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!
May is, traditionally, celebrated as Mental Health Awareness Month.
We have learned how to treat many different illnesses and diseases including: COVID, cancer, heart disease, and diabetes. But many of us feel uncomfortable about things that can affect our brains. We don’t always know what to say when someone is depressed. We’re thrown for a loop when someone we know commits suicide. Many of us still don’t think about mental illnesses as diseases of the brain that can be both effectively treated and managed with medications and therapy. Mental Health Awareness Month is a time when we think about all of these things, but there’s so much more.
God did not create you to be a machine that never stops. During Mental Health Awareness Month you are called to slow down, to focus upon wellness, to explore new ways to live in challenging times, and to break free from the tyranny of rules.
Jesus once met a man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda. People came to the pool because they were lame, blind, paralyzed, and unwell in other ways. The pool at Bethesda was almost always a crowded place where people sometimes pushed others out of the way, so that they could receive the healing they craved. And, when Jesus sees the man sitting beside the pool, he asks him: “Do you want to get well?” (John 5:6) And we might immediately say, “Well, of course he wants to get well! That’s why he’s sitting at the edge of the pool at Bethesda!” But, let’s think about this question (and this story from the Bible) in the light of Mental Health Awareness Month.
This is a story that reminds us, even in dark and hopeless times, God wants us to be well. Notice it was Jesus who reached out to the man. The man didn’t reach out to Jesus. This is a clear indication that God not only sees your needs, but wants you to be well.
But there are some obstacles to wellness in this story.
The pool at Bethesda was a place that was crowded with people with all sorts of different needs, and it was a place where people pushed others out of the way to have their own needs met first. Have you ever felt like you were being pushed out of the way when you needed some help? Have you been led to believe that other people’s needs are always a bit more important than your own? We recall that that’s not true in Mental Health Awareness Month. Your needs and concerns are as important as the needs and concerns of others. God wants you to be well; and, sometimes, that means it’s OK to take care of yourself first. Aren’t you told to put an oxygen mask on your own face before you try to help others when you are flying in an airplane? It’s OK for you to look at your own needs and get the help you need instead of always looking at the needs and concerns of others as being somehow more important. You are important to God. You need to be important to yourself, too.
The pool at Bethesda was also a place of many rules. There were rules about who was allowed to get into the water, and there were rules about who was not allowed to climb into the water. There were rules about what you were allowed to do on the Sabbath, and there were rules about what you were not allowed to do on the Sabbath. And, when Jesus told the man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda to take up his mat and walk, Jesus was telling the man that it’s OK to break the rules.
What kind of rules to YOU have? That’s something else to think about during Mental Health Awareness Month.
Do you believe that the needs of other people are always more important than your own needs (this is especially important for those who are caregivers and for those who work in caring professions)? Do you believe that you shouldn’t tell people how you feel because it might make you look weak and unable to cope? Here’s one for the men…. Have you been taught that “real men” don’t share their feelings because they are big, tough people who go into the world to growl and conquer? How would you respond if a friend told you that he/she is depressed, or suicidal? Would you say something like, “It’s really not that bad”? Would you say something like, “You just need to be more positive”? Would you listen carefully to what’s being said and allow the person to be both honest and authentic? Would you try to help the person find needed support and assistance?
Jesus once asked the man who was sitting beside the pool at Bethesda, “Do you want to get well?” Saying, “Yes!” to that question is the first big step you can take during Mental Health Awareness Month. Don’t be afraid to be break the rules, and to pick up your mat and walk. You deserve to have peace and happiness in life. God’s hand is reaching out to you, right now, and you are NOT alone. Be authentic. Ask for what you need. The light at the end of the tunnel as NOT been turned off. God will carry you to better days (sometimes with the help of people who are around you). You will discover wellness again. You will, one day, be able to look at the world with a smile again. “Do you want to get well?” If you are struggling, right now, today is the day to take a little step. Break the rules! Pick up your mat and walk. Ask for what you need and trust that God is going to provide it.
My wife enjoys buying picture frames in antique stores.
She has a keen sense of observation and an even more deep awareness of how picture frames can enhance the things that we hang on the walls in our home. She, also, leaves many picture frames hanging on the walls in antique stores because she does not like the frame, or because she decides that a particular frame will not enhance our home décor.
Do you realize that you frame things every day?
