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Sermon: Affirming Hope In Conflict

Conflict (Chess)

Conflict (Chess II) by Cristian V on Flickr. Some rights reserved.

Ephesians 4:15-16

You may know the story of a question set in a training examination for police recruits:

‘You are on the beat and you see two dogs fighting. The dogs knock a baby out of its pram, causing a car to swerve off the road, smashing into a grocer’s shop. A pedestrian is severely injured, but during the confusion a woman’s bag is snatched, a crowd of onlookers chase after the thief and, in the huge build-up of traffic, the ambulance is blocked from the victim of the crash.

‘State, in order of priority, your course of action.’

One recruit wrote, ‘Take off uniform and mingle with crowd.’[1]

Which direction do you walk in when there is conflict? Do you walk towards it, or do you – like the police recruit – behave like Jesus really said, ‘Go out into the world, shut up and keep your heads down’[2]?

Perhaps you want to avoid conflict, because you see the potential it has to be destructive. And so our theme this week is about how we can affirm hope in conflict. Because if we come through conflict healthily, it can be constructive, it can result in growth.

So how can we approach conflict in hope?

Firstly, we can have a hopeful attitude to conflict by looking to our future goal. Hope is about what the future will hold, so if we can envisage a future goal and work towards it through conflict, that will help.

And – surprise, surprise – Paul has that in mind in Ephesians 4. It’s about unity, one of the things we fear will be a casualty of conflict. He starts the chapter with the fact that God has already given us unity in Christ, and he looks for us to maintain and build that unity. So the unity that is already given is present in all the ‘one body, one Spirit, one hope, one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all’ language (verses 4-6), but he also calls us to ‘make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace’ (verse 3, italics mine). By the end of the passage, he is talking about us as one body, where every part does its work together in love (verses 15-16).

Our goal, then, is unity. We have been given and entrusted a basic unity of the Spirit in Christ, but it is our duty to live out the unity we have been given.

What does that mean for us when conflict arises? It means we engage in the humility, gentleness and patience that Paul writes about (verse 2). None of these qualities is about compromising our convictions – humility doesn’t simply mean lying down, rolling over and saying to the other person, “Well of course I was wrong, you are right.” It does mean we bring a certain attitude of heart and mind to the discussion, where we value the worth of the person we disagree with, where we do not shoot them down on the assumption that we are always right and they are always wrong. It means we treat those we disagree with as people who – like us – are made in the image of God, and so should be treated with dignity, love and respect, however much we may genuinely believe they are in the wrong. If we only see conflict as a battle to win, we shall end up with disunity. But if our goal is to resolve our differences honestly and become more united, then we shall bring humility, gentleness and patience to the table. Again, this does not mean we walk away from conflict or pretend it isn’t happening, because those strategies just perpetuate the open wound. But we hold our convictions with a Christ-like heart.

So – to those of you whose natural instinct is to charge into conflict aggressively, I say – by all means don’t duck the conflict, but do take a step back before you get involved in order to check your heart. Please make sure you are entering the fray with humility, gentleness and patience.

And to those of you who find conflict stressful and who would rather duck out, I say – your gifts are needed in order to heal the tensions. You do not need to be afraid of voicing your beliefs, there is an important place for those who would put their point across quietly. We need to hear you, too, and remember that assertiveness is not about being belligerent, it is simply about being able to state your position, your desires and your needs. That truly can be done in a Christ-like way.

There is a second future goal in Ephesians 4, and it is maturity. Listen again to the final three verses of the reading, and note the references to growing up:

Then we will no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming. 15 Instead, speaking the truth in love, we will grow to become in every respect the mature body of him who is the head, that is, Christ. 16 From him the whole body, joined and held together by every supporting ligament, grows and builds itself up in love, as each part does its work.

From infants to a mature body. That is our goal. How often is it that among a group of people who are physically grown up, the level of behaviour when it comes to working through conflict is nothing less than childish? Too often I have come across actions in churches by adults that amount to more than “It’s my ball, I’m taking it home and you’re not playing.”

So what makes for maturity, according to Paul? His answer would appear to be, getting stuck into Christian service. Tracing back the few verses before these, maturity in the church comes from his people learning to serve, and that’s what leaders are about. Immaturity comes when people just say, “Feed me, feed me, I’m not being fed,” and they complain and spread disgruntlement. It’s no good treating Sunday morning as once-a-week spiritual feeding station, then just going away until next week. That’s a consumer mentality that thinks everything we like must be laid on for us, and we should get something for what we pay. Such an attitude knows little or nothing of the Gospel, and it therefore causes strife in the church by its moaning and bleating.

