Tag Archives: reconciliation

Should I forgive them if they never offer an apology?

The Washington Post surprised me the other day with an op-ed featuring Warren G. Harding – the first president after World War I, most-remembered for the corruption in his administration. That’s him throwing out the first pitch. It was a weird week. First, I liked Dick Cheney, of all people, for accompanying Liz to the Jan. 6 commemoration. Then I read WaPo and ended up admiring the super-capitalist, Teapot Dome president!

I did not know that Harding forgave Eugene V. Debs! He commuted the sentence of the  Socialist who ran against him from prison! Debs’ crime was doubting-out-loud the validity of WWI — he called it a diabolical capitalist war. I guess I would have voted for him. However, he got no affection from the Woodrow Wilson administration. They threw Debs in jail for his speech with a dubious application of the Espionage Act. When Harding followed Wilson he decided, against the advice of his advisors, to forgive Debs. He even made sure the traitor came to the White House on his way home from prison, so he could meet him and form some connection.

Biden has been acting out a similar public drama for us all year. He’d love to forgive people. But he took the gloves off on Epiphany and laid out Trump. For most of the year he has been restrained, trying hard to bridge the divide. But maybe that’s over. Are you similarly conflicted? Do you rehearse snappy things you would say to your enemies in your head — the zingers you will never get a chance to deliver? What do you do when your offender will not apologize, much less reconcile?

Have you decided how you are going to handle the people who have undermined you, lied about you and then blamed you for what they did to you? A lot of us are in a lot of drama. All over the country divorces have gone up, families have been divided over politics, churches have split and pastors have resigned. You can’t look at the news, if you dare, without someone worrying about American “democracy” – which Eugene V. Debs did not think much of when he was jailed for saying something that 900,000 people voted for.

It can be hard to forgive sometimes, but if Warren Harding can do it, maybe we can too.

What if they don’t say they are sorry?

This is always the big question when it comes to forgiveness. What if the person who hurt us is not sorry? It is not uncommon for someone to protest when forgiveness is suggested:

I can’t let my guard down. That would be surrendering and acting like they were justified in hurting me. They would get away with their crime! I would be just as vulnerable to more of the abuse I just suffered.

I will not forgive until the other person: 1) knows that wrong was done; 2) feels an inner sorrow for doing it; 3) apologizes to me; 4) and makes amends. Then I’ll know it is safe to forgive and enter back into the relationship.

Most of us are taught to apologize from a young age along the lines of those four conditions.  We bite a sibling, say something cruel, push someone around, and some well-meaning adult intervenes and tells us, “Now, say you’re sorry.” Half-hearted apologies ensue along with forced hugs and we move on. But something changes as we age. Apologies are harder to come by and pain cuts a little deeper than “She took my Sports Diva!”

What are you supposed to do when someone intentionally hurts you, rips your heart wide open, and then leaves you to pick up the pieces? What if they move on with their lives, with no well-meaning adult to come along and demand they apologize?

From our playground lessons, we’ve been conditioned to think that forgiveness follows an apology. But things change and people forget how to apologize. We protest and we hear “That’s your problem.” We get the unspoken message we’re wrong for being hurt. But living wronged with that prickly disconnection installed is a recipe for bitterness and it might even make us sick.

When hurt remains unforgiven, when the memory stays unprocessed, it sits in our hearts as if it is still happening. We wait for an apology in order to get some relief. Do you have anyone on whom you are still waiting? Is it fairly easy to get all worked up when their face pops into your mind or someone speaks about them fondly or you see them succeed? Jessica Harris wrote:

“My dad left our family when I was in elementary school. The pain caused by his abandonment ran deep. I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly when I didn’t do anything to deserve it. Then, as I got older, I couldn’t wrap my head around the fact that someone I loved could hurt me so badly and not care.

That ate away at my heart for years. The hurt remained unresolved as I waited for this man to return to my life and apologize for wrecking it. I thought my anger was my power. My ability to never forget was going to ensure I would never get hurt again. It was how I protected my heart.

That anger bled over into my other relationships. I became angry in general, always blaming it on my dad. If he would just admit he was wrong, my life would be better.”

I couldn’t tell that same story.  But I have definitely had to work through similar hurts in the last few years. You probably have had some hurts too. My clients certainly share them every day: a trauma that is lodged in the memory and won’t go away, a loved one who betrayed their trust, an unscrupulous salesman or contractor who swindled them, a family member who hurt them but has since passed on. They still feel people who cut them deep but have never once breathed an apology. You might feel you have a right to hold a grudge, yourself.

