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.
Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.
Almost all of us are both tired and frazzled these days. The coronavirus has dramatically shaped our lives and our ability to interact with others, and the political atmosphere in our nation has deteriorated to the point where we’re being asked to take a side and to define everyone on the other side as our enemies. Many people are facing unemployment and are finding that their best path forward is not clear. Other folks have taken to the streets and have joined in peaceful protests, while others are looting businesses and burning buildings. History indicates that, in times of upheaval and uncertainty, caregivers and other people on the front lines begin to hit walls about six months after a disruption or disaster occurs, and that caregivers often respond to the burnout that they are experiencing by pulling back, by quitting their jobs, or by simply choosing to plod forward silently in the gray funk for another day. I read a story, just last week, about a 70-year-old man being dragged through a store by his hair and being thrown to the floor, where he was punched and kicked many times, because he asked another customer in the store to wear a mask.
Conflict is something that has always been hard to handle.
We tend to withdraw and to hunker down when conflict is swirling around us. We have the tendency to believe that we are totally right and other people are totally wrong. I suspect that we all find it easier to talk to our friends and family members about things that are going wrong in our lives than to talk directly with people who have stepped on our toes. Some people simply become silent during times of conflict, especially in times like these, because they just do not have the energy to walk a different path.
I am going to be exploring the issue of conflict in my next few posts because I believe that the teachings and principles of our faith are important in times like these. And I am going to start this series of posts by exploring the Eighth Commandment because I believe that the Eighth Commandment can help to unravel many of the conflicts in our lives long before we get to the point where hurts and disagreements become more difficult to handle.
“You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor.”
Have you ever considered the fact that it is easy to bear false witness in times of conflict? Most of us want to believe that we are right in times of conflict and that other people are simply wrong. Many of us hunker down during times of conflict and withdraw from people who hurt or disappointed us because our first instinct is to believe that those who hurt and disappointment us are enemies. But one of the lessons I’ve learn in life is that, in one way or another, I interpret everything that happens to me; and sooner (rather than later) my interpretation of what actually happened becomes even more important to me than what happened itself. This can create a challenge.
How I feel about what happened can become more important to me than what actually happened.
Read those words carefully once again; and then, think about how your understanding of the Eighth Commandment can shape your thinking in times of conflict. Our interpretation of what happened may be true, or our interpretation may be false. The man who blows the horn on his automobile as soon as the stoplight turns green may be acting like a jerk, or he may be in a hurry to get to a hospital emergency room before his mother dies. And so, when we’re trying to make sense of things that happen to us, we need to step back for a moment and allow our interpretation of what happened to soften.
I still believe that most people are trying their hardest to do their best these days and that most people are not intentionally trying to make the lives of other people more difficult. But relationships can easily become strained when we are tired and frazzled. Little things can become big things and big things can become monstrous things. We tend to magnify things that happen when we are weary and exhausted; and, when we do that, we need to be careful that we do not break the Eighth Commandment.
Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, offers some sage advice to us in his explanation of the Eighth Commandment in his Small Catechism (1529). Martin Luther wrote that parents should teach their children that the Eighth Commandment means: “We should fear and love God so that we do not tell lies about our neighbor, betray him, slander him, or hurt his reputation, but defend him, speak well of him, and explain everything in the kindest way.”
What would times of conflict in your life look like if you stepped back and intentionally tried to interpret the actions of people who step on your toes in the kindest way possible? What would happen if you installed an “Eighth Commandment Firewall” in your mind; so that, long before you start to interpret the actions of others, you remembered to be both charitable and kind?
Perhaps the tension and stress in our lives would begin to decrease if we learned to separate what is happening in our lives from our feelings about what is happening in our lives? Perhaps even the weary and frazzled could find a sense of peace by stepping back and by trying to interpret the actions of other people in a more kind and gentle way? And today, I want to lift those thoughts up as the first step forward in times of conflict. What happened and our interpretation of and our feelings about what happened may be different; and, when we keep that in mind, many conflicts in our lives can be unraveled before they grow and become unmanageable.