If we are to be hopeful, then, about conflict, we shall see that one of the ways we can become a more mature, grown-up fellowship is by committing ourselves to serve Christ by serving one another and serving the world. That way, we become less me-centred and more God-centred and other-centred. This takes us away from the complaining state of mind that inevitably follows from a mentality that expects everything in the church to be provided on a plate for me. Too often, the problems we deal with are caused when someone moans that the church in some way let her down, when she has not been cultivating an attitude of service herself.

You see, we are not just shaped as people by what we think: we are shaped by our desires and by our actions. And even if we do not currently desire to serve, we should begin serving, because eventually such action will affect our desires and our attitudes towards others.

Thirdly and finally, although I have touched on some practical action as we have considered how our hopes shape us, there is a particular course of action to which Paul calls us to aspire in our desire to grow into maturity. And yes, it comes in those words of his that have become a hackneyed expression in Christian circles: speaking the truth in love (verse 15). This, he says, helps us grow.

But ‘speaking the truth in love’ is difficult. Some of us are better at truth than love, and so we go up to someone and offer ‘a word in love’, which turns out to be cover for negative criticism. Others of us are better at love than truth, and we use love as a justification to avoid a conflict when one is actually needed.

How, then, can we break the impasse? Let me offer a suggestion. While the context and other uses of the word almost certainly refer to ‘speaking the truth in love’, the literal translation here is, ‘truthing in love’[3]. In general, there is not simply an obligation upon Christians simply to speak the truth but to live the truth. Some of our problems are caused by barstool Prime Ministers who love to criticise but do little to live out the Gospel. We need fewer pontificators and more practitioners. When we are devoted to practising the Gospel life – to ‘truthing in love’ – our hearts become softened by grace. We are aware of how much we need the mercy of God, and this affects the way we approach others.

Naturally, it will also bring us into greater connection with the holiness of God, and this will alert us to many things that are wrong with the church and the world. But before that happens, the holiness of God will expose what is wrong with us.

Equally, for those of us who are too nervous to confront an issue and prefer to pretend it’s not a problem at all, living the truth leads us into a greater courage so that we can bring problems out of the darkness into the light where they can be dealt with healthily.

Unity, maturity, truthing in love – yes, we do actually have cause for hope in the face of conflict.

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Sermon: Psalm 131, A Question Of Balance

Psalm 131
As a small child, I had a tricycle. But when the time came to graduate to a bike, I never had one. The owner of the local cycle shop wouldn’t sell bikes with stabilisers. He said stabilisers were harmful to children’s attempts at cycling proficiency. So because I had a bad sense of balance, my parents never bought me a bike and to this day I still cannot ride one.

Only later did I learn that my parents couldn’t afford a bike for me and that my poor sense of balance helped them save face, but my wobbliness was a self-evident truth.

Just as we need balance to become a cyclist, so we need balance in the life of the Spirit before God. It’s easy to be an unbalanced Christian. We have to hold together various paradoxes to have a truthful relationship with God, but some of us wobble to one side or the other.

To give one example: God is both awesome in holiness and intimate as a friend, but it’s easy to tilt to one side at the expense of the other. Some so stress reverence before a holy God that they fail to hear the good news of God’s passionate, personal love for us. But some emphasise that intimacy with God to such an extent that they become matey with God and miss the importance of his terrifying holiness.

This week’s Psalm is also about balance. It calls us to hold together two different approaches to God in order that we might have a healthy posture before him. They involve on the one hand a downward move and on the other an upward move.

First, the downward move: we call this humility.

My heart is not proud, Lord, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. (Verse 1)

Let’s make clear what we don’t mean by humility. We don’t mean the kind of debasing ourselves that sees ourselves as worth no more than a worm. We are not looking at the Uriah Heep notion of being ‘very ‘umble’. We are not referring to models that elevate the wealthy and powerful at the expense of the poor. There is good Christian reason for omitting the infamous verse from ‘All Things Bright and Beautiful’:

The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate: God made them high and lowly And ordered their estate.

There is nothing bright and beautiful about these ways of conceiving humility.

