Tag Archives: reconciliation

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.

How the Dialogue List helped teach us lessons in love

A group from the BIC asked me to lead some a study about reconciliation last week. Many of the practical things I talked about can be traced back to a formative incident over twenty years ago when Circle of Hope was a very young church. Looking back, I seem young at 44! And oh, you twenty-somethings who made a church!

Early COH looked a lot like this.

Following my conviction that Jesus would build His church and I could hope for people to form the trust system I thought every church should be, I had created the “Dialogue List.” It was a listserv open to anything anyone wanted to talk about. So it was a constant exercise in trust just to read it and meet the unpredictable things that might show up on it.  We learned a lot about reconciliation by having the Dialogue List.

At that time a creative, rather charismatic man, who was married to one of our worship leaders, decided to come out as gay. This caused a crisis in his marriage, which he did not immediately want to leave, since he had two children and loved his wife. Their situation began to cause a crisis in the church since he was not afraid to be vulnerable and he was outspoken – and he felt like he had friends, which was true. He was not making a statement or a political move by coming out, he was having a problem. He eventually moved back to New York with his lover. Not long ago he was at a Frankford Ave meeting  where I was happy to reconnect. I had been deeply involved in their lives.

Another young man from a traditional Christian background, who was a rather large help to our various building projects, was offended that we let this sinful process go on in the church with what seemed like very little judgment. He wrote to the Dialogue List to voice his protest. He said we were harboring sinners and making a mockery of God’s call to holiness. He felt like he was supposed to swallow that and was choking on it. He wanted the gay man banned from the church.

I should not have been surprised this happened, but I was surprised. It all happened before I got extensive training in mediation and negotiation, so I think my appreciation of a healthy conflict was weak. It all happened long before I got my doctorate in marriage and family therapy, so my appreciation of individual and systemic disorders was foggy. All I had going for me was my vision of what I thought was a healthy church based on the Bible. So I swallowed hard and decided to write back.

Condemnation is an enemy we must not love

I knew making a public reply amounted to a nuclear option. I was about to cash in all my “respect chips” and respond to the Dialogue List as everyone listened in. But I wanted to make it plain where I was going to take a stand. I took it squarely on the side of the weaker brother: the gay man who had just torpedoed his family. And my key passage to justify my stance was and has been since, Romans 14-15.

Here are the most relevant verses:

1– Accept the one whose faith is weak, without quarreling over disputable matters.
4 — Who are you to judge someone else’s servant? To their own master, servants stand or fall. And they will stand, for the Lord is able to make them stand.
10 — You, then, why do you judge your brother or sister? Or why do you treat them with contempt? For we will all stand before God’s judgment seat
13 — Therefore let us stop passing judgment on one another. Instead, make up your mind not to put any stumbling block or obstacle in the way of a brother or sister.
1-2 — We who are strong ought to bear with the failings of the weak and not to please ourselves. Each of us should please our neighbors for their good, to build them up.
7 — Accept one another, then, just as Christ accepted you, in order to bring praise to God.
18-19 — I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done— by the power of signs and wonders, through the power of the Spirit of God. So from Jerusalem all the way around to Illyricum, I have fully proclaimed the gospel of Christ.

Those last two verses might not normally be in this discussion, but I think they were part of what Paul was talking about. He did not think he had much to say about anything if it was not backed up by his demonstration of the gospel of Christ – the gospel that knits together Jews and Gentiles and is destined to reconciles the whole Roman Empire in a new unity in the love of Jesus and the power of the Spirit.  The young man who wrote to the list had a point, but he did not have the love, did not speak from the Spirit, and did not have great deeds of mission to back up his dramatic judgment. I thought what he was saying was deadly to all we hoped to become.

We had a breaking marriage with children on our hands and a couple who cared about their kids and cared for each other too. They were sorting out a sex issue in public, which automatically fascinates everyone. Their impending divorce was a disappointing surprise to many of their intimates in our 200 person community. As far as I was concerned, their various sins were not the biggest issue, but their reconciliation and ongoing faith were huge issues. What’s more, how we handled this challenge as a new community might determine what kind of a church we would become.

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Getting involved in messes is messy

So I spoke back very strongly to the young man who wrote to the Dialogue List. It was straightforward letter – probably too straightforward, since I was upset. When I was remembering this incident, I tried to find a copy of the note I wrote, but I failed to do so – thank God! I hope I am blessed and it isn’t in internet eternity somewhere. I doubt I handled everything that great. I explained how public judgment was out of the question, not only because it revealed a hard heart, but, in this case, it was without personal relationship with the accused. It amounted to slander. It was also irresponsible. If the writer had done the discipling and comforting work, then maybe he would have had something to say. But he really only knew what they had heard. As far as I was concerned, if anyone needed to be banned from the church, it was the one who was willing to pronounce such judgment, however warranted according to his principles. As long as I was around to lead things, it was going to be love first, working for reconciliation as a top priority, and serving those who are wicked, or out of order, or ignorant enough to cause trouble in hope of their redemption.

As it turned out, my letter to the Dialogue List surprised many people because they expected me to meet their stereotype of hard-nosed evangelicals who think gay people are bad by definition. And I surprised another whole segment of the population because I was willing to “kick someone out of the church,” only it was the Judaizer who wanted to return us to the law.

I later learned from a master reconciler in South Africa that anyone who tries to get people to reconcile, especially when conflict over family ties or taboos is on the table, is a bridge that gets walked on by both sides. If we are not ready to be misunderstood, it is unlikely we can help people overcome their misunderstandings. I still feel some adrenaline when I talk about my difficult letter to the list because it was an exciting time and I was getting walked on! But I also wince at how badly I played my part in it and how much more I had to learn. The many reasons I felt walked on turned out to be creative suffering that helped grow me up. I think the suffering we endured with this couple together helped grow up the church, too.

The couple got amicably divorced. We helped the wife move back to upstate New York where she met another good man and had more children and a life of deep faith. The husband went off with his lover and continued to have a hard time, but still felt fondly about Jesus. His children also faced some big challenges. I wish he had stayed in covenant with us. The man who made the accusation, eventually moved to the far burbs. But a couple of years later, he wrote me an email to thank me for my rough treatment. He said I was right to face him down in public and he learned an important lesson. People in our church still relate to him and his nice family.

This incident and several others started us on a path towards practical forgiveness and reconciliation right in line with Matthew 18. I think I will share some more about that next week. I hope this little story inspires you to go against the current of the present moment in history in the U.S. and make something beautiful – a church where people can suffer, grow and never fear that they have friends who will work for their best interests and help them move through their misunderstandings and troubles in love.

Insiders and Outsiders: Knitting them together in love

Insiders and Outsiders — Juliusz Lewandowski

The Seminarian’s Cohort held an interesting exploration last month on a perennial subject in the church: “outsiders” and “insiders.” Sometimes the boundaries of the church are too thick and our area too constricted. Sometimes the the boundaries are too porous and undefined. So the subject of who’s inside and who is not is always interesting to those who want to be in and are bumping into the barriers to entry they perceive. And it is always interesting to people who are in and feeling threatened by newness or the loss of what they hold dear. The subject was also interesting to the Bible writers who were also forming community around the revelation of God — an enterprise that always implies that some people are moving in a common direction with God and others are not.

