If a brother is found to be stubborn, disobedient, proud or a murmurer…
When is enough enough?
As we head towards the middle of the year and, having prayed through the Rule of St. Benedict for 24 weeks, I have begun to ask:
What happens when someone fails to live in accord with others?
We all hold some ideals of behaviour and moral decisions, however loose they are. We are all soon aware, after spending any time with other people, that we all fall short of our own expectations and the expectations of others. It is easy to beat ourselves up over our repetitive failures and disappointments and easy also to point out the faults of others. Even if the ‘law’ does not exist in concrete terms there are always guidelines or expectations within a group of correct ways to behave and when those expectations are not met there is a cry for justice or a lesson to be learnt.
Having reflected a lot on discipline over the last two weeks and how I respond to different forms of it being exercised on me personally, I have found that I appreciate it when people package criticism or complaint within a reminder of deep and real relationship. I wrote two weeks ago about the need to be known; to be in a long term trusting relationship, where character formation can happen. Our deep changes in character cannot be done in a vacuum or in some distant, business-like environment but in deep and loving relationships. I respond to people who have committed to me before they tell me my faults.
It is important not to automatically jump over the first stage of St. Benedict’s guidance to admonition. The Bible suggests if one hurts or causes conflict within the Body of Christ then they should be told, privately, on two occasions. This is harder than many of us are willing to give credit for. To go and tell someone directly and in love, in case of falling into reproof ourselves, is tough and vulnerable. It is easier to gossip and moan behind their back and then gang up with others and expel them… I sadly speak from experience.
The ‘failings’ of a fellow Christian is easier to speak about when the matter is small but we put it off and imagine it will be a one off. Rarely, if at all, are the large indiscretions not preceded by smaller minor offences. There is always that first sign of trouble. Take the story of Cain as an example.
After Cain and Abel take their offering to God and God prefers Abel’s to Cain’s, Cain’s ‘countenance fell’ (Genesis 4:5); he gave up. It was that small thing that shows he had allowed envy and jealousy into his heart. It was this small moment when he gave in to that voice in his head which said,
God loves Abel more than you because you’re… and he’s… It’s not fair.
That small paranoid voice that demands more attention or interprets others actions wrongly is a small seed which can fester and grow. It can quickly escalate into bitterness and anger and then to murder.
The question is when do you say something? When is enough enough?
In my family I was taught it was easier to talk about a small, relatively isolated issue before it embeds within someone’s character/personality and before it gets tightly woven into multiple and varying examples of actions and choices; before everything gets complicated and muddied. I was also taught it was easier to apologies at this stage rather than having to go back over many incidents. If you can acknowledge a problem early on it is easier to manage/‘master’ (Gen 4:7) It’s as God says to Cain,
If you do not do well, sin is lurking at the door; its desire is for you, but you must master it.
Resisting selfish instincts is hard work and to keep watch over them is a full time occupation that is why we are put in communities, into families. The correction, however, must be done with love, which is patient and kind, not envious or boastful, etc. (1 Corinthians 13:4-7) To face wrongly expressed ‘truths’ is often painful and unhelpful in developing in character. What is needed is both grace and truth.
So when is enough enough? I’d say when it is easier to say something gently and patiently rather than when it is out of control and ingrained.
Ministry of Reconciliation
After a year of being an ordained priest I have already had my share of conflict and need for reconciliation. This aspect of priestly ministry has been important in my personal understanding of vocation. The ordinal states,
Formed by the word, they [priests] are to call their hearers to repentance and to declare in Christ’s name the absolution and forgiveness of their sins. (The Ordination of Priests, Common Worship: Ordination Services, The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England: The Prayer Book as Proposed in 1928; The Alternative Service Book 1980; both of which are copyright © The Archbishops’ Council of the Church of England)
To reconcile warring parties is to stand between them and hold them together in peace. This position means that you can become enemy to all sides as you try to mediate between them. Reconciliation is painful but it is to follow Christ in His ultimate work on the cross. Paul writes in Colossians,
For in him [Jesus] all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross. (Colossians 1:19-20)
Over the next six weeks we will be reflecting on judgement, punishment and forgiveness but I want to begin by saying that the severity of punishment of excommunication must be understood and exercised within the complete mercy and grace of God who has reconciled all things in Christ. What that means is that all things are held in their correct place and relationship by Christ. Without this acceptance that God is working out that reconciliation, that bringing together of all things into harmony and right relationship with one another, then excommunication is a further severing of relationship.
Conflict is hard and gut-wrenchingly painful. I have sat through break downs of relationship in churches, in marriages, in families and in businesses. I have been divided within myself as I see two friends or groups that I care for turn their backs on one another and vow never to speak again. I have tried to sit between people and encourage dialogue and peace and I have failed on many occasions. For me, peace and reconciliation can only occur when relationships are deep; deeper than the superficial exchanges we now label ‘relationship’. We, as a society, now settle for second rate relationships and miss out on sustaining and life-giving intimacy because we are afraid of the risk that it takes to enter such a commitment.
Loving Father, Prince of Peace, thank you for being the source of peace. Thank you for the blessed Trinity, community of love and commitment, our epitome of relationship. We are sorry for the times we cut ourselves off from others by our attitude, actions and words. Forgive us and bring us back to your love where we are held and transformed.
Come, Lord Jesus.