Nevertheless, it is the opposite of pride to pursue ambitions beyond our abilities and callings. The RSV doesn’t say ‘My eyes are not haughty’, it renders the text, ‘My eyes are not raised too high’, and that’s the danger. The naked running after personal ambition in order to elevate ourselves is rampant in our society, and something Christians need to guard against. It isn’t just those in the office environment who climb higher by grovelling to those above them and treading on those below them. It also happens in the church. I know of two sad cases where ministers sought preferment beyond their capabilities, and their ministries were derailed by alcohol – in one case temporarily, in the other case permanently.

How can we judge our gifts with humility, then? Paul has a helpful approach in Romans 12. Significantly, it falls between his call for us to offer ourselves as living sacrifices and some descriptions he gives of the use of spiritual gifts. His link between the two is to call us to think of ourselves with sober judgement (Romans 12:3).

There are various practical ways in which we can come to a sober judgement of our gifts, so that we do not raise our eyes too high and then fall. One way would be this: there are various tools available that will create an inventory of our likely spiritual gifts. They usually come in the form of a questionnaire. You can find various examples on the Internet. Two of the best known are the Spiritual Gifts Inventory from Willow Creek Community Church in Illinois and the SHAPE test from Saddleback Church in California. None of these tests is perfect, but they will get you started. They can be useful material for a home group to use and discuss.

And that leads to the other helpful way to approach this: ask your friends and family what they think your strengths and weaknesses are. Again, it can be useful to do this in a small group. I have been in groups where we have written down not what we think our own gifts are, but what we think the gifts of the other group members are. If several people in the group start to spot similar abilities in you, then this is something to take seriously.

Ultimately, a sober judgement of our gifts that takes us away from selfish forms of ambition and pride is the way of peace. When we serve according to our abilities, we have the peace of knowing we are where God wants us.

Remember, it is about serving rather than ambition for ourselves. Our ambition must be for the glory of God, not ourselves. If we strain for things beyond us for the sake of our own advancement, we shall only know strife and cause strife. If we humbly accept the limits and extent of the gifts God has given us and use them for his praise, then that will bring with it the peace that comes from contentment.

So we move to the second element in our paradox, from the downward move to the upward move. If humility means a certain growing down, our second element, maturity, is about growing up.

How is this psalm about maturity? Because the writer speaks of being ‘like a weaned child’. Not a child, but a weaned child. This is not an image of being infantile, this is a picture of growth. A weaned child has come off the breast milk and is progressing with solids. Such a child is maturing physically.

Therefore the psalmist holds before us the need to be mature disciples. But what is it to be mature in Christ?

We hear a lot about the existence of mature and faithful Christians, when all we mean is that certain members have been in the church for many years, and turn up most Sundays. However, such people are not necessarily faithful or mature. They are simply regular. They may display signs of immaturity, throwing tantrums when they don’t get what they want, for example. Believe me, I’ve seen plenty such people in over twenty years of ministry.

No: a mature Christian is a growing Christian. Mature Christians are those who are never satisfied with the level of their spiritual lives. They want to know God’s will more deeply, and follow Christ more closely.

The writer of the Epistle to the Hebrews got frustrated with his readers about this very issue. He told them that they should have progressed in spiritual terms from milk to solid food – it’s a similar image of weaning a child. But they hadn’t, and thus were more likely to succumb to the pressures coming on them from outside the church to compromise their faith, especially about the superiority and uniqueness of Jesus Christ.

Thus it is not an option for the Christian to mature, it is a necessity. Growing in grace is not merely for the keen Christians, it is for all who might be disciples.

That’s why I was saddened to read in our Family Friendly church questionnaire last autumn about the number of members here who don’t engage regularly with the Bible outside of Sunday services. I’m not saying that daily personal Bible reading is a religious panacea, not least because I have known church members elsewhere who have been avid daily Bible readers who have been among the nastiest of Christians. But it is one key discipline among many we need to practise for the sake of growth. It is part of our feeding and our exercise.

But one sure sign of the immature Christian is the person who forever demands to be fed spiritually and makes little effort to feed themselves. Remember that although Jesus told Simon Peter to feed his sheep, it is also true that the Lord our shepherd in Psalm 23 simply takes the sheep to the green pastures: the assumption is that the sheep get on with feeding themselves.

If we listen to the Apostle Paul, we will learn that the function of church leaders is not to keep administering baby food, but to see to it that the church family grows up. So in Ephesians 4 he says that the purpose of apostles, prophets, evangelists, pastors and teachers is to see the whole Body of Christ grow up. And in Colossians 1 he says that his aim as an apostle is ‘to present everyone mature in Christ’.

