Tag Archives: Conflict

Bad Blood Boiling Over

All the royal officials at the king’s gate knelt down and paid honor to Haman, for the king had commanded this concerning him. But Mordecai would not kneel down or pay him honor.
Esther 3:2 (NIV)

I recently read a fascinating op-ed by Ayaan Hirsi Ali, a Somali by birth who became a member of the Dutch Parliament. In the article, she shares about her journey of understanding that she was culturally and systemically raised to hate Jews and blame them for everything, and how she overcame that hatred.

Feuds are as old as humanity itself. Whether it is unresolved interpersonal conflict, blood feuds between familial tribes, or long-standing hatred between people groups, there are countless examples of systemic hatred and generational conflict throughout history.

For the casual reader, there exists in Esther an underlying conflict that is not easily detected on the surface of the text. Mordecai was a Jew from the tribe of Benjamin. The tribe of Benjamin had a famous ancestor in the person of Saul, the first King of Israel. Saul had warred against the Amalekites and their King, Agag. Saul’s disobedience to God’s command in the battle against King Agag led to Saul’s downfall which, in turn, brought shame to the tribe of Benjamin. Haman was an Agagite, a descendant of Saul’s famous enemy. There are over 500 years of bad blood between Haman and Mordecai’s tribes.

This adds a whole new layer of understanding to the story. Mordecai had thwarted an assassination plot against Xerxes in yesterday’s chapter, and yet he received no real reward for his courage. Haman, in contrast, is elevated to a place of unprecedented power within Xerxes administration and no reason is provided to explain why he was deserving of such favor. The King demands that everyone bow before Haman. Bowing and kneeling before others was a common form of public respect in ancient Persian culture. It would be similar to shaking hands in our culture or taking your hat off in respect. Mordecai’s refusal to offer this basic courtesy to Haman was not treated as treasonous, but as culturally impolite and disrespectful. Mordecai was scolded and lectured, but still, he refused to bow. Each day he stood as Haman passed by and each day the insult pricked Haman’s ego and pride. With each passing day the 500 years of cultural bad blood between Benjaminite and Agagite, between Jew and Amalekite, slowly simmered to a boil. Haman plots to have Mordecai and all of his people annihilated.

This morning I find myself contemplating Jesus’ command that I forgive my enemies. This not only includes the interpersonal conflicts or wrongs which I have suffered, but I believe also includes the deeper cultural, ethnic, moral, and religious prejudices I may hold against other people groups; Prejudices that I may have been systemically and culturally taught without even realizing it.

Which brings me back to Ms. Ali, a woman from a different culture, tribe, and religion than my own. I found her willingness to confess her hatred of the Jewish people and turn from the cultural enmity she’d been taught a shining example of what Jesus asks of me. I find myself taking an honest inventory of my heart this morning. As King David (ironically, God’s replacement for the disobedient King Saul) wrote in the lyrics to his musical prayer, “Search me, God, and know my heart.” Addressing prejudice and cultural hatred has to begin with me.

Broken Relationships; Divine Purpose

Perhaps the reason he was separated from you for a little while was that you might have him back forever— no longer as a slave, but better than a slave, as a dear brother. He is very dear to me but even dearer to you, both as a fellow man and as a brother in the Lord.
Philemon 1:15-16 (NIV)

If you’re not a regular reader, please know that I’ve been reading and blogging through the letters of Paul in the chronological order they were likely written. In my last post, Seasonal Companions, I wrote about the conflict and reconciliation between Paul and John Mark. But that isn’t the only story of reconciliation hiding in the back stories of the personal greetings found at the end of his letter to the followers of Jesus in Colossae. Paul writes:

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

Onesimus was a runaway slave from Colossae who was owned by one of the believers there named Philemon, a friend of Paul. We don’t know all of the facts of the story. What we do know is that Onesimus seems to have stolen from Philemon and fled. In what I’d like to think was a divine appointment, Onesimus ends up running into Paul in Rome and he becomes a follower of Jesus. Now, Paul is sending Onesimus back to Colossae to make things right with the master from whom he stole and fled. Onesimus is carrying with him Paul’s letter to the Colossians, which we just finished reading. Onesimus is also carrying a letter to Philemon, which is today’s chapter. (Paul’s letter to Philemon became the shortest book in the Bible, FYI.)

