Conflict and hurt are unfortunately common parts of daily living. I’m sure that you’ve lived through times when you were hurt or disappointed by things that other people did. I’m sure that you’ve had times when other people stepped on your toes or talked about you behind your back. We’ve all had times when we’ve been angry enough to strike back. Maybe when you are hurt by other people you withdraw from them, or even walk away.
Forgiveness is never easy; and yet, forgiveness is an important part of our spiritual lives. Forgiveness is something spiritual because we all know that none of us are perfect; and yet, God continues to challenge us to live well with each other. Forgiveness is something spiritual because the Cross of Christ reminds us that, even when we go astray, God continues to give us a chance to do better. Forgiveness is something spiritual because our faith is based upon the teachings of a Man who clearly told us to forgive the people who hurt us even as He was hanging on a Cross. Jesus even taught us to pray: “and forgive us our sins as we forgive those who sin against us.”
In Luke 17:1-10, Jesus talks about forgiveness and then, in response to His disciples’ request to “increase our faith,” Jesus speaks about mustard seed faith. It’s not always easy to forgive other people, but Jesus assures us that we can do it with even a little bit of faith. We can forgive others because God has already blessed us with the faith to do it. We can open our hands and let go of our hurts because it only takes a little bit of faith to do it – and we all have at least that much faith! We can let go of anger and live at peace with those who have disappointed us because God give us the ability to do it. We can even go after the deep-seated anger and disappointments in our lives knowing that God wants to release us and set us free to live a better and more peaceful life.
I’ve discovered that there are times when it’s “almost impossible” to let the past be the past; but today, I’m reminded that “almost impossible” means that I can still do it with the help of God. We all need to trust God to help us to do what we cannot do by ourselves. We all need to trust God – the Source of mustard seed faith – to bless us with whatever it is that we need, so that we can open our hands and let go of whatever is weighing us down.
Forgive others as God has forgiven you and trust in the fact that God is giving you the faith – even if it’s only as big as a mustard seed – that you can use to find the peace, calm, rest, and freedom that Jesus wants you to have.
Do you shrink back in fear when someone asks you to share your faith with other people? I remember the days when I was afraid to pray before church dinners. Many people think about Jehovah’s Witnesses knocking on their doors and giving copies of the Watchtower to people in their neighborhood when they think about sharing their faith. Many Christian parents never pray or read the Bible in front of their children. Some of us are afraid to pray in front of our spouses. I’ve noticed that some people even get quiet during Bible studies because they think that their journey of faith isn’t as inspiring as the journey that others have shared. But let me stop you right there….
Trust me. You have a story to tell about how you have experienced God in your daily life. You can probably remember a time when you felt close to God, and you can probably remember a few times when you wondered why God wasn’t answering your prayers. Your life has probably been filled with blessings from God that you can celebrate, and life has probably taught you that there are times when you need to just let things go and let God handle them. Have you ever experienced God’s forgiveness and amazing grace? Have you ever struggled with an addiction, or asked God to give you wisdom as a parent or spouse or caregiver? Have you ever believed that God was guiding you when you needed to make some sort of change in your daily life? You have a story to tell that is uniquely yours and people need to hear it; and the fact that your story of faith contains some ups and downs just means that you’re a human being, just like me.
So, what stops you from sharing your story?
I read part of the story of Moses (Exodus 4:1-17) during my time of daily devotion today. Many picture Moses as the mighty leader who turned water into blood, who unleashed plagues, and who ultimately led the people of Israel out of Egypt. But we never remember Moses as a man who once said to God, “Oh, my Lord, I am not eloquent…. I am slow of speech and tongue.” Moses didn’t think that he had the right words. Moses didn’t think that what he had to say could sway or influence other people. But what if I told you that the words, themselves, are not what’s most important? God is at work in your life and the story of your journey with God can create faith and hope in the lives of others. You do not need to be eloquent and have the right words. You just need to be honest, authentic, and true. The story that you have to share is one that can be used in a mighty way by the Holy Spirit and may even be exactly what someone else needs to hear today!
I was reminded, yesterday, that Moses also had a sketchy past (Exodus 2:11-12) and people were not afraid to remind Moses that he had made some mistakes (Exodus 2:14). Is that what’s keeping you from telling your story? Maybe you’ve made some mistakes. Maybe you’re afraid that if you try to speak to other people about God someone is going to bring up something embarrassing that you’ve done in the past and try to silence you. Do you know that people did that to Moses? Do you know that they did it to Saint Paul? I’m sure that a whole lot of people remembered that Saint Peter had denied that he even knew Jesus at the critical hour! I’ve made mistakes. You’ve made mistakes. We have all made mistakes and we all have things in our past that we would do differently if we were given another chance. But don’t let that keep you from telling other people about how God is at work in your life today. Mistakes can be forgiven. God’s love in Christ erases blunders and mistakes of all sizes! Think about how far you’ve come in life if your past is something that was less than perfect. Doesn’t the Bible tell us that if we say that we have no sin we are deceiving ourselves? Don’t let something that you’ve done in the past take away your chance to talk about how much God’s at work in your life today. And don’t let other people silence you because they’re not willing to forget what God has already forgiven.
