It is an issue that has divided our nation, pitting father against son, mother against daughter. When the news hit the airways it went viral on social media sparking protests and heated debates. Some wonder if our nation has ever been more divided than it has been on this one issue.
Of course, I am talking about the debate over what color that dress was. In the beginning of March 2015 an internet mem hit the social twitter verse, and went wild. According to scholastic magazine, a British woman had taken a picture of her dress and posted on tumbler. Some people thought it was blue with black lace while others thought it was white with gold lace. According the article, “One website that took a poll about the dress’s color received more than 28 million responses—with white and gold getting the most votes. Even celebrities like Taylor Swift took to Twitter to weigh in. She thought the dress looked blue and black. Guess what? According to the store based in Birmingham, England, that designed the article of clothing, the singer was right.”
Let me just say to Taylor Swift and to the world, it’s a dress, nobody cares. Or at least nobody should care. But our world today is just looking for something to fight over for the sake of the fight. There is a spirit of division in the air, a spirit of accusation, a spirit of fear, a spirit of confusion, a spirit of pride, a hardness of heart, that permeates the left and the right. We’ve seen that in Indiana over the past few weeks as sides in the culture wars have jockeyed for position. In Christian circles there have been endless debates about what Jesus would or would not do. I myself, have been criticized in church interviews for being both too liberal and too conservative over the gay marriage and gay ordination issue. Whoever wins these culture wars, may it be the left or the right, the true winner is the Devil who rejoices when we lift up ourselves, when we sacrifice love for truth, or truth for love, when we throw out traditional morality, or use that morality to wound and shame people, the devil rejoices in all of this. We live in a double minded world, we are double minded people. But our scripture passage today give us hope that we can overcome the evil one and resists old patterns of behavior that neither flow with the Spirit or acknowledge the Truth. After forty days of fasting and being tempted by the Devil three times, Jesus finally declares, “Be gone Satan.” And in our text from the book of James today the writer declares, “Resist the Devil and He Will Flee from you.” I don’t know the how we are going to solve the debates we are having in our society, but I do believe our text today presents the Spirit of Humility by which we are to resist the division that these debates bring, division that is at the heart of the plan of the enemey. Because without the Holy Spirit coming into our midst to Humble us our world, our nation, our churches, will remain divided. And as Jesus said, a house divided against itself cannot stand.
The writer of James tells us that if we are experiencing inner conflict or conflict in our community that the proper response is to submit ourselves to the Lord in prayer and repentance. In the words of James, “Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you.” As my mentor the Rev Dr. Robert Johnson is fond of saying, if you feel like God is far away guess who moved.” I will give you a hint it is not God. To quote Richard Foster, “Prayer changes things,” people say. It also changes us. The latter goal is the more imperative. The primary purpose of prayer is to bring us into such a life of communion with the Father that, by the power of the Spirit, we are increasingly conformed to the image of the Son (Foster, pg 57
You see our world is obsessed with the answer, obsessed about knowing the facts. Yet, the scriptures first focus on what is called “discerning the spirit,” and not the facts of a situation. To quote 1 John 4:1-2. “Beloved, do not believe every spirit, but test the spirits to see whether they are from God, for many false prophets have gone out into the world. “ I would define Spirit as that innate connection we have with each other and with God. Spirit goes beyond reason and is the ground upon which things become reasonable to us. The Germans called a communal spirit a geist Hitler talked about the “Volksgeist” or the Spirit of the people. Perhaps you have heard the phrase “spirit of the times.” Perhaps you have walked in a room full of people and you instantly get a good or bad vibe from them. Spirit, the life we accept, has a lot to do with the facts we see. Sociologist would call this our world view. An NPR program called Radio Lab, reported on a linguist named Guy Deutscher, who found that colors in human language and civilization appear in stages in ancient literature and the color blue is always mentioned last. This is because blue doesn’t occur naturally all that often and it takes some industrial engineering to manufacture. The result, people who do have not been introduced to blue dye and the concept of blue don’t see the sky as blue (http://www.radiolab.org/story/211213-sky-isnt-blue/ ). They are limited by their worldview, the spirit by which they see things, from seeing what is going on in the world. Through prayer the Holy Spirit helps reveals to us our assumptions and motivations around a particular issue and orients all these around God’s Will and God’s Word, so we may see the world, ourselves, and others as they truly are in God’s Eyes.
