Monday, June 29, 2015

Conflict : Part 3

In my previous post, I suggested that conflict is both an inevitable and a necessary part of the world we live in. I also suggested that the experience of conflict has to do with our being made in the likeness of a good God.

The earliest human experiences, as told in the Bible, are experiences of conflict and of learning to engage with conflict in ways that bring forth life. There is the conflict of resting from work when there is so much work to be done. There is the navigating of the conflicts of tending a garden: not enough water, and plants cannot grow; too much water, and plants cannot grow: water must be channelled; plants, too, must be cultivated, not left to overrun, to encroach on others. There is the conflict resulting from being different from the other animals and needing to find a corresponding companion. In engaging conflict, the human beings are participating in the life of all creation, and in the life of God.

A new character finds voice in this unfolding story, a character who calls into question something God has (not) said. What follows is often considered to be the root cause of conflict, between male and female, between humanity and the planet. But we might read it as another opportunity to engage with conflict (conflict = difference + tension), and one that reveals to us our ability (perhaps, propensity) to engage with conflict badly, with negative consequences.

The serpent brings a bad report, calls God’s character into disrepute, suggesting that God has acted in a particular way out of selfish and unloving motives, perhaps out of fear. God is not present to be asked and to offer clarification, in order that a greater understanding be reached. Initially, Eve challenges the serpent’s report (she adds to God’s words to the man, and much has been speculated as to why and whether it matters or not), but ultimately a series of related conflicts –

abundance / perceived lack

perceived food / perceived wastage

delighting in / consuming

wisdom / knowledge –

are resolved badly. Compounding the situation, attempted physical withdrawal from the situation, defensive and aggressive survival strategies are all employed, drawing relationship apart.

Complex consequences are set in motion – complex not least because each response to every conflict has the potential to draw us further apart and the potential to draw us closer together; complex also because conflict is inevitable, and is the (very) raw material for a good end, which will be brought to fruition through hard work and perseverance.

From here on in, throughout the Bible, we see this conflict - reconciliation played out: on the micro-level of the relationship between brothers; to the macro-level of relationships between nations; to the meta-level of the relationship between all creation and God. The goal is not a return to a fresh start in an unspoiled garden, but something altogether greater. It is also ongoing.

Our conflicts are not a distraction from entering-into the life, the love, of God. They are the very places of transformation where it becomes possible to do so. They are the places of our passing from death into life. The labour pains of something new, something longed-for but as-yet unknown, un-named. Every conflict is a kairos moment, where the kingdom of heaven has come near, if we are willing to repent (to change our perspective) and believe (to live out a different way of being).

How, then, can the abundance of conflicting hopes and dreams and needs and visions and desires and preferred futures and painful pasts and frustrated ‘now’s be engaged with graciously, lovingly, for the transformation of us all?

That is what we are called to, as human beings. That is what we are called to live out, as the Church.

Conflict : Part 2

Conflict has been described in this way: conflict = difference + tension

Elijah wants to lie on his bed and quietly read a book, Noah wants to play his electric guitar: difference. The boys share a room: tension. The resulting conflict could be handled well, bringing them closer together, or badly, driving them further apart.

To put it another way, conflict is an inevitable consequence of diversity in a universe experienced in time as well as space.

According to the opening verses of the Bible, conflict provides the raw material with which God works to form the world, and indeed universe, we live in. That is, God does not create out of nothing, but out of the experience of conflict. Light and darkness; sky and land and sea; different seasons; different possible forms of life, needing different environments: each part is calling out to be recognised, to not be overlooked.

While our response in the face of conflict is often to go on the defensive, or to go on the attack, or to withdraw emotionally or physically, God moves towards conflict with the intention of drawing-out something good – and not only good for the parties in immediate conflict, but good for the bigger picture, the wider creation.

God identifies god-self in particular ways – for example, as creator, redeemer, sustainer – and invites others to do the same: the sun to know his own identity, and the moon hers; creatures that fly, or swim, or crawl. Underlying concerns are drawn out; common ground brought to light; interdependence encouraged, participation enabled. And God creates human beings, to be like God, to share in God’s experience of and activity in the world.

What does it mean to be made and found in the likeness of a God who looks on conflict and sees in that conflict the necessary raw material for creating something unimaginably wonderful? What does it mean to be made and found in the likeness of a God who moves towards conflict, with a particular intention and hope?

Surely it means that we experience conflict not as a result of something that has gone wrong, in us and for us, but rather as something more fundamental and more positive?

