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From Conflict to Blessings

This lecture was presented by Rev. Kathy Smith at the January 2015 Calvin Symposium on Worship at Calvin College, in Grand Rapids, Michigan, as part of a plenary session titled “Public Worship and the Many Layers of Gospel-Shaped Reconciliation.”

How can worship lead us to a deeper unity in Christ in spite of our differences, and how can it be a means of healing and hope?

I’ll begin with a story of a church I visited in October 2014. St. Cyprian’s is a small Episcopal church in Oxford, North Carolina. This town was torn by racial conflict back in 1970 over the killing of a black man and the acquittal of the white men accused of his murder.

In the face of rioting and division in their town, St. Cyprian’s—an African-American congregation—and St. Stephen’s—an Anglo congregation—came together, officially yoking themselves as two churches sharing one priest, worshiping and sharing meals together regularly. In those days of segregation in the U.S., they embodied the gospel of reconciliation in their town. A church elder who was a teenager back then said to me, “I was so proud to be an Episcopalian.”

Today St. Cyprian’s is still embodying the gospel of reconciliation and bringing people together—but in new ways. On a typical Sunday, 40% of the people in worship are African-American, 10% are Anglo, and 50% are Hispanics who have moved into the area and have been welcomed into St. Cyprian’s. The church’s leadership and its worship have become bilingual in response—in fact, St. Cyprian’s has a 2014 Vital Worship Grant from the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship to develop their bilingual worship practices.

In reflecting on their church’s multiracial worship, elder Vickie said, “It doesn’t have to be all African-American to me. My thing is, I like flavor. I like to see different people. I like to see God’s folk, and I can’t see God’s folk in just my folk all the time. I need to see God in everybody. So whether it’s white, black, Mexican, Latin, or Asian, bring it, honey. Bring it on. We won’t ever lose our heritage. We are who we are. We are St. Cyprian’s.”

St. Cyprian’s is breaking down the walls of division, reflecting Ephesians 2, and living into the gospel of reconciliation. The stand they took for unity and justice in 1970 lives on in their worship practices today.

Now, that’s not to say it was or is easy all the time. Changes are difficult. Reconciliation between people and groups is hard work, even when the Holy Spirit is blowing through the congregation. And that’s true for every church.

Blood Done Sign My Name

Blood Done Sign My Name is an autobiographical work of history written by Timothy B. Tyson about the 1970 killing of Henry Marrow and the subsequent unrest in Oxford, North Carolina. It was made into a film in 2010. While some say there were not any lessons learned, St. Cyprian’s stands out as a light of Christ in the community.

We Need Each Other

Every church goes through conflicts and difficulties, ups and downs. Every church has to decide whether to focus on its members or the people it hopes to reach or, if they choose a third way, on setting aside “us and them” language and simply focusing on welcoming and caring for all.

In every church, some level of disagreement, even conflict, is going to happen at some time, and that’s normal. The church is like any other group of people, but the church is also a unique group of people—which makes dealing with conflicts both more difficult and more hopeful.

The difficult part is that as a church we are called by God to love one another, and sometimes that makes us hesitant to face differences and work out our conflict in healthy ways. Sometimes we pretend the differences aren’t there and sweep them under the rug. But what’s swept under the rug has an annoying tendency to creep back out, and then we have trouble! Conflicts avoided usually resurface and blow up. Flight turns into fight.

But the church also has within its very identity the solution to this problem. The church is not just any organization of people—it is the body of Christ! Christ is present in his church! And while Christ’s body has many parts that are different, those parts are created to work together.

Each member and each congregation is given particular gifts for the journey by the Holy Spirit. Embracing that reality will help us work together toward the same goal in spite of our differences.

You may have heard of the African concept of ubuntu—the belief that “I am because you are.” As Archbishop Desmond Tutu put it, “The solitary human being is a contradiction in terms. I need you in order to be me, as you need me in order to be you. We are caught up in a delicate network of interconnectedness. I have gifts that you don’t, and you have gifts that I don’t—voila! We are made different so that we may know our need of one another” (from an address at the University of Toronto’s Convocation Hall, February 16, 2000 © 2000 by Desmond Tutu, used with permission, all rights reserved).

When we recognize that we are one in Christ in spite of diversity of races and languages and views, we are able to work through those differences in more healthy ways. We don’t do this in our own power, but in the power of Christ who is present with us. And Christ brings us into contact with the triune God, who perfectly shows us what it means to live in community.

We can do it, through the love of God. The same love that brought reconciliation through churches in a small town in North Carolina is implanted in us through Christ and nurtured by the Holy Spirit. That love will bring healing where there’s been harm.

Reconciliation in Worship

So then, how do we deal with this in worship? Worship is going to be affected by any crisis or conflict in the church. How can worship be the place where healing begins and continues? There are several steps.

1. Don’t ignore the conflict
The first step is not to ignore conflict, but find a way to appropriately address it in worship. Worship provides an opportunity to both announce the gospel of reconciliation and to practice it.

