Trust the Lord...

When I started out in ministry 30+ years ago, I often ached for affirmation. Not only did I avoid conflict like the plague, but sought out allies who both liked and agreed with me. In such a needy state, it was easy for me to demonize those with whom I disagreed - and feel righteous doing so, too!  For years I have hated this part of my life - it has made me sick and afraid - and inhibited me from living into the full blessing of ministry. The time for such self-hatred is over; so, too, my toxic sense of conflict. These things have surpassed their personal usefulness and have long outlived their profession expiration dates.

An old political nemesis from Cleveland - a venerated hero of the old school civil rights
movement - used to say to me: Can't we disagree without being disagreeable?  He was right, of course, for that is the higher road.  Fr. Richard Rohr notes that before we can do the work of unity, however, we have to make distinctions and separations. Such is the life work of youth and is essential before maturation can ripen.

unity is not the same as uniformity. Unity, in fact, is the reconciliation of differences, and those differences must be maintained--and yet overcome! You must actually distinguish things and separate them before you can spiritually unite them, usually at cost to yourself (Ephesians 2:14-16), which is perhaps why so few go there. If only we had made that simple distinction between uniformity and true unity, so many problems--and overemphasized, separate identities--could have moved to a much higher level of love and service.

When I look back on the conflicts I have faced - those I managed well and those that became destructive - there are three insights worth mentioning.

+ First, spiritual surrender to God's will. The word surrender may not communicate as clearly for women what it does for men, so I ask your forgiveness in advance. For what I am trying to say has something to do with the process of:  a) taking time to quiet my soul; b) listening for and trusting that God's grace is bigger than my fears or shame; c) prayerfully lifting the conflict into the love of Christ and asking his will; and d) taking the time to wait for God's clarity. That is what I mean by surrender. The 12 Step folk use it and it works for me because it involves an act of the will as part of being open to a love greater than myself. And without such an intentional resting in God's protection, my own inner demons have a field day with conflict.

+ Second, I need the counsel of older and wiser soul friends. At this point in the journey I mostly know that my shadow is HUGE - and I can't see most it. My shadow contains wisdom about me that I need to know, too. So if I want to engage conflict in a healthy and holy way, I need wise counsel to tell me what I am not seeing. Sometimes this comes from spiritual directors. At other times, I have needed to cultivate regular conversations with those in my faith community with whom I've tangled in the past and ask them for their take on what I am missing. This is a humbling discipline, but it builds bridges and opens up insights that might forever elude me.

+ And third, with the exception of the soul vampires (with whom I shake the dust off my sandals and keep moving) it is crucial to avoid demonizing my partners in conflict. The Alban Institute once published an excellent book, Never Call Them Idiots,  Once you do, your opponents humanity is diminished - and before long they become "other" rather than just another pilgrim striving for truth and grace. To be sure, their are those in every congregation who are a pain in the ass with no apparent purpose other than being a thorn in your side. There are excellent resources about such toxic players. But most of those I have come into conflict with over the years are NOT soul vampires. They are people of faith who want to serve God and the church with zest and integrity.

Yesterday I read Fr. Rohr's summary of the spiritual disciplines he now commits himself to that keep him grounded in mature unity rather than the distracting and unobtainable fantasies of uniformity. There are five:  contemplation, Sabbath, service, shadow work and spiritual direction. Each component moves beyond simple dualisms to deeper harmonies. They also build into the natural rhythm of a life the inward and outward journey. In these truths, I can enter conflict as a way to seek greater truth and grace. I can trust that my own anxieties are not the whole story. And I can practice waiting on the Lord until a fair and compassionate path is discerned.

Proverbs 3 in Peterson's Message puts it like this:

Trust God from the bottom of your heart;
    don’t try to figure out everything on your own.
Listen for God’s voice in everything you do, everywhere you go;
    he’s the one who will keep you on track.
Don’t assume that you know it all.
    Run to God! Run from evil!
Your body will glow with health,
    your very bones will vibrate with life!
Honor God with everything you own;
    give him the first and the best.
Your barns will burst,
    your wine vats will brim over.
But don’t, dear friend, resent God’s discipline;
    don’t sulk under his loving correction.
It’s the child he loves that God corrects;
    a father’s delight is behind all this.


Phil Ewing said…
Really excellent and helpful - thansk RJ
RJ said…
you bet Phil!

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