Being in relationships with other humans is hard. We each have our own way of doing things: Our own way of living life, of driving, of cleaning the house, we have our favorite hymns and prayers. We each have our own beliefs about the way we think the family or the church or the world should be run, or how we think we should talk to each other. We each want to believe that our way is the right way and we expect others to feel the same … that our way is the right way.
Being in relationships – romantic relationships, family relationships, church relationships – being in any relationship is not easy. It takes a lot of work and it’s impossible to avoid disagreements. Many of our disagreements with others often come when our expectations are different from the other party’s.
Let me give you an example from my own marriage. First, let me say: I love naps. Taking a nice snooze in the afternoon has always been one of my favorite pastimes. And since I’ve gotten into the ministry, let me tell you, there is nothing like a preacher’s Sunday afternoon nap.
My naps usually happen on the couch in the living room…while the rest of the family is going about their day. Years ago this came close to causing some disagreements with my wife. She would …suggest that I go upstairs to the bedroom to take a nap but I wanted to stay where I was. I didn’t understand why it made her angry and I felt defensive. I wondered if she felt I wasn’t working hard enough around the house or that I was somehow falling short of what I was supposed to be doing. It never really turned into a full blown argument but it always seemed to be just on the edge. Eventually, I asked her why it bothered her so much.
Rachel explained that she wasn’t angry. In fact, she was worried about my anger. She thought that I would be upset and blame her if our children woke me up by making noise. Because we took the time to talk about it, I was able to explain to her that wasn’t the case at all. I fully recognized that my napping on the couch didn’t mean the rest of the family had to be quiet. I chose to stay on the couch because I wanted to be around them, even I was sleeping. It was fine with me if they woke me up.
Rachel thought my expectation was that she would keep the children silent. I thought her expectation was that I wouldn’t nap and do more around the house. Once we were able to speak openly and honestly about what we really expected, we were able to come to a place of agreement. Now, I nap on the couch, she doesn’t worry about the children … and they usually wake me up.
Conflict and disagreements often seem scary and disruptive but they are normal and can be productive – when handled in a healthy way. God gave us each great gifts of intellect and free will and we each have our own points of view. God’s call for us is a great puzzle and I believe that we each have a piece of that puzzle. It’s only through conversation with each other about our differing points of view that we are able to begin to figure out how God is calling us to grow the peaceable kingdom of heaven on Earth.
When we gather as a church, we come together in a unique relationship. I believe that being a church is called to be different from any other organization. As a church community, we go deeper in our relationship, working together to create a community that lives out God’s love for the world. We don’t just worry about being productive or how much money we make, we try to be a church where all people can feel welcome and where we can work together to explore our understanding of and our relationship with God.
But we’re trying to do this with other human beings with their own free will and ideas. And that can be difficult. There will be disagreements. Humans have disagreed since the beginning of time. Peter and Paul, the subjects of our two scripture readings today, two of the earliest followers of Jesus, disagreed and argued with each other, but both the readings show how they understood the importance of accepting differences and working together.
In the reading from Acts, Peter, a devout Jew who followed kosher laws, has a vision in which God shows him that there are other ways. When he awakes and meets Cornelius, a Roman centurion, Peter says “It is clear to me now that God plays no favorites, that God accepts every person whatever his or her culture or ethnic background,”
Paul, writing to a church that he founded in Philippi, reminds the church members of the importance of working together. He tells them to reflect a true companionship with the Holy Spirit by seeking the same purpose, embracing humility and working for the greater good of the community.
Our world today seems to thrive on unhealthy disagreement and conflict. Our politicians seem to value conflict over compromise. The 24 hour news cycle is filled with talking heads paid to argue and yell at each other, attempting to win by getting louder. The comments sections all over the internet are filled with name calling and bullying. The merits of the debate no longer matter. There is no effort to try and understand the other side of the story.
As God’s church, we strive to do better. Each week, we recite the Covenant of Memorial Congregational Church, recognizing that we are each free people but making a sacred promise to each other and God to walk together, trying to live life truthfully, in the Spirit of Jesus, serving our neighbors and always remaining open to new ways of experiencing and hearing God’s call.
We strive to do better and yet we still disagree. And that’s okay. We’ve each been given free will to have our own thoughts. We gather together as a church in the name of Jesus Christ and our conversations can and should continue to help us find better ways to worship God and serve humanity.
However, when we have unspoken and unresolved expectations of each other, we may be unable to ever get to the true heart of our discussion. If we can’t speak openly and honestly because we’re worried or angry or afraid, we can’t prayerfully discern God’s call for us.
During Lent, I invited anyone who was interested to join a discussion about creating a Behavioral Covenant – a new set of promises that we can make to each other when we come together to talk about our relationship with each other. Six individuals joined me and, over a period of weeks, we spoke about the healthy and unhealthy ways we’ve observed conflicts being handled at MCC and about some of the norms – the unspoken rules and ideas – that exist in our community. We also looked behavioral covenants from other churches.
In your bulletin you’ll find the result of many hours of discussion and prayer. As our focus was on how we can be respectful to each other, it was decided to call the document the Covenant of Respect.
As you’ll see, this covenant is rooted in scripture. It’s not a set of rules, but a series of promises that we can make to each other before committee meetings or even in personal conversations. It’s not just for times when we worry about conflict but I believe it can be especially helpful during such times.
The purpose of the Covenant of Respect is to name our expectations; to lay out how we plan to interact and how we hope others will interact with us. This isn’t a list of rules or a specific procedure about how to solve a conflict, but we hope that these promises will set a foundation for a conversation based in love, recognizing that each party has the best intentions of God’s church in mind, and giving space for different ideas.
I’d like to read through the Covenant of Respect. Please follow along.
COVENANT OF RESPECT
“Love your neighbor as you love yourself” – Matthew 22:39
As we walk together in all God’s ways made known or to be made known to us, we seek to discern and do what is best for our church as a whole, not what may be best for individuals or factions (Philippians 2:4). We recognize that conflict and disagreement are normal and natural. We welcome a wide variety of voices and ideas when they are expressed in a way that reflects God’s love. As followers of Jesus Christ we promise to respect each other at all times in the following ways:
- We will approach all things in prayer. (1 Thessalonians 5:17)
- We will speak from our own personal experience. (1 Corinthians 3:16)
- We will speak face-to-face, honestly and without rancor when there is disagreement.(Ephesians 4:15)
- We will listen with an open and non-judgmental mind and try as hard to understand as to be understood. (Proverbs 4:7)
- If we are unable to effectively communicate with each other, we will ask a third party to be present to assist us. (Matthew 18:16)
- We will support the final outcome of the decision-making process. (1 Corinthians 1:10)
- As forgiven people, we will choose to forgive one another. (Luke 11:4)
In the spirit of Jesus, and with God’s help, we will show respect and love in all we do as we journey together.
I hope that you’ll see the love and prayer put into this document. The team that put it together took their responsibility very seriously. It’s been shown to the Church Council and other committee members and a proposal to include it as a resolution in our bylaw will be one of the warrant items at our Annual Meeting on May 17.
Being in relationship with other humans is difficult. But it gets easier when we can speak open and honestly and in love to each other about what we are thinking and expecting. Once Rachel and I talked about our expectations about my naps, the disagreements were avoided. Now my wife expects that I’ll fall asleep, I expect the children to wake me up, and my family expects that I won’t talk about them in my meditations…oops.
Being in relationship with other humans can be difficult. But when we take the time to be clear about our expectations, when we take the time to promise to speak and to listen in love, when we take the time to be Christ’s church together, our relationships can grow stronger and we can open our hearts to hear God’s call for our community.
May God be with us on our journey.