Engaging Conflict Requires An Attitude

Conflict is a part of life, period! It exists in everything from marriage to the work place and larger society. The only person who lives without any conflict is a hermit living on a remote island by him/herself and that’s a lonely life. For the rest of us, conflict is a given. In fact, I just spoke with a person who was telling me how an ongoing work place conflict, lasting for over a year, has been favorably resolved. Conflict can be stressing and perplexing but it can be a healthy thing too.

Yes! Conflict can be a healthy thing too and that’s good news for Churches, since every church I know of has its share of conflict.

Because conflict is amoral, this should not bother us. What should concern us is how we handle the conflict. In fact, that is where the anxiety about conflict arises because too often we don’t handle conflict well. Given the choice of fight or flight, we either run in hopes of avoiding the issue all together or we fight by responding with selfish postures attempting to win by injuring the other…

“She just believes every last word that Joyce Myers says.”

“He just think that because he has money…”

“They just don’t care about what the Bible says.”

“He just can’t see past his own traditions.”

“She just takes everything too personally.”

Those are just some of the things I have heard Christians say about someone else in their church. I’ve probably made similar such comments too. Although sometimes spoken in a direct manner, most of the time this approach is passive-aggressive in nature.

The problem with conflict is how we handle it. Often when challenged, we become defensive. Believing that we are right with little, if any, consideration that we might be wrong, we argue and protest against the other. If it is a policy or practice we disagree with, we’ll dig our heels in and turn what often is a minor issue into a major issue that must go our way. But again, the issue isn’t the conflict itself but the way we respond to the conflict.

The difference between healthy and unhealthy conflict hinges on how we handle the conflict. A healthy response to conflict begins with Christ-likeness. So the apostle Paul says that we are to have the same attitude of Christ, who humbled himself as a servant and became obedient even to the point of death (cf. Phil 2:5-8). In practice, having this attitude means…

  • Listening to understand before responding. Humility means recognizing that be wrong. Even if we’re not wrong, we can’t help resolve any conflict without listening first. Listening also involves, as my friend Fred always says, assuming the best about the other person when they speak.
  • Extending grace toward each other. Jesus was obedient to the point of death even though he was never in the wrong. His obedience is the extension of God’s grace and like Jesus, we must extend grace even when we have been wronged. That means forgiving and loving one another.

I’m not trying to suggest that conflict is easy. If it was easy, we wouldn’t try avoiding it or do so poorly with it at times. But ignoring conflict or failing to rightly deal with it allows what could be a great opportunity become a problem that threatens the and undermines the health of the church.

Listening and extending grace toward each other amidst conflict requires talking. One of way of doing this involves table fellowship. Serve each other by eating together. Invite some others to join if needed but the act of eating together helps create and maintain a hospitable atmosphere where we hear one another, clarify misunderstandings, apologize, forgive, and resolve to speak/act rightly moving forward. The result is reconciliation and at the end of the day that is what engaging conflict is about… so that we may be one even when we don’t agree.

May we all engage conflict with an attitude… the attitude of Christ!

Loving Your Enemy or Arming Yourself?

As the details of the mass-shooting at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon, we learned that the killer was targeting Christians. This comes only a few month removed from another mass-shooting where the killer targeted Black Christians at an AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina, though racism was the motive in this mass-shooting. Added to all of this is the continued conflicts in the Middle-East and the threat of terrorism, especially the horrific persecution of Christians at the hands of ISIS.

All of that creates a lot of anxiety and I get that. It’s scary to think that a disturbed person might show up where you study or work, or where you worship, and shoot you simply because you are a Christian. It’s even scarier to know that there is a group or terrorists who would like to kill you, or someone like you and do so by cutting off your head or burning you alive. Yet if we allow that anxiety to brew, all kinds of dark emotions and desires take hold. And as we know, fear has been the base of much evil throughout history. Shouldn’t we just wish death upon such people and do everything we can to support taking them out before they get us?

Two Different Responses

Jesus ministered in a time and region filled with more anxiety than we’ll likely ever grasp. The Roman rulers had proved themselves as ruthless in dealing with their political enemies and the Jewish people were among those enemies. Yet within one sermon about the way of life we must live, Jesus says this in Matthew 5:43-45,

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor’ and ‘hate your enemy.’ But I say to you, love your enemy and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be like your Father in heaven…” 

I know this is not an easy teaching but it’s not an impossible teaching either.

Too often this passage is caught in the middle of the ethical question about whether followers of Jesus can act in defense if they or someone they see is being attacked by an assailant. I understand the importance of this issue but I also think it often keeps us from seeing something profoundly important about this teaching.

