Peter Steinke

the strength of weakness

All of us, to one extent or another, are encouraged to downplay our weaknesses.  In a more positive light, they can be called “growing edges.”  (Banu has said by calling them “growing edges” we’re being more honest.  I don’t really mind calling them weaknesses, since I have plenty to choose from!)

In any event, sometimes there’s the temptation to focus on, and even to exaggerate our strengths and abilities in order to impress others and to make a name for ourselves.  We might even want to fool ourselves.

As you may or may not have guessed from our epistle reading in 2 Corinthians, the apostle Paul doesn’t like to operate that way, and for what it’s worth, he doesn’t shy away from speaking of his own “weaknesses.”

1 2 co 12

He starts the chapter by saying, “It is necessary to boast.”  But he quickly adds “nothing is to be gained by it” (v. 1).  Why does Paul say he has to boast?  He’s dealing with the Corinthian church, a group of people that are being wowed by preachers Paul sarcastically calls “super-apostles.”  They are superheroes in eloquence!  Unfortunately, some of the stuff they articulate so well is more focused on themselves than on the gospel.

Several times I’ve mentioned church consultant Peter Steinke.  In the epilogue of his book Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, he talks about “people of the charm.”  It deals with narcissistic, self-centered qualities.  It’s about people who are charmers and those who want to be charmed.  He describes a charmer as one who “can thrive for years without realizing that the core of his or her life is empty and that beneath the narcissistic glitter is a false and an impaired self.”[1]

The charmer projects charisma, which in reality can be “a cheap substitute for charis, the [New Testament] word for grace.”  The charmer uses charisma “to control and manipulate other people…  In the circle of charm, there is no freedom.”[2]  But that’s okay, because as I said, they admire the charmer—they enjoy being put under the spell!

Steinke quotes someone who made a nice little pun.  He said such relationships are “gilt by association.”[3]

So getting back to Paul, when he says he’s forced to brag, for a moment he decides to play their game.  He has some credentials himself that aren’t too shabby.  He can be a show off with the best of them.  Seriously, how many of these characters can honestly claim they’ve had visions of being taken to heaven and hearing “things that are not to be told, that no mortal is permitted to repeat”? (v. 4).  Let them try to match that!

Still, despite his visions, he says there’s nothing to brag about.  There’s no reason to play the role of charmer.  If there is anything to brag about, it’s his weaknesses.  If that’s his focus, I don’t think the apostle’s LinkedIn account would be very impressive!  I’m not sure how well he would do interviewing for a job!

2 2 co 12And just in case he’s tempted to draw attention to himself and “the exceptional character of the revelations,” he adds “a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to torment me, to keep me from being too elated,” from getting too big for his britches (v. 7)!

No one really knows what he means by this “thorn in the flesh.”  Some have speculated it’s an illness.  In Galatians 4, he says, “You know that it was because of a physical infirmity that I first announced the gospel to you; though my condition put you to the test, you did not scorn or despise me” (vv. 13-14).  Another version says “you resisted any temptation to show scorn or disgust at my physical condition” (REB).  It seems like, for a while at least, Paul wasn’t very attractive.

The thorn could be something else Paul admits: he’s not a very good public speaker.  In chapter 11, he says, “I think that I am not in the least inferior to these super-apostles.  I may be untrained in speech, but not in knowledge” (vv. 5-6).  Eugene Peterson puts it like this: “if you put up with these big-shot ‘apostles,’ why can’t you put up with simple me?  I’m as good as they are.  It’s true that I don’t have their voice, haven’t mastered that smooth eloquence that impresses you so much.  But when I do open my mouth, I at least know what I’m talking about.”

Whatever the thorn in the flesh might be, Paul begs God three times to take it away.  But the response is, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness” (v. 9).  Paul eventually accepts it.  And his conclusion?  “Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong” (v. 10).

The apostle discovers, and teaches, the strength of weakness.

On the face of it, “the strength of weakness” seems to be completely ridiculous.  It’s like saying, “as clear as mud.”  But Paul has learned from the vision he saw on the road to Damascus.  He has learned from the one who, as he says, “was crucified in weakness, but lives by the power of God” (2 Co 13:4).

There is indeed power in weakness.  When we’re able to admit our mistakes, to acknowledge our weaknesses, there is a sense of liberation.  When we’re freed from the compulsion to project a false front, to put on a show, to trust in our own achievements, we begin the journey of discovering who we truly are.

As Thomas Merton says in No Man is an Island, “If I do not know who I am, it is because I think I am the sort of person everyone around me wants to be.  Perhaps I have never asked myself whether I really wanted to become what everybody else seems to want to become.  Perhaps if I only realized that I do not admire what everyone seems to admire, I would really begin to live after all…”[4]

“Why do we have to spend our lives striving to be something that we would never want to be, if we only knew what we wanted?  Why do we waste our time doing things which, if we only stopped to think about them, are just the opposite of what we were made for?”[5]

3 2 co 12The strength of weakness is daring to be who God created us to be.

And it also applies to congregations.  It’s okay to admit your struggles; it’s okay to admit your weaknesses—or at least, your perceived weaknesses.  It’s okay to be who God created, and is still creating, you to be.

We can speak of many things, but one of those qualities is being able to say goodbye to the past.  This is a challenge in many congregations.  One way this presents itself is in programs and activities.  These are things that, for a long time, have been a source of health and vitality.  But at some point, they outlive their usefulness.  Participation wanes, and they become something that is too inwardly-focused.  They no longer serve the gospel imperative to go forth into the world.

Being able to say goodbye also applies to pastoral boundaries.  In many congregations, there might be “beloved former pastors” and not-so-beloved former pastors.

It’s up to ministers to respect proper pastoral boundaries.  And even though it can be tough for the congregations, they also have a role in doing it.

And being able to say goodbye applies in other areas, as well.  But identifying it as a growing edge, and working on it, is yet again a case of the strength of weakness.

As intentional interim pastors, saying goodbye is part of the job.  Saying goodbye really goes with saying hello, right at the beginning of the ministry.  Some people might not understand and think of it as a weakness.  But even if someone looks at it that way, it’s a weakness that, if honored and embraced, shows it’s a sign of strength.

Many of you have seen each other’s weaknesses.  It’s just a fact of life.  We can fall into the trap of defining people solely on that basis.  It’s like taking a photo of someone at their worst—or in their most embarrassing situation—and saying, “This is who they are, forever and ever!”  Still, if we are in Christ, we live as those who believe and expect renewal and resurrection.  In many ways, we keep on being raised from the dead.  And thinking of weaknesses, there’s nothing weaker than death!

To make it real, we have to love one another.  We must learn to love God in each other.  It’s not always easy, but if we do that, we draw out each other’s strength from weakness.

It’s been said about weaknesses that they “play a most important part in all our lives.  It is because of them that we need others and others need us.  We are not all weak in the same spots, and so we supplement and complete one another, each one making up in [him- or herself] for the lack in another.”[6]

4 2 co 12

That is why the apostle Paul says, “on my behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses” (v. 5).  That includes identifying and laying down improper or unfair claims, identifying and laying down our pretensions, identifying and laying down our striving which kills us and others.