Here is a paraphrase of a key section of 2 Corinthians which has been used by defenders of holiness to explain their sense of the church being a new Israel on the way to the promised land and needing to be pure from outside influences. It tells us that insiders should be separate from outsiders and entry into the church means a deep commitment to becoming and staying separate.

The big temptation for God’s people has always been idol worship, being deceived, and thinking dark is light and lawlessness is righteousness. In Jesus, God has fulfilled an ancient promise to walk among His people, once in Jesus and now in His Spirit. We are the temple of God. That makes us innately holy and we dare not forget that. We need to separate ourselves from unholiness. Our goal should be to perfect holiness out of reverence for God. — 2 Corinthians 6:14-7:1

Here is a paraphrase of a key section just before the previous one in 2 Corinthians which has been used by people who think the Body of Christ is intrinsically porous and has, as its main cause, including people from all the nations. It tells us that insiders remain on the earth for outsiders, persistently invade their territory, and urge them to enter into faith.

The love of Christ urges us on beyond our boundaries. We have a resurrection viewpoint we did not have before. So we see everyone as a new creation to be realized in the love of Christ. This is the basis of our new life: in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. God made him to be sin who knew no sin, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God. — 2 Corinthians 5:14-21

The call to insiders and outsiders to accept one another

The dividing lines in the church (and in our culture, by and large) follow the contrasting principles derived from these verses. On the one hand there are ethics based on taboo, shame, security, tribe and tradition. See this article of the religion of Trumpism from last week.  On the other hand, the dominant ethic is “do no harm,” based on freedom, democracy, individualism, self-reliance, and progress.

Paul, while solidly one end of the spectrum, personally, worked throughout his whole ministry to keep insider-oriented people and outward-focused people in the love of Christ. In Romans 14 and many other places, we see him trying to knit the two perspectives together. Here is another paraphrase:

Accept those whose faith depends on strong boundaries, but not for the purpose of quarreling over opinions. When it comes to eating meat sacrificed to idols, some believe in eating anything, others won’t eat idol-tainted meat or any meat. Those who eat must not despise those who abstain, and those who abstain must not pass judgment on those who eat; for God has accepted them. Who are you to pass judgment on the servant of another? It is before their own lord that they stand or fall. And they will be upheld, for the Lord is able to make them stand. Those who find it hard to stand will be made strong in the age to come. And those who think they stand tall may find that their certainty was misplaced when they meet the judge. — Romans 14:1-12

My Christianity was inspired by radicals who were committed to fleeing the death of the world’s ways and perfecting holiness, namely Francis of Assisi and John Wesley (as well as all those people in the Jesus Movement). Unlike other monks and missionaries. my mentors were interested in getting their holiness into the lives of others, not cloistering it away for themselves. Very early on, I felt an aversion to “reactive separatists.” Gwen and I summed up what we thought the Bible meant with the term “invasive separatism.” Our term is simple. It means we know who we are and we intend to live in a community that understands what God has made them. It also means from that place we shine whatever life we have and give whatever gifts we’ve been given.

When I first watched the TV series A.D. Kingdom and Empire I was excited to see the writers displaying great understanding about the subject of insiders and outsiders. As the series shows, the Jews who became Christians had spent a lifetime perfecting holiness. Then the  Holy Spirit demanded all sorts of change and acceptance. The way the script portrays the Apostle Paul is especially good at showing this perennial challenge. The fanatical Jew becomes a fanatical Jesus follower. The more conservative and communal original disciples have to decide whether they can accept their former persecutor into the fold on the basis of his unusual experience with Jesus. Even more, Gentiles and Roman persecutors receive the Holy Spirit and receiving them an insiders seems taboo enough to make a person queasy.  In the following clip, the ultimate symbol of an outsider, the Roman centurion Cornelius, is sent as a messenger to Peter who is compelled to accept him.

That’s us on TV!

Circle of Hope, although certainly turned toward “outsiders” has a lot of dialogue like those shown in the TV series. Social action people protect our morality against the powers that be and fight people who won’t do justice as they see it. Circle of Hope purists are suspicious of and resistant to change or just blithely set in their ways. Immigrants who are banging on the walls of the nation do not always find a place in the church, easily. The oldest rituals are maintained, like Sunday meetings at 5 and 7; just last week the pastors  had to argue that other meetings are also “public meetings.” Radical Christians sometimes shake the dust off their feet because they are tired of our uninspired compromises.

The Cohort soon realized that we had a subject that was much larger than we anticipated. Most of the time we don’t have much consciousness about people who are not “us” even if we just made the most recent rendition of “us” last week! When we got to thinking together, we had some important revelations to collect. Here is a sampling:

  • The call to the church to be separate is central to inclusivity. If there is no substance, just diffusion, there is no “in” in inclusion. If we pay attention to being inclusive too much we can undo what we are actually talking about. We want to welcome people into our life together with Jesus. If we protect people from the pain of change, thinking that is kinder than helping them over the boundary, we can leave them alone, “free” to be unconnected.
  • True alternativity requires self-awareness about the inevitable exclusion someone will feel. Unlike the present philosophy running the world, we do not believe that individual identity is a starting point. Inclusion is not granting the justice of everyone’s personal godhood or even assuming the personhood they bring to body will find a place to rest. They’ll certainly find love and acceptance, but a relationship with Jesus and his people is all about transformation.
  • People need to choose. We can make that easier. There is a call from God to every person in our not belonging. That means when we realize we are out, that painful experience calls us into something else. We have to choose to be in. The question is, “Can you accept belonging?”
  • People are filled with shame and naturally feel issues about how to attach and how they are not accepted or acceptable. There is really no way to avoid excluding someone, since they have already been excluded, at some level, long before they get to the church. Our strong desire to not be responsible for excluding anyone or making them feel bad can be self-serving and unhelpful.
  • We may need to reteach our long-held assumptions stemming from the process of reconciliation outlined in Matthew 18. The process of inclusion includes carefrontation. So much of what people fear is confrontation. Our world daily reinforces how depressing constant confrontation can be. Our resistance to adding to confrontation unwittingly leaves people out, since we won’t deal with their experience of being unreconciled because it might confront them and hurt them.
  • We noted that our document about atonement explanations is a characteristic, generous way we do theology that allows the several ways the Bible describes the work of Jesus to be OK. We encourage people to develop, and to assume the fluid nature of their faith. Some people may need a careful, boundaried period (like people in recovery, or people who have experienced trauma). Others may relish the ability to have different elements of themselves dialogue in safety about what are often mutually-exclusive thoughts. This kind of acceptance is reflected in the movement we note from Earth to Wind to Fire to Water along the Way of Jesus.

Fascinating subject, isn’t it? We just scratched the surface. Once again, daring to bring up subjects that are too big for us to handle helped us to trust God and not lean on our own understanding. At the same time, our dialogue demonstrated just how much confidence God has built into us — and we know stuff, too!

Undo triangulation in the church: Practice Matthew 18

Everyone in the church wants to be in a healthy church. And the promise of Jesus is His church will be full of healthy relationships filled with love – the kind of love He showed us on the cross and continues to give us through the Holy Spirit. We all want love.

