Wise Words from a Wild Wonder Worker, I: Whispers and Secrets
“If you are in conflict with another member of the church, go in private to speak to that person.”
“If another member of the church sins against you,” says Jesus, “go talk to him about it in private. If he doesn’t listen to you, try again with one or two other members of the church. If he still doesn’t listen, tell the entire Church. If that doesn’t work, give up and excommunicate him.”
Jesus’ advice might be a little severe and rigid, but this is the Gospel. This is Good News. And I think Jesus’ advice might be apt remedy to the messy, unhelpful way we often handle conflict in the Church, or at work, or at school, or in families, or in friendships. Jesus says, “If you’re having trouble with someone you love: (1) Be direct, (2) be private (3) tell the truth, and (4) know when to quit.
Be direct, says Jesus. Go talk to the person. Face to face. Have the courage of your convictions. If you can’t say it face to face, don’t say it at all. Episcopalian priest Barbara Brown Taylor says:
Because church people tend to think they should not fight, most of them are really bad at it. Many prefer writing long, single-spaced letters to the rector in lieu of direct confrontation. Some sit on their grievances with pained looks on their faces until internal combustion occurs and fire shoots out of their mouths, while others simply vanish, calling the church office months later to remove their names from the rolls.
Yes? Church people are so bad at fighting because they think they shouldn’t. But of course they should. What makes us think that just because we’re the Church we won’t experience conflict with one another? Sometimes we wonder why Jesus made the Church out of human beings, until we remember that it was all he had to work with, and last I checked there were no perfect human beings.
If you have a problem with another church member, or with the pastor, or with a friend, or with a colleague, or with your mother-in-law, don’t sit there at your computer in righteous indignation firing off nasty emails.
You can fire off nasty emails to President Obama or to Governor Quinn or to the CEO of Comcast or to the Bank President because you probably don’t know President Obama or Governor Quinn or that inept exec who conspires to slow down your internet service to such a glacial pace you can’t download your cute cat videos anymore (Can you tell this is a little personal?), but if you have access to someone, and most often we have access to the people who irritate us the most, you owe them the dignity of face-to-face conversation. How in the world did we ever come to think that Facebook would be the proper forum from which to air our grievances?
Be direct, says Jesus. Don’t use Facebook. That’s not an exact translation, but it’s close. Be direct. Also, be private. Go alone, and in secret. Not even at Starbucks, but in a living room. Put a high fence around the trouble. In other words, don’t talk about a person; talk to her.
Jesus’ little advice here is the perfect antidote to our gossipy world where all dirty laundry gets aired in public. We have Twitter and Oprah and Jerry Springer and Entertainment Tonight and Access Hollywood and TMZ. Remember Don Henley’s song “Dirty Laundry’?
Dirty little secrets
Dirty little lies
We got our dirty little fingers in everybody’s pie
We love to cut you down to size
We love dirty laundry.
Kick em when they’re up
Kick em when they’re down
Kick em when they’re stiff
Kick em all around.
We got dirty laundry.
The contemporary world loves to manufacture all this artificial drama, sexy and exciting drama. Even churches, like all human institutions, are little petri dishes for the cultivation of drama and dirt. Churches are fertile and fecund fields where foolishness flourishes.
It’s so much harder and a lot less satisfying to talk to a person than to talk about her, but that is the way of Jesus, right? If you love somebody, you will be jealous of her reputation.
One guy was minding his own business in his office one day when suddenly a colleague bursts through the door in a rage. “Did you tell Joan I was a witch?” she thunders. The guy is stunned; he’s caught off guard; he doesn’t know what to say. Finally he blurts out, “Of course not. I would never say such a thing. I have no idea how she found out.” The truth will out; you don’t need to be the messenger.
Do you remember Father Flynn’s little sermon about rumors from John Patrick Shanley’s play and film called Doubt? Philip Seymour Hoffman does a great job delivering this sermon in the film, pointed straight at his antagonist Sister Aloyisius, played by Meryl Streep with the greatest Brooklyn accent I have ever heard.
In his sermon, Father Flynn tells a story: “A woman was spreading unconfirmed rumors about a neighbor, and she was feeling vaguely guilty about it, so she went to confession. She asked her priest, “Father, is it a sin to gossip?” The priest told her, “To find the answer to that question, my friend, go home, and take a pillow to the roof of your building, and slice it open with a knife.”
So she did what the priest told her, and the next week she returned for confession. “Did you do what I asked?” said the priest. She answered, “Yes, Father.” “And what happened?” he asked her. “Feathers, Father. Feathers everywhere.” “Yes, feathers,” said the priest. “Now, go home and collect all the feathers and put them back in the pillowcase.” She was shocked. “It can’t be done, Father. I could never collect all the feathers.” “Aye,” he said. “You can’t. That’s why gossip is a sin.”
So Jesus tells us that when we are in conflict with another, we should be direct, and we should do it in private, and thirdly we should tell the truth. As difficult for both of us as it might be, there often comes a time when we must tell another person how her actions are hurting us.