Paul’s letter to Philemon is brief, but warm-hearted in its appeal to Philemon to be reconciled with Onesimus. Paul asks Philemon to consider sending Onesimus back to help Paul while he is in prison. Paul urges Philemon to see how God used Onesimus’ offenses to bring about His divine purposes. Onesimus left Philemon a runaway thief, but Onesimus is returning as a brother in Christ trying to make things right.

In the quiet this morning the theme of my thoughts continues to swirl around lost and broken relationships. Paul’s letter to Philemon is a good reminder that sometimes a season of relationship ends because one or both parties need the separation in order to learn, experience, and grow so that a new season of deeper and more intimate relationship can come back around.

I find myself, once again, thinking on the words of the wise teacher of Ecclesiastes. There is a time and a season for everything. That includes a time for conflict, and a time for reconciliation. There is a time to make amends, and a time to forgive. Sometimes the time in between is just a moment. Other times it takes many years. Along the journey, I’ve come to embrace the reality of, and necessity for, both, along with the wisdom necessary to discern which is which.

Seasonal Companions

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.)
Colossians 4:10 (NIV)

“There are friends who are friends for a season, and there are friends who are friends for life.” Thus said a  wise woman to me while I was a Freshman in college. It was the first time I remember really thinking about the purpose and tenure of friendship in life’s journey.

Everyone knows that Jesus had twelve disciples, but Luke records that there was a wider circle of seventy-two disciples that Jesus sent out (Luke 10:1). Among the twelve it was only Peter, James, and John that Jesus called out to join Him when He was transfigured, when He raised Jairus’ daughter, and when He was in His deepest despair in Gethsemane. Like most of us, Jesus had concentric circles of relationship from the intimacy of His inner circle of three to the wider and less intimate relationships He had with the twelve, the seventy-two, and an even larger group of 500 followers to whom He appeared after His resurrection.

Along my life journey, I’ve had a number of friends, mentors, and protégés who became part of my “inner circle” during a particular stretch. Looking back, I observe a certain ebb and flow of pattern and purpose in relationships. As the wise woman stated, some paths converge for a season and then organically lead in opposite directions. Conflict, sadly, severed some relationships. In a few cases, I’ve realized it’s best to leave be what was. In others, reconciliation brought differing degrees of restoration. There is longing to experience reconciliation in yet others when the season is right. Then there are a few in which time ran out, and only memories both bitter and sweet will remain with me for the rest of my earthly journey.

Most readers of Paul’s letters skip through the personal greetings with which he typically tagged his correspondence at the beginning and/or end. This morning, it was one of these oft-ignored greetings at the end of the chapter that jumped off the page at me. Mark, the cousin of Barnabas, sends his greetings to the believers at Colossae. There is a back story there.

Mark, otherwise known as John Mark, had been a boy who was part of Jesus’ wider circle of followers. Mark’s mother was a prominent woman who also followed Jesus and likely supported His ministry financially. When Peter escaped from prison it was to the house of Mark’s mother that Peter fled. It was Mark’s cousin, Barnabas, who brought the enemy turned believer, Saul (aka Paul) into the fold of Jesus’ followers. Barnabas and Mark were part of Paul’s inner circle on his first missionary journey.

Then, it all fell apart.

In the middle of the journey, Mark left Paul and Barnabas and went back home. Paul felt abandoned and betrayed. Years later when it came time to make a return journey, Barnabas wanted to take Mark along. Paul, still angry that Mark wimped out and abandoned them, would have none of it. There was a big fight. There was a bitter separation. Paul went one way with Silas. Barnabas went the other way with Mark. The season of Paul, Barnabas, and Mark was over.

As Paul writes his letter to the Colossians it has been many years since the conflict with Barnabas and Mark. Paul is in prison and is nearing the end of his life. Mark is with him. We don’t know how the reconciliation happened or what brought them back together again, but Mark is there sending warm greetings through Paul. It’s nice to know that sometimes in this life we get over our conflicts. We let go of the past and embrace the present. Seasons of friendship can come back around.

In the quiet this morning I’m looking back and thinking of all the companions I’ve had along my journey. I’m whispering a prayer of gratitude for each one brought to my life and journey, despite where the ebb and flow of relationship may have led. And, in a few cases, I’m praying for the season when the journey might lead divergent paths back together, like Paul and Mark.

Non-Essential Liberty

Be careful, however, that the exercise of your rights does not become a stumbling block to the weak.
1 Corinthians 8:9 (NIV)

The local gathering of Jesus’ followers to which Wendy and I belong has been growing steadily in the years since I began regularly joining for worship and serving in the community. What has been interesting is that the growth is largely coming from other local and regional churches and gatherings who have been slowly fading and even shutting down. The result is that among our community of believers we have a growing, yet increasingly diverse, population who bring with them a host of different traditions, beliefs, customs, and worship practices.

