December 2022 – On Conflict

By Mary Linda McKinney

I was about half-way into the development of Faithful Meetings when I had the realization that as communities begin building a foundation of trust and experiencing the environment that we’ve co-created as safe, some buried conflicts will likely come to the surface. I was intentionally creating a program which may hold space for communities to deal with hidden conflict. Oh my stars did that realization unnerve me.

In a panic, I brought my feelings to my Divine Boss in prayer: “Whoa, whoa, whoa, God! I trust you and all but I don’t think I’m the right person for this. I have no experience in conflict resolution or mediation. I’m not a therapist. I don’t feel in any way qualified to help communities deal with conflict!”

Our Holy Unifyer replied, “Y’all Quakers rely far too often on human understandings. You try to think, talk, and reason your way out of problems and conflicts. I know you’ve noticed that this usually doesn’t work very well. I called you to this work in part because you have no formal training. You can’t put on your therapist or conflict resolver hats because you don’t have them. Do what you know to do: Seek my guidance. In all things, seek my guidance.”

This is how I processed it in a letter to a weighty Friend I reached out to:

As I have been guided in the development of [Faithful Meetings], I’ve come to understand that inviting Friends into emotional intimacy will almost certainly provide opportunities for long-buried hurts and conflicts to arise. I consider myself a fairly skilled host/facilitator but I have no grounding in conflict mediation. As I came to understand that holding space for conflict will be part of my work in Faithful Meetings, I held this in (to be honest, panicky) prayer and much discernment. From the beginning of this leading to this moment, what I have been given is an understanding that God is calling me, not because of qualifications that I lack but because of my trust in God. What I have been given is that trusting God and modeling turning to our Divine Guide when in unsureness or confusion or turmoil will be the main “tool” I will be teaching. 

My sense is that my first work will be to help a group create a strong container to hold the big emotions that will almost certainly show up; one aspect of this container is a trust that Spirit is present with us, yearning to guide us to unity. The next work will be to help the group explore a vocabulary they can share to talk about the spiritual and emotional experiences they are having. What I’ve seen is that when conflict arises, Quakers want to reason and talk their way through it until a surface solution is found so they don’t have to feel the tension of it any longer. This often doesn’t get to the root of the problem which remains to rise again at another time. Often the solution only works for some people, leaving others to feel marginalized and hurt. 

It has been my experience and it is now my leading that rather than avoid them, we must learn to invite the big emotions and small hurts to be felt, named and shared within the context of worship, in the presence of the Divine. Threshing (and winnowing), worship sharing, and dialogue (a method we use in Friends Couple Enrichment) are tools Friends have created to help us listen to one another and for the wisdom that is beyond our limited human understanding.

I haven’t found much in Quaker writing that talks about conflict as an opportunity for spiritual growth. I was quite excited to begin [Rex Amblers’ Pendle Hill Pamphlet] “Mind the Oneness” and find this:

All they that are in the light are in unity, for the light is but one….And this is a word of reconciliation, that reconciled together to God, and gathers the hearts of his together, to live in love and unity one with another, and lets them see how they have been strangers and aliens from the life of God….Abiding inwardly in the light, it will let you see one another and the unity with another.” [George Fox]

The unity is already there, but they are being told to achieve it themselves? Not quite. The alienation or distrust is real, but it is based on a false idea of the people involved. Until they “abide inwardly in the light” they do not “see one another” at all. They see images, ideas, projections. So they need to drop their ideas, consult their conscience about what is going on, then open themselves inwardly to the deeper sense they have within them that we humans are all fundamentally the same and belong together. With that insight they can begin to treat other people differently, even people they thought were opposed to them, and they can affirm others positively. Then, if the others respond, a reconciliation will follow. The unity that had been glimpsed in silent meditation is now realized in practice.

I know experientially that God is always with us. I believe that when we are seeking God’s will, everything we need is available to us. I trust that when serious differences in perspective inevitably arise during Faithful Meetings, we can turn to the Divine and be given light–maybe in tiny, incremental steps–to illuminate the way forward. I don’t think it is always easy or comfortable to follow this sacred path because each one of us has our own will that wants what it wants. But with Spirit’s guidance, we can learn the humility that allows each of us to move beyond our individual understanding into a collective wisdom. We can learn to trust Sophia, God’s Wisdom, to manifest through us as we more clearly recognize ourselves as beloved community.

When I think of conflict arising during a Faithful Meetings session, I still feel a knee-jerk panic but then I stop and breathe and submit this fear to God. I can only trust that God is with me and will give me, give us, everything we need in order to know true unity.

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1 thought on “December 2022 – On Conflict”

  1. So much wisdom here. I have found that when I feel really capable of doing something, I am very tempted to outrun my Guide and do it on my own. When I have been called to something for which I don’t feel I have the experience or knowledge to do competently on my own, I find it easier to rely on God to guide me.

    The insight of Fox and how you have expanded on it is so true. We need to be in the Spirit to really see someone beyond our own thinking about the person, which is always inadequate and not the whole truth. I quite agree that the unity is already there. It requires each one to live in that reality which shows us the unity God created to recognize and really live into that unity.

    I am glad to see that you approached this ministry so open to Divine guidance. That opens greater possibility for real transformation in the meetings with which you work.

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