We must “speak the truth in love,” as the Bible elsewhere puts it. Don’t you see how telling the truth is an act of faith in the strength of the relationship? Telling the truth in love is emblematic of trust in the resilience of the relationship.
So Jesus says: Be direct, be private, tell the truth, and, finally, know when to give up. Know when to end the relationship. I’ll be the first to admit that there is a rough and irritating surface to this text that can’t be sanded off to suit our sensibilities. Excommunicate the scoundrel? Really? Whatever happened to second chances?
Still, don’t you see that there is grace even here, in this knowing when to hold them and when to fold them? Some relationships are not meant to be. Some friendships are not meant to be. Life is too short for dysfunctional relationships.
Be direct. Be private. Tell the truth. Know when to give up. It’s not perfect advice for our twenty-first-century church; it has a rigid and uncompromising edge to it, but don’t you think it is still an antidote to the brutality of our communications these days?
Jesus’ advice about human communication counsels directness, intimacy, honesty, and transparency, and those are virtues which are sadly lacking from so much of our communication these days. No whispers or secrets, says Jesus. That’s my sermon title for this morning: Whispers and Secrets.
The younger you are, the likelier you are to know that Whisper and Secret are two apps for Droids and iphones. Jo mentioned these apps in a fine sermon earlier this year. With the Secret and Whisper apps, you can post anything you want to say, and everybody can read it, but no one will know who sent it. You can whisper anything you want to say. It doesn’t have to be nice; it doesn’t even have to be true, because you will remain anonymous. Secret shares your secrets, but cloaks your identity. Whisper is how we found out that Gwyneth Paltrow was cheating on the Coldplay guy.
With Whisper or Secret, you can post, for example, “I’m lonely;” or “I stole the last piece of pie in the office fridge.” Secret is sort of a modern-day, virtual confessional booth. Like a Catholic priest, Secret will die under torture before it reveals your identity.
Whisper and Secret are not bad technologies, but they are being misused. The problem is that anonymity disinhibits our darker impulses. You can say anything you want to say if no one knows it’s you who’s saying it. Road rage is another example; if someone cuts you off in traffic, you can, in the privacy of your own automobile, turn the air blue with truck-driver language you would never unleash in public. When this anonymity happens over the Internet, sociologists have a name for it: it is called the “on-line disinhibition effect.”
It is not familiarity that breeds contempt, but anonymity. Familiarity forestalls contempt, because few of us can show undisguised contempt when we are face-to-face with another human being in the same room. That’s why Jesus tells his disciples that if you have an unkind or difficult truth to tell, do it in person.
Robin Williams was the funniest man alive; who knew that inside he was fighting these ruthless, invincible demons. Edgar Rosenberg was married to the funniest woman alive; he took his own life too. You just never know. Two thousand years ago, the Jewish Philosopher Philo of Alexandria said, “Be kind, for everyone you meet is fighting a great battle.” Yes?
You probably heard the story of Jessica Cole, right? Ten years ago, in 2004, Jessica Cole from Greensboro, North Carolina, was dying from brain cancer. The Make-a-Wish foundation granted her one dying request. She wanted to meet Robin Williams; Jessica was a huge fan of Mrs. Doubtfire.
So the Make-a-Wish Foundation arranges for Jessica to fly to California to meet Robin Williams at his home. But when the appointed day arrives, Jessica is too sick to fly. Robin Williams wants to keep his commitment to Jessica, so he charters a plane–on his own, in secret–and flies to Greensboro and spends the entire day with Jessica. They talk, they laugh, they watch football, Robin Williams does all his Mrs. Doubtfire voices and antics for Jessica. Jessica dies two months later.
Jessica’s father Mark says, “Mr. Williams acted like he had known Jessica forever. He was a lot of fun to be with. When I heard Robin Williams died, I relived my daughter’s death all over again.” Mr. Williams kept his visit to Jessica a secret for ten years; it might have been Jessica’s father who first told the world about it. Robin Williams was not only a funny man; he was a great man; he was the real deal. And now he is gone forever.
Shortly after Mr. Williams’ died, someone tweeted his daughter Zelda a doctored photo of Mr. Williams, with Photoshopped bruise marks on his neck, with the message: “See what your father did because of you?” Anonymity breeds contempt. On-line disinhibition.
I think Jesus’ simple, self-evident advice might be an antidote to the brutality of so much of our communication these days. Go in person. Keep it private. Tell the truth. Know when to quit.
Or, as St. Paul puts it to the Romans: “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Love one another with mutual affection. Outdo one another in showing honor. Repay no one evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all.”
Barbara Brown Taylor, Leaving Church: A Memoir of Faith (Harper San Francisco, 2006), 109.
George O’Brien, Reader’s Digest, June/July, 2010, 82.
Kit Eaton, “Apps for Sharing Secrets and Gossip,” The New York Times, August 13, 2014.
Julie Zhuo, “Where Anonymity Breeds Contempt,” The New York Times, November 29, 2010.