What if anger is not strength?

Bitterness is an enemy of resilience. It is the opposite of joy isn’t it? It is the taste of poison.  You cannot be strong and move forward with your life while still dragging around chests full of bitterness from your past like you’re Jacob Marley.

What kids rarely learn is that forgiveness is more for the forgiver than for the offender. Forgiveness is not, “I am OK with what you did.” It isn’t even, “I accept your apology.” It is, “I am not going to hold this in me or against you anymore.”

The point of forgiveness and apologies is ultimately reconciliation. An apology is extended by the person who committed the hurt. They need to do that to get free. Forgiveness is extended by the person who was hurt. It frees them more than the offender. Then two free people who have freed one another can move on to work out how to live together in love.

Even if you can’t get to reconciliation you can still forgive, and bring closure to a hurt. You can do that even if there is no apology. If you’re too hurt to forgive right away, take time to scab over. But try not to hold on too long. The anger you nurse is just the hurt hanging on. Being angry is not being strong. Forgiving brings strength that lets us really heal and move forward with life without waiting for someone to let us out of the bitterness prison.

Go ahead and forgive

Forgiveness is uncommon enough that it is actually studied. You can be a forgiveness expert.  A growing body of research shows that best forgiveness practices are about people exercising the moral virtue of forgiveness even if there is no justice or even hope of reconciliation. One tries to be good, within reason, toward an offending person. As a result, the forgiver reduces their anger, anxiety and depression and improves their self-esteem and hope (Robert Enright). A good reason to forgive is to protect your health!.

We dare not conflate forgiveness and reconciliation. People often do, but we dare not. Forgiveness is not dependent on reconciliation, restitution or justice. The offer of forgiveness can be unconditional, not dependent on the other’s response at all, including an apology. Sounds like Jesus, right? Reconciliation, when at least one party is deeply and unfairly hurt, is the fruit of forgiveness and apology and is conditional; it depends on how the offending party or parties understand their hurtful ways and change. Sounds like what Jesus would like to build, right?

A forgiver is motivated by their desire to be rid of resentment and act as good as is possible  toward an offending person. If that person has no inner sorrow, never intends to apologize or to make amends, you don’t act like they do. Yet, you can still have the intention to reconcile if the person changes and interaction becomes safe. You even can show an outward quality of forgiveness, for example, by not talking disparagingly about the offender to others. It is working out Romans 12:18: “If it is possible, as far as it depends on you, live at peace with everyone.” If a person keeps abusing you, you can struggle for peace instead of just struggling against hurt. You don’t need to bear their responsibility.

Why not be healthy? If you reject forgiving because you conflate it with reconciliation, you  deprive yourself of a chance to recover, lead a healthy psychological life and even a healthy relational life with others (if not necessarily with the offending person). Deep anger from injustices can lead to a lack of trust in general, thwarting potentially uplifting relationships.

How we think about forgiveness is important. If we make the mistake of waiting for an apology or holding out for an ideal reconciliation, we allow the offending person or a passing act to dominate us for a long time, maybe even for a lifetime if the wound is deep enough. Forgiving and reconciling are not the same. You are free to forgive, if you choose, even if someone refuses to apologize.

Rebuild after an affair: 4 basic nutrients for new love

My clients in troubled intimate relationships are searching for answers. They often come to a session after spending hours online looking up solutions for their problems. Their search often comes up with damning criticisms and daunting expectations scattered among the good ideas. A few have come to an appointment with a diagnosis that promises a quick fix if the associated steps are accomplished.

Their seeking is promising, if sometimes misguided. They want to do something right or good. They want to feel better and repair something, not just cut off and do it all again somewhere else. Even better, they want to form a relationship with a caregiver, their therapist, who can help them sort out how the relationship went wrong and how they participated in the problem.

Several clients are rebuilding after an affair, either sexual or emotional, that broke their partner’s trust. Many people go directly to divorce after such an event, some accept sharing their partner, but quite a few try to work out a renewed, exclusive relationship. That is not easy. Injured relationships need to recover in many ways, especially when it comes to  trust.

Recently I have spent months with people trying to rebuild, not always successfully. I woke up one night with a list forming in my mind about what they could do. The following list  includes my dreams as well as some research into what everyone else is saying. Here are four basic ways back into a rebuilt love relationship.

Recognize the trauma

If something feels traumatic to you, it is. New relationship breeches trigger old ones. Some of your emotional reactions may feel overwhelming when infidelity is revealed.  It will take time to settle down and more time to work your way into a new equilibrium.

