Small things set the tone for our days. Going the extra mile for people—whether it’s a slightly larger tip, an unexpected compliment or gift, or even holding a door for them—costs you very little, and gets you a lot.
The election season in the United States was long and divisive. As a new president is inauguated, many sense a lingering polarization of the populace. Public discourse and our social media feeds are filled with strong opinions from professional and amateur pundits.
These feelings of division are not unique to politics, however. United Methodists in the U.S. and across the globe know the pain of conflict within their nations, churches, families, friend groups, and sometimes within themselves.
The Rev. W. Craig Gilliam helps us find ways to reconnect after times of conflict. Photo courtesy of the Rev. W. Craig Gilliam.
The Bible teaches that God created us to live in community and that Jesus came to reconcile us to God and one another.
To help us move through division toward community, we asked a United Methodist pastor, the Rev. W. Craig Gilliam, for techniques and tips about how to begin a process of healing and find peace. Gilliam is an expert on conflict transformation in the church. He serves as Coordinator of Congregational Services for JustPeace, Director for the Center for Pastoral Excellence for the Louisiana Annual Conference, and is the author of Where Wild Things Grow, a book of poetry that “invites us to grapple with the relationships between and among people and things.”
The divisions we sense around us and experience in our personal lives makes many uneasy, or what some counselors call anxious.
“We are living in an extremely anxious culture,” Gilliam reports.
When we are anxious, we tend to rely on emotional reactions rather than reasoned responses. You probably see this in your social media feed and in heated exchanges between those who disagree.
In our anxiety, Gilliam reports, “We do each other harm in ways we didn’t even know we had the capacity to do, or in ways we’re not even aware we’re doing it.”
One unhealthy way we cope with our anxiety is to retreat to safe places by finding people with whom we agree and limiting our connection to others. We unfriend people on Facebook, limit our phone calls with that one uncle, and avoid certain people at church.
Living in these “safe spaces,” however, allows us to fool ourselves.
“When I cut off from another,” Gilliam notes, “I begin to create narratives about them.” Those stories often include what we believe about ourselves and God.
The false narrative usually goes something like this: They are bad. We are good. God is on our side and not on theirs.
This, of course, is not true. The Bible tells us that all of us are created in God’s image, are loved by God, and have God’s grace available to us.
To work past a conflict, we need to find ways to reconnect. Where we once moved away, we must now move toward.
“If I’m interacting with that other, if I’m sitting down looking at them eye-to-eye, if I’m listening to their stories,” Gilliam says, “that very interaction helps make space for the alternative narratives and for the correction in the narrative I’m telling myself about the other.”
Our diverse United Methodist churches provide wonderful opportunities for connection. Worship, Sunday School, choir, committee meetings, and the sacrament of Holy Communion bring us into contact with one another, and reinforce the true narrative that we are all children of God.
Reconciling after conflict can be difficult, but well worth the work. Reconciliation by Vasconcellos, photo by Martinvl, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.
Participating in selfless acts of service is another great way to reconnect with others. Volunteering with your church or a local non-profit, “takes you out of yourself. It really puts you in a context of giving to others with no reward, just to do it because it’s the kind, Christian thing to do,” Gilliam reports. “I think that’s very healing.”
Limit television and news input
Limiting your exposure to the media is another way of resisting false narratives and anxiety. Those outlets can be “like a hose that is pumping anxiety into our homes,” Gilliam says.
Now is a great time to audit your news consumption. While we want to remain informed, we might consider limiting alerts on our smartphones and computers, and how much time we spend watching our favorite news channel.
Remember, God is in control
In a culture that appears so divided, we may be tempted to put our hope on winning an election, an argument, a position. While governments and other organizations hold a great deal of power in our lives, God is ultimately in control. Going to church, reading the Bible, and spending time in other activities that re-center us are helpful.
Go for a hike. Attend a concert. Get lost in a good book. “Find those rhythms that bring you back to your better self,” Gilliam advises.
Hit the gym
When stress and anxiety are high, many of us turn to junk food. Others stop exercising. Return to eating well. Join an exercise class. “Go to the doctor to get help starting a new lifestyle,” Gilliam suggests.
God created us as complete beings. Body, mind, and spirit are all connected.
“EXTREMES ARE EASY”
Where one ends,
the other begins.
