"Rooted in Grace: Essays on Dialogue Without Division", Ed: Larry Duggins & Andrea Lingle, 2018.
How are you feeling? Are you feeling exasperated from conflict, heartbroken as you take in the pieces of the home you once knew and community you once felt? Are you feeling fear or anxiety as you wonder what lies ahead? Are you feeling weary and confused, at a loss for how to move forward?
Have a seat, weary one. Sit here for a moment, and rest. No need to know how to take another step forward just yet. Let us just name where we are, and breathe together for a moment.
Where covenant and connection once stood firm now lies the possibility of departure and division. What can be fixed, healed, or restored here? Hope may feel too heavy to bear.
Your grief and exhaustion are real and valid. Explanation or attempts at conversation may feel pointless and fruitless; your throat may feel hoarse from trying to get a point across.
You want to find a way to repair but are at a loss for creativity. Perhaps you wonder if it would be better to cut our losses and start dividing the assets.
But is that really what you want?
It may be appealing, especially at such a weary, brokenhearted space.
Maybe, in the stillness, your heart yearns for a repair, a miracle, an alternative. Perhaps your preference would be to find a way through this messiness, together. Perhaps it is only a whisper, a fading and flickering light of hope.
It is enough.
Sit with that light, that hope, that small and meek desire for a moment. Let it breathe, let it echo in the space in your heart. Do not try to rationalize it, explain it, send it away, or even hold it. Just breathe with it.
For a moment, just witness it.
What was it that originally brought you here to this place and this table at the beginning? Why here? What joy, what hope, what appreciation did you once feel in this place? What new life did you discover here in this community? Can you remember and sit with how you initially felt?
Yes, but… (you might say)
There is no way.
Perhaps there is a way.
What you have remembered just now, what you once felt, is not forever lost. We are co-creators of what happens at our tables. This is an invitation to awareness and ownership of that co-creating reality, that power, and that possibility. There is still hope here at this table. There is still nourishment. There is still life to be had. These bones aren't dry yet.
Let us cling to such hope together as we grieve and embrace our heartbreak. Let us cling to the hands of each other as we navigate what lies ahead. Let us create containers of safety and containers of bravery; let us re-imagine what our tables and relationships need to look like moving forward.
We can do this.
We are the people who follow the God who nurtures resurrection from death and breathes life into the driest of bones. We dwell in the Spirit who hovers over waters of chaos and speaks order and life into existence. As image-bearers of the divine, we bear abundant creative capacity. What can be hopeless when we show up to the co-creation process?
We are the people who follow Jesus, the one who would rather invite back into community and connectedness the woman caught in the vicious act of adultery than lose her life to the rightness of rules. We are the people who follow Jesus, the one who takes dirt and saliva to restore our sight and our societal ties rather than be bound by the blueprint of doctrine on Sabbath. We are led by our God into a kingdom of love, healing, and wholeness, built on unity, community, and collaboration.
We, the people called Methodists, who have chosen to be united by our polity and practices rather than our doctrine. The very etymology of the name, Methodist, means we are about the methods of our practice, the disciplines that lead us into deeper faith and onward to perfection. We are not, at our core, people who believe the same thing all the time. We are people who strive to practice together, to encourage one another in beginning-ness, encourage one another towards perfection, embrace a theological playground that is wide in space and deep in faith that the Spirit moves among us in these practices and polity. In our infant baptism and open table we nurture a space in which to approach faith with intentionality, thought, reflection, exploration, discernment, a space where growth is nurtured and personal commitment cultivated. In the space of Methodism, one does not need to have it figured out or all doctrines addressed and adhered to before belonging at this table.
We have charted unfamiliar territory before, in our personal and our communal lives. We have immense internal strength to stir up love, use the tools of grace, and nurture our compassion, listening ability, and empathy. We initially chose this space in which to dwell and contribute, this community or relationship in which to grow, and we continue to be co-creators of this space, making it safe for each other and brave for the work that lies ahead. May we acknowledge that we are all doing the best we can. Yes, even them. Yes, even you.
It is okay if you do not know where to begin. Most of us do not. The ego is the one who towers in with great confidence and authority, afraid of losing any face or admitting uncertainty. Community is built around gathering together in humility and co-creation, bringing together our various puzzle pieces; we navigate our way forward together. Let us become navigators of our wilderness. It is a daily step into vulnerability and the unknown, as the Israelites walked by fire and cloud, guided along by God’s unshakeable presence. We are offered an invitation into presence with ourselves, our neighbors, and our Creator, and to release what lies ahead. Be here, be here now. Let us break bread and figure this out together. Let us release the fear-based narrative that says ‘this is not meant to be.’ Let us co-create this journey together, trusting that while it may be treacherous, it is courageous and important work, and we walk with the presence of our Creator. May we greet ourselves and each other as we are and determine together what the next step shall be.
