Sermon: The Case for Conflict

This is the first sermon in our Back to the Basics series on “Speaking the Truth in Love.”

Ephesian 4 (selections)

We’ve all been there. You’re sitting at the dinner table with your mother, son, uncle, partner, friend, co-worker… let’s just settle for partner in this example. (This example is adapted from the book Caring Enough to Confront: How To Transform Conflict with Compassion and Grace by David Augsburger):

The kids are acting up at dinner, clearly driving you crazy. 

Chris: I’m so sick of this. I can’t take it anymore. Sit down. Shut up. Eat your dinner. How many times do I have to tell you that?”

Ann:  Smooth move, Dad. Just like your father.

You swallow twice at food gone flat, freeze into an angry silence, get up from the table. Your partner shows no surprise at this familiar routine. You fumble a response to the kids, her critical words cut to the quick and you retreat to lick the wound.

You see in the shrug of her shoulders that she knows your next move — flight to the bedroom, an evening and night of cold, withdrawn anger. When you feel rejected, you reject. 

In time, the intense feeling of rejection will pass and you’ll be talking again. Until the next time something happens on this hamster wheel you’re on together. Is there any way off of it?

This example is certainly one I can identify with, and I’m sure many of you can. Something is said or done (or not said or not done), we are offended, and… we’re off to the races. Like I said yesterday, very quickly upon feeling offended or threatened, adrenaline starts pumping into our system, and blood is diverted from higher-reasoning sections of our brain to the large muscles of our arms and legs so we can either hit or run. In other words, we stop thinking and start reacting. For some of us that reaction, will be to flee, like the father from this scenario.  Go to the bedroom and shut the door. For some of us, that reaction will be to fight — to lash back with unkind words. Chris, (sarcastically): “Oh, and you’re such a great Mom yourself, not to mention an excellent partner. Just like your mother.” 

Other times, the conflict might be less immediate and somewhat less charged but not less present. I’ve seen that happen more within this congregation than this kind of domestic conflict. Let’s say you’re the chair of a committee, and you feel someone isn’t pulling their weight on that committee. (And I am making this example up, by the way, so none of you committee chairs should feel implicated!) This committee member shows up, usually, and participates, but they don’t complete tasks they say they’re going to complete, which is irksome to you. So far, you’ve been dealing with it by grumpily complaining about this committee member to your housemate and by not asking him to do anything.  But you are offended by his behavior and find that your feelings toward this person have cooled since working with him on a committee. 

As a pastor of this church for 18 years, I have heard countless stories over the years of this kind of conflict among us— not huge, the church-is breaking-apart sort of conflict — but “rubs” (as Ling calls them) that chafe and irritate. There have also been a handful of bigger rubs in which relationships were broken and never really put back together again. Those have been the most painful, especially when those people never attempt a conversation about the conflict. Often, I’m privy to both sides of this conflict and I often think, “If they could just hear each other, really listen, they might be able to resolve this.” 

During our new members class, we read a booklet called “What is an Anabaptist Christian.” There’s one part of it that almost brings tears to my eyes every time I read it: “The central problem of humanity is not the lack of finances, the lack of education or the lack of power,” Palmer Becker writes. “The central problem is that we offend each other. From the very beginning of time, human begins — both as individuals and as groups — have offended God and each other through their attitudes and actions. The result has been broken relationships with God, with each other, with our inner selves and with the whole earth.” 

How we deal with offense and the conflict that comes from it is absolutely central to our faith. How we get back into right relationship after there has been wrong — whether that wrong happens between individuals, between groups of people, between nations, whether that wrong is personal or systemic — is what we were are about here in this community. Restoring into right relationship is the work of the kingdom of God. So, I don’t think it’s an overstatement to say that how we respond to offense and conflict will be one of the most important choices we will ever make. As David Augsburger puts it: “How we view, approach and work through our differences does — to a large extent — determine our whole life pattern.” And it determines the life pattern of the communities were are in.

The good news is: Despite the fact that we are not wired well for conflict; despite the fact that we often haven’t had very good models of dealing well with conflict; despite the fact that conflict often comes up suddenly and surprises us and we’re caught off guard; despite the fact that many Mennonites and “spiritual” people in general tend toward conflict avoidance…. the good news is that the skills of having good conversations when emotions and stakes are high are learnable with practice.   We can learn to speak the truth in love. We can practice it. We will never be perfect, but we can get closer to this goal of speaking the truth in love when conflict arises.

Yesterday, we talked about different conflict styles that can be necessary at times but are often not the most ideal way of handling rubs and offenses, that fall short of speaking the truth in love. Let’s review them now with another scenario. Actors, please take the stage. (This scenario is also adapted from Augsburger’s Caring Enough to Confront.)

Ann: He’s stealing me blind. More than $300 must have come in across the counter today, and his cash register tickets shows $175. He must be pocketing the cash, ringing up no-sales or avoiding the register altogether. Of all the stupid blunders, going into a partnership with my brother-in-law has got to be the all-time winner.  

Opening your pharmacy together had seemed so right. But in the first nine months, you’ve barely turned a profit. One way of dealing with this conflict would be to fight.

Ann: I’ll get him. I’ll fix his wagon good, the embezzler. Why I oughtta…. 

(Interrupting) Oh but, you can’t. It’ll hurt your sister more than him, and she’s just pulling away from a long depression.

Ann: I’ll shut up and get out then. He can buy my half and have the whole thing — debt, mortgage and all — right in his inadequate lap. 