But the church is filled with you and me, so we have to admit that we are on the way to love; we have not mastered it. We have to work at it. It is easy to look at the church and see places where our love is not all that might be expected from Jesus followers. What’s more, in a church like Circle of Hope, which is committed to embracing whoever wants our attention, we have all sorts of unbelievers, unfinished and downright wicked people who might be part of the mix at any given moment. So we contain lots of people who know very little about the Lord’s love. As a result, relationships in the church are not going to work out right all the time; we’ll have to keep making them. Otherwise, we might look like this church building:

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It would be better to look like Matthew 18:

“If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one. But if you are not listened to, take one or two others along with you, so that every word may be confirmed by the evidence of two or three witnesses. If the member refuses to listen to them, tell it to the church; and if the offender refuses to listen even to the church, let such a one be to you as a Gentile and a tax collector. Truly I tell you, whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven. Again, truly I tell you, if two of you agree on earth about anything you ask, it will be done for you by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them.”

Then Peter came and said to him, “Lord, if another member of the church sins against me, how often should I forgive? As many as seven times?” Jesus said to him, “Not seven times, but, I tell you, seventy-seven times. — Matthew 18:15-22

The passage is a little working doc for how to act out forgiveness and maintain reconciliation in the church. I want to highlight one part of it today: “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one.” That teaching is a fundamental antidote to the disappointing lack of love in the church.

When I was at the Watermark Church meeting last Sunday, the speaker told us we should have a 24 hour rule – if you need to work something out with someone, don’t let it go for more than 24 hours and don’t spend those 24 hours talking to a bunch of people about your bad feelings. As the passage says, including others in the process comes after you have failed to work things out person to person, individually. Likewise, if you are hearing some gossip or ill will about someone, you should ask the person who feels hurt if they have talked to whoever has sinned against them or just offended them. Plus, you should remind them that you will not be keeping their gossip or slander secret.

That’s all great in typical situations. But let’s be clear. As one of my readers pointed out, there are people in relationships from which they need to be rescued. Where there is  violence or abusive domination, a person cannot be left on their own to take steps they cannot take. This post is not about that sin. I always err on the side of helping such a victim escape before we even consider getting into what this piece is talking about — perpetrators and victims have even lived in my house!  Even then, I know there is more discernment to receive about what God is doing and my power versus the perpetrator’s power is not how the world is saved. And, ultimately, the abused and the abuser stand before God, just like me, and any judgment I have about their situation is provisional.

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Triangulation

A 24-hour rule would be very useful to combat what social psychologists call “triangulation” in relationships. There are well-worked theories about this common experience, since it is one of the aspects of the workplace that undermines morale and creates a lack of safety. Triangles are even more dangerous in church, where relationships are often more intimate, or at least people think they should be.

The spiritual and emotional health of a church and its effectiveness in mission is directly dependent on how often triangulation occurs and whether or not it is tolerated by leaders. Triangulation names an experience with which we are all likely acquainted. It occurs when two people don’t speak directly to each other. Jesus tells us to let our “yes” be “yes” – to speak honestly and forthrightly – no subterfuge, no fear. When we are not following Jesus, two people may try to mediate their concerns through a third party. Cell Leaders and pastors are tempted to be that third party all the time. When triangulation is tolerated, it produces gossip, rumors, inefficient practices, factions, misunderstanding and victimization. It creates an unsafe culture and an ineffective process.

It is easy to imagine why Jesus had to teach his disciple crew about how to stay reconciled. The disciples undoubtedly had habits that did not produce open, honest, fearless love relationships, just like the rest of us. They probably experienced stereotypic situations just like Stephen Karpman pictured when he defined his famous “Drama Triangle” in the 1970’s. Karpman’s three roles are easy to spot in an unhealthy triangle:

Victim–Victims blame and fault others (or situations), but not themselves; they don’t typically take responsibility for their own lives. They show up as angry or pathetic, in response to perceived injustice. They send out a vibe that says, “Help me. Rescue me. Need me. Be with me. Love me.  Organize me,” to all rescuers within range. They may exaggerate the level of harm they’ve experienced to gain pity or sympathy from a rescuer. The victim’s guilt or blame is the fuel that keeps the drama-triangle cycle spinning like a flywheel.

Stereotyping does not help much, so remember that Matthew 18 is centered in prayer and is about discernment, not objectivity or judgment. A victim may also be the challenger every system needs. And helping someone who feels injured work out their issues is exactly our speciality. That doesn’t mean we let them lead the whole cell or congregation before they have some consciousness about their process.

Persecutor–In order for there to be a victim, there must be a persecutor. The persecutor can be a person, circumstance, event, or thing. Persecutors become the target of the victims’ need to blame something outside themselves for their problems.

Again, this is a label to help define a common situation. There may be actual oppression going on, not just projection of inner turmoil by a “victim.”  Conversely, “persecutors” often feel like they are victims of an accuser’s ire or criticism. They are tempted not to listen, as Matthew 18 prescribes, because they feel some injustice and use their privilege or power to silence the victim.

Rescuer–The rescuer thinks of themselves as the hero of the drama-triangle story. Rescuers see it as their role to help the helpless, and feel their motivation is pure. Quite often these people are extremely helpful in difficulty. They are friends. But often  they are tempted to swallow the sin happening between people like they are Jesus protecting the church from a grenade. They often don’t view victims as capable, so they act in their stead, often without realizing the full consequences of intervening.  Sometimes they rush to protect others’ vulnerabilities because they’re reluctant to face their own.

We are definitely called to rescue the perishing. We are definitely wrapped up in what others are doing in the body of Christ, of which we are all an intrinsic part. There should be no implication that we shouldn’t get involved. It is how we get involved that makes a difference.

How the Drama Triangle Works

Here’s how the system of triangulation starts: a victim approaches a rescuer with information about what a persecutor has done. The rescuer might be their friend, their mate, and in the church it would not be surprising if they looked for a person in power to rescue them, like a cell leader, team leader, or pastor.

If the rescuer is a pastor, their compassion and sense of justice may be stirred. So they may try to use their  power to protect the victim. They may take the problem to a meeting. They may have a one-on-one with the persecutor to confront them or try to elicit a confession. They may try to sabotage or exact revenge on the persecutor, who by this time may be getting “tried” by semi-public opinion. A lot of time can be eaten up in this kind of drama.

A rescuer often enjoys the rush of being important in the middle of it all. They feel like they are building community and healing sinners. That might be true. But it may also be true that their need to be useful, or valued is what they are really all about. They may relish the power or precedence that rescuing affords them. They may just enjoy hearing and even spreading rumors or being in on secrets. Or they may like presiding as a judges effecting justice while appearing holy and above the fray.

Is it any surprise that triangulation can bring organizations and their productivity to a standstill?

3 Ways for Leaders to Reduce Triangulation

Make Matthew 18 the way the church functions. The leaders need to make it plain that we follow Jesus, not the difficult and often unconscious ways we relate. Violaters will not be prosecuted, unless they are committed to sin. But they will hear a lot about Matthew 18!