What I’ve observed among the leadership and staff of our community is that the attitude has not been a black and white “This is our way and we don’t do it your way” type of attitude. Rather, I’ve observed an open attitude asking “What can we learn from the richness of all these other traditions?” The result has been a fascinating and unique experience. A traditionally “mainline” church operating in the gifts of the Holy Spirit typically found in gatherings labeled “Charismatic” or “Pentecostal.” A contemporary-style worship service that incorporates pieces of ancient liturgy and generally follows the ancient church calendar. A gathering that most casual observers would label “modern evangelical” and yet during the week many in our community pray the ancient, Divine Hours. During Lent you’ll find members of our community journeying through the Stations of the Cross. The whole thing has been less “either, or” and more “both, and.”

As I read today’s chapter this morning it struck me that Paul wrote to a fledgling gathering of believers in Corinth who were experiencing their own melting pot of diverse backgrounds and belief systems. The Christian faith came out of a typically rigid, black-and-white religious system of Judaism. Yet in Corinth there would have been believers who had come from pagan backgrounds and  knew nothing of Judaic traditions or beliefs. There would have been intellectual Greeks who were mostly steeped in philosophy and had little practical understanding of any religion. The result was a clash among the local gathering of Corinthian believers. Good Jews were horrified at the notion that the meat on their table may have been once sacrificed in a pagan temple. The former pagans and those who weren’t raised in the Jewish tradition couldn’t quite understand why, on Earth, it was that big of a deal.

Paul’s wisdom was the adoption of a “both, and” spirit rooted in Jesus’ law of love. Those who rolled their eyes at fellow believers from Jewish tradition (who couldn’t handle the idea of meat sacrificed to idols) were to respect their brothers and sisters who were. If the Abrahams are coming over for dinner do the hospitable thing and keep it kosher. Those of Jewish tradition were to respect that not everyone was raised in their life-long, black-and-white religious traditions. It’s not the same for them. Take off the Jr. Holy Spirit badge. Let it go. Take one for the team. Love one another in the diversity of our consciences and convictions.

I believe St. Augustine nicely summed up what Paul was getting at a few centuries later: “In essentials unity. In non-essentials liberty. In all things charity (i.e. love).” Whether or not you care that your rib-eye had been butchered in the Temple of Apollo is a matter of individual conscience. It’s a non-essential. Love and respect those believers in your midst who come from different backgrounds and may not believe the same way you do.

This morning I’m grateful for the diverse group of believers with whom Wendy and I regularly worship. From the “frozen chosen” believers from mainline backgrounds to the former Roman Catholics and all the different forms of baggage they carry to the Charismatics who spiritually bring in da noise and da funk. I admittedly don’t always understand, nor fully appreciate where they’re all coming from. We just shrug our shoulders, keep an open mind and spirit, and love, love, love, love, love. When it comes to stuff like this I always want to live, learn, love, and operate in “non-essential liberty.”

Answering Accusation (or Not)

The very fact that you have lawsuits among you means you have been completely defeated already. Why not rather be wronged? Why not rather be cheated?
1 Corinthians 6:7 (NIV)

When the first phone call came from a co-worker, I was taken completely by surprise. My head was still spinning when the phone rang again. This second call came from my closest friend.

Dude,” he said immediately when I picked up, “I’ve got your back.”

That was the beginning of a particularly dark stretch of my life journey. Accusations had been broadcast among family, friends, and colleagues. Things were about to get really ugly, and I was faced with many decisions of how to respond.

Almost immediately I received, unexpectedly, some wise counsel from a person who’d traversed a similar stretch of rocky terrain earlier in their own life journey. I will never forget that bit of advice. Let me paraphrase: “Don’t fight back,” said the sage. “Make like a turtle. Pull into your shell at need and let the words, insults, accusations, and suspicions bounce off your shell. Just be true to yourself, and keep pressing on one step at a time. Make like a turtle. Slow and steady wins the race.”

In today’s chapter Paul, in his letter to the followers of Jesus in Corinth, is addressing similar sticky situations. Accusations are flying among the small group of believers. People are pointing fingers. Sides are being taken. Private arguments are turning into public lawsuits. In all the hubbub, the local gathering is suffering a black-eye.

