Tag Archives: container

We contained a crisis and discovered a strategy for reconciliation

The church is famous for kicking sinners out, even though they are the very people the church is designed to serve! Like I said last week, I think troubled people need extra grace; they don’t need to be cut off just when they are in their deepest trouble. I think most churches are trying to figure out how to do that. We’ve dared to make our solutions to sin a feature of who we are. Some of our ideas seem so new to people, it has not been unusual for our approach to conflict to cause conflict!

This incident I want to tell you about, even though I’m not worrying about remembering all the facts perfectly, helped us create a useful approach to the kind of conflict that endangers people and threatens the whole church. We sum it up in our statement: Forgiveness and Containment.

A couple popped up from our South Philly neighborhood. Each of them were in a cell group. They seemed excited that she was pregnant and they wanted to get married. They were emotionally needy but both seemed to be gaining new faith. They wanted to become covenant members rather spontaneously and so we said, “Why not?” We baptized them, married them and made them covenant members on the same day! The week after they joined our covenant, their marriage went into a dramatic meltdown. Violence. Midnight phone calls. She locked him out and he stayed at his cell leader’s house. Come to find out she had a restraining order on him even as they were getting married and making a covenant! It was a spectacularly messy situation.

The people who cared for these newcomers spontaneously formed a circle around them. They quite consciously saw an opportunity to act as white corpuscles rushing through the body of Christ’s bloodstream to get to the wound. They formed what we later named a “container.”

How much choosing is really involved in sinning?

We realized we had a conviction about acting out Matthew 18 (read it!), since we are way Anabaptist and we think the Bible should be lived, not litigated. So embracing all these sinners, as we tend to do, was very educational!

There are many kinds of sinners – like all of us reading this. I do think some, like the people at the top of our leadership pyramid in the U.S., actually practice sinning, like lying and cheating, exploiting the poor, causing war, perpetuating racism, stirring up hatred and strife etc, etc. They choose to sin because it is practical and because they have the power to get away with it and they think that’s how it should be. But I think those kind of people might be rare.

Since I began practicing some psychotherapy, I’ve become even more convinced even sociopaths and people with a narcissistic personality disorder are doing a lot less choosing than I wish they were. If they were making choices all day, it would be easier to judge them – and I often wish I could forget Romans 14 and 15 and just condemn people. Many people are not choosing to sin, they think behavior Jesus followers might name sin is normal – even after they follow Jesus! They do less choosing than they do following their perverted desires and deeply-installed false gods that everyone around them names as good. It should not be too surprising if  they made a covenant before God with someone on whom they have a restraining order!

Glenda Jackson retired from being a member of the British parliament and came back to the stage in the past few years. She had a bit to say about the ascendant sense that choosing is what being human is about. (In the picture you can see her choosing to play King Lear on Broadway). She is famous for saying:

In coming to the basis of Thatcherism, I come to the spiritual part of what I regard as the desperately wrong track down which Thatcherism took this country. We were told that everything I had been taught to regard as a vice—and I still regard them as vices—was, in fact, under Thatcherism, a virtue: greed, selfishness, no care for the weaker, sharp elbows, sharp knees, all these were the way forward.

Like Glenda Jackson, I don’t believe we get to reconciliation if it all depends on individuals choosing it like they choose a make of car or brand of cigarettes. Righteousness happens in the context of relationship with God and others, not just in our personal choices. I don’t think Jesus calls us to jump into “disciplining” people when someone cannot hold themselves together, as if they just made a mistake. They need to be transformed, not just taught or forced to make better choices.

I think many people have an arrogant sense of their own responsibility and so that of others. People are bound in sin long before they come to some kind of realization that they can make other choices. Feeling sorry for their condition makes me sound soft on sin – but I honestly think people accused Jesus (Matt. 9) and Paul of the very same thing (see Romans 5:20-1 for why). I sometimes feel compelled to tell people, “I don’t think Jesus is all that interested in your sin. He already died because of it. His interest is forgiveness and restoration, not judgment. His choice and not yours is what is important.”