In truth, conflict and disagreement are not necessarily the sign of things gone wrong; conflict handled well can breed intimacy, wisdom, and growth. As Jacob wrestled with God until the sparring ended with a new name and a limp, the conflict between them bred an intimacy that birthed the people of Israel and an everlasting covenant.
John Gottman, relationship therapist and researcher of the factors that lead to divorce and healthy marriages, talks about solvable and unsolvable problems in relationships. The unsolvable problems do not necessarily lead towards divorce, in fact, over 60% of issues in marriages are unsolvable! It is rather the practices of engagement that lead to divorce, whether or not vicious tactics are employed when dealing with problems. With the unsolvable issues, Gottman recommends strategies for overcoming gridlock. Avoided, they lead to resentment. Explored, they lead to an understanding of each other’s dreams, values, fears, and motivations. Conflict can lead to deeper dialogue, which can lead to a more intimate and stronger relationship. Different views are expected and honored with a commitment to understand the sources of disagreement and to work cooperatively towards common solutions. It frames conflict not as something to be avoided but as a natural outcome in a diverse group.
Rainer Maria Rilke’s words may offer wisdom for dealing with such gridlock and these unsolvable spaces within our relational dynamics: “Be patient toward all that is unsolved in your heart and try to love the questions themselves, like locked rooms and like books that are now written in a very foreign tongue. Do not now seek the answers, which cannot be given you because you would not be able to live them. And the point is, to live everything. Live the questions now. Perhaps you will then gradually, without noticing it, live along some distant day into the answer.”
We may live our way into different answers over time, but it is unlikely if we dig in our heels and define ourselves based on our differences. It is important to pay attention to what is underneath our convictions, where they came from, and how they inform and impact our sense of identity about ourselves. Cultivating safe space to better see ourselves can help with this. We often dig in our heels because there is something crucial and formational within us, something we fear losing. Can we get there to know what that ‘something’ is within ourselves, and within another?
Furthermore, by cultivating brave space we can better understand how we each contribute to the community as a whole and the individuals therein, and work towards reconciliation. In our community and covenant, can we nurture a wide center with room for diversity? Can we distinguish the discomfort of being healthily stretched and challenged towards necessary growth from personal attack? Perhaps we can encounter God in a new way.
What convictions truly threaten us? (Whether our sense of self, our safety, our faith our credibility and integrity.) What differences may simply confuse us or challenge something we would rather not address? Are we being personally attacked, or have we grown intolerant of difference, feeling uncomfortable, of disagreement and tension? From a space of safety, we can enter with into brave space that allows us to explore these discrepancies and sift them for the deeper truth, wisdom, and ways forward.
If we opt for division, we mirror the current cultural trend: fear-based and enemical, this divisive narrative seeks to prove someone wrong, ridiculous, stupid, and out of their god-forsaken minds to have the opinion and perspective they have. It dismisses the right to one’s voice; it refuses to acknowledge another as an intentional and credible individual, motivated both by love and fear, just as we are. It refuses to acknowledge another as one who cares deeply about themselves, their families and communities, their convictions and faith, their safety, health and well-being, just as we do. This narrative dehumanizes, for it is easier to dismiss someone if we first deny them the humanity we share.
Division and dismissiveness foment our modern day wars; they helped ignite the current Syrian war: “The first demonstrations attracted hundreds of thousands of people of different faiths. So the regime stoked sectarian tensions to divide the opposition.” Division and divisiveness have long been the faithful companions of the oppressor. Throughout history, the powerful have employed a ‘divide and rule’ strategy, attempted to break up concentrations of power and nurture discord among each other - a helpful tactic in the art of war if your opposition outnumbers you. Divide them, scatter them, nurture their dislike of each other, and they will do the work of destruction themselves; thus they will be easier to conquer. It is clever and brutal, aiming for the heart of personhood and unity. Employing division helps crumbling happen from within; unity is the stronger existence.
As the church we are called, invited, and equipped to model a different way: a way that breaks bread together in mutuality when the rest of the culture sets up a hierarchy and divides, a way that includes, rather than excludes and divides. The kingdom of God is a mustard seed that dies to make shelter and provision for others, an invitation to the outcast, troublemakers, and unclean of society to come back again and again to the table and the community. Let our methods not divide, but let them heal division. For no matter how much we disagree, creating a table based on mutual personhood (rather than collective agreement) builds an intentional and strong community.
