A Community Defined

So, I was thinking that last week’s blog about behavior that undermines our call to be a community of love sparked a few conversations.  I was thinking that pursuing this line of thought might be fruitful.  Last week, the focus was on the ways that unhealthy behavior and just plain mean-spirited actions can hinder our efforts to be a community of love.  But, sometimes — maybe most of the time — it isn’t necessarily bad behavior that kills our mission.  Sometimes we get confused and conflicted over what we should do because we are not all clear about who we are.  More often than not, we argue because we are in disagreement about what is most important to the life of the congregation.  We have not defined the community’s identity well enough to guide our life together.

A congregation’s identity, it’s DNA, is made up of its values, beliefs, mission, and its vision.  Tom Bandy (a smart author and guru on mission) says that a core value is a “positive, predictable behavior pattern that organizational participants can be expected to model, both spontaneously and daringly, in their daily living.” Values are how we act in a positive way.  A core belief is “a principle or conviction to which (members) can be expected to turn, immediately and spontaneously, in times of trouble, confusion, or stress.”  Beliefs establish common principles.

St. Paul, when he wrote to the Galatians (5:22-23) suggested that there were common behaviors that should guide them: “love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness,gentleness, and self-control.”  He told his churches that their core beliefs were things like “justification by grace through faith” and Christ crucified.”  The naming of these behaviors and beliefs gave the community a way to discern what to do — because they new who they were.

With values and beliefs unstated decisions are based on personal preference.  With values and beliefs clearly articulated, we have some idea how to resolve the conflict and be true to our identity.  When values and beliefs are left unstated, every individual assumes their own values and beliefs are the norm.  In a congregation that worships nearly 800 people a week, that means 800 sets of values and beliefs.  Trust struggles, conflict can thrive.

Think of it this way:  As we prepare worship bulletins each week we hear feedback from a wide spectrum of opinions.  On the one hand we hear “Thanks for putting all the songs in the bulletin, it really made me feel welcome and easy to worship.”  Then we hear “You’re putting too much in the bulletin and it is wasting paper.”  The first comment reflects certain values – hospitality, simplicity, welcoming.  The second reflects other values – economy and conservation.  All of these are good values, but here they come to conflict.  What do you do?  Well, it helps if we have stated what our values are before the conflict.

Another example: A congregation gets in a tiff over whether it should be involved in a local social program of some kind.  Some say, “We must do this because Christ lived and ministered among the poor.”  This reflects a core belief in the incarnation of Christ in our world.  Others say, “No, we must stay out of political and economic debates because God is not of the world.” This reflects a core belief in the transcendence of God.  Both can be rooted in Christian faith.  Conflict happens because we have not stated clearly what we believe at the core of our life together.

So, what do we do?  We define our values and beliefs.  How?  Well, on the one hand it is not really hard.  It simply takes the participation of a significant number of members in a discussion and process that seeks to discern what values and beliefs we all share.  It is a conversation rarely held, but desperately needed.

We are going to try to have such a discussion about our common values on Wednesday, June 6 at 7:00 PM.  We need you to be there!  The process will be fun and will take about two hours.  After an initial introduction, we will work in small groups.  By the end of the evening, we will have developed a good idea of what our values might be. It will work well IF YOU ARE THERE!  Please join us on 6/6 at 7

A Community of Love?

So, I was thinking that following Jesus is really not very complicated.  According to John’s Gospel, Jesus gives one command; one imperative instruction: “Love one another as I have loved you.” (John 15:12)  Now, just because something is not complicated does not mean that it is easy.  The command is clear – love each other to the point of dying for each other. And that is hard.  Honestly, in my years in the church I have learned that we rarely get anywhere close to dying for one another. Too often we struggle to manage being civil to one another, let alone loving each other.

Recently, an anonymous caller left a message on a staff member’s voice mail that was vile and accusatory.  The only identification the caller left was that they were a member of the congregation.  “Say what?” you reply.  Yes, a member of the “beloved community” left a harassing message.  I’d be shocked too if things like this didn’t happen way too often, even here at Holy Trinity Lutheran Church. Perhaps it is why, as Pastor Phil noted (and I quoted before) that many people see the church as “too judgmental, too hypocritical, and too hypercritical” and so want to have nothing to do with church or church people.

Church staffs know to expect and deal with complaints, concerns, even conflict when such is offered in a healthy, loving and productive manner.  But this behavior, and the anonymous letters and notes, the insults and demeaning gossip that happens is just evil.  It is how evil undermines the beloved community and keeps us from following the commandment of Jesus to love one another.  It does not happen all the time here and it does not eclipse the loving and Spirit-filled actions of so many disciples in this place by any stretch of the imagination.  But it does happen too often and to the detriment of all.

Paul writes to the church at Ephesus that should instruct us all and guide our behavior: Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up, as there is need, so that your words may give grace to those who hear.  And do not grieve the Holy Spirit of God, with which you were marked with a seal for the day of redemption.  Put away from you all bitterness and wrath and anger and wrangling and slander, together with all malice, and be kind to one another, tenderhearted, forgiving one another, as God in Christ has forgiven you.(Ephesians 4:29-32)   

Luther, in his teaching on the 8th Commandment (You shall not bear false witness against your neighbor) says this commandment means: “We are to fear and love God, so that we do not tell lies about our neighbors, betray or slander them, or destroy their reputations.  Instead, we are to come to their defense, speak well of them, and interpret everything they do in the best possible light.” – (Small Catechism)

Each week as we prepare to receive the body and blood of Christ, we share the peace.  We take time to reconcile and put aside anything that separates us from one another.  If you have hurt someone or carry hate in your heart, don’t come forward until you work things out.  How can we receive Christ with a tongue that insults and lies about others?

So, what do we do about this kind of cancer in the Body of Christ in this place? Well, first you need to know that when we receive anonymous notes and letters, they go to the shredder.   No name – no attention.  Second, if you have a complaint or concern and you present it in a manner that does not conform to the two quotations above – in love, grace and in the best possible light, you will not receive a hearing.  Leave your sarcasm and anger at the door. Third, unless you are offering a solution or offering to help, don’t offer a complaint. Fourth, when you insult or accuse a member of the staff, you insult and accuse us all as a team and me as a leader.

Perhaps the biggest thing we can do is for the majority of members, who are indeed loving, committed, disciples to, in ways big and small, call others to account for unhealthy behavior.  We can also model love to one another.  Support the wonderful staff here publicly; recognize the many good things that people are doing.  When there is need for expressing concerns or disagreement, model the most loving, gracious manner possible, treating others with the respect and dignity that comes from being a child of God.  Try these:

TOP TEN THINGS YOU CAN DO TO LOVE ONE ANOTHER

  1. If the person being talked about is not present, stop talking about them.
  2. If someone starts to talk to you about another person, stop them. They should be talking to the other person, not you.
  3. Follow Luther: Interpret everything someone says and does in the best possible light.
  4. If you can’t say it to the person’s face, don’t say it at all.
  5. Before you react in anger, try to imagine the other person’s position and account for your fault in the matter.
  6. Never criticize without first complimenting.
  7. Apologize quickly; take offense very slowly.
  8. Never communicate anonymously.
  9. If you can’t say something that builds up and is constructive, stay silent.
  10. Own your feelings.  Others cannot make you feel anything.  Anger is a choice.