The Reality of Relationships
Richard grew up in a nearly perfect family. His dad was a renowned surgeon. His mom stayed at home. He had a younger brothers and their life was full of safety, learning and fun. Their dad was stoic, calm and loving. They adored him and waited with excitement every night for him to come home. They loved to get him to wrestle with them on the living room floor after dinner. He was big and strong and seemingly invincible, their protector and their provider.
Richard grew up, got a law degree and began to practice law. At the age of 30, with no warning at all, his is dad...his dad, who he had looked up to his whole life, decided to start another family.
Richard's dad fell in love with a patient, a woman 20 years his junior, and he decided that he did not want to be a father to his adult children any longer. He told them that he had never told them how much he resented them. He sent Richard a letter. "I have raised you and provided for you. I have experienced too much sadness and resentment trying to raise you and care for your mother. I give up. I am no longer your father." Richard was so devastated that he could hardly breathe. His father had simply never come to him when he felt discouraged or angered by him. He did not communicate conflict and then he just left. Richard was devastated and alone. He felt that his whole childhood had somehow been a sham.
Richard was never able to reconcile with his dad, despite many letters and phone calls. When his dad died, he did not even know about it. One of his friends happened upon his dad's obituary and that's how Richard found out that his dad was gone forever.
There is a powerful myth that exists in the church. It is a myth that defies denomination, it exists in all churches from the evangelical to the progressive. The myth is about relationships. The myth tells us that if we are faithful we will not have broken relationships, that if we are faithful,we will not fight with one another. The good Christian gets along with everyone, right?
Conflict, disagreement, argument...these things are not bad. They are the way that we have of communicating difference, hurt, confusion. Conflict can be very painful but it can also be incredibly helpful. If you do not have conflict, be careful. Someone may not be telling the truth about how they are feeling. Richards father refused to communicate when there was conflict. He let his resentment build and then he ran away from his entire family. Conflict is an inevitable part of human relationships.
St Paul once wrote that we see through a glass dimly. Sometimes, when people are in a disagreement, it is almost as if there is a glass wall that stands between them. This glass wall is transparent but it is a bit warped. On one side, a person sees through it and everything looks one way but the person on the other side sees things differently. Many of the conflicts that arise between us arise simply because we have experienced an event differently. Our perspectives, what we see and experience, are different and we respond to what we are seeing and this leads to conflict.
Conflict in the world and especially in the church is inevitable. Let me say that again, conflict is inevitable. If there is conflict in your life, it is not because you did anything wrong. It has to do with our fallen world and our lack of perspective. We see through a glass dimly. Dimly. The glass is sometimes warped by our hurts and the repetitive patterns of our lives. Sometimes we can't even see each other at all.
Jesus talks about relationships today and he openly talks about conflict. He talks about conflict in a way that assumes each of us will experience it. "If your brother sins against you, this is what you do..." He gives us a clear and concise list of instructions. The instructions are simple and yet they are terribly hard to do.
First and perhaps most importantly, when someone wrongs you, GO AND TALK TO THEM. Out of all Jesus' instructions, this is the one we most avoid. We want to pretend that it didn't bother us. We don't think it is worth our time. We don't think the other person will respond well or we are just too darned tired. If we really followed this commandment, we would be talking to someone at least once a week right? Daily? Be honest. How many times does someone hurt your feelings or wrong you in some way? But so many times, if we just follow Jesus' instructions and go to the person alone, without gossip or self-pity or wallowing...so many times the dispute ends right there and in many cases, the relationship is strengthened. It is so hard to be honest about this. It takes time. It takes effort. And sometimes, we just want to do what is easiest, to pretend nothing is wrong, or to tell anyone or everyone else about our hurt and not the person who hurt us.
There are times when you do go directly to the one who hurt you and try to talk to them, and it doesn't work. There are times when people don't admit to wrongdoing or their perspective on life is so different from yours and in their eyes, they are the victim not the perpetrator. And in those cases, Jesus tells us to go back to the person but this time with witnesses or, literally, listeners, people who are objective and have integrity, who will not take sides. Take with you people who see clearly and have the capacity to listen. Let them see and hear the truth. If they cannot explain or help you reconcile, then bring the conflict to the church. Technically, the word ecclesia that Jesus used meant community. Clearly, Jesus wanted the conflict aired and discussed, not kept in the dark.
Finally, if none of this works, we are to end the relationship. Stop trying. Let the person be a non-relationship for you, like how a Jew was instructed in Jesus' day not to speak to a Gentile and a tax collector. Just let it be. And maybe this is the hardest part of all. It is hard to stop trying.
Jesus is telling us that it is OK to have people that you cannot or do not relate to. That is the final breakdown of the myth. Jesus is saying that, even in church, there are times when you have to end a relationship. Conflict should not last forever. After a number of tries, it becomes obsessive and sinful. Try, get help, and if you can't fix the relationship, end it. Don't let it live broken forever. Let it go.
The pain of saying goodbye to folks who will not change is devastating. Richard wanted a relationship with his father but his father would not have it. And this pain is something that he still carries with him today. He never really got to say goodbye.
No human relationships are perfect and sometimes the least inadequate solution is goodbye. Love does no wrong to a neighbor, Paul says. Sometimes, the only thing that we can do is not to harm each other.
"Whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven," Jesus said. Heaven will be a place of relationships. The people who you love and live in relationship with will somehow be there. I am not sure that we will ever fully understand these words until we get there, but it is enough to know that relationships are part of your spiritual life. Relationships are part of how you live out your life of faith. You can bind people to you in love but you also have the capacity to loose them, to let them go. Why must we work so hard on our relationships? Because your relationship with God is impacted by your relationships with others. Your relationships affect your soul. And when we get along and truly connect, when two or three of us are really together and for even a brief moment, our barriers come down and we see each other clearly, God is there.
So communicate. Tell each other about the little conflicts before they get huge. Don't slack off or hold it in. Talk to one another. And, if after much effort, you cannot resolve a relationship, let it go. That's what forgiveness means, letting go. Do not stew or obsess or gossip. Just hand the relationship back to God.
- The Very Rev. Kate Moorehead