Help victims participate in reconciliation. Whenever a  victim approaches you, start by asking if they have already spoken to the persecutor. If not, instruct the victim to do so and report back on the conversation. Reporting back is important because otherwise the conversation between victim and perpetrator likely won’t happen. If the victim persists in trying to get you involved, and they might be persistent or even manipulative, here is what you might say:

  • I value our relationship and the one I have with who you are talking about. I do not think it is right for me to be in the middle, so please stop now.
  • What you’re sharing with me has little or nothing to do with me, and I feel uncomfortable. Please take this where it belongs.
  • This type of conversation is unproductive, and I would like you to take the Matthew 18 way to handle it.

Offer to facilitate some mediation. If the victim feels uncomfortable having the conversation directly with the persecutor, you could, on rare occasions, offer to sit in on the meeting to help support better communication in the future. When you attend this meeting, be sure to act as a facilitator, not a rescuer. If you pass judgment or take sides, the other two parties won’t be as inclined to own and resolve their issues. The drama triangle will continue or a new one will emerge.

4 suggestions for “step two”

People do not know how to reconcile and live in peace, that is evident. So it should not surprise us if we get involved in the second step of the Lord’s process. A “rescuer” is often one of the “first responders” when there are relational problems in the church. So they may be called in to make the process work. There are many things to learn about making and keeping peace, so I would never presume to sum it up in a blog post! But here are a few things that might help a conversation about conflict end up in community.

Name the conflict. If you’re facilitating a meeting between members of a drama triangle, ask each party to name the conflict. You could even write it down so they can both face it rather than just face each other. This might create enough detachment to get away from personal criticism. However, this is a mature way to talk and some people might be incapable of it. Be patient but frank.

Help the parties listen with curiosity. It is hard to be curious and angry at the same time. Help the victim first, then the persecutor develop an interpretation of the presenting event from the others’ perspective. What were they thinking? What did they feel? What would you have done in the same circumstance? The victim’s and persecutor’s curiosity might defuse their anger long enough to see the conflict from another perspective. They can then direct their curiosity toward how to resolve the conflict.

Ask for a commitment. Victims and persecutors get some sense of power from criticism, even though that criticism can cause cancer in the body of Christ. There is a positive way to see it, however. Criticism could be seen as a commitment put in negative terms. Rather than “You are a liar” try “I value the truth.” Some people say that if we want to know what we really care about, check out what we criticize and convert it to a commitment. When we are listening to someone else rant, tell them to what value it sounds like they are committed. That might reduce the toxins in the atmosphere.

Insist on requests. If an injured party can’t own what they think and feel and ask for what they want, anything they say probably makes the relationship worse.

Staying out is better than getting out of the Triangle

It will always be tempting to play the part of victim, persecutor, and rescuer in the next relationship drama. We may get triangled at times. We’ll live. Jesus has provided a way out and he will be with us all along the way. The Lord is deeply invested in his love casting out fear and creating the alternative community for which he gave his life and in which he lives.

Leaders, in particular need to help everyone stay out of triangles by encouraging direct address and refusing to play any of these roles, as tempting as they may be. Any of us may be asked to play the role of rescuer every day! It may feed our frayed egos to say yes. But every day we remember not to play we help save the church from the divisiveness that ruins the wonderful heart of love everyone wants and needs. Reducing triangulation leads to an increase in accountability and an increase in the healthy responsibility people need to develop for their own behavior, thoughts and feelings as well as their responsibility to nurture the love in Jesus in the church.

Thanks to CO2 for the business angle and general outline for this post.

Forgiveness begins reconciliation: “White” supremacy and the Smith family

Last week in our cell, we talked about the Theological Declaration on Christian Faith and White Supremacy which our pastors (including me) signed and asked us all to consider. After the outburst of anger and pain in St. Louis last week, it makes our hope for reconciliation even more radical in the face of society’s persistent injustice. But like the authors of the declaration, we have hope.

True. But “white,” “silence,” and “complicity” could all mean more than they appear if you asked our cell’s members.

We have a relatively large cell, so our reactions to the declaration fell on quite a spectrum. Some did not read much of the statement since it was so long. Some found it hard to understand. Some had never heard of it, yet. But once I provided the gist of it, we all had stories about racist people who don’t get it and our own feelings about white supremacy. So-called white people had their own experiences of wearing supremacy to share.

In the course of our dialogue, I remembered a verse from Jesus Loves Me, which I learned when my parents dropped me off for Sunday School. Many people had never heard it. I looked it up on Google to make sure it actually existed! Sure enough:

Jesus loves me, Indian boy
Bow and arrow for a toy
Big Filipino, wee Chinese
Living far across the seas.

The verse is a nice, little lesson for “Jesus loves everybody, even people who are not ‘us.’” The sentiment is nice, as long as you can erase the white supremacy from the mixture (which is unlikely, of course). The song also teaches that we are the center of the universe and tall Filipinos (they are the little ones in other versions) and those wee Chinese people with their funny clothes and language are also partakers of our grace. I say “our” because God gave it to us to give to them. They’ve gotten into this Christianity we have owned for a long time. All that is also laced into the message and fed to youngsters.

Anthony Lamar Smith, Jason Stockley victim, Anthony Lamar Smith photo
Click the picture for the Smith story

For instance, after Charlottesville, the members of the BIC List had an argument as to whether white supremacy exists. I imagine some are shaking their heads over the family members of Anthony Lamar Smith who were at the forefront of protests  in St. Louis after Jason Stockley was acquitted of murder last week. While the family already received $900,000 in their wrongful death suit, justice for the policeman, personally, did not happen in their estimation. All this again reminded so-called black people to remember that they can be killed by the police without repercussion.

What do Jesus followers do in the face of this?

To be clear, it would be impossible to list all the things Jesus followers do about these things because they do a lot, from trying to change the justice system, to alleviating the impoverishing impact of injustice, to invading the prison system with grace, to flooding the streets with those who are brave enough to say “No!.” Many of our members in Circle of Hope are leading us every day to do a lot.

But generally, what should we all do about white supremacy, the long oppression that continues to raise its ugly, often-denied head?

Repent

So-called white people need to repent. The violence, self-aggrandizement, systemic division and oppression, the persistent self-interest all happened; it created and maintains white supremacy. Yes, you may not have done much personally, but you continue to benefit, whether you want the white privilege or not. Donald Trump is the president of white privilege. The election was a whitelash. Maybe the whole term “white” will begin its long-needed decline, soon, but it is alive and destructive right now. To repent means admitting the sin and turning away from it. Admitting is not quite enough. It is the turning that transforms and heals.

Forgive

So-called white people can forgive themselves so “people of color” (yes, that is the pernicious label for everyone who is not “white”) can get along without having to comfort you in your guilt. Guilt might be a starting point, if you have never felt it about your privilege. But that should last for about five minutes, maybe. If you carry your guilt like a badge of your awareness, it is, essentially, yet another feature of your privilege.

So-called black people, of all the people who experience the ill-effects of white supremacy, need to forgive, if they follow Jesus. Desmond Tutu taught this so much during the South African transformation that he put it all in a book: No Future without Forgiveness. Here’s a quote:

“To forgive is indeed the best form of self-interest since anger, resentment, and revenge are corrosive of that summum bonum, that greatest good, communal harmony that enhances the humanity and personhood of all in the community.”

