When We Butt Heads in the Pews

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My central thesis in preaching and teaching on Matthew is that one of the author’s major concerns in writing the gospel was teaching his readers how the community of faith was supposed to live together.

Being part of the faith community is a non-negotiable for Jesus. As I have said in the pulpit recently, there are no Lone Ranger Christians. You can’t follow Jesus all by yourself; the path of discipleship wasn’t designed to be a solitary road.

Sometimes we wish we could walk it by ourselves, because it’s not always easy to be part of a community. We might discover we are called to follow Jesus alongside people whom we may not particularly like. Or we may protest we are too “different.” Or we might say, “I’m not comfortable around people like that.” We might not like the way another member of the community prays or sings; we may disagree with their politics, or find their wardrobe distasteful.

But that’s all beside the point in the faith community, or “church,” if you like. When God calls us to follow , there is always a group of disciples ready to accompany us on our journey of faith. And these disciples are just as flawed and imperfect as you and I are. We learn on the road together. That’s the beauty and the struggle of church.

Fortunately, the Gospel of Matthew also gives us some great advice on how to navigate the conflict which will ultimately confront any church. In the eighteenth chapter, Jesus gives us a three-step process and one guiding principle by which disciples are supposed to handle conflict.

The three-step process goes like this:

1) “If your brother or sister sins against you, go and correct them when you are alone together. If they listen to you, then you’ve won over your brother or sister.” (Matthew 18:15)

This step is the best piece of advice I’ve ever heard, and as a pastor, it is the primary way I advise all staff and laypeople to act towards each other: if someone has wronged you, then you are supposed to go to that person directly and speak to them about it. Not to a third party, nor to Facebook, nor to anyone else.

This is also the least-followed piece of advice I have ever given. It’s difficult to confront people with whom you are in conflict. I know that because it’s hard for me, too. However, it’s the best way to address conflict, and it prevents things from circulating on the rumor mill or gossip circuit. Most conflict in the church would immediately cease if this practice were followed as a general rule by everyone.

However, Jesus recognized that this tactic wouldn’t always work …

2) “But if they won’t listen, take with you one or two others so that every word may be established by the mouth of two or three witnesses.” (Matthew 18:16)

If the situation escalates, Jesus recommends that you take one or two friends with you to confront the person with whom you feud. The presence of others keeps everyone honest, and can de-escalate tension.

But if that doesn’t work …

3) “But if they still won’t pay attention, report it to the church. If they won’t pay attention even to the church, treat them as you would a Gentile and tax collector.” (Matthew 18:17)

This step sounds extreme; in fact, it sounds as if it can be used as justification for kicking someone out of a church. But is that a bad thing?

Let me suggest some moderating thoughts about this passage:

First, I believe that this is an extreme step to be taken only when and if someone’s behavior is harming someone else. We can all think of situations in which a church member’s actions could be so destructive that we would have to take drastic measures to keep them from hurting people in the congregation.

However, this process ensures that there would be no arbitrary and punitive measure taken against anyone. If there is a problem, the offender is confronted privately first; if he or she doesn’t respond to mend the problem, only then is the matter widened to a larger group of people.

And third, scholars have argued that treating people like Gentiles and tax collectors isn’t as bad as it sounds. After all, we know how Jesus treated Gentiles and tax collectors — he ate and drank with them! He treated them as people worthy of his time and attention!

Finally, there is one overriding general principle that Jesus preaches about community life — forgiveness. Just after teaching this process of conflict resolution, Peter asked Jesus, “But what if the same person keeps sinning against me? How many times do I have to put up with it? How many times do I have to forgive — as many as seven times?”

We all know how Jesus answered: “Not seven times, but seventy times seven.”

Forgiveness is the heart of church life. This is the only thing that will hold us together in the end. For we will offend each other, we will sin against each other, and we will say harmful things and do hurtful things. That's just the way humans do each other.

But as the redeemed disciples of Jesus, we have a remedy for reconciliation — the ability to say, “I forgive you.”

Let’s learn to say that a little more frequently.

Discernment and Dreams

How do you make important decisions?

Not what you’re going to wear in the morning or what to fix for dinner, but the big questions of your life. For example, how do you decide where to live or what person to marry, or even when it’s time to move on in your job?

These are matters that can’t be left up to chance; you have to engage and invest some energy into making such decisions.

Ironically, the early Christians seemed to make at least one major decision in an entirely random way. In Acts 1, the disciples “cast lots” to replace Judas Iscariot in the inner circle. Scholars don’t know exactly what it meant to “cast lots” but it was likely akin to flipping a coin or choosing straws of different lengths.

But the disciples didn’t make decisions like this for very long, because in the next chapter of Acts, they were filled with the Holy Spirit, and this changed the way they went about things. To be “filled with the Spirit” means that one has the very presence of God in one’s being, which means that each one of us can access God’s wisdom. Each of us can seek God’s will for our lives.

