2 Cor. 5:16-20; John 15:1-2, 4-5,9-13, 17
October 9, 2016
I have a New Yorker cartoon that features a bride and groom on their wedding day under a cupola, next to a large wedding cake that they are both eating. She looks over at her husband and says, “Your piece is bigger than mine”. Real life after the first blush of romance fades… I have another one that could come from a few years after they’ve been married. A husband is talking to his wife over morning coffee, “I’m sorry” he says, “I was so busy listening to myself talk, I forgot what I was saying.”
Growing up as a child in the 60’s, we overheard a lot of racket coming from other homes across our fair land, a lot of kvetching. It was like we were watching ego’s roll like pinballs in an arcade, bouncing off each other, sometimes lighting up the room, sometimes just going tilt.
The Brady Bunch may have been the most popular family on TV but more often our actual homes were more like Archie and Edith with their cocktail of misunderstanding, defensiveness, hurt, and verbal aggression.
It was an era that celebrated acerbic repartee of Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton in “Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf”. Sometimes it made for winesome comedy, but when I watch it now, I think to myself, ‘we weren’t too good at getting our needs met’ way back when. Small problem! We loved those zingers that Edith would level at Archie but don’t try this at home… It isn’t a very fulfilling way to live!
Nowadays, our medical professionals are armed with studies that correlate our aggression with one another to hypertension, stress, anxiety and a host of other symptoms that shorten our lives, make us physically ill, and generally not happy campers in a lot of subtle ways. And we also living in a much more sophisticated world, a world where various spheres around the globe come into indirect contact with our spheres through six degrees of separation, so that we encounter conflict on multiple levels.
We are impacted negatively by the bitter vitriole of this campaign season, where wit has withered and blunt ad hominem attack has displaced civil discourse. It has all the crass dysfunction of Reality TV. Except that this is actually our Republic that we are dealing with.
Then there is the indirect anxiety of Syria, ISIS, and the huge civil war that engulfs almost all of the Middle East. And the Russian’ cynically using our election season to wreak havoc there.
We even have conflict in our community work, as all of our half dozen leaders on the local School board will attest. Our citizens these days are not shy about screaming their points at you in public.
And a bunch of us have disease and death in our extended families, things we pray about every week of every month.
So we are a little more savvy about managing conflict in our lives on various levels and it is going to become a more central challenge because all of these multiple zones impact us more often, more deeply, and you cannot absorb everyone’s foul mood or aggression, and live your own life. If we did, we could become perpetually hostile.
When the New Testament zooms out and tries to talk about the big picture, it speaks in terms of reconciliation. Paul says, “God was in Christ reconciling the world unto God” Or as the Gospel of John puts it, “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whosoever believeth in him should not perish but have eternal life.” Eternal life is not just endless existence, it is reconciled living. Integrated, fulfilled life.
St. Paul tells us we are to be ‘ambassadors of reconciliation’ to each other. “Be ye reconciled” he says. In Romans, he summarizes the spiritual way of living in the world and he says, “Love what is good. Stand against that which is evil. Do not simply return evil for evil (in a basic form of revenge) but transcend (or overcome) evil through the Good.” Release the positive, spiritual presence.
There is a wonderful scene in the movie “Of Gods and Men”, when some terrorists break into a Monastery and they want to find the leader of the monastery, so they put a gun to the head of the first Monk they meet and ask him the Abbot’s name and the Monk replies “His name is Christian”… “Brother Christian”. The terrorist starts walking around the Monastery shouting, “Brother Christian come out wherever you are?”
It is a wonderful invitation because God is waiting for us all to come out and answer the call. And if these Christians actually emerged in each and every one of us, what would they actually look like? What is the Christian Spirit? Personally, it looks a lot more like Mohandas Gandhi. He was a wee physical man but he embodied such a charisma of reconciliation that 500 million people in India called him “Mahatma”, the “Soul Force”. It would look a lot more like Dr. King, who had to endure personal attack and organized violence from white people and disorganized violence in response from his fellow Afrian-American’s, and keep on the higher principled way, the positive way. We don’t have to start huge social movements like they did to radiate this charisma. We just have to choose the higher, profounder way of a positive presence.
Perhaps what we learn from both of them, something we intuit in ourselves, that this higher, profounder way doesn’t come to us naturally. It is a discipline of prayer. We have to invoke the spirit of reconciliation, make it our intentional aim, and return to it in a disciplined way for it to become a deeper part of our life. And it is hard to stay in that mode, just think of your spouse or your best friend?
I was doing a wedding homily for Alex Ring last weekend and I had to remind him of the sad truth that the argument that he had with his fiancé two days before their wedding is not likely to go away. In fact, something like 66% of all the substantive arguments you have with your spouse, you be having thirty years from now, because these arguments are essentially irresolvable. And the moral is, learn how to fight well. You can disagree and still be agreeable and constructive. And we can all get better at this.
Psychologists point out that we are constantly making emotional deposits in the bank accounts of our loved ones. We should be doing little things that make our loved ones feel appreciated, that let them know that we care, that let them know they are important to us. Mistake a lot of young people make, myself included, think that their spouse only needs a little token every couple weeks or so. Slowly, you start to realize that this is not a place to skimp- not that wise to put others on an emotional diet. With a little maturity and thoughtfulness, you get better at knowing and anticipating what your people need, different than what they want. You are able to give them what they need. And each time you do this, you establish a bit more trust.