Please remember that you have a story to tell, and that God is going to send people into your life who need to hear what you have to say. You may not always think that you have the right words to speak when the moment comes. You may not always think that you are somehow good or important enough to do God’s work because of some haunting memory that you (or others) can’t release. But you ARE both good and important enough! You have a story to share, and I know that it’s a story that other people need to hear. And so, keep your eyes open this week, and look for opportunities to talk about what God’s doing in your life. Somebody needs to hear exactly what you have to say!
Do you like to know how much things cost? Maybe you look for the sign at a gas station because you want to know how much the gasoline’s going to cost and if you can get it two cents per gallon cheaper across the road? Have you ever ordered from the right side of the menu in a restaurant? Do you like to know how much a mechanic is going to charge before he/she works on your car, or how much a hotel charges before you make a reservation? If you are like me, you like to know how much things cost before you commit.
But how can you ever begin to calculate the cost of being a parent? How can you know how much it’s going to cost you to be a son or a daughter when you need to take care of an aging parent? If you are married, what was going through your head when you said “until death do us part” on your wedding day? I didn’t have any idea what it would cost both me and my family on the day when I was ordained and became a pastor.
When Jesus calls you to follow Him on an adventure of faith, it’s hard to know where that journey will lead. Maybe Jesus will call you to do something simple like spend more time reading your Bible and praying, or maybe Jesus will call you to volunteer at a homeless shelter or food pantry. Maybe Jesus will call you to be financially generous, or maybe Jesus will call you to parent a disabled or handicapped child. Following Jesus always costs you something. When you follow Jesus, you will find yourself laughing and crying and seeing life from the top of a mountain and continuing to push yourself during times when you are dog-weary to the bone.
But a life of discipleship is also filled with unexpected blessings.
I remember a day when a young man, that I met on a mission trip, called me from 1,000 miles away to ask me if I would talk with him about what he believes about God. I remember a father thanking me, on the day of his daughter’s baptism, for visiting him in jail and for telling him that he better straighten himself out before he does something that ruins the rest of his life. I remember sitting beside both of my parents’ beds while they were dying, so that I knew that the last words they heard were, “We love you.” Have you ever thought that something you did made the world a better place? What kind of unexpected blessings have you received because you felt called to step up to the plate and do something important? How have you answered Jesus’ call to come and to follow Him on your own journey of faith?
The call of Jesus is very special. It’s something that changes lives and moves people toward their God-created destiny. And this week, I’d encourage you to think about that as you live your life in a world that needs people just like you. When Jesus calls you, Jesus will always invite you on a life-changing journey of faith. And, when you come to the end of that journey, you will be able to look back and see that your life is one that has been well lived.
We find ourselves competing with other people when we apply for a job. We live in a world where people push others off the corporate ladder to get a rung higher. We can, sometimes, feel the need to put other people down in order to feel better about ourselves. We often find ourselves in places where life is defined by prejudices that separate us into groups of us and them, insiders and outsiders, people who are like me and people who are not like me; and, of course, us, insiders, and people who are just like me are always somehow better, right?
Jesus once hosted a Meal that we continue to share in the Church.
Jesus provides a Table where company presidents kneel beside people who work for them; and where different skin colors, nationalities, and spoken languages can be celebrated as something good. Jesus tears down the barriers that we work so hard to build and to maintain when He calls us to share one Bread and on Cup. People who are homeless and people who live in mansions are called by Jesus to share a meal where everyone is offered the exact same meal in the exact same portion during Holy Communion. People don’t need to put other people down in order to feel better about themselves at the Lord’s Table because, at Meal that Jesus hosts, we are all are precious, valuable and embraced.
We do something very radical every time we share Holy Communion. You might even say that the Eucharistic Feast is a Meal of protest. And right after Jesus calls us to share a meal with each other, He sends us out into the world to live what we have just experienced. What happens at the Lord’s Table doesn’t always make sense in a divided and competitive world. We are not used to living in a world where everyone has value and worth. We are not used to living in a world where people see the face of God when they look into other people’s eyes. We are not used to giving up places of honor that we think we earned. We can draw people toward us when we live what I call a “Kingdom Life,” but we can also drive others away from us. And that’s OK. The stakes are sometimes high!