Run away! Run away! (Monty Python fans, do you feel me? ) Let’s give a cheer for conflict avoidance. But, not so easy. Your home was mortgaged too for the operating capital. You’re in all the way.

Ann: What do I know, really? It seems like we should be taking in more money, but… I maybe I’m wrong. Or maybe he just needs the money he’s taking from the register; I mean, he probably needs it more than I do. My wife has always had a higher salary than my sister and… I should just let him have it. 

This is another version of conflict avoidance or “giving in.” But in this scenario, Ann has become almost completely passive, ignoring her own needs to the point that she’s not even aware she has them. She’s given up, become a doormat. Over time, this is going to breed resentment or ruin.

Ann: I’ll do nothing for now, but he’ll get his. I’ll wait for the auditor to catch up with him; maybe I could even tip the auditor off? Or, I know. I can talk to my sister about what’s going on. She won’t be happy.

Ah, passive aggressiveness. A lovely combination of not one, but two conflict styles — fight and flight; aggression and avoidance. Remember your sister’s depression, though? This isn’t going to help that.

Ann: I’ll go halfway. I’ll go along with him for awhile, not say a thing, but I”ll make sure I watch each transaction he rings up. 

But you can’t be there all the time. Surely this is a temporary compromise solution.

Ann: I guess I’ll have to  find the best time, let him know his future matters to me as well as my own and then tell him what I’ve been seeing. There’s no other way out of the mess. But can I do it?

Yes, Ann, if you attend every Sunday of this series and practice in between time, you can.  This last “conflict style” is what we’re aiming for — speaking the truth in love. It is a combination of authenticity — of speaking the truth, (I’ll tell him what I’ve been seeing) — and genuine care and respect for the other (I’ll let him know his future matters to me as well as my own).  Both sides — truth and love, authenticity and care — need to be present to relate in a mature way. 

I want to briefly look at both sides. Speaking the truth: I grew up in a conflict-avoidant community. We were afraid of how conflict might tear apart a small community in which we all lived side by side apart. But by being so afraid of conflict, it seems to me that people didn’t really know each other. When we speak our authentic truth, we are making ourselves vulnerable by sharing our own observations and needs. We are allowing ourselves to be known. And, we are helping others know themselves better by giving them information that can offer awareness and insight about themselves. We are giving feedback that can help them know themselves better and grow from that knowledge. I think back fondly to people who gave me feedback I needed to hear in a way that I could hear it. It made me better, stronger, more mature. I realize the risk they often took to give me this feedback, and their vulnerability and willingness to risk ended up making us closer. In this way, conflict can creates intimacy while also bringing about transformation and growth. What’s not to like about conflict?

Well… the key is to give feedback in a way that people can hear it. That’s the “in love” part of “speaking the truth in love”— to give feedback to people in a way that offers them the maximum of useful information with the minimum of threat and stress. This can get very tricky, because if we feel offended, if we feel threatened, the last thing we often want to do is offer care to the offender — to offer them feedback with a minimum of “threat and stress.” The less blame and criticism in our words, the more people will be open to hear us. (This comes from the “Mindful Communication” class I took with Oren Jay Safer, offered through the Nonviolent Communication Academy. His book on the topic is coming out soon.) And sometimes our truth will be threatening no matter how well we present it. The problem with lashing out, say, or passively aggressively punishing someone with silence or avoiding conflict is that we usually don’t get our needs met that way. Perhaps we get the short-term need of vengeance met through our harsh words or vindictive silence or the short-term need of safety met through our avoidance, but that doesn’t usually help us with long-term needs of intimacy or growth. The person who suspects her brother-in-law of stealing or losing money from their business is not going to get her needs met by fighting or avoidance or even compromise. And in the scenario that began our sermon, Chris is not going to get his needs met by storming off in a sulk to the bedroom one more time. Let’s imagine a different approach — one in which Chris speaks the truth in love, one in which Chris chooses both authenticity and care:

Chris: “What have I ever gained by running? The longer I brood, the more I hurt. I know what I need to do. Talk, not walk — tell her what I’m feeling. Perhaps the time is now. I have been attending every Sunday of that exciting new series at church. Perhaps I can practice what Sheri has been incessantly preaching to me.”

You slow the feelings that press to rush out. You weigh and then say what really matters to you, what is your truth. 

Chris (to Ann): “Can we talk?” Deep breath. “When you criticize me like that, I feel rejected. It hurts. I usually run. But what I really want is to tear down the prickly wall between us and to be able to feel close to you again. And to do that, I need you to respect me as me. I am not my father. I am who I am. And I need you to respect me by being my partner in those situations with the kids — helping me manage those situations instead of criticizing me.”

(Ann is silent and nods in surprise.) Your partner is not used to hearing feelings and needs described so clearly. She’s seldom heard  you say what you really need without attacking her. The space has been created for something new to happen.

As David Augsburger says: “To care and be clear with your truth at the same time, in this way, is mature relating. To be truly for the other and to stand for what you value when with the other, without sacrificing either, is what it means to be an adult.”

We can learn to speak the truth in love; we can gain skill in doing this. To paragraph Ephesians: For each of us was given grace to do this work, to equip ourselves and each other for the work of right relationship in the world, for building up this community until we all grow into maturity, into adulthood, into the fullness of Christ. So, speaking the truth in love, let’s grow up together. Let’s put away falsehoods and speak the truth, for we are members of one another. We’re not going to use harsh or cutting words, but what is useful for building each other up, so that our words may give grace to each other. Amen.