It’s not enough to embrace our weaknesses; we can do it and actually hold on to them.  We embrace our weaknesses—we own them, so to speak—but then turn them over to Christ.  We yield all of that stuff to the Lord.  And when we do, we are enabled to enter a new world, the upside-down world of Jesus in which when we are weak, we are strong.

That is the strength of weakness.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 169.

[2] Steinke, 171.

[3] Steinke, 175.

[4] Thomas Merton, No Man is an Island (New York:  Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 1955), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 8, paragraph 2.

[5] Merton, 7.8.3.

[6] Merton, Prologue, paragraph 25.


bless you out

On Interstate 71, as you travel through Ohio (I believe it’s between Columbus and Cincinnati), you encounter an interesting billboard.  You see signs like this in other parts of the country, as well.  I remember when we lived in Corning.  As you approach from the east, you see a sign on the hill that says, “Jesus is the answer.”  Banu and I wondered, “I guess that would depend on the question.”

1-billboard

If you haven’t already figured this out, the sign on I-71 involves religion.  On one side, we’re asked, “If you were to die today, where would you spend eternity?”  I hope that no one, pondering that question to the point of distraction, has crashed their car and wound up meeting their Maker!

The other side of the billboard has a list of the Ten Commandments, abbreviated of course.  There isn’t room for the verses in their entirety.

Besides appearing on billboards around the country, we also see the Ten Commandments posted on all manner of things.  But I wonder about that.  Why do we see the Ten Commandments so frequently in public places, but not the Beatitudes of Jesus?  At least, I’ve never seen them.  I imagine that none of you have ever—or rarely ever—seen them posted in public.  Why is that?

Is it possible that we’re more comfortable with rules to follow?  That is, with “do”s and “don’t”s?  It should be pointed out, there are levels of meaning in the Ten Commandments.  We do a terrible injustice to them when we reduce to them to a “how to” manual.  They truly present another vision of reality, one that actually is freedom.

Still, it seems like we can more easily get our head around instructions.  Please, just tell me what to do!  I’ve often heard people speak of the entire Bible as rules to live by.

With the Beatitudes of Jesus, we have something very different.  They aren’t instructions; Jesus isn’t telling us what to do.  They aren’t commands; they’re descriptions.  He’s giving us a series of people with qualities that he considers to be blessed.  (“Blessed” is what the word “beatitude” means.)

Still, if you go through that list, they pretty much go against what we ordinarily would consider to be blessed.

Going back to how the Ten Commandments are so often seen in public places, but not the Beatitudes, Matthew draws a parallel between the two.  Who goes up the mountain and winds up laying down the law?  Who goes up the mountain and winds up declaring who is blessed?  It’s not an accident that Matthew draws parallels between Moses and Jesus.  He constantly has Jesus taking quotes from the law and re-imagining them, letting them shine with new light.

Some have noticed how Matthew structures his gospel into five parts, matching the five books of Moses.  He says on four occasions, “when Jesus had finished saying these things,” marking the end of a discourse.  That way, he divides his gospel into five sections.[1]

If Jesus isn’t laying down the law with the Beatitudes, but rather describing who is blessed, what do we make of them?  Let’s take a look.

“Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth” (v. 5).  Seriously?  The meek will inherit the earth?  That’s not what the action movies tell us.  Is Batman meek?  Is James Bond meek?  For you fans of the TV show Scandal, is Olivia Pope meek?  What does our economy say?  Are we advised to be meek?  Here’s the next shiny, pretty thing.  Grab it before somebody else does!  Yeah, inherit the earth.  It’s more likely that the meek will inherit jack squat!

2-meek

“Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God” (v. 9).  Well that sounds very nice and good, but when the times get tough, we tend to put our trust in bombs and bullets.

And don’t get me started on “those who are persecuted” (v. 10).  Let’s be honest:  isn’t it better to be the one holding the levers of power?

It’s been pointed out that we might prefer some other beatitudes:[2]

“Blessed are the well-educated, for they will get the good jobs.

“Blessed are the well-connected, for their aspirations will not go unnoticed.

“Blessed are you when you know what you want, and go after it with everything you’ve got, for God helps those who help themselves.”  (You do realize that’s in the Bible!  I believe it’s in the book of Hezekiah.)

What is it that Jesus is trying to tell us?

Lance Pape, a professor of homiletics (that is, preaching) at Brite Divinity School, offers some ideas.  As opposed to how we usually behave, or better, how our society trains us to behave, “the Beatitudes stand as a daring act of protest against the current order.  Jesus cannot very well insist that we be poor in spirit, but he can show us how to look upon such people with new eyes, and so gain entrance to a new world.”

That “new world” is “the kingdom of heaven,” and it’s not simply a matter of something after we die, but we also experience it right now.  In chapter 4, Jesus says that “the kingdom of heaven has come near,” or, “the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (v. 17).  So it’s here, but not yet fully arrived.

He continues, “The Kingdom Jesus proclaimed and embodied is precisely a new way of seeing, a new way of naming, and so a new way of being.”  It is a different way of understanding, of learning, of knowing truth.

When I was young, I picked up from my mother that “blessing someone out,” was definitely not wishing them well!  However, Jesus has a way of turning things inside out, and so when he says he wants to “bless you out,” that is a good thing!

On a couple of occasions, I’ve mentioned a book by Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.  In chapter 8, “Rocking the Emotional Boat,” he brings up two different kinds of problems, two different kinds of knowing:  technical and adaptive.  I’ll do a spoiler alert and let you know why I mention this.  Towards the end of his discussion, Steinke says that “Jesus challenged the routine and regimentation of the established order.  Prophets deal with ‘adaptive work.’”[3]

Technical and adaptive problems require different kinds of solutions.

Here’s an example.  Imagine that there’s a dangerous intersection.  Numerous accidents have happened there.  There has been all kind of damage, and worst of all, people have been killed.  What is the answer?  One idea would be to put up a traffic light.  This is an example of a technical problem.

He goes on, “When we are dealing with technical problems, we use know-how and follow a set of procedures.”  With technical problems, “People already know what to do and how to do it…  Problems are not trivial, but solutions are within a person’s abilities.  Solutions are not necessarily easy, but expertise and knowledge are available.”[4]  (Like the expertise and knowledge to put up a traffic light.)

Let’s look at a different example.  Several years ago, on the show Mad TV, there was a skit involving Bob Newhart as a therapist.  He was visited by a woman who said she lived in fear of being buried alive in a box.  She was afraid of going through tunnels and being in elevators; she was terribly claustrophobic.  What is the answer?  Should she avoid taking the elevator?  Should she avoid getting into a box, for fear that someone will bury her alive?  Perhaps: but would that solve the problem of her claustrophobia?

3-newhart

In the skit, Bob Newhart wasn’t very helpful.  He said he had two words to cure her fear.  Two words were all she needed: “Stop it!”  Stop being afraid.  Whenever she would try to explain, he kept responding, “Stop it!”  At last, after she described some other problems that bothered her, he said that he had ten words for her.  These ten words would resolve her problems.  Maybe she could write them down.  Here they are: “Stop it, or I’ll bury you alive in a box!”

