Cast All Your Anxiety on the Fire Marshal

It is a rare and disorienting event indeed to experience scripture and the government communicating the same thing to me.

Believe it or not, that’s what happened this week.

The Shelbyville Fire Department stopped by to make their annual inspection of St. Luke’s, and 1 Peter 4 and 5 came up in our lectionary.

“An inspection of your facility revealed the violations below,” the fire marshal’s report says. “An approved fire safety and evacuation plan shall be prepared and maintained. Fire protection systems required by this code shall be installed, repaired, operated, tested and maintained. Failure to comply with this notice may result in penalties provided for by law for such violations.”

“Discipline yourselves, keep alert,” says 1 Peter. “Do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you.”

I guess 1 Peter and the fire department want the same thing from us: not to be surprised by the fiery ordeal, be it literal or spiritual.

And so that got me thinking..

St. Luke’s is in such a profoundly blessed place right now.

We are eight months into our shared ministry partnership with St. Thomas, and going strong.

We have had such a great season of fellowship events, all the way back to our bonfire and hayride out at the Rodenhuis farm, to the Burning of the Greens at Epiphany, to our Pentecost Picnic coming up next week.

Our worship together has been everything from tender and reflective to exuberant and radiant, from All Saints Day to Christmas right through our Holy Week together.

And our we’ve had such great participation and enthusiasm in our Christian Formation from Episcopal 101 to weekly Bible study to Sunday morning forums, resulting in a bumper crop of people being confirmed and received into the church this spring.

And our relationships have seen the fruit of such good things happening in the church.

We have gotten to know each other as priest and parish, and have come to love each other very much.

Relationships within the parish have deepened and grown, as you have walked with and supported each other through illnesses and surgeries, work struggles and personal worries.

We are in a place of such richness and grace.

I am excited to get up and come to church every morning because I have the best job ever.

And so I think 1 Peter and the Shelbyville Fire Department are right.

Now is a great time to talk about fire insurance and a fire safety plan, both literally and spiritually.

As it says on the commercials, the time to plan for a fire is before it happens, not after.

What is the spiritual equivalent of the church burning down literally?

The church can eventually burn down spiritually if church conflict goes unchecked and escalates out of control.

When it is prepared for and managed carefully, church conflict can be cleansing and even eventually healing.

But that’s not what often happens.

Sometimes church conflict is simply endured, and sometimes it escalates to the point where people leave the church permanently, and those who stay are scarred and wounded to the point that their functioning in the church community is still being not just guided, but even controlled by events and people years distant.

So how do we create a church conflict fire safety plan, so to speak?

How do we prepare for the hard times when we’re in the good times?

1 Peter gives us some great advice.

The first important thing to do is realize that church conflict is normal and even healthy if it’s managed well.

A church that never, ever has any disagreement is either dead or in deep denial of reality and never interacts with one another with any honesty at all.

Healthy church life is an ongoing dance of responsible compromise—being comfortable enough to state openly and honestly when we disagree with one another, while realizing that the church is not our own personal kingdom and we have to give a little to get along.

But the point is that a healthy, active church will experience conflict at some point and 1 Peter tells us not to be caught off guard.

“Beloved, do not be surprised at the fiery ordeal that is taking place among you to test you, as though something strange were happening to you. But rejoice.”

Yes, rejoice. The value of going through the fiery ordeal together is that we come out of it on the other side refined, changed for the better and bonded closer together than ever.

But to be changed for the better by conflict requires a very critical quality: humility.

Pride is what hardens many a church conflict from a simple squabble into the threat of a split.

Pride causes us to do something very dangerous: to place our identity into our argument.

We identify ourselves with a position, be it anything from the nature of the Trinity to the color of the carpet in the nave, so strongly that we eventually insist that if things don’t go our way, we can’t with any integrity stay a member of this church.

That’s such an arrogant, prideful box to get trapped in, one both clergy and lay folks are equally guilty of building around ourselves.

Our true identity is beloved children of God, not holders of a specific theological or political position of any kind, and that identity is one we all share.

There can be no enmity about our true identity.

The superficial identities of conflict are like pieces of clothing we take off and put on: Democrat and Republican, high church or low church, liberal or conservative, coffee hour scatterers and coffee hour lingerers, traditional worship or contemporary worship.