Conflict : Part 1

I have just been on a week-long training course on ‘Transforming Church Conflict’ run by Bridge Builders. It was the best training course I have ever been on. The content, and delivery, were excellent; the team facilitating the course, first-class. But what made it so significant and so helpful was this: so much of what I am encouraged to focus on as a church leader (mission, growth, discipleship) can seem esoteric to others, passions specific to my role and my vocation, hard to relate to; but everyone can relate to the experience of conflict, in family life, between partners, at work, on soap operas, on the streets, in the news...

The Bible is full of conflict. In fact, you can see conflict, in some form or other, in every story, on every page. To some, that is clear evidence that religion is a root of conflict, that religious texts promote and perpetuate conflict. To others, it is deeply embarrassing, especially in the light of so much conflict between followers of Jesus today; more than that, I know many Christians who believe that our internal conflicts within the Church detract from our mission to share the love of God.

I would suggest that conflict is inherent to life, and that the Bible is full of conflict because it is fully concerned with life. I would also suggest that the accounts of conflict found in the Bible are very much concerned with how conflict might be transformed so that something good is brought forth, something it was not previously possible to imagine into being, even (especially) where there is no quick fix.

As such, the Bible is a great resource concerning how we might respond to conflict; and the Church has both great opportunity and no little experience to offer the world an ongoing ministry of reconciliation.

The following posts do not cover the content of the course I have been on, but are my own reflections on conflict in the Bible and our attitude towards it, having been on the course. In my next post, I want to begin to reflect on the opening chapters of the Bible, from this particular perspective.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

The Old And The Young

At the moment, we are reading through Ezra in Morning Prayer. The back story is this: Solomon had built a great temple to the Lord in Jerusalem, which was one of the wonders of the world; the Babylonian Empire arose, and defeated Solomon’s descendants, taking the people into exile, in waves, and eventually destroying the temple; the Persian Empire arose, defeating the Babylonians and freeing all captives to return home, in order to rebuild economically productive vassal states; the Jews returned to Jerusalem, in waves, the first wave building a new temple (under Zerubbabel), the second wave being a mass return of people (under Ezra), and the third wave rebuilding the city walls (under Nehemiah).

This morning we read Ezra chapter 3, which ends:
‘And all the people responded with a great shout when they praised the Lord, because the foundation of the house of the Lord was laid. But many of the priests and Levites and heads of families, old people who had seen the first house on its foundations, wept with a loud voice when they saw this house, though many shouted aloud for joy, so that the people could not distinguish the sound of the joyful shout from the sound of the people’s weeping, for the people shouted so loudly that the sound was heard far away.’ [emphasis mine]

It is easy to read this as offering a choice that has to be made: between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between nostalgia that blinds us to what God is doing today and eyes of faith that can see God at work even in the smallest of beginnings. Even as the people rejoice, there are naysayers, who will not join in.

That would certainly be the way to read this text through the cultural lens of an obsession with youth.

But life is more complex than that.

The past is not uniformly better than the present. Nor is the present uniformly better than the past.

The young rejoice that they have, at last, for the first time in their lives, a home of their own. They rejoice that they have, at last, a place to worship in a way that is fitting to them.

The old rejoice that they have lived to see God bringing his people back home, out of exile. That God had not forgotten them, or abandoned them, even if he had humbled them. They rejoice that the young will have a future in a place of their own, and because they see a desire among the next generation to worship God.

But they also weep for what has been lost, and will not be again; even as they rejoice at what has been done and will be. The two responses are simultaneous. They co-exist. They cannot be distinguished.

It is not a matter of choosing between joy and sorrow; between lamenting the past and welcoming the future; between recognising what was, and is, and is to come. It is a matter of choosing to embrace – and choosing to allow ourselves to be embraced by – both joy and sorrow; both lamenting and welcoming; both loss and gain.

It is the difference between judging one another across the generations, and honouring one another across the generations. There is a wisdom to these ‘old people’ (which is not true of all old people) – a wisdom they can invite ‘young people’ into, because even though the young have not shared the exact history, that history is their heritage, their (old and young) shared story.

The verses immediately before the ones I cite above record a time of worship in which the people ‘sang responsively, praising and giving thanks to the Lord,
‘For he is good,
for his steadfast love endures for ever towards Israel.’

Perhaps only those whose faith allows joy and sorrow, lamenting and welcoming, loss and gain, can sing these words from the heart.