You frame everything that happens in your life, and then you decide whether what has happened is good or bad, beneficial or harmful. We all think about life in certain ways because of our past experiences, because of our personality, because of the ways that we’ve learned to interact with others, and because we want to continue to be a part of groups that are important to us.
But the challenge is that how we frame things affects the ways we interpret almost everything that happens in our lives.
Think about a story from the life of Jesus. Jesus taught and healed people in the opening of Mark’s Gospel. Jesus preached in Galilee, cleansed a leper, healed a person who was paralyzed, calmed a storm, and even raised a little girl from the dead. And Jesus tried to do the same thing in Nazareth – his own hometown. But then framing became a challenge. We read that people were astonished by Jesus’ teaching (Mark 6:2), and people were amazed by the incredible things that Jesus was doing. But all of a sudden, people began to put a different frame around what was happening. “Is not this the town carpenter?” (Mark 6:3) “Isn’t this the son of Mary, and a man whose own brothers and sisters are still living in town?” (Mark 6:3) And, suddenly, people who were astonished by what Jesus was doing became offended because of the way they framed things. In fact, Jesus even says to them, “A prophet is not without honor, except in his hometown and among his relatives and in his own household.” (Mark 6:4) And it is all because of framing. The ways that we interpret what happens in our lives are always shaped by our past experiences. And, when we put a nice frame around the things that are happening to us, all is well. But when put an ugly frame around things, we can be drawn into conflicts, disagreements, and broken relationships.
The way you frame what happens in your life is often far more important than what has actually happened.
You are far more likely to be drawn into conflict with people when you wrap things that happen in an ugly frame. You are far more likely to close your ears to the thoughts and opinions of people who disagree with you when you frame everything with an “us” versus “them” mentality. The frames that we put around the actions of other people can be shaped by our biases about the color of a person’s skin, the language that a person speaks, the religion that a person embraces, or even the place of a person’s birth. Ugly frames can be created by political differences, by different visions of the future, by a fear of the unknown, and even by the always-shifting sands of time that bring unwanted change.
But framing can also help us to live our lives in a better way.
We can try to remember that most people are trying to do their best in life even during times of conflict. We can try to unravel the “us” versus “them” type of thinking that is so prevalent these days and try to listen more carefully to the ideas and opinions of others. We can try to remember that people who have a different skin color, who speak another language, who embrace a different religion, or who were born in another county have experiences in life that we do not fully understand. We can try, as the 16th Century Protestant reformer, Martin Luther, suggested, to put better-looking frames around the things people do by trying to interpret their actions in the best possible way.
And so, I would like to challenge you to think about framing this week.
What kind of frames are you putting around things that happen in your life? How are the frames you put around things affecting your relationships? How are the frames that you put around large groups of people interfering with your ability to see that we have been created by a God who tells us that we all have both dignity and worth? How can the frames that you put around the things that create conflict in your life be changed, so that times of conflict can lead to deeper levels of understanding and appreciation for people who do not always agree with you?
We have been journeying through a time in our lives that none of us could have predicted. The pandemic left us scrambling to find ways to remain connected to each other and made us find new ways to do almost everything. We stretched our wings, and we embraced new technologies. Many of us adjusted to the pandemic by wearing masks in public and by not eating in restaurants. The pandemic forced us to find new ways to do things like shopping for groceries and it even closed our churches. And now, at least in the United States, we are moving toward brighter days, even as people continue to struggle in other countries.
If you are at all like me, you are tired and overwhelmed. I am tired of adjusting my life to accommodate something that I cannot even see. I am tired of a wearing a mask in public and of remaining distant from people I love. The political atmosphere in America wearies me, and I have noticed that many people are both edgy and more critical. Conflicts fester when people are tired and overwhelmed. We find it more difficult to interpret the actions of others in kind and generous ways when we are stretched and exhausted. And when that happens, relationships in every part of our lives can become strained.
And so, what are some things that we can do to keep moving forward together?
