Handling Conflict – Part 5

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.

Handling Conflict – Part 4

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.

Handling Conflict – Part 3

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.

Handling Conflict – Part 2

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.

Handling Conflict – Part 1

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.

Jesus: The Son of Man

Son of Man Pic

I think that we’d all admit that the last few weeks have been unusual.

I’m sure that you’ve been watching the news and that you’ve been trying to figure-out what all of this means. Maybe you’ve been stockpiling supplies? Maybe the fact that some of the shelves in grocery stores are empty is making you nervous? Many churches are trying to live-stream worship services for the first time in order to help people stay connected to each other in these unusual times.

And the big question is: “Why do people in the Church need to stay connected?”

Do you realize that God saw something wrong with the Creation long before Adam and Eve ever took a bite of the forbidden fruit? The book of Genesis tells us that God made the sun and the moon, the trees and vegetation, the stars in the sky, and even animals and human beings. We learn, in the book of Genesis, that God saw that the Creation was “very good” and that God was very happy. And then, God noticed something wrong….

And then, the Lord God said, ‘It is not good that the man should be alone.” (Genesis 2:18)

The worldwide response to the coronavirus has created a deep sense of isolation in our lives. Children are not able to go to school and many people are working at home. We see people very wisely staying at a safe distance any time we leave our homes, and some of our governors have ordered a complete lock-down. And, at least for me, it’s all been very overwhelming. Almost every part of my life has been uprooted, and I can’t do many of the things that I’ve taken for granted all of my life. And I’m sure that you’re feeling the very same way as you continue to weather this storm at home, too.

Many years before St. Paul was even born, the Jewish community was looking forward to the coming of the Son of Man.

The Son of Man was described as God’s ultimate warrior who would come into the world to set everything straight. The Son of Man was supposed to come into the world to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God, and the Son of Man was to be the ultimate judge of the living and of the dead. And that’s the background that we need to bring with us when we read: Romans 8:31-39.

St. Paul writes: “I am certain that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation will be able to separate us….

And why is that?

If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world as God’s ultimate warrior to drive back the forces of evil and everything that defies God…. If the Son of Man (Jesus) came into the world to set things straight and to restore the Creation…. Wouldn’t it make sense to say that since God said, “It is not good that the man should be alone” (Genesis 2:18); and that, since the life and ministry of Jesus – the Son of Man – was meant to destroy what God says isn’t good, Jesus came into the world to conquer the types of isolation we’re feeling right now?

Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation.

Churches are continuing to have online worship services and Bible studies because that’s what Jesus-people do. Jesus-people understand that the community of the Church is a place where relationships are important and where life-long connections are made. We travel through good and bad together. We try to remain connected to each other even when it isn’t easy. Jesus-people understand that they can fight against loneliness and isolation by remaining in contact with each other through telephone calls and electronic connections, snail mail and even by having children color pictures and send their own masterpieces to people who are feeling isolated and alone.

It’s sometimes hard to maintain relationships, but that what Jesus-people do.

And this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about that. Jesus – the Son of Man – came into the world to destroy isolation. And one of the best ways that Jesus-people can be a part of the ongoing work of Jesus in the world today is to strive to remain connected and in contact with others – even during a time when the coronavirus has driven us all back into the isolation of our own homes.

And, with that in mind, think about these things:

Do you know someone who is homebound (or who lives alone)? If so, please give that person a telephone call this week to remind that person that he/she is important.

Are your kids looking for something to do? If so, why not have them color some pictures and send them to other people who need some love right now, or have them draw some pictures on a sidewalk where they’ll bring a smile to people’s faces when they’re taking a walk to get some fresh air?

If you’re not connected to the ministry of a specific congregation right now, maybe this is a good time to learn more about what some local churches are doing and about what you can do to be a part of what’s happening.

In times like these, we need to remember that: “neither life nor death, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all of Creation – including the coronavirus – can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus.” And perhaps, with that in mind, we can all find ways to move through these challenging times together with strength and courage and faith.