But, you may object, I aim at growth but I fail regularly. How, then, would I encourage us to live?

I would point to the words of the late Brennan Manning, who said in his classic book ‘The Ragamuffin Gospel’ that the Christian life is like a ‘victorious limp’ (chapter 10, passim). In particular, he says this:

The mature Christians I have met along the way are those who have failed and have learned to live gracefully with their failure. Faithfulness requires the courage to risk everything on Jesus, the willingness to keep growing, and the readiness to risk failure throughout our lives.[1]

The image of the weaned child as one of growing maturity speaks to us on many levels. The child will fail regularly, but the parent lifts them up, dusts them down, and encourages them to keep trying – whether it is attempting to walk, to climb, or to learn another life skill.

The weaned child is growing, and knows that a lot more growing is needed. Think how a child looks forward to when it will be taller than its parents. It will take time, but the child expects to grow.

It is a mystery to me why some Christians therefore seem to give up on the spiritual diet and exercise that are required for growing in grace. I am bemused by those Christians who tell me they should just be concentrating on ‘consolidating’. Believe me, there are only two choices in the life of the Spirit: growth and decline. Would the church not be healthier if we were all aspiring, like a child, to be taller?

But the progress from infancy to childhood is bumpy. Eugene Peterson says,

The early stages of Christian belief are not infrequently marked with miraculous signs and exhilarations of spirit. But as discipleship continues the sensible comforts gradually disappear. For God does not want us neurotically dependent upon him but willingly trustful in him. And so he weans us. The period of infancy will not be sentimentally extended beyond what is necessary. The time of weaning is very often noisy and marked with misunderstandings: “I no longer feel like I did when I was first a Christian. Does that mean I am no longer a Christian? Have I done something terribly wrong?”

The answer is, “Neither: God hasn’t abandoned you and you haven’t done anything wrong. You are being weaned. The apron strings have been cut. You are free to come to God or not come to him. You are, in a sense, on your own with an open invitation to listen and receive and enjoy our Lord.”[2]

Your duty in this is to attend to the diet and exercise that bring growth. My duty as your minister is to be a little like your personal trainer at the gym, advising you on the best ways to achieve fitness.

So we’re back to this question of balance. Some Christians can think altogether too much of themselves and need a dose of humility. Using our gifts requires sober judgement and a commitment to God’s glory, not ours.

But other Christians either don’t want to grow or belittle themselves as if they were no more than worms. To such we hold out the possibility of, and the need for growth in grace, by adjusting their spiritual diet and practising spiritual exercises.

Where does each one of us need to adjust our balance?

Peter Pan And Tintin: Icons For Today?

“Peter Pan is a lesbian.”

So said a seven-year-old to me, after he had seen the local pantomime. Sitting with my own seven-year-old who wouldn’t have a clue what a lesbian is, I didn’t know where to put my face.

“I’m right,” he added, “Peter Pan is played by a girl.”

All I thought was, just wait until you meet the  Ugly Sisters in Cinderella.

We saw Peter Pan a couple of days ago. It was a high quality production, with all the usual panto formulae. Oh yes it was …

But whereas in past generations Peter Pan was seen as inadequate because he didn’t want to grow up, is he now a hero? He conquers Captain Hook while remaining a child. Are we in a culture that doesn’t want to grow up? Having spent time before the performance in two or three shops selling computer games, where our children purchased games and accessories for their Nintendos, but where the majority of purchasers were adults, I do wonder whether we are filling our society with Peter Pans.
On the other hand, yesterday we took the children to see the incredible Spielberg animation of The Adventures Of Tintin: The Secret of the Unicorn. That painted a more positive image of youth. Tintin is young, but in a job as a reporter (whereas Peter Pan explicitly doesn’t want an office job). Yet he is the one who shows courage to help the older, alcoholic Captain Haddock – with the one exception of where he wants to give up and Haddock tells him, ‘When you face a brick wall, push through it.’

The New Testament expects people to grow into maturity. Paul’s goal for the Colossians is that he will be able to present everyone mature in Christ. In Ephesians 4, there is a notion of the church ‘growing up’. Is maturity an increasingly alien notion today, when we say that 40 is the new 30 and 70 is the new 50? Do we prefer not to delay gratification but to keep on gratifying ourselves? Is that the inevitable consequence of consumerism, or is this all just about increased life expectancy? Which model do we offer young people, young Christians – Peter Pan or Tintin?

Either way, what would Christian maturity look like today, and in what ways would it be counter-cultural?