Tuesday, February 23, 2010

Lessons in Conflict Management

Years ago my good friend and college room mate, Michael Soenen (then serving as the CEO of FTD Floral Co.) said something to me that I will always remember: "Conflict is not a bad thing. It's how you handle the conflict that is the issue." This is not self-evident, but it is true--in family life, in community life, and in church life. Now, you can "win" a conflict or you can "resolve" a conflict. It takes courage go face-to-face with the principals in a conflict, and you can "win" one that way, but in addition to courage it takes faith and hope and love to resolve a conflict. St. Paul speaks of this love in 1 Corinthians 13:

4 Love is patient and kind; love does not envy or boast; it is not arrogant 5 or rude. It does not insist on its own way; it is not irritable or resentful; 6 it does not rejoice at wrongdoing, but rejoices with the truth. 7 Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. (ESV)

In an earlier post I wrote of the extraordinary trip by two early "fathers" of The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, C.F.W. Walther and F.C.D. Wyneken. I want to return to that briefly today and a lesson from them in love and managing conflict...

I am reading the wonderful "travel reports" by Walther and Wyneken in Rev. Matthew Harrison's At Home in the House of My Fathers: Presidential Sermons, Essays, Letters, and Addresses from the Missouri Synod's Great Era of Unity and Growth (Lutheran Legacy, 2009). I am particularly taken today by the words of Wilhelm Loehe, the Bavarian Pastor who was a key supporter of the nascent German Lutheran Church in America. Loehe had theological "misgivings" about the direction of the early Missouri Synod and those misgivings were breaking out into conflict. To help resolve this the Missourians had invited Loehe to come to America, but there was so much broader church trouble in Germany that Loehe was unable to accept the invitation. In response, a response Loehe recognized as a great act of love and sacrifice, the Missourians sent their leaders, Walther and Wyneken, to Germany. Here is part of Loehe's report on the visit, originally published in his Kirchliche Mittheilungen, no. 10 (1851):

Now that we have seen them [Walther and Wyneken], and pondered that which was said, we may well state that our hope for peace was not in vain. Sometimes during our talks it seemed as if we each started from different bases, but after advancing toward each other for a while, we did come together, and peacefully so. Entirely different circumstances often teach (us) to see, understand, and portray one and the same common truth from different sides. These interpretations then suffer sometimes from a certain one-sidedness. However, if these perspectives, opinions, and explanations are compared to each other, and no passion or peculiarity muddies the view, then the right, all-around, ecumenical comprehension can be agreed upon.Then the voices step out of the opposition of one-sidedness and into harmony, the unity in diversity. (At Home, p.67)
The nascent Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod, in its lay and ordained leadership, showed great courage in sending their leaders to their beloved brothers in Germany. I believe they had courage precisely because they--and the men they were sending--were filled with faith, hope and love. This is a great lesson for each of us, in our families and communities and churches.

Lord, help us to see our own faults, that in times of conflict we may be filled with repentant humility. Send us the Holy Spirit that by your Son's example, in light of His cross-borne forgiveness, we may journey confidently to those brothers and sisters with whom we have conflict. Let us be in these meetings who we are in You, filled with love and bearing the fruit of the Spirit, that we may hear and speak the truth graciously. Amen.

Friday, February 12, 2010

Lincoln, Jackie Robinson, and Some Christian Reflections on Race

It is President Abraham Lincoln's birthday and the kids are out of school. I am in the office early thinking about a wonderful play I saw yesterday and giving thanks for many things...

As a little boy my mother invested in a series of books called Value Tales by Spencer and Ann Donegan Johnson. These children's books teach values such as "determination," "patience," and "courage" by mixing some imaginary play with the true stories of amazing people. Through Value Tales I was introduced, when I was just learning to really read, to Louis Pasteur, Helen Keller, the Wright Brothers, Elizabeth Fry, Chochise, Eleanor Roosevelt, Abraham Lincoln, Charles Dickens, and--most importantly today--Jackie Robinson.

After all these years I have few artifacts from my childhood...but I have a number of the Value Tales, and I am reading them to my children.

