to ask ourselves whether an apology is sufficient. Porcupines cannot unstick each other. A piece of fine china can be glued back together; and, while it will never be the same, it can be good again. And so, again, you need to ask yourself: What is my End Game? Do I want to be right, or do I want to be reconciled? Am I willing to let go of the hurt and disappointment that I’ve experienced, or does the path back no longer exist? Will I be satisfied if the person who has hurt me apologizes and is sorry about what happened? These are all questions that only you can answer. Jesus provides a process that we can use during times of hurt and conflict, but the process will only work if we are willing to allow it to work.
I began this series of reflections on conflict by stating that conflict is a normal part of human living. We do not always agree with each other. And even when we do agree with each other, we can still step on each other’s toes. I mentioned in my last post that we need to be careful in times of conflict because we can begin to confuse our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened with what actually happened; and, when we do that, conflicts and disagreements can blossom and grow.
We are all going to face times in our lives when other people hurt and disappoint us. We are all going to need to choose a path forward after we have carefully reflected upon what happened and have tried to interpret the actions of other people in the kindest way. We may decide that the relationship is still important to us and that we want to find a way to be reconciled, or we may decide that the relationship has been too badly damaged by what has happened and that we need to walk away. The process of deciding which of these is true is what I am going to call: Choosing Your End Game.
Let me lift two images before you that may help you to choose your End Game.
I have often heard people described as porcupines on a cold winter night. Porcupines can crawl through the snow and stay in their dens during particularly bad weather. Porcupines tend to hunker down when the weather turns fowl, and they spend their time in hollowed logs, under rocks, in abandoned burrows that other animals have created, or even under buildings. But just imagine a porcupine on the coldest night of the entire year. A couple of porcupines might decide to curl up with each other, so that they do not freeze to death. A couple of porcupines might decide to share a little bit of body heat in order to survive. But there’s a problem, isn’t there? Porcupines sometimes stick each other with their quills when they get close to each other. Porcupines sometimes do the sticking; and, sometimes, porcupines are the ones who get stuck by the quills on other porcupines.
Now think about your relationships with others. You might be able to find total peace and calm by going off to a deserted island and by living by yourself. Porcupines normally do not stick themselves with their own quills, right? But if you don’t do that and if you choose to live your life in relationships with other porcupines, you need to realize that you’re going to get stuck by other people’s quills once in a while, and you are probably going to stick other people with your quills once in a while, too. Welcome to life! I truly believe, as I’ve said before, that most people are trying to do the best that they can do; and yet, we still get stuck by other people’s quills and we, sometimes, do the sticking ourselves. And that’s why, when we find ourselves embroiled in conflict, we need to ask ourselves: Have I simply been stuck by the quills of a porcupine who is trying to do his/her best? Is this conflict being created by the fact that none of us can go through life without stepping on other people’s toes and without having our own toes crunched, or is something bigger going on?
Now, keeping that in mind, let’s move to another image.
Picture your relationships with other people as pieces of fine china and picture times of conflict as times when the fine china is dropped on the floor. A piece of fine china is changed when it breaks, and it will never be what it once was. However, two different things can happen after a piece of china is dropped on the floor: (1) the piece of china can be glued back together, or (2) the piece of china can be thrown in the garbage. This important distinction needs to be a part of choosing your End Game.
I have a piece of pottery in my home that was once broken, but the piece of pottery has been mended using the Japanese art of kintsugi (also known as kintsukuroi). Kintsugi in an artform where Japanese artists mend broken pieces of pottery by using lacquer dusted or mixed with powdered gold, silver or platinum. This approach to mending pottery isn’t designed to hide the fact that the pottery has been broken just as conflict resolution isn’t designed to say that what went wrong in the relationship isn’t important. We need to honestly admit that we’ve been hurt during times of conflict in order to be both open and authentic. What happened to us matters. However, during times of conflict, we need to assess the damage and decide whether the relationship can, or should be, repaired. That is the question that you’re always going to need to ask yourself and that only you can answer.