Living a Kingdom Life that reflects what happens at the Lord’s Table isn’t easy, and that’s why God calls us to come to the Table many times. You might say that, as Christians, we live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal. We are forgiven, renewed, strengthened and fed; and then, we’re sent out into the world to make it a better place. And, after we try our best to do that and when we begin to grow weary and need to be sustained, Jesus calls us back to simple gifts of Bread and Wine where He continues to be found and to the place where we are forgiven, renewed, strengthened and fed once again. And that’s how we grow and how our lives of faith are built by the Holy Spirit. We eat and we are sent. And after we go into the world and try our best to live faithfully in a place that does not always understand God’s plan, Jesus calls us to come back together again and He says to us, “Let’s eat!”
My hope and prayer for you is that you will continue to find times in life when Jesus forgives you, renews you, strengthens you and feeds you. And my hope and prayer is also that, after you’ve been sent out into the world by the Holy Spirit and have tried your best to make it a better place, you will hear Jesus say to you again, “Let’s eat!” We live our lives of faith from Meal to Meal to Meal. God bless you!
Why not set aside about 20 minutes this evening to simply stop, get more centered, reflect and pray? Today, we are inviting you to remember that God listens to you during these strange and challenging times. Here’s the second video in our Lenten Series entitled: “Streams in the Desert.”
Have you noticed that everything seems to be really big these days?
COVID-19 moved onto center stage 18 months ago, and it’s almost as if the pandemic has swallowed up everything else in our lives. We have witnessed the abrupt end of a 20-year-long war in Afghanistan that was destined to end badly from the very start. We are hearing about uncontrollable fires burning in the Western United States. We are hearing about Hurricane Ida leaving a trail of destruction behind it. We witnessed an angry mob taking over our Capitol building on January 6th; and now, we are hearing threats about even worse things to come.
There is an old saying (actually, an old curse) that reads: “May you live in interesting times.”
Think about people who lived through the Worlds Wars. Think about people who lived during the American Civil War when people in the United States became so deeply divided that they killed each other. Life was difficult in the time of Jesus. Roman soldiers (think “a foreign army”) had taken over the country. Words of insurrection and rebellion were being quietly whispered behind locked doors and in the streets. People were being told how to live their lives by religious authorities. People who broke Roman laws were crucified.
And yet, even during a time when things around Him were so big, Jesus continued to move around among the people and Jesus continued His ministry, didn’t He? In Mark 7:25, a woman came to Jesus because her daughter was possessed by a demon – even while words of insurrection and rebellion were being whispered all around her. In Mark 7:32, a group of people brought a man who could not hear to Jesus – during a foreign occupation.
Are you still praying for yourself and for people that you know and love in the midst of all of the big things that are happening around you, right now? Maybe you know someone who is fighting cancer or struggling with Alzheimer’s disease. Maybe you are trying to stay sober or keep away from addicting drugs. Maybe your boss has turned into a tyrant and you are thinking about quitting your job, but are afraid that you might not be able to find another one. Maybe you are struggling with loneliness. Maybe you are afraid to send your kid(s) back to school. Maybe you are a frontline healthcare worker who is weary, right now, and who is tired of watching so many people die. Maybe you are discovering that your “Golden Years” are not really as golden as you thought they would be.
I want to encourage you to pray this week and to remember that the prayers you offer are as important to Jesus as they are to you. I want to encourage you to lift your voice, to pour out your heart, and to speak what’s deep inside of you trusting that God hears you and wants to touch you and those that you love with healing power. Perhaps, in the midst of challenging times, it would be helpful to begin each new day by sitting quietly in a chair or by kneeling, by taking a deep breath and by saying, “How good, Lord, to be here.” (Mark 9:5) And, after you do that, simply stop and rest and know that Jesus is near. Feel the peace.
You see, it’s not about who you are or about whether you believe the right things about God. It’s not about whether you somehow deserve to be heard by God in a time when everything else around you seems to be so big. Jesus listened to a Gentile woman as she prayed for her daughter during challenging times, and Jesus listens to you when you pray for people that you know and love. Jesus listened to a group of people who prayed that He would heal their deaf friend during a time of big disruptions and chaotic change, and Jesus is listening to you as you bring what concerns you before Him in prayer.
Prayer works because Jesus loves you.
Prayer works because, even as you live your life in a world where everything seems to be so big, Jesus is listening to your voice and continues to invite you to lift whatever’s in your heart and on your mind before Him, right now.
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.