See if you can get to the “table.” Everyone may be unhappy, initially, but there has to be enough talking and action for someone to think the process is going toward healing.

In this day of “alternative facts” getting to the table will likely include a definition of adultery. Is it penetration only? Is it just looking on someone with lust so you were penetrated in your heart? Is it lonely Gov. Cuomo touching inappropriately? Is it the surprising porn addiction you discover in your husband? Is polyamory OK as more people than ever assert? Arguing over the terms won’t solve the problem, but it might take some discussion to get to a common table to negotiate something new.

How did you get to adultery? You might want to take the quiz in “What Makes Love Last?” by John Gottman, who did extensive work on divorce prediction, marital stability, and recovery from infidelity.  You may never get to a satisfactory answer to “Why?” The basic answer may not feel like enough. But the process will help you move through the trauma. As you do, some fundamental questions will need to be addressed:

  • Are you interested in making amends? Or are you willing to leave your partner?
  • Will you let go of the anger and resentment towards your partner and move forward?
  • Can you imagine a future with your partner even though they betrayed your trust?
  • Do you have adequate resources to help you recover, personally?

Get out or make something new

In therapy I consistently need to ask, “What are we doing here?” Would you like to build something new or are you content to keep seeking justice or maintaining your old patterns?  Gottman’s “four horsemen of marriage apocalypse:” criticism and contempt often meeting defensiveness and stonewalling, are likely elemental to the old pattern. If you don’t want to take this opportunity to build something new with this person, you should probably admit it. I would not admit it too soon, but you’ll need to commit to be in if you don’t want to be out.

Therapy can help sort this out. But therapy won’t make you do something. The post-adultery relationship is a new relationship. Same people, new relationship. You might be building the relationship you should have built originally. More likely you are just getting to building a good relationship with the advantage of having a new urgency to do so.  That is OK.

Repent

Many people say things like “There are two sides to a story” when it comes to an affair. The betrayed partner must have helped cause it. The victim often gets blamed in the U.S. I don’t think much restoration will happen if an endless argument about who is at fault is installed as a solution. If you sin, repent. The person who committed the act must take all the blame.

This is going to be difficult since the betrayer will be dealing with shame. The angry responses from the deep well of grief and loss from the aggrieved partner are not going to feel good and every time they emerge a natural defensiveness will arise. If you did it, stay calm and respond to this anger with another round of admission and asking for forgiveness until it is done. Get forgiven by your partner. God will forgive you, so start there. Your partner, however, is not God.

Forgive

Betrayal gets stuck in my craw until I can’t stand seeing the person and I start assuming everyone will treat me bad. It can make me hardhearted. I need to forgive to preserve my soul. Even if you divorce an adulterer you will still be better off if you forgive them. “Will you forgive me?” must be met with “I forgive you” at some point. It may take a while to get there but this is the first step toward a new relationship.

If you reserve your forgiveness until you feel you have exacted justice, you are not really at the table of rebuilding yet. The table is all about reconciling and rebuilding. Forgiveness does not mean we are done. But it does mean we are beginning.

Learn improved ways to relate

There is no linear path or prescribed method for rebuilding after adultery. We are all different and our relationships are unique. There are a lot of ways to rebuild better. So the following elements that came to my mind and came through research are not in a particular order. At some point I think they all need to be exercised, however.

Grieve. The old relationship died. The betrayed partner, especially, but the betrayer also, will grieve for what is gone or what was desired. Grieving takes as long as it takes. We usually need to decide we have had enough and move on.

Wait. Everyone is re-calibrating. They are seeing things in new ways. They are changing and growing. All these things take time. The plant won’t grow faster because you are frustrated with it. Waiting is also how we hear from God and trust the work of the Spirit. If we try to control the future we will only achieve what our limited capacity can achieve.

Listen in a new way. The relationship probably had some habits that did not work. We need a new curiosity and some new understanding. Listen to understand; give the gift of understanding.

Let go. Suppressing the past as if you do not matter will not work well. Acting like everything is fine is not sustainable. But we do need to let the past go, let the sinner go free after they have repented, let our feelings mellow, let our view of ourselves and our relationship change. Letting go is elemental to trust in God; we are not in control of the world. Letting go is essential to love, otherwise your partner is subject to judgment, which is intolerable.

Accept each other. Most people ease into newness and you should accept the relationship you presently have if you want it to grow, not hold out for the ideal you don’t have. Accept one another as God accepts you is key to togetherness.

