9/11 Pulpits

This Sunday is the 10th anniversary of the 9/11/01 attack on our nation.  I'm one of many blogging about it.  Do I have anything unique or original to say?  Probably not, but here's what's on my mind.

Being a pastor myself, I've been wondering and praying about what kind of words will come from all of my other colleagues who have been entrusted with a pulpit and a microphone this weekend.

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of confusing Christian nationalism; a big jumbled mess of the cross, the flag, and Constitution.  For those preaching this message, they have at their disposal hundreds of slick, well-produced videos displaying Christian scripture and imagery against the backdrop of the stars and stripes.  Some will hear that we need to "take America back" (back to where or when?).  Some will hear vague, implicit suggestions that we brought this on ourselves by kicking God out of American life (although I wasn't aware we had the power or authority to remove God from somewhere He wishes to be).

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of the evils of other religions, particularly Islam.  We have a ripe opportunity, should we want to take advantage of it, to continue to demonize and lump and segregate.  When a peaceful, progressive group of Sufi Muslims wanted to build a community center (not a mosque) in Manhattan that would be open to everyone, we proved once again that we see the 9/11 attacks as an act of Islam instead of an act of terrorism.

No doubt, in some churches, the people will hear a message of the fantastical illusion that we are really all the same.  They will hear a good and well-intentioned message of reconciliation that also minimizes or denies the deep differences that exist between people and our religious beliefs.  Although there are times that we must get beyond "the things that divide us," it is also sometimes those very particularities that give our lives the meaning and clarity that we crave.

No doubt, in some churches, preachers will declare that "Christ is the hope of the world" but in saying so will actually mean that Christians are the hope of the world, not recognizing the difference.  Religious supremacy, though it is part of the problem, will be touted as the solution.

But it is my hope and prayer that from most pulpits there will be a thundering confidence in the teachings of the man we claim to be our Savior.  No longer can we say "blessed are the peacemakers" (Matt 5:9) while using rhetoric that divides and angers.  No longer can we say "overcome evil with good" (Romans 12:21) and continue to repay evil with evil.  No longer can we say that God loves the world (John 3:16) and wants all to be saved (Ezek 18:23) while wishing for and taking pleasure in the destruction of our enemies.  "For if you love those who love you, what credit is that to you?"  (Luke 6:32).  No longer can we give lip service to things like love and forgiveness but resort to some kind of ethic of necessity and claim that they don't work when the rubber meets the road and we're faced with actual adversity.  As the saying goes, anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm.

There's no problem with the phrase "never forget."  Indeed, we should remember and honor those who lost their lives and the sacrifice of the brave first responders.  But in context, "never forget" often seems to mean "never let go of anger and vengeance."  As with any other tragic, or untimely death, we cannot bring them back, and it is not more death and destruction that will provide the peace and comfort that we seek.  I believe God wove certain moral precepts into the fabric of creation.  Do we believe in our own convictions, or not?

Those who Jesus called "salt of the earth" are to be the infusion of what's good and right while the rest of the world is trapped in the relentless downward spiral of action/reaction and an eye for an eye.  Those who Jesus called to be the "light of the world" and "a city on a hill" are to take the moral high ground that we claim to have, showing that the way of peace is good and true and right.  May we have the courage to preach and live the teachings of the Jesus in a time and on an anniversary when we need them most.


Rare Reconciliation

How do you solve interpersonal conflict with others?  Avoid it?  Argue it out?  Post your grievances on Facebook or send a mass email?

A friend of mine is a local Presbyterian minister, and their church began a new Sunday evening service.  She had invited me to it, and since this Sunday evening was the last one I would have free before programming begins at my own church, my family and I went.

Part of the scripture for the evening was Matthew 18:15-17, the somewhat well-known passage from Jesus about how to solve interpersonal conflict.  I was reminded again of the great practicality and wisdom of the passage.  It is great passage; one that is sometimes misunderstood but is remarkably compatible with some of the best teaching out there on how to address interpersonal conflict and achieve reconciliation.

