The Ability to Handle Conflict

(1 Corinthians 12:1-11; John 2:1-11) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Jan 27, 2019 – UBC Digby

I read in my devotional time a week go a story from Genesis that reminded me of a joke. Where do you find the first Baptists in the Bible?  All the way back in Genesis 13, when there was some strife between their families and livestock, so Abram says to Lot: ‘you go your way and I’ll go mine!’

‘The Ability to Handle Conflict.’  This is a sermon about capability; not a sermon about conflicts.  It is about ability: our abilities; God’s abilities.

When I looked at Dennis Bickers’ chapter about how a healthy church can handle conflict, and looked at some Bible readings for today, I saw a match.  First off, John’s great story of Jesus at a wedding in a Galilean town called Cana.

“What does this story have to do with handling conflict?” we might well ask. I see a few examples.

Wine at a wedding.  Yes, real wine. Wine that can actually get people drunk, as the chief steward mentions to the groom.  Wine made by Jesus, when the party ran out of it.

Baptist Christians have always liked miracles, certainly Jesus’ miracles, but we have not always liked wine, or other alcoholic drinks.  When the temperance movement developed, two hundred years ago, the Baptists got on board. Many congregations adopted a standard Church Covenant, written by J. Newton Brown in 1834, that included this promise to one another:  to abstain from the sale of, and use of, intoxicating drinks as a beverage…  A version of this very covenant was the one used by Digby Baptist, for years, and by Windsor Baptist, and by so many others.

I remember so fondly a man in the Windsor Church, Clayton, who lived his whole life as a very faithful servant of Jesus there: deacon, choir member, trustee, and always at Mid-week Prayer and Bible Study.  One Wednesday, I asked people to share an accomplishment of their lives they could be rightly proud of, and the one thing Clayton mentioned was that he had never taken a drink, ever. That was his accomplishment!  

To drink, or not to drink – that is a question.  And can certainly be an issue, with conflict to be handled.  

Also, the Gospel story of Jesus at the wedding starts with what could seem like a conflict with his own Mother.  She points out the problem to her son, and He says, “What does that have to do with us? It’s not my time.” I have not quite figured out, to my own satisfaction, what that little conversation means.

And any family wedding can be an occasion for ‘drama,’ as we say.  Anyway, the scene of Jesus attending a wedding gets us wondering about the issues that divide people and the trouble we give one another, from time to time. Yet this story has very little conflict, and maybe that is an inspiring part of it.  Alcohol, your mother giving you hints, and a big wedding, are not necessarily a recipe for a fight.

But wait; I just went off track right there.  A conflict does not need to be a fight.  They are not the same thing.  Conflict can be handled – handled well.  
So I’ve heard, anyway.

Unhealthy conflict is what we think of first. In a group, such as a congregation, conflict can become something we dearly want to avoid, instead of deal with positively. In his book about being a healthy church, Dennis Bickers says: Healthy churches are able to see conflict as a means by which change can occur in the church. (Dennis Bickers, The Healthy Small Church, 2005, p. 72)  Yet, in this chapter, he does not say much about how conflict is constructive.  He talks in detail about about things that cause conflicts, & ways to deal with conflict.  But never quite tells us details about how conflict helps us change for the better.

I think about the roots of conflict. Conflicts come out of our differences. We are, each one of us, different. Differing skills and gifts. Differing personalities and opinions. Differing life experiences and influences.  Differing strengths and weaknesses. Differing sins, differing righteousness.

No wonder Paul wrote at length to the believers in Corinth, Greece, a couple thousand years ago.  For pages on end he wrote to them about their conflicts. These were believers, remember, a church. But Paul has to talk to them about sexual immorality and prostitution, about lawsuits against one another, about marriage problems, about foods to eat or not eat, about his own spiritual leadership to them, about their worship – what to wear, how do to up your hair, how not to fight about the Lord’s Supper… you get the idea.  By the time we get to chapter twelve, Paul is getting beautiful and poetic. Those Christians were diverse, but wonderful! Talking about what they do when the gather to worship, he wrote:

12:4 Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; 5 and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; 6 and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone. 7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.