Division breeds more division. The practice of moving away over time leads to extremism. Sitting in the discomfort of diversity is crucial to our ongoing health as individuals and organizations. Otherwise, the ability to engage in conversation atrophies from a lack of exposure to disagreement and dialogue with a contrasting perspective.
Diversity benefits us. In our spiritual ancestry, Jewish leaders Hillel and Shammai modeled a practice of discussing and disagreeing, even documenting their disagreements without neatly tying them up. They sat with the space to let theology be wrestled with; they did not seek to tie up all loose ends in a clean bow. In fact, “one could reasonably argue that not only Jewish law, but the very survival of the community depended on their disagreements.”
Community and covenant are spaces where we can practice the safety and bravery to grow. In relationships, dedication to the growth process is what leads to connection, trust, and deep satisfaction. Is the process that makes us holy, not necessarily the content or side upon which we land. If we disconnect based on conceptions of holiness, we stand with the Pharisees as they scoff at Jesus healing on the Sabbath. Does our process divide, deride, and destroy? If so, we will not be able to build life with such hands. Only from a foundation of belonging, committed to connection, can we understand each other, hold each other’s stories and perspectives, and get to know another’s experience of God. Only from a foundation of belonging in commitment to connection can we proceed to a dialogue in bravery and growth. The process is important. If our means of protecting that which we consider important ends up tearing apart and destroying, what we have in fact preserved is division and destruction. We have not so much built up as we have torn apart. We cannot bully or shame each other into a different way of thinking, but it is possible to love each other into a new way of being.
Often we enter conversation with a singular focus: to convince or be convinced. From this aim, we sit in quietness without listening, we hear someone speaking while internally formulating our reply. Conversation is thus deemed successful if we bestow advice or convince them of our wisdom.
When engaging in a conversation with the intention to convince, what needed to find expression can feel stifled and blocked. Have you ever tried to share something in conversation, only to have someone interject their story, their perspective, their advice, or their agenda? Such a reply shuts down exploration and engagement.
What if instead we listened with the intention to understand? What if we sought to deeply see and know someone else’s perspective and their experience? What if we realized we have the capacity, through conversation and dialogue, to listen someone into deeper existence? What if we need to be witnessed in community in order to fully know and understand ourselves? Mary Rose O’Reilly says “one can, I think, listen someone into existence, encourage a stronger self to emerge.”
Division and social hierarchy have built up too much voicelessness and silencing across our culture; practicing listening to understand helps us hold spaces where we discover tension and dissent. “As we listen with new ears, we not only learn to hold the tension of opposites, we also learn that doing so can open us, individually and collectively, to a new and better way of resolving the issue at hand.” It can be very difficult to listen in the midst of the tension of disagreement. Perspectives can seem diametrically opposed; how do we remain in that kind of awkward and tense space?
For one thing, sitting in tension does not always need to have an immediate resolution. In tension, anxiety, and fear, our brains can become overloaded and flooded, and revert us back to our oldest and nonverbal reptile brain. The prefrontal cortex (the thinking, reasoning, language part of our brain) goes offline, and suddenly we are reactive, panicked, and only able to hear signs of danger.
If the point of conversation is not to agree or convince, but to understand, then we can begin to create space to hear all the voices and opinions at the table. We can disagree, be flabbergasted by the opinion of another, and still, there is room at the table for such diversity. Our conversations can find a new aim: to treat each other with the dignity and respect of having his or her own voice. One of my improv comedy teachers once told me, “Listening is the utmost sign of respect. If I interrupt someone, if I immediately respond with my thought instead of hearing them fully, I’m basically telling them, ‘I’m better than you.’”
We are creatures of community who are called to shepherd each other towards our stronger selves. Blind spots and misperception run amok in our lives; we need people to see us, hear us, and who are willing to give us safe space to work out our stories, motivations, and underlying fears and feelings, in order that we might grow into self-aware, confident, compassionate, healthy, interdependent human beings. We need first the spaces of safety in order to enter into the spaces of bravery that allow interpersonal and systemic change and reconciliation to occur.
But how? How do we enter into and engage these spaces? How do we hold what we so deeply believe, but also create space for another to believe something entirely different? How could we possible sit at the same table with someone who believes that, or who does not share my convictions, perspective, and opinions?
We can sit at the same table and continue to do work together. We can indeed find an alternative to division. We can remain united in diversity, in harmony without needing uniformity.
Yes. We can.
How do we create this space?
How do we cultivate space for a person to encounter themselves, to grow and heal, to see and share their soul, and listen to the perspectives and souls of others so that a community can grow and heal?
