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Dealing With Separation
December 16, 1990


Last week we were in Minnesota celebrating the life of Ellie's mother, and giving thanks to God for her release from suffering. It was also a wonderful family time, deepening those special bonds that unite families. Ellie has two nephews and they now each have a son. As one lives in Minnesota and the other in Arizona, it was a special time for the two cousins to discover each other. Ryan is 3 1/2 years old, and J.J. is 2 1/2. On Friday evening we gathered in the basement. In Minnesota most of the basements have been converted to family rooms.

During the course of the evening, it was reported that a chair had been pulled up to the open refrigerator door, and a large container of orange juice had tipped over, spilling orange juice over the contents of the refrigerator. When Ryan, the 3 1/2 year old, came downstairs, his father asked him, "Ryan, did you spill the orange juice?" "No," was his emphatic reply. "Well, then, did J. J. spill the orange juice?" "Oh, no," he replied. "Well, then, how did the orange juice spill?" "It tipped all by itself."

Then, the 2 1/2 year old came down the stairs, not having heard the previous conversation. His father asked him, "J. J., did Ryan spill the orange juice?" With eyes as big as saucers, he said, "No." "Did you spill the orange juice?" "Oh, no!" "Well, then, who spilled the orange juice?" "Nobody done nothin'" was the reply.

Often children don't want to accept blame themselves, and will quickly blame someone else. But, these two cousins emphatically protected and exonerated one another. "It tipped by itself." "Nobody done nothin'" These two cousins are united. They have discovered unity. They left Minneapolis (one to go home, one on vacation) on different airplanes, at different times, but both fell asleep while the planes were speeding down the runways, and neither awakened until they landed.

Ellie and I were privileged to be in Germany and sense the excitement and apprehension of German unification. Families were reunited. West German relatives were previously allowed to visit East Germany, and now the East Germans could return the visits. We visited the Schneidereits where the mother had not seen her son, who lived only a few miles away, for 17 years.

"Unity in Christ" is our theme this Advent season. Unity is our prayer. Oh, that the world may be united! Neighborhoods, families, churches. The opposite of unity is separation, and separation, which is one definition of sin, is widespread. How do we deal with separation? How do we achieve unity? I suspect that everyone in this room deals with at least one painful separation. Many are divorced. Recent statistics are discouraging. Marriages now have a 66% chance of not making it. Divorce is not just painful for the partners, but the children as well. How do you best deal with divorce?

If there is not divorce in your family, I suspect there are serious estrangements: parents from children, children from parents, sibling rivalries, conflicts, jealousies. In the workplace, in your neighborhood, I suspect there are some strained relationships.

Some people are victims of intolerance and bigotry. Recently, a research group sent out researchers posed as customers to test the practice of car dealers. On the same car, the best deal was offered to white males, the worst deal to black males, with women somewhere in the middle. Some people, because of their color, or because they are poor, or because they are women, are separated and discriminated against. This separation is sin.

And, now on the global arena, we are dealing with separation on a gigantic scale. The specter of war looms on the horizon as January 15, the day of ultimatum, draws near.

How do we deal with sin? How do we deal with separation? How do we handle estrangement, conflict, criticism, antagonism, intolerance, bigotry, divorce, hatred? How do we achieve, accomplish unity?

The Epistle lesson this morning is filled with practical principles to help us deal with separation, and achieve unity.

1. 1 Thessalonians 5:15, "See that none of you repays evil for evil." Do not respond in kind. When evil is done to you, do not react. Do not do as is done to you. When someone is angry, do not respond in anger. Keep your cool. When you are criticized, do not react defensively. Do not retaliate. Do not seek vengeance.

2. But instead, secondly, act positively. Verse 15 continues, "but always seek to do good to one another." Don't repay evil for evil, but do good. Notice the emphasis is on doing. Act. Act positively. Be proactive. Do to others as you would have them do to you. Do something nice for the one who is separating him/herself from you. In other words, keep the ball in their court. Take the initiative. Keep trying to communicate. If they won't talk, write; and continue writing. Keep the door open. Be aggressive. Do good to one another.

3. Verse 21, "Test everything." Evaluate. Take a good look at yourself. People often find themselves in trouble because the trouble is really in them. Be honest about yourself. How have you contributed to the separation? Then, confess. Apologize, not in an attempt to manipulate a response, but because you need to be honest and confess.

4. Continuing in verse 21, "Hold fast to what is good." Hold on to the good. Remember the good times. Remember the positives. Emphasize the good memories. Can you see the image? When there is separation, there is a lot of pain. Can you see yourself standing in the midst of pain, hurts, negative feelings, anger, confusion, but holding on to what is good, and letting the pains drift? Let the stuff go. Confess and discard. Let God forgive you, and the blood of Jesus wash all the hurt away. Blood is such a powerful image. Picture Christ's blood, which is a symbol of his life, washing and cleansing you. Hold on to the good, and let the bad go.

5. Listen to what Paul says. It seems incredible, impossible, and crazy. Listen to verses 16-18. How do you deal with separation? "Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances." Pray, keep in touch with God. Pray for God to come, rectify the problem, heal the hurt, and bring unity. Give thanks in all circumstances. Give thanks for what God has done, for the good to which you are holding on; give thanks for the constant help, comfort, and strength of the Holy Spirit; and give thanks in anticipation of unity.

And, above all, rejoice. How can I rejoice, you ask. What is there to rejoice about? You can rejoice because we live in a different world, a different structure, from others. M. Robert Mulholland, Jr. wrote in Weavings, Disciples of Christ live their lives within a particular order of being--one whose structures of character and dynamics of being transcend the destructive events which undo the fragile order and tenuous control we impose upon the world. This is not an escapist transcendence. It is the transcendence of a deeper order which embraces our tenuous and fragile world order and incorporates its disruption and even its destruction into an eternal wholeness.

We live in the kingdom of God where separation is transcended. Therefore, rejoice always. Keep above the stuff. Keep your head in heaven, above the things of this earth, and rejoice. Rejoice in your creation. Rejoice in your salvation. Rejoice in God's love of you. Rejoice in God's care. Rejoice and count your blessings. Rejoice in your unity with Christ.

Christ is your unity. In Christ we are united. In Christ there is no separation. No one is separated except by choice. In Christ we are all included. You can deal with separation when you find your unity in Christ. Through it all, you can trust in Jesus. Through it all, Jesus is with you. Lean on him. Trust in him.

A young priest was obviously taking his first airplane trip, and was extremely nervous. He chewed his nails, fingered his beads, rubbed the cross hanging around his neck. Seated next to him was a seasoned traveler who asked the priest, "What's your problem?" The priest admitted he was afraid of flying. "How come?" the businessman asked. "You're a man of faith. Didn't Jesus say, `I am with you always, even to the ends of the earth'? What have you to fear?" The priest thought a moment, reflecting on what the man said, and then replied, "Yes, but what Jesus actually said was, `LO, I am with you always.'"

Low or high, near or far, separated and estranged, Christ is with you always. Christ will never let you go. You may choose to fall, but he will still be there to catch you. No matter how painful your separations, no matter how lonely or estranged you feel, your are united with Christ. United with Christ, you will receive the power to deal with separation, to do good to those from whom you are separated, not repaying evil with evil, to test everything, hold on to the good, pray without ceasing, rejoice always, and give thanks in all circumstances.

© 1990 Douglas I. Norris