If the conflict is great and obvious, a whole service theme on a fitting biblical passage may be the best plan—and a theme that needs to be sustained for some time. If the matter is more subtle and not known by all, prayers and readings can still be tuned to address the issue. Particular prayers of confession and forgiveness may offer words to guide people who struggle with the issue. And perhaps those words will stretch them—words they repeat not yet because they believe them, but in order to believe them.

2. Give it time; it’s a journey
Reconciliation and forgiveness are a journey; we grow into them. As one leader working for reconciliation with indigenous peoples in North America said, “Reconciliation is so much more than a statement of apology. It’s an ongoing act of becoming neighbors, building trust, and correcting injustice.” Worship gives us practices for that growth and journey in its songs, prayers, greetings, and passing of God’s peace.

Worship calls us to be the community together, reconciling with one another as we gather at the Lord’s table—welcoming even those with whom we are in conflict, as we share the bread and the cup.

Songs and readings from the psalms will help people to recognize that crying out to God with lament is not disrespectful—it’s one way to communicate with the God who loves us and watches over us. Unique songs that are just right for the crisis or conflict—songs like John Bell’s “We Cannot Measure How You Heal”—can introduce words and music where people struggle with what to say. But familiar songs of God’s grace and our faith also give stability in turbulent times.

Sometimes we lament that the challenges for the church are so great, that there’s so much brokenness. But that’s when we need the reminder that this is Christ’s church, and nothing will separate it—or us—from the love of God.

3. Welcome the Refining Fire
While our worship should bring calm and comfort in the midst of the storms of life and ministry, like the prophets of old it should also challenge us to learn as we go through the refining fire.

How many of you, if you look back on your spiritual journey, note that your greatest growth came not when things were smooth sailing, but out of the toughest times, when the waves were rough? That’s true for most of us as individuals, and it’s true for churches too.

What if we approached the next conflict or crisis in our church with the expectation that we will grow and become stronger and more Christ-like as a body? What if we welcomed the next opportunity to display our faith in God in a time of trouble? What if our approach to worship was based more on faith than on fear?

Another Vital Worship Grant recipient church in Chicago had moved to two different worship services years ago, one more traditional and one more contemporary. Over the years their attendance declined, so they decided to combine those two services. They anticipated that people might resist the change, so they held congregational conversations to listen to various voices in the church. The goal was to realize that rather than being divided by conflict, they could be bound together by values that are deeper than their differences.

They focused on those deeper values by studying what the Bible says about worship using a book called Wise Church: Exploring Faith and Worship with Christians Around the World (available at www.FaithAliveResources.org). They gradually worked toward a combined service that focused on the Word of God and how to express it in worship more than on people’s differences and preferences. And this approach indeed drew them closer together as they worshiped again as one body.

So how can our churches grow through difficult times?

  • Listen to each other, understand our differences, and find a way to come together.
  • Care for those who struggle with conflict, knowing that care will facilitate reconciliation.
  • Offer words of hope and calm in the storm.
  • And trust that God’s love will overcome and will give us the power to facilitate reconciliation.

Watch for Your Blessings

A year ago my friend’s mother-in-law was in a car accident that left her paralyzed from the waist down. Her care page updates have recorded the journey of gradual healing and therapy, but also acceptance of a new life of mobility by wheels instead of legs. While lamenting the injuries that changed her life, she still found ways to rejoice and thank God with each step—or each turn of the wheel. Every post exhorted readers to “Watch for your blessings.”

What if we did that whenever we encountered difficulty, personally or communally?

Your church burned down after a lightning strike? Watch for your blessings.

Your community is stunned by a tragic death? Watch for your blessings.

Your church makes a turn from being divided by conflict to being bound together in Christ? Watch for your blessings.

All of these are real church situations that we at the Worship Institute have been involved with through our Vital Worship Grants Program—situations of deep crisis that led to a “watch for blessings” that has been deeper still.

Sometimes we lament that the challenges for the church are so great, that there’s so much brokenness. But that’s when we need the reminder that this is Christ’s church, and nothing will separate it—or us—from the love of God.

We can do all things through Christ who strengthens us.

Live into that strength. Believe in the gospel of reconciliation. And watch for your blessings!

Interested in a Vital Worship Grant?

The Vital Worship Grants Program at the Calvin Institute of Christian Worship seeks to foster vital worship in congregations, parishes, and other worshiping communities in North America. This grants program is especially focused on projects that connect public worship to intergenerational faith formation and Christian discipleship, a theme that can unfold in many facets of worship, from Bible reading to preaching to baptism and the Lord’s Supper, intercessory prayer, congregational song, visual arts, and more. We encourage grant proposals developed through a collaborative process from emerging and established churches; seminaries, colleges, and schools; hospitals, nursing homes, and other organizations. More information can be found at http://worship.calvin.edu/grants/.