And so, it seems to me that there are at least three different kinds of conflict: (1) there are conflicts that arise simply because porcupines can’t help but stick each other once in a while, (2) there are conflicts where the relationship has suffered damage but can be repaired, and (3) there are conflicts where the relationship has been so severely damaged that there’s not a road back. Thus, when we find ourselves traveling through times of conflict, we need to step back, and we need to separate what happened from our interpretation of what happened. And then, when our minds are clear about what happened, we need to assess the damage that has been done and choose our End Game.
I need to lift one last thing before you while we are talking about choosing your End Game.
There are, very sadly, many relationships that are deeply scarred by physical and emotional abuse (we will look at that important truth in more detail in a subsequent post). People who are being abused can find that choosing an End Game is nearly impossible. Many people who are being abused have been convinced that they deserve to be abused by the person who is abusing them. Sometimes, there is nowhere to go. Sometimes, it is hard to leave the relationship because there are children involved. Sometimes, the decision is based upon available financial resources.
But, please, let me be clear. You do not deserve to be physically or emotionally abused. Many people who abuse others promise that their abusive behavior will stop, but it rarely does. Some abusers use something called “gaslighting” to confuse the people they are hurting and to make their victims doubt their own good judgment. Others try to blur the line between abuse and times of unavoidable conflict.
You are precious. You deserve to be treated with dignity and respect. We all have times when we are stuck by the quills of other porcupines and when we do the sticking ourselves. We all have times when the fine china plate has been broken and when it needs to be repaired or discarded. But, as you think about your End Game, please remember that there are times and events that break relationships in a way that repairing them is no longer possible. In many cases, damaged relationships can be repaired by separating what happened from your interpretation and your feelings about what has happened. Conflicts can, also, be resolved by deciding to grow through what went wrong. But there are also times when the piece of fine china has been broken beyond repair and when discarding what’s left is the best option. And, when that is the case, you may decide to walk away from the relationship for your own physical and emotional health, and for your own safety. Choose your End Game wisely.
Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.
Almost all of us are both tired and frazzled these days. The coronavirus has dramatically shaped our lives and our ability to interact with others, and the political atmosphere in our nation has deteriorated to the point where we’re being asked to take a side and to define everyone on the other side as our enemies. Many people are facing unemployment and are finding that their best path forward is not clear. Other folks have taken to the streets and have joined in peaceful protests, while others are looting businesses and burning buildings. History indicates that, in times of upheaval and uncertainty, caregivers and other people on the front lines begin to hit walls about six months after a disruption or disaster occurs, and that caregivers often respond to the burnout that they are experiencing by pulling back, by quitting their jobs, or by simply choosing to plod forward silently in the gray funk for another day. I read a story, just last week, about a 70-year-old man being dragged through a store by his hair and being thrown to the floor, where he was punched and kicked many times, because he asked another customer in the store to wear a mask.
Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.
We tend to withdraw and to hunker down when conflict is swirling around us. We have the tendency to believe that we are totally right and other people are totally wrong. I suspect that we all find it easier to talk to our friends and family members about things that are going wrong in our lives than to talk directly with people who have stepped on our toes. Some people simply become silent during times of conflict, especially in times like these, because they just do not have the energy to walk a different path.
I am going to be exploring the issue of conflict in my next few posts because I believe that the teachings and principles of our faith are important in times like these. And I am going to start this series of posts by exploring the Eighth Commandment because I believe that the Eighth Commandment can help to unravel many of the conflicts in our lives long before we get to the point where hurts and disagreements become more difficult to handle.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Have you ever considered the fact that it is easy to bear false witness in times of conflict? Most of us want to believe that we are right in times of conflict and that other people are simply wrong. Many of us hunker down during times of conflict and withdraw from people who hurt or disappointed us because our first instinct is to believe that those who hurt and disappointment us are enemies. But one of the lessons I’ve learn in life is that, in one way or another, I interpret everything that happens to me; and sooner (rather than later) my interpretation of what actually happened becomes even more important to me than what happened itself. This can create a challenge.
