Thursday, July 20, 2017

Conflict management . . .

     Conflict.  I had an easy decision this week when it came to discerning the text for my sermon.  Let’s face it, our lives, our parish, our church, the Church, and our country are in the midst of a great deal of conflict.  It was almost too easy for me on Monday when I peeked at the readings.  The Gospel lesson was pretty self-explanatory, or at least explained by Jesus.  There’s not much I can add to that.  And Romans is more suited to a series, I think, that simply dropping in for a “one off.”  Still, it might have been too easy, at least until the week got going.
     The confirming detail, I suppose, was a conversation I had with a pastor on my bike at the gym.  As many of you know, particularly those who use that conflict-fosterer we call Facebook, I’ve been riding a mock Tour in honor of The Tour at the Y with David and a few thousand idiots from around the world.  I say idiots while in the midst of the pain and suffering.  When I finish next week, we will be brave, competitive souls who were seeking to improve our fitness, or some other such nonsense.  Now, I am just convinced we all lost our minds.  But as I was riding Friday, I noticed the guy next to me reading a commentary on Second Peter.  So I took a shot and asked him if he was preparing a sermon.  Naturally, he was not thinking and asked me how I knew.  Now, I used to be able to say that no one else but clergy preparing for sermons and seminary students writing papers ever bothered to read commentaries.  For most people, the Bible is thick enough.  They don’t want to read a 300-400 page book on a couple page letter by Peter that discusses context and grammar and theological concepts.  Then I met Larry and Tom, but that’s another sermon!
     After realizing his reading material was a bit obvious, he said he was.  And we began a relationship based in conflict.  I should be fair here and confess that I was giving as well as I got.  He had his preconceptions, and I had mine.  Plus, I was in the midst of a climb of 1900 feet, so I was in some pain.  My filters and shields were in an off position to conserve energy!  He knew all about the Episcopal Church and our love of Scripture, so he felt the need to explain to me a bit of the history of 2 Peter.  I knew all about the Baptist Church, and so I expressed some wonder at his likely ability to stretch a short letter into hours of sermons that would be long on law and short on grace while complimenting him for being daring and not preaching on money this week.
     Obviously impressed with my knowledge of Baptist sermons, he wanted to know what new book I would be preaching on instead of Scripture.  When I told him I was leaning towards a conversation on conflict from Genesis 25, he told me he was surprised.  The way I said it made him think I thought there were more than one sermon on that small piece of Scripture.  When I allowed that I did but that I felt the conflict it raised was more important to my flock, our conversation turned serious.  He was preaching on 2 Peter and the call to cast out the wolves in sheep’s clothing.  In particular, he was upset about a stalwart’s betrayal.  He was consumed by the revelation that Eugene Peterson supported Same Sex Marriage.  He was not the only one on Friday.  My Facebook feed blew up a bit over that revelation as well.  I see some faces wondering who this Peterson guy is.  Those of you who are familiar with The Message translation of the Bible will know the name.  Peterson is usually given all the credit or all the blame for that translation made famous around here by Anne Williams.  Most of those posting about it on Facebook were pastors who loved Peterson’s work or those trying to convince Christendom that gay marriage is something that can be blessed by God.  Not a single Adventer posted about it, and I wondered how many in his flock were consumed by it, especially since Eugene Peterson is a Presbyterian.
     That led us into all kinds of fun discussion.  We talked a bit about Peterson, and he was suitably impressed that I had broken bread and had conversations with the man.  We debated how we should respond in light of mistakes made by those we admire.  Do we toss out all their works, or do we treat them as human beings?  We talked about sermons and their purposes.  We laughed how people seem to hear what they need to hear, even when we think our sermons were less than stellar.  We both laughed at how our great sermons never seem to be heard with the fervor with which we give them.  We debated a bit about the blessing of the lectionary, the fact that you and I are pushed along week in and week out and forced to deal with a significant portion of Scripture, rather than free to read only about subjects that interest the pastor.  And, of course, we talked a bit about bad leaders and about conflict in the church.  By the time Friday ended, we were not friends.  But we had passed beyond the eye rolls and assumptions.
     If I had any doubts about our relationship, they were removed Saturday.  While I was riding Saturday, he came in, plopped down on the bike next to me, and started chatting.  Peterson had issued a clarification.  The reporter had issued a rebuttal.  That whole story was turning into a mess.  He wished he was preaching on conflict in Genesis 25 now.  Really, it was not that bad.  He had to speak in general terms about bad leaders.  I just reminded him that he needed to be careful.  Someone in the audience might hear and evaluate him.  Isn’t that one way that congregations split?  We laughed and talked and grunted our way through our respective rides before wishing each other well for today.
