When I was a young boy and faced conflict, fighting generally was not an option. Yelling was — preferably the louder the better. The shouting never lasted long, though. Pretty quickly most arguments were swept under the carpet, and life went on.
And the conflicts? Well, they often went unresolved.
Rarely were efforts made to resolve conflicts because that might involve not being liked by someone and in my family being liked was a very high value. So I rarely moved toward someone who had his so-called knives out. On rare occasions when I did, I usually discovered the knives were mostly just butter — and I would go right through them.
Of course, going through the knives led to discovering how to have a real argument, which generally included learning to agree and disagree, often in a loving manner. And yes, that sometimes involved not being liked by people, which I learned is inevitable whether you move toward or away from people.
If parents can teach their children how to agree and disagree in love, they will have taught them one of life's greatest lessons.
Imagine my poor dad. He spent most of his 40-year working career in middle management. He was a hard-working, sweet man who cared deeply for people but who always seemed to get stuck in the middle of some conflict at work. He often went to numb and didn't say much. I learned from him. I watched and emulated him.
Fortunately, years ago I left the land of numb. I can still see it, and I still flirt with it from time to time. Truth is, being liked by everyone is not the highest value to which any should aspire. We should try to live at peace with everyone, but it's ridiculous to think everyone will like us. That's the wrong goal.
While I think almost everyone wants to be liked, if you truly engage in life, it gets messy fast and you quickly discover people who neither like you nor agree with you.
What do you do then? Avoid people altogether? Yell louder and try to quickly sweep things under the carpet? Deny reality and pretend there isn't conflict? Use your power and put people in place, not matter the cost?
The Rev. Janet Rasmussen from First Mennonite Church in Urbana recently gave me a statement adopted in 1995 by the Mennonite Church General Assembly called "Agreeing and Disagreeing in love."
Though the Mennonites are leaders in the Christian church worldwide in pursuing peace, doing justice, bringing reconciliation and practicing nonresistance even in the face of violence and warfare, they readily acknowledge that conflict is a normal part of our life, both inside and outside of the church.
Thus, the statement encourages us in our thinking to accept the inherent tensions of conflict, even as we lovingly speak the truth to others, however painful. In short, that means in disagreements I constantly pray for a mutually satisfactory solution. The statement encourages me to neither pray for my success or for you to change. Instead we commit to finding a mutually agreeable way to proceed.
That takes incredible courage. It means being fully present and not deciding beforehand that I am right. In a courageous spirit of humility, we move into action, going directly to those with whom we disagree. None of this behind-the-back criticism.
Nor do I merely place the problem at your doorstep. I own my part in the conflict. In effect, I say "It has occurred to me that I may be wrong."
Then we listen. "Listen carefully," reads the statement. "Summarize and check out what is heard before responding. Seek as much to understand as to be understood."
When we truly listen, something wonderful often happens. We suspend our judgment and lay down our labels. Do you know anyone who wants to be judged or labeled? So if I don't judge you, and you don't judge me, we demonstrate love, kindness, gentleness and self-control.
Is our conflict solved then? Of course not. The hard work has barely begun. We then begin to identify the issues (without taking positions), generate and evaluate our options, collaborate toward a joint solution so both sides can grow and win and finally cooperate to create an emerging agreement.
That, my friends, is incredibly hard work. No, it's miraculous work. But then, being willing to negotiate, as we move toward, not away, from each other, always is.
As we live our lives, are we committed to letting love be our highest value? Are we firm in seeking a mutual solution? Are we open, if need be, to accept skilled help from someone with gifts and training in mediation? Do we trust our faith community? Are we willing to allow others to arbitrate and then abide by whatever decision is made?
The statement on agreeing and disagreeing in love ends by saying, "Believe in and rely on the solidarity of the Body of Christ and its commitment to peace and justice, rather than resort to the courts of law."
You say you would never take someone to court. Well, OK. But is never meaningfully speaking to that person ever again, and deciding to ride in your mind the escalator of revenge, any better?
The first step, as the apostle Paul wrote long ago to the church in Ephesus, is deciding, with God's help, "to make every effort to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace."
As always, of course, someone has to take the first step toward peace.
Don Follis has been a pastor in Champaign-Urbana for more than 30 years. He has mentored more than 200 pastors and missionaries throughout the United States. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.