We need to begin by realizing that we are all tired; and that, when people are tired, they sometimes do things they normally would not do. This is a time when grace and forgiveness are important in our relationships. I’ve often used the image of people being like porcupines. We can live and move about relatively painlessly, even in times of challenge and uncertainty, when we are alone. But, when we begin to draw close to one another – especially when we are tired and overwhelmed – it is easy for us to stick each other and to be stuck by the quills of other porcupines. People who are tired sometimes say things in less-than-helpful ways. People who are tired sometimes misinterpret the words and actions of other people. We are not always grace-filled when we are edgy; and, because of that, our relationships with other people can be dramatically changed. That is why grace and forgiveness are both necessary and important right now. Martin Luther, the 16th-Century Protestant reformer, taught that the 8th Commandment is all about learning to interpret the actions of other people in the best possible way. That is something that we can all try to do to keep moving forward together.
We need to remember that people who are tired need other people to come alongside of them and to help them to carry the load. Healthcare workers, teachers, pastors and other people who live their lives serving others are both exhausted and burned out. A teacher told me, just last week, that she feels like she has been drinking from a firehose for more than a year. Another teacher told me that he wishes that people could understand how much needs to happen behind the scenes to make an Internet link work. Healthcare workers, pastors and other people who have devoted their lives to serving others have decided to switch jobs or retire early. Many churches and other organizations have battled their way through the pandemic with a very short front line. This is a time when the frontline needs your help, your support and your encouragement. That is something else that we need to remember as we keep moving forward together.
Lastly, we need to realize that people who are tired and overwhelmed need other people to encourage them, not simply criticize what they are trying to do. We need to remember that we are all trying to do our best in these challenging times. A little note, a text message, an email or even a short telephone call can brighten someone’s day. The spirits of people on the front line are lifted when other people point out what is working and what is going well. I have, fortunately, been blessed by many encouraging messages throughout the pandemic. What can you do, right now, to expand the circle of appreciation? What could you do, today, to ensure that someone who is working hard to make good things happen knows that her/his time and efforts are appreciated? Part of moving forward together includes lifting up what is working well, encouraging people who are working hard, and spurring others on with kind thoughts and caring words, so that they know that they are appreciated – even when things that are happening are not quite perfect.
We are moving forward together and our journey will carry us toward better days. And, if we can just keep these three simple things in mind, we will find new and exciting ways to come out of these challenging times stronger and more healthy than we were before the pandemic hit. Who can you lift up today? How could you stand beside someone who continues to pour out time and energy both freely and willingly in these challenging days? How is God is at work in your life, right now, to help you to be an encourager who blesses and stands beside people who are doing their best to make good things happen?
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.
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.
Where are you seeing Jesus in your life these days?
Jesus brings us together to sing hymns, to listen to stories from the Bible, to pray and to discover God’s presence in our lives. And then, Jesus sends us back into the world. This week, some of us will work 40 – maybe 50 – maybe 60 – perhaps even 70 hours. Some of us are deeply engaged in parenting during these unusual times. Some of us will spend this week enjoying our retirement. Others may spend the week caring for a loved one, going to doctors’ appointments, facing the challenges of aging and perhaps being reminded that the “Golden Years” aren’t golden at all.
Jesus calls us to follow Him and to go back into the world to make it a better place. And, as we do that, Jesus travels with us, points us in the right direction, opens doors in front of us that we can’t open by ourselves, lifts us up and keeps us strong. And, in the midst of that, Jesus speaks words of encouragement: “Come to me, all who are weary and who are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me for I am gentle and lowly in heart and you will find rest for your souls.”
The image of yoke is one that often confuses us.
We know that yokes are placed upon the shoulders of animals who are being required to do heavy labor. We know that a yoke joins animals to a wagon or, perhaps, to a plow. But, did you know that a yoke serves a different purpose? Yokes bind animals together and make them into a team. Yokes bind animals together because there are jobs on a farm that are simply too big for one, single animal. Yokes spread the burden.
And so, what does it mean to be “yoked” to Jesus?
Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that I’m never alone. It reminds me that Jesus is with me in the times when I don’t feel that there’s enough of me to go around. Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that, with God beside me, I can do far more than I could ever imagine doing by myself. Being yoked to Jesus reminds me that God is intimately involved in my life, that Jesus is helping to carry my burdens, and that Jesus is with me even when I am feeling alone and overwhelmed by the circumstances in my life.
Where are you seeing Jesus in your life these days?
Look into the eyes of the people who are around you this week. Can you see Jesus in the eyes of people at work? How does the love of Jesus shine into your life as you fulfill your role as a parent? Can you see Jesus in the eyes of your spouse or your partner (if you have one)? Perhaps, if you look hard enough, you’ll even see Jesus in the eyes of your doctor or nurse; in the eyes of a loved one who needs your help; in the eyes of a friend, child, pastor or member of your church? Jesus is with you.
