I am a United Methodist clergy-person. It has been a rough couple of weeks in our denomination. Let’s be honest, it’s been a rough few years. With tense conversations about declining membership, reaching the un-churched and de-churched, and escalating tension over human sexuality, a conversation about how to be a peace-maker in turbulent times seems to be in order. And while we’re at it, let’s consider the connection between being a peace-maker and being a faithful follower of Jesus.
Maybe we should begin by recognizing that what it means to be a faithful follower of Jesus means different things to different people. To be transparent, I understand following Jesus to mean actually striving to do what Jesus did. When Jesus called his disciples he didn’t explain about his ministry, he lived it and invited them to follow him. Add to that Galatians 5:22-23 (NRSV) in which we read that following Jesus produces the spiritual fruit of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. And Psalm 1 shares that living a life connected to God’s Spirit causes thriving. So to be a faithful follower of Jesus, it is important to pay attention to the fruit of our actions. And one of those fruits named in Galatians just happens to be peace.
For me to come anywhere close to love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control in the midst of a high-conflict conversation, I have to practice the Disciplines of the Interior Life, a discipline we also refer to as the Life Compass. This practice guides my participation in high-conflict conversations in a way that promotes self-control and maybe a little gentleness too. You may wonder why I practice interior disciplines as a way to manage relational conflict. Well, one of the core principles of Faithful Family Life is: “to practice the skills of relational health, it is necessary to attend to the disciplines of the interior life.”
If I am going to relate to others in a healthy way, a way that respects our differences and allows for connection, I have to start with me.
So before I speak into a high-conflict conversation, I focus my attention on the present moment – not what I want to say, not the point I want to make – the present moment. I notice the emotional energy flowing between the participants in the conversation and I try to name that energy silently to myself. I’m curious about the origin of that emotion. I wonder if I’ve named it correctly. I notice the words that are being said, the information being shared, and I focus on just those words in this moment. I pay attention in case I’m automatically constructing a story in my own mind about those words. If I am, I let go of that story and return to the words in this moment. I intentionally choose to be open to where this conversation might lead instead of deciding in advance where I want it to go.
The diagram refers to this particular practice I’ve described as centering, but it could also be called centering prayer, and we are beginning to call this practice faith as a way to acknowledge awareness that we do not control the outcome of the present moment and yet we choose to be fully present anyway. There are four more disciplines of the interior life that form this practice. They all require that we begin in a centered place and that we are willing to step out on faith.
Bringing focus to the present moment and holding openness for what might emerge is a practice that takes time to develop. The neural connections for focus need to be exercised just like our muscles do. And just like muscles, they need to be exercised when we aren’t being put to the test. I don’t bench press my own weight when I begin a workout program or I’ll get injured. I have to begin slowly and build up. A tennis match is not the time to introduce a change to my forehand. I change my forehand in a lesson with a coach, then I practice the change over and over and over again so that the change is available to me in a match. The brain’s attentional system isn’t any different. I have to practice focusing on the present moment and holding openness for what might emerge during normal activities when I’m calm so that ability is available to me during high-conflict conversations.
You may be wondering why discuss this topic on a website about families? Well, another core principle of Faithful Family Life is: “skills of peace-making and wounds that cause barriers to peace-making are both formed in families.”
If we are going to be able to have difficult conversations in our churches, our communities, our places of work, our government, and our world, we must learn to bring a spirit of love and peace into the difficult conversations in our homes.
To be a peace-maker and to be a faithful follower of Jesus is to bear spiritual fruit and to cause thriving wherever we happen to be – at home, at church, in the world.
And home is where we have the opportunity to practice with a wide range of emotional responses. Imagine what it would be like if conversations in your family were characterized by love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. How would that feel? What changes would you need to make to cultivate this spiritual fruit in your family life?