That is an example of an adaptive problem.

Steinke says that adaptive problems “involve challenges to deeply held values and well-entrenched attitudes.  They require new learning.”  We must learn to adapt.  With adaptive problems, “People’s hearts and minds need to change, not only their likes and dislikes.  Problems surface that no existing technical expertise can solve…  Problem solving involves new experiments, uncertainty, and loss.”[5]

In the skit, Bob Newhart treats his client as though she has a technical problem.  He assumes that she knows what to do and how to do it.  But she has an adaptive problem, and truth be told, so does he!

Bringing this back to Jesus, he talks about the encounter Jesus has with the rich young man (Mt 19:16-30).  This fellow says that he’s observed all the commandments.  Jesus comes back “with the challenge to sell all he possessed and give the profits to the poor…  This…didn’t square off with any commandment he knew.  Jesus also healed on the Sabbath.  He openly challenged the fixed law, because he could imagine that love superceded code.  He encouraged those who were offended to use their imagination.”[6]

With the Beatitudes, we are drawn into a world in which we’re asked to use our imagination.  It’s a way of seeing that doesn’t involve technical problems, in which we already have the know-how to fix them.  Rather, it’s a way of seeing which involves adaptive problems, in which we have to challenge our assumptions.  We are called to adapt, to step out of our comfort zone—something we usually do not want to do.  We often fight with everything we’ve got to avoid it.  Or maybe we put it off—until tomorrow!

We are called to use our imagination.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those who have gone before.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, of those in the Beatitudes.  We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those who are ignored and unloved.  As Henri Nouwen says, “The most honored parts of the body are not the head or the hands, which lead and control.  The most important parts are the least presentable parts…  Paul says, ‘It is the parts of the body which we consider least dignified, that we surround with the greatest dignity’ (1 Corinthians 12:23).”[7]

We are called to see the holiness, the blessedness, in those we do not like, in those who rub us the wrong way, even in those who disgust us.  Talk about adaptive problems!  Bob Newhart in the skit as a therapist isn’t the only one to treat adaptive problems as though they were technical problems.  As I suggested earlier, we also do that.

I chair our presbytery’s Committee on Representation.  We want to make the Committee and the Leadership Team, of which I’m also a part, more representative of people in the presbytery—and that includes young people of high school age and those in their early 20s.  This requires changing bylaws and standing rules.  It’s important to make sure we have proper guidelines in doing the job.  But that technical fix isn’t enough.  We have to change our behavior, and by God’s grace, we’re making steps in that direction.

4-merciful

The same is true with congregational policies.  They also are important; they help us to be on the same page.  They help guide us.  But we also hear the words of Jesus.  “Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (v. 7).  No policy, no instruction, can force us to be merciful.  “Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God” (v. 8).  No bylaw, no standing rule, can force us into purity of heart.

This backwards, upside down vision of the Beatitudes isn’t the result of legislation or compulsion.  It comes from open hearts, open minds, open eyes.

This interim time is a gift for all of us.  It is a blessed time—even if sometimes it feels like one of those blessings we would rather not have!  But we are called once again to be a blessing to each other.  We are called to be a Beatitude to each other.  We are called to bless each other out!

 

[1] 7:28, 11:1, 19:1, 26:1

[2] www.workingpreacher.org/preaching.aspx?commentary_id=2203

[3] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times: Being Calm and Courageous No Matter What (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006), 133.

[4] Steinke, 127.

[5] Steinke, 127.

[6] Steinke, 133.

[7] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3313


can conflict be a gift?

After looking at my sermon title, I realize that it could lead to some unintended conclusions.  Raising the question as to whether or not conflict could be considered a “gift” might suggest that I enjoy conflict—even possibly that I seek it out.  I’m just itching for a fight!  I assure you, that is not the truth.

One day, Banu was looking through some old files.  That tends to happen when one frequently moves from one place to another!  She found a folder that contained some documents from when we were at seminary, when we were just beginning the ordination process.  We were in the Presbytery of Philadelphia, and their Committee on Preparation for Ministry had us fill out some forms.

There was one that asked about our challenges / weaknesses.  I wrote something along the lines of needing to be more assertive, especially in situations of conflict.  That was 1994.  Two decades later, I think I might say the same thing.  I realize that it’s something I still need to work on.  I’ve made some progress in being more assertive and a less anxious presence in the midst of conflict, but I still have a long way to go.

So, no, I do not enjoy conflict.

It would seem from the reading in Matthew that Jesus doesn’t either.  In fact, it looks like when presented with conflict, he simply wimps out!  Look at how our scripture begins.  Jesus tells the people, “You have heard that it was said, ‘An eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.’  But I say to you, Do not resist an evildoer.  But if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also” (vv. 38-39).

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

The “eye for an eye” Jesus starts with is the lex talionis.  That’s Latin for the “law of retaliation.”  It appears three times in the law of Moses (Ex 21:23-25, Lv 24:19-20, Dt 19:21).

We often hear calls for law and order, for greater security, based on this idea—an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.  This one often finds its way into arguments for the death penalty.  It seems to provide for a very stern, no holds barred style of justice.  However, that’s only true if we take the principle of “an eye for an eye” completely out of its context.

It’s been said, “The lex talionis was in its time a social advance of great magnitude [in modern times, we can compare it with the outlawing of slavery]; it put an end to the vendetta, the blood feud, which allowed unlimited retaliation for an injury done to a member of the family or tribe, so that an entire group could be wiped out before the demands for vengeance were satisfied.”

To our 21st century ears, that law “sounds savage, but it was actually a softening of the primitive fierceness of the feud, which set no limits to the revenge” that could be taken.[1]  The idea was that, if you kill one of ours, we’ll kill ten of yours—and then, it would escalate from there.

Still, Jesus doesn’t say limit revenge to “the same injury; Jesus declares that we must take no revenge at all.”[2]  When he says, “Do not resist an evildoer,” he says don’t worry about getting payback (v. 39).

There’s one verse that isn’t so much a question of revenge.  Jesus tells his disciples, “Give to everyone who begs from you, and do not refuse anyone who wants to borrow from you” (v. 42).  I wonder, would that include lending your car to someone who returns it with an empty gas tank?

It looks like everything that Jesus says in our gospel text runs contrary to what we usually do.  (Or at least, we might do it with a great deal of hesitation!)  Why is that?  Is this ethic he lays out something that can actually be done?  Many people simply say “no.”  Many people say that Jesus is exaggerating to make a point.  I’m not sure I’m totally convinced by that!

In any event, I find the phrase in verse 39 especially interesting: “if anyone strikes you on the right cheek, turn the other also.”  Again, there are many takes on what Jesus means by this, but I find the comments of Speed Leas, a consultant on congregational conflict, to be useful.

“What that means to me,” he says, “is that when the battle has begun, I do not leave, nor do I attack.  I stay there.  I stay in range of getting hit again.  I take the risk of not destroying the other person or leaving the scene.”[3]  According to Leas, Jesus tells us to resist the “fight, flight, or freeze” reaction.  You know what that is:  the temptation, when faced with a conflict, to lash out, to take off, or to become paralyzed!