Again, psychologists point out that trust is critical for developing real intimacy and taking our relationships to the deeper levels that we are capable of developing which bring us the deeper fulfillment and contentment because we are communicating to each other that what you do impacts me and I recognize that what I do impacts you. You matter to me and I need to matter to you. That is quite a bit different from the pinball approach that bounces through the family seeking to make my needs known and to get them met without much consideration for anyone else. It is more like one of my grandsons running through the living room eyes closed with cousins and dogs all over the place. Eventually, you hit someone else, they cry, you cry, party over.
What we need to be communicating to each other, in ways spoken and actions unspoken, is that you matter to me, I care about what you do and don’t do, and your opinion of what I am doing is important to me. What we need to be doing is building empathy. Empathy and understanding are not a given with physical proximity alone. That is why, sometimes, it is hardest to talk to those that are closest to you. Every parent has this experience with their children in adolescence. The kids are changing, internally, and they stop communicating with their parents because they need to develop their independence, but then there comes a day when they are complaining to you that you don’t really understand them and, of course, you don’t.
And what we start to develop as we get better at empathy is a deeper understanding. So occasionally, we learn to listen more attentively, and really try to understand their world from their point of view. We invoke the famous prayer of St. Francis, “Lord, help me not so much to be understood, as to understand.” Do not presume. Understand and communicate analysis descriptively rather than jump to solutions. The virtue of understanding and paying attention gets more important as you go along.
I’ve been watching couples that are slightly older than I am inch towards retirement. That is a lot trickier than I would have imagined it would be. When we were younger, we made sacrifices for each other more easily, one of us agreeing to move to New York for the other one who had a good job offer, the other one agreeing to live out in New Jersey rather than downtown, back and forth it goes. That works fairly well when it seems more temporary and inconsequential. But then, you start thinking about retirement and you have to actually construct a future vision that works for both of you. It can’t really be a compromise here. This time, you have to have a vision that genuinely works for both of you.
And there are so many unspoken expectations that you don’t find out about until you are going through the process. We were looking at properties out rte. 78 and Kate found one she loved, a little farmette, with a stone house and another little shop that you could convert into a study or a guest house. I heard her tell the real estate lady that it was perfect. When I asked why it was perfect, she told me that I needed some place to go during the day. I was a little crest fallen but I added to my sheet on the perfect retirement home, “girlfriend needs space during day” and she was right of course. But I realized that this is likely to be a really different phase of life when it comes. She will be different without a vocation and so will I. Our needs will be different than what I can fully imagine from here.
So there is not likely any short cut for paying deeper attention, a deeper understanding of our hopes and our fears… As you start to get your spouse, your good friends better and better, the more likely you are to be able to start developing situations that are win/win, fulfilling for you and for them.
Because of that, it becomes more likely that you will develop synergies with people around you and begin to tap the resonance of creative cooperation. When you get the privilege to play an integral role on a winning team on a project whose goal is intrinsically worthwhile, you find yourself wading into the deeper fulfillment that human existence is capable of developing. That reciprocal feeling of inspiration and teamwork. It is one of those things that humans find intrinsically fulfilling. Creative Cooperation is the ying to the yang of competition. It is what makes competition so rewarding, that we could only succeed by cooperating better than our rivals. We did it together… what the Giants are hoping to experience today.
And really, creative cooperation is our social vision as well whether it is Adam Smith’s invisible hand that produces a harmony when markets are working efficiently or Marx’s equalitarian hope of ‘each according to his ability to each according to their need.’ It is the hope of a social integration where we are taking care of each other cooperatively. Jesus taught us that The Kingdom of God is like a wedding banquet in which everyone has their place.
Reconciliation is the direction we are headed when we are living in our positive spiritual dimension. That is what we can unlock in each other. That is what is fulfilling and real.
But we keep getting interrupted by conflict, from the marketplace, from the wider world, and then there are genuine complications in our families.
I was talking to someone over the summer about their childhood beach house. They had 5 siblings that co-owned one house, college tuition time comes around, a couple of them really need to sell, but no one else can quite afford to buy them out, so they are working through selling the beach house of thirty years. How do you do that without hurting people? The memories. What does it say about the future? Family matters can be very complicated.
What we are learning is that our job is to return to the positive reconciling spirit whenever we can. It helps enormously that we begin with a spirit of reconciliation and that we return to it when we are thrown off by anger, sarcasm, hurt, aggression.
We keep coming back to it, in some sense, independent of what is on the other side of the table, just in different ways.
Julie reminded me this week that when the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, Moses gives them a speech in Deuteronomy 23. In that speech, he tells them, “Do not hate the Egyptians who oppressed you.” [i]It is a seemingly odd admonition to a people that had been subject to such brutal subjugation and carried with them the scars to prove it.
So the Rabbi’s have debated the meaning of this passage. One of them explained that as long as the Israelites were engaged in hate, the matrix of slavery still held some sway over their spirits and they could not really be free. The Egyptians still imprisoned them.
Reconciliation moves us towards healing and freedom, in some sense, some relationships we are actually able to rehabilitate on a different set of terms and others we never speak to again. But there comes a point when you realize that the reconciling spirit is a choice that we make, a direction, a commitment. We need a beacon to remind us of the way home.
I don’t entirely know what you are going through and nor exactly what kind of reconciliation is achievable with those that you are at odds with, but I pray that as you deal with it, you can invoke your stronger, positive spirit that you may know peace in the midst of conflict and turmoil, comfort in the midst of anxiety. Amen.
[i] My thanks to Julie Yarborough who put me on to a interview on Krista Tippet’s “On Being” on NPR. The show was “Pursuing Happiness” and the observation about the Egyptians was made by the Grand Rabbi of Great Britain, Jonathan Sachs. The part of the show that I heard was excellent.