July 31, 2012

Overcoming Contentiousness

“Again I say to you, if two or three agree on earth about anything they ask, it will be done for them by my Father in heaven. For where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them” (Matt 18:19-20).  Given just how much contentiousness and quarrelling there is in church life—and has been right from the beginning—I sometimes wonder if our Lord didn’t say these words on agreement as an almost impossible challenge. Peter’s words immediately after this give more evidence of the constant friction that plagues community life. “Lord, how often shall my brother sin against me, and I forgive him? As many as seven times?” (Matt 18:21). Peter thinks that’s pretty big of him, but Jesus pushes Peter to an Olympian level of forgiveness, “I do not say to you seven times, but seventy times seven” (Matt 18:22). Disputes in churches are proverbially nasty because we weight our point of view with Big concepts of Truth and Justice, and therefore our opponents with Lies and Injustice.  Our position as the Truth then takes on divine authority. And since we all know who is the father of lies, we then demonize our opponents. Makes for lovely community living. No wonder churches split all the time. There is something insane about this. As Metropolitan Anthony Bloom once said after a prolonged period of parochial civil war, “we all went mad.”

How to guard against this or overcome it? Keep coming back to the basic teaching of the Gospel. Forgiveness. Kindness. Remembering that our opponents are human beings, and so are we. As Plato said, “Always be kind, for everyone is fighting a hard battle.” It’s such an adult world, with everyone warring against everyone else. And for that the antidote is to become as children, “for to such belongs the kingdom of heaven” (Matt 19:14).

Young Preachers

I’m happy to see that young preachers are being encouraged to participate in a big event with other Christians to help hone their skills (see story here). True, part of me also cringes at that, and I’m not sure exactly why, but what I do appreciate is that the liveliest, most imaginative, committed and energetic among us (the 14-28 crowd) are being given a chance to reflect on the message we should be bringing to the world. All preaching begins with deep listening to the people and culture you will eventually be speaking to. It is my impression that a host of spiritual matters are of concern to a wide swath of this generation—meditation, compassion, human rights, concern for the environment, yoga—but commitment to revealed faith and institutions of any kind is on the wane. None of us likes being “preached to,” and that goes double for this new generation so we should think about that too. I would like to know from the young preachers (of all churches) what they are hearing from their peers. Buddhism is becoming increasingly attractive, though it the US it only has about the same number of followers as Orthodox Christianity (about 1 million). What implication does this have for what we preach and the way we preach? I hope that our Youth and Evangelization Departments will find a way to tap in to this and let us all know, because that will be invaluable for the rest of us.

Patriarch Bartholomew of Constantinople has given much thought to the encounter between Christian faith and Buddhism. As he says, “We Christians have a great deal to do to prepare for this encounter. And it is far more interesting than arguing among ourselves.”