You and I cannot be confused with one another.  We are each quite different: looks, personality, voice, attitudes, interests, abilities, personal story. Problems.  No two of us alike. This is actually a great thing.

For some years it has seemed to me that my greatest weakness have, with them – within them? – the opportunity for a great strength.  And my greatest strengths have within them the danger of a weakness or problem. And so it might be for every one of us.

I look back upon my own life, and sometimes think I am indecisive.  I don’t make decisions well – small choices or big ones – I don’t know how to decide things!  But then, the other side of this coin is my ability to see more than one side of an issue, the gift of viewing the big picture, and the virtue of being humble about what ‘I’ know. So I pray: how can Christ use the strength here, instead of me using the weakness?

I think of my friend, J_____, who lives far from here in Nova Scotia.  For twenty-five years she served as registrar for an annual week-long conference of adult education and spirituality.  More than being the Registrar, she was in control of everything. All the local arrangements with the campus where the event happened, all the meal plans, details for the guest speakers where they stay, what microphones they would use, everything.  She was the main planner and designer of the schedule and the brochure. She got her son to run the website. On and on. She knew the fifty year history of the event. She was so capable, and so on top of every detail, but if she dropped out, who would know what she knows?  Who could run the seminar? She did so much… too much.

Her greatest strengths for us also had the greatest weaknesses attached.  But, as the time of her retirement came, she handed over the reigns and is helping others with the hundred tasks she used to do.

I think of a famous man – Catholic author and teacher of the 20th century – the late Henri Nouwen.  We read that he often felt so isolated, struggling with where he belonged, with loneliness, what was ‘home,’ struggling with his sexuality, wondering if he was loved.  But out of his life Nouwen inspired so many by teaching ‘you are the beloved of God, so deeply & completely loved and accepted by our God!’  One of his great little books is called, “The Wounded Healer.” That’s what he was.

Walking with God, we grow to understand ourselves, and we cooperate with the Spirit to make our weaknesses into strengths.  We are given gifts, of that Spirit, to do even more.

As we do this, we see the same in others.  We appreciate those very different from ourselves.  I see someone with a great gift to lead by making decisions – so I give thanks.  If I also find that person to be too bossy or controlling, God gives me more patience and understanding for the individual.  

So our times of conflict – as we face any change or challenge – call for us to appreciate one another.  Knowing that what bothers us about someone has, beside it, some gift that blesses. Knowing that the special skill of someone else is a gift to the whole fellowship, not something to compete over or compare.

The ability to handle conflict.  

God is able!  And may you be able. Able to handle conflict one bit better than before.  Because we value one another. Because you understand yourself better too, and love yourself better, thanks to the Master.

Holy Spirit Baptism

(Luke 3:15-22) – J G White
11 am, Sun, Jan 13, 2019 – UBC Digby

These colder, snowy days are great days for feeding the birds in your backyard… and when we used to, we enjoyed it.  But here in Digby we have had one nuisance species of bird: the pigeon. Silly pigeons would flap around and get into our birdfeeders.  We did not really want them.

Another name for pigeon is rock dove, by the way.  A bird we have never seen in our yard here is the smaller dove, the mourning dove.  They seem so nice and gentle. Folks don’t usually find mourning doves a nuisance.

Today’s Gospel story is of the Baptism of Jesus.  In the scene, the Holy Spirit appears, like a dove.  And God the Father speaks approval of Jesus.

The Holy Spirit is, for us, the close presence of God.  Why a dove? When you see a dove in a stained glass window, it represents the Spirit.
For Noah the dove signified new life and a new beginning. (Genesis 8)
For King David a dove signified freedom and peace. (Psalm 55:6)
For Mary and Joseph two doves signified the sacrifice they could afford and the cleansing that comes with new life. (Luke 2:24)

We sing songs like ‘Spirit, Spirit of gentleness, blow through the wilderness, calling and free…”  But notice what John had been preaching, to prepare the way. He sounds a like a real hellfire-and-brimstone prophet. John tells that the Messiah will come with a baptism of fire and of the Holy Spirit.  He will separate the wheat and the chaff. The chaff will be burned!

