The Table of Reconciliation

Mt. 5:24


I’m back to watching two and three year olds share toys. My grandson John John is barely done being the adorable baby, just one and change, can only say a few words. And already he has those darting eyes that check left and check right to see if anyone sees them. The quick snatch of his older sisters favorite toy, the fleet feet into the living room, the shrieking cry of injustice that has been perpetrated, the clutching sense of ownership by the thief, the stammering explanations of what just happened. Two sobbing children at your knee.

Most everything you need to know to work at the State Department you can learn right here. Most everything you need to know to understand human nature, you can learn right here. And there are weeks in my Adult life when I feel like I’ve  really done is spend most of my time, in truth, getting people to share their toys and play together cooperatively. Do you have weeks like that? I bet you do.

St. Paul taught us to think of the Eucharist as a table of reconciliation. Jesus said, “Take, eat… do this in remembrance of me”. What we are remembering is that the Christ brings reconciliation between us and God, between neighbor and neighbor. One of the fundamental markers of Christians, Paul said, is that they are “Ambassadors of Reconciliation”.

And on our best days that is true. When Christianity came to the British Isles, almost literally from the very beginning (one of Paul’s disciples came to Ireland before 200), they started a monastery on the Island of Iona, off the western coast of Scotland, in between Scotland and Ireland. The place was significant. The Druids had used it before Christianity came to the area. The Druids were priests in the ancient Celtic religion. Sometimes depicted as Wizards in popular folklore, like Merlin the Wizard in the Tale of King Arthur. They used Iona as a place to make peace between the warring Celtic Clans.

The Christian missionaries wanted to communicate that their religion was a religion of reconciliation, so they started a monastery at Iona, from the very beginning. By the way, a lot of our liturgy at Christ Church comes from the community at Iona.

Early on, the Christians were also very effective at reconciliation in a rather admirable way. The Irish actually brought Christianity to the English which required quite a spiritual leap at the time. Way back then, the English were continually at war with the Irish, destroying their villages, and routinely enslaving the Irish that they captured in battle. For the Irish to make a humane gesture towards an enemy like this in any way required an incredible leap of spiritual imagination, probably more difficult than a member of Hamas reaching out to an Israeli settler in the West Bank…

But St. Aidan reached to the family of one of the English kings, the beasts, the enemies and eventually gained their support and he opened a school and a monastery on the island of Lindisfarne, in the north of England, just off the eastern coast. The year was 650.  You can walk to the island at low tide but you don’t want to time that wrong. It is also a place that is basically cut off an it became a place of refuge, a place where people came to broker peace between two disgruntled parties, two disgruntled clans that had let a feud get out of hand.

On our best days, that is what we were, people of reconciliation. Got a dispute, I know who can help solve that… Call a Christian.

That is literally the meaning of the word ‘sanctuary’. It literally means a place of refuge, a place of protection, safety, where reconciliation can happen.

It is a small miracle that happens every time we gather around the table together. Here, as I’ve shared before, I really felt it one week when we had two candidates running for office against each other, just before the election, competitors all week, but as we approach the table of reconciliation, we transcend our competitiveness, as we stand shoulder to shoulder in human solidarity as pilgrims. We come here in our hunger and our need.

It is true for all of us. 6 days a week, we compete with each other as hard as we can in the marketplace, and on the 7th day, we transcend our competitive differences in reconciliation around a table where grace is broken and passed one to another.

We have to have both for balance in our lives. I was interested to read this summer that intellectuals believe this virtue is likely to grow in our life time.

Robert Wright, the philosophy professor at Princeton, wrote a book a decade ago entitled “Non-Zero Sum” in which sets out the modest ambition of explaining “the logic of human destiny”. Yet again, modesty eludes a Princeton Professor.

The book is a broad brush look at why our societies evolve into an ever more complex and differentiated social world. That is our destiny, to become ever more complex and differentiated.

