If there is one most difficult thing spiritual leaders have to contend with it is working through the prickly tensions of disagreement and even conflict. As uncomfortable as it is spiritual leadership demands/requires we be peace makers.
The opposite of destructive conflict is not the cessation of hostilities, nor is it peace. The opposite of conflict is unity; a sense of oneness in spite of differences and even the tension often surrounding those differences. This applies to civilizations, nations, organizations, communities and families. In order to better understand unity I think we need to look at three states of relationship and two critical questions.
Three States When two or more humans gather together we are in one of three states--neutral disinterestedness, negative conflict or unity. What frustrates me is that so often in my life I find the environment and context of a relationship defining the state rather than me seizing the initiative. If you were asked which of the three states would be the worst to experience your first answer, if you’re like me, would be the uncomfortable state of negative conflict. But when you think about it, perhaps the worst state is not negative conflict but rather neutral disinterestedness. I’m waiting in line at the grocery store and a family with three small children is in front of me. The kids aren’t noisy or whiny. The mother isn’t preoccupied with a cell phone conversation so loud you’d think she was talking on two tin cans and a string. They are in a neutral state as far as I’m concerned and so, for all intents and purposes, to me they don’t exist—says the guy who truly believes because of Christ within me I possess the power of God to bless them! If only I could continually keep it in my consciousness that it’s about unity, stupid. If the kids were irritating me at least I couldn’t have ignored them and possibly raised my spiritual consciousness to pray for them. Neutral disinterestedness. A deadly state to find ourselves in. So, that takes care of neutral disinterestedness and negative conflict but what about unity?
Critical Questions As creatures of community, any time we are in any form of relationship (including standing in lines) we need to ask a critical question. “What is the glue holding us—all of us--together?” Glue in our world is far more ubiquitous than we may realize. Glue is what keeps everything together. Literally everything. For your science lecture today, just know that glue is simply an attractive force between two material bodies so that everything from mending a broken plate to keeping the molecules holding your wooden chair up all operate on the same principle of glue.
To make this science lecture bearable, you just need to know there are two types of glue --adhesion glue and cohesion glue. Adhesion glue takes objects and binds them together with some sticky substance or something that infiltrates the broken pieces and then hardens, binding the broken pieces together. Duct tape and super glue are some of our more common examples. Cohesion glue is different. It uses attraction properties at a molecular level to hold things together. Magnetism is a form of cohesion as we see with iron. As water forms above the rim of a completely full glass we see the cohesion property of surface tension. Molecular and atomic level properties form bonds of attraction that are difficult to break. For example, only after heating water to 212oF do the cohesion bonds holding water molecules together start to break up forming steam. In another example, breaking the cohesive glue of a uranium atom creates not only the release of a tremendous amount of energy (fission) but that energy release causes other cohesive bonds to come apart as well creating a nuclear chain reaction. A diamond is hard because the strong cohesion bonds hold the carbon atoms together. Just as an aside, another aspect of cohesion is friction. Friction occurs when two surfaces with strong cohesion properties rub against each other. As the cohesion bond of the surface breaks down heat results from the release of the bonding energy.
One other item used in glue completes our science lecture. The strongest glues use a catalyst or an activating agent. Without the catalyst they are inert. I’m always amazed when I go to my dentist to experience the variety of glues available. Almost all of them require a catalyst-–UV light, water or some mysterious compound. A catalyst is basically an agent that lowers the energy required for a reaction to take place and is not consumed in the process.
So much for the science lecture but the metaphor is beginning to form, isn’t it? We know from physics that every entity of mass exerts a gravitational pull on every other object around it. The bigger the object, the greater the force of gravitation. Likewise, every relational unit has an attractional bonding force as well. When people first come together there is the opportunity for adhesion and most of us do stick together in one way or another. We may need each other due to our broken state. For others the need is to experience completeness, or safety or the enjoyment of complimentary personalities and diverse experiences. But adhesion bonds aren’t always strong. No matter how well the adhesion has put things together, it’s still not completely like it was before everything shattered.
A while ago I illustrated this point at our small group gathering as we were talking about forgiveness. I first showed a coffee mug that had been shattered and then duct taped together. I could have used a glue gun or super glue, but being the guy I am, I chose duct tape to put it back together—sort of. The big question was, “who broke the cup in the first place?” The obvious answer--blame it on Adam and Eve. They shattered the original complete vessel.
My next question was, “What is the nature of the glue then that binds back together this cup Adam and Eve broke?” The answer is forgiveness. Now, in other illustrations and examples the adhesive glue could have been any number of other abstract concepts such as integrity, excellence, trust, gratitude, fear, duty, distrust, security or insecurity. But for this illustration it was forgiveness and the “big story” behind the illustration was that forgiveness is adhesive glue that can make broken objects whole again. The problem is that as we look at the mended mug there are still cracks and missing pieces. Some are so shattered they can never be put back, no matter how much adhesive glue you have because forgiveness does not mean the same as excusing, forgetting or even reconciling the friendship. Or in God’s case, reconciling the relationship. Something more is needed for that. An even stronger glue. Whoa! Watch out. This is dangerous ground I’m treading on. What could be more powerful than forgiveness? This is not to diminish the absolutely essential property of forgiveness but is there something more? If we want this cup to hold coffee just as if it had never been shattered what we need is cohesion glue. What is needed is a kind of binding force that not only puts broken pieces back in place but also reforms the brokenness to a state as if it had never been broken at all. The cohesion glue, in my small group illustration was grace. The adhesion glue of forgiveness makes the container whole. The cohesion glue of grace makes the container complete. I think many times in our Christian walk we view forgiveness as an end, when in fact, it is a means to an end.
