It has been an interesting couple of weeks, where multiple people have offered me a compliment that humbles me because they are identifying something that I think I need a LOT of work on. The praise goes something like “I remember the meeting, School for Ministry, legislative session, hallway conversation, etc., where someone literally assaulted/verbally attacked you and you didn’t argue/defend yourself/counter attack, etc. Now, I constantly wrestle with not getting defensive or trying to explain myself, so the fact that others see restraint and self-control in me is very flattering as well as humbling. The other side of the compliment comes from the number of people who tell me that they miss my voice/perspective/non-anxious presence in a variety of settings. I have had more than a hundred people contact me to let me know how sorry they are that I am not a delegate to the next General and Jurisdictional Conference. Some of the things they have said that are meaningful to me are:
- You don’t get sucked into drama
- You aren’t reactive to presenting issues but are responsive to the core issues
- You champion inclusion of people with disabling conditions/racial justice/LGBTQIA+ consistently without making it all about you
- You respect people who hold positions “a million miles” from your own
- You take people aside to talk with them about how they are being perceived in very kind, gentle ways
- You respect the identity and point-of-view of everyone
- You don’t ever try to argue people out of their feelings or perceptions
My response to these things, in general, is “I WISH!” I don’t see myself this way, though all of these things do resonate with the way I most firmly believe we should navigate difficult conversations and engage in controversy and conflict. A quote caught my attention: “We seem to have a limitless capacity to do harm, but are severely limited in our ability to do good…,” and I realized I believe both sides are limitless. The reason we are so bad at disagreeing well is not lack of capacity but a lack of desire, awareness, preparation, and practice.
I did a children’s sermon today that used juggling as an illustration. I juggled rubber ducks which I discovered to be MUCH more difficult than spheres. As I displayed my ineptitude to the kids and congregation, I asked the simple question, “What do I need to do if I want to get better at juggling?” The kids and congregation chorused, “PRACTICE.” I was emphasizing that if we want to become more caring, sharing, and kind, we need to practice – the more we do it, the better we get.
I believe the same is true of civil discourse and faithful disagreement. We seem to be practicing discord, insult, invective, argument, attack, and verbal assault on a daily basis. I do not see us cultivating academies for the honing and perfecting of the skills for constructive conversation, consensus building, collaborative problem solving, and kind contentions. Rather than accepting people where they actually are, our tendency is to ascribe intent (almost always malicious) and assume the worst. What is preventing us from assuming and ascribing the best? Why can we not step away from the emotional reaction to offer a gracious response? Why do we make disagreement so dangerous and perilous instead of striving together to create safer and more secure environments for dealing with the tough stuff.
I am delighted that people have seen grace, patience, kindness, and self-control in my engagements, yet I know I could do SO much better. I know I need to work on it, and I have found a small cadre of people who share these desires. I wonder what it will take to make civility, respect, compassion, consideration, mercy, and justice high values that will dictate the ways we learn to engage with one another. I believe everyone wants a kinder, more civil world; a life-space that feels safe, respectful, and secure. Why then is the well of negativity so deep while the well of reconciliation and peace seems to shallow and dry? It doesn’t need to be this way; God supplies the living water that fills the well for peace, unity, reconciliation, healing, grace, and love. These are inexhaustible resources. All we need to do is figure out how to tap in and stay connected. God’s abundance will supply all that we need to be generous conduits for kin*dom transformation.