Attune. Your therapist can help you with this. But there are any number of self-help books (like the one I already mentioned) that can get you started. Attunement is the desire and the ability to understand and respect your partner’s inner world. This cannot be done completely, but the attempt matters. Sharing vulnerabilities stops either partner from feeling lonely or invisible.  Marriage is God’s gift to our maturation. Everyone needs a way to communicate that allows for safety – no “You” messages, enough space to allow each other to do what they can without criticism or stonewalling.

Work day by day, stone by stone

We like to say “trust the process” these days. We generally don’t trust it, since we can’t tell where we are going. I think we all need to trust God, since none of us knows what we are doing. Here are a few ways to stay in the incremental process of new growth.

Receive the good given. The good you have needs to be good enough. Looking over your partner’s shoulder for something better may have been the initial impulse that led to an affair. Looking beyond the repentance your partner offers to the ideal mate they never were and aren’t will subvert the process of building love with the one to whom you are committed.

Get right brain. The right brain is the seat of holistic health in our body. The left brain is more about correlating the evidence and keeping us on track. We are a left-brain dominated society, thus we have people who have served time in prison and are still refused jobs and the right to vote after they are released — endless “fairness” and no grace. You and your partner must not be left as an eternal judge and felon. The left brain internet never forgets, the right brain comes to a bigger picture by ignoring unnecessary facts.

Make small commitments. This is one way toward a new, fuller marriage commitment. We like to leap to the end of the process we imagine and often give up because “This is not working.”  It might be the impatient way we work that does not work. Love is not a commodity to procure, it is the fruit of a wise life. Changing the way dishes are done could be revolutionary over time. Making a weekly time to consider the schedule could be life-changing. Creating an affirming ritual when someone comes home from work could loosen up tangled emotions.

Re-Attach. Or maybe you will be attaching for the first time. Our re-enactment of unfinished childhood attachment issues is integral to marriage. Your therapist can help.

Symbolize the progress. For some people ceremony cements what is new. You write a card that is about repentance or forgiveness. You go on an anniversary trip that is designed to be a new step. You put your wedding ring back on or buy a new one. You go on a pilgrimage and throw a stone into the sea that symbolizes your past.

These ideas can also apply to the friends we have cut off or the churches we have divided. Even those difficult family systems that seem so impossible might change! Underneath all these practical responses to injured trust is love. I think love has a deeper source than my own capacity. Marriage is a radical re-enactment of being created in the image of God as male and female. How we connect in love is as deep as creation itself. So whatever we do to work that out, it is good. Sometimes it may mean moving on from a relationship that is too broken to repair or from a person who can’t get to the table.  But many times it means being healed by a deeper love than that which was broken.

We contained a crisis and discovered a strategy for reconciliation

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

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

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

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

How much choosing is really involved in sinning?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Create an atmosphere bent on reconciliation

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

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

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

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

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

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

Forgiveness

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Covenant breaking is probably not,

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

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

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

How the Dialogue List helped teach us lessons in love

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

Early COH looked a lot like this

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

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

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

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

Condemnation is an enemy we must not love

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

Here are the most relevant verses:

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

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

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

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Getting involved in messes is messy

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

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

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

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

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

Insiders and Outsiders: Knitting them together in love

Insiders and Outsiders — Juliusz Lewandowski

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

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

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

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

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

The call to insiders and outsiders to accept one another

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

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

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

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

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

That’s us on TV!

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

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

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

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

Undo triangulation in the church: Practice Matthew 18

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

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

Image result for church division

It would be better to look like Matthew 18:

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

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

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

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

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

 

Hope Network | Neuro Rehabilitation | BIAMI Blog Post: Triangulation – What Is It and How Does It Apply to the Role of Caregiver

Triangulation

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

How the Drama Triangle Works

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

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

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

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

3 Ways for Leaders to Reduce Triangulation

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

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

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

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

4 suggestions for “step two”

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

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

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

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

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

Staying out is better than getting out of the Triangle

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Click picture for PBS story

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

What do Jesus followers do in the face of this?

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

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

Repent

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

Forgive

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This is the solution of the race problem.

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

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

What to do when that troubled person cannot stay reconciled?

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

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

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

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

Well, sometimes they can’t.

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

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

What to do about the less-than-reconciled?

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

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

What do I do when…

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

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

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

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

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

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In Honor of White Corpuscles

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

Turning away does not work for good

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

white corpuscle

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

White corpuscles

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

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

It is a life and death matter

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

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

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

Will the new Amtrak mural fit with your aesthetic?

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

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

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

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