As I think about the Phoenix Convention, the prospect of conflict comes to mind. Conventions are places where people openly disagree with one another. Will that cause some folks to stay away?
The way we feel about conflict depends in part on how we were raised. I was the youngest of three brothers, one of whom openly quarreled with our parents. My father occasionally took public positions on controversial subjects and when he did, he experienced frayed relations with neighbors. My family also was devoutly Christian. As a child, I was compelled to reconcile the reality of conflict with my parents’ expression of faith.
My wife, Sharon, grew up as the youngest of three sisters and one brother. Her family too was devoutly Christian. And they understood the peacefulness of family life to be a mark of God’s presence and blessing. So she grew up avoiding situations where conflict was likely to erupt.
A similar contrast can be observed in the workplace among supervisors and bosses. Some encourage the open discussion of differences in the hope that it will lead to stronger teamwork and an improved work product. Others seek to build unity and consensus by avoiding topics that engender debate.
We see this difference in the everyday speech of our neighbors and friends. Some use pointed terms in their comments while others soften their assertions so much that one can’t be sure exactly what their position is.
Thankfully, the world includes both kinds of people. But for people who generally stay away from places where arguments might break out, what can be said for attending Phoenix 2013?
Quoting the Bible at this juncture seems a bit heavy-handed, but I do think we need to ponder what Paul meant in Romans 5:3-5 when he praised the results of the early church’s trials and troubles. I don’t want to go overboard here because at other points in his writings, Paul also speaks against those who sow dissension and strife. Still, I think we need to acknowledge that disagreements and conflicts were part of what Paul was writing about.
Our Mennonite Church USA executive director, Ervin Stutzman, spoke about this at the 2011 annual meeting of Lancaster Mennonite Conference, which I attended. Using Romans 15:4 as his text, he preached about “preserving our hope.” Our preference, he said, is to preserve hope by encouraging people “to be more like me.” Yet the witness of the Bible is that the Kingdom of our Lord moves forward primarily through the unusual way his followers engage people they disagree with. Disagreement, Stutzman said, is a moment ripe for witness.
I wonder if Stutzman was raised in a family that practices open disagreement because when he spoke that day, he used a phrase that may set our teeth on edge: “enduring one another’s sins.” That’s right – what is most persuasive about us is the patient way we remain in relationship with people who in one aspect of their lives or another have lost their way.
Will people who have lost their way be at the Phoenix Convention? Yes, I expect so. Of course, the people you would put in that category may not be the same ones I would put there. So each of us will have the opportunity to witness to the Way of Jesus by the way we choose to disagree.
If you tend to be a conflict-avoider, your presence will be especially valuable. Your preference for softening assertions and rounding off the sharp points will be a needed ingredient as, in the midst of our disagreements, we persevere in hope.
Berry Friesen is a Minnesota native transplanted to eastern Pennsylvania, father of two daughters and grandfather of two more. He attended prior conventions in Philadelphia, Wichita and Pittsburgh and is the author of Water from Another Time: Today’s Questions, Yesterday’s Wisdom.