I’ve been taught to trust in the promises of Jesus.
I believe that death is not going to be my end because Jesus said, “I am the Resurrection and the Life, and those who believe in Me are going to live again, even after they’ve died.” I believe that I’m going to go to Heaven because Jesus promised me that He’s gone ahead of me to prepare a special place where I will live with Him forever. Perhaps, you trust that Jesus is walking beside you every day because Jesus once said, “I am with you always, even to the End of the Age.” Jesus also gave another promise. He said, “I am going to build my Church and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.“
What did Jesus mean when He said that He’s going to build His Church and even the gates of hell are not going to prevail against it? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus when it seems that there are many prevailing powers opposing the ministry of the Church? Can we use these words, today, to assure us that the specific congregations that we attend and support can never fail in the same way that some Christians assume that Jesus will never allow them to become infected by the coronavirus while they are worshiping and singing hymns without masks? What sense do you make of this promise of Jesus in the midst of a time of dramatic change, both inside and outside of the Church, and during a time when many individual congregations are closing?
It seems to me that we can make sense of this promise of Jesus by doing three things:
First, we need to begin by remembering who made the promise. Jesus is with you today, and Jesus continues to be with the Church as well. Individual Christians and even specific congregations have not been left alone to make sense of our changing times. Jesus is with us as we read our Bibles and pray with each other. Jesus has promised to lead us and guide us and direct our ways as we move through changing times. The Holy Spirit once worked in the life of St. Paul by closing and opening doors in front of him (Acts 16:6-10). Rely on the One who has given us wonderful promises and you can never go wrong.
Second, we need to remember that God has a long history of leading people through times of change and uncertainty. Think about the people of Israel being led out of the land of Egypt when all that they wanted to do was return to the “Good Ol’ Days” of slavery when they were given free cucumbers. Think about the people of Israel living in Babylonian captivity and longing for the day when God would bring them back to Jerusalem after their exile. God has a long track record of leading people safely from one place to another and that’s what God is doing in the life of the Church, right now. Trust in the God who is leading you and you can never go wrong.
Finally, we need to remember that, when Jesus gives us a promise, Jesus gives us a promise that He’s not going to break. The Church is built upon the foundation of God’s love and faithfulness. The message of the Gospel of Jesus Christ is one that proclaims timeless truths like love, forgiveness, hope, and the dignity and value of all people. Specific practices and ways of doing things in churches may need to change with the passage of time, but the Church that’s build upon the foundation of Jesus Christ and that has rooted itself in timeless principles will endure. Trust in the One who doesn’t break His promises and you can never go wrong.
We may not have all of the answers that we need right now, but our faith calls us back to the Great Source of God’s promises and to the timeless values that will endure. Jesus once said, “I am going to build my Church, and the gates of hell will not prevail against it.” And today, I’m willing to trust in that promise. And I’m willing to put all of my eggs into one, single basket that’s carried by the One who gave us those promises. Are you?
Our world is often shaped by our understanding of insiders and outsiders.
We tend to feel most comfortable with people who resemble us and who think about life in the same ways that we do. We divide ourselves into smaller and smaller groups by defining distinctions based upon race, ethnic background, economic level and even political party. Surveys have shown that Christians in America are most segregated on Sunday mornings during times set aside for worship. Denominations like the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA) continue to struggle with the fact that members of the ELCA are more than 98% white even after people have tried for decades to change that.
In Matthew 15:20-28, we find an absolutely fascinating story from the life of Jesus. Jesus has traveled into a land that’s inhabited by both Jews and Gentiles. And, while Jesus is in that area, a Canaanite woman approaches Him and asks Him to heal her daughter, who is possessed by a demon. We might expect Jesus to heal the woman’s daughter in the same way that He healed so many others. But, in this short story, Jesus responds to the Gentile woman’s request by saying: “It is not fair to take the children’s bread and to feed it to the dogs.” And, frankly, Jesus’ response continues to shock me every time that I read it.
