September 16, 2012. Based on Luke 10:38-42
We’ve all been in or seen conflict with friends or family that didn’t go as smoothly as we’d like. Let’s face it, conflict is hard and most of us will do almost anything to escape it. No matter how hard we try to escape it, anxiety still is. It’s not good or bad, it just is. It’s part of life for absolutely every one of us.
So wouldn’t it be great if, instead of fearing conflict, we could embrace it as a gift, harnessing its’ power to become fully healthy, fully alive? That’s exactly what Jim Herrington, founding director of Mission Houston and director of Faithwalking believes is possible. He also believes conflict and anxiety are two of the greatest teachers we have!
They certainly have been and are for Herrington, who
Let me show you what I mean by looking specifically at a story of conflict. Most of us develop our patterns of conflict in our family of origin, so we’ll look to the story of two sisters. Martha and Mary had invited a group of friends over to their home to eat and relax. Their personalities differed greatly, as did their gifts and ways of interacting with the guest of honor. Martha was an amazing hostess worthy of her own cable TV show in a culture that valued hospitality as one of the premiere moral imperatives. Mary was all relationship, and loved sitting and talking with their guests.
Over the course of this visit with friends, Martha grew increasingly anxious and frustrated with Mary for not helping her with the practical hostess duties. Finally, her anxiety grew to the point of causing conflict with Mary, which – like many of us have done – Martha verbalized for all to hear. She says to the guest of honor, “Do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.’ ”
Let’s pause in the story here and unpack what we can learn about conflict. According to Herrington, Martha does something very healthy and essential in the midst of her conflict: she says what is so for her. She does not ignore her frustration but honestly owns it, expressing it in a clear and compelling way. No guess work is needed to interpret her behavior because she has claimed and cared for her identity and needs. For Herrington, speaking the truth about ourselves in the midst of disagreement is foundational to moral and emotional health.
He would also say that Martha saying what was so for her is NOT what created the conflict in this story. In fact, it opened the door for her to learn invaluable lessons about herself. In Faithwalking 201 Herrington states that individuals grow in proportion to our ability to have our own thoughts, ideas and opinions and “to hold them with integrity even when others see it differently (pg 155).” Speaking the truth about ourselves is essential business in our life of faith.
So what did cause this conflict?
First, you have to understand Martha said the right thing but to the wrong person. Her conflict was with Mary, yet she directs her comments to the guest of honor; and does so in a way that apparently everyone else can also hear. She creates a triangle, pulling in a third party with the goal of getting her needs met. Yet in so doing, she disrespects her sister, allows the anxiety in her to ripple throughout the room, and asks the guest of honor to invalidate her sisters’ gift. Herrington reminds us that Jesus’ teachings are clear on this point: when you have an issue with someone, resolve it through direct communication with them.
In missing this essential step, Martha creates a conflict that was not inevitable.
Martha also does the right Act with the wrong Attitude. She allows her anxiety to grow into bitterness and blame, completely losing sight of why she was offering hospitality in the first place. Notice that she doesn’t ask Jesus to free her from her duties so she also can connect with him. No, she demands Jesus make Mary just like her.
Before we allow our anxiety to develop into full blown conflict, Herrington suggests there’s a moment where we can (and Martha could have) learn from our anxiety.
To use our story, Martha perhaps could have learned her anxiety was telling her how desperate she was for approval. It appears she gets her identity too strongly from others rather than from herself, relying on someone outside herself to tell her she is valued and needed. She stopped acting as a good friend, and started functioning to look good.
And I think the mirror her anxiety held up to her said she’s not completely comfortable with who she is and how she’s different from others. She seems unable to accept her sister’s personality and the fact that they function differently.
Herrington uses the term “self differentiation,” a term from family systems theory, to describe our capacity to speak the truth as best as we see it while remaining engaged with those who differ from us. But here’s the thing, we’re not born self-differentiated, we have to learn to become it. Herrington says, “You will bring all the dynamics of your original family and early childhood to your relationship with God and others unless you can bring to the light the lessons you interpreted and internalized about love, trust, and forgiveness during those years.” FW 201, pg 66. In other words, our only option for dealing with conflict is unhealthy, unless we intentionally learn a different life standard.
Finally, Herrington would point out the positive role that Jesus played in this story of conflict. Rather than allow the anxiety to ripple through the room or spread it through the system, he isolates Martha’s anxiety and seems to absorb it like a sponge. He honors and respects it, gently helping her take responsibility for her own distraction and what role she has played. This, ultimately, is the response of the emotionally mature person.
Faithwalking as Herrington envisions it is a new model for making disciples of Jesus who not only know about God, but who also have the capacity to live like God: loving self and others through healthy community and spiritual practices. You can learn more at their website about Faithwalking retreats for individuals, or the Congregational Faithwalking Initiative that launches in January.