Once we come to an understanding of the nature of the conflict we must know how to deal with the conflict and lead others through the conflict. Much management material has suggested a shift from reactive leadership, that is simply reacting to crisis, to proactive leadership, that is believing that one can shape the environment around oneself by one’s choices instead of being subject to the environment. N Graham Standish, author of Humble Leadership, argues that the church needs to move even further from proactive leadership to Spirit lead leadership. This leadership isn’t just about shaping our environment and getting results it is about being open to the wisdom of the Spirit to guide us to possibilities that we can not see in our natural environment. To quote Standish, “No matter how healthy proactive leadership is, it relies on human powers and skills to anticipate, plan, organize, and program. All forms of functional leadership, including proactive leadership, cut off the spiritual dimension so that God becomes less and less a part of our planning and decision making. We end up focusing our efforts on achieving our ambitions, never asking whether this is what God really wants.” (Standish, Humble Leadership).
How do we connect to this spiritual dimension of ministry to open up new possibilities to overcome conflict and division? James is clear, “Humble yourself before the Lord and he will exalt you.” How do we humble ourselves? Standish has many suggestion. But the one I found to be most profound is to, “accept criticism, resist offense, and provide support.” To quote Standish, “Criticism isn’t the problem, no matter how much it hurts. The problem is our defensiveness in the face of criticism. We may be criticized, but criticism has only the power we give it. If we become defensive, lashing out against those who criticize us, we’ve lost the battle. I’ve discovered over the years that when we develop the ability to accept criticism, even that which we think is unfair, and react with a sense of respect and care toward the critic, it has the power to diminish the sting of the criticism.” (Standish, Humble Leadership)
Finally, to lead people out of conflict, in our lives, and in our churches, Standish argues that we must become grateful. To quote James, “He yearns jealously for the spirit that he has made to dwell in us”. But he gives more grace. Therefore it says, “God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble.” To quote Standish, “the word “gratitude” literally means to be in a state of “grace”. To be “grateful” literally means to be full of grace. There is a connection between the extent to which we are grateful to God for our lives, vocations, and the others around us and the degree to which grace seems to flow into what we do.” ( Standish, Humble Leadership).
You know in the monastery I worked at there was a woman named Linda. She had a rough life. She had recovered from drug addiction and found the Lord. And she was one of those happy people that always annoy me. Whenever we would ask her how she was doing she would say, “I’m grateful.” At the end of the week at our weekly meeting, no matter what happened she would say, “I’m still grateful.” I envied her, in a way I wanted to act like her, but I couldn’t because I was not truly grateful and I didn’t see the point in faking it.. You see I am a bit of a prophetic person, always looking for the future, always hoping for more of what God has in store. And that is not wrong. I think that is one of the reasons you chose me as your shepherd. But in leading you all into change I have found I can focus more on the negatives than on the positives. And for that I repent. For I am grateful that you called me to be your shepherd, and I will be grateful whether we have to build a new wing to hold all the new people who start coming or whether we have to close up shop in ten years. As long as the Lord has me here it is an honor to serve you and I pray I will present a Spirit that will point you to Christ who is full of grace and truth. To end hear these words of the Apostle Paul in Philippians 2;
“So if there is any encouragement in Christ, any comfort from love, any participation in the Spirit, any affection and sympathy, complete my joy by being of the same mind, having the same love, being in full accord and of one mind. Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves. Let each of you look not only to his own interests, but also to the interest of others. Have this mind among yourselves which is your in Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross. Therefore God has highly exalted him and bestowed on him the name that is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.”