This the third sermon in our Back to the Basics series called “Speaking the Truth in Love.” Chris and Ann, two members of our community, role played conflictual situations throughout this sermon. 

Ephesians 4 (selections)

So, before we dive into this topic of “not making room for the devil,” I want to do a quick review of where we’ve been up until now. At retreat, we looked at different conflict styles, which are based on the fight, flight and freeze response that gets activated when we are under stress. These are biological, hard-wired responses, as Kevin Graber so helpfully reminded us. We said that all of these responses to conflict may be called for at times, so we’re not placing a value judgment of “bad” on them. 

But in this series, we are trying on another response to conflict, one that is less biological, hard-wired reaction than learned response. We’re calling it “speaking the truth in love,” and it’s a combination of both authenticity and care; speaking our truth with care and respect for the other person. Indeed, I believe this learned response — speaking the truth in love — is a spiritual discipline, one that we are called to as followers of Jesus. I also believe it is one of the most powerful and transformative spiritual disciplines we can learn. Like any discipline, any skill, it’ll take some time to learn it and we’ll need to practice it. And we will get better, over time, at it if we do.

I want to be clear, as I said in the blog entry I posted earlier this week on our website, that we are primarily, in this series, talking about addressing conflict in relationships where we already have a certain level of trust and safety — with our family, our friends, some co-workers and within this community. These principles and skills for addressing conflict can also apply to conversations with people with whom we have less trust or safety, where there may a bigger differential in power, and even to conflict between nations, but those kinds of conversations are trickier and often require more nuance.

So what skills do we need to learn and practice to speak the truth in love? Last Sunday, we talked about the skill of “leading with presence” and in Education Hour, we practiced ways to return to presence. (This is all on our blog below.) Presence is an embodied awareness of our direct sensory, mental and emotional experience (this is Oren Jay Safer’s definition). For many of us, conflict shoots us out of presence because we get hijacked by our stress response. We get reactive and often respond in ways that end up not being helpful for us or others and that actually keep us from getting our needs met. When we are present, we are  more able to access the wisdom that comes from our senses, from our emotions, from our neofrontal cortex (the rational part of our brain); and with greater awareness, we have greater choice about how to respond. In her sermon, Joanna specifically addressed the wisdom emotions can give us when we don’t repress them or willy nilly express them but tap into the information they are giving us.

Today, we’re going to learn about staying on our side of the net when in conflict, to practice the discipline of not telling stories about the other person. I’m grateful to Wil for being willing to tell that story about himself telling stories because it’s such a great story about what we all do. When we feel threatened, we start telling ourselves a story about that threatening person so quickly that we often don’t even know we’re doing it. Instead of staying with the simple truth of our own observations and emotions, we “cross over the net” into the other person’s mental space and try to figure them out. Why did they do that? What are their motivations? What kind of person are they? Next thing you know, we have a pretty good story worked out in our head. We should all be screenwriters! Let’s use another example that’s closer to home. Actors!

Chris (talking on the phone): Hi, honey. Hey, I’m going to have to work late again tonight.

Ann: What? That’s the second night this week. And you worked late twice last week too.

Chris: I know, I know. I have this big project we’re working on and…

Ann (interrupting): And it’s always something. Okay. Whatever.

Chris: But… 

Ann: (interrupting) I might be asleep when you get back. So, see you in the morning… (hangs up)

Now, Ann is obviously feeling angry.  But instead of staying with that anger and the information it’s giving her about herself, she — like most of us do when we are triggered in conflict — jumps across the net faster than Serena Williams and starts telling a story about Chris. To just give one example of where Ann could go once she’s over that net:

Ann: Why would Chris do something like this again?  I know he thinks he has to work late but he could say no…. I wonder if he’s upset that I didn’t want to go to that show with him last night? I know it was time we could have spent together but I was so tired and I just didn’t want to go out. Is he punishing me by working late? I mean, that would be just like him to do that and not even know he’s doing that. Just like his Dad. God, the men in that family can be so out of touch with their emotions they wouldn’t know one if it bit them in the… (she stops herself, as she realizes she’s in church).

Sheri: Maybe Ann decides to call her sister so they can commiserate over what is really wrong with Chris and so Ann can build an even stronger case for her story about Chris’ emotional cluelessness.  Pretty soon, she’s marshaled lots of anecdotes to support this conclusion. Any conversation with Chris that starts with this story is probably not going to go well. 

Ann: Honey, I think it would be helpful for you to go into therapy to get more in touch with your emotions.

Chris: What? I thought we were talking about my working late.

Ann: We are.

Needless to say, Chris feels judged, maybe pathologized and certainly not understood. 

When offering feedback in a conflictual situation, we often don’t speak from our area of knowledge (from our side of the net) — which is sharing how others impact us. Instead, we speak from our area of ignorance — which is trying to figure out why others act the way they do. To quote directly from a resource that someone in our congregation loaned me:  If you interrupt me and I feel annoyed, I try and understand why you would do that. I decide to attribute your behavior to your motives and intentions (like: you are inconsiderate). This is a normal process because it allows me to make sense of the world. Now with that label that I have hung around your neck, I can “understand” your other behaviors. 

This storytelling is normal — we all do it to make sense of the world — but it is often not helpful. I am “crossing over the net” from my area of knowledge (that I am annoyed at your behavior) to your area of knowledge (your motives and intentions). My guess about your motives can always be debated:

Chris:  You don’t listen.

Ann: Yes, I do.

Chris: No you don’t.

Sheri: Whereas my own feelings and reactions are never debatable:

Chris: I felt irritated by your interruption just now.

Ann: You shouldn’t feel that way because I didn’t mean to interrupt you.

