It is a Feature Not a Bug - Conflict in the Church

The most naive among us, believe that the Church is conflict free, or if there is conflict then it is minimal and quickly resolved. This is not the case.

It is sometimes the case that people will work in the Church and see the “other side” of things and decide to leave Church. Others are victims of the conflict within Church, and this is painful. Still others seek out Church conflict because there is something about the conflict that they are addicted to or get some need met by being a part of the conflict.

The truth is conflict is universal and unavoidable. There is not just the conflict we have between one another, but we also have internal conflicts. Conflict is nothing to be ashamed or afraid of.

The Church understands that with conflict there is the chance to practice reconciliation, forgiveness, listening, compassion, mercy and justice. Without conflict the Church cannot practice these things. And like all other parts of our lives, the things that we do not use, atrophies and dies.

What is remarkable about the Church is that it sees conflict as a feature of the institution, and not a bug.

Some worry that too much conflict for too long will lead to a sort of war. The assumption is that war is the ultimate form of conflict. We have been taught to think this is the case. However, comedian Dylan Moran makes the point that war is not ultimate conflict but it is the inability to have conflict. Moran’s point is that waging war means you would rather have the other person dead than have conflict with them. War is not the ultimate conflict, it is our inability to have conflict.

What if by refusing to be in conflict we are not choosing peace. What if it means that we are choosing war? If we believe that it would be better (more peaceful) when the “other side” is gone, then are we engaged in a sort of ecclesial war?

Conflict is the feature we have in the Church that gives the chance to practice repentance, mercy, forgiveness and justice. Taking the conflict away may not lead us to the peace we say we desire. It may lead us marching into war.

Expect Peace After Only Eight Years

Benedicta Ward translates this story:

A hermit who was anxious went to Theodore of Pherme and told him all about it. He said to him, ‘Humble yourself, put yourself in subjection, go and live with others.’ So he went to a mountain, and there lived with a community. Later he returned to Theodore and said, ‘Not even when I lived with other men did I find rest.’ He said to him, ‘If you’re not at rest as a hermit, nor when you’re in a community, why did you want to be a monk? Wasn’t it in order to suffer? Tell me, how many years have you been a monk?’ He said, ‘Eight.’ Theodore said, ‘Believe me, I’ve been a monk for seventy years, and I’ve not been able to get a single day’s peace. Do you expect to have peace after only eight years?’

We have an anxious church that is seeking peace. It is a church that asks how long must we wait for the peace we say we all desire. If a single monk, Theodore, did not have peace after seventy years, then what makes a denomination of 3 million think that we can have peace after just fifty years?

We can split the denomination, I understand it has happened before. I understand that growing by dividing is possible. I understand there is harm being done. However, what makes us think that the split that the UMC is facing will be THE split that brings us to the peace we long for? What makes us think that any denomination or church could ever be at peace?

Maybe the peace we say we long for is just the excuse we cling to in order to divorce ourselves from one another.

How long must we wait for the peace we desire? Longer than we have tried - if we have ever started. A split will not bring us the peace we think we will get. Fights will continue, just read the Bible. Do we think that this is the generation that will arrive at the peace the church says it desires?

Self Reflective Jesus

The apostles said to the Lord, “Increase our faith!” The Lord replied, “If you had faith the size of a mustard seed, you could say to this mulberry tree, ‘Be uprooted and planted in the sea,’ and it would obey you. “Who among you would say to your slave who has just come in from plowing or tending sheep in the field, ‘Come here at once and take your place at the table’? Would you not rather say to him, ‘Prepare supper for me, put on your apron and serve me while I eat and drink; later you may eat and drink’? Do you thank the slave for doing what was commanded? So you also, when you have done all that you were ordered to do, say, ‘We are worthless slaves; we have done only what we ought to have done!’” Luke 17:5-10

Every time I read a parable I wonder where is Jesus, and this time I wondered if Jesus was the slave. Like the slave, Jesus works the “fields” and tends to “sheep”, and at the last supper he served the disciples with an apron around his waist. Could it be that Jesus is disappointed in his own self that in all that he has done to serve them, the disciples still ask for an increase of faith.

If the disciples were with Jesus this long, and their faith has not increased (which is the bare minimum that would be expected of a teacher) then I wonder if Jesus is disappointed himself?

Is Jesus disappointed that for all that he has done for the disciples, they are still seeking an increase of faith? That he thought the faith of the disciples was increasing only to discover in the question that perhaps their faith as not matured? That is Jesus was, at this point, unable to get the disciples to think about beyond just their individual faith.

Could Jesus be confessing, in his own Jesus way, that his ministry feels worthless because he was was failing to do “what ought to have done” - the bare minimum?

Is Jesus saying he feels worthless because he has only been able to do the bare minimum and not accomplish a greater mission in these disciples?

Am I frustrating Jesus because I am often interested in increasing my own faith at the expense of being interested in the greater mission of God?

Lord have mercy.

Let Us Eat the Phlegm

in her book, The Desert Fathers: Sayings of the Early Christian Monks, Benedicta Ward translates the following story of our Christian desert teachers:

At a meeting of the brothers in Scetis, they were eating dates. One of them, who was ill from excessive fasting, brought up some phlegm in a fit of coughing, and unintentionally it fell on another of the brothers. The brother was tempted by an evil thought and felt driven to say, ‘Be quiet, and do not spit on me.’ So to tame himself and restrain his own angry thought he picked up what had been spat and put it in his mouth and swallowed it. Then he began to say to himself. ‘If you say to your brother what will sadden him, you will have to eat what nauseates you.’

In case you missed it, one brother coughed up phlegm onto a different brother who grew angry from being spat on. The spat upon brother chose to fight the internal battle of anger rather than say anything to the sick brother and possibly hurt him.

So he eat the phlegm.

My beloved denomination is sick. Many of us are spewing up all sorts of phlegm onto one another. We are become angry that someone would say something repulsive; that someone might act against the “code of conduct” and even the Book of Discipline - that someone might spread their “disgusting” theology. Too many of us become angry and choose to correct, embarrass or even reprimand another (always in the name of love).

I desire the heart (and stomach) to eat phlegm. I desire to address my inner conflict and anger knowing that is where the enemies last stand will be. Or in the spirit of another desert saying:

If anyone speaks to you on a controversial matter, do not argue with him. If he speaks well, say, “Yes.” If he speaks ill, say, “I don’t know anything about that.” Don’t argue with what he has said, and then your mind will be at peace.’

The world will be at peace not when we stop fighting, but when humanity is at peace with ourselves. For that internal peace will guide our actions toward one another. We do not have a denomination in conflict so much as the people that make up the Church are not at peace with our own selves. How do we overcome the internal anger and conflict within? Eat the phlegm.