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Jesus: The Living Water

Samaritan Woman Pic

The coronavirus has created a world-wide crisis.

The shelves in grocery stores are empty, and schools and businesses are closed. People have stockpiled hand sanitizers and toilet paper. It’s nearly impossible to find sanitizing wipes and isopropyl alcohol. Pastors are communicating with the faithful people they serve using new and previously unexplored technologies. And, of course, we’re all being told to wash our hands both thoroughly and frequently.

People in the United States don’t usually worry about having enough water.

We simply turn a knob when we want water and the water magically appears. Many of us wash laundry whenever we want, and even water lawns and flowers in the summer. I once listened to a group of teenagers complain about the fact that they need to get up early every morning, so that they can beat their siblings to the shower; because, if they don’t win the race to the shower, there’s not going to be any hot water left.

But it isn’t that way everywhere.

I had a well when I lived in a rural community and I needed to carefully space loads of laundry during dry spells. I remember talking with one of my friends from Africa who was simply horrified that Americans wash their cars with water that they can drink. In some places, even today, people have to walk long distances to get fresh water. And that’s what we see in a story about an encounter between Jesus and a Samaritan woman at the Well of Jacob (John 4:5-42) – which, by the way, contains the longest conversation that Jesus has with another person in the entire Bible.

Picture a woman who is parched after a long journey in the hottest part of the day.

Here, we find a woman who was coming to the Well of Jacob because she was looking for something that she needed to survive. When things like water are scarce, there’s a very human part of us that tells us that we need to look out for ourselves first. The Samaritan woman needed water; and yet, she was being asked to give what she thought she needed to survive to someone else (Jesus).  Have you collected so much hand sanitizer that other people can’t get any? Are you one of the people who has been hoarding sterilizing wipes and toilet paper? Do you have boxes of masks to put over your face (that are desperately needed by other people) to protect yourself from the coronavirus?

Our survival instinct tells us that we need to get as much of whatever we think we are going to need quickly – even if it means that other people won’t be able to get any of it.

And yet, when the parched Samaritan woman comes to the Well of Jacob, Jesus offers her something different: “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water” (John 4:10). Here, Jesus reminds us that we can find an abundance of God’s love and mercy and forgiveness. Jesus reminds us, in this short passage, that He’s come into the world to offer us an abundance of God’s welcome and goodness and peace and strength. And, if you think about it, isn’t that what we’re all trying to find?

We begin the Season of Lent, on Ash Wednesday, by remembering that we are dust and that, one day, we’re going to be dust again. We admit that we’re mortal. We admit that none of us are going to be around forever. In fact, as hard as it is for us to admit, we are all going to die at some point – and it doesn’t matter if it’s because of the coronavirus or because of something else. That might sound harsh. But it’s true.

And in Jesus – The Living Water – God provides a solution that gives us faith and strength as we journey through scary times. In Jesus – The Living Water – we can find the courage to continue to live well with each other even in a time when our fear is calling forth our worst human instincts. All will be well. In fact, even when we’re tempted to think that all will not be well, all will be well because we’re safe in the hands of God and because God has already shown us – in Jesus – that no matter what we face, in life or even in death, we are already far more than conquerors (Romans 8:37).

And so, as you journey through scary times, live your life with faith and courage.

Even though there’s a deep human instinct that’s telling us to look out for ourselves, we need each other and must learn how to continue to live well with other people. We can’t allow fear to drive us into uncontrollable panic and we can’t afford to allow ourselves to allow our imaginations to just run wild.

We need to somehow continue to find ways to live well in these challenging times, and we need to continue to search for ways to care for each other and to treat each other in kind and loving ways.

Right after Jesus offered the Samaritan woman “living water,” she said, “Sir, give me this water” (John 4:15); and she, immediately, ran to all of her friends and told them about what she had discovered in the midst of her own time of desperate need.

How can your faith carry you through these times of challenge and uncertainty?

How can your faith help you to calm those around you who are allowing fear to bring out the worst in them?