Our choice to be preoccupied with our sin and with the sin of others, makes a mockery of the Lord’s work. What we should be obsessed with is redemption and the possibilities of resurrection life — if I am not so preoccupied, I am not sure I am even a Jesus follower. He did not die so I would keep believing that my choices are what makes the universe happen, or worse, that my choices are what is ruining it.

The focus of Jesus is a new creation. Like Paul says, “Nothing counts but love and a new creation.” The Lord’s instructions to his disciples in Matthew 18 about forgiveness and reconciliation are among the most practical things he says about what he is after. It is teaching as fundamental as “Love your enemies” and “Love one another as I have loved you.” His teaching: “When you are sinned against, win your brother or sister back,” is basic to the new creation.

Create an atmosphere bent on reconciliation

Like I said, we kind of bumped into a means to work on reconciliation in the most damaging of circumstances when that young couple blew their marriage to smithereens and began to infect the church with their fury, neediness and demands. They were more than willing to get people on their side and fight it out. And they did not know how damaging they were being — and with a baby on the way! They needed to be contained so they would not infect the church. And they needed to be contained so the church would not naturally cleanse itself of them before they got a chance to come to their senses, be healed and be reconciled to God and one another.

In our statement, Forgiveness and Containment, we start by convincing people that forgiveness is essential. Most people believe this theoretically, but they don’t act like it is fundamental to their lifestyle. Any “discipline of correction” from Jesus begins with forgiveness. Jesus is correcting our lack of forgiveness by pouring grace on us. I won’t go into all we say about forgiveness except to say this: Conflict is inevitable in community. There is invariably trouble. Without forgiveness, community is only possible where people are superficial.

Many churches are devoid of real connection because people solve the sinning problem by outlawing conflicts instead of learning to be redeemed by our endless involvement in them. The best they do with problems is to say, “No problem” (or get away even quicker with “NP”), and pretend they are not angry. As a bad but persistent evangelist, I can tell you that many people don’t want to touch the church with a ten foot pole because Christians can’t do conflict, can’t be trusted, and seem to love drawing lines that cause conflict. In our neck of the woods, winning the culture war battles is definitely losing the cause of redemption because it is about having a lot of conflict while pretending nothing is happening personally.

What a cell should be best at is healthy conflict. But I dare say you don’t trust us enough to speak freely and wouldn’t have much of a life-giving strategy to process conflict should it happen during the next cell meeting or the next half hour. And if you came across a person who couldn’t feel, couldn’t budge, was visibly angry, what would happen?

Most of us would cut that peron off. In the short run, it seems far easier to simply “forget” than to forgive. Saying, “No problem,” often effectively means, “You are dead to me.” However, the mind is rarely so accommodating. It is very difficult for us to forget experiences and the feelings that go with them. If we make a practice of sweeping hurt under the rug, one day we will undoubtedly trip over the bump. In the long run, we need deep and penetrating acts of forgiveness to be free.

So Matthew 18 is a crucial primer on the practical work of forgiveness, which is the central feature of an authentic church that loves like Jesus loves – Jesus who we gladly proclaim died as an act of forgiveness among other things. How do we get there when these sin-ridden people blow themselves up in the middle of our perpetual Easter worship? I am going to say one more thing about creating an atmosphere of reconciliation. You can read our strategy for what to do when pollution threatens that atmosphere by looking over Forgiveness and Containment.

Forgiveness
“Forgiveness” — click for source.

Making and keeping a covenant is central to an atmosphere of reconciliation

When we got going, we decided to double down on what other churches were deserting: the covenant. At the center of our body are the covenant keepers — whose yes is yes and public stated. People in covenant agree to live reconciled. They agree to agree. That’s the main thing. Additionally, in our marriages there is a covenant. And in our cells there is an implicit covenant even if the cell does not write it down. We work on all those relationships as basic.

