The 6th in a series, The Puzzle We Call Faith
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer. Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers.
Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
As part of my work here, I’ve done countless weddings, often for young couples. One of the things I ask them in the sessions preceding their wedding is to talk about their parents’ marriages; including how their parents handle conflict. On occasion, people will say, “I’ve never seen my parents fight, I don’t think they have many conflicts.”
I don’t believe them. In my experience, we all have conflict in our trusted relationships. If child doesn’t think we do, it’s more likely we a) don’t handle it openly, b) don’t let them see it. Rather, I suggest, healthy couples learn how to fight, and to fight fair. Some of us have learned good skills from our parents and other people, others not so much. Most of us face issues down the road in our relationships that put our conflict management skills to the test. This is simply part of sharing life together.
The dynamics in a congregation have many similar threads. In a workshop 2 years ago for ecumenical leaders, run by the Lombard Mennonite Peace Center, a group of our leaders were asked, ‘where is anxiety in your congregation?’ The question wasn’t ‘do you have anxiety?’ The presumption was that all congregations have anxiety and periods of conflict. The question is ‘what are those issues? Are they chronic points of anxiety (money is often a big one) or acute and situational (like in a pastoral transition)? How do you handle conflict when it arises?’ The hope is that we minimize chronic anxiety so that we can handle the acute situations more deftly. Because as we all know, participating in congregations, participating in any collection of human beings, can be messy.
Look at us. Look around. We are flawed and full of awe. We come into church life with hopes and expectations, sometimes very high. We are seeking a sense of connection, transcendence, meaning and refuge from a wider culture that can be confusing or chaotic. In truth, congregations can be both deeply disappointing and incredibly redeeming. They do point us towards transcendence and the divine, and they remind us of our humility – our hummus – our feet made from clay. We hope and pray for a community that calls us to our best, but deals honestly and gently with our mistakes and missteps.
(Sidebar – sometimes when I mention conflict in worship, people wonder if there is something brewing they don’t know about. There isn’t. The worst thing I could do is use my sermon time to ‘make my case’ against someone else – especially if I were to layer it with a half-cocked spirituality).
At every new member class since I came here, I’ve told a story about what drew me to this congregation in the interview process. There were many things, but one dynamic stood out above all else.
I was a finalist for two churches, ORUCC and a suburban church in the Twin Cities. Both churches had fired their previous senior pastor. Both situations involved the misuse of alcohol. One church, this one, framed the situation as a chance to learn about their role in conflict, their patterns of handling conflict. They brought in outside help to learn new behaviors and make new agreements around how to live in the future. The other church said the firing had nothing to do with them, it was all the pastor’s fault. They just needed to find the right pastor to return them to their glory days.
One church, this one, said ‘we are looking for someone to grow with us in this new understanding we’re living into.” The other church seemed to be saying, ‘we’d like a perfect pastor who doesn’t screw up, but if you do, we’ll have to fire you.’
Front and center in both congregations was the issue of conflict. Just as obvious were there levels of maturity in how they chose to engage, learn from and appreciate conflict.
It was in 1996 that this congregation engaged in a months long and fruitful mediation process with the aforementioned Lombard Peace Center director. At the end, you an agreement called “Living In Love In Times Of Disagreement.” Central to this agreement were some basic principles about how to behave when we disagree or feel anxious.
- Speak to interests not issues, speak in I statements and do not engage in name calling. I remember a small example in my first 6 months when we held an after-worship discussion about the topic of worship itself.
One founding member said, “I hate clapping in church.” Another active member responded, “Oh, I actually love clapping.” The ‘issue’ was clapping, but my follow up question sought to help us explore each person’s interest. “Why don’t you, or do you, like clapping?”
The founding member said, “I come to worship for a more meditative experience, to send God’s presence in the quiet. Clapping disrupts that contemplation.”
The other active member responded, “I come to connect and to celebrate God’s work in the world. Clapping helps me make that connection.”
What’s the way forward? Well, for one, it is infinitely easier now that we’ve recognized the beauty of each person’s interest. We love one another and respect each other’s intents. Was, or is the issue of clapping resolved? No. But by listening to each other’s interests as human beings, we’ defused that issue’s power to divide us immensely. Over time, I think we’ve learned to find a way that honors both interests as much as possible. We do clap, but we’ve also learned to respect that if music has brought us to a profoundly meditative moment, clapping isn’t helpful or necessary.
(As I side note, this feels like every marriage I know. The ‘issues’ are quite mundane – dishes, clutter, TV preferences, etc – but they are always flowing from more substantive interests. So when people say churches always fight about the color of the carpet, it’s never about the carpet!)
Other aspects of this Living in Love commitment included:
- Pay attention to process so that everyone’s voice has a chance to be heard – agree upon the process ahead of time, and follow that process to the end.
- Be clear, if voting, about what it takes to say ‘the congregation approved this.” For us the standard is 67%. Sometimes we indicate ahead of time that it needs to be higher.
And maybe most importantly,
- Practice being a non-anxious presence, turn to wonder when you find something troubling. Accept and receive forgiveness
True to form, we’ve had conflicts in my time. These have included personal conflicts with colleagues and some of you; as well conflicts or periods of high anxiety as a congregation.
- When we began renovating of the sanctuary shortly after I came here – we saw first-hand how changing our sacred space is not for the faint of heart.
- In the early 2000’s, we got caught in the middle of a Boy Scouts of America debate about barring adult men who were gay as leaders. Despite many lifelong scouts among us, despite open and affirming leaders of local troops from this congregation, the Leadership Team felt that ethically we had to take a stand against the national body’s hateful and hurtful rhetoric. It was complicated and tense.