Extremes are easy. It’s
the middle that’s the puzzle. Midsummer—
the middle way,
shades of gray,
in-between two notes,
in the pause,
in the silent space between two waves,
in the breath between breaths,
in that sacred in-between space,
everything is possible.
poem by w. craig gilliam
Spend time with friends
Gilliam suggests, “Be with those friends that when you’re around them you’re just a better person.” Spend good, quality time with people you love.
Listen for the invitation
If you continue to struggle, consider asking yourself, “What is the invitation here? How is God calling me to grow?”
Spend some time discerning what God may be trying to show you through this season, what you might do differently in the future, and ways you might get involved to make a difference.
Take your time
“Reconciliation is a journey. It is not a one-time act,” Gilliam cautions. Our pace will differ from others. We cannot force it.
“There’s nothing worse than rushing something that’s not ripe yet,” he continues, “and not heeding when the time is right.”
Sometimes, we may need to accept that a relationship will never be reconciled. One of the more difficult tasks is to “honor their choice not to forgive,” Gilliam says, “and not allow it to embitter us.”
No temptation has overtaken you except what is common to mankind. And God is faithful, he will not let you be tempted beyond what you can bear. But when you are tempted, he will also provide a way out so that you can endure it.
Paul was giving strong encouragement to the Corinthians. Don’t we need this encouragement just as much today? We all have desires and temptations, but God is always there to help us through.
New Year’s Resolutions have always been a very pass/fail sort of test for me. I set myself up to forgo chocolate and lo and behold, two weeks into the New Year, I find myself munching nonchalantly on fudge. In the immortal words of comedian Steve Martin, “I forgot.” But worse, one slip up and I feel like I have failed. I can’t go back to “the day before the fudge” so what’s the point? My record is no longer perfect.
But that is the whole point from a spiritual perspective. We’re not perfect. But we are improving.
Resolving to be more spiritual is not a hard date to keep or a hard bar to leap over. It’s a daily resetting of your mind and soul. It’s trying again when you “fail” and knowing that you can never fail if you’re trying. It is…grace. Here a few ideas for growing spiritually and for spurring you to think of your own.
1. Count to 10
Your mother was right — or, maybe it was my mother — but anyway, counting to 10 is an age-old axiom for a reason. Our first reactions to things may be influenced by how stressed we are at the moment, what just happened in that meeting or where our blood sugar levels are hovering. Do you really want to snap at someone because you are mad at someone else? Especially, if it that someone else is yourself?
Taking a few seconds to think before speaking takes discipline and practice. But taking time to respond when you feel emotional is a spiritual exercise that will help you be more centered and more caring. Make sure you eat first.
But I am! Right? Breathing is an involuntary response of the body. One that happens regardless of whether we’re aware of it. But breathing can become shallow or quick when we are anxious or stressed — and that is when we need oxygen the most.
There are over 30 verses in the Bible that mention breath and they seem to often be connected to or representative of Spirit, of God.
The Spirit of God has made me, and the breath of the Almighty gives me life. — Job 33:4
And when he had said this, he breathed on them and said to them,
“Receive the Holy Spirit. — John 20:22
Mindful breathing is essential to our spiritual life because it connects our heads with our bodies and our bodies with our hearts. When I feel afraid or physically sick, I breathe 10 times as deeply and calmly as I can and remind myself that it will be OK. And it is.
3. Think positive thoughts
I read that human beings think three or four negative thoughts to every positive one. My friends admit to beating themselves up for their shortcomings or worrying to the point of distraction about the future.
When things are going wrong, that’s the most difficult time to be positive — and sometimes you just have to go to bed! But a steady stream of hopeful or reassuring thoughts can help bring us back to the truth that we are not alone.
“I can do all things through Him who strengthens me” (Philippians 4:13) or simply, “It’s going to be OK!” are better thoughts to think than, “I’ll never be able to do it!” Thinking on the true and good thing (Philippians 4:8) is far better than allowing fear to overcome you. No matter how bad the situation is, remember you are loved beyond measure.
A COVENANT PRAYER
I am no longer my own, but thine.
Put me to what thou wilt, rank me with whom thou wilt.
Put me to doing, put me to suffering.
Let me be employed by thee or laid aside for thee,
exalted for thee or brought low by thee.
Let me be full, let me be empty.
Let me have all things, let me have nothing.
I freely and heartily yield all things
to thy pleasure and disposal.
And now, O glorious and blessed God,
Father, Son, and Holy Spirit,
thou art mine, and I am thine. So be it.
And the covenant which I have made on earth,
let it be ratified in heaven.