There was a particular reason why I chose a coffee mug for my illustration. I thought about using a mirror and how when its shattered we have a distorted view of ourselves but about as quickly as I thought about it I knew it was the wrong object to use. Too often we make forgiveness about us. We even interpret Jesus’ words,
“And when you stand praying, if you hold anything against anyone, forgive him, so that your Father in heaven may forgive you your sins.” (Mark 11:25),
to be about how awful it would be for ME to be unforgiven, as if that’s the motive behind forgiving others.
I don’t read it that way. In my theology forgiveness is not an end to itself. Even being unforgiven by God for my own lack of forgiveness, as awful a thought as that might be, is still not the pure motivation for forgiveness. Forgiveness is a restorative tool. But a tool doesn’t need to be used unless something has been broken or needs repair or to be built from the ground up. As a tool, forgiveness makes the cup whole again. But even the best adhesive glue cannot erase the cracks and lines giving evidence to the fact that once it was broken. And while the vessel has now been made whole it is still not the same as before. It may leak, the adhesive bonds may weaken and it may not be able to hold contents. In order to be completely useful this cup needs cohesive glue. The cohesive glue that makes my cup not only whole but completely restored, just as if it had never been broken in the first place, is grace. Grace restores the vessel to its original condition. While forgiveness is an action tool of restoration, grace is an attitude of justification. With forgiveness I am grateful that the shattered pieces have been gathered up and put back in their proper place. Now with grace I can look on that cup and truly know the brokenness is no longer an issue because what I now see is not only whole it is just as if it had never been broken in the first place.
I don’t know about you but there have been times when I haven’t been successful in sticking broken relationships back together let alone believing that some incredible cohesion process could reform the shattered pieces into a functioning cup. I forgot the catalytic work of the Holy Spirit. I’m not patient enough, kind enough or compassionate enough to mend broken pieces on my own. I need the Catalyst to be a part of the mending process from the beginning. He was there in the package but sometimes I still forget to read the directions. “Note to user. Be sure and mix in the catalyst BEFORE you attempt to mend. We are not responsible for the results if you don’t follow these directions.”
With this illustration however a lot of real world “yah buts” come up. If somebody accidently hurts you, extending an attitude of grace is usually easy. But what if the offending person doesn’t want to forgive you? Where’s the reconciliation and restoration in that? What if the offended person doesn’t want to ask for forgiveness? The world is full of buts, but all the buts in the world cannot explain away or excuse a Kingdom principle and I really believe we are talking about a Kingdom principle at work here. Here’s a big but. But what if that person, drunk and driving, killed your child? What does forgiveness and grace look like then? We’ve seen those intense dramas on the evening news. During the sentencing hearing the victim’s family gets to address the violator. To me, what’s even more emotional than the steely-eyed unrepentant guilty prisoner is the family member who tearfully declares, “And I cannot and will not ever forgive you for what you’ve done.” I hope at the deepest level that those would not be my words if I ever found myself in that position. So, what’s the alternative? Do you invite the murderer over for Thanksgiving once he gets out of prison? Or maybe you go visit him in prison and tell him again and again that you’ve forgiven him? Perhaps. And then there’s grace. Where does it come into the monstrously ugly tragedies of life? Unlike forgiveness, grace is an attitude not a tool. And it’s working out is not always as clear as the simple steps of forgiveness. I don’t know that I really know that much about grace. All I do know is that had I not been mystified by an incomprehensible act of grace I may not have been able to write this article.
I was 24, a God-knower, but certainly not a believer. I was newly appointed to the position of Executive Secretary of the State Board of Pharmacy and the Chief Inspector had taken me out to show me how pharmacy inspections were done. We went to a small, truly “Ma and Pa” pharmacy in an older neighborhood of Seattle. We had a nice conversation with the pharmacist and I couldn’t help but notice he wore a patch over one eye. It was the day before Thanksgiving and the pharmacist was going to close early. I asked if he was going to have family over. He said no, that he and his wife were going to the state penitentiary at Monroe to share their Thanksgiving meal. He then went on to tell me the man they have been breaking bread with for the past number of years had visited their pharmacy at one time. The man had entered the small drug store, pushed a gun into his face, demanded money and narcotics and as he was leaving turned and fired a warning shot back into the store. The bullet hit the pharmacist in the head exiting through his eye socket destroying his left eye.
The pharmacist could probably see my perplexed look. I truly missed something in the conversation. The man who tried to kill you is the same man you now visit? Without a lengthy explanation he simply said, “We are Christians. We have no choice but to forgive him and give him grace.” As a non believer that made no sense to me. There was even a part of me that almost wanted to mock him for his naiveté but I couldn’t get out of my mind what he said and did and continued to do. I had no concept of forgiveness beyond, “I’m sorry.” Grace was my mother’s name and that was the extent of all I knew about that word. Yet I couldn’t get his act and attitude out of my mind. It haunted me. I couldn’t get my head around it. In less than a year I gave my life to Christ knowing whatever he had, I didn’t have and I knew whatever “it” was it only came through the still mysterious love of Jesus Christ.
“Holy Father, protect them by the power of your name—the name you gave me—so that they may be one as we are one.”
One final question. If forgiveness and grace are the glues that bind the vessel together, and the Holy Spirit is the catalytic agent, what is the unifying principle making this metaphor work? If the adhesive glue of forgiveness and the cohesive glue of grace are the means by which we get to the ultimate end, what is the end; the unifying principle? I believe it can be found in the words of Jesus on the Mount of Olives in his passionate prayer to his heavenly Father.
John 17:11(b) [emphasis added]
The coffee mug represents a vessel but it is not a vessel of oneness, it is a vessel of unity. Forgiveness is the glue of brokenness. Grace is the glue of restoration so that we may be one as he and we and the Father are one.