- When we embarked on a capital campaign in 2010, the process included a suggested contribution amount for each of us. Sparks flew. I know of three families who left the church. We reached our goal and I think most of us are proud of what we accomplished, but embracing a large and ambitious goal brought out feelings of all kinds.
- We’ve had to work through internal issues, including whether to keep going with the Interfaith Hospitality Network about 7 years ago, whether we should become a sanctuary church, how we handle conversation and information around one of our members who was arrested for sexual misconduct, etc. All of these, and other issues, have proved challenging.
In all cases, there were legitimate and honest differences of opinion, different interpretations of the same event. The issue is rarely about who’s right and who’s wrong. It’s about how we human beings live together amidst the inevitable conflicts and anxiety.
Apparently, this is nothing new. The early church was arguing about things large and small from the get go. Who’s in and who’s out? How to care for widows? How to talk about Jesus? Who should be in leadership?
The Apostle Paul speaks to conflict many times. This passage from Romans is rooted in his admonition to be intentional and thoughtful.
Let love be genuine; hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good; love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit…. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, …do not claim to be wiser than you are. Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all.
Among other things, it is his way of saying, ‘remember who you are.’ Remember who you follow, the central principles and commitments that ground us as a community. In short, remember Jesus’s way.
English poet, David Whyte adds to that by suggesting that community (or friendship) is the laboratory where we learn how to be human.
One of the great disciplines of human life… is friendship. A good friend is always inviting us out beyond ourselves… All long friendships are based on mutual forgiveness, because you will always trespass against your friends’ sensibilities. You will always say the wrong thing at the wrong time, and they will have to forgive you. That’s why they’re still friends. You will have to forgive them too. (David Whyte, “Poetry from the Onbeing Gathering”, www.onbeing.org)
As he continues, I think he speaks to the heart of how congregational life can help us be something other than we’d be without it.
We tend to think of vulnerability as a kind of weakness, something to be walked around. But it’s interesting to look at the origin of the word, from the Latin word “vulneras,” meaning “wound.” It’s really the place where you’re open to the world, whether you want to be or not. …(might we) think about it not as a weakness but as a faculty for understanding … the ability to follow the path of vulnerability.
And yet, as human beings, we’re constantly hoping that we can find a pathway …where we won’t have our hearts broken… Anything you care about will break your heart. It will move out of your line of control and understanding at times.
And that puts you into a proper relationship with the world. Why? Because you have to ask for help. You have to make the invitation to the people who will help you create the conversation, which will help you follow that path of vulnerability into the world and give your gift to others along the way.
And on this day when we celebrate a baptism, it is worth chuckling (sort of) how parenting falls into this dynamic.
(Take parenting for example) (Our) first thought is to bring a child into the world, to bring joy into the world …. But you’re also bringing your own particular form of intimate heartbreak into your life. There’s never been a mother or father, since the beginning of time, who hasn’t had their heart broken by their child.
And they don’t even need to do anything spectacular… all they really need to do is move away from you, grow out of the child you first knew, grow out of infancy, grow out of their adolescence, (eventually living with you) as spies and saboteurs …, watching your every psychological move.
Until one day, when you have your back turned to them in the kitchen, one day when you’re making something for them, the emotional stiletto goes in exactly the right place, and you say, “How did you know exactly where to place it?”
And they say, “I’ve been watching you.”
You can’t have a child without being humiliated. They will see your flaws. They will see where you are not held together properly.
Any real conversation (the root of all community) moves along an axis of vulnerability. Without vulnerability, there’s no conversation. So, what would it be like, actually, to cultivate a robust vulnerability? To stop trying to follow a road where I won’t have my heart broken? The only way you cannot have your heart broken is not to care. (David Whyte, “Poetry from the Onbeing Gathering”, www.onbeing.org)
What a lovely goal for a congregation – to cultivate “a robust vulnerability”. In a tense, guarded and defended world, what an offering of grace such vulnerability can be. We are part of this community of faith we care. We care about each other and the world. We are here working out what this vulnerability looks like. We are leaning into grace and forgiveness in a time when heartbreak and violence and fear are running rampant.
We are practicing for life, and in the midst, realize this is the life we want. None of us goes seeking conflict; but neither should any of us put this congregation or any other on some unattainable human pedestal. In fact, show me a church that never has conflict and I’ll show you a church that has very little ‘there there.’
The invitation of the apostle Paul is rooted in being genuine, zealous, hopeful and perseverant. I think in times of transition we could add to this list an extra dose of kindness.
I don’t remember exactly how much this church paid to have Lombard do that mediation process – but it was a lot of money – well over $10,000 in 1996. Richard Blackburn has often said the willingness to pay is one way to demonstrate you are committed to learning, growing, adapting and evolving. I would say it was some of the best money ever spent. All of your pastors since 1996 have participated in Lombard trainings, as have many lay people. I have been trained to lead some of their workshops, and Tammy Martens now sits on their board of directors. John Lemke, Bruce Olsen and Karen Falkner spoke on an anniversary fundraising video recently created. In fact, I wonder if we shouldn’t be given status as honorary Mennonites!
The real point is that we are many things in the church, but conflictRus! Let us not run from it, but let us pay attention to what makes us anxious (and name it), let us lean into the risk of vulnerability, let us be kind, patient, ardent in love and generous with forgiveness. Let us pull one another beyond ourselves, into the abundant grace of God and joy of messy humanity. May it be so.