Jesus is teaching us to see the enemy differently and treat the enemy differently! When people decide that we are their enemy and plot to do us harm, our instinct is to their level of evil and return the hatred. We do so by plotting how we might do to them as they would do to us. If they want to attack us, we’ll send an army to take them out before they get the opportunity. But Jesus, who defines for us by his own self-sacrificial life of service what is means to love, wants us to see the enemy as a person just like us in order that we will seek their best interest by doing good to them. By doing good to all people, even those who hate us, we participate with God in demonstrating what the inbreaking kingdom-reign of God is like. That, my fellow Christians, is why this difficult teaching is later echoed by both the apostle Paul and apostle Peter (Rom 12:14; 1 Pet 3:9).

How different is that from the advise offered by Lt. Gov. Ron Ramsey of Tennessee who, after invoking the mass-shooting in Oregon, urged Christians who are serious about their faith to get a gun. He went on to say, “Our enemies are armed. We must do likewise.” How different is that from what Jesus says! Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling is to see those who may harm us as the enemy rather than as a person like us, who bears the same image of God we bear. Invoking fear rather than encouraging faith, he is telling us that if someone is plotting to kill us then we should plan ahead by arming ourselves so that we might kill them in order to protect ourselves.

This is more than just reacting defensively in the moment, should we ever find ourselves under attack. What Lt. Gov Ramsey is telling us to do is decide now that we are going to respond with deadly force, doing harm in order to protect ourselves from potential harm. How different that is from how Jesus teaches us to live? How different is that from the disciples in Jerusalem who, when faced with a threat, did not discuss how they might arm themselves for protection but came together and prayed that would perform signs and wonders while empowering his servants to preach the gospel with boldness (Acts 4:23-31)?

Arming Ourselves!

Please don’t misunderstand me. I am not under any illusion that following Jesus is easy, especially when it comes to loving the enemy. It’s not easy and it won’t ever be easy. It could be the way we are called to be a martyr for Jesus, just as it has been for other Christians throughout history. But that is why we must speak with boldness now and remind each other of this important teaching, so that we will encourage faithful discipleship if and when the road does get rough. Should I ever encounter someone doing harm to others, I won’t stand by and do nothing. I pray that I would have the courage to intercede as Chris Mintz did during last weeks shooting, putting himself in harms way to save others. I’ll assume you would do the same. But I won’t resign myself to hating those who hate me and preemptively plotting how I might kill them before they kill me.

We must reject fear and accept faith! If we’re going to live faithfully as followers of Jesus then we must resist any premeditated plan to categorize evil people as our enemy with the intention of doing them harm in order to protect ourselves. To do otherwise is to disembody the gospel, rejecting the way of Jesus when it appears too difficult. What we need is more faith… more faith in Jesus. So on that note, I do agree with one tiny aspect of what Lt. Gov. Ramsey said and that is that Christians should arm themselves. We should arm ourselves by putting on the full armor of God — the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God — and praying we are instructed in Ephesians 6:10-20.

Another Shooting and Our Futile Talk

K. Rex Butts:

I wrote this post originally in January of 2014 after a shooting occurred at a local mall. While it’s too early to know the exact details of what motivated yesterday’s shooting in Oregon, these mass-shooting happen all to frequently. So I’m reposting this blog because while I believe that our society needs to have a conversation about guns, mental-health, and some of the other social factors that seem to play a role in these shootings, I also think we are missing the deeper issue. Thanks for reading!

Originally posted on Kingdom Seeking:

It happened again. I’m talking about another mass shooting. Except this time it happened in my city, at The Mall in Columbia, a mall that my family and I frequent regularly. Three people, Briana Benlolo, Tyler Johnson, and the gunman himself, Darion Marcus Aguilar, died. Five others were physically injured and many others traumatized. As far as my wife and I can tell from the news reports, the Howard County Police have done a great job with a very difficult and tragic situation. A word of appreciation is also in order to the many other Law Enforcement agencies as well as the Fire and EMS agencies for their response in securing the mall and helping the injured and the many other by standbys to safety.

But I’m angry!

I’m angry not because of this tragic shooting but because violence like this is seemingly becoming a social trend, and epidemic. By epidemic…

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Wisdom and Insight: Companions For A Complex Life

One of the questions that many churches want to know of their ministers has to do with various moral/ethical issues, especially those involving marriage and all things sex. For example, what should we do when a couple from church say they are pursuing a divorce? Or how should we respond to some parents who say their teenage child is gay?