The Value of Courage: The Story of Jackie Robinson made a particular impression upon me (I was probably in third grade when I first read it.). Through this book my mother began to teach me about fairness and courage and the evils of racial prejudice. There is so much that most of us adults do not remember from our childhoods, but I remember this book and from the time of its first reading I have had a very visceral, gut-level disdain for racial prejudice...even when I find it in myself.

I grew up in very white communities. This homogeneity often led to simple human xenophobia (fear of foreigners). Over the years I have learned that all types of communities are xenophobic. Country people often have a "fear" of city people, and city people of country people; Mexican communities often have a "fear" of Anglo-Saxon communities and vice-versa; etc., etc. The root of this xenophobia is raw, sinful, pride, and pride--in its essence--is the worship of self, the notion that I am the center of the universe and the rightful judge of all that is right. Every baby of every culture exhibits this; every toddler's little "fit" is an expression of pride. The truth is that as we "mature" we simply learn to veil this pride, which--again--is at its core self-deification: believing one's self to be "god."

So it is that in our basic, human, sinful pride we have within us the implicit judgement that we --and those "like us"--are the proper measure for what a true human being is. Again, this truth is often veiled, but some times it breaks out crassly. I have heard young people of Asian decent make comments that make clear they believe Asians are superior human beings, and I have heard similar things from Americans and Swedes and Malagasi's about others, and from "blacks" and from "whites."

However, the truth that cannot be denied is that there is a much greater biological difference between, for example, those who have detached or attached ear lobes than between those who have lighter or darker skin. (Thanks to Ken Ham and his team at Answers in Genesis for defending this point so powerfully, both in biological and spiritual terms.) Race--the color of one's skin--is, biologically, practically irrelevant. It is simply a matter of infinitesimal difference in a pigment.

My mother didn't teach me this by means of biology, though she could have. She taught me by means of the story of Jackie Robinson.

Yesterday, at Centre-East "Youth Theater" in Skokie, Illinois, the Dallas Children's Theater Touring Company helped me cement this truth about the irrelevance of race to my eldest daughter and the other upper-grade students at St. Philip Lutheran School. They taught by means of wonderful theatrical play about Jackie Robinson's life entitled, "Most Valuable Player." It was thoroughly excellent, well-explained and well-performed. I was not able to greet the actors after the performance--the schools were quickly ushered-out to the busses--but if I had been able I would have given them most hearty thanks and congratulations. I suspect that Most Valuable Player will be for many of the children in that theater what The Value of Courage: The Story of Jackie Robinson was to me. Certainly, I pray that this is the case.

I pray that this is the case because the Holy Scriptures make clear--in spite of the sometimes sordid history of Biblical interpretation--that there are not degrees of humanity. In fact, the Scriptures make clear that there is one human race and that the Kingdom of God is for all. The Lord Jesus made this clear in His ministry to both Jews and Gentiles, and Christ's Church evidenced this when--at its "truest"--it carried the reconciling mission of Christ's forgiveness, literally, around the world, from North Africa to the Far East to Scandinavia to, eventually, the Americas...


I have come to understand that the process that led to my call as Pastor of St. Philip Lutheran Church was controversial. Much of this, as I understand, had little to do with me. Nevertheless, feelings were hurt and people offended. Some have left St. Philip. Many have come back. Many are visiting for the first time. Many are giving St. Philip a second look. All that I know is that when I looked at the row of kids that I escorted to the play yesterday I saw a glimpse of heaven, and the kids around me could not know it, but I was profoundly affected, just like I was when I looked into the classrooms during my call-process visit here in May.

As a little boy in homogeneous white communities I was taught by my mother that race is irrelevant and that anyone who says otherwise is a liar. Later, when--after a long season of rebellion against Christ--I was returned to the Church, Christian friends helped me study the Bible. In the Bible I learned something beyond the biological truth. I learned that God's forgiveness in Christ is for all, regardless of what they looked like. I learned that God rejoices in the repentance of every prideful person, and I learned to hear with joy St. John's account of worship in heaven:

" After this I looked, and behold, a great multitude that no one could number, from every nation, from all tribes and peoples and languages, standing before the throne and before the Lamb, clothed in white robes, with palm branches in their hands, and crying out with a loud voice, “Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!”" (Revelation 7:9-10, ESV)

So, this morning I am thanking God for bringing me here and realizing a dream that was slowly revealed to me: "Lance, you who were taught as a boy the truth that shades of color do not matter, will preach the reconciling Word of Christ to one of the world's most racially diverse neighborhoods."