We call this practice of listening to the Spirit “discernment.” Sister Mary Margaret Funk wrote, “This is discernment: to sort our thoughts and follow the impulse of grace given by the Holy Spirit … We learn to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit rather than our own voice, self talking to the self. The voice of the Holy Spirit is a dynamic voice that we hear and heed through our interior senses.”

Throughout the centuries, Christians have offered and embodied a number of different ways to understand and develop a discerning spirit. St. Benedict offered instruction on discernment in his “The Rule of St. Benedict”; St. Ignatius did the same in his “Spiritual Exercises”; Quakers introduced Clearness Committees to help persons find clarity in their vocation.

Discernment is not just for individuals, however. Groups can also approach God and ask for direction. In fact, using spiritual discernment for making decisions in a church setting is probably a much better process than the way we usually do things.

Thanks to U.S. Army Major Henry Martyn Robert, most of us do things in an extremely parliamentary way. Robert’s Rules of Order predominate most church meetings, regardless of denomination.

While Robert’s Rules of Order are helpful in all sorts of settings. They ensure that everyone has the right to be heard, and insist that things be settled democratically. Majority rules for Robert, as long as the correct procedure is followed.

But Robert’s Rules were not designed to hear, or respond to, God’s voice. In this matter, they are only helpful insofar as each person in the meeting is also hearing and responding to God’s voice.

Of course, the truth is that, using Robert’s Rules of Order, rarely is everyone able to agree on what God’s will is. In the end, Robert insists on a vote, and when there’s a vote, there are winners and losers.

Authentic Christian community is not about winners and losers, but it is about compromise, mutual subjection, and humility. I believe that there must be a better way to go about answering the difficult questions — and there is. It goes by the name of group spiritual discernment. And it’s not simple … or easy.

The practice of group spiritual discernment creates a sacred space where people can listen for God’s voice together, as well as listen to each other intimately and intently. The group enters into the space with a confidence that God will speak and lead the group to consensus. Consensus is not the same thing as a unanimous vote, nor does it mean complete agreement. It simply means that the group has agreed to move forward in a particular direction, and that all are on board to support that movement.

I’m currently doing quite a bit of reading and research on this model, because I am convinced that it is an excellent way to go about pursuing God’s will. In fact, I’m using a group spiritual discernment model for a new task force which meets this Sunday night to discuss the long-term future of the church building and property.

I can’t wait to see what God reveals to us, because God’s dreams are always bigger than our own. The key is learning to dream God’s dreams …

Something's Happening Here

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You have a lot of churches to choose from.

Let’s be honest — some of them have much better preachers than me. Some of them have better music programs; if you like rock music, there are churches that have services designed specifically for you. Some churches have much bigger choirs, orchestras, bands, and multiple children’s choirs.

There may not be many church buildings more beautiful than ours, but there are buildings that are bigger, with more comfortable seating, with big screens and fancy visuals, with bigger stained glass compositions.

Don’t get me started with the children’s and youth programs: some churches have built entire buildings to house those booming ministries. Some churches have rock climbing walls, castle playhouses, and gymnasiums for their kids; some even have entire departments staffed by multiple pastors.

Some churches have a lot more money than ours; they have famous people, athletes, big-name CEOs, and celebrities making regular donations. Some churches are so financially successful that their pastors have their own private jets.

There are churches that are high-church, with lots of liturgy, fancy robes, and incense; there are churches that are low-church, with simple prayers, hand-clapping, and shouted amens. Some churches are full of white people, while others are mostly brown or black, and some are even a diverse mix of colors.

And, yes, I suppose that some churches have more active laypeople, more volunteers, more competent members who have more time to give to the church.

You could attend any one of these many churches in the Dallas area. Or you could drive over to Fort Worth — it’s not that bad of a drive on Sunday morning.

You have a choice when it comes to which church you attend. I’m very aware of that fact. I’m always aware that other churches do some things much better than us, and I’m hyper-aware of the things that we don’t do very well at all, including myself.

But I’m beginning to understand that there is something very profound happening at Kessler Park UMC that is unique to this location, to this group of people, to this particular time in history.

We are becoming a community; we are slowly and gradually becoming a group of people who have been called together by the living God. Every single one of us belongs. There are others who haven’t arrived yet, but they’re on their way. In the meantime, we are growing together, and our commitment toward each other is becoming stronger and stronger.

Something has taken root within us, something which I would simply call “love.” I feel it among all of you — you really do love each other. You may not know every face in the sanctuary on a given Sunday morning, but you do your best to welcome, support, encourage, and strengthen each other.

Another word for this is koinonia, the word we use in our weekly liturgy before our “Sharing of Shalom.” Koinonia refers to the kind of fellowship and community which is the consequence of the unity of the Holy Spirit. We are beginning to live koinonia out, and the result is going to be something very special.

Keep loving each other, and keep widening the circle. God is working amongst us!