A very basic human conflict is captured quickly and poignantly in one of the great comedy sketches of all time.
Jack Benny worked hard to create his image as a miser. So we quickly understand his conflict when a mugger comes up to him, puts a gun to his stomach, and demands, “Your money or your life!” There is a pregnant silence that lasts until the flustered mugger says, “Well?” To which Benny responds with some passion: “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
A good friend and colleague in Everett reminded me of this sketch after reading my columns on the fundamentals I suggest be used to transform conflict rather than let conflict deform us.
He asked: “What steps would you take, were you in Jack Benny’s shoes, to resolve the conflict involved in the situation? What would that look like?”
Maybe my friend isn’t such a good friend after all. He wants me to tell him how these fundamentals actually work! Can you imagine his audacity? Of all people, he should know preachers deal in ideas that sound good but have no practical basis.
All I can say is, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
Then, another preacher, in Massachusetts this time, pointed to my impracticality in another way. This man called me “naive in the extreme” after listing my fundamental: “Trust that the other person in the conflict wants to resolve things as much as you do. Then act as though you trust yourself and the other.”
He continued: “Many people are more interested in power and in winning than in resolving a conflict. Often the conflict itself is the result of one party’s attempt to dominate the other.”
He’s absolutely right. All I can say is, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
A third man wrote, this time from Post Falls, and addressed me as “God-guy.” (I hope he was writing with his tongue tucked in his cheek.) Ironically, it is a non-clergy who dares to see my thinking as practical. In fact, he shared one of his fundamentals for transforming conflict.
“See not,” he called it. It is a creative look at the story of the blind man Jesus healed as reported in John, Chapter 9. At the end of the story, 9:39-41, Jesus affirms those who “see not” are more able to see the miracle of life God offers than those who see only the self-issues that get in our way, day by day.
To the God-guy writer and my two clergy colleagues, all I can say is, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
They push me to think about the implications of the 10 fundamentals I offered for your reflection. What I’m thinking at this moment has to do with how each of us balances those values we hold in highest regard.
Jack Benny’s comedic struggle with whether his money or his life is more important to him is an exaggerated portrayal of a constant human conflict: choosing between values that have the capacity to pull us apart inside and often away from others.
Is it more pragmatic for Jack to give his money to the mugger so he can live another day to fill his wallet again? Or, is he willing to give his life to save his money? Maybe he believes he really can take it with him.
To my colleague who reminds us of the pragmatic play for power so many engage in, I suggest this: My deep desire to trust other people so much may not be as naive as it first appears. I couldn’t have survived 27 years of pastoral ministry on the strength of my naivete alone.
I hope my lasting power has balanced the power-plays and mistrust built into all human relationships with a degree of serpent-like wisdom and dove-like innocence.
In Matthew 10:5-42, Jesus speaks powerfully of that wisdom and innocence as he gives street-wise instructions to his disciples before sending them out into the hard, cruel world. I am not naive, but I do choose to expect the best from others and from myself. That “best” has, in part, to do with trusting others.
The conditions I place on that trust depends on how my offer of trust is received and treated. Plus, my conditional trust is tempered and expanded by the unconditional trust I keep learning from God’s testing through other people.
To quote my new “God-guy” friend, I choose to “see not” the mistrust before I give others a chance to be trustworthy.
At the moment, I have this absurd picture in my mind of Jesus and Pontius Pilate. Pilate comes up to him and says, “Your allegiance or your life!” There’s a pregnant silence, broken only by Pilate’s exasperated, “Well?” To which Jesus replies, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
Nah! That choice is undoubtedly more of the kind we must make. And make every day.
Every day, the most practical thing we could probably do is to step aside from an urgent decision and say inside, “I’m thinking! I’m thinking!”
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