The passage begins, "If a brother or sister sins against you..."

"Against you" is a text variant, found in only some of the ancient manuscripts.  Most likely, a later editor added the words seeing that this was clearly the intent of the passage and wanted to clarify.  There are sins against God, sins against others, and even sins against ourselves.  It is clear as we read on that the passage is concerned with sins that negatively impact another human.  This is an important distinction, because I have personally witnessed people use this verse as an excuse for acting as a "sin monitor" and approaching their relationships as "holier than thou."  The content of the passage and the words "against you" should serve as a reminder that some stuff is none of our business and is best left between the other person and God or whomever they sinned against.

Verse 15 continues, "...go and point out the fault, just between the two of you."  Oh, if only we could do this!  This is the Bible's clearest injunction against triangulation.  We triangulate all the time, sometimes subconsciously.  One of the key concepts of Bowen's Family Systems Theory, this is when person A has a problem with person B, and person A goes to person C hoping he/she will "deliver the message" or take care of the problem in some way.  Of course, there's nothing wrong with A going to C to talk about the conflict, but the problem occurs when A wants C to take action or when C becomes a middle man.  Such situations only make conflict worse and more complicated.  So why do we triangulate?  Quite simply, it's easier.  It takes much more courage and maturity to deal with a problem one-on-one and in private.  You're forced to deal with the issue and the feelings of the other person rather than face-saving or image-building.  But as with most things in life and Jesus' teachings, the harder way is the best way (the "narrow gate" - Matt 7:13-14).  Triangulation calms our immediate anxieties about the situation, but makes the problem worse in the long run.

Direct, one-on-one communication very often results in reconciliation or a resolution, or at least minimizes the conflict's urgency and impact.  If no one ever triangulated, we wouldn't often need steps 2 and 3.  But alas...

Verse 16 says, "If they will not listen, take one or two others along, so that ‘every matter may be established by the testimony of two or three witnesses'" (referencing an ancient precept from Deuteronomy 19:15).  This is where we start to squirm a little.  Doesn't this sound like ganging up on the person?  It's actually nothing of the sort; it's really a reference to mediation.  It's still A and B talking to each other, with the difference that this time they are accompanied by some "objective bystanders" who can offer guidance and perspective.  It's also a way, in a conflict severe enough that one-on-one doesn't do it, to ensure that things are not misinterpreted or that lies aren't told about what happened in the conversation.  This is not behind-the-back gossip where the person can't defend himself or herself, nor is it a "gang-up."  It's the next step in reconciliation (not winning).

Verse 17 goes on to offer step 3, which should rarely if ever be required.  Step 3 really makes us uncomfortable, and doesn't sound right.  But we have to keep in mind that most people skip step 1, and sometimes step 2.  Consequently, the few instances some of us have seen of step 3 being used have been destructive, public situations when the appropriate private steps have not been taken.  Verse 17 says, "If they still refuse to listen, tell it to the church."   Two important points here:  1) This is all for the goal of reconciliation, not vindication.  2) The "church," properly defined, is a group of close-knit, family like individuals who love and support one another.  These steps don't work without the proper goals and relationships in place.  Stone-faced church business meetings calling for the ouster of someone is nothing of what Jesus speaks here.  It's also important to note that the offender is still supposed to be present, able to defend or speak for him/herself.

The conclusion of the passage sounds the most harsh of all:  "If they refuse to listen even to the church, treat them as you would a pagan or a tax collector."  But the important point here is in a good question that was asked by the minister delivering the message Sunday night:  "How did Jesus treat pagans and tax collectors?"  Just when we think we finally have the right to shun and feel self-vindicated, we are actually being asked to look at this person with compassion as a "lost sheep" (Luke 15:1-7) and go out of our way to offer grace to them and work for their restoration back to the family.

This is hard.  But it works.  I pray that you and I would have the wisdom and courage to deal with one another in this way.