Following my basketball games as a teenager, there was a common conversation that would take place on the drive home. I would be sitting in the front seat with my dad, and I would brace myself as I prepared to ask the question to my dad – “so, how did I do?” My Dad seldom, if ever, gave unsolicited feedback on my performance in sports. However, his son solicited, so what was he supposed to do? My dad would tell me about something I did well, but would include something that could be improved. While there is some stereotypical “son looking for dad’s affirmation” going on here, I for the most part did not care about the comments like “you did a nice job rebounding,” which boosted my ego for just a fleeting moment. As much as I hated it, I wanted the criticisms, such as “It cost the team when you got your 4th foul and you had to come out of the game.”
While my teenager self wanted feedback, my fragile unpracticed ego did not know what to do with it. So I would argue with him about it. I would get mad about it, and I would get defensive about my decisions as a basketball player.
In these conversations I got two things – I got the feedback I needed to become a better basketball player, and if I was slick enough, I got to defend myself in an attempt to prop up my own ego. I doubt I was that slick.
Receiving feedback is an important part of growth. However we all know it can be painful to receive feedback. What you are told might really hurt. One might have something named about themself that they already know, but to have it named by someone else makes it more real. “Phil your room is messy” I know, but I don’t want to admit it.
And when someone is confronted with feedback, one has a couple of choices; one can take the feedback and figure out how to change and grow, which is typically really really hard work. Or one can get defensive about it and as a result miss opportunities to grow – inevitably running into repeating, painful, moments where one’s lack of growth gets in the way of opportunities in life, or connection with others.
Today we are considering our 2nd priority of FMC’s 5 priorities, The second priority is “nurturing faith within community.” We know the classic community experiences that have nurtured our faith. Go to Sunday school, do service for the community or the world, participate in a faith community, go to camp for a week or a weekend retreat. To nurture faith is to develop a deeper connection with God, your neighbor, yourself, and with all of God’s creation. And these things have all deepened that connection for me over the years, and I assume have for many of you.
Today though, I would like to consider the flip side. The things that can feel less nurturing, but still help us grow. Like my dad telling me I can’t keep getting 2 fouls in the first half. He’s right – but I don’t like it.
Is there an aspect of nurturing faith in a community that is less comforting and more often a struggle. I am not talking about feedback like a pastor telling you what to believe. I am not interested in creating traumatic experiences in church. I am talking about nurturing a faith that is the real world – with all of its conflicts and struggle. Is there much worthwhile in life that doesn’t have a component of struggle? That doesn’t have a component of conflict. How does struggle, conflict, and difficult feedback nurture one’s faith? And what is the importance of them in a church community?
Coming up on being at FMC for a year – I have heard the many stories of beauty within the church community, and I have heard the stories of conflict – stories of people leaving. Stories of pain. Stories of confrontation. These are a part of our faith as well. They are a part of our story – and we can learn and grow from those experiences, too.
I would like to consider today, using Paul and Peter’s conflict in Galatians, how the conflict and confrontation in the community nurtures our faith.
In Galatians 2, Paul is not happy with Peter. Paul cuts right to the chase. He writes, “When Peter came to Antioch, I opposed him to his face, because he stood condemned.”
Wheew – That’s pretty intense. How many of us have reached that point where it is finally time to talk to someone face to face about something. Something that has hurt you. Something that has frustrated you. It takes guts. It feels risky. I am not sure what Paul’s process was like before opposing Peter. Did he spend whole sleepless nights trying to figure out if he should give him feedback? Did he doubt himself?
Giving someone feedback, for many, is perhaps a more scary experience than receiving it. Telling someone how you experience them can be terrifying – you don’t know if you are going to hurt their feelings. If you are like me, you aren’t always positive if your feedback is accurate, even if there is truth to it.
But Paul, in his letter to the Galatians seems to not doubt himself. But the letter does not let us into Paul’s internal thought process.
