I’ve witnessed church conflict close up, and it’s often not pretty. Accusation and counteraccusation, name-calling, gossip, betrayal, and heartache—all of these can oppose the fullness of life that God has brought. Unresolved conflict among God’s people can not only rip apart its members, but can also weaken and destroy our witness to a watching world.
Petty differences, grudges and jealousies were affecting a church’s staff. They didn’t fellowship with one another—working secluded in their offices behind closed doors. When they had to communicate, it was short and to the point. On Sundays, however, they pasted on happy faces in front of the congregation. Their inability to deal with conflict resulted in a poisonous work environment for the entire staff and hampered effective ministry.
My wife grabbed hold of one end of the rope, and I held the other. Facing each other, we began pulling on the taut cord. Why this two-person tug of war? We were helping some couples see what conflict in marriage can be like. But then—no longer tugging—one of us took a step towards the other. Soon both of us moved to the centre of the now slackening rope until our hands met in unity.
The most dangerous place for Christians to be is in comfort and safety, detached from the suffering of others,” argue the authors of Common Prayer, suggesting that following Jesus includes a commitment to the “abandoned places of the empire”—places the world has given up on. In a special way, those places where we might expect only despair are often where we see most clearly the persistent love of a God who never gives up on His world.
In 1972, public schools in my state in the US were court- ordered to desegregate. That same year, the private Christian school where I currently teach began. While much has changed since then, we still struggle to talk openly regarding the impetus of the school’s beginnings and the hidden cultural walls still present. Recently, while meeting with a prospective student’s family, I answered their questions regarding diversity with transparency because the body of Christ is healthier when facing its brokenness honestly.
When I was fourteen, with the help of a friend’s dad, my friends and I started a worship band. Before practice each week, we would gather in a circle and read a chapter of the Bible, then go around the circle sharing prayer requests and praises. We each took time to pray out loud for the person sitting next to us. This not only helped us get to know one another better, but allowed us to support and encourage one other through difficult times. It also helped us celebrate in praise together.
After the cross finished its cruel work, Jesus’ bewildered friends laid His ravaged body in a cold tomb. Night fell, and an eerie silence descended. Jesus’ followers huddled in grief and confusion. What do you do when your entire world crumbles with violent implosion? What’s left when everything you thought you knew, everything you’d hoped in, lies smoldering in ashes? What do you do when God has died?
In the well-loved comic strip Peanuts, Lucy sets up her makeshift office and advertises that she will dispense advice for a small charge. Then Charlie Brown approaches and tells her how he feels overlooked and unimportant. When he finishes describing his sense of isolation, the unconcerned “counselor” flippantly gives him the simplistic solution to “go make some friends,” and then tries to collect her fee. Ouch.
It’s estimated that Howard Schultz, until recently the executive chairman of Starbucks, is worth three billion dollars. One might assume that such a successful businessman had been born into wealth and privilege, but nothing could be further from the truth. Schultz was born and raised in Bayview, a notoriously dangerous housing project in New York City. But far from resenting his childhood neighborhood, he credits his upbringing with keeping him grounded and connected to those around him.
“You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.” This sentiment from Anne Lamott often comes back to me in situations of potential conflict. If I find myself assuming God feels exactly the same way I do about most situations, it’s safe to say my view of God is mixed with a good deal of myself! Only one Person has known the mind of God fully; we His followers always understand imperfectly (1 Corinthians 13:12).
I recently witnessed an encounter where someone entirely dismissed and degraded another person. “Leave now,” the instigator said, “you’re not wanted here.” I took great offense for the person who received such cruel treatment. But I also felt profound sadness for the individual who spewed such mean-spirited words. I know how to help one who’s been rejected, but it’s far more difficult to know how to help one whose soul has been poisoned by contempt for another.
Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables opens with the struggles of Jean Valjean, a man ostracized by society because he was an ex-convict. Myriel, the town’s bishop, gave him shelter one night, but Valjean fled with Myriel’s silverware. When Valjean was caught by the police, however, the bishop said that he had given the silverware to Valjean. He then gave Valjean two silver candlesticks, as if he had meant to give them as well. After the police set Valjean free, Myriel told him that he should use money from selling the candlesticks to make an honest man of himself.
John Oliver, the host of HBO’s popular TV show Last Week Tonight, made the news when he forgave fifteen million dollars in debt. He did this to show the unsavory nature of buying debt and collecting on it. He purchased the massive debt at the price of just $.004 for every dollar. Because he owned the debt, Oliver had the legal right to collect it. Instead, he generously abolished it.
While spending a few days in the great outdoors, a bird woke me up one morning before dawn. His persistent singing eventually roused the rest of his winged friends, who also sang until the trees teemed with excitement. It was as if the first tweets I heard were a lullaby for the night animals and an alarm clock for the day creatures. One bird appeared to prepare an entire forest for the sun to rise.
The speaker at our conference asked us to gather in groups of three with people we had never met. He told us to each take one minute to tell the others about ourselves and share the story of one person we wanted God to bless. One man said he wanted God to bless his wife who was battling cancer while she cared for her invalid mother. Another praised God for healing his wife’s cancer but said he was concerned for his adult son who was far from God.