In every crisis, there’s an opportunity. And, perhaps, this crisis provides a chance for all of us to bear witness to our faith and our trust in God in new and exciting ways?

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A Gift that Changes Lives

Candle at Both Ends

Have you ever felt like there’s not enough of you to go around?

I’d venture to say that many us define ourselves by the roles that we play in our lives and by the things that we do with our time. Maybe you’re a doctor or nurse, an administrator or a carpenter. Maybe you’re a mechanic or artist, a pastor or a musician. Maybe you are a Christian who has been baptized and who attends weekly worship. But, no matter who you are and no matter what roles you play, you’re probably going to realize that there is just not enough of you to go around at some point.

Have you ever considered the fact that there are going to be times when you cannot be where you want to be…?

My parents were 250 miles away from where they wanted to be on the night I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve held the hands of many good people who were forced to watch children die many years after their parents were dead and buried. Maybe, when we feel like there’s not enough of us to go around, we’re being challenged to think about life on a different level? We can’t be in more than one place at a time. We can’t always do what we want to do because we don’t have an unlimited store of time and energy. People like us (mere mortals) only have a very short amount of time to live; and we, sometimes, need to help people that we love prepare for the times in life when we’re not going to be able to be with them.

This week, we encounter a very unusual story in the Bible.

The Bible tells us that, one day, Jesus was transfigured (Matthew 17:1-9). He had climbed to the top of a mountain (where people tend to encounter God) with Peter, James and his brother John. And, when they all got to the top of the mountain huffing and puffing and sweating and trying to catch their breath, something happened…. Bright lights came on…! Jesus began to glow! Moses and Elijah appeared out of nowhere and there was a big and booming voice from a cloud! And Peter said, “Wow! It’s good for us to be here!”

But Peter didn’t really understand what was happening. In a very short time, Jesus would be arrested and dragged away. Jesus would be condemned to death and He’d be nailed to a Cross. Peter would be stunned! In fact, Peter would be so stunned that he’d lock himself in a room with Jesus’ remaining disciples to keep the rest of the world at a safe distance.

I’m sure that Peter’s parents and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Jesus being dragged away and executed. I’m sure Peter’s family and friends never imagined what it was going to be like for him to watch Roman soldiers prying the dead body of Jesus off the Cross. And, with that in mind, consider this:

I don’t know what kind of challenges or difficulties you and the people that you love are going to face. But I do know that there are going to be times when you’re not going to be able to be where we want to be – no matter how thinly you stretch yourself.

Peter’s family and friends never imagined the great, big hole that was going to open up inside of him when Jesus died. My parents were 250 long miles away on the night when I watched my best friend die in an automobile crash. I’ve stood beside many people after they’ve received horrible news from a doctor or learned about another type of tragedy.

And yet, I’ve also seen that there’s a great source of Living Water that’s never exhausted.

Peter was given a glimpse of something that he could hold onto in the glowing moment that he’d never forget. I will ever forget my father standing beside me during worship services and guiding me through services by moving his index finger down the pages of an old hymnal. Many people shared the story of Jesus with me in different ways as I was growing up. Good and faithful Christians planted seeds in my life that later sprouted and became just what I needed as I’ve journeyed through life! And, I believe, that same story, the story of Jesus Christ crucified and risen, is the most precious gift you can ever give to another person. The gift of a relationship with Jesus is, truly, a gift that has the power to change lives forever!

It was no accident that I ended-up pounding on the doors of a church at 2:30 am on the evening when my best friend was killed. It’s no accident that I still continue to begin my times of daily prayer by taking a deep breath and saying, “Lord, it’s good to be here.”

My parents, who are both dead now, planted seeds that are still growing in my life even though they can no longer be with me. My parents wisely recognized the fact that simple people can only be stretched so thin and that they can only live so long. And so, as I was growing, they invited me to “come and see” what they had seen. They gave me chances to meet Jesus and they just allowed God do whatever God wanted to do with me.

