This week we commissioned the committees that serve Clackamas Park Friends Church. It is also the first Sunday of the NWYM Peace Month focus on conflict resolution. As I was writing I felt led to tie these things together.
This week we are commissioning and praying for the committees that serve this church. These committees will need your continued prayer throughout the coming year as they navigate triumphs, failures, crises and moments of serendipity. Church boards and committees tend to be the focal points of conflict in churches and there are times when the service is a burden because of it. The people who served in the last year can probably tell you more about that than I can.
(Thanking of the outgoing clerks and Committee persons.) (Commissioning of the Hospitality Committee)
Part of our problem is that human beings do not handle conflict very well. We tend to be extreme in our response to conflict allowing ourselves to be carried away by the fight or flight reflexes built into us. This month we are focusing on resolving conflict and today I want to make us aware that healthy resolution to conflict begins within each of us. How can we make peace when we are at war in our very beings? Whether we like it or not conflict is going to happen. Our goal cannot be to have no conflicts, which denies reality and creates bitterness. Our goal cannot be to exist in perpetual conflict which will descend quickly into ceaseless brawling over the least important issues. Our goal must be to engage disagreements with a sense of humility, that even though I think I know what is right I need to acknowledge the limits of my humanity. We must remind ourselves that my understanding of a situation, no matter how well thought out, is a flickering candle compared to the bright noon sun of God’s understanding. This is where the role of the Clerks become so important. It is the Clerk of the Meeting’s job to sift through what is said for those nuggets of God’s wisdom that trickle in bits and pieces through us “earthen vessels” and the Recording Clerk has the task of helping express those leadings in our minutes, giving us tools to hold ourselves accountable.
(Commissioning of the Clerks.)
Our text today comes from the book of James, which most evangelical scholars believe was written by Jesus’ brother who led the Jerusalem church. James the Just had a whole lot of experience with conflict and facing it and resolving it. He led the church during its very first major conflict over whether gentiles had to abide by the strictures of Jewish law in order to become Christians. This was a hard fight, but eventually people had to recognize the activity of the Holy Spirit in those uncircumcised, pork-eating barbarians. In James’ writing we see am analysis of the causes of unhealthy participation in conflict that gives us an idea of his experience and what he learned about how healthy conflict is conducted.
13Who is wise and understanding among you? Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom. 14But if you have bitter envy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not be boastful and false to the truth. 15Such wisdom does not come down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, devilish. 16For where there is envy and selfish ambition, there will also be disorder and wickedness of every kind. 17But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. 18And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace. James 3:13-18
“Gentleness born of wisdom”, I would love for that to be the way people describe my actions. Unfortunately that is not always, or as some might say, usually the case. Between the TV and the competition of our educational system, envy and selfish ambition were lessons continually pounded into my skull, and let me tell you I heard a lot more of those messages than ones promoting gentleness, compassion, humility, honesty, and contentment. In my previous life as an internet security consultant I had the fun task of helping companies have more secure networks. I found rather rapidly that there were a lot of people who said they knew what they were doing to get a job, even when they didn’t. To my dismay, I learned that this is a common occurrence in the job market anymore. According to a recent study, 78% of résumés and job applications are misleading and 53% contain outright falsehoods. We have seen the CEOs of Yahoo, The New York Times, and people in many other positions lose their jobs because of this. The frightening thing to me is that the people who did the research also polled a number of college students to ask them whether they would falsify information on a résumé or job application, and found that 70 % would. This culture of dishonesty of course promotes fear, and when our lives are filled with fear, even other people’s fear, we are much more likely to jump into fight or flight responses. Is it any wonder then that we who exist in a culture dominated by fear responses respond to conflicts in fearful ways? No, but we need to be different from our culture when we figure out what is happening. Otherwise, we can be perceived as being hypocritical. Our Administrative Council has the role of helping us honestly face into the challenges of the normal operations of our church. Their job is to lead us in being good stewards by looking at how we operate and comparing that to the call we have discerned as a body.
(Commissioning of the AC)
What would it look like if we treated conflicts as positive opportunities for God to work change in our hearts? One of the most common complaints from outside the church is that we are a bunch of hypocrites. Now aside from the response that I always want to make which is “Yes, you are right. And if you want to join us there is always room for one more.” I have to sadly admit that the diagnosis tends to be an accurate one. The problem is that we have been over-trained to see mistakes, errors in judgment, and outright sin as things that will separate us from God’s love, and that people who are imperfect in any way are not entirely in tune with God. While none of us has the capacity this side of heaven to be entirely in tune with God, the bible is pretty clear that nothing can separate us from the love of God. We are called to learn from our mistakes and see them as opportunities to improve the ways we go about doing things. We are called to admit the errors in judgment we make and refer back to those errors in similar situations so that we don’t make the same error again. In other words we become wise by making mistakes and errors in judgment and learning from them rather than ignoring them. We are called to confess our sins and receive the mercy of God and in so doing destroy the power sin has over our lives. If we create an environment in which mistakes, errors in judgment and sin are discussed without fear then we are being false to the truth and giving those things the cover of darkness they need to thrive and destroy our relationships. The Elders of our church have the tough job of shining the light of God on the dark places of our community existence. They hold the church in prayer, and hold each of us accountable to the calls God has in our lives. They also work to lead the body in discerning God’s vision for our community and hold the leaders of the church accountable to working that vision out.
Thankfully James does not end with a discussion of what is wrong, but goes on to tell us what things look like when we are healthy. The first thing he mentions is purity, and when we read the word purity from a first century Jew we need to look a bit deeper than the way we define it. Purity in that context held that the way we carried out our actions showed the true motivations behind them. In other words, the way we act tells us why we acted. When our motives are pure, our actions are marked by their peacefulness, the way they promote right-relationships and well-being. From the biblical perspective, peacemaking is not merely avoiding conflict, but is actually the promotion of right relationships with God and each other and looking out for the well-being of all. This is accomplished by our being gentle with each other. We know that we are in a culture dominated by fear, so we are gentle in order to not as easily provoke the fight or flight response from others. We also need to be willing to yield, even when we feel that “right” is on our side. God is a much better guardian of what is “right” than any of us ever will be, and has a much better perspective on what is “right” for a person at that point in their life. We display this by being generous with our mercy. We are called to display the fruit of our acceptance of God’s mercy in our lives, and if we are having trouble displaying mercy to someone with whom we disagree, let me remind us to reflect on the mercy God has poured out on us. Maybe then it will be easier to display some of those fruits of the spirit and see everyone as having equal access to and dependency on the mercy and forgiveness of God in Jesus.
(Commissioning of the Elders.)
We have the call to spread the good news of peace with God though Jesus, but that peace must be visible in us as we interact with each other. There is indeed a ripe harvest and one of the ways we can best gather that harvest in is to display James’ call in our conflict interactions. We have the ability through Jesus to honor the image of God that each of us bears and avoid the hypocrisy of having to act as if the process of perfection is finished in us. When we are honest about our brokenness, we free ourselves from the bondage of having to maintain a façade. When we do away with the false façades of having it all together or having a complete understanding of the will of God, we become a haven for people who are broken to find the healing they so desperately crave.