Regardless of the issue and the hypothetical scenario, the response hinges not only what we believe but also how we should respond. One of the difficulties here is that such hypothetical questions are so vague that it would be hard for us to offer any response beyond our basic beliefs regarding any number of moral/ethical issues. But a bigger problem is that in real life, such issues always present themselves in a particular set of circumstances that rarely, if ever, are simple. Part of the complexity is that the circumstances which the issue presents itself in is almost never a one to one correspondence to the circumstances in which the issue is addressed in scripture. This is where we encounter the limits of reading scripture as a law.

Just like any policy or procedure, a doctrine is contextually ignorant. In real life, acting upon any moral/ethical doctrine requires wisdom. Barry Schwartz gave this brilliant TED Talk about the need for practical wisdom in an age overran by bureaucracy. I wholeheartedly agree! While doctrines or rules and policies are necessary, so also is wisdom. However, for ministers, not any form or wisdom will do. What is needed is gospel-wisdom. By gospel-wisdom, I mean wisdom that is shaped by the biblical narrative, what it teaches, and how that teaching is revealed and embodied in everything we know about Jesus whom the church follows. But that is only part of the task.

Proverbs 4:7 says, “The beginning of wisdom is this: Get wisdom, and whatever else you get, get insight” (NRSV). The sage is telling us that both wisdom and insight are necessary. While not the same, wisdom and insight are neither exclusive from each other as both sharpen each other. The purpose of wisdom is counsel as it doesn’t tell us how to respond but offers guidance for how we might respond in any given situation. That assumes a posture of listening, as we cannot even begin to know what is the appropriate response unless we have listened first. So when that couple says to me that they are pursuing a divorce or those parents who say their teenage child is gay, my first response is to listen by asking good questions that will allow me to understand the circumstances better and get a better feel for the complexities. Only then does wisdom have the insight necessary to offer any counsel on what you or I might do.

Whether you’re a minister, an elder, or just a Christian trying to help someone else out, you need gospel-wisdom and insight gleaned from listening to that someone. Your own moral/ethical beliefs and values are certainly valuable and necessary but in real life situations, which are as different as they are many, wisdom and insight are indispensable companions for a complex life. So get wisdom, get insight!

Yogi Berra and Being Nice

“You can learn a lot just by watching,” said Yogi Berra. Yes, you can! Just watch the various people connected to baseball as they speak about Yogi Berra and you learn something we all need to be reminded of from time to time. More on that in a moment…

In case you haven’t heard, yesterday Yogi Berra passed away at the age of ninety years old. One of the most famous baseball players, Berra played his entire career as a catcher and outfielder for the New York Yankees and after retiring, was elected to the Hall of Fame in 1972. Besides being an incredible player, Berra served in the U.S. Navy during World War II and became a well-known personality far beyond the game of baseball.

As I listened to various sports commenters and players who knew Yogi Berra speak about this person, they all spoke about how nice of a person he was to everyone on and off camera. In fact, former Yankee and future Hall of Fame inductee Derek Jeter wrote the following:

To those who didn’t know Yogi personally, he was one of the greatest baseball players and Yankees of all time. To those lucky ones who did, he was an even better person. To me he was a dear friend and mentor. He will always be remembered for his success on the field, but I believe his finest quality was how he treated everyone with sincerity and kindness. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family and friends.

What a tribute! And what a reminder of how important good character, a character of “sincerity and kindness” truly is.

Every one of us live a life on and off camera. That is, whether we are a a school teacher, an electrician, a police officer, or even a preacher like I am, there are those moments when we are “on the clock” but a true test of our character is how we treat people when there aren’t any spectators.

Be a nice person, be kind and sincere with everyone… Love our neighbors as ourselves because the world is a better place when we do!

“Love is the most important thing in the world, but baseball is pretty good, too.”

-Yogi Berra, 1925 – 2015

As Scandalous As It Ever Was

If the grace of God were only about our own personal salvation, it would be easy. But when we are called to extend grace to others, especially whose sins are offensive to us, anger us, and disgust us, it becomes very difficult. Speaking to the elders of the church in Ephesus, the apostle Paul insisted that his only aim was to speak truthfully or “testify to the good news of God’s grace” (Acts 20:24). But what Paul had in mind was preaching a message that included both Jews and Gentiles. There’s the rub. That’s what made the grace of God scandalous then and it still remains as scandalous as it ever was.

When It All Comes Crashing Down

Growing up my younger brother and I loved watching wrestling, especially the Saturday Night Main Event where Hulkamania was sure to run wild on you. Hulk Hogan, with his 24-inch biceps and legions of Hulkamaniac fans, was the attraction. With great charisma and a good-guy persona, The Hulckster, as he was sometimes referred to, went on to have not only one of the most celebrated careers in wrestling entertainment and but an amazing career beyond the squared ring. Pretty good for one man, whose real name is Terry Bollea.