There’s something that tends to handcuff us when dealing with conflict.  This is true for all people, but I think it’s especially true for those in the church.  We have a tendency to see conflict as inherently bad, something to always steer clear of.

Episcopal priest Caroline Westerhoff talks about this.  “Conflict is not just inevitable…  Instead it is part of the divine plan, a gift.”[4]   So here’s the question I raise in my sermon title—with a little emphasis.  How in the world can conflict be a gift?

According to Westerhoff, conflict is part of the creative process.  Almost any story or movie has an element of conflict.  There’s the protagonist and the antagonist.  Conflict is indeed inevitable; it’s built into creation itself.  Animals engage in conflict for food.  In a way, humans do, as well.  We certainly find ourselves in many different kinds of struggle.  A big part of the artistic process is struggling with ourselves and with God.  Westerhoff says that “newness cannot come without conflict.”[5]

The truth is, we have differences.  We look, think, act, smell, vote differently!  That’s how we’ve been created.  One of the main reasons for conflict is due to the fact that we’re not all alike.  We aren’t copies of each other.  We often try to impose a level of sameness on each other, but it’s a mistake.

If we can’t, or shouldn’t, avoid conflict—if it can’t be prevented—what we can and should do is to manage it.  We need to guide it, set boundaries around it.  (Recall what I said about the lex talionis, “an eye for an eye” being a boundary, a limit.)  We have to use conflict for constructive, and not destructive, purposes.

Westerhoff continues, “To manage conflict then would be to allow it, not suppress it; to open our doors and windows to its fresh wind.”[6]  I must say that I don’t often think of conflict as being a breath of fresh air!

“Following this line of thought to its ultimate conclusion, violence and war becomes not conflict…out of all bounds, but the final outcome of conflict [when it is stifled].  They result when we will not allow the other to be different, when we deny our life-giving dependence on the different one with all our might and means.”

This is the first Sunday since the presidential election.  There’s no debating that our country is divided.  That’s been true for a long time.  No matter what your political orientation, no matter who you voted for, I think I’m safe in saying that this past year has had a distinctly different feel.  I think I’m safe in saying that there has been a narrative of not allowing the other to be different.  There’s been a narrative of denying our life-giving dependence on the different one, and doing that with all our might and means.

The “other ones” who have been insulted and verbally attacked for over a year from on high have found a green light, permission has been given, implicitly or explicitly, for them to be physically attacked, to have fear instilled in them.

In that context, Jesus seems to wimp out again in verses 43 and 44.  “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you.”  Really, that sounds outrageous!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

Far from wimping out, what Jesus proposes takes a great deal of courage.

In another congregation, I asked the session to read the book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times by Peter Steinke.[7]  (I mentioned that people are always anxious at some level, so this book would probably work any time.)  He doesn’t exactly use the language of “loving the enemy,” though sometimes it might feel that way when we’re in the midst of conflict.

In the book’s Acknowledgements, he salutes “the unnamed congregational leaders and members who have influenced my thinking through their wisdom, counsel, and especially courageous action.  They deeply cared for their congregations in such a way that they were willing to risk the displeasure of others, even to the point of being demonized.”  Remember, these are church folk!  “They resisted giving in to the pressure of the moment if it meant forsaking their integrity.”[8]

Remember what I said at the beginning about recognizing my own need to keep working on being assertive in situations of conflict?

Steinke goes on, “Some leaders patiently and calmly stayed connected to people with opposing viewpoints and to those known to be troublesome…  To their credit, they did not regard their own judgments as placing them on higher moral ground.  They simply could not set aside distressing circumstances or avoid a difficult decision even if it meant individuals would be hurt or the congregation would suffer.  They spoke ‘the truth in love’ (Eph. 4:15) so that the truth could set people free (John 8:32).”

Friends, this is not easy.  That’s why we let things go for so long that we know in our heart of hearts need to be corrected.

Twice in our scripture text, Jesus says, “You have heard that it was said…  But I say to you…”  In the midst of conflict, Jesus shows us the way forward.

In the midst of conflict, it can feel like the walls are closing in.  We can feel tightness in our chest.  We need to remember to breathe.  We need to remember that the Spirit is within us.  But we also need to remember to actually breathe!  There’s nothing like being still, taking some deep breaths, and getting oxygen into the lungs to help us regain some perspective.

Jesus closes by saying, “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (v. 48).  That sounds like a tall order!  But this isn’t “perfect” in the sense of being flawless; this is “perfect” in the sense of being “perfected,” of being made whole.  That is the Lord’s desire for us.

We are fragmented, broken creatures.  We are not whole.  Still, in the strange and unwanted gift that is conflict, we come together.  Sometimes we come together by crashing into each other.  But thanks be to God, in all of that craziness, the Spirit is there to lead us into new avenues of truth, returning insult with blessing.

We need that now more than ever.

[1] Francis Beare, The Gospel According to Matthew (Peabody, MA:  Hendrickson, 1981),158.

[2] Beare, 158.

[3] Speed Leas, “The Basics of Conflict Management in Congregations,” Conflict Management in Congregations, ed. David Lott (Bethesda, MD:  The Alban Institute, 2001), 30.

[4] Caroline Westerhoff, “Conflict:  The Birthing of the New,” Conflict Management in Congregations, 56.

[5] Westerhoff, 56.

[6] Westerhoff, 57.

[7] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[8] Steinke, xv.


the neutral zone (redux)

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make lame attempts at interjecting those interests into conversations, or—God forbid—into sermons.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.comFor those who don’t know, and especially for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He’s done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, another consultant.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that is now appearing.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really alarm us, even sending us screaming in the other direction!  Or it can really have us confused.

We all know that caterpillars turn into butterflies.  While that critter is still in the cocoon, strange, confusing things are going on.  At some point, it’s neither caterpillar nor butterfly.  It’s in a state of metamorphosis in which it’s neither one.  That little booger is in what we might call a state of transitional goo.  That is its neutral zone.

image from stlydiasplace.typepad.com

We can see the people of Nazareth in our reading from St. Luke’s gospel as being in their own neutral zone; they are transitional goo.  (I should probably explain!)

As we begin with verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).  Jesus tells the people that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

They are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Dennis Bratcher says, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

It’s not long until Jesus reveals the feelings of ownership and control the people want to use over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here he’s done in other places.”

But when they hear how Jesus elaborates, attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.”  In The Message, Eugene Peterson says, “That set everyone in the meeting place seething with anger.  They threw him out, banishing him from the village, then took him to a mountain cliff at the edge of the village to throw him to his doom” (vv. 28-29).  But maybe there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he gave them the slip and was on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the Israelites.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that those other gods exist.  It’s just that they’re not supposed to follow them.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And later, as the church of Jesus Christ expands throughout the Roman Empire, barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, albeit with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in the twenty-first century.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

image from cx.aos.ask.com

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take a survey!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

That second one that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it also has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  Without the “knee-jerk reaction,” we wouldn’t pull our hands out of the fire.  You know, when any body part is on fire, that’s not the time to assemble a focus group and brainstorm various options!

So for all its benefits, the reptile brain, the lower brain, is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Here’s a note about the reptile brain.  At the conflict mediation training a few months ago at Stony Point, the presenter gave us some advice.  Never tell someone that they’re acting out of the reptile part of their brain.  For some reason, that usually doesn’t go well!

