Not Without Conflict


There was once a samurai warrior who travelled to the distant home of an old monk. On arriving he burst through the door and bellowed, "Monk, tell me! What is the difference between heaven and hell?"

The monk sat still for a moment on the tatami-matted floor. Then he turned and looked up at the warrior. "You call yourself a samurai warrior," he smirked. "Why, look at you. You're nothing but a mere sliver of a man!" 
"Whaaat!!" cried the samurai, as he reached for his sword.
"Oho!" said the monk. "I see you reach for your sword. I doubt you could cut off the head of a fly with that."
The samurai was so infuriated that he could not hold himself back. He pulled his sword from its sheath and lifted it above his head to strike off the head of the old monk. 

At this the monk looked up into his seething eyes and said, "That, my son, is the gate to hell." Realizing that the monk had risked his life to teach this lesson, the samurai slowly lowered his sword and put it back into the sheath. He bowed low to the monk in thanks for this teaching.

"My friend," said the monk, "That is the gate to heaven."

Is it hard to remember the last time you caught a glimpse of the hell of anger and rage? Oh my! There are plenty of opportunities living in the a city like ours: The crowded tube train some morning last week?  The arrogant boss?  The inconsiderate dog owner? And of course, the more we care, the worse the rage. Home can quickly become hell over something as simple as a thoughtless word or the eternal question of who’s doing the washing up tonight! “I cooked so you clean” “No, you make such a mess when you cook…” and as easy as that… creak… the gate to hell slides open!

Human rage can usher us into a private hell.  It can and does create hell for others. War is hell. We create hell on earth with battles: between person and person, tribe and tribe, nation and nation. What about the heaven in our story then? The samurai’s rage dissolves into gratitude and respect when he understands the monk’s teaching and the risk he has taken. Heaven is not simply in the absence of rage, it is not to be found in a cold peace – the absence of overt hostility… Heaven is in the connection that is created between these two men.  The gate to heaven slides open as true understanding grows.

Life’s sacredness can be found in connection – in care, in understanding, in compassion, in listening, in being heard. For me, the meaning of the word God is intimately tied to a fundamental unity of life - the wholeness, the enfolding love that brings all things into oneness and harmony. Hell is the violent disruption of unity. Heaven is the restoration and strengthening of relationship.

Going back to the story, what is the role of conflict? It’s tempting to say that conflict is the gate to hell.  But no.  For the Samurai and the Monk, conflict itself neither hell or heaven.  It is the process that brings these two strangers from distance and separation, through a transforming fire, into an authentic connection.

Earlier, we read in unison.  The words began: “love is the doctrine of this community.”  This is variant of a covenant that Unitarian minister, James Vila Blake, wrote in 1894. In many, many different versions developed over more than a century, these words continue to be repeated every Sunday by Unitarian congregations around the world. “This is our great covenant – to dwell together in peace. To seek the truth. To help one another. To the end of that all shall grow into harmony with the divine.”

These words form a covenant – a commitment within a community.  They are meant to bind a community together to a common purpose, to a shared vision, and to create a place where it is safe to be ourselves. A place where we can enter into a connection that we may call Beloved Community – a place where the sacred within all of us becomes more tangible - Where love becomes more than just a nice word, but an active force of care, acceptance, healing, and growth.

In the story, it is not kindness that creates the opening to heaven, but conflict! The blustery samurai and the wise monk were not headed toward understanding by calm considered discussion. 

There are two things I want to say today:
First is that conflict truly can open up doors to greater understanding and even create a breach in the walls that keep us apart and keep the scary sacred nature within ourselves at bay.

The second thing I would like to say is that, if you are like 99% of people, you avoid conflict like the plague. Why? Because almost every time you get caught in conflict, it turns out badly. It creates resentments that don’t easily go away.  It makes you feel terrible. It doesn’t seem to create any progress or resolution.  And so, if you are sensible, you don’t get into conflict and, if you do, you try to gloss over the rift to put in place what looks like a good repair, but only hides the damage below.  

Where does this leave us? I think we end up knowing that there is much more possible in our relationships. There are conflicts that simmer along just under the surface because we are afraid to challenge the status quo by dipping in a bit further – afraid to rock the boat even if it’s in the cause of greater understanding.  There are people we simply avoid because we imagine the potential for conflict.

But, there is conflict and there is conflict.  Sometimes, we really can, with some work and preparation, engage into very productive and ultimately enriching dialogue that involves conflict. Conflict can be a powerful, although rarely pleasant, means to our own personal and spiritual growth.

I’m going to rely very heavily on one particular book this morning.  It is called “Difficult Conversations: How to discuss what matters most”  I recommend it very highly.