None of those feelings or positions defines us, and if we try and make them our true identities, that is a recipe for unproductive and intractable church conflict.

“Humble yourselves therefore under the mighty hand of God,” 1 Peter tells us, because God “has called you to his eternal glory in Christ.”

We are all rooted together in our core identity: beloved children of God. The humbling and exalting knowledge of that is a major part of our fire safety plan.

The best way to prevent a fire is to pay attention to how and where it starts.

A church is an emotional system, like a family or a workplace or any organization.

And all emotional systems have one thing in common: anxiety.

Anxiety is part of our human condition and is fact what motivates a great deal of our behavior, both positive and negative.

Anxiety circulates and builds in an emotional system, like steam in a set of pipes.

In a healthy emotional system, the anxiety finds different outlets at different times.

Someone gets worried that we won’t have enough food at the Pentecost Picnic and creates a sign-up sheet—the steam of anxiety gets safely and easily vented out of the system.

Someone worries that a newcomer wasn’t properly welcomed to the church and goes and has a conversation with the priest about it—the steam of anxiety gets safely and easily vented out of the system.

But sometimes it doesn’t happen that way.

When the issue is much bigger than a sign-up sheet or a newcomer conversation, the anxiety is much higher.

Or when there have been a series of small or medium sized stresses and strains on people or on the church, the anxiety starts to build and become more intense, a snowball effect.

And when people can’t think of way to take some kind of positive action or have a respectful conversation about the issue, the anxiety just builds and builds and circulates, like the steam in the pipes getting hotter and hotter under more and more pressure.

Eventually, it’s going to explode.

And it will explode through a person or people in the church.

An anxiety explosion can be an angry outburst, but not always.

It can come in the form of withdrawal—emotional withdrawal, financial withdrawal, or participation withdrawal.

It can even explode in our personal or work lives, even if the actual conflict we’re dealing with is at church.

Pay attention to how the emotional systems in your life overlap.

Have you ever been angry at your spouse and suddenly made a big mistake on a project at work?

Have you ever been worried about something at your job and suddenly gotten sick or gotten into an unexpected argument with a friend outside of work?

Our emotional systems are always in flux and in play with each other, and the more we can bring awareness and a non-anxious presence to them, the more of a positive impact we can have upon and within them.

And so we see that anxiety is the real culprit in church conflict.

Anger is not a primary emotion.

Underneath anger is always lurking one of two things: fear or hurt.

These are the emotional consequences of the chronic, low-level anxiety that is always flowing in the system, over time building or suddenly bubbling up and causing people to say words or take actions that result in hurt or fear in themselves and others.

We have to tackle anxiety if we want our church fire safety plan to work.

It is the underlying root of every church conflict, no matter what the presenting issue is.

But God always comes through for us. Look at what our lesson from 1 Peter says today: “Cast all your anxiety on him, because he cares for you.”

None of this emotional systems jargon is news to God.

We use different terminology today to describe the way church communities work than they did in the first century, but the essential dynamics never change.

And God has known from day one that we would need help managing them.

And so God calls us to cast all our anxiety onto God the Father, onto Jesus, onto the Holy Spirit.

We have a built-in safety valve in our anxiety system that no other institution or organization has: we have God.

God who welcomes our anxiety, our fear, our hurt, our anger, our confusion about why we are fighting and how to get out of the corner we have backed ourselves into.

Every single week we have the opportunity to come into this church and bring our anxiety to this altar, offering it up to God so that we might dwell in the peace that passes all understanding.

We can’t ever defeat or control or absorb all the anxiety we face.

But we can be aware of its ebb and flow in our church, and we can have a spiritual discipline of coming to God and handing it over to the one who will lift its burden from us with gladness and love.

So that is the essence of our fire safety plan for church conflict.

I hope you’ll think about it and discuss it with each other as time goes forward.

I felt rather gloomy, rather Midwestern Lutheran in fact, to come to church this morning and say, “Things are going great! Let’s talk about when they’re eventually going to go wrong!”

But I love this church so very dearly, and I want us to have the tools and the skills, and more importantly, the trust to stand by each other through thick and thin.

And the way we build trust is to talk hard things over, to plan for the future, to love each other with more honesty every day.

Then we can face any fiery ordeal, spiritual or temporal, and come out on the other side, together and stronger than ever.