Having said all that, I hope I haven’t given the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  As I just said, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Speaking of being driven by anxiety, maybe you heard about the poll that was recently released by Monmouth University.[6]  It dealt with people’s feelings about the presidential campaign.  The question was asked if this campaign has brought out the best in people or the worst in people.  A large majority, 70%, said it’s brought out the worst in us, 4% said the best, 20% said neither the best nor worst, and 5% said it’s both the best and worst.  That last 1% said they don’t know!

Good and bad spock

When asked if they’ve lost friends because of the campaign, 7% said yes.  Though in fairness, 7% also said that happens in every presidential campaign.

Again, this is one poll, so take it for what it’s worth, and remember, there really aren’t right or wrong answers.  This is just a snapshot of anxiety among us today.  Still, I would be willing to hazard a guess that it’s not every campaign in which 70% say it shows us at our worst.

Okay, I’ve touched on ways in which those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue are spending time in the neutral zone.  A good example would be Jesus’ refusal to allow them to “claim” him, and to call them to a wider vision.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and community.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  What does the future hold?  What will we do next?  Or better, who are we, and who is God calling us to be?  How is God calling us to emerge from transitional goo?

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how to belittle each other.  That can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the hopeful and hope filled future into which the Holy Spirit leads us.

 

[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[2] www.cresourcei.org/lectionary/YearC/Cepiphany4nt.html

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[4] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2006), 8-9.

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

[6] www.monmouth.edu/polling-institute/reports/MonmouthPoll_US_092816

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)


Thomas, the daring doubter

A couple of years ago, I led a discussion of a book by church consultant Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times.[1]  We were talking about the ability to keep one’s head when emotions might overwhelm.  At one point, the discussion took a rather strange turn.  I will admit that I was responsible for that strange turn!

I mentioned the movie World War Z.  It’s about zombies taking over the planet.  It stars Brad Pitt as Gerry Lane, who works with the UN.

He hears about a wall that the Israelis have built to keep out the zombies.  So he boards one of the few planes left flying and goes to Israel, to check it out.  Upon arrival, Gerry meets Jurgen Warmbrunn, an Israeli official, and asks how they could have known to build a wall.  He responds, saying they intercepted a message from an Indian general who said they were fighting “the Rakshasha.  Translation, zombies.”  (And yes, I did consult the internet for lines that I had forgotten!)

Gerry looks at him in disbelief.  “Jurgen Warmbrunn,” he says, “high-ranking official in the Mossad.  Described as sober, efficient, not terribly imaginative.  And yet, you build a wall because you read a communiqué that mentions the word ‘zombie.’”

Warmbrunn sympathizes with his disbelief.  Then he talks about events in which the Jews thought they were safe:  concentration camps in the 30s, the ‘72 Olympics, and war in 1973.  People doubted the danger until it was too late.

“So,” he says, “we decided to make a change.  The tenth man.  If nine of us look at the exact same information and arrive at the same conclusion, it’s the duty of the tenth man to disagree.  No matter how improbable it may seem, the tenth man has to start digging on the assumption that the other nine are wrong.”

Gerry asks, “You were that tenth man?”

He replies, “Precisely.  Since everyone assumed that this talk of ‘zombies’ was cover for something else, I began my investigation on the assumption that when they said ‘zombies,’ they meant zombies.”

Unfortunately for them, the wall doesn’t protect them very long.  Some refugees are singing loudly, and the zombies outside are drawn to the noise.  They climb the wall, with the humans trapped inside.  Like fish in a barrel, they quickly become dinner.  Of course, Brad Pitt escapes!

What I found interesting was the concept of the “tenth man (or woman),” one who disagrees with the others, no matter how unlikely their position might be.

In John 20, I wonder if we can see Thomas, in a way, playing the role of the tenth man.  Going back to my original comment, can we possibly see him as the one who keeps his head when emotions might overwhelm?  I’ll admit that would give his nickname “doubting Thomas” a certain wisdom and awareness of his role!

image from matthewdg.files.wordpress.com

I think St. Thomas has been unfairly portrayed.  It’s not like he’s the only one who doubts that Jesus has been raised from the dead!  Maybe the reason he gets singled out is because he’s the only one absent on that first Easter evening.  Being the odd one out is always a tricky situation.

Here’s a quick side note.  On that evening, the scripture says the disciples were behind locked doors “for fear of the Jews” (v. 19).  John wrote his gospel in the 90s, near the end of the first century.  By that time, the split between Judaism and Christianity was a couple of decades old, and there was some Jewish persecution of the church.  Still, the reference to “the Jews” is unfortunate.  Throughout history, not understanding the context, people have targeted the Jews as bad guys.  That’s always been a grave injustice.

Now, back to Thomas.  Not everyone has given him grief.  Like the other apostles, who took the gospel to different places, Thomas went on a trip of his own.  Tradition says he headed to the east, eventually arriving in India.  That’s also where he was martyred.  There is a branch of the church known as the St. Thomas Christians.  They still exist, and they trace their history back to the apostle.

Having said that, we still have to acknowledge that Thomas does doubt.  So what about it?  Nancy Rockwell, in her blog “The Bite in the Apple,” has some thoughts about that.[2]

“Like a breath of fresh air, Doubting Thomas enters the over-lilyed atmosphere of Easter.  He’s reliably among us on the Sunday after Easter—and on every Sunday.  He’s part of us, steadily, reassuringly.  He anchors us.”  She admits that believing someone has come back from the grave can be a bit much!

Again, Thomas isn’t the only one in his group who doubts.  He is, however, the only one who gives full voice to it; he’s the only one who states it plainly.  Rockwell draws a parallel between his situation and the ones we find ourselves in.

Doubting Thomas, she says, “belonged to the group, those who believed, those who said they did but didn’t, and those who had questions but were afraid to pipe up.”  She continues, with a comment we might find surprising, “Churches are not communities of believers, but communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.”

I don’t know about you, but I have been in churches where you dare not ask any questions.  Not swallowing everything hook, line, and sinker, is considered to be a no-no, even sinful.  There’s a saying that goes, you are supposed to check your brain at the door.

I’m not sure what they do with Jesus saying to love “the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind” (Mt 22:37).

Questions are good.  I have questions, and I also have doubts.  Kids have questions, and they also have doubts.  When they come to us with them, it’s okay to say, “I don’t have all the answers,” rather than giving some rehearsed response.  It’s okay to say that to each other.

It’s a good thing when we’re a community that welcomes questions, especially the question, “Why?”  That’s a nice one!  It can also drive you crazy.

Earlier in John’s gospel, there’s an episode that I think shows the courage of Thomas.  (That explains the word “daring” in the title!)

In chapter 11, Jesus gets word that his dear friend Lazarus is at death’s door.  He doesn’t immediately take off, but when he says it’s time to go, his disciples remind him that he’s a wanted man.  If the authorities hear he’s back in town, there’s a jail cell with his name on it!  And there might be something worse with his name on it.

