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Facing Conflict Opens Possibilities by Donna Hopkins Britt

Late last fall, when it was time to take the pumpkins off the front stoop, we composted them in our garden.  Over the winter, the pumpkins sunk into themselves and their color went from a deep orange to a light salmon color; and in the spring, we broke them up with a shovel and dug them into the garden soil.  We planted carrot and pepper seeds but even before they sent up shoots, two pumpkin vines popped out.  Since our garden space is small, we moved one of the vines to another part of the yard where it was sunny, but the soil had not been well prepared.

For a while, both grew well.  We watered them and were impressed with how much they were growing, but forgot to water them before we went on vacation.  Upon return, the leaves on one of the vines had withered and turned brown.  The other vine, though, had grown several inches and maintained robust, dark green leaves.

When Jesus is talking about restoring relationships among people who gather as a community of faith, he’s explaining how to nourish our relationships with each other, so we enjoy life like the green vine and don’t wither and die like the other one.  In Matthew 18, Jesus is laying a foundation for how brothers and sisters in the faith are to act with each other when we disagree.

When my daughter played flag football and shielded herself from the ball passed to her, her coach called out, “The football is your friend!”  Conflict is not our enemy.  As Ruth Graham once said, “If two people agree on everything, one of them is unnecessary” (Billy Graham, Just As I Am).  She said that about marriage, but it’s true everywhere.  Within our families, in business, and in congregations, conflict is inevitable and necessary.  In Matthew 18:15, Jesus reminds us how to deal with it maturely.

He says, “If another member of the church sins against you, go and point out the fault when the two of you are alone. If the member listens to you, you have regained that one….”

Nobody likes to have our faults pointed out to us, and yet without that confrontation, we may not be motivated to restore the relationship and move forward.  How badly do we want to resolve the conflict?  From the other side, it seems easier to avoid admitting we felt offended or hurt.

Remember the pumpkin vines.  If we deal with the conflict when we recognize it, we are preparing the soil for growth and health.  If we repress our hurts, the relationship withers.  Since Jesus didn’t avoid conflict, he wouldn’t have much patience with those of us who do.  If we feel too weak to face someone with our feelings, we may remember that God is and will be with us, giving us courage and strength.  With a willingness to restore the relationship and help it grow, we can do the hard things like address another person one-on-one and tell them how we feel.

Practically speaking, we don’t want to accuse the other person of creating our feelings.  It doesn’t help to say, “You made me feel…” belittled, or hurt, or offended.  They did not make us feel that way; that’s just how we felt.  God made us with emotions and we might as well experience them fully.  So, in a conflict, we can claim our feelings, as in, “When you said ‘X,’ I felt belittled, or hurt, or offended.”  As we come clean with the persons God created us to be, we nurture all relationships.  Face the conflict and, if all goes well, one day we can enjoy the fruits of the restored relationship.  If it doesn’t go as hoped, we have borne fully our responsibility, made the necessary effort, and even if the relationship with the other person no longer bears fruit, our relationship with God will.

Donna Hopkins Britt is pastor of Calvary Baptist Church in Roanoke’s Downtown West, where all are welcome:  608 West Campbell Avenue;

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