As a pastor, I sometimes get accused of being too idealistic. Some will argue that all this stuff about loving others is nice, and has a place, but we can’t take it too far. We have to be practical. We have to protect ourselves. So, I want to push back this morning.
It doesn’t get more practical than our scripture lesson this morning. Jesus gives us a practical four-step approach to dealing with contention and conflict in relationships. Step One: If you are having a problem with someone, go talk to them face to face. Step Two: If that doesn’t work, take someone with you. Step Three: If that doesn’t work, involve the leaders of the church. Step Four: If that doesn’t work, then move on – let it go.
This advice is so practical. Actually, it is so painfully practical that it might make you want to run back to the ivory tower and long for a theology of “head in the cloud” ideals that really don’t need to be practiced with any depth. I can hear the disciples now, “Lord, I know we complained about your parables and how confusing they are, but please tell another one. Just give us something to think about, to ponder. This clear practical advice is just too hard.”
At a Conference recently, one of the speakers put truth into words when he said, “Ministry is a series of hard conversations.” Pastor Lauren and I were talking about this and decided that we could expand the thought. Relationships that are healthy entail a series of hard conversations. Healthy relationships require that we take the theory of love and actually practice it.
At the core of this practical advice is to meet face to face! And notice who is called to initiate this meeting. The one who is offended or harmed is the one called to take the initiative. That stinks, doesn’t it? (Pastor Lauren and I both wanted to use another word to describe this, other than “stinks,” but decided not to go there. Use your imagination.) This notion of being hurt in some way and then being the one to take the initiative and seek reconciliation is not natural. I have heard people say so often, "But they hurt me. They should come to me.”
Friends, as hard as it is, we are called to take a higher road. We are called to be agents of reconciliation. We are called to initiate the hard conversations – just as we are called to love our enemies and turn the other cheek. Advice like this is so practical, but it is not easy. It takes courage that can only come from God.
At the same conference I mentioned earlier the speaker gave some of the best advice I’ve ever heard for how to approach contention in relationships. She called upon us to distinguish between facts and stories. Facts are verifiable and inarguable, if willing to tell the truth. Stories are the way we process our feelings and give meaning to the facts or reality before us. For example, say a person comes in late to work. That’s a fact that can be documented. But then it is our natural inclination to make up stories. Why was the person late? Well, they were late because they don’t care, or because they are lazy, or because they like to hurt me. Or, perhaps they were late because of an accident, or they were sick, or they stopped to help someone.
We really need to pay attention to the stories we tell ourselves, because our stories say a whole lot about our feelings, our emotional state, and our perspectives on the world. And they may not be reconcilable with the story of the other at all. In fact, our stories can create division and disconnect between us. So, what if we were to distinguish between facts and stories? What if we went to the other person with whom we are estranged in some way and said, “Here are the facts ...” “You said this” or “I observed that,” whatever it might be. “I’ve made up a story about that and it may or may not be fair to you, so I would like to hear your perspective and see if we can reconcile our stories in a way that is life-giving for both of us.” I believe this technique has great potential for how we might follow this practical advice from Jesus and to fulfill his hope, which is always reconciliation and life-giving relationships between us.
What other options are there? Well, we could take one of many easy and wide ways of handling such conflict. One easy way is to avoid the conversation altogether and hope the problem will just go away – all the while telling ourselves stories about why we need to avoid the conversation. Another easy and wide way is to hold onto resentment and even feed on it, even become addicted to it. Another common way to deal with such situations is gossip – to talk about the other person behind their back. All of these approaches have the power to lead us straight into a living hell. This “hell” can become our story. It can become our reality.
Friends, we can’t afford to do this “our way.” We can’t do this without God. And here’s the good news. God wants to be right in the middle of this work. Jesus says, when we work to come together, God will bless that. When we don’t, God will honor that as well. God is not going to force this upon us, but God does make a promise to us. Whenever two or three are gathered in my name (that is, according to my will), I will be there with them.” This quote is most often used about gathering for worship. But note the context. Jesus is talking about gathering for hard conversations. He is talking about us taking the initiative to bring reconciliation, forgiveness, peace, and life-giving love between us. When we do that, God will be there. Give it a try and be blessed. Amen.