Five verses later, Jesus is on the scene, being baptized by John, and the Holy Spirit comes upon Jesus in the form of a dove.

So is the Holy Spirit coming into our life more like a furious fire, or like a gentle dove?  More like a calm, petite, mourning dove, or like an obnoxious pigeon?

One old gospel hymn tells us that, when we look for the full blessing of the Lord:   
He will fill your heart today to overflowing
With the Holy Ghost and pow’r.    
(Bring Your Vessels, Not a Few, Leila N Morris, 1912)

The evangelical revival movement of recent centuries might lead us to expect that the Spirit always comes with burning zeal and unbridled enthusiasm in people.  But there is also a ‘Spirit of Gentleness’ in our experience.

The Holy Spirit of God does what the Holy Spirit of God wants to do.  What is needed in the moment, in the people. Sometimes fire, sometimes gentle confirmation.  A classic prayer says this:
God, Holy Spirit, Come to us, come among us;
Come as the wind, and cleanse us;
Come as the fire, and burn;
Come as the dew, and refresh;
Convict, convert, & consecrate many hearts & lives
to our great good and to Your greater glory. Amen.  
(Eric Milner-White, Voices United 197)

But, even unknowingly, we want to control and direct our Master.  Push the Spirit into what we want done.  Claim God is on our side. Baptize our great plan with the Bible and our religious sensibilities.  

As a preacher friend of mine says, “don’t shove the Dove.” (J. H. Hosick)  

As my Church history professor would say, “the Church tries to institutionalize the way the Spirit moved last.”  Something wonderful came from God? We want to keep it that way. Keep God doing that same wonderful thing. What impressed us when we were saved.  What was done when we were young.

A dozen years ago Sharon sat down one Sunday in a pew in the large church building where she usually worshipped.  A friendly acquaintance from out of town came down the aisle, Sherry, and sat in a different, empty pew. “Come over and sit with me,” Sharon invited. “No, no,” was the answer of the visitor.  Why? Because that was the very pew Sherry had always sat in with her grandmother, three decades before. And she was in that very pew, in service, one day, when Sherry responded to the Good News and became a Christian.

We have wonderful reasons for some habits we keep. But the Spirit will, regularly, do something new.

What was going on in those days just before thirty-year-old Jesus went public?  Cousin John was preaching in the wilderness by the river: the people gathered and listened to his teaching.
They were in great expectation.
They were questioning things.
Some did make a turnaround, repent, metanoia.  

There is no talk yet of guidance, the Spirit guiding individual people in certain pathways.  In our day, this is much of what we seek. Or, as a group, we seek to be guided directly by God the Spirit.

When a congregation has a special meeting, or a regularly-scheduled annual meeting, we sure don’t do much praying, do we?  So we must remember to take all the needed preparatory prayer before we gather.  I know if I focused more on prayer beforehand (and less on how to convince people of my opinions) I’d pay more attention to the Spirit during the meeting.

God is all-powerful.  God is completely free, free to do what God wants.  This Holy Spirit who comes upon us, within us, among us – is powerful and free.  Sometimes burning hot and fierce. Sometimes a gentle messenger bird.

Spirit is greater than religion: the Jewish religion of John & Jesus, or the Christian religion we’ve built.  

This Holy One is our baptism.  
Be ready. Be willing. Be together. Be prayerful.  
Be humble. Be hopeful. Be honest.
Believe. Begin again. Amen.