Forgiveness is the beginning point, like Jesus says. Forgive as you have been forgiven. As Tutu adds, it makes you human and no one can take that from you.

…working in the lives of all genders, of course.

Many “people of color” to whom I have spoken are afraid not being angry and out for retribution makes them disengaged or cowardly, even a traitor. That could be true. But getting loud for justice can also be an endless, unproductive fight against the windmill of evil humanity. Jesus followers are going to keep prophesying and acting, but if that’s all we’ve got, good luck. Martin Luther King had more than that to motivate his efforts. Here’s a point from one of his early sermon outlines:

Forgiveness is a process of life and the Christian weapon of social redemption. Forgiveness is always spoken of for others. Give Peter’s attempt to put it in legal and statistical terms.[How many times should I forgive?]

Here then is the Christian weapon against social evil. We are to go out with the spirit of forgiveness, heal the hurts, right the wrongs and change society with forgiveness. Of course we don’t think this is practical.

This is the solution of the race problem.

Forgiveness is often mistaken for reconciliation. If the dominated believer thinks that forgiveness means everything is settled, a call to forgiveness could mean “I need to roll over and take what the oppressor dishes out because I forgave them” or “I need to make it work for white people because I love Jesus.” That’s not accurate. Forgiveness begins the road to reconciliation, which is God’s goal. We forgive for the redemption of the person who sins against us, not to preserve their status quo. Forgiveness is a weapon of transformation, not the imposition of self-denial, as if not being my true self in Christ will help the world, as if letting someone live a lie will save them from some suffering. In the hands of Jesus, forgiveness is the tool that begins the possibility of new individuals and instills the hope of the beloved community. Without it, we just keep using the tools of the world to change the world, and nothing really changes; no one is new and no new community is formed. Perhaps something changes in us, though, since we become the tools of hatred and violence.

In our cell we were tempted to refight all the battles the world foists upon us when I brought up white supremacy, how it labels us this or that, creates division, rewards white people and despises the rest. One of our members with an “Asian” background (who has a great story about teaching some racist tormenters about his culture and changing his environment one time), reoriented us when he talked about having nothing when his family arrived as immigrants to the United States and now having houses in which to live. He had a perspective which differed from most of us. We see things in many different ways in our diverse church. As my friend finished his story, I secretly celebrated our capacity to have a great conversation about white supremacy and still enjoy the cookies. We all took a sweet next step on the road to the beloved community.

What to do when that troubled person is not going away?

Here is my prayer lately: “Oh Lord! I am connected to people who can’t stay reconciled with  others or with you, and they are not going away. What will we do?”

They are a bit like the person I disappointed the other day when I gave him the outreach number for Project Home (215-232-1984). I was in my local Rite Aid and a man immediately began following me through the store looking for carfare somewhere, then he was hungry, then he was mad I would not help him. I would not give him what he wanted — he did not want us to have a life together; he wanted to feed on what I have. I did not have time to make a deep relationship, but I did manage to give him the number and even an address on the back of my receipt after I borrowed a pen from the cashier[Where To Turn]. He did not really want my help; he wanted my money to support his unspoken program. But he did take my receipt

Some days I feel like people are following our community around with similar designs and some unspoken, maybe unconscious program. A trusted partner does not want to stay reconciled with our “institution” but they do want the free childcare someone gives. A person leaves their spouse in the lurch and divides up their friends. Another wants the pastor to keep their impending divorce a secret while they pretend nothing is happening. Another wants their adulteries to be none of our business while they prey upon innocent people coming into the church. Another creates a faction based on their ideology. Someone else loses their faith but they don’t want to lose their friends, so they stick around. These are all the kinds of things that have happened recently or are happening now.

Sometimes people wonder if they can handle so much stuff! They think, “Why can’t these people stay reconciled with Jesus and his people, at least with their spouse!”

Well, sometimes they can’t.

Some churches tidy up and don’t let certain people in or get rid of outliers quickly. We have always been committed to just the opposite. Let these untidy people in! — and stick with them until it is just impossible to do so. We make it hard to leave. We know there are no unmessy people for whom Jesus died, ourselves included. Loving with a self-giving love will never be easy — being loved isn’t even that easy! So we are not very tidy. Every situation is unique to the person in it; their journey toward or away from Jesus or our church is their own — we’ll just have to work it out.

Or maybe they won’t work it out. Sometimes people leave “the church” but stay in the community. Some people don’t like most of us or Jesus and still stay, picking people off to be their friends. These folks end up being a living example of lack of reconciliation — the reconciliation we prize so much! If you go with their self-realization, you’re in, if not, you’re out. It hurts.

What to do?

So what do we do when people just can’t do it as right as we want them to, when they are distressed and doing self-destructive things, or when their mental or physical health causes them to do what they might not otherwise do? What if they are wrecking things? What if it is like they are following you around the Rite-Aid?

The New Testament is mainly written about these kinds of situations, especially Paul’s letters. Try reading them again with the question, “What do I practically do about the people who feel too messy for me to handle?”

What do I do when…

  • …I want to cut them off? — You might need to, but you better have a word from the Lord before you give up on reconciliation.
  • …I want to get even with them? — Don’t.
  • …I want to play according to their rules and win? — A fool’s errand.

Here are a few of things I advised last week when I talked to people facing these dilemmas:

  • Stick with Jesus. Jesus is in the middle of the mess and there is really no place else to go, ever, than Jesus.  I was trying to encourage one of our pastors after they were told how much they and everyone else were doing wrong. Only Jesus can help us bear that kind of criticism with grace. 
  • If an accusation doesn’t come from Jesus, pause before you react. You don’t have to receive every accusation. When people desert and betray you it hurts! Troubled people are troubling. They will get your natural defense system to kick in, for sure. Note that, don’t just be defensive. Act out of your heart connected to Jesus, not your heart in fear for its life! You have the life.  You can’t be condemned. If you have sinned you can repent without fear.  But you are not subject to someone’s self-centered or arbitrary rubric, certainly not their condemnation. 
  • Make sure you are following Jesus, not someone who does not love you. Desperate people exercise a lot of power trying to get stable. Many people just want others to follow them; they want power. They are kind of like drowning people who desperately cling to their rescuer and threaten to drown them both! People get themselves into situations where they did not and do not trust Jesus or anyone else. They work out of a survival instinct. You don’t need to join them in it if it does not really lead to survival. You don’t need to join with someone who does not love you, or Jesus. You might not be able to discern what’s going on with them and God, but you can probably tell if they are acting out of love for you.
  • Check your distress level. You may need to decompress lest you think this turmoil is real relating.  Suffer creatively don’t merely suffer with. The compassion of Jesus is leading somewhere, it is not just a tank of healing and neither are you. You know that people drink of your love and are thirsty again, and then blame you for not having enough of the “love” they crave. They need living water. Jesus has overcome the world (go back to number one).
  • Beware the urge to tidy up after messy people all day. We always have house guests and boarders in the church who don’t keep our house like we do. It can be downright painful to listen to them when we just want to clean up the peanut butter they just left on the countertop. We don’t want to speak honestly to an out-of-control person in our cell. We don’t want to run into someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. But there will be no tidying up until the final day when the world is renewed. Attempting to control everyone before then is not our job. People don’t need to make us feel good before we love them.  