How do we cultivate space where difficult issues can be addressed and deeply understood, where diversity can thrive and honor all types of humanity?
How do we cultivate space where we can heal division and build bridges?
As ministers, educators, chaplains, leaders, cultivators, animators, writers, parents, humans, citizens, what is our role and process for creating space — in environment and conversation — where this healing and growth can happen, where parties can learn to see different perspectives, and where we can pursue civil conflict that leads to greater insight, deeper community, and systems that prioritize justice and the wellbeing of all?
I researched many disciplines and demographics, inviting their wisdom to weigh in on the cultivation and facilitation of safe and brave space: Where is it working? Where is it needed? What methods are used to establish and nurture it? When successful, what does it accomplish?How could these tools mend global injustice issues and divides so prevalent today?
My research took me to the areas of: marital therapy, family dynamics, parenting, Parker Palmer’s Circles of Trust, local church, Missional Wisdom Foundation’s community hubs, co-working spaces, Godly Play, hospital chaplaincy, counseling, spiritual direction, coaching, coffee shop ministry, intentional christian community, low-income neighborhoods , community organizing, gardening, community development, nonprofit management, classrooms & universities, contexts of privilege, trauma therapy, conversation models (Brene Brown’s Daring Conversations, On Being’s Civil Conversations), leadership development, and improvisational comedy.
Not all space is created the same.
Some space needs to be ‘safer’ than others — a place where freedom from the responses of others allows someone to listen to what is internal, to process out loud, and to let healing emerge.
Some spaces need to be ‘brave’ — they inherently involve risk, do not promise comfort, because they are about reconciliation and justice, and this type of work is not without struggle. In this case, “the language of safety contributes to the replication of dominance and subordination, rather than a dismantling thereof.”
Determining the needs of your space informs what type of space gets created.
For safe space, we need “an environment in which everyone feels comfortable expressing themselves and participating fully, without fear of attack, ridicule, or denial of experience.”
It must be real, felt by the person in body. For “any growth to happen, safety is a prerequisite. There is even a term called ‘quantum growth’ that can happen when a person experiences safety internally for the first time around responsibility and choice. There is no grounding, no containment, no growth happening in an "unsafe" environment. Only survival happens.” Safe space is a container that helps calm our fear responses (emotional, biological and physiological), a container wherein we are able to bring our fully functioning brains back online, so we may think, reason, and respond to full capacity. We need safe space to heal internally, to learn what we think and feel, and to be able to process our world without the fear of punishment, abandonment, retribution, or injury. Safe space allows freedom from the responses of others or opposition. It allows realization to take place, it helps us to understand why we do something: What is really going on within me? What is my fear? Why am I feeling so much resistance or combative energy? What is my body telling me? What is really at stake for me? Why don’t I feel safe? What do I need in order to feel safe?
The ground rules and expectations are crucial to establishing the space.
Embrace silence, let it speak as another party.
A third thing (poem, story, podcast, etc) can be a helpful tool for facilitating vulnerability without feeling too exposed; they can work through the internal without having to own how personal it is.
Release the outcome, and move forward with open questions and a sense of wonder. Cultivate a space of exploration.
Listen to understand. Listening the soul into existence, selfhood, and inner wholeness. (Instead of listening to respond, fix, or dismiss someone’s experience.)
The point is not to be right, but to nurture the expression from each person, and to honor everyone’s inner teacher and wisdom.
Inner work must be invitational.
Nurture a sense of belonging without having to first perform, sign up, believe, agree.
Literally facing each other, in a circle or around a table, allows everyone to see each other, to cultivate empathy, and to build mutuality.
Safety is felt in the body, it is not convinced. This is especially true if someone has been in a survival mode. The individual gets to claim this experience of safety, not the facilitator.
Know each other. Like each other. Respect each other.
Brave space, on the other hand, is a container applied to relationships and systems that need mending. We need to create brave space in order to heal divides, eliminate oppression, and dismantle systemic injustice. Brave space involves a willingness to risk, a move into conflict with courage and civility, and a willingness to learn how we have been culpable or benefitted from a system that has injured or denied others. We need brave space to speak our truth and to listen to the truth from others. In brave space, participants are willing to sit in feelings of vulnerability and fear. Brave space inherently involves risk, it does not promise comfort. This space is about reconciliation and justice, and these cannot be achieved without being willing to face real impact (despite good intentions), effect (despite ignorance), and systems of privilege (despite well-meaning individuals). This work is not without struggle, sacrifice, repentance, and deep listening.
