A question we get asked often: “When is it time to walk away?”
And the follow-ups: “How will I know? What are the signs? What are the steps?”
Then behind all of those questions, the lurking worry connected to our deepest values: “Is it really ok to leave? What about reconciliation? What about peacemaking?”
We’ll be diving into some of the practicalities in a later post, but let’s talk about “is it ok.” Short answer: “sometimes more than ok, it’s necessary – it’s hard and holy work.”
Our friend, the amazing Rev. Riana Shaw Robinson, preached recently at City Church of Long Beach about the seldom acknowledged invitation from God to walk away from a relationship or a community.
Riana’s text was that uncomfortable moment when the apostles Paul and Barnabas had “such a sharp disagreement” (Acts 15:39) that they parted ways and never rejoined as a team. You can hear the whole message HERE.
Riana sums up the big picture like this:
“If you read most of the book of Acts, it’s about people who are in significant conflict trying to figure out how to do life together. Also in the book of Acts are people who determine it’s best if they don’t do life together. The church could learn so much if we could lean into what we learn in conflict and that sometimes the best thing that we can do is walk away.”
Perhaps you’ve never heard a church naming conflict this openly and without a tidy message of reconciliation to tie up all the loose ends.
· Are you open to learning how to walk away?
· Is there a recent ‘walking away’ situation you need to process?
Let’s get started with a few sermon highlights. All the quotes are from Riana.
“We want somebody else to be wrong.”
“Barnabas was the good guy, and Paul was a jerk. Barnabas didn’t like what Paul was saying so Barnabas left. End of story, right? To be perfectly honest, that was the story I wanted to tell. I wanted to be Barnabas, I wanted to be righteous and good and doing the right thing, and somebody was super mean to me and didn’t want to do it the right way and so I left. Those are the stories we want to tell ourselves when we break up, when we walk away: we want to be the righteous ones and we want somebody else to be wrong.”
Can’t you relate to wanting all of your conflicts solved by making others out to be the bad people?
And yet scripture and life are far more complicated, and we are each implicated when there’s a rupture. In the rest of the sermon Riana does a remarkable job of showing empathy for each player involved – not just Barnabas and Paul but also Mark and Silas – because each of us deserves to be seen as whole people and not mere villains.
“Who was in and who would be left out…”
“Paul and Barnabas couldn’t agree on who was in and who would be left out… and in that moment it was time for both of them to walk away.”
So often these are the questions that disrupt communities. The question is not only, “Who is in and who is out?” but also, “Who gets to make those decisions?” One of the biggest red flags in community is when the people making those decisions aren’t opened to being questioned themselves.
“Instead of a conversation you’re yelling”
“…the pain when you recognize all of the small steps that have already driven you apart and you look up and you don’t realize how far you are, and instead of having a conversation you’re yelling across a chasm.”
So often what brings us to the point of no return is not one BIG thing, but a million small things we were never able to resolve. It’s that classic story of the frog in a pot slowly warming to boil, acclimating to increasing heat over and over until it’s just too late. We just want it to work, we want things to be ok. And then finally, we have to acknowledge, they’re not.
Riana unpacked so many layers of pain that we experience in these situations of unresolved conflict. She named some of the disorienting realizations that come towards the end, including this very poignant one:
“Where I feel the most tenderness in myself is the pain when you recognize how long you have been lonely even while you have been in relationship with somebody else.”
Whew, how about we sit with this one quietly for a moment? Allow our own tender emotions to surface. It wouldn’t be so hard if these relationships didn’t matter. It wouldn’t be so hard if we weren’t wired for connection, for trust, for hope. But they do, and we are. So we ache.
Riana not only named the grief; she also named the gifts. Three in particular stand out:
“Once we get the courage to leave there are these gifts…. We get clarity about what we will and will not tolerate…. And also, sometimes when we walk away you find your people walking in the same direction. Walk with those people! …And finally, the gift of walking away is some peace in your spirit.”
Can you relate to these gifts? Have you received one or more of them? It’s strange to think that clarity, community and contentment could come out of such painful circumstances, but so often that is how the Spirit of God works.
Riana closed with a blessing, specifically for those who have done the hard work of walking away. Perhaps you need to receive this blessing today:
“If you’ve had to walk away from a place that was doing you harm and it was not just a disagreement on who’s in and who’s out but the disagreement was about whether you can be here in the fullness of yourself, or not… Well done. Congratulations. “
“I know that was probably an incredibly painful decision. And maybe you didn’t even feel like you walked away – you feel like you got pushed out. My encouragement is to pull your shoulders back a little bit and get your feet underneath you and keep walking by your own power. Honor the grief, honor the pain, honor the hurt, honor the relationships that are gone and keep walking into the fullness of who God intended for you to be.”