And so, remember that you are not alone even if you’re feeling weary right now.
Jesus is walking beside you. Jesus is helping to carry your burdens and share the load. Perhaps, this week, you will come to sense that Jesus is right beside you (yoked to you) more deeply; so that, even in the times when you are weary and overwhelmed, you’ll find the strength, courage, faith and love that you need to meet the days ahead.
We can learn a lot about living faithfully by returning to the Jewish Exile.
The Babylonian King Nebuchadnezzar invaded the land of Judah, destroyed the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem; and, most likely, ordered the Ark of the Covenant to be destroyed. Homes and crops were burned. People were dragged away in chains and yokes, and they were now living in a strange country with different customs. And people began to dream about being able to return to what once was as they continued to live in exile.
Many of the rabbis that I know are referring to the Jewish Exile these days.
We’re not able to go where we want to go and to live our lives in the way that we’d like to live them. Many faithful Christians are still watching worship services online and are far removed from the worship spaces where they’ve come to know God. Some people in our country (and all around the world) are trying to explain away safety measures that we’ve been asked to take while others are refusing to wear any sort of face covering to make a political statement. We are responding to this crisis in so many different ways!
The coronavirus has brought grief into many of our lives.
We usually associate grief with the death of a loved one, but grief is something that’s far more complex. I am grieving because I’m not able to visit my grandchildren. Many young people are grieving because they didn’t get to attend a prom or graduation ceremony. We see young children acting out because they miss playing with their friends. We’re sensing that things are different and that it may not be possible to just return to doing things that we once took for granted in the near future. And many people are still grieving the loss of their job or even of their home, aren’t they? Some are grieving because we know that things that we cherish are going to be different.
We often wish that we could just go back to what once was when we are grieving.
And that’s what we see in Jeremiah 28:1-9. The false prophet Hananiah has started to talk with people who were living in Exile about being able to go back to what once was. Hananiah speaks about bringing sacred vessels back into the Temple (which, remember, had been flattened like a pancake by the Babylonians) and returning to the place that the Jewish people had called their home for generations. It’s almost as if Hananiah doesn’t want to accept the fact that things have changed, and he’s trying to encourage people to believe that they can simply return to what once was and watch the storm just go away. Perhaps you’d like to be able to do that today? But Jeremiah wasn’t that optimistic.
One of the things that I’ve learned in life is that our lives are often lived in cycles.
Good times are almost always followed by bad times; and even the worst times in our lives can give way to much better times. Think about grief. We mourn over what we’ve lost and wish that we could have it once again, but life moves forward and we change as we adjust to our new reality. Christianity is built upon the death and the resurrection of Jesus: Life being lost in death and death giving way to new life. Our faith reminds us of the fact that God blesses us with new life even while we’re still caught in our grief.
Now, think about the Church.
We were knocked off-center when churches needed to close; and yet, in the midst of this pandemic, churches that had never done so in the past have incorporated electronics in their ministry. That’s new life! People who don’t normally attend worship services are listening to sermons and are participating in online worship services. That’s new life! We’ve had the chance to improve our methods of communicating with each other. That’s new life! The church that I am serving is even working with several other congregations to launch an online Vacation Bible School for children in the next few weeks. That’s new life! Leaders throughout the Church have been imagining new ways to share the Gospel of Jesus Christ in more creative ways – realizing that, even as we grieve, Jesus moves us toward something new and exciting and life-filled. That’s new life! That’s resurrection!
Listen to Psalm 89:1 – “I will sing of the steadfast love of the Lord, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations!”
This week, I’d like to encourage you to do three things:
Think about grief and about how grief might be affecting you, right now. It’s not easy to be told that you can’t do things that you like to do. And it’s very natural for people who are grieving to imagine what it would be like to just to back to what once was even though it’s not possible anymore.
Pray for the many people who need to make big decisions today and remember that they are trying to do the best that they can even when you disagree with what they think needs to be done.
Pray for patience and offer some of your time, energy, vision and creativity to those who are struggling to discover how we can best return from our Exile and proclaim the message of God’s love and the hope of the Resurrection in new and exiting ways as the people of God, today. You can be a part of the new life that Jesus is creating!