He points out that all advanced societies are advanced precisely because they utilize competition to produce social cooperation that benefits all of us. This past decade, our Airlines have been merging for competitive advantage, Southwest has bought AirTran, Delta bought Northwest, American Airlines bought U.S. Air, United merged with Continental.

He points out that the external competition between these corporations is matched by an internal ethic of cooperation within each corporation. The corporations that are able to work as a team internally, where everyone gets enough benefit that they have ownership and are self-motivated to give their best and win together, these are the corporations that actually win.

What we are doing is harnessing competition in socially beneficial ways, so that not only are the families of the employees are taken care of financially, but all of us are able to travel cheaper, faster, and in comfort… Maybe THE AIRLINES ARE NOT THE BEST EXAMPLE TO USE: since they’ve gotten more expensive, more cramped every flight, with more delays than ever…

There are negative trends but viewed with the lens on wide angle, they don’t last very long. The least efficient get relegated to the dust bin of cultural evolution. What you see over and over is the eventual triumph of those complex societies that leverage the social surplus that comes from us working together in coordinated fashion.

Witness the fantastic power of the internet. Our collective, coordinated gathering of information puts an array of knowledge at the hands of a 3rd grader that would have taken a Ph.D student a month to collect when I was writing my dissertation. We have this tremendous collective power which has always been the source of our strength as a species.

Like a lot of thinkers today, Professor Wright believes that we are at the front end of a fairly dramatic time of complexity socially. Like a lot of thinkers today, he can’t quite articulate what that is because we have never been at this place of concentrated human development before.

One thing that is clear, the virtue of reconciliation will become prominent in the near-term. It is a function of having more and more reciprocal relationships and being more and more interdependent around the world. From the ease that we connect with people around a single interest to the breadth of our international markets, we are becoming global citizens of one earth rapidly. I love those articles in “The Economist” that detail how a pension fund that tanked in California ends up having dramatic implications for a small village in the Ukraine.

His point is that as this world converges in interdependence, people that can be reconcilers will be valued more because war has more and more collateral damage. We will continue to have wars but the societies that will succeed will figure out how to evolve into reconciling communities, where leaders understand how to involve people meaningfully so that they own the challenges and the solutions, and they can build consensus. His argument is not that this should be but that it simply will be, speaking as a cultural evolutionist, trying to understand how societies evolve.

Churches he predicts, will play a bigger role in the future? Why? Because we form people around the values of reconciliation… that will be the value of spirituality in the future, to produce a community of leaders who know how to become reconcilers.

In another stack, I’m reading books on marriage, how to be a great spouse to live a meaningful life, day in and day out… Long story short? Try becoming a person that is fundamentally oriented around reconciliation. Become a child that can share your toys and get along with those around you. As someone observed about marriage, it is not ‘marrying the right partner’, it is learning to be the right partner.

John Gottman, the expert on marriage at the moment, can predict couples that will get a divorce with 91% accuracy after studying some 20,000 couples over 25 years. He’ll be the first to tell you, it is not rocket science. They just made detailed notes watching couples spend a weekend together. Over time, he figured out that how you argue as a couple is fairly critical, particularly since what he also noticed is that most of the things we actually argue about as couples are not reconcilable. The chances are that the argument you had with your spouse 6 months ago, you also had with them 10 years ago, and you will have it again twenty years in the future. 2/3’s of our arguments are over things that are essentially not resolvable. Like what?

1.      “Meg wants to have a baby, but Donald says he’s not ready yet- and is not sure if he ever will be.

2.      Walter wants to have sex more often than Dana

3.      Chris is lax about housework and rarely does his share of the chores until Susan nags him, which makes him angry.

4.      Tony wants to raise the kids Catholic. Jessica is Jewish and doesn’t know what she wants but “Catholic” is not even on the short list.

5.      Angie thinks Ron is too critical of their son. But Ron thinks he has the right approach: Their son has to be taught the right way to do things, he says.”[i]

These are irreconcilable because they represent fundamental differences in your personalities. You are essentially asking your spouse to change something in themselves that is fundamentally who they are. So these annoyances come up again and again and again. And they account for exactly 69% of our arguments in case you were curious.