Thomas speaks up and says, “Let us also go, that we may die with him” (v. 16).  Some might claim that he’s being a naysayer.  Some would chastise him for sending out negative vibes.  Some might say, “Where’s your faith, Thomas?”

Maybe those are fair complaints.  But it seems to me that we can also see him demonstrating not only courage, but loyalty.  It looks like he’s ready to die with Jesus.  And when his doubts are answered in chapter 20, with Jesus appearing before him, Thomas proclaims, “My Lord and my God!” (v. 28).  For many people, this is the highlight of the story—when Thomas finally believes.

Our friend Nancy has a slightly different spin.  Three different times Jesus says, “Peace be with you” to these “emotionally exhausted people” (vv. 19, 21, 26).

She says, “The peace of Christ is given to all of them, including Thomas in his doubting.  This peace Christ gives is not just for believers, and it does not separate believers from unbelievers.  The peace of Christ does not separate.  Everything about Christ joins people together, across all the separations:  sin, judgment, defeat; gender, culture, faith.”

There is immense power in the peace of Christ.  It is indeed extended to all, even to those of us who sometimes doubt, whether that doubt is daring or not!  That’s what our liturgical use of it in worship is all about.  Passing the peace of Christ isn’t a matter of chit-chat, of catching up on current events.  It is a matter of binding ourselves together in the bond of peace.  Or better, recognizing and embracing the bond of peace that’s already there.

It might seem like having doubts and the peace of Christ contradict each other.  But God comes to us in the contradictions of our lives.

About these contradictions, Henri Nouwen mentions, “being home while feeling homeless…being popular while feeling lonely, being believers while feeling many doubts.”  These contradictions “can frustrate, irritate, and even discourage us.”[3]  Can any of us relate to this?  Can any of us relate to the father who, upon bringing his child to Jesus for healing, said, “I believe; help my unbelief!”? (Mk 9:24).

We need not be defeated or paralyzed.  “These same contradictions can bring us into touch with a deeper longing, for the fulfillment of a desire that lives beneath all desires and that only God can satisfy.  Contradictions, thus understood, create the friction that can help us move toward God.”

That’s the gift that Thomas discovers.  On the other side of his questions—and even his doubt—he finds God.

I wonder, is it possible to admit that it’s necessary to question, even to doubt?  Is it necessary to do that in order to love our Lord with heart, soul, and mind?  I don’t have the final answer on that.  As I like to do, I am posing the question!

Still, after Thomas’ eyes are opened, Jesus gives him this to chew on.  “Have you believed because you have seen me?  Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have come to believe” (v. 29).

Who are these blessed “who have not seen and yet have come to believe”?  To begin with, there are the people who first hear John’s gospel; they live near the end of the 1st century.  This includes Christians one, two, even three generations after Jesus.  And it includes those down through the centuries, leading to us today.

So I think I’m safe in saying:  take heart.  Remember, churches are more than communities of believers; they are communities of people who have questions, who doubt, who hope, who come to find something out.  And thanks be to God, our Lord is faithful and patient with us.  Our Lord extends peace and pronounces us blessed when we come to believe, no matter how long it takes.  That’s what it means to be the people of the risen Christ.

[1] Peter Steinke, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times (Herndon, VA:  The Alban Institute, 2006).

[2] www.patheos.com/blogs/biteintheapple/doubting-thomas

[3] wp.henrinouwen.org/daily_meditation_blog/?p=3708


driving, not leading

[special note: In a recent sermon, I spoke about the apostle Paul in Galatia, mentioning the difficulties he was having, some of them self-imposed. That’s especially true regarding the colorful language he uses about his detractors. In particular, I noted his bloody joke about those who demand circumcision, hoping for their self-castration. That, among other things, might raise questions about him: is he “driving or leading” the people?]

There’s a story from 1 Kings 21 about King Ahab of the northern kingdom of Israel, and in case you haven’t already figured out from the title, my supposition is that he’s “driving, not leading” the people.

image from 4.bp.blogspot.com

What I would like to do is to use this story of King Ahab, his wife Jezebel, and Naboth and his vineyard as a study of conflict. There are some crazy things going on!

Verse 1 begins, “Later the following events took place.” At the end of chapter 20, a prophet chastises Ahab for making peace with Ben-hadad, the Aramean king. It’s a peace that will not last. The final verse says much about his character. “The king of Israel set out toward home, resentful and sullen, and came to Samaria” (v. 43). Keep those words in mind: “resentful and sullen.”

So, in today’s story, Ahab has his eyes on a vineyard that belongs to Naboth. It’s adjacent to his land, so he makes a proposal. “Naboth, I would like to use your vineyard as a garden, so let me have it, and I’ll give you one that’s even better. If that doesn’t work, I’ll pay you for it.”

That sounds like a pretty good deal—better than anything you can find on Craigslist or Pinterest!

Imagine Ahab’s surprise when Naboth rejects his offer, doing so in no uncertain terms. “The Lord forbid that I should give you my ancestral inheritance” (v. 3). For Naboth, the vineyard represents more than its usefulness or a financial transaction. He sees himself as the steward, the guardian, of what has been passed down to him by his ancestors. That’s a distinction that is lost on Ahab.

So what does Ahab do? He goes home, “resentful and sullen” (v. 4). And like the grown man he is, he curls up in bed and refuses to eat his dinner! The king decides to pout!

Enter Jezebel. We first meet her in chapter 16, where we learn that she is the daughter of King Ethbaal of the Sidonians. Ahab marries her, and alongside with Yahweh, he serves her god, Baal. The author of 1 Kings says that Ahab “did more to provoke the Lord, the God of Israel, to anger than did all the kings of Israel before him” (v. 33). That doesn’t sound like somebody who was invited to the wedding!

Anyway, back to the current scripture. Try to imagine the scene. Jezebel asks him, “What’s your problem? Why aren’t you eating anything?” Ahab responds with his sob story. Jezebel must be looking at him and saying, “Are you the king or not? Get up. Go eat your dinner. I’ll take care of it.”

image from media1.annabrixthomsen.com

And the way she takes care of it is by rigging the legal system. A fast is proclaimed, elders are summoned, and a couple of unscrupulous fellows are hired to falsely accuse Naboth of a capital offense. He receives the death penalty, and Jezebel lets her husband know that the way is clear for him to take the vineyard.

There’s still one complicating factor, and it comes in the form of the prophet Elijah. The king and he have some history. Elijah has called out Ahab on his misdeeds before, and he does so again. The prophet tells the king that he has set himself on a course that is doomed. Everything will end in tears.

Refocusing on the idea I mentioned earlier, that is, using this story as a study of conflict, here’s my question: where does conflict appear in this story? It’s possible to see it in several places.

One place conflict appears is in the initial event, between Ahab and Naboth. They have conflicting plans over the disposal of the vineyard. Ahab fails in his God-ordained commission to protect the rights of his people. Naboth is affirming the tradition, going back to Leviticus 25 that land must remain within the possession of the family.

Without a doubt, there’s conflict between Ahab and Elijah. Elijah is remembered as possibly the greatest of the Hebrew prophets. He confronted the king of Israel in spectacular fashion. The showdown with the prophets of Baal in chapter 18 is truly a case of high drama.

