Listen to the audio of this post as preached at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church here.
You can tell where this is going. You can see it on his face. You can hear it in her voice. I think we need to talk. We’ve got a problem.
You listen carefully, a bit on your guard, and then realize that you are the problem. Either your boss is not satisfied with your work. Your spouse is upset that you don’t do your share around the house. Your friend feels you have no time for her anymore. Your parents think that you are intruding by giving them advice.
And there you have it: conflict. A part of life. We can’t avoid it. Some of us are better at it than others, but most of us would rather not have to deal with it.
Holy Trinity just finished a brand-new personnel policy. Until now, as a supervisor of staff, I would deal with situations as they come up, and thank goodness, we haven’t had any major conflicts in the congregation or with the staff. But we need to be prepared for the unexpected, should it occur. In other words, conflict. So there is a disciplinary policy that outlines a verbal warning and then a written warning that can lead to suspension or termination. And there’s a grievance procedure if an employee believes that harassment or inappropriate conduct has interfered with their work.
Matthew 18 has a section that reads like a church discipline manual. In essence it says that if someone offends you, confront them. “We have a problem.” If that fails, do an intervention. If that doesn’t work, cut them off and kick them out.
I learned that some Christians treat this advice from Matthew as if they were reading someone their Miranda rights. And if you didn’t know, “mirandize” is now officially a word. As in: “did you mirandize him?” So in some more legalistic Christian circles this all leads to something like: “did you Matthew 18-ize her?” No wonder we church people get a bad rap. Matthew18 leads to excommunicating people, and well, let’s not even go there.
Speaking of conflict, where I’d like to go is the hard lesson I learned after reading a book recommended to me by a good friend. It’s called Why Talking Is Not Enough (by Susan Page). It’s a book for marriage, but I think it applies to other relationships as well.
Most of the time we think the other person is the problem. In fact, we usually try to change them. We don’t like the way they load the dishwasher or wash the dishes in the sink—themes big at our house. Conflict over household etiquette or chores lead to all kinds of other big and small issues that push our buttons.
The traditional model for such conflicts is to have “the talk.” I think we need to talk. We have a problem. Which of course, always means: you are the problem and let me count the ways. As author Susan Page says, folks often say how much work a relationship or marriage is. But she turns it around and says that when someone get to us—and they always do in some way—it’s my problem. That’s the hard work. It’s usually about my issues. It takes inner work, reflection, maybe even therapy.
What I’m trying to get at is this: often in conflict we don’t see the role we play. Most of us love to be the victim. We’re always right and the other is always wrong.
A book called Leadership and Self-Deception makes a similar point. When we always see others as the problem, we begin to see ourselves as the center of the world and others as objects whose needs are not as important as our own. It’s the game of “blaming others” that we all do so well. Look at online posts or opinion pieces today. Someone else, or some other group of people is always the problem.
When we read about “binding and loosing” in today’s gospel, it can lead some in the church on a power trip of controlling others by saying who is moral or not, who is saved or not, and what is truth or not. Yet for Martin Luther, “binding and loosing” has to do with the church’s role in announcing the forgiveness of sins. We all stand in need of God’s mercy. We all are self-centered. We all think the problem is someone else rather than looking closely at ourselves.
Could it be that being in community and being in relationship are the things that teach us about ourselves, about being human, and about our common need for reconciliation?
One liturgical scholar (Aidan Kavanaugh) was known to say that Christian community is the place where you are close enough to get on each other’s nerves and then need their forgiveness.
Or consider the name of a book called: Thank You for Being Such a Pain. One quote from the book: “In the school of life, difficult people are the faculty. They teach us our most important spiritual lessons, the lessons we would be most unlikely to learn on our own.”
That one is a challenge for me, and I bet you as well, but it jives with our faith. In Romans Paul writes, “Owe no one anything, except to love one another.” All the commandments can be summed up in this way: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” So simple, yet so hard.
We are bound together in community: in families, towns, churches, nations and even as siblings on planet earth. And heaven knows, together we have all kinds of problems. Yet, we are in this together.
Yes, there is a time to talk, and a time to air our grievances. Sometimes the other person is certainly “the problem.”
But as we claim our part in a conflict, as we learn to listen, as we realize that we’re all carrying burdens and trying to do the best we can, we sense the presence of God. And the promise of Jesus to be with us in community—where two or three are gathered. Trusting in the forgiveness and mercy of God, we begin to see our problems in a different light.