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Conflict Can Be A Positive Experience

SATURDAY, MAY 17, 1997

On back-to-back days last week, two mothers spoke briefly to me of the “growing pains” they were having with their late-teenage daughters. Both described in limited detail a few instances in which the underlying conflict erupted into shouting matches.

As I listened, I vividly recalled a few shouting matches of my own some years ago with our strong-willed teenage son. I’m thankful for at least two dimensions of those tumultuous times: Our three-member family survived, and the conflict with my son helped transform our relationship rather than deform it.

Conflict is inevitable. But we can decide if our conflicts will transform us or deform us.

These are very important distinctions we must make as we weave our way through times of conflict in our lives.

The setting can be our nuclear family, work, school, friendships, our faith family. Wherever we are, we will be a part of conflict.

Today’s question is: Will it be TRANSforming or DEforming conflict?

Oh, I know most of us think that conflict is an ugly word because it means anger or fear or fighting of some kind. And most dictionaries describe conflict in those ways.

But conflict in and of itself isn’t always bad, sinful or harmful. The Latin word “conflictus” means “to strike together.”

Can you think of any strike-together actions that have very positive motives and effects? Think hard. They are there.

Can you think of some positive conflict in the faith-family of which you are a part? I think there are great examples of positive conflict in the church.

I believe that, at its root, conflict is an issue of personal and community spirituality.

Whether a conflict is viewed as positive or negative depends so much on the church family and pastor deciding who is in charge: the conflict, themselves or God.

Conflict is one of the worst-kept secrets in the church. It is the elephant in the sanctuary (or classroom or board room or church office) that nobody talks about but everybody works so foolishly to avoid.

I have a basic two-edged theory as to why conflict is such a forbidden subject in (dare I generalize) every church, synagogue and mosque in our country - in the world, even. This theory is not just for Christians but could easily include every religious expression of which I am aware.

My basic two-edged theory: We either don’t have a clue about God’s deepest desire for humankind, or we are so fearful of the truth, we pretend we don’t know it.

What is God’s deepest desire for humankind? It’s been called many things over the centuries. I have called it God’s radical hospitality.

In spite of some convenient editing efforts, the Holy Bible (including the Apocrypha) consistently speaks of God working for a radically hospitable, joyful, complete fellowship with the whole of creation. Humanity is certainly included in that.

But God’s desire goes far beyond men and women, even Earth’s nature, and into the universe.

We of the church too often make a mockery of that radical hospitality. We usually call that mockery “sin.”

But whatever it’s called, however it’s acted out, and whoever is the scapegoat, deforming conflict is somehow in the middle of our sin.

Deforming seems to be all we think conflict can be, especially in the church.

Maybe that could be because deep down we don’t believe that the Good News of Jesus offers us conflict that will really transform our lives. Or we don’t believe it enough to give it a serious chance to work.

Yet it’s proven daily in countless lives how the Gospel message transforms deforming conflicts into conflicts that provoke inner-spirit growth, that change enemies into friends, that reconcile relationships thought to be irreconcilable. The very daily acts of creation are experiences of conflict of some kind or another.

Even the weeds growing through cracks in my asphalt driveway are expressions of creative, transforming conflict. Why then are we so unready to believe that conflict can transform the relationship we have with our pastors or others in leadership roles? Or people who got their way in the recent church remodeling project, or the new sanctuary, or the new youth program?

Why is it so difficult to deal with the conflicts we feel deep inside on any number of things within the church, things that run the gamut from highly significant to super petty?

I suspect it has something to do with the strange notion that if we don’t admit conflict exists in the church, we will fool God into thinking we’re healthier than we are.

If that’s anywhere near being true, we really don’t have a clue about what God truly wants for us. Or we are sons and daughters of Jonah who know God really is gracious and merciful, and we can’t stand it!

Do you have an elephant in your sanctuary? Most churches do.

If you would be willing to share about your sanctuary elephant (conflict your church family is afraid to talk about, let alone deal with), I would like to hear from you. I would like to include your anonymous conflicts in future columns about “transforming conflicts in the. …”

Together, we may begin to find ways to courageously identify the elephant. We might even get the brothers and sisters of Jesus to help the sons and daughters of Jonah do one of two things:

Lead the elephant out of the sanctuary (resolve the conflict together).

Transform that elephant into a wonderful reminder that God’s radical hospitality can transform the most difficult conflict into a conflict that gives new life to a congregation and its people.

I’m serious about wanting your stories of conflict. Just as serious as I am in believing that transforming conflict in the church is healthier than our attempts to deform conflict.


The following fields overflowed: CREDIT = Paul Graves The Spokesman-Review

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