Prayers for January 13th

I want us to do more praying today than usual.  
I find people occasionally noticing we are not doing a lot of praying about the decisions we have to make, from time to time.  We are together on Sunday mornings: Let us pray…

Before the ushers come forward, Holy One, we need to be ushered into Your Presence.
Your wisdom is far more precious than silver or diamonds or gold: show our hearts that eternal value.  
Your provision is more than we can come up with: show our minds that You are our God of plenty, not of poverty.  
Master, we are getting ready this very minute to make an offering of money. We are getting ready this month to make a plan for the whole year. We are getting ready this year for the rest of our life as a congregation, called to be here for such a time as this.  
Speak through the scriptures to us, we pray, that we may rely on You well.  Speak through the voices of the fellowship, we pray, that we may love as You love.  Speak through our bank accounts and our bills, we pray, that we may learn Your accounting.  Speak through the silent beauty of the universe, we pray, that we may spend and give generously.
Speak, Lord, for your servants are listening. AMEN.

Prayers of the People ONE
Our praying now will happen in three parts.  
First, we will pray as we often do. Me, saying a few sentences.  Then I will give time for others to pray a word or phrase or sentence out loud.  Included will be silent, unspoken prayers, of course.
Let us pray…

God of cities, God of wilderness, God of villages: from our beautiful point on the globe we pray and lift our voices.  Bless the world You love. John spoke and baptized out by a riverbank. On the banks of the Annapolis Basin we have our ministry.  Send the Spirit, in Jesus’s name, to bless or inflame or move or strengthen – whatever is needed now.
Forgive our prayerlessness – inspire our fellowship with You.  Forgive our willfulness – give us courage to trust Your ways that are not our ways. Forgive our traditionalism – attract us into new and beautiful ways of living our lives together, for Christ.
Now we offer our prayers for one another, and the world beyond. We speak out loud names and sentences.  We speak silently too, and You are the Hearer of prayer…

In the name of Jesus. AMEN.

Prayers of the People TWO
This time, let us use scripture to pray… silently.
Turn me with me Psalm 127.  Pew Bible or your own, larger print version.  The first half speaks of what God is up to, and what we are up to – and that we could be more at ease. The second half of the Psalm speaks of children: sons.  You might meditate upon what Jesus did with this when He read it – a man without sons. You can also think of these verses in terms of our children in the Christian Faith – and how they might be born.  So let us take a few silent minutes for prayer, using Psalm 127 to inspire us. Let us pray…

Prayers of the People THREE
Now, let us change our posture for the third prayer.
Let us stand. A prayer by a man named Eddie Askew.
Eddie Askew book
Let us pray…

The Guiding Star Behold

(Mtt 2:1-12) – J G White
11 am, Epiphany, Sun, Jan 6, 2019 – UBC Digby

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William Chatterton Dix, 1858)

The finale of the Christmas story we saw from the beginning, with Magi in our nativity scenes starting in late November.  These mysterious wise ones continue to inspire people to seek wise ways. Yet, it can take some work to be wise. Even to follow star.  

A month ago John Marshall told some of us about the Star of Bethlehem from the astronomical point of view.  Remember? I’ve read the same information in a booklet given to me years ago by Maureen Potter. Those Magi were celestial experts, and it may well have taken an expert to notice what was happening in the sky, not the mention understand that it might actually mean something for humans down here.

So, it often takes attention our our part, to see and know God with us.  to know what way the Spirit is guiding me.  It takes intention – we seek on purpose, in our lives.  The guiding star that we behold can be very subtle, not obvious.  Christ in our lives and our world is so gentle, so hidden, so just-under- the-surface.

Baptist scholar, Dallas Willard, called this The Divine Conspiracy.  The hiddenness of Almighty God.  We live in a world in which it is possible not to know there is a God, or believe there is.  Yet it is also infused with God everywhere!

When a person does understand God is there – out there or nearby – life becomes a faith journey. For many, it is as if a guiding light draws us closer, year by year, to the One who came.  

‘Beautiful Star of Bethlehem’ is a song I heard played each year on a Christmas LP at home, sung by Emmylou Harris.  I heard the song sung recently, and noticed the line that says:
Jesus is now that star divine,
Brighter and brighter He will shine.

We don’t think it funny when we sing songs to inanimate objects like a star.
O star of wonder, star of night…
guide us to thy perfect light.  

