09/16/2014 12:21 pm ET Updated Nov 16, 2014

God's Guide to Conflict Resolution

"For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

This weekend, hundreds of thousands of people will gather in New York City for the People's Climate March, calling on the United Nations to endorse a strong climate change treaty.

As a mother, I won't be able to join the bus traveling from my hometown of Asheville, North Carolina to New York City, although many of my students and friends will make the trek. During the largest climate march in history, I'll probably be making quesadillas for lunch, grading papers, and negotiating minor conflicts between my two daughters.

But as a mother, teacher, and person of faith, I am a part of this climate movement, even if my daily life is less than historic. And while I navigate household chores, I wonder daily what I can do to heal the politicized conflict that surrounds global warming in our country.

For some guidance, I turned to last week's Gospel reading, Matthew 18: 15-20. If this Biblical text had a theme - a pithy title we could post to Facebook - it could be: "God's Guide to Conflict Resolution."

According to Matthew, here are the following steps to take in conflict:
  1. Confront the person directly.
  2. If that doesn't work, take a witness or two with you.
  3. If he or she won't hear you, tell the church. (In this context, the word for "church" is "eclessia," which means a gathering. So we're talking about the community here.)
  4. Then if that fails, treat the offender as a non-believer.
  5. Yet the goal remains reconciliation: "For where two or three are gathered in my name, I am there among them."

These steps begin with a reasonable process for solving problems in private and bringing others into the fold if needed. The challenge for me begins in verse 17: "if this fails, let him be to you like a heathen or tax collector." This translates into treating someone as a total outsider. Does this mean I can exile my children when we can't agree? Or can I exile those who block government action to address climate change?

When Scripture confounds me, I often consult Eugene Peterson's The Message, which gives a modern interpretation of this verse: "If the sinning fellow believer still won't listen, tell the church. If he won't listen to the church, you'll have to start over from scratch, confront him with the need for repentance, and offer again God's forgiving love."

* * * * *

When I consider my family life, this interpretation from The Message makes sense to me. In my home with three girls, including me, we start over from scratch every day: It's like God meets Groundhog Day.

Just this week, after an altercation, my teenager stormed outside with these words: "You may be a good mom, but you are NOT patient at all. And don't deny it!" An hour later, Maya called from the Warren Wilson College chapel, where she and a friend were practicing a duet for piano and violin for their high school's talent show. "Listen to us on speaker phone," she said. As I heard the classical piece "The River Runs Though It," I cried at its beauty: they laughed because I always cry. And we started over and were reconciled with few words, one more time.

Beyond my home life, I have witnessed conflict and avoidance of conflict through my own work with congregations and climate change. Several years ago, I ate Christmas dinner with a close friend and his parents. My friend's father decided to challenge the science of climate change - right before serving the pumpkin pie. Instead of gathering for dialogue, I froze and excused myself to the bathroom.

If an Environmental Studies teacher is afraid to talk about climate change because of potential conflict, our planet is in deeper trouble than we think. So to face my own fear, I decided to write about the religious response to climate change, finding the stories of Evangelicals and Episcopalians, Catholics and Lutherans, who were acting on a shared moral mandate for the earth, regardless of differing political views.

In this context, it's important to note that Jesus isn't asking us to agree on everything: He is asking us to gather in his name.

And through those gatherings, redemption happened for me in church offices, on conference calls, and in unlikely places - like my local grocery store - the Swannanoa Ingles.

Last year, we were experiencing record heat, while other areas of the country dealt with drought and flooding. On a routine trip to the grocery, I reached for my shopping cart, smiled and said hello to an older man who was collecting the carts.

Almost in unison, we both commented on the unusual heat. Then I looked him in the eye and said, "Yep, they say it's climate change." He responded, "It's happening, no doubt about it." We held each other's gaze for several seconds, and in that moment, something happened for me - perhaps because it was the first time I'd mentioned climate change at the grocery store. But in that encounter, I felt the recognition of our common fate, an unspoken understanding of both uncertainty and love.

* * * * *

In The Christian Century, Craig Barnes writes:

If there is an authentically empathetic ministry in our lives, it can come only from the Holy Spirit. Mortals live within boundaries. Only the Spirit feels our deep groaning and then binds us more deeply into the life of Jesus Christ, who leads us into holy responses to our pain.

As individuals, we must ask: what is our holy response to pain and conflict? As faith communities, what is our holy response to threats like climate change that require collective efforts over time, rather than short-term fixes?

Indeed, we will not "solve the climate crisis" with one treaty or one march. But as Andrew Revkin of The New York Times suggests, we need a "new relationship with energy to go with our evolving new relationship with climate."

On September 21, as the masses gather in New York City, congregations will ring their bells at 1 p.m. for five minutes and 50 seconds. That's 350 seconds, representing the highest number of parts per million of carbon dioxide needed in the atmosphere for a stable climate. We're close to 400 parts per million now.

As individuals, I suggest we enter into this new relationship with both energy and climate by heeding God's call to gather - even with two or three - if we cannot join the thousands. We must talk with others about our changing climate in grocery stores, at dinner tables, in congregations, and in Congress. Even if we don't know what to say.

In these uncertain times, we cannot be afraid to speak. We cannot be afraid to gather. We cannot be afraid to pray, especially when we can't imagine the outcome.

And the greatest spiritual truth, in my simple theology, is that God's love is with us - tax collector, king, parent and teen. If we are marching in the streets or meeting in the grocery store, God's love is there.