     And while his and my early grenade lobbing was the confirming piece of conflict in my life, it was by no means the most influential or most significant.  I had some marriage counselling to do this week.  Boy, talk about conflict.  You know, there’s a reason we are only supposed to have only four meetings or less with couples.  By the time they make it to us, positions are often entrenched.  And the desire is for the clergy to decide in favor of one or the other.  We really should be mediators, but people want us so often to act as judges, the secret desire being that we long to believe that God is on our side in those marital disputes.  What, you think I don’t know?  You do know I have been married almost 26 years now?
     And usually people are not nearly so blunt as I am this morning.  They couch their desires in all kinds of euphemisms, but the rueful laughter of a moment ago simply tells me I am right.  And gentlemen, just to be clear, if you ask for a judgment I will side with your wife.  Remember that 26 year marriage thing I just mentioned.  What’s the first lesson of Fight Club—I mean marriage?  The wife is always right!  If I side with you, the sisterhood of all wives goes to work on my wife!  Whoa!  I meant that as a funny but the silence makes me think I hit closer to the truth than I knew!  Now you laugh.  But think about it, how important is conflict in a marriage?  How often do we as married couples deal with conflict?
     Heck, let’s extend that understanding to most of our relationships.  Barbara Jones herds the cats known around here as Parenting Adult Children.  That is all about conflict management.  Young adults who think they know everything vs. mature adults who are certain they know what’s best for all involved!
     If we experience conflict in families, should we really be surprised that we experience conflict elsewhere?  Part of interpersonal relationships in the workplace is learning to deal with conflict in a manner that does not impact productivity or the ability to do one’s job.  Disputes happen in the workplace all the time, right?  Every boss or manager knows that.  When are they forced to take action or get involved?  When the bottom line or morale is impacted.
     The same is true of school or clubs or service organizations.  The same is certainly true regarding parish life.  It makes sense on one level.  We seem to have conflict in interpersonal relationships.  We have a lot of interpersonal relationships at church.  Ergo, Holly’s transitive property sermon a couple weeks ago, we have conflict in the parish.  Can you believe it?  Mathematical principles you thought you would never need have come back to haunt you in sermons not once, but twice in three weeks!
     Look wider.  As most of you all know, I am a co-chair of the diocese’s task force on Same Sex Marriage.  Talk about conflict.  Sometimes we are so conflicted, I’m not sure we know what we are conflicted about.  This week I found myself in our conversations arguing that we should go and meet with a group that feels particularly injured by the bishop’s decision while many of those who disagree with the bishop’s decision wanted to avoid the meeting!
     Our conflict on that issue is merely representative of the conflict in the wider national church.  We are still dealing with lawsuits from actions and decisions that are a decade old.  Along the way, some of our brothers and sisters in LA found themselves in another conflict with their bishop.  And, as crazy as this sounds to my ears, some out there decided we needed a little more conflict in our church life so they are getting serious about revising the Prayer Book again!  Looking at your expressions, I get the sense you have enough conflict for now.
     And, lest anyone think we are the only ones in conflict, look at our Communion.  That relationship is like Shrek the Ogre with its layers of conflict.  That reminds me of another theme blowing up my feed a bit.  All my UK friends are up in arms over the recent decision to allow clergy not to wear a cassock, this black robe under my white surplice, while at work.  Some are mad at the decision; others are mad the church is even fighting about it in the first place!  But it is a thing that is causing huge conflict.
    Our country is in the midst of a couple decade long conflict.  I know my theory is that we in the Episcopal church forgot how to fight well and quit teaching our leaders and so the country suffers, but really our politicians take conflict to a whole other level.  Growing up in this country the legislative process was called sausage making.  I can remember President Reagan and Speaker O’Neil sitting down for drinks (like Episcopal priests had probably taught them in DC) and trying to figure out compromises on various issues.  Does anyone here think President Trump has that relationship with Schumer or Pelosi or even Ryan for that matter?  Do we recall fondly the friendships of President Obama and McConnell or Boehner, despite their differences?  Now you belly laugh?