Sometimes we just have to meet someone on the street who is unreconciled to us and Jesus. We will try to make things right, as far as we are able, but we will not stop following Jesus, knowing He is able to do more than we ask or imagine.

We may not all be in one of these messy situations right now, but we probably will be. Let’s keep praying for one another, keep being honest, and keep following the One who will bring it all to right in the end.

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In Honor of White Corpuscles

A few weeks ago a thoughtful friend told me about a revelation he had. He had unwittingly translated certain cultural instincts from his childhood into the church, and he was getting some wit about that. (Gimme a church wit’ wit). Whenever there was a person who was doing something “wrong,” his first instinct was to “shun” them. He avoided them. He certainly did not talk to them about what they were doing wrong! He kept them on the outside of his life. They became somewhat invisible.

Turning away does not work for good

This did not work for much good, of course, since he still felt bad/mad/sad about the problem and the person he shunned did not get whatever benefit he might bring to their struggle. This was his revelation: Jesus is God getting right into the middle of the human mess and dying for people while they were still sinners. It dawned on him: This passive-aggressive thing we do where we never say anything directly and surround offending people (essentially everyone) with unspoken (constant) disapproval is not particularly Christian. It is not.

white corpuscle

The way the body of Christ works is exactly the opposite of avoidance (some people call it “tolerance” or “live and let live”). The body of Christ works like a human body. When there is an infection the white corpuscles in the blood stream multiply and rush to the area of disease or wound. They don’t shun it. You can see their spent residue in the white ooze that surrounds the boo boo on your finger. In the church, people who become aware of some sin, or disaster of judgment, or lack of reconciliation, or of anything that might weaken or, if left unattended, kill the body, turn toward the person and the infection and surround it with love, truth and attention until it gets better. Shunning the infectious person or relationship only makes them more powerfully infectious and might be as good as telling them to go to hell. The church is in the healing business.

White corpuscles

In the physical blood stream there are a lot more red blood cells than white corpuscles. The life delivered by the red cells far outweighs the need for infection control by the white. This reality is exactly replicated in the Body of Christ. The life of Christ in the Body, spiritually surging through us like blood in our spiritual bloodstream of Christ is the best antidote to the death that threatens it every day.

Just like our physical bodies, we have built-in defense systems that leap into action when disaster strikes. Like white corpuscles in the blood, the infection fighters in the body of Christ increase in the day of trouble. On a normal day, there are relatively fewer people with the awareness of what could kill us moving through our body. They are gifted with discernment. They keep watch over us. If they are wise, they only worry us with their worries when it is necessary. Most of the time, they trust the life of Christ to overcome its opponents. Pray for them. They are an important minority. Watch them instinctively go about their business. When you see them caring, join them. They lead us to turn toward the trouble and heal.

It is a life and death matter

I’ve been watching this life-giving process happen in healthy bodies over the years and watching it not happen in dying bodies. It isn’t that easy to kill a church, but it can be done. When a simple cut is left to gangrene, poison can take over one’s whole body. The same kind of thing can happen in a church. It is rare, but it happens if you are arrogant enough to think you are impervious.

More often, like a physical body, the church works to naturally cleanse itself. I have warned people from time to time that they should stop being infectious, since the body will eventually, without even thinking about it too much, treat them like a sliver until they pop out. As a pastor, I feel responsible to be among the white corpuscles.  But my goal is rarely just to pop someone out. Jesus redeems “slivers” all the time. I usually feel even more responsible to those who are unwittingly in danger of losing the connections they cherish or missing the experience of growth they long for because they have become an infection. It often pains me to bring it up, since I have some avoidance mechanisms that encourage me to shun people…but then I remember Jesus turning toward me.

I think my friend was learning one of the most important lessons of love. He could of learned it from observing his body recover from a wound. He learned it from seeing his relationships not recover from their wounds. By extension he learned how the love of God is the great antidote to what ails us all — a love that turns into trouble rather than away. Seems simple until one tries it. Then it seems like getting a new life.

Will the new Amtrak mural fit with your aesthetic?

Do “gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people” (whatever that might mean)? And what does Jesus think and feel about that? Let’s mentalize about it.

The other day one of our pastors, Jonny Rashid, posted an interesting article on Facebook about which I have been thinking ever since. It was a potpourri of commentary on changing Eastern cities in reaction to the new mural Amtrak and the National Endowment of the Arts have commissioned Philadelphia’s famous Mural Arts program to oversee. They want to do something to beautify a bit of the ride from 30th St. Station to the usually-deserted North Philadelphia station. Sarah Kendzior labeled the whole project an example of The Peril of Hipster Economics and Aljazeera printed her thoughts. Her criticism was in direct response to a Wall Street Journal article called Fighting Urban Blight with Art by Jessica Dawson.

amtrakAmong the many colorful and true things in Kendzior’s article was this incendiary gem: “Gentrifiers focus on aesthetics, not people. Because people, to them, are aesthetics.” She did not define the term aesthetics, which was probably a good idea, since people are having trouble doing that. The term generally refers to the branch of philosophy concerned with the nature and appreciation of beauty. What she really meant to say, probably, was that “hipsters tend to see people in relation to their aesthetic.”

Continue reading Will the new Amtrak mural fit with your aesthetic?

Cut off and screwed over — learning reconciliation and communication

I’m kind of enjoying the geekiness (no offence) of Pentatonix these days. So let’s start out with them. They do a cover of Gotye’s big song of 2012: Somebody That I Used to Know:

Apart from telling a good story, Gotye and Kimbra summarize in song what so many people experience every day: being cut off and screwed over. Those are common ways NOT to relate. But a lot of people have experienced so much abuse and have had so little opportunity to recover, that they don’t know how to relate another way. They’d like to love, but they are always getting cut off and screwed over. Let’s talk about that.

In the song, Gotye’s character sings about how she “cut him off.” That’s a common experience in relationships that is worth noting. We could talk about how someone refused sex or did some emasculating thing (another time, maybe). But I want to talk about how people try to disappear their intimates to manage their fears. [More here]

When Kimbra’s character comes into the song, she’s talking about something just as relevant: how she feels screwed over. She is so glad she got free of his unprocessed manipulation! And she doesn’t mind telling him so. Maybe you’ve been there.

The song demonstrates two relationship traits common to people when they are not safe in Jesus and are not aware of the frailties they need to have healed. These two common traits are sinful ways we kill love.

Getting cut off happens. 

It feels terrible. Gotye paints a vivid picture of it.

  • Make out like it never happened and that we were nothing
  • But you treat me like a stranger and that feels so rough
  • Have your friends collect your records and then change your number

That last line hints that that he may have caused the cut-off himself, since who sends their friends to get their stuff or who changes their number unless there is some kind of weirdness going on? Were there constant texts? I heard about that a few times lately. Friends did have to send their buddies to retrieve their stuff because the ex might go off.

This movie actually exists
This movie actually exists

I have a friend who has perfected the cut-off. She says it – you do me wrong I cut you off, you’re dead to me. Most of us would not say that; we’d just do it [even legally with restraining orders]. When we are threatened, we disappear people. We make them nothing. So a lot of us feel cut off. You might feel like a relationship is bleeding right now and you are emotionally wounded.