How I feel about what happened can become more important to me than what actually happened.
Read those words carefully once again; and then, think about how your understanding of the Eighth Commandment can shape your thinking in times of conflict. Our interpretation of what happened may be true, or our interpretation may be false. The man who blows the horn on his automobile as soon as the stoplight turns green may be acting like a jerk, or he may be in a hurry to get to a hospital emergency room before his mother dies. And so, when we’re trying to make sense of things that happen to us, we need to step back for a moment and allow our interpretation of what happened to soften.
I still believe that most people are trying their hardest to do their best these days and that most people are not intentionally trying to make the lives of other people more difficult. But relationships can easily become strained when we are tired and frazzled. Little things can become big things and big things can become monstrous things. We tend to magnify things that happen when we are weary and exhausted; and, when we do that, we need to be careful that we do not break the Eighth Commandment.
Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, offers some sage advice to us in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism (1529). Martin Luther wrote that parents should teach their children that the Eighth Commandment means: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
What would times of conflict in your life look like if you stepped back and intentionally tried to interpret the actions of people who step on your toes in the kindest way possible? What would happen if you installed an “Eighth Commandment Firewall” in your mind; so that, long before you start to interpret the actions of others, you remembered to be both charitable and kind?
Perhaps the tension and stress in our lives would begin to decrease if we learned to separate what is happening in our lives from our feelings about what is happening in our lives? Perhaps even the weary and frazzled could find a sense of peace by stepping back and by trying to interpret the actions of other people in a more kind and gentle way? And today, I want to lift those thoughts up as the first step forward in times of conflict. What happened and our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened may be different; and, when we keep that in mind, many conflicts in our lives can be unraveled before they grow and become unmanageable.
I suspect that many of us can remember the day when terrorists flew airplanes into the Twin Towers, and that many of us can remember what we were doing on that day. My father used to tell me a story about the day when Pearl Harbor was bombed. I’ve been told many stories in my years as a pastor, and I truly believe that many of those stories capture the very essence of life.
Jesus told many stories, called parables, during His ministry.
And one day, Jesus told a story about a shepherd who left 99 sheep in the middle of the Wilderness in order to search for one of the sheep that had wandered off. He searched behind rocks and boulders. He shouted until the back of his throat was raw. He searched and searched and searched and searched. And he rejoiced when he found the lost sheep and was able to return it to the flock.
We all have times when we wander off and get lost in the Wilderness.
Some people get lost when they sink into the bottomless pit of addiction. Some of us struggle to forgive people who have hurt or disappointed us. Some of us get lost as we face the temptation to withdraw and isolate ourselves as we grieve. Teenagers who are being bullied can feel lost. People who struggle with homeless can feel lost. People who are trying to escape from the grip of Internet pornography (which is a plague that affects and ruins many people’s lives – even in the Church) can feel lost. And, when we’re lost, we can’t always find our own way back from the lonely Wilderness, can we?
Jesus is searching for you.
The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who have life all figured-out, come together to be entertained for an hour each week. The Church was never meant to be a place where people, who don’t want to admit that we’re all lost in some way, come together to have their ego stroked by an inspiring speaker. We’ve all had times when we’ve needed to be found by the Shepherd of our Souls. We’ve all had times when we’ve been lost and when we’ve needed to be brought back to the safety of the flock whether it be to the safety of our family, or to the safety of the Church, or to the safety of a support group that can help and encourage us as we struggle with the uncertainties of life.
Jesus is searching for you.
No matter where you find yourself in life, right now, the arms of God are opened wide and God’s embrace is big. Take heart! The Shepherd of our Souls continues to search for you even when you feel lost and alone. Jesus is searching for you in whatever Wilderness surrounds you today. And that’s truly a message of Good News, isn’t it? It’s a message that can comfort and sustain us when we’re feeling cut-off from other people and when we’re feeling that even God is standing at a distance as we struggle to find our way through a Wilderness that can leave us feeling very lost and alone.