Paul asks the believers an interesting question: “Might it be better for everyone to just allow yourself to be wronged?” In a nutshell (or, more aptly, a tortoise shell), Paul is echoing the sage advice I received many years ago. Don’t escalate an already bad situation by publicly answering insult for insult, accusation for accusation. Rather, do as Jesus proposed:

“Here’s another old saying that deserves a second look: ‘Eye for eye, tooth for tooth.’ Is that going to get us anywhere? Here’s what I propose: ‘Don’t hit back at all.’ If someone strikes you, stand there and take it. If someone drags you into court and sues for the shirt off your back, giftwrap your best coat and make a present of it. And if someone takes unfair advantage of you, use the occasion to practice the servant life. No more tit-for-tat stuff. Live generously.” Matthew 5:38-42 (MSG)

It’s not easy. Step-by-step, day-by-day I simply endeavored to be true to myself and to be a follower of Jesus to the best of my ability. Slow and steady I pressed forward letting the public suspicions, accusations, and tossed rocks bounce off the shell. “Don’t answer,” I had to keep telling myself as I protectively pulled inward. “Keep moving.”

In the quiet this morning I’m privately enjoying a tremendous compliment I recently received from an individual who, during those dark days, wouldn’t speak to me or give me the time of day, as the saying goes.

Slow and steady wins the race.

(Note to my regular readers: I expect my posts to be a bit erratic through the holidays. our kids and one-year-old grandson are visiting from the UK until New Year’s. Grandpa’s daily schedule might be appropriately messed up on a regular basis.)

From “Members Only” to a “Can of Worms”

As for those who were held in high esteem—whatever they were makes no difference to me; God does not show favoritism—they added nothing to my message.
Galatians 2:6 (NIV)

Imagine an exclusive country club that has been in existence in a community for hundreds of years. The club, created by the town’s wealthy and politically powerful founder had always been owned and run by the eldest child in direct generational descendant of the town’s founder. For generations the club has always been “Members Only” and only the “who’s who” of the community leaders, political leaders, business leaders, and established local families were allowed to join. Only they could afford the dues and abide by the upscale dress codes and the strictly taught and practiced rituals of the club’s exhaustive book of social etiquette.

Then, the current owner dies. In her last will and testament she states that the Club will now be open to anyone who wants to join, not only members of the local community, but anyone from any community in the entire region. She leaves an endowment that pays for virtually anyone to belong and states that nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership. From that point on, all members of the club will participate in its ownership and have the opportunity for club leadership.

Almost immediately, residents across a ten county area from every social strata, race, gender and cultural background rush to join the club. The existing club members who have only known the club to be one thing, are quickly thrown into a panic. While trying to maintain an air of acceptance and openness, they insist that all of the “new” members must maintain the traditional dress code (clothes none of the “new” members can afford) and the strict rituals of social, club etiquette (that none of the “new” members ever learned, nor do they necessarily care about).

The Board of Directors and its membership committee, packed with long-term, upstanding club members agree to embrace the owners wishes to welcome everyone into the club, but insist that the new members must hold to all of the long-held traditions of the country club even if it’s a terrible burden to them and offers no real benefit.

One influential member from one of the oldest, most well-established blue-blood families in the club’s history stands and confronts the Board and membership committee. The owner’s last will and testament said that “nothing should hinder any persons full acceptance and membership.” To expect new members to buy expensive dinner clothes and hold to social rituals they’d never learned was the exact kind of hinderance that the owner was referring to in her will. He demands that they drop their requirement of historic dress codes and social etiquette rituals.

Can you feel the tension of this situation?

Welcome to the first century Jesus movement.

It’s hard in today’s world to understand just how huge a rift the risen and ascended Jesus created among early believers from different backgrounds. The Jewish believers came from a deep historical and cultural tradition that was a core part of their identity. In many ways it was like a private, “members only” club. When Jesus made it clear that His followers would embrace persons of every tribe, nation, culture and tongue He opened up the proverbial can of worms. It deeply rattled those who had lived their whole lives in a system of exclusivity.

As Paul continues to write his letter to the Galatians, the subtext of his words drips with tension. Paul is a life-long, blue-blood member of the formerly exclusive club. Peter, James and the rest of the Twelve are in Jerusalem trying to balance the enraged emotions and daily struggle of traditional, Jewish believers trying to embrace the new reality. Paul, the maverick, has gone all-in on the side of the non-Jewish Gentiles. This is the conflict threatening the faith of the early believers.