Paul is frustrated at Peter, because Paul wants Jews and gentiles to sit together when they eat. Peter, a Jew, in the past was eating in the houses of gentiles. But, once James came along, Peter decided to eat with the Jews and not with the Gentiles – perhaps for several different reasons. Jewish New Testament scholar Paula Fredricksen thinks that it might have been because the gentiles were okay with eating food and wine that was offered to idols. James and his fellow Jews may have been uncomfortable eating such food and drink. And so Peter did not want to make them uncomfortable.
However, Paul does not want the law to get in the way of Jesus’ followers being in fellowship.
This confrontation always reminds me of the movie Mean Girls. Mean girls is a movie that hilariously navigates the social dynamics of a fictional high school in the early 2000s. In Mean Girls there is a scene where some students are introducing the new student, Cady, to the social dynamics of the high school through a detailed map of the cafeteria. The students tell her it is crucial that she knows the different cliques at the school, and they explain this to her through pointing out who sits with who at the cafeteria. The Jocks sit with the jocks, the nerds with the nerds, the preps with the preps, the band geeks with the band geeks, and of course, the wealthy popular girl group dubbed “the plastics.” For Cady to survive in the new high school, she needs to understand just how much of the social fabric of the school is held together by who eats with who.
2000 years earlier, this dynamic was at play. Who sits with who? Is it a social faux pas for a Jesus following Jew to eat with a Jesus following Gentile?
Peter can seem like one of those kids that can’t handle peer pressure. Like when the Jock will sit and have fun with the nerds whenever he is not around other Jocks, but when the jocks are around, he tells them that the nerds are not his friends. Moments like this make my blood boil -and its essentially the whole plot of Mean Girls if you haven’t seen it.
Paul’s calls our Peter for not eating with the Gentiles. Peter has been okay with eating gentile food in the past, but chooses to not eat with the Gentiles when the Jews are around. Paul gives Peter some hard feedback. Paul says, “You are a Jew, yet you live like a Gentile and not like a Jew. How is it, then, that you force Gentiles to follow Jewish customs?”
Then, Paul famously says that it’s not through the law that we are justified, but through faith in Christ.
Paul wants there to be a shift in this new Jesus following tradition, from the law being the source of grace, to Jesus’ faithfulness as the source of grace. In doing so, Paul is trying to mesh together two distinct people groups to create a space where everyone belongs. That is hard and tricky work.
Instead of letting this segregation carry on, Paul offers feedback to Peter. Without the feedback, perhaps the faith community divides. Perhaps there are missed opportunities for connection and growth because the Jews and Gentiles are not at the same table, learning from each other.
Now we do not know how Peter responds to this feedback. In fact, this story might have been simply a rhetorical tool Paul was using to convince the Galatian Gentiles that they do not need to adopt Jewish practices.
So in many ways, Paul is offering feedback to the Galatians.
Perhaps in respond to Paul’s feedback, the Galatians strongly disliked Paul and thought that it was none of his business to tell them what they should or shouldn’t do. That’s one way to respond to feedback. Or perhaps they took his feedback seriously, and took time as a group to discuss what their practices were going to be. They may have thought – “good points Paul, we never thought about that before, perhaps we should all eat together at meals.”
The tricky part about feedback, is that it is not always great feedback. My purpose in this sermon is to not tell you to listen to all the critical voices in your life. Too many people have been manipulated by religious leaders, inspirational speakers, and politicians with messages that are more damaging to our spirits than spiritually nurturing.
This past week, I went Golfing for the first time. It was a golf scramble for clergy in the area that worked with Chiles Lehman funeral home over the last year. So Mark Suderman, Ray Rayburn, Bill Croft and I made a team.
Mark, Ray, and Bill all have significant experience golfing, so it was important for my own growth to ask them for feedback after every swing. If you didn’t know it already Mark is a pretty incredible Golfer. I witnessed beautiful stroke after beautiful stroke. So when I solicited feedback, I did not go to Ray, but to Mark.
Just kidding. They were all great and I was welcoming feedback from all three.
But I will extend this example for the sake of my argument. Because I witnessed great swing after great swing from Mark, I should be interested in getting feedback from someone like him, instead of going to my Dad, who I have never seen golf before. But I would go to my Dad for basketball feedback because in his prime, he would have destroyed Mark, Ray, or Bill.