What happens when you get into a conflict? Let’s say that I’ve been angry at Peter because he hasn’t helped with some project in the congregation, so I decide to take a risk and have that difficult conversation with him

A – Hey Peter
P – Yes Andy
A – Peter, you never help out around here. I don’t know why you’re so uncaring, selfish and lazy. You should do more! ([Aside:] Now I can surely expect Peter to respond very positively and become a more responsibly member of the congregation)
P – Sod off! If you could deliver a decent sermon, maybe I could stay awake long enough to help.

That doesn’t seem to have gone very well at all.
What’s going on?

Well, for one thing, Peter doesn’t understand what I’m actually feeling about this and I don’t understand what he’s feeling.  We know that underneath the words, there is emotion. We are emotional creatures and everything we say has another level to it.  If we don’t understand that level, we may resolve a particular issue, but we never get to a better overall understanding.

Remarkably, Peter is still willing to talk to me, now that I have this new insight.

A – Oh Peter…
P – Yes Andy
A – You know Peter, when you said that you wouldn’t be willing to help when I needed you desperately, I felt very let down. I felt hurt.
P – I’m sorry you felt hurt, but it’s your fault. I am not uncaring or inconsiderate. You might need to learn more about how to ask people for help.
A – I do too know how – I’m a professional!
P – Ha! 
A – I don’t think we’re getting anywhere here
P – nope.

OK, I followed my advice – really put some feelings up front and I didn’t accuse Peter of anything, but he got all defensive.  What’s going on? The problem is that I pushed a button for Peter. Unknowingly, I said something that challenged convictions he holds deeply – I questioned something about his identity. 

Each of us holds certain central identities and we rely on these to understand who we are and that we have real value and worth as people.

Conflict can be so difficult because it can force us to ask ourselves three distressing and disturbing questions. These are questions that cut to the core of our understanding of ourselves in the world:

Am I competent?  Am I a good person?  Am I worthy of love?

I doubt that any of us seriously wants to hear any suggestion that the answer to any of these three is anything but a resounding yes…

Peter was thrown off balance when he heard what sounded like a challenge to his identity as a good person – a person worthy of love - even if I didn’t intend it. If he would deliberately hurt me by not helping, then he must be inconsiderate and must not be a good, loveable person.

And then, my identity as a competent professional minister was challenged when Peter suggested I wasn’t perfect in how I asked for help. [Obviously, this is fiction.]

These identity questions are at the heart of why conflict is so often painful and unproductive. And there are no simple answers or quick fixes for making them go away. But a key is being aware – knowing that they can get us off balance.

A – Ummm…. Peter?
P – Yes Andy
A – Remember what we were talking about before?
P – You’re kidding, right?
A – Oh right. Sorry.  Well, when you said that you wouldn’t be willing to help when I needed you desperately, I felt very let down. I felt hurt. I also respect the other things you do and I think of you as a very, very important member of the congregation.
P – Oh…  I’m sorry you felt hurt.  Thanks for what you said, but I’m not perfect either. I could have helped but I was a bit offended myself. When you asked me, it felt like I was being ordered to do it.
A – Oh no!  That’s something I need to look out for.
P – Well, It’s partly me – I know I have a very strong anti-authoritarian reaction.
A – I think we’re getting somewhere here
P – Yes.  Let’s talk some more. I think I can learn from this. I think we can actually become closer by working through this.
A – Me too. 

A key to growing through conflict is that our identities become less brittle – that they not be all or none, black or white.  If I am either a perfectly competent minister or the worst dirt every scraped from the pavement, then I have got to go to denial when challenged. These are difficult feelings. The authors of “difficult conversations” call this experience an “Identity Quake” - as the foundations of your very understanding of yourself begins to rumble and rock and fall out beneath you.

Clearly an all or none identity is not an easy thing to live with, but many of you will recognize the feeling of having one – the defensiveness and the upset that can arise whenever certain buttons are pushed.  Not surprisingly, we want to avoid situations where these buttons are likely to get pushed.

An identity quake also brings opportunities. We can identify the specific challenges that tend to shake our identities, making us more prepared to cope with these when they come along. We can learn the essential truth that none of us are all anything – all good or all bad – It’s a reality that makes our lives more complex, but also richer and less fragile.  And we can learn that we do make mistakes, that we don’t always have the purest motives, and that we are still OK, good, competent, and loveable.

In confronting these deeper realities through conflict, we experience the discomforting challenges that enable us to grow into fuller, more whole human beings. We are helped to move through the difficult terrain of self-knowledge and self-acceptance.  

And we can’t do this alone.  We need the safety and security of a community where we are bound by understandings and by covenant.  This is the wisdom of places like this and of those who created a faith where, as Francis David said, “we need not think alike, to love alike.” Within the support of loving community, we can take the chance to be imperfect.

And as we journey with both love and challenge, we become increasingly at home in our own skins and more able to enter into the great oneness where the sacred can be found. We emerge as people more in harmony with the divine, and more ready to participate in building the beloved community – heaven on earth. 

So may it be with you.
So may it be with us.