Jews didn’t allow dogs to live in their homes in Jesus’ days, but Gentiles often looked at dogs as pets who deserved kindness and care. But, the word “dog” was also used in a very different way. The Jews didn’t want “those kind of people” – the dogs – to mix with “our kind of people.” The Jews called outsiders “dogs” because they didn’t live their lives based upon Jewish teachings and purity practices.
But, before we look too harshly at the Jews in Jesus’ days, we need to consider some of the things that are happening in our own lives, right now.
People who do not attend worship services are sometimes looked down upon by the people who do attend worship services. Churches sometimes draw clear distinctions between the people who are members and those who are not members of the congregation. People who struggle with mental illnesses, homelessness, alcoholism and drug addiction often find the doors of churches locked when they get there. America continues to be most segregated and divided during the one hour when people are worshiping on Sunday mornings than at any other time in the entire week!
But, then, Jesus seems to turn on His heels.
Right after Jesus says that it’s not right to feed the children’s bread to the dogs, the woman responds, “But even dogs eat the crumbs that fall from the master’s table.” And, right after that, Jesus commends the woman for her great faith. Faith realizes that God is a God who welcomes and embraces both insiders and outsiders alike. Faith realizes that God is a God who looks past the artificial barriers and walls that we build between people who are like us and people who are not like us. Economic barriers are challenged as we gather to celebrate Holy Communion at an altar rail where company presidents kneel beside the folks who work for them. Faith creates radical hospitality that gazes beyond distinctions that are based upon race, ethnic background, economic level and political party.
Great faith recognizes the fact that Christ’s Church is meant to be a home for everyone, and great faith recognizes that even deep divisions and barriers can be overcome when love is allowed to rule in our hearts. And that’s the challenge that’s placed before us as we listen to this intriguing story from the life and ministry of Jesus.
Let radical hospitality challenge you and transform you. Let the love of Jesus empower you and enable you to see that the Church is meant to be a place that welcomes everyone. And, as that’s happening, let the love of Jesus tear down the divisions and barriers and walls that we continue to build, create and maintain even inside the Church itself.
I often recall that early Christians used a boat as a symbol for the Church.
The Church is a vessel that sails through smooth times and difficult times. The image of a boat is often used to describe the Church because it’s a vessel that carries people all the way to the gates of Paradise. If you look up while you’re sitting in many church worship spaces what you’ll see is that you’re worshiping in what looks like an upside down boat.
Immediately after Jesus fed more than 5,000 people with 5 loaves of bread and 2 little fish, He commands the disciples to get into a boat and sail to the other side of the sea. Imagine these early followers of Jesus getting into a boat (the Church) and moving, together, toward the place where Jesus told them to go. As we read Matthew 14:22-33, we’re invited to think about the ministry that we’re doing today. We listen to Jesus. We gather together in the boat (the Church). We go where we believe Jesus wants us to go.
But then, in the middle of this well-known story, something happens.
We read that the boat that was carrying the disciples was being beaten back by the wind and the waves. In Matthew 14:24, we read that the “wind was against them.” The earliest Church was sailing directly into the wind. The earliest Church was experiencing opposition and was even being pushed in the wrong direction! And the Church is going through a time just like that in 2020. Many church buildings are still closed. Tens of thousands of churches all around the world have needed to embrace new technologies. And the scariest part of it all, at least for me, is that we don’t know how long this disruption is going to continue, or what our ministry is going to look like when we get to the other side of the sea.
It’s easy for us to go where we think Jesus wants us to go when we simply need to unlock the doors of a building and wait for children to arrive for Sunday School. It’s easy for us to do what we think Jesus wants us to do when all that we need to do is give someone a key to a building. It’s easy to go where Jesus wants us to go when we don’t need to deal with Zoom meetings, and the misunderstandings that often occur when people stop talking face-to-face and start to reply upon email and text messages.
But these are days when the winds have shifted.