There is also conflict within Ahab, within the man himself. Howard Wallace notes that Ahab gives his children names that a worshipper of Yahweh would select. He hasn’t abandoned his faith in the Lord, at least, not entirely. “Ahab personally bears the tension between worshipping Yahweh and worshipping Baal.”

Just before the showdown with the prophets of Baal, Elijah says to the people, “How long will you go limping with two different opinions? If the Lord is God, follow him; but if Baal, then follow him” (18:21). Elijah’s talking to the crowd, but the person it fits better than anyone else is the king.

Making the decision to marry Jezebel has brought plenty of complications. And yes, there is definitely conflict—ongoing conflict—between the king and the queen. (That seems to be an age-old quality to married life!)

It might be helpful to look at Jezebel’s side of the story, which we don’t get in the Bible. As throughout history, this marriage was no doubt part of a political alliance. It’s quite possible that Jezebel knows that she has to look out for herself, being the foreigner in the equation.

Jezebel has her own sense of honor, as well as need for protection. She has her own set of expectations, based on her cultural background.

We’ve looked at some places in which conflict appears in the story. What can we learn from it? How do we deal with the conflict?

Something we should acknowledge up front is that conflict is not necessarily good or bad; it simply is. In fact, it is inevitable. Actually, it’s possible to say that conflict, in and of itself, is a good thing. It is a good thing, in the sense that it is necessary for life. Living things, by definition, engage in conflict. One of the easiest ways to see this is by looking at the food chain. There’s conflict between the eater and the eaten. Conflict among humans stimulates new ideas, new ways of doing things.

So maybe we can reframe this, and think of dealing with conflict in ways that are not destructive.

Certainly, it helps if there are preventive measures to head off problems before they blow up. It’s always easier to deal with conflict before it escalates into full-scale war. If there are clear guidelines in place, clear expectations, then that helps to prevent false impressions.

In the context of our story, Ahab’s marriage to Jezebel is shown to be ill-advised. It has reinforced whatever character flaws he already possessed. This marriage leads him to stray from the path of the faithful, the path of the wise and the just. Why is that? As we’ve seen, and as Nancy deClaissé-Walford reminds us, Ahab is a king “who, apparently, or largely, because of the influence of his wife Jezebel, is unwilling or unable to be fully faithful to Yahweh.”

With Ahab, the clear guidelines and expectations of a king of Israel do not exist. Instead, we have the mixed messages that come from trying to follow the Lord and Baal at the same time. To put it in less dramatic terms, it would be like trying to work with two contradictory job descriptions—or no job description at all. Misunderstanding will ensue.

As we see in the story, and as we see in our own lives and congregations, we don’t always have the pre-emptive measures that prevent conflict. We’re not always on the same page. We can think of that as literally not on the same page by thinking of confusion on policies and procedures. There can also be unspoken stories that drive how we behave—stories that go back for years, even decades.

In his book, Congregational Leadership in Anxious Times, Peter Steinke has a list of observations about congregations and conflict. I like the way he begins: “I have worked with troubled churches for 20 years. I never cease to learn from these experiences.” (113) This comes from someone who is frequently cited as an expert in the field. I find his sense of humility to be quite refreshing. He strikes me as one who works at leading, not driving, people.

One of his observations I found especially relevant when considering today’s scripture reading. Here’s verse 20: “Ahab said to Elijah, ‘Have you found me, O my enemy?’ He answered, ‘I have found you.’” Then the prophet continues by laying out the verdict on Ahab.

This is Steinke’s observation: “Secrets—that is, hidden agendas and invisible loyalties—in most cases need to be brought to light. What about sin and evil? Expect it; expose it. To expose the demonic, name it.” (115) He then cites the story of Jesus and the demon-possessed man in Mark 5.

 

image from www.sharpestpencil.com.au

What I take from this is that Steinke isn’t necessarily talking about demons, but he is addressing those hidden, unnamed powers that stir up conflict. Just as Elijah has identified Ahab—just as he has “found” him—we also need to find and name those things that bedevil us. Once we get a handle on something and drag it out into the open, its power begins to wither. We work in concert with the Spirit of Christ and allow that breeze to disperse the fetid, stagnant air.

I mentioned the sermon on the person of the apostle Paul as he deals with the Galatian church. In 1 Kings we get a look at the person of King Ahab as he deals with Naboth, Jezebel, and Elijah. Both men are embroiled in conflict, but only one has a grasp on how to deal with it.

Conflict within us, if left unaddressed, gets projected outward. It affects our relationships. It affects our communities, be it the people of Israel, Paul’s audience in Galatia, or our own congregations. It turns us into people, into groups, that are driven, not led.

So we need to ask ourselves, “How do we address the conflict within?” That’s something for consideration and meditation!

[originally posted on 16 June 2013]


the neutral zone

Sometimes fans of certain TV shows, musical artists, or sports teams will make very lame attempts at bringing those interests into conversations.  I can assure you that this is not one of those lame attempts!  I have a very good reason for the title, “The Neutral Zone,” aside from the fact that it exists in the universe of Star Trek!

image from pre09.deviantart.net
For those who don’t know, and for those who don’t care, I will give a very brief explanation.  Between the United Federation of Planets and the Romulan Empire there exists a region, established by treaty, which is called the Neutral Zone.  It’s more than a demilitarized zone.  Neither of those governments is supposed to send ships of any kind into that area without the consent of the other.

Now, here comes that good reason to speak of the neutral zone!  It’s a concept presented in the book, A Door Set Open, by Peter Steinke.  He has done a lot of work with congregations, including those who are either in conflicted or transitional situations.

He uses the term in reflecting on work done by William Bridges, a consultant on transition management.  His theory is that “change is an event.  Our experience of the change is transition.  He cites three movements—endings, the neutral zone, and beginnings—in the transition experience.”[1]

We might think of “endings” as the chapter or the phase of life that is drawing to a close.  “Beginnings” would be the next step or the new reality that has now appeared.  It’s the middle one, “the neutral zone”—in which things seem chaotic and unsettled—that can really unnerve and alarm us.

Neutral zone

An example from the Bible would be Isaiah 62.  It deals with the community who has returned from exile in Babylon.  They are in their own neutral zone, so to speak.

For them, the “endings” would be the time of exile, as well as the celebration and relief of homecoming.  That is disappearing, and in its place:  question marks.  It doesn’t yet feel like home.  There’s a sense of drift, a feeling of limbo.  The glorious future promised by the prophets—the “beginnings”—have yet to arrive.  Or at least, the people don’t perceive it.

We can also see the people of Nazareth in Luke 4 as being in their own neutral zone.

As we begin in verses 14 and 15, Luke presents Jesus returning from the wilderness, having endured temptation.  He says of Jesus, that being “filled with the power of the Spirit, [he] returned to Galilee, and a report about him spread through all the surrounding country.  He began to teach in their synagogues and was praised by everyone.”  It’s when he comes to his hometown of Nazareth that things really get interesting.

Jesus attends “synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom,” and he reads the beginning of Isaiah 61 (v. 16).

“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor.  He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (vv. 18-19).