Paul is convinced that the believers must let go of the ancient Jewish traditions and rituals of their members only club as it relates to non-Jewish believers for whom these traditions and rituals are totally foreign and meaningless. He sees Peter and the other leaders as equivocating and trying to accommodate the powerful, established Jewish members of the new paradigm. Paul is pissed off, and is not going to shy away from a confrontation on the subject.

This morning I’m reminded that the struggles we experience in this time and place are not new. I’m reminded that learning to work together, embrace one another, love one another, and accept one another despite our differences is always going to be a messy human endeavor. My job, as I see it, is to follow and abide by the law of love that Jesus modeled and called me to obey. Following Jesus should always lighten the load, not increase the burden.

featured photo courtesy of Chuck Moravec via Flickr

Old Habits Die Hard

Certain people came down from Judea to Antioch and were teaching the believers: “Unless you are circumcised, according to the custom taught by Moses,you cannot be saved.”
Acts 15:1 (NIV)

Yesterday I was with a young manager my client has asked me to mentor. The manager described a particular conversation they’d had with a peer in another department. The conversation was about some procedural changes that would affect both of their respective teams. The manager described their opposing views and the conflict that arose as the procedural change was not going to be universally popular.

The manager described the conversation and the slow descent they felt themselves falling into as they dug their heels in and felt stubbornness consume them. In that moment there was no possibility of compromise. The manager recognized what had happened, even felt it happening in the moment, but had been unable to stop it. The manager then confessed that this was a deep-seeded, long-recognized pattern of behavior. And, it was not a positive one. They even recognized the source: “That’s my mother!” the manager said.

Along life’s journey it’s become clear to me that old habits die hard for every one of us. If we are to make progress on our journeys, whether personally, emotionally, relationally, and/or spiritually, it will require old habits to pass away and new patterns of thought and behavior to come.

I found today’s chapter in the book of Acts to be an inflection point. Through the first fourteen chapters the explosive and expansive growth of the Jesus Movement had everyone frantically trying to keep up. When systems experience that kind of explosive growth, the system quickly goes into survival mode, setting aside minor and/or complex matters just to address the giant issues that are staring everyone in the face. As equilibrium is found, the long suppressed issues begin to surface. That’s what I see happening in today’s chapter.

The Jesus Movement sprung from the Jewish tribe with its centuries old set of religious and behavioral customs. It was, perhaps, inevitable that some of the Jewish believers were going to want to retain and cling to their Jewish customs. Old habits die hard. In today’s chapter a few of these habitual believers from the Jewish tribe tell a bunch of believers who weren’t from the Jewish tribe that they would have to adopt all of their old habits and customs in order to be a true believer in Jesus. Primary among these old Jewish habits was the rule that all men would have to be circumcised. Yeah, I’m sure that went over like a lead balloon.

So we have conflict brewing between believers from the Jewish tribe and those from non-Jewish (described as “Gentile”) tribes. While Dr. Luke describes a fairly well-mannered meeting of the minds and peaceful solution, Paul’s description of events is different. Paul describes conflict between he and Peter. He describes conflict in the relationship between Peter, believers from the Jewish tribe, and believers from Gentile backgrounds (Read Galatians 2). In Paul’s description, Peter said that he was all for Gentiles not having to adhere to Jewish customs, but then he hypocritically acted with favoritism towards the Jewish believers. Old habits die hard.

Then at the end of the chapter we find Paul and Barnabas in a sharp dispute about whether to take John Mark on their next missionary journey. The argument ends in the two friends and colleagues splitting up. What I observe is that Paul’s behavior and words in these conflicts with Peter and Barnabas don’t reflect the new code of love that Paul himself describes in his letter to the Corinthian believers, but reflects more of the old proud, arrogant, temperamental and fiery Pharisee who persecuted the church. Yep, old habits die hard.

As I wrapped up the mentoring session with my young business protege yesterday we discussed that recognizing negative behaviors and feeling the negative results from them is the first step toward positive change. The manager described the subsequent meeting between managers, their heart-felt apology, and the constructive progress towards compromise that followed. Well done. Old things begin to pass away as new behaviors and habits are formed.

This is a journey and old habits die hard, but I’ve perpetually found that they will eventually change when I surrender myself to Holy Spirit, when I diligently pursue the person I was created to be, and when I make my mission to be a person marked and controlled by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, perseverance, and self-control.

Have a great day, my friend.