But that all came crashing down earlier this year when a secretly recorded video tape from 2006 was released that captured Hogan talking about his daughter dating a black man, using the N-word. Immediately Hogan became a cultural pariah, having committed what the American culture deems as a horrifically shameful sin. The backlash was swift as the wrath of culture’s judgment was meted out which included being fired from the WWE, the wrestling organization he helped turn into premiere franchise of its industry, who quickly put as much distance between the two of them as possible.

To be clear, what Hogan said was wrong and totally unacceptable! Using words that demean people for their race shows us just how much damage sin can do. Not only can sin have terrific consequences for our own life, it hurts others too and leads to anger, animosity, and deep divisions. But for someone who has apologized, the extension of grace is still unfathomable. Instead, with a few exceptions, the culture that we are has basically said with our judgment that Hogan is beneath us… what he has done is despicable and unbecoming of us, as though we ourselves have never done anything shameful and wrong.

Now please don’t misunderstand me. I am neither trying to mitigate the wrong that Hulk Hogan did nor defend his response. When anyone does wrong,  repentance is necessary and the very least, apologies should be offered for any harm done. However, the culture at large is a place where there are certain sins for which we distance ourselves from the guilty offender as though we are somehow better. To offer any kind of grace that would give the person a second-chance, a new start on life, is so unfathomable that it’s scandalous!

A Deep Theology of Grace

Contrast that with the theology of God’s grace that Paul is so adamant on testifying about. In Romans, Paul was writing to a church of Jewish and Gentile believers. The problem is that the Jewish believers were looking down upon the Gentiles, pointing to their shameful sins, while claiming superiority because they has the law of God which meant they belonged to God’s covenant and has circumcision as a sign of this position. But Paul will have none of that! He reminds this church that they all are sinners and are justified by God through faithfulness of Christ. In turn, Jewish and Gentile believers alike now live by their faith, of which the patriarch Abraham is an example of.

That is Paul’s argument in Romans chapters 1-4 and because of this grace, Paul unequivocally says, “Therefore, since we have been declared righteous by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ” (5:1). So these sinners, who are both guilty of very shameful acts, are not only “made righteous” (justified) but they are at “peace with God.” How can God just forgive such sinners and just set aside the wrong they have done? It’s a good question to ponder because it’s not just those sinners… those Jewish and Gentile believers whom God has made righteous? It’s us! By faith, we too are Justified and it is because Jesus died “for us” (5:8).

But this grace is even deeper. Paul says, “For if while we were enemies we were reconciled to God though the death of his Son, how much more, since we have been reconciled, will we be saved by his life” (5:10). Let me point out two things out about this passage:

  1. The word for “enemies” is from the adjective ἐχθρός which in the active (provided by the present-participle “being” verb ὄντες) sense describes someone who is hostile and opposing to God. In other words, while we were actively opposing God with our sin, God reconciled us through the death of Jesus. We might say that while we slapping God in the face with our sin, God reconciled us. 
  2. Verse 10 is also a rhetorical argument about salvation. Paul is saying that if God reconciled us through the death of his Son while we were actively being hostile to God, even more then will we be saved by the life of Jesus. In other words, if God reconciled us even as his enemies, then we can be confident that he will save us in Christ.

This is the grace of God! This is how God responds to us, who are sinners. He extends his grace, justifying us and reconciling us so that we are assured of our salvation in Christ. That is also the basis for which we can extend grace and mercy to others because we know that even as we were enemies of God, he extended his grace to us.

An Ever Relevant Message

We live in a culture whose capacity for any sort of grace seems to be shrinking. Commit any certain number of sins that our culture deems outrageously unacceptable and wrath of a public culture is unleashed, just as it was for Hulk Hogan. Grace is as scandalous as it ever was. It was when Paul wrote Romans and it is today. Why? Because the culture at large doesn’t believe that scandalous people deserve forgiveness and a second chance.

Not so with God and not so with his people, the church. As scandalous as the grace of God may be, it remains more than ever relevant. What a message for every local church to embody, to be a community where nobody looks upon another because we all know that we are a sinner as much as the next person… knowing that just as God has extended his grace to us, we must extend the message of grace in the way we speak and treat one another.

The grace of God is as scandalous as it ever was but if you get it… What a beautiful scandal to be caught up in!

Seeking With The Spirit

I’ve been writing some on how a local church lives as a community animated by the Holy Spirit. That naturally raises the question of how does this happen and, as I said in another post, that begins with repentance. Yet that is only where a church begins. There is more…

Two Modern Church Practices

Growing up as a child, there were two practices of the church that need mentioning here.