     Given all the conflict in our lives, from close personal relationships to friendships to work to politics, is it any wonder God might have something to say on the matter?  Our story today and Genesis picks up on the transition from the second generation to the third generation of the Covenant family with God.  Notice again the time involved.  Twenty years have passed since Rebekah returned with the servant and met Isaac.  Twenty years!  These few chapters in Scripture, beginning with God’s call on Abraham, cover 45 years of history!  And out of all that life over a 45 year period, God spends a significant chunk of time teaching us about conflict.  Why?  Partly because I think we are stupid.  Or stubborn.  Take your pick.
     Look at Isaac.  Poor stupid Isaac.  Think of the predicament he is in.  For 20 years he has lived with a wife unable to conceive.  Granted, their biology understanding was limited, but they viewed reproduction in an agrarian way.  The man was the seed; the woman was the fertile soil.  So long as a guy could do his duty, infertility was seen as a woman’s issue.  Of course, Isaac sat at the feet of Sarah and Abraham.  Just to remind you, Isaac was the baby conceived in their late 90’s.  Yes.  This kid had parents in their hundreds changing his diapers, wiping his nose, and all that fun stuff.  I can only imagine the stories he heard as he grew up.  But it takes him 20 years to pray to God on behalf of his wife?  For 20 years she has born the whispers, the shame, the indignity of being unable to conceive.  She is the one who has had the secret sin that kept her from getting pregnant, just like his mother Sarah.  And now, after 20 years he prays?!  Ladies, for those of you who wonder why you cannot teach him to put the seat down when he is finished, just remember it could be way worse.  You could be married to Isaac.
     Now, I think I have been picking on us men for a bit much this morning, so let’s poke a little fun at the heroine of the story.  God blesses Rebekah and causes her to conceive twins.  Again, that’s one of those warning about being careful what we pray for.  Ladies who have had active babies in the womb can probably relate a bit to Rebekah.  When babies are active they poke ribs or organs, they host dance parties in the womb, and they train for the Olympic gymnastics team.  The two in Rebekah seem to be wrestling a good bit.  It gets to the point where Rebekah is sorry that she is pregnant.  In fact, she would rather die than continue to live pregnant.
     God speaks into her discomfort.  He tells her that two nations are within her womb and that they will always be contending with each other.  He also tells Rebekah that the older will serve the younger.  Many commentators like to soften Rebekah’s favoritism for Jacob because of this prophesy.  Since God told her that the younger will rule the older, she works to see that such happens in Jacob and Esau’s lives.  I suppose we can debate that during coffee hour.  Part of what is going on here is a teaching to Israel about their enemies.  Those who have studied Genesis can certainly answer questions in the Parish Hall, but Israel is taught that their enemies are really brothers or cousins or whatever family connection you want to name them.  Who are the Edomites?  They are the descendants of Esau, the brother of Jacob.  How should Israel treat them?  Like family.  Why do they contest with each other so much?  Because they are family.
     It’s an interesting dynamic in Scripture, the family.  I suppose most of us like to picture the Holy Family as a Silent Night manger scene—peaceful, serene, confident, expectant.  That scene is simply the fulfillment of God’s promises to Abraham.  From Abraham’s seed will come the Seed that will save the world.  But before we get to the Seed, we have to go through a lot of family life.  That means we have to go through a lot of contention and conflict.  While Scripture sometimes tells us why the Covenant passed through the generations the way that it did, it does not seem to spend much time propagandizing or making excuses for the way things work out.  Is Israel ever taught by God that it is superior to anyone?  No!  What gives Israel its distinction is the One who chose them.  In all other aspects they are unremarkable.  God chooses Jacob over Esau because Esau despised his birthright.  But just because God chose Jacob does not mean His care for Esau, or the descendants of Esau, is any less.  Think of Ishmael or any of Abraham’s later sons—they are all blessed, too.  They are not the line through which the Savior will be born, but they each become nations.  And what is Israel’s purpose?  To be a light to the world, a nation of priests.  Who benefits from their work if they are obedient?  The long lost family members.  Who suffers from their work if they are disobedient?  The long lost family members.  Does God care about the conflict and suffering that they impose on one another?  Of course He does.  Not only did He create all of them, but He made a great covenant with the father of all of them—Abraham.