People come to the church with an expectation of being ideally loved, often much better than they love or were loved in their families growing up. Mostly, they relate according to the self-defensive rules they learned by the time they were six. So you can see how there is going to be trouble unless someone is doggedly nurturing an environment where self-giving love like Jesus’ can be learned.  Our covenant love needs to lead us, not just the discipline hit squad.

Suppose you have a person in your cell who avoids another person in the church because they can’t stand being in the same room with them?  What am I to do? Most people give up on such people, or even forget about them. But here are in my cell and I love them. Maybe I should throw them out because they are choosing to sin. But I never do. Instead, I keep them in the covenant where I hope they will get over their immaturity and be reconciled.

What we want to do is get to reconciliation. So we need to pay attention to how we can recover from covenant-breaking and pay attention to how the covenant breakers can get back into an experience of our love. I think Matthew 18 works best with a clear breech.

  • I expected you to take care of my children but you yelled an obscenity at one of them and they are still traumatized.
  • I expected you to be trustworthy but you took money from the team’s checkbook to buy groceries because you were too ashamed to ask for help.
  • I expected you to share money with the common fund like you said you would when you made a covenant and you didn’t.
  • I found out you have been approaching women and threatening them with your overtly sexual behavior.

Those are all easier. And they are probably the kind of things the Lord is mainly talking about.

Covenant breaking is probably not,

  • I was offended by your body language
  • You ignored what I was saying
  • I am really tired of your psychological foibles
  • I thought you said you would do the dishes.

Those experiences will all require some forgiveness, but I don’t think every day conflicts need to go directly to sin. Regardless, Matthew 18 works if you are just offended, too. It helps you create an atmosphere of reconciliation. This is a main skill I try to build in couples therapy. If you are upset, own your feeling and tell your story. Listen to each other and understand. That may be enough to get to forgiveness.

There is a lot more to a life bent towards reconciliation. I have been thinking and writing about it so much, I realized I could put together a reading list for a group I was teaching. See if it helps you learn more about the revolutionary traits Jesus frees us to exercise. They transform the world: Readings on reconciliation.

Do not be afraid: Your container will be filled with content

I am surrounded by twenty and thirtysomethings. It is a blessing. Serving these people has been the joy of most of my life. I think the spiritual life that follows adolescence and precedes the second half of life might be the most interesting but also the most frustrating and dangerous time of life. So I often feel like I am in the thick of it. We often think of babies as the most vulnerable of creatures. Twenty and thirtysomethings spend a great deal of their energy creating a container in which these dear little beings can survive.  But what about the parents? They are vulnerable, too, and quite often their true selves die before they even get recognized!

maslow's hierarchy of needs five stage pyramid
Clearly what will be called personality problems depends on who is doing the calling. The slave owner? The dictator? The patriarchal father? The husband who wants his wife to remain a child? It seems quite clear that personality problems may sometimes be loud protests against the crushing of one’s psychological bones, of one’s true inner nature. — Maslow, 1956

Build a container for content

The noble actions of first-half adults are focused on finding one’s place in the world, often as a mate, a parent, an income supplier and a social system builder. The whole era of first half development is a crucial time for growing into our fullness as humans and as spiritual people. But a big danger comes with our development. Our container building can become the only thing we know how to do and we never move on to receive the content to fill up the container! Success, security, some sense of power – looking good to ourselves and others, can almost be our only considerations. We can become containers with little content.

As we often say, U.S. society promotes such emptiness, since our rulers are preoccupied with adolescent pursuits. For instance, they are obsessed with security needs, among other things. Neither Republicans nor Democrats seriously question the enormously high military budget. But that budget is all about the container. The developmentally-arrested president wants to build a wall to contain the whole country and protect it from “shithole” nations!  At the same time, appropriations that reflect needs that are deeper than Maslow’s first two stages on the hierarchy of needs are neglected: education, health care for the poor and everyone else, community-building and the arts. The leaders neglect the need for content in the container. Is often the first cut in the budget, if it is considered at all.

