UMC

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.

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.

Giving as a Discipline of Unlearning

The more I engage with the spiritual disciplines of my faith tradition, the more I am shown their pedagogy. Rather than teaching me things, the disciplines guide me to unlearn what I thought I knew.

For example, the discipline of giving financially to the work of God. I tend to be one who feels there will not be enough money in my life to meet my needs. So I am prone to withhold my giving because what if I need something and don’t have the money for it? Or what about saving for retirement? Shouldn’t I give as little as I can to ensure that I have enough saved for my golden years? Also, I am a better decider of how my money should be spent and so why should I trust another who will frivolously spend it?

Notice how much I think I “know” about how the world works in these basic assumptions.

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The discipline and practice of giving shows me I need to unlearn what I know. It is impossible to learn a new way until I unlearn the old way. As such the discipline of giving is not something that will teach me anything but will help me unlearn the old assumptions. This is why we say through giving God transforms us. It is not the giving that changes us, it is God that changes us as we go through the practice of giving. The discipline is not the destination, it is the bridge that can help us get to a different place.

As of late, many in my denomination are choosing to not give to the denomination because of how the church upholds or violates rules. I get it. Who would want to give to an organization that perpetuates what you feel is sin? What the practice of giving to the church has shown me is that I do not withhold my money to other organizations that perpetuate sin. Tech companies still gets my money, despite knowing work conditions are not good. I bought a “Trump brand” tie, knowing that there are ethical matters related to the president using the office for personal financial gain. I pay my taxes knowing that wars are waged with those monies. I shop on Amazon knowing that the discount I get comes at the cost of selling my data. I scroll through facebook knowing that they care less about connection then about the bottom line.

The discipline of giving has shown me that I am in great need to unlearn the false story I tell myself: I only give to organizations that I fully support.

The Church has her faults and I am a part of the organization. I confess and repent of my failings in the organization. However, it is revealed to me that if I am going to give my money to organizations that exploit and do damage in the world, then I can also give money to those organizations that are trying, but are not immune to fault, to repair the world. For all her faults, the Church is trying to repair the world. The Church educates and builds hospitals. When the private sector cannot see a profit in a problem the church steps in and tries to fill the need (it is churches that are housing people on the boarder, not businesses). The Church is involved in prisons and psychiatric wards. The Church is there when you are born to remind you that you are loved and there when you die to bless you as important.

I have so much to unlearn about what I “know” to be true. I give thanks for the spiritual disciplines that are a means to unlearn the false so that I might learn the Truth of God.

Tossing Jesus Off A Cliff

…And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ All spoke well of him and were amazed at the gracious words that came from his mouth. They said, ‘Is not this Joseph’s son?’ He said to them, ‘Doubtless you will quote to me this proverb, “Doctor, cure yourself!” And you will say, “Do here also in your home town the things that we have heard you did at Capernaum.” ’ And he said, ‘Truly I tell you, no prophet is accepted in the prophet’s home town. But the truth is, there were many widows in Israel in the time of Elijah, when the heaven was shut up for three years and six months, and there was a severe famine over all the land; yet Elijah was sent to none of them except to a widow at Zarephath in Sidon. There were also many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha, and none of them was cleansed except Naaman the Syrian.’ When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff. But he passed through the midst of them and went on his way.

The group is excited because they are anticipating that Jesus is going to not only do great things among them, but probably even going to give them a little extra. Like when you go to a restaurant and know the server and they tend to your table a little more than others and bring you a birthday dessert even though it is not your birthday. This town is looking to get the hook up, as the kids say.

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Jesus says that in fact God has a history of giving favors to people other than the chosen ones. Jesus cites two times when Elijah and Elisha both were sent not to the chosen people but to the foreigners.

The people around Jesus got super angry and move to give him the death of a heretic. All because Jesus reminded them that God is less interested in giving the “extra good stuff” to the chosen ones and more interested in integrating the ones that the people of God thought were downright unrepentant sinners.

Imagine a group of people agreeing that they are in the right, that Jesus should take care of them first, because he is one of them, and they are the majority. Jesus says he is not going to do that but go to the hated minorities. Perhaps people cry out, but we are the majority Jesus and we are the faithful ones! Jesus might have reminded them that they should be the first ones to understand why he is to go integrate the minority. Instead of seeing that grace compels us to move beyond what we identify as kosher or orthodox, they decided to drive Jesus off a cliff.

But that was a long time ago.