I can picture myself in the boat (the Church) in Matthew 14:22-33. I, sometimes, feel like I’m taking two steps forward and one step back, or even one step forward and two steps back. I’m reminded of the times when storms have emerged while I was sailing and when I needed to constantly adjust the sails and the rudder while water poured over the gunwales and started to collect in the bottom of the boat. Have you ever felt that way? Have you ever felt that the wind was blowing against you and trying to push you in the wrong direction? Do you feel like that, right now?
But Jesus carried the boat (the Church) through the storm, didn’t He?
And Jesus is going to carry us through this storm as well. We don’t fully understand what our ministry “on the other side” is going to look like, but we can know that it is Jesus who is taking us to that “other side.” None of us can predict the long-term personal and economic impact of the coronavirus. None of us know how this time of protesting and political turmoil is going to end. But we do know that the boat (the Church) is going to continue to sail – even if it looks very different than it did just a few months ago.
And so, this week, I’d like to encourage you to think about where YOU are in this story.
You might want to begin by remembering that we’re all in the same boat, right? Some of us have been thinking about what’s most important to us. Many of us have needed to return to Martin Luther’s explanation of the 8th Commandment and to try our best to keep interpreting the actions and behaviors of others in the best possible way. Some of us are being called to step onto the water in faith during a time that’s scary. We’re all learning about life and faith and ministry because in every crisis there are opportunities to learn and grow and stretch our wings.
Please remember that you’re not alone.
Your journey is a part of my journey, and my journey is a part of your journey. And OUR journey is a journey that’s being shared by our friends and family members, by the people that we work with, by our neighbors and by people that we don’t even know. And we’re sailing through these scary and changing times even when we’re feeling both weary and frazzled knowing that better days will surely come as Jesus continues to lead us and guide us and direct us toward the “other side” where our ministries will grow and flourish again because that’s what the Church has done in every Age.
I was told that I can be anything that I want to be when I grow up.
I can remember imagining myself as an archaeologist digging through the sands of Egypt. I imagined being a concert pianist accompanying a symphony orchestra. And, of course, I was often told that I could grow up to be the President of the United States.
But, I’m none of those things as I move into the sixth decade of my life.
I began my career as a Chemical Engineer; and then, after attending a seminary, I was ordained as a pastor. I spend my days talking with people who are going through a rough time. I write sermons to encourage people to think about their relationship with God. I attend a lot of Zoom meetings, right now. And, of course, I spend time in prayer and try my best to care about others. That’s far from what I imagined many years ago, isn’t it?
This week, I want you to remember that the little things that you do make a big difference.
Jesus once fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two fish. Jesus is at work every time you help people or encourage them with your words. Jesus uses money that you contribute to charities to do wonderful things in the lives of other people. Jesus is using you to make our world into a better place for all of us.
It’s very easy for us to begin to turn inward when life becomes challenging.
Notice that, in the story of the Feeding of the 5,000 (Matthew 14:13-21), the first thing that the disciples noticed is that they didn’t have enough of what they needed. I don’t have the skills of a concert pianist, but I can bang out a hymn on the piano during worship. I can’t feed all of the unemployed people in my community, but I can donate cans of food to our local food pantry. I can’t solve every challenge in other people’s lives (I can’t even solve all of the challenges in my own life), but I can listen to people and be compassionate. I can’t change the whole world during this crazy time that’s wearing all of us out, but I can be kind to others. I can lend an ear. I can protect other people by wearing a mask. I can be kind to others by simply refraining from blowing the horn on my car when I’m frustrated at other drivers.
We may not be the most powerful people in the world, but we’re important.
Yes, powerful people can change the world in incredible ways. But, life’s taught me that it’s more simple people, just like us, who make our world into a better place by doing things that we never imagined we could do to make a difference in other people’s lives.
And so, this week, I want to encourage you to get out there and to do your best. And, when you think that you’re not big enough or powerful enough to make a big difference, remember that the Lord who fed more than 5,000 people with five loaves of bread and two little fish is a Lord who can take whatever you have to offer and use it to change the world.