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for bringing me to St. Philip. Lord, only you can truly bind the wounds of those impacted by sinful pride. Lead us to repentance, to reconciliation, and to the joy that is discovered when people from every tribe and tongue and people and nation worship You as one.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

How Is Christ's Merit Obtained?

Luther was ill and (he believed) near death when he wrote the Smalcald Articles as a summary statement of what he and his fellow believers confessed. It is written almost as a last will and testament. Now, it has been quite a while since I have been in the Smalcald Articles, but as I read again this morning I was struck by the absolute upending of the whole medieval order that is found, just in Part II on "The Mass." Here is the very end of that section:

Christ's mert is obtained not by our works or pennies, but from grace through faith, without money and merit [Ephesians 2:8-9]. It is offered not through the pope's power, but through the preaching of God's Word [1 Corinthians 1:21]
Martin Luther, The Smalcald Articles (1537)
From Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (2nd ed.)
(St. Louis: CPH, 2006), p. 266.

Friday, February 5, 2010

The Blessings of Face-to-Face Communication

I have had the pleasure, in the last few days, of reading the ecclesiastical travel journal of early Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod fathers, C.F.W. Walther and F.C.D. Wyneken. In early 1852 these two men took an early steamship from the U.S. back to the land of their birth for the purpose of mending and, perhaps, improving relations with the "mother" Lutheran churches of Germany.

The United States was truly a frontier mission field at the time, "uncivilized" and with a national ethos of church and state distinction that was not imaginable to those who had not lived under it. The fledgling church now known as The Lutheran Church--Missouri Synod had to theologize and organize itself independently from the government, an almost incomprehensible concept for those on the Continent. As this happened some of the theological formulations befuddled and alarmed many continental churchmen. A "wedge" began to appear between the mother and her daughter churches.

In response to this the people of the frontier daughter church (LC-MS), after much less-than-fruitful correspondence, purposed to repair the breach by sending two of their most able churchmen, Walther and Wyneken, to speak directly to pastors and congregations in the homeland.

Regrettably, my German is infantile, so much of this very important history was inaccessible to me until recently, when a current LC-MS churchman, Rev. Matthew Harrison, published At Home in the House of My Fathers, a collection of, as his subtitle reads, "presidential sermons, essays, letters, and addresses from the Missouri Synod's great era of unity and growth."

The accounts to which I have alluded come from the early pages of At Home, and I am struck as I read Walther and Wyneken's travel report by how critically important face-to-face contact is, perhaps especially in conflict situations. The reports suggest that upon physically meeting and conversing with church leaders these early LC-MS leaders were able to better explain the nature of their context and confession of faith, all of which were misunderstood by many in Germany. These men knew--and their church (the LC-MS) knew--what much modern communication theory has "proven": real "communication" is primarily non-verbal. How we say something is an important indicator of what we say. What in print is easily misinterpreted is, in person, more readily understood.

Perhaps I will return to this subject again soon, but the implications of these truths about face-to-face contact redound in all areas of life.

P.S. At Home in the House of My Fathers is published by Lutheran Legacy. Here's the link to their site: http://www.lutheranlegacy.org/.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

Treasures in The Treasury

I'm really looking forward to the next series of readings in Concordia Publishing House's wonderful devotional resource, The Treasury of Daily Prayer. (Find it at www.cph.org)

The readings for February fourth are:

1. Ps 127
2. Job 1.1-22
3. Jn 1.1-18
4. The Smalcald Articles, I and II.I

The Treasury is a wonderful resource for Lutherans; indeed, for all Christians. To my non-Lutheran friends I highly recommend another recent CPH resource, a new "reader's edition" of the collection of Lutheran confessional writings commonly called The Book of Concord (The Smalcald Articles are found herein.). The new "reader's edition," formally entitled Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions, is full of explanations, charts, woodcuts, etc. that help the reader understand the context. As we approach the 500th anniversary of The Reformation in 2017, and the wider interest in Luther that this anniversary will provoke, Concordia: The Lutheran Confessions (2nd ed) will prove to be a tremendous ecumenical resource.

Three cheers to CPH for making these wonderful new English resources available!!!