Saturday, 27 May 2017

Trouble-shooters - or trouble-makers?

When they came to Geliloth near the Jordan in the land of Canaan, the Reubenites, the Gadites and the half-tribe of Manasseh built an imposing altar there by the Jordan. And when the Israelites heard that they had built the altar... the whole assembly... gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them. Joshua 22:10-12

Jesus said, “Blessed are the peace-makers, for they will be called the children of God.” Matthew 5:9

We hear a lot these days about “conflict resolution”. Schools, businesses and even churches run courses on it - the skills required to settle disagreements without doing lasting damage to either relationships or efficiency.

Sadly, some of us seem to have a talent not so much for conflict resolution as for conflict creation - the art of making mountains out of mole-hills and pouring petrol on flames. (I heard of a man who grumbled about his wife on the grounds that “she won’t argue with me”.)

Jesus tells us that “blessed are the peace-makers”, and in our often tense and divided society, and also in our churches, I reckon that’s a word we can’t hear too often. Christian, be a peace-maker!

Joshua 22 gives us a good example of how easily conflicts can flare up - and, thankfully, how they can be resolved.

When the twelve tribes of Israel came into the land of Canaan, the majority of them settled west of the River Jordan. But two and a half of the tribes - Reuben, Gad and Manasseh (a “half-tribe”) - were allocated land east of the Jordan. The river, running north-south, must have created a barrier that was psychological as well as physical - rather like a busy main road that slices through a city in our modern world.

When the time came for the two and a half tribes to go off and take possession of their land, everything was fine - the nation was still united, and they went with the blessing of the western tribes. No problem.

But almost at once things turned tricky. Why? Because the two and a half tribes decided to erect “an imposing altar” (verse 10) on the banks of the Jordan. This, it seems, was entirely innocent - as they explained later (verses 24-28), they simply intended the altar to symbolise their solidarity with Israel.

But that wasn’t how the rest of Israel saw it. No, this was rebellion! This was treachery! There can be only one altar in Israel! - and that is in the tabernacle, the great portable shrine at the heart of Israel’s worship and, indeed, of their whole national life. So, quick as a flash, they “gathered at Shiloh to go to war against them.”

Well, you can read the rest of Joshua 22 to see how this critical situation was defused. But in this early part of the story there are two aspects which can help us to avoid trouble before it rears its ugly head.

First, be aware of how innocent actions can be misinterpreted.

The two and a half tribes meant no ill. But they failed to see how their action might appear to the rest of Israel. You get the impression that there was a fear, an insecurity, in Israel at this vital point in their history, and so the building of that altar was, as the saying goes, a red rag to a bull.

This can easily happen in church life. Somebody organises an event - without realising that such events really are the responsibility of someone else. A list is drawn up of potential helpers for a particular ministry - and some person’s name is missed off the list. Result: hurt, misunderstanding, a fractured relationship.

Are you a tactful, thoughtful, sensitive person? (It can be learned!)

Second, don’t be too quick to jump to conclusions.

An assumption was made about the motives of the two and a half tribes - and it turned out to be completely wrong.

To this day I burn with shame when I remember a pastoral situation many years ago. I listened to only one half of the story - and, having jumped to conclusions, ended up having to offer not so much an apology as a full, five-star grovel. I learned (oh, how I learned!) that before zipping into “Right!-this-is-war!” mode it really does help to, er, establish the facts, and to do so coolly and quietly.

Is this a word some of us need to hear?

All of us can be hot-headed and impulsive. Simon Peter lost his head in Gethsemane - with the result that the high priest’s servant lost his ear (John 18:10). Paul and Barnabas, giants of the early church, had a bust-up which led to the parting of their ways, at least for a time (Acts 15:36-40). And later on Paul felt the need to apologise for some pretty harsh words to the high priest (Acts 23:1-5). (Lesson: never be afraid to apologise!)

Better still, of course... don’t act in such a way as to risk such tensions and flash points.

May God grant us sensitivity, wisdom and grace!

Father, forgive me when I am insensitive to the feelings or perceptions of others, and when I am prickly at the way others act. Please help me to develop the Christlike skills of the peace-maker. Amen.

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