Chris: Perhaps not, but I feel irritated nonetheless.

This kind of storytelling about another person increases their defensiveness because it’s pretty invasive. It is one thing for me to comment on your behavior and how it affected me, but it is a totally different thing to comment on your motives and intentions or your character or personality. People get defensive when offered this sort of feedback because it’s invasive and because we may be wrong about others’ intentions. It’s also usually  an over-simplification of the situation (“You act that way because you are insecure”), and we all hate to be reduced to someone else’s simple idea about who we are.  It’s not that we can never share our stories, our speculations about motivations, with another person. But we need to own it as our story, not theirs. And we need to check it out with them. We need more curiosity, and less certainty. Not:

Ann: You act that way because you are insecure.

Sheri: But rather…

Ann:  I know you struggle with insecurity. Do you think your response has something to do with that? 

In addition, crossing over the net encourages us to hold back and collect data on the other person because we are understandably afraid that our story about that person may be wrong. Not only does a lot of time pass before we say anything about our experience, we also begin to “build a case” and our conclusions harden as we begin to selectively hear things that confirm our assumptions and conclusion. In this way, conflict avoidance and crossing over the net to tell a story about someone go hand in hand. The more we avoid direct conversation, the more we have time to spin out a story. They’re a deadly combination. 

I actually wonder if the author of Ephesians had something like this in mind when they wrote; “Be angry but do not sin… do not make room for the devil. Let no evil talk come out of your mouths, but only what is useful for building up.. so that your words may give grace to those who hear.” Clearly, the author is saying it’s OK to be angry. In fact, that anger may be justified — and it’s always giving us information about ourselves. But don’t make room for the devil. Stay on your side of the net. It’s where you belong. You can’t play a game of tennis when you’re both on the same side of the net, and neither can you have real dialogue if you’re both there. What’s more, when you cross  to the other side of the net, you leave your side vacated, and then the devil steps in to serve. How’s the for working a metaphor?

So what would our scenario look like if Ann had stayed on her side of the net? Let’s say that Ann decided to go for a walk after Chris’ phone call. Ann has found that walking calms her nervous system so she can come back to presence — to an awareness of her senses, her emotions and her thoughts. She can feel her stomach beginning to unclench as she walks, and pretty soon her breathing has returned to normal. She decides to call her sister, not to commiserate about Chris, but to help sort through her emotions and thoughts.

Ann: “Hmm… Joanna told us in her last sermon that when anger comes up, we should ask the question: What must be protected? (That wise Joanna.) Well, the relationship for one. Chris’ late hours are threatening our closeness. And I feel protective of Chris — he had high blood pressure the last time he went to the doctor, and I wonder if his long work hours have something to do with that. The men in his family have a history of heart attacks and I’m afraid he’s on that track. And, I’m certainly feeling protective of myself. I miss Chris. And I feel like he’s valuing his work more than me. Maybe my anger is protecting me from this realization. Because that makes me feel sad to think Chris values his work more than me. So, I guess I’m pretty sad, too. What did Joanna say about sadness? That when it comes up, it’s telling us something must be released?”

That’s the thing about anger, I’ve found out — if you dig deep enough into it, sadness is always at the base of it. I had to pay a couples counselor a lot of money to tell me that — in a conflict with my husband — I should probably start from my sadness, from that vulnerability, instead of from my my anger. That conversations would probably go better if I’d do that. And what do you know? They did. Ann’s emotions are giving her rich information here, information it would be good to communicate to Chris. A few days later on a Saturday, when they are both feeling relaxed, Ann brings up the subject.

Ann: So, Chris, as you know, I got pretty angry when you stayed late at work the other night.

Chris: I know. (Guardedly, wondering what’s coming)

Ann: I realized that I’m really missing you, and I feel sad because it seems like we’re not as close as we were at one time.  And I feel sad, too, because I interpret your working late as choosing work over me. I suspect that’s not what you’re doing, but I feel that way. And I am worried about you and your high blood pressure. I know where that leads with the men in your family. So, there’s a lot going on for me when you call in to tell me you’re working late. 

Chris: I didn’t realize all that, Ann. 

Sheri: Chris takes a deep breath. Ann has just shared a lot. He senses that he needs to hit “pause” for a little bit to take in what she’s said and see how he’s doing with it.

Chris: (After a few seconds.) I  had no idea you were worrying about my health. That must be hard, to think I’m on track to have a heart attack. And I’m sorry you feel like I’m choosing work over you. You know I’m crazy about you and love spending time with you. I also feel kind of sad — it does seem like we’re not quite as close as we used to be. 

(They hold hands and look into each other’s eyes.)

And they lived happily ever after… until the next conflict occurred, and they were able to use their skills to deal better with that one. So, Ann was able to authentically speak her truth and feel heard by Chris. She was able to speak this truth in a way that made Chris feel cared for and loved, not judged or pathologized. And from this base of truth and love, Ann and Chris can go on to talk about why Chris feels the need to work late and what choices they might have around this situation.

So, here’s my rewriting of Paul’s advice from Ephesians about anger: Good people. Sometimes, someone in this community will do something that will feel threatening to you. It will make you angry. That anger is telling you that your boundary has been crossed in some way; and that something has to be protected. Figure out what that is. Do your work. Don’t tell a story about why they did that thing that made you angry. You don’t know! That’s for them to tell you. Or, if you do tell a story — check it out with them. If you do, speak from your heart. Let them know how what they did or said impacted you. Say this truth with love and care. Let them know it’s because you care about them and the integrity of your relationship that you are telling them this. Then, your speech will be useful for building up the body of Christ. In this way, your words may even give grace to those who hear.  Amen.