Is there someone that you could invite to “come and see”?

You have a chance to share a gift that has the power to change lives! You have a chance to invite someone that you know to “come and see” Jesus. And yes, you have a chance to plant seeds that will sprout and grow, and that may even become something magnificent that someone you love will need during a time when you can’t be where you want to be.

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The Tree of Life Massacre – One Year Later

Yard Sign

It’s hard to believe that it’s been one year since the unconscionable slaughter of eleven innocent worshipers at the Tree of Life Congregation in Squirrel Hill (a part of the city of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania). I’m reminded of my first feeble attempt to “do something” and to “take a stand” after a senseless tragedy that left me both numb and speechless each time I see the sign in the front yard of my home.

We have been challenged to think and to reflect in the last year. Many of us have grown and have been changed as we took a more honest look at ourselves in the mirror and as we’ve wrestled with what we believe about other people. Faith leaders in the Pittsburgh area have traveled for many miles – coming from churches, mosques, synagogues and temples – to join in both open and honest conversations that have helped us to better understand each other and the faith traditions that we represent. God has been at work in our communities to challenge us, to soften our hearts, to open our ears and hearts to the voices of others, and to stretch both our patterns of thinking and faith.

The last year has, also, been a time when leaders and members of spiritual communities in Southwestern Pennsylvania have worked hand-in-hand to create a Statement that we, as leaders of different faith traditions, believe expresses the principles and beliefs that we can embrace together. I am providing a copy of this newly released Statement to you, and am hoping that you will take some time to read it, to reflect upon it and even to pray about it. We, as faith leaders in Southwestern Pennsylvania, believe that our faith traditions challenge us: to recognize the dignity and worth of those around us; to speak boldly and clearly against racial supremacy, demonization of those from other cultures and religions, and the violent acts that grow from those bitter roots; to stand in solidarity with minority and marginalized communities; and to repent from our own complicity in words and deeds that have expressed individual and systemic bigotry, racial and religious supremacy, and oppression.

We have committed ourselves to building more loving communities and neighborhoods that uplift the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual, and that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times even as we continue to both recognize and accept the fact that we believe many different things about both God and our world because of our different faith traditions.

I am now presenting this Statement to you hoping that you will take some time to read it, to ponder it, to pray about it, and to allow it to both challenge you and lead you toward the new kind of life that God calls us to embrace in the life and ministry of Jesus Christ.

Living Faithfully with One Another

As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to interpret and draw guidance from sacred texts and traditions.

The sacred texts of the world religions all affirm the created dignity and worth of each individual and our sacred responsibility toward those in need. As we interpret our own sacred traditions in preaching, teaching, meditation or prayer, we will lift up these values.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in support of the dignity and worth of each person.

With sacred texts and traditions as our guides, we reject the theories and rhetoric of racial supremacy, the demonization of those of other cultures and religions, and the violent acts which grow from these bitter roots. We embrace the right of all people to worship (or not to worship) according to the dictates of their own consciences, and we expect the government to respect this freedom.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak and act in solidarity with those in need.

We turn with compassion toward those in our midst who have the greatest cause for fear and insecurity. We stand in solidarity with all marginalized and minority communities, especially those who have been targets of injustice, discrimination, prejudice, and hate. When any of us are attacked in word or deed, we promise our support, help, and protection.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to speak truth to those in positions of power.

Our voices must be spoken and heard in public discourse. We seek to bring the perspectives of sacred traditions to bear in our shared public life. We call upon and remind elected, appointed, and professional leaders throughout our community to uphold and enforce the values of justice, fairness, nondiscrimination, and dignity.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to high standards of self-reflection.

We call upon ourselves, our faith communities, and our institutions to acknowledge and repent for complicity in words and deeds that express individual or systemic bigotry, racial or religious supremacy, and oppression. We are committed to growing in wisdom and inclusivity as we learn from one another.
As leaders and members of spiritual communities, we are called to live abundantly, joyously and harmoniously with one another.

