Our university department trains leaders. We mentor leaders who face difficult and contentious conflict and have to make tough decisions. We have to train them to confront but also to find safe places to duck into. A safe place gives them time to process emotions and information. Sometimes a safe place is a bathroom—a stop in a stall. Sometimes it is ducking into a previously planned meeting. Most of the time, it is ducking into a place of silence.
Contentions are normal in all relationships. Couples have them even when they love each other. Groups have them even when everyone wants to reach the same goals. We see things differently and have different solutions to problems. A “difference” can lead a group to a new way or third way of thinking. It can cut a path both of compromise and fulfillment. But it takes some time and space and quietness to do that. What most do is let “differences” fester into debate and then debate into deep discord and then destructive behaviors and finally disaster. The impetus to find a “third way,” may be secular, as in third way economics, or born of political and social reform movements as with the broader socioeconomic approach or with a more Gandhian Satyagraha third way. These searches for an alternative path turn contention toward solutions. The big difference is how we manage processes. Good processes guide us toward shared learning. Bad process exacerbate contentions into heated warfare.
Acts 15 shows us how to handle contention. As I pointed out in my blog about Acts 15, there was a lot at stake as the early church came to grips with continuing a millennium old practice of circumcision. How does a church stop a practice that old with such a clearly divine origin? Not easily.
In the middle of heated contention, something happened.
“And All the Multitude was Silent” (see verses 12, 13).
Apparently without provocation, all present felt a shared need to be quiet. It may have come from a Jewish practice–a sort of Roberts Rules of Order. It may have been out of exhaustion after a period of long and hard debate. Whatever the reason the unthinkable happened—each of them fell silent—an individual choice—that created a shared social space that created a quiet place for finding a third way.
It created the space they needed for a spiritual decision.
It worked. It says they then listened and then James spoke. The church moved forward.
As I noted in my last blog, the book of Acts is all about Jesus helping his new church learn to listen to the Holy Spirit. The early church had to get used to a new dynamic of teaching and learning. Jesus said he would send the Holy Spirit to guide them into all truth. Figuring out how that worked does some practice. You couldn’t just believe everything you hear that was new, nor could you necessary stay stuck with everything that you had believed in the past. Learning is finding new paths from old trails, but also creating whole new trails of thought and practice. It would take a listening ear–not just an individual listening, but a whole community–voicing each of their concerns and the group hearing it and deciding what should be done.
This was God developing in his people nuanced thinking and careful listening and church that judged well.
Silence is crucial in all this. It stops our routines of speaking. It is similar to fasting and waiting. All three of these–fasting, waiting and silence–break up three routines that come natural to our life —eating, working, speaking. Eating, working and speaking are not bad. In fact, they are essential. But routines become ruts and ruts keep us thinking and doing the same thing. That is why Jesus warned them that in working with the Holy Spirit, they would have to engage in waiting, fasting, and silence. That was the only way to learn new ways.
These three actions counteract a natural aggressiveness and the force of tradition and the lethargy of past momentum and rutted habit that press us toward rigid “stuckness” that can prevent us from finding better ways to live our Christian life.
Leaders–the ones most in need of new learning– are often the most at risk of not having the time nor emotional space to learn. Everyone expects them to know and decide instantly. They especially need to find safe places to duck into and silence can give them time to think and find a third way through the thicket.
I really really struggle with this as I pointed out on my blog on listening. Creating silence is hard when your mouth is moving all the time. Group silence is even harder. It involves not only personal activity but shared work… socially creating shared space for each of us to learn.
In Acts 2, they had to wait and then received the Holy Spirit. In Acts 13, they fasted and prayed and sent Barnabus and Paul on their Holy Spirit directed mission. In Acts 15 , they stayed silent long enough for all accept new learning.
Maybe its time we all duck into some silence.
I believe my church will learn what I learned the hard way a few months ago. I was trying to administratively intervene on an issue where I thought my power to do right was needed. I had most of the story right and I had good reasons to intervene to protect policy and some individuals. What I failed to consider was that my good colleagues who disagreed with me meant well and had different approaches to the situation. I eventually backed off the issue. I lost my aggressiveness for doing what I thought was right and decided to instead go with the wisdom of the group. The passage that rang in my ears: “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom.” 2 Corinthians 3:17.
So, we should add freedom—granted to others— to our list of ways to increase learning. Freedom is to the will what fasting, waiting, and silence are to the routines that grind us into ruts. It creates space for learning.
Prayer: God, help me out of my rut! Help me to grant freedom to others as you have to me. Bring the freedom and silence we need to channel our current church contention into better resolutions.