“A Covenant Prayer in the Wesleyan Tradition” is used in the Covenant Renewal Service, often celebrated on New Year’s Eve or Day. This version is on page 607 in the United Methodist hymnal.
4. Love (and forgive) yourself
One of my favorite Bible verses ever, but one that has taken years for me to comprehend is “love your neighbor as yourself” (Luke 10:27, among others). What does that really mean? I struggled with thinking loving the self was, well, selfish. Now, as an adult, I understand that you cannot love and accept others if you do not love and accept yourself. You cannot express unconditional love if you do not first practice it with yourself.
There is a beautiful song by the Bluegrass band Mountain Heart that lists the writer’s transgressors and his success in forgiving them. Notice the last line.
I forgive my daddy for missing half my life,
I forgive my momma for holding on too tight,
I’ve forgiven friends, strangers, neighbors, family,
Everybody… everybody… but me.
Holding on to guilt can impact relationships because it blocks the flow of communication, of love itself. Practice grace — with yourself. You can’t truly live your life until you do.
5. Love one another (and forgive the ones you can’t forgive)
Such a simple directive. Such a beautiful philosophy. Did He really mean the ones we disagree with, too?!
Learning to love in the manner Christ intended is more of a lifetime goal than an immediate accomplishment. The progress sneaks up on you over months, years, sort of like when I gave up the perfection of Yoga Magazine and settled for “getting better.” Which is a nice verb phrase whose synonyms include “rejuvenate, restored and released.”
Forgiving people who have hurt us may well be the most difficult task we are asked to perform as Christians. But if you keep “carrying all that anger, it’ll eat you up inside,” as Don Henley sang. The subtitle of the Rev. Adam Hamilton’s book on forgiveness is, “Finding Peace Through Letting Go,”and it means just that. And just know…it’s a process. Accept where you are with it.
6. Pray — right where you are
I tend to agree with writer Anne Lamott that prayers are usually “Thank you! Thank you! Thank you!” or “Help me! Help me! Help me!” But as I grew spiritually, I began to pray for other people when I myself was hurting. It’s been a powerful practice that has changed my perspective about what others go through and how many blessings I actually have.
Pray. Pray in the way that works for you. If you haven’t in a while, if you don’t believe it works… then pray that. God’s not afraid of your doubt. Praying is something you can do wherever you are.
7. Be grateful — and be joyful
I woke up one morning when all I wanted to do was cry, and I heard clearly in my head:
This is the day that the Lord hath made. I will rejoice and be glad in it. (Psalm 118:24)
So, I played “Happy” by Pharrell Williams, instead.
Gratitude is a spiritual practice that will change your life. It’s not just that it shifts your focus from what you don’t have to what you do have. It can lift your spirits in such a way that helps you cope when you are down.
Joy is an inside job but it can be inspired by external things. Music. Children. Nature. Art. Find them.
8. Think of the other fellow
That is what my mother used to say. “And you’ll feel better.” ?
When I was little, I thought doing things for others was about, well, others. It was the right and proper thing to do, but I wasn’t sure it was necessarily fun. But as an adult, I realized it did far more for me than it ever did for anyone I ever helped.
The Wesleyan tradition holds that faith and good works belong together. “We offer our lives back to God through a life of service.”
You cannot help someone else and not be changed yourself. Which may be the coolest paradox of “do unto others as you would have done unto you.” Try it.
You don’t have to master all spiritual practices this week or even this year. But you can earnestly strive to be more spiritual at any point in time. It is an on-going practice. A resolution you can re-make daily.
What do we do with our doubt? While we would like a level of certainty about our faith, questions persist about the Bible, science, and other things we’ve been taught about God.
In this episode, we talk with Mike McHargue, a United Methodist, popular podcaster, and author of Finding God in the Waves: How I Lost My Faith and Found It Again through Science. “Science Mike,” as he is known in his podcasts, shares how after being raised in a Christian home, his doubts and questions led him to conclude that God did not exist. After an unexpected personal encounter with Jesus, he returned to a new understanding of faith that welcomes and embraces questions.
If you have ever wrestled with doubt, or are struggling with questions about faith, you are sure to find encouragement in this conversation.
Help us embrace this truth, Jesus: “We do not draw people to Christ by loudly discrediting what they believe…but by showing them a light that is so lovely that they want with all their hearts to know the source of it.” Madeleine L’Engle
We pray for all those hurt by tragedies around the world, including those affected by the tragedy at the Fort Lauderdale-Hollywood International Airport. Learn about church resources for responding to violence.