We will work resolutely to strengthen the ties that bind us to one another as moral neighbors in both trying and peaceful times. When and where we disagree in our understandings, we commit to acknowledge, listen to, and value the perspectives of others even as we respectfully present our differing opinions.

We covenant to create, expand and nurture a community of mutual support throughout Southwest Pennsylvania. Seeking Divine help and guidance, we commit to building the beloved community, a neighborhood of neighborhoods that lovingly uplifts the oneness of humanity and the worth of every individual.

October 3, 2019
Pittsburgh, PA

Do You REALLY Want Life To Be Fair?

scale

I have always believed that life should be fair.

I like to watch “Law and Order” because less than an hour after somebody commits a crime that person is hauled off to jail. I believe that good things should happen to good people and bad things should happen to bad people.

But life is NOT always fair, is it?

Several weeks ago, a woman in the area where I live, drove off with a little child in the back seat of a car leaving the child’s father standing in the dust. Several hours later, the child was found dead. Just last week, a man who plays for the Pittsburgh Pirates (who shall remain unnamed) was arrested for allegedly abusing young people while he was being paid millions of dollars to play baseball. Have you ever been hurt by a person who walked away from you as if nothing happened or by a person who refused to admit that something was wrong? Have you ever had a time in your life when you were trying to do your very best, but ended-up on the short end of the stick? We probably all have.

This week, we focus our attention upon a really strange story that Jesus told about a man who squandered someone else’s property and who was fired for doing it. (Luke 16:1-13) And, even though many of us have seen people get fired because they did something that was wrong, the horror of this story is compounded when the man who is being fired for his misbehavior calls-in other people who owe his boss money and “cooks the books” to reduce what OTHER people owe, too. Now there’s nothing really fair about that is there? And yet, the boss commends the man and pats him on the back. “Well done!” the man’s boss exclaims. “You were really smart when you decided to cooked the books and reduce the debts of other people!”

And that’s NOT fair, is it? People who borrow money from other people should pay back every penny they borrow with interest! People who struggle to make ends meet should just work harder. People who commit a crime should be labeled as “felons” for the rest of their lives even it means that they can’t find a job after they have served their sentences. Why is a man’s boss commending him for doing something even more outrageous than he was doing before he was fired?

Perhaps, the reason we have a problem with this story is because even though we THINK that we believe that life should be fair, we really don’t? We THINK that life should be fair to US, but we DON’T really care if life is fair to other people.

Think about a time in your life when you hurt someone with your words or actions, and when somebody forgave you even though you didn’t deserve it. Think about all of the times when God has filled your life with blessings even though your life of prayer was pretty dry. Think about all of the times when God has scooped you up and has  forgiven you after you’ve fallen flat on your face. Think about love. Is love always fair? I thank God that I have relationships with people who continue to care about me even in times of disappointment. I thank God that people don’t simply strike back and try to hurt me as badly as I’ve hurt them. I thank God that love often survives ups and downs in daily life simply because it ISN’T fair and because it DOESN’T demand justice when a relationship is moving through a difficult time.

What if I told you that God’s love isn’t fair? And what if I told you that “unfairness” can be a sign of the inbreaking of the Reign of God?

Think about Jesus crying out from the Cross: “Father, forgive them, for they don’t know what they’re doing!” Think about a Risen Lord who continues to challenge us to live with a sense of “unfairness” in our lives and in our interactions with others. The “forgiven” are given the chance to forgive. Those who are “embraced” have the chance to embrace other people. Those who know that they are “loved” have a chance to love even when it’s tempting to feel that we have the right to strike back in the name of justice and fairness.

And so, let’s think about what I call “holy un-fairness” as we travel through life this week. Is there somebody that you need to forgive today? Are there people that you’re unwilling to welcome and embrace for a reason that you don’t want to share because you are a bit embarrassed to admit the way you feel? How could embracing “holy unfairness” bring you peace, heal your soul, and restore a sense of calm and wholeness in your life?

Click Here for This Week’s Message