So how do you get along? Good question.

It is actually easier to answer the question how don’t you get along? We can chart that and you can turn on almost any episode of Reality TV and watch people act it out.

Professor Gottman just looks for four things. He calls them the 4 Horsemen of the Apocalypse because, like the 4 Horsemen from the Book of Revelation, when they show up together, bad stuff happens. Here is what they are:

1.      Criticism- We can have complaints about specific issues like “I’m really angry that you just left the dishes and went to play golf”… Criticism takes it a step further like “You are such a slob, what is wrong with you?” or “You never fill the car up with gas”.

2.      Contempt- You don’t stop at the criticizing; instead you add “sarcasm, name calling, eye rolling, sneering, mockery or hostile humor.”[ii] You have a well of “long-simmering negative thoughts about your partner. You introduce a couple of phrases, never helpful, “You always” and “You never”…

3.      These attacks produce, no great surprise, Defensiveness. Your partner, if you’ve noticed, can’t or won’t actually apologize under these conditions, so it doesn’t produce the desired effect, so to speak. Instead, they either argue the case… (‘that’s not true, I picked up the whole kitchen yesterday’) or they counter attack defensively, (“if you really cared about order, maybe you’d clean out your car once in a while”) Defensiveness is punctuated by a lot of sophisticated body language (you speak slowly, you pepper with questions to make your spouse squirm) to counterattack…

4.      You stonewall. One or both of you feel flooded with anger. You either get up and leave or what a lot of men do is just turn on the Giants game and tune out. Physically or spiritually, you are in separate space. [AA- or drink slowly]

Most of the time, these arguments start harshly. Someone barges in, so to speak, and it takes off like a rocket. Turns out that most of our engagements end the way they start as humans. If you blow in and blow off, your spouse will blow out.

If this cycle is left un-checked… If you find yourselves falling into this routinely. Professor Gottman says that some relationships get caught in a holding tank, where it is easy for them to enter into this negative space and neither partner seems to be able to get them out of it. And you don’t do anything about it, people in these relationships eventually become lonely in their separate spaces and they do something about that loneliness.

If you are just a little anxious right now, I have some good news. Usually, Professor Gottman, says this is a toxic brew and will do couples in. However, you can actually periodically engage in several of these toxic behaviors as long as… you are really good at ‘repair attempts’, the technical term at the moment.

Can you apply the brakes before this car hits the guard rail? Can you calm yourself down? Can you soothe your spouse? Can you change the subject to remind each other of what you have in common that you value together? Can you let your spouse know that you have absorbed their frustration, even if you don’t accept the way that it was delivered? Can you work through a process in communication, so that if it is not completely resolvable, both of you can learn to steer around it? Can you be…. a reconciling person? That is really the key.

That is why we come to the Table of Reconciliation. We really want to become reconciling people. We don’t want to live in isolation from each other or from God. We want to improve here. We want to grow.

On our best days, we want to be loving, empathetic, and to share each other’s burdens. We come together with all of the prayer requests, shoulder to shoulder, and that takes away some of the loneliness that we have with grief, which can be so isolating in a completely different way than anger.

We want to be better at this. We really want it. The truth is, we are hungry for it. We are thirsty for it. We want to get this right. We want to love and we want to be loveable. We need to turn again to our higher selves. And some of us need to get really creative about how to break through an impasse and love our spouses or our close friends more meaningfully.

So we come to the table. We join, in this hour, with millions of people up and down our time zone, and with tens of millions during the course of this day that will stand around the table for healing, hearing the same words now spoken every week for 104,740 some odd Sundays, “Take, Eat… Do this in Remembrance of me”. Reconciliation… It is that important. Amen.
[i] Gottman, John and Nan Silver. “The Seven Principles for Making Marriage Work (London: Orion House, 2007), pl. 130.

[ii] Ibid. p. 31.