     Which leads us back to this question of conflict.  Is conflict normal?  It seems to be.  The Silent Night episodes of Scripture are remarkably few and far between.  Scripture spends a great deal of ink teaching us about family squabbles, beginning with Cain and Abel and working its way through the New Testament.  Conflict is simply a natural consequence of sin, a natural reminder that we are not turned or attuned to God and His ways.  We fight in our own families, we are not usually being evil or mean—mostly, it seems to me we are acting selfishly or without consideration for anyone else.  The same is true in the parish.  Is anyone serving Satan here, or are we simply convinced God has anointed our own plans, our own desires, our own way?  And if we can’t all just get along in our families and parishes, how much more difficult is it for us to get along in the wider church, the Church, or the world?  At least within the Church we are claiming to be seeking the lordship, the reign, of Christ.  The outside secular world makes no such claim.
     And how do we do seeking the lordship of Christ?  Many Adventers have commented to me how the Palm Sunday liturgy with the crowd shouting, “Crucify Him!  Crucify Him!” causes them to realize we each had a role in the conflict with Jesus.  We were of the world and caused Him to be put to death for our sakes, so blind were we to doing things our own way.  Thankfully, God had a better way.  More gloriously, God reminds us that even in the midst of conflict, He hears, He sees, He cares, and He is working out His plan of salvation.  And no conflict, not even conflict that ends in death, can thwart His will.
     What’s the solution?  In the end, it is the recreation of all things, including us, so that we have the heart and mind of God.  Of course, assuming His return is not imminent, there are a couple actions we can all take.  First, we are engaging in perhaps the most important antidote to conflict—worship of God!  Each time we gather here to remind ourselves what God has done for us and for those around us, we are participating in an act that intentionally works to lower conflict.  We pray for each other and the world, we repent of our sins, and we ask God to give us strength to do the things He has given us to do in our life and work.  If we are serious in our worship, our conflicts cannot help but begin to lessen or even dissipate some.
     The second big antidote to conflict, I think, is prayer.  I know, I mentioned it as part of our corporate worship, but you and I are commanded to pray for one another always.  Sometimes we do that in corporate worship; often we should be doing it in our personal prayers or during the offices.  Ask our Lectio Devina group about prayer.  We may pray that God fix someone else in our lives, but more often than not, it is us, the ones praying, who are really changed.
     Another effective antidote against conflict is fellowship.  Spending time together and rejoicing in one another, learning about one another.  All our time spent together does not have to be in worship or prayer or teaching or theological speaking.  There’s a tremendous benefit in getting to know one another, in beginning to understand what motivates one another, and in celebrating and mourning life with one another.  Here at Advent, I should add there is nothing wrong with eating and drinking as we fellowship.  Think of how well supper clubs have done around here.  Heck, TGIF is better attended than some Sunday’s worship services.  Our picnics and barbecues do well.  Why?  Because we understand fellowship is important for strengthening those bonds that unite us.
     All of this, of course, is dependent upon whether we truly have contrite hearts.  One of the best parts of the Gospel is that God is able to overcome all our sins, all our mistakes, and all our misguided efforts to help Him.  But how much consideration do we really give to the biblical teaching that He thought each one of us was even worth saving, to begin with?  Often, I think we assume that we just simply the kinds of men or women that God would want to have serving Him.  A few have even mouthed the belief to me that God is lucky they are willing to serve Him.  In reality, though, He valued each of us the same.  In the end, He went to that Cross to redeem and to empower each and every one of us gathered here and even those not with us today, be they self-identified Adventers or simply unchurched.  If we believe that, if we have truly inwardly digested that understanding, then we should realize that all who are gathered here are gathered by Him.  And each and every person here gathered has something to offer the Body of Christ.  They may not be as handsome or pretty as we think we are, they may not wax poetically as we think we do, they may not be as strong or smart or whatever other trait we value in ourselves, but God values them every bit as much as He values us.  And this part of the Body of Christ needs them every bit as much as it needs us!  Perhaps if we spent a bit more time trying to see others through those loving eyes and hearts of Christ the conflict around us would die down just a bit.  Perhaps if more of us who claimed Christ as Lord professed such in deed as well as with our lips, we would become the peace-bearers He would have us be.  Who knows?  In a world full of conflict and bickering and shrill name-calling, how much more needed is it for those who have been saved by grace and offered a peace that passes all understanding to live what He has taught?  It almost as if He wants to work through us just as He did through the families of Sarah and Abraham, Isaac and Rebekah, and all those who came after that the world around us will be blessed, even as it has been blessed by Abraham and Sarah’s initial faith!

In Christ’s Peace,