The U.S. is basically an adolescent society and our religious expressions look like it, too. Liberals criticize the church if it is not preoccupied with food and housing [Maslow’s first level]. Conservatives criticize the church if it is not filled with certainty [second level, isn’t it?]. Circle of Hope can get it from both sides as people come to Jesus and his people looking for the basic needs they lost when their lives fractured in this fracturing world. We help them build a container. It is tempting to stay stuck in it and miss the content for which it is intended.

Richard Rohr says, “We all want and need various certitudes, constants, and insurance policies at every stage of life. But we have to be careful, or they totally take over and become all-controlling needs, keeping us from further growth.” Receiving the content of resurrection life takes faith and trust, which are not that useful if one is anxiously maintaining a container. Thus the most common one-liner in the Bible (365 times) is “Do not be afraid.” We we need to move beyond our early motivations of personal security, reproduction and identity. But it is scary to do so.

Do you think we commiserate more with what people fear than we help them not be afraid? How many people are driven from your cell because they can’t compute life beyond their container-building religious ideas? Consider how often you don’t help them figure out how to move deeper. Maybe your cell is stuck at the third step up Maslow’s pyramid up above and does not have an eternal outlook.

Be afraid of the right thing

Being preoccupied with morality, control, safety, pleasure and certitude comes to a bad end. A high percentage of people never get to the content of their own lives! Sometimes you can see the trouble creeping up on us. Areas of our leadership team silo off and don’t talk to other teams. Whole congregations get a sense of their “otherness.” People demand that we make policies about identities. We have to keep saying, “Human life is about more than building boundaries, protecting identities, creating tribes and teaching impulse control.”

Like Jesus said in Luke 12, “Why do you ask, what am I to eat? What am I to wear?” He asks the container-builders who ask such questions, “Is life not so much more than food? Is life not so much more than clothing?” Repeatedly he asks, “What will it profit you if you gain the whole world, and lose your very soul?” (Matthew 16:26). And I add, what will happen to your children if all you teach them is fear and practical faithlessness? What will happen to the church if you persist in never getting the content you need to share? What will happen to the world when your adolescent faith burns up in the heat of adulthood?

A thirty-year-old in our church was 13 when the 9/11 attack turned the country even more into a security state. When they were 19 the Great Recession hit and fear and anger skyrocketed. Since the 80’s, a philosophy-shift resulted in the top 20% of the population securing 76% of the wealth. Now, Oxfam says, worldwide, 8 men own as much wealth as the 3.6 billion who make up the poorest people in the world! Everyday life has encouraged a whole generation to be anxious and fearful. Now Trump is president and each day looks like the foundations in society are being upended. It is no wonder we try to build a wall around ourselves . But our vessels of clay are meant to to hold glory.

Take heart, you were made for this

Jesus tells us to “Take heart! I have overcome the world” (John 16:33). It is hard to hear him when we are feverishly trying to keep ahead of the eroding foundations under our feet, as if that were top priority. Jesus was less concerned about his impending death (!), about his life-container, than he was about the content of his life. He was less interested in the consequences of his actions than he was interested in revealing to his fearful, controlling, unfaithful followers what a container is for. Life is more than finding one’s own bliss or balance, disciplining and making the most of one’s time, and fighting for one’s rights — all that is for beginners! The bulk of an eternal life is lived in trust and hope. Dying to mere self-awareness, self-aggrandizement, and self-centeredness is the first task of gaining content for the container.

Barack Obama displayed some of this wisdom when he was shown talking to David Letterman the other night. He said, “One of the things that Michelle figured out, in some ways faster than I did—was part of your ability to lead the country doesn’t have to do with legislation, doesn’t have to do with regulations [making a container], it has to do with shaping attitudes, shaping culture, increasing awareness [being and receiving content].” He is a hopeful guy and he inspires me to be the same, even when I feel I am in the thick of it. Our containers (egos, churches, and what not)  have holes in them, so we need Jesus to overcome our world and keep filling us with eternal life. But as  long as we are co-workers with the Lord instead of container protectors, we have a chance to become the kind of content that makes the world take heart.

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