I say all of that to make two points. We do not grow without the nurturing feedback of others. Without the nurturing feedback of one’s community. If someone has just one person nurturing them, they are at risk of being manipulated. However, in community, one is able to get feedback from so many different people with different experiences. They can sift through it and decide based off the sources what is trash and what isn’t. The only tricky part of that is that sometimes we too quickly throw out the feedback that stings a little bit, even if it’s correct. Sometimes bits of truth come from sources we don’t like. Mark could say, “Phil, keep your head down during your golf swing” and I could defensively make up all kinds of excuses for why Mark is wrong, but it’s actually the right feedback.
Okay, so feedback is important, but what does feedback have to do with faith?
Something that I am still working through comes from a piece of feedback that I have been given by different people throughout my journey towards ministry. People have said – Phil – you are in your head too much. You are trying to intellectualize things too much. Learn to engage faith from your heart. While I didn’t love hearing that I was in my head too much, it was feedback that has helped me try to be aware of how while there is a “mind” element to faith, there is also a heart piece as well. And that I needed to continue to journey from my head to my heart. To continue to get in touch with my emotions, instead of just thinking through everything. If it weren’t for multiple people pointing this out, I wouldn’t have been aware of this tendency within me. The people around you can see things about you that you cannot see about yourself. And the only way you are going to get that information is by welcoming it from them.
You cannot get that information in a self help book. Or a podcast. Or a youtube instructional video. You can only get it through community and connection with others – multiple people.
“How do you experience me?” is a risky question to ask. Its also the question that will put you in touch with the direction of your needed spiritual growth. Feedback from others can help you know where to start exploring -which will be different paths for everyone. Different struggles to overcome. Different conflicts. Different moments of grace. But it cannot be done alone.
What does it mean today, for our community to consider feedback as a way of engaging our second priority, “Nurturing Faith within Relationships.”
A Part of receiving and giving feedback is knowing that it will cause conflict. And often we wish to avoid conflict. But it is in working through conflict, in listening deeply to feedback, and in offering our own feedback to others that growth can happen.
Conflict is a part of community growth. Engaging in conflict allows one to challenge their own assumptions, expand their knowledge and skills, and gain a broader understanding of different perspectives. You cannot have conflict without community. And you cannot grow without engaging in the conflict.
Mark Suderman shared with me on the golf course that usually after the first year of golfing, it’s generally understood that you don’t give people feedback on their swings. The feedback stops because of the fragile egos of golfers.
And the feedback stops in churches because of our fragile egos as well.
Another important piece about feedback, is to remember that we are an anabaptist community, and as a result, we are a priesthood of all believers. That means it’s the Priesthood of the kids. Of the teenagers. Of the adults. Of the intellectually disabled. Of the women. Feedback does not just come from those in power, like we are used to in our work settings – like a boss giving you a review. Feedback can come from the wisdom of children. What can the kids tell us about how we are engaging in the church community? What kind of feedback can those who are at home, unable to come to church because of age or disability. A core tenet of the Anabaptist tradition is giving and receiving of counsel. It is an important aspect of the Anabaptist community that giving and receiving counsel happens between fellow followers of Jesus – its not something that happens hierarchical.
To end this sermon, I am going to send you with two cliches that I am not proud of, but are cliches because, well, there is truth to them.
In my opinion the goal of nurturing faith is not to reach some enlightenment of faith. You will not get a halo around your head if you do this task or that one. To use a cliché, it is a journey, not a destination. Faith development is a journey, and we can choose to engage with it. If we are not connecting with the community. If we are not taking risks and pushing the edges of our faith. If we do not allow ourselves to be vulnerable. If we are not reflecting. If we are not getting feedback from those who know us best, we are not opting into the journey.
There is no end goal or a treasure in nurturing one’s faith. To use another meme. Its not the treasure, but the friends we make along the way. It’s the community that you gained, learned from, and were cared for along the way. It’s the connection with the divine that you make along the way. A God that loves you deeply – even the parts of you that you don’t want feedback about.
May our faith be nurtured by the community we surround ourselves with – in both the moments of peace and flourishing, and in the conflict. May we take the risk of offering and receiving feedback. And may God give us grace for this journey.