  1. Men’s Monthly Business Meetings. These meetings were open to any male member of the church and by that, I mean any baptized male. So at age nine, after being baptized, I was considered a man of the church and was asked to attend where I would vote along with the other men on any and all decisions. That’s right.. vote. Each meeting proceeded according to Robert’s Rules of Order because it was a business meeting. Whether the issue was buying a church van, giving support to a missionary, or else, as long as all the details appeared fiscally responsible, then a motion would be made, seconded, and approved by vote — democracy at its best.
  2. Monthly Congregational Singing. These singings we’re joyous occasions because I liked to sing and there wasn’t any sermon (how ironic now that I’m a preacher). Everyone present would name a hymn request and then the men capable of leading a hymn would take turns leading the requested hymns. Each singing would begin and end with the customary opening and closing prayers, and occasionally someone might read a passage of scripture but the primary reason for gathering was to sing hymns.

Now you are asking yourself, “Rex, what did these business meetings and congregational singings have to do with the church living as a community animated by the Spirit?” My answer is that they didn’t! Yet these practices were highly valued by the church of my youth and still are valued in some churches.

Why does this matter? Because when we read through the book of Acts about the beginning of the church, we don’t find the community of Christians engaged in either such practices. That’s not to say that they never came together to make decisions or to engage in worship through singing hymns… they surely did but the prioritized other practices that have been given very little priority among many churches today.

Two Ancient, Yet Relevant, Practices

There are two practices of the earliest Christians that need mentioning which are vital for churches discovering today how the Spirit seeks to lead them:

  1. Table Fellowship. This is a smaller gathering of Christians in a home around the table enjoying a meal together where everyone can engage in each other’s life. It is a time and place where deeper and more meaningful conversation about how God is at work in each other’s lives, how the scriptures bear upon each other’s lives, and how each person can lovingly encourage one another to embody the gospel of Jesus Christ. It is one powerful way in which the Holy Spirit, who dwells among each believer, works to reveal what must be done in order to participate in the mission of God.
  2. Prayer. This practice is rooted in the profound belief that Christians are incapable of embodying the gospel based on their own strength. On their own, fears and temptations will have mastery over them. But by creating space and committing time for prayer — whether it’s for family facing personal challenges, someone having an evangelistic conversation with a co-worker, the church seeking a bold vision for engaging the neighborhood, and so on — the church turns to the Sovereign Lord who, in a mysterious manner, gives power through the Spirit to overcome with faithful witness.

Part of the challenge in recovering these ancient practices is overcoming vulnerability and humility. You see as long as Christians only gather in large assemblies for worship, preaching/teaching, and fellowship better known as potluck meals, there will likely never be any deep engagement of life seeking participation in the mission of God. That’s because such engagement requires vulnerability and that is more likely to happen as believers gather for table fellowship. Similarly, as long as a church thinks it only needs to maintain its current way of life, believers will never come together for a committed time of prayer.

Don’t get me wrong! I’m all for gathering as a collective group for worship where the church can sing, read scripture publicly, here that scripture preached, etc… but that alone is insufficient. It’s very passive and doesn’t require much. Plus, few Christians really want to stand up in such large gatherings and say, by way of example, “I’m struggling to get along with my new neighbors of a different race and religion, what might I be doing wrong? Could you help me and pray for me that I might better love them as my neighbor?”

When we read though Acts, we read of a movement of Jesus followers who were committed to table fellowship and prayer, among other practices. Because they were committed to such practices, they were able to discern the work of the Spirit among them and live a life animated by the Spirit. Such commitments helped them when they had to make decisions such as who should replace Judas (cf. Acts 1:12-26), which seven servants should be appointed to care for the ministry of the widows (cf. Acts 6:1-6), and even when faced with a decision regarding what the gospel requires of Gentile believers (cf. Acts 11). Such commitments drew them immediately into prayer when they realized that the opposition the apostles were facing (cf. Acts 4:23-31). Neither coming together to make a decision or for corporate prayer was the response of democratically human power but the seeking of God at work through his Spirit so that these followers of Jesus might embody the gospel faithfully and continue participating in the mission of God.

A Final Word

Beyond the Sunday gatherings of public worship and fellowship, every local church needs believers who are committed to table fellowship and prayer. That means someone making their home available, inviting a few others over, and taking the lead so that the time is spent purposefully engaged in life and the work of God, where time can be spent in prayer. This is where the Spirit begins cultivating organic change that will undoubtably not only enhance the Sunday gatherings but also lead to organized change as the church discerns how the Spirit is empowering them to live as a faithful yet contextually relevant embodiment of the gospel among the local community.

So what say you?