I am not going to do a big Bible study to respond. I think it is enough to say that our preoccupation with Matthew 18 around Circle of Hope is important because people have been cut-off and have cut people off. Cutting someone off is the common sinful way to deal with “problem” people and with our own troubled feelings. We cut them off. In an abusive and abused, violent society the laws are all about protecting victims (who are numerous). So the society even teaches us to cut-off.

That’s the problem Gotye’s character has in this song. What he did not do is presume that he was in a relationship in which all the parties are sinners, including himself, and that reconciliation was going to be a constant necessity. He actually says in the song that they discovered that they did not make sense, as if that’s how relationships work – like they are supposed to magically make sense, or the interaction is supposed to be so effortless that they never don’t make sense.  That’s very unlikely.

Christians relate with reconciliation in mind. They know they need to be listening for God to make sense of things. They know that their loved one needs to be loved, not to make sense according to some tiny idea we have of what makes sense. I know so many people, including myself, who have spent entire evenings arguing about how their interpretation of what happened an hour ago makes more sense than their mate’s interpretation! Reconciliation is more important than everything making sense.

Getting screwed over also happens.

It is a terrible feeling and Kimbra paints a vivid picture of it.

  • You “had me believing it was always something that I’d done.”
  • You did not talk so I was “Reading into every word you say.”
  • When we broke up “You said that you could let it go”

That last line has a lot packed into it (which is one of the things that makes this a good song, isn’t it?). Between the lines she is saying, “Now we are broken up and you are still obsessed and angry. That points out how you had been simmering with anger the whole time we were together. I was trying to make that work for you. So I basically screwed myself in your honor. And that makes me angry!”

screw in chipotleSorry to keep using the word “screwed.” But this song is basically about sex. They don’t really get to intimacy. Being used for sex is part of the woman’s pain, I think. “Having sex” in our language right now is not necessarily a term of endearment. “Fuck” is one of the meanest things people say. We “get screwed over” a lot. Sex is often a violation and we are mad about it. A lot of people talk about sex as if they need their rights protected, like they are so shallow that intimacy can be regulated by state law or something – or maybe they feel so hurt they think there ought to be a law.

Kimbra could have helped herself if she had just had one small rule of communication: “Don’t read between the lines.” Clear communication includes the recognition that the other person hasn’t actually said something until they have said it. If you think their body language means something, ask them if it means what you think it means. Don’t react as if you know what they have not articulated. Conversely, communication happens when a person has responded to what you say in such a way that they confirm they heard what you said. Just providing a lot of information and expecting people to find it is not enough. We’re tempted to treat each other like we are websites – “I already laid out all the info, search it.  I don’t need to talk to you because I posted it on my timeline. It’s on my blog.”

There is actually a little incident in John 14 where Jesus has to negotiate this process of communication with one of his intimates. Philip says, “Just show me the father. “ And Jesus is a little exasperated. He says, “Haven’t you heard the words of the father in me? Haven’t you seen the miracles?” I suppose Jesus could have cut Philip off at that point. Or he could have remembered Philip’s cluelessness as an example of all the ways his disciples had screwed him over. Instead, Jesus humbly communicates it again, as clearly as he can. Philip is not required to “read between the lines:” “It is the Father, living in me, who is doing his work. Believe me when I say that I am in the Father and the Father is in me; or at least believe on the evidence of the works themselves.” The Lord humbly, clearly communicates.

Christians know that truth and love are hard to communicate because they know how hard it is for them to receive the truth and love of God, who is the source of truth and love! So we are patient with our intimates, and with everyone else. We know we are hard to understand; we know the other person is hard to understand — they don’t even understand themselves! Why get all hacked off when they behave as confused and as detached as they are! Help them! Listen to them! Speak clearly and in love!

There is hope

kimbra unpaintedMy favorite part of the video is at the end, when Kimbra stands apart and loses the paint of this unloving relationship. She kind of returns to the state of being naked and unashamed like Adam and Eve were before sin messed them up and they got separated from God and each other. She gets out of the damaging matrix. Now that they aren’t locked in some sinful way to relate, maybe something better can happen. Hopefully, they both learn to practice reconciliation, not just self-defense. Hopefully, they learn to communicate, not just react in some pre-verbal way.

I don’t think Gotye intended for me to get any hope at all out of his sad song. But I am way Christian. I really wanted that woman’s unpainted self to get out of that messy video, so I took it that way.  Why not? Jesus is doing the best God can do to call us out of the condemned and condemning ways we relate and into real love. If we let him be present and don’t suck up some bogus narrative, if we don’t cut him off, if we let him communicate, we have a good chance of being restored to love ourselves and even having great intimacy — and great sex.

Development

All weekend I talked about development — and I am not just talking about the in-town retreat the Leadership Team held with the discerning group to map out 2011 for Circle of Hope! No, I live in the Philadelphia region and we talk about development all the time: what’s happening in the casino district in Fishtown — the amazing speculation going on from Washington to Wharton in Point Breeze — the big ideas happening in southwest Germantown exemplified by the Kroc Center and the eviction notices given  to the people in the tower at Queen Lane — the changes on 52nd St. with the influx of new home owners pushing out from University City. What’s more: south of Temple is not what it used to be! — the Riverfront Prison site in Camden might get used well! — the South St. bridge reopened! It is exciting.

Development happens. Sometimes it is for the good. Much of the time it is the same old injustice in new clothes. Regardless, the church needs to develop along with it. I was talking to a new friend in the Kimball St. Garden this weekend who said visiting St. Peter’s in Rome was the straw that broke the camel’s back of his faith. He gave it up when he saw that piece of church “development.” I understood. When I was there a few years ago I asked God for an earthquake to take care of what must be the worst piece of advertising for Jesus in history. God becomes a baby to meet us person to person and the church advertises him with an overwhelming building designed to make you feel small and powerless in the presence of God (and the pope)!

In most of Philly’s neighborhoods there are further shrines to the church’s pride and power housing congregations who are trying to figure out how to stay afloat and become useful in their developing neighborhoods. I told the man I was getting to know that he could come see us in our room over a check-cashing store if he ever felt like experiencing an alternative. He said he might show up. But I am not too heartened that Circle of Hope’s big contribution might be to provide a corrective for something done in 1626! We have our own development to consider!

This weekend we were considering our development in our developing region, and it wasn’t that easy. The pastors put out some ideas that seemed to come from the best parts of our discernment process including slight changes to our basic identity statements. We needed a lot of dialogue! Change is not easy! There were two ideas aired, in particular, that must feel like tearing down the Queen Lane public housing tower feels for some people. They want it gone, but they aren’t sure it doesn’t mean something important is going to be lost.

I guess I am like a “developer,” God help me. I don’t need change for change’s sake, but I think things can improve. When it comes to developing Circle of Hope, for instance, I think we should admit that we are diverse in race, class, background and location and stop talking about ourselves as if we are trying to become that. We became that. We can always become more, but we became that. Now let’s keep the heart of who we are and move on to what is next. Personally, I am not going to give up on any aspect of the work of reconciliation until I die. I want to keep overcoming the racist divides of our country (as were easily seen in the last election when Obama got his white backlash, even if no one will admit that), and I will keep being a proactive peacemaker (the need for such was also evident after the election when not one candidate on election eve mentioned the war in Afghanistan as a big deal to them). I think reconciliation is basic Christianity and I am not aspiring to it, I am it. I think we worked reconciliation into our DNA; we have it in our proverbs and mission teams. Let’s not talk about doing it as if it is still in question. Lets be it.