What is in the background is a reference to the sabbatical year and the year of jubilee, which are mentioned in Leviticus 25 and Deuteronomy 15.  In the sabbatical year, debts are forgiven, slaves are set free, and the land enjoys its own sabbath—it’s allowed to remain fallow.

In the year of jubilee, every fifty years, property is to revert to its ancestral owners.  It’s a sort of land reform, to help prevent the extremes of the very wealthy and the very poor from remaining in place.  But it seems that these measures were rarely, if ever, followed!

In any event, this “year of the Lord’s favor” is what the returned exiles were longing for.  Now Jesus is telling the people in his hometown synagogue that “this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing” (v. 21).

The people are astonished by the way he addresses them.  They’re asking each other, “This is the son of Joseph, isn’t it?”  Some say that this first reaction is one of rejection.  Something like, “Who do you think you are?”  However, Luke says, “All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth” (v. 22).  They’re surprised, but pleasantly surprised, by his eloquence and his insight.

Dennis Bratcher notes, “It seems at first that Jesus had won acceptance at Nazareth.  They marvel at the gracious words spoken by Joseph’s son now become a man.  But the people have not yet truly responded, at least not on the level necessary to engage the future that Jesus is bringing.  Beginning in verse 23…Jesus drives to the heart of the issue, and to the heart of the people.”[2]

Jesus lays bare the sense of ownership and control the people would exercise over him.  “Hey, he’s from our town; he’s one of us!  He should do the stuff here that we’ve heard he’s done in Capernaum.”

Bratcher says, “We can almost hear them.  Why, yes, we have blind people here in Nazareth.  We are all poor and need good news…  We are oppressed and carry heavy burdens!  Yes, we want the year of the Lord’s favor, because we want the release from debts and taxes that it might bring.  Yes, we welcome this future that will bring us all we want.”

When they hear how Jesus elaborates, their attitudes change pretty quickly.  He speaks of beloved prophets, Elijah and Elisha, doing good deeds for foreigners.  After all, he says, “Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s hometown” (v. 24).  And it looks like they want to prove him right, if it’s the last thing they do!

Luke tells us that “all in the synagogue were filled with rage.  They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff” (vv. 28-29).  But apparently there was enough confusion with people milling around, since we’re told that “he passed through the midst of them and went on his way” (v. 30).

I said earlier that the people of Nazareth experience their own neutral zone.  Change is going on, but their experience of that change has them emotionally paralyzed.  Families, communities, congregations:  all of them can be seen as emotional systems.  Verses 28 and 29 show us that the people in the synagogue are emotionally stuck—and they want to stick it to Jesus!

I just mentioned that change is going on.  What change could that be?  There are a number of ways to look at it.  I want to mention something we see evolving throughout the entire Bible.  Throughout salvation history, the faith gradually becomes more inclusive.

In the earliest times, each nation, each ethnic group, believes in their own god, and that’s true for the people of Israel.  Their God is Yahweh, but they also believe that the gods of the other nations actually exist.  It’s just that they’re forbidden to worship them or to follow their practices.  As time goes on, they come to see that the God of Israel is the one true God.  Other gods are simply idols.

With the urging of the prophets, the God of Israel is seen to be God of all the earth.  Foreigners are welcome, and indeed called, to worship this God.  And with the advent of Jesus (and absolutely with the early church), the barriers between Jew and Gentile begin to fall.

That evolution of the faith has continued, with many bumps in the road.  Interfaith dialogue continues to explore the similarities, and to clarify the differences, among our understandings of God in our twenty-first century world.

The people Jesus is addressing understand all too well what he is saying.  He’s letting them know that their claim on him, and at a deeper level, their understanding of themselves as “the” people of God (that is, the only people of God), can no longer be defended.  Their faith must expand.  This produces anxiety within them, but instead of handling their anxiety, their anxiety handles them!  And as we’ve seen, they want to handle Jesus!

Anxiety

Jesus would like to lead them in the change that is inevitable.  But as our friend Peter Steinke comments, “Leading change brings out both reactive forces and responsive ones.”[3]  That first one, reactive forces, is when we become defensive.  Sometimes people speak of instinct, the “lower brain,” or the “reptile brain.”  We sense danger; anxiety kicks in.  Anxiety is an automatic reaction to a threat, whether that threat is real or imagined.

What happens when we’re anxious?  Are we relaxed?  Or perhaps, does our chest tighten up?  Actually, “anxiety” and “angina” come from the same family of words.  When we’re anxious, we want instant answers; we see things in terms of yes-no, either-or; we literally become narrow-minded.[4]  When we feel threatened, there’s no time to take an opinion poll!  Everything within us is screaming, “There’s no time to think!  Just do it!”

The second force that leading change brings, being responsive, is when we are reflective.  This is learned behavior.  We are free to exercise reason and creativity and imagination.  We’re free to explore possibilities.  We’re using the “upper brain.”  And it has a physical response.  Instead of tightness, there tends to be a sense of calm.  We remember to breathe!

Both reaction and response are necessary for human life.  With the “knee-jerk reaction,” we quickly pull our hands out of the fire.  But the reptile brain is not very useful in building community.  We need response that’s more elevated.  In a similar way, we’re reminded that “once anxiety runs a high fever…one can never rely on insight or reasonableness or even love.”[5]

Having said all that, we shouldn’t get the impression that anxiety is a bad thing.  It’s not that anxious people are bad people.  As just suggested, anxiety is a normal part of who we are as humans.  But it’s a part of us that can easily overwhelm us and drive our behavior.

Maybe we can see ways in which both those who’ve returned from exile in Babylon, as well as those in Jesus’ hometown synagogue, have spent some time in the neutral zone.  In various ways, the winds of change have swept through their lives and communities.

That feeling of being in the neutral zone is not unfamiliar to a congregation in an interim period.  Feelings of anxiety would be expected.  I’m sure many can attest to that.  To be honest, my efforts to learn new skills in being a non-anxious (or lesser anxious) presence never end.

A moment ago, I spoke of how anxiety can overwhelm us.  In Galatians 5, the apostle Paul warns his sisters and brothers, “If, however, you bite and devour one another, take care that you are not consumed by one another” (v. 15).  He’s addressing a different matter, but I think his words can still be applied to the subject at hand.

The neutral zone can be a scary place.  We can learn the wrong lessons there.  We can learn how to bully each other.  We can learn how, in ever so slight a way, to belittle each other.  And that can be expressed in a thousand different ways.

So it’s true, the neutral zone can be a scary place.  But it’s also necessary, though not in the Star Trek sense of keeping enemies apart.  It’s necessary because that’s the time and place to re-orient ourselves.  We hold on to what is good and true from the past, but not so tightly that we cannot embrace the future into which the Holy Spirit is leading us.

Remember, before Jesus deals with the hometown crowd, he is filled, not with the power of his own ideas, but with the power of the Spirit.


[1] Peter Steinke, A Door Set Open (Herndon, VA: The Alban Institute, 2010), Kindle edition, chapter 7, section 5, paragraph 1.

[3] Steinke, 2.8.8

[5] Steinke, A Door Set Open, 2.8.8

(The image “The Neutral Zone” is by David Akerson.)

[originally posted on 27 Jan 2013]