For brave space, we need “courage rather than the illusion of safety,” for “we cannot foster critical dialogue regarding social justice if we are not willing to be vulnerable and exposed, and to encounter perspectives that are shocking and painful.” A facilitator is especially important for establishing and moderating the space.
You may have heard it said: “agree to disagree.”
But, this can lead to a retreat from conflict; some may disconnect to avoid discomfort. This practice over time can lead to an extremism in one’s views, for the ability to dialogue has atrophied from a lack of exposure to disagreement and dialogue. “Some of the richest learning springs from ongoing explorations of conflict, whereby participants seek to understand an opposing viewpoint. Such exploration may or may not lead to a change or convergence of opinions, or one side winning the debate, but neither is these among our objectives for our students; we find these outcomes to be reflective of a patriarchal approach to conflict, in which domination and winning over others to one’s own point of view is the goal.”
Instead, aim for controversy with civility.
This allows for different views to be anticipated and honored with a group commitment to understand the sources of disagreement and to work cooperatively towards common solutions. It frames conflict not as something to be avoided but as a natural outcome in a diverse group. This can apply to communities, racial or other tensions, even interpersonal relationships.
You may have heard it said: don’t take things too personally.
However, “the view that we can and should demonstrate such control is reflective of patriarchy, whereby emotional restraint - a normally masculine behavior - is unjustly overvalued.”
Instead, own your intentions and impact. Good intentions matter, but there may be a better way to behave that has a better impact on the rest of the community.
You may have heard it said: challenge by choice. (Meaning: you do not have to step into challenge unless you choose to do so.)
But ask yourself, what factors influence your decision about whether to challenge yourself on a given issue? Recognize that “privilege enables them to make the choice not to challenge themselves, and that oppression often invalidates such a choice for ‘target group members.”
You may have heard it said: engage with respect.
This is wonderful. However, the concept of respect may be more nuanced that clear. In what ways does someone demonstrate respect for you?
Instead, aim for an awareness of multipartiality. The objective is not to find a consensus, but to maintain increased mindfulness of the different ways people can demonstrate respect towards one another.
Finally, you may have heard it said: No attacks.
This is a great ground rule, that only needs a little bit of augmentation.
Aim for: clarifying conversation. Describe the difference between a personal attack on an individual and a challenge to an individual’s idea or belief or statement that simply makes the individual feel uncomfortable.
We all share responsibility to help facilitate and nurture these spaces. In that role, we will celebrate the bravery of these two spaces. As peacemakers, voice-nurturers, space-protectors, threshold guides, intentional listeners, and empathetic understanders, may we be attentive to our own internal work, and practice releasing the outcome for faithfulness to the co-creation process of these spaces.
I argue that we need both spaces to work in concert with each other.
We need safe space to heal internally, to hear and see our voices and souls, to learn what we think and feel, and to be able process our world without fear of punishment, loss of relationship, retribution, or injury.
The objectives of safe space are:
to stretch the muscles of using our voice to share our story and experiences;
to make meaning, invite creativity, and cultivate authenticity;
to engage without trying to convince;
to listen someone into deeper existence,
to create a container so that others may express themselves without trying to get the right answer;
We need brave space to heal relationships and systemic issues. Brave space involves a willingness to risk, to move into conflict with courage and civility, and to hear how we have either been culpable, or benefitted from a system, that has injured others. We need brave space to speak our truth so others can hear from us.
The objectives of brave space are:
to stretch our capacity to listen to those with whom we disagree;
to engage with wonder and curiosity;
to understand each other’s perspectives;
to stretch our comfort level with sitting with different perspectives;
to bring all voices to the table to explore what reconciliation and community look like that honors all humanity and creation;
to heal relationships, rifts, and to re-humanize each other and the other.
As global and local citizens, we can cultivate spaces of dialogue in the hopes of alleviating a sectarian divisiveness that sweeps through our cultural narratives.
As humans, we can create these spaces that help bridge divides, transforming our community and homes.
As Christians and people of faith, we can lead with the confidence that grace abounds, and we can create space in our faith communities to sit and be knit together at the table.
As leaders and the church, we can facilitate spaces where people can first know their own internal safety and wisdom, and then enter with that wisdom and humility into brave spaces.
We can do this.
You have picked up this book because you seek, or have within you, a glimmer of hope. It is in you picking up this book, and in those that contributed to writing it and bringing it together. It is in the heartbreak you feel and the hopefulness you yearn to restore. It is in the desire for dialogue and the willingness to remain at the table.
We can do this.
Let us gather at the table of welcome and offering, of compassion and communing, of bread and brotherhood, of friendship and family.
May the Spirit of our living, breathing, creating, sustaining, redeeming God knit us together.