For another less tangible thing, I think we, as Circle of Hope, should admit that we met all our goals for development as an institution and now we should act like we are developed. We are four congregations, nearly 50 cells, four pastors, lead by  20-person leadership team, served by three staff people. We have two profitable thrift stores and a counseling center. We have compassion teams that many people consider radical. We need to get our minds around that and imagine what is next as that new entity. Let’s express ourselves as who we are now and stop dragging ourselves back into some nostalgic small thing. For anyone who just tuned in, we are just about what we were dreaming about becoming when we were a small thing. Let’s have the dreams of what a Circle of Hope that exists now would dream! This requires some maturity, of course. It is easier to just keep doing whatever was happening before. The people getting pushed out of North Philly into the lower Northeast and out of West Philly and South Philly into Southwest are just moving with the flow. They don’t create much flow. A lot of churches in town (like some churches on the street with BW) seem to be holding on as long as they can to what used to be great as the world changes around them. We were not created for that.

I am not up for not developing. Jesus is the source of a renewed imagination. Jesus continually renews our strength so we can face what is, now. I think he finds it exciting to work for redemption in the latest thing that has developed with the latest church he has developed. Let’s keep up.

Devising Ways for Reconciliation

Like water spilled on the ground, which cannot be recovered, so we must die. But God does not take away life; instead, he devises ways so that a banished person may not remain estranged from him.” 2 Samuel 14

I was happy to speak to a great “audience” on Sunday at the Madison Street Church. One of their great gifts to the world is to accept someone as they are and envelope them  in their long love for each other. I was happy to have been there at the beginning of that love and to still be included, though living far from the wind-swept skies of California.

I had a great weekend. The weather was spectacular; the celebration was moving; the time for renewed friendship was precious. But lurking in the background of the joy and love was the pain and losses of long lives, long loves and long mission. The same background was threaded through the scripture I used for my Sunday message. I am still pondering the reality.

I am especially interested in how hard it was for David to let go of his losses and let Absalom return to the kingdom. He lost the integrity of his family when his son Amnon raped his half-sister Tamar. He lost his son Amnon to murder. He lost his son Absalom to banishment. He would not let go of his losses and let Absalom return, even though his holding on to them created new loss, as he continually mourned the absence of his son.

Do you unconsciously hold on to your loss, sometimes, like I do? It is like we feel it would be unjust of us to not hold on to the losses we carry – the lost virginity, the lost integrity, the lost love, the lost health, the lost opportunity, the lost years. We own our losses them like they form our identity. Our lives can be so threaded with what we’ve lost, the feelings twine around our hearts and strangle us.

I am especially thinking about the lost friendships that weigh on us. I was in my home town this weekend and I couldn’t help but feel sorry about the dear friends of our youth that we couldn’t even locate anymore. And I couldn’t help but hear about the losses incurred among families and between parents and children. The scripture above implies that such feelings are inevitable, since we are like spilled water on the ground. What has happened has happened. Our life is moving to death, so every day has some death in it.

But since we have God on our side we have life to hold on to. I have often experienced him breaking the hold of loss on me that I am holding on to. We know so well that in Jesus God brings us eternal life. Grasping that in the middle of our dying is the secret to our joy in Christ, isn’t it? Especially when it comes to the losses we experience in our relationships, we really need to go with God’s eternal strategy and devise ways for loves that can be renewed to be renewed. If the banished can return, we need to help with the process, not just mourn. God has gone to great lengths to reverse my self-banishment. I need to follow his example. Whether I have been so hurt I banished someone, or I hurt someone so badly they banished themselves, or whether we were both just stupid and we got unwittingly banished, I need to devise a way to reconciliation. What’s more, for all the people who are self-banished from God, I need to work with Jesus on God’s great plan for reconciliation.

It is a season of reconciliation among the Circle of Hope. I have been glad to see hearts softening and banishments ended. I doubt we will get it all done during Lent. Some people have been driven far away from us and from God. Some devices will be hard to invent and harder to implement. It could take years. But if we are close to the heart of God, I don’t see how own hearts would become adept at much that is better than strategizing for reconciliation.

Patient Impatience

patient impatience

We are saturating ourselves with 1 Thessalonians and I am fixated with one phrase of verse 5:14: “Be patient with everyone.”

I think many people are called and are good at being patient in a “passive” way. They can really wait! They are good at being quiet and receptive. So they can wait for what God is going to bring to them.

I am becoming better at that, but I am still more of an “active” patience kind of guy. I have to be patient in my impatience. That’s why I was so glad to see that the word translated patience in 5:14 has the sense of letting your feelings embrace others, being “far feeling” — “Don’t keep your heart closed off; be patient.” It is an active kind of patience that trusts God to be present in a difficult relationship or circumstance. Patience is like a corral one builds for unbroken relational broncos; it is the best atmosphere for spiritual domestication.

Far feeling is hope-filled

I happened to run across James talking about patience today, as well, and he encouraged the idea I had about patient impatience. In his chapter five, James ponders what it feels like to wait for the Lord’s return to set things right in the midst of difficulties: “Be patient, then, beloved, until the Lord’s coming. See how the farmer waits for the land to yield its valuable crop and how patient he is for the autumn and spring rains. You too, be patient and stand firm, because the Lord’s coming is near.”

A farmer does not just sit around doing nothing while the Lord plants and tills the field. He can’t make it rain, but he can’t resist looking at the sky to see if there is going to be enough rain to bring in a reasonable harvest. He can’t resist digging ditches and cisterns in expectation. He is impatient, but patient. Being a spiritual farmer, a church planter and cell tiller, I relate. When the crop needs rain, I want it to fall. When we’re dry, I feel desperate. I’ve got to trust God, but crying out to God to get on with it and getting on with it myself is part of the process. If we don’t have any impatience with what is and what could be, I’m not sure we’re paying attention.

But of course we are all paying attention. We’re feeling anxious right now about how messed up we are, about how our relationships are not working, about how the world at large seems hell-bent. Today is probably full of stuff that could push us right to the edge.

The edge of untrusting anxiety

I know that this week, apart from my own personal development lag, I am impatient for reconciliation. Pen was enlightening me about further reasons Christian church buildings are attacked in Malaysia last night. Harry Reid is on the hot seat for saying stupid things about President Obama’s electability and highlighting how we can’t talk about race in this country. The very idea of “race” imposed on us bothers me. The domestication of Martin Luther King bothers me. There is a lot to be downright, properly angry about!

I don’t think I am going to get passive and quiet about all that very soon. Some things don’t deserve that kind of patience. What to do? I won’t be perfectly patient, any time soon. I will have to trust God to be who God is, coming to me in Jesus as a demonstration of his own great far-feeling, walking with me in my small turmoil and settling me down in him. My breath prayer for today is: patient impatience yes, untrusting anxiety, no.