Perhaps you have whispered out loud to the beautiful stars some dark evening.  And maybe we know, in this carol, we are really singing to Jesus Himself: the Bright Morning Star, as one scripture says (Rev. 22:16).  

Yet the brightness of Jesus in our lives can wax and wane like the brightness of the moon and stars.  Emmylou Harris’ song says:
Beautiful star of Bethlehem,
Shining afar through shadows dim…

It is when the shadows are dark and dim that we need some help, perhaps some encouragement to press on and keep seeking the One we’d met before.  

At times in my life, the Absence of God, so to speak, has been louder and brighter than the Presence.  (Whatever I think the presence of God is supposed to be like or feel like.) I sometimes agree with Jean- Francois Six, French Catholic priest and theologian, who reflected on knowing God, saying this:

The more a human being advances in the Christian faith, the more they live the presence of God as an absence, the more they accept to die to the idea of becoming aware of God, of fathoming Him.  For they have learned, while advancing, that God is unfathomable… God always precedes us, we see Him only from behind, He walks ahead, He is ahead of us.
(The Northumbria Community, Celtic Daily Prayer, 2000, p. 628)

Personally, I have great confidence in this God, who goes ahead of me, of us.  So often, it is after, looking back, that I see my best glimpses of Christ.

So I preach a life of following the hidden God, who is so incredible, and at the same time amazing in being always here, unseen.  Being a wise one, following a star, is not about a clear, obvious sign that no one can miss. It is about the ‘Divine conspiracy,’ the Holy Spirit hiding behind the scene, every scene.    

Writer Luci Shaw tells this story: of an epiphany she had: a showing, or showing up, of God, in her life.

When a real epiphany comes for me, I recognize it as God dealing with me in a direct, irrefutable way.  One such sighting came in the fall of 1988. I was teaching poetry at Regent College in Vancouver, Canada, while living an hour away, in Bellingham, Washington [USA].

The Pacific Northwest is known for its rains that fall steadily for days (or weeks) and for clouds that hug the earth, shrouding the landscape in a gentle gloom.  Just a few miles from the coast rise the Cascade Mountains and, spectacular among them, Mt. Baker.

I wrote in my journal:
For weeks I’ve driven my highway, sixty miles north in the morning, then south again at the end of the day.  The mountains are clearly marked on the map, but they might as well not exist, lost as they are in clouds, obscured by drizzle, fog, haze.  Then, some morning, unexpectedly, a strong air from the sea will lick away the fog and allow the sun to shine clearly. And Mt. Baker, towering magnificently beyond the foothills, unbelievably high above the other mountains, is seen to be what it has been all along — immense, serene, unmovable, its dazzling, snow-draped profile cut clear against a sky of jewel blue.

Today it happened.  The mountain “came out”!  I kept turning my eyes from the highway to look one more at its splendor, wanting to be overwhelmed again and again.  It is heart-stopping. I can’t get enough of it. And I can never take it for granted– I may not see it again for weeks.

It’s God, showing me a metaphor of himself.  I mean–he’s there, whether I see him or not. It’s almost as if he’s lying in wait to surprise me.  and the wind is like the Spirit, sweeping away my foggy doubt, opening my eyes, revealing the reality of God.  Annie Dillard’s words say it for me: “It was less like seeing than being for the first time seen, knocked breathless by a powerful glance…”  
(Eugene Peterson, ed., Stories for the Christian Year, 1992, pp.40-41)

So many of the great little stories like this are testimony to a lone individual on the journey with Jesus.  Maybe it is incidental, but I like the fact that there were wise men, together seeking the new-born king, not one wise man.  Seek the Master together, dear friends.  Let us be so good at being pilgrims on a journey with each other.  This way, your special expertise in knowing and following Jesus can help guide us all, and my different experience and talents in seeing God can help guide us all.  

It is fitting, at the end of this sermon, that we commune together.  We share the Table of our Lord as Jesus invites us here.  

As with gladness men of old
did the guiding star behold;
… so may we… (William C. Dix, 1858)