I was lying in the dentist’s chair last week, waiting to get a tooth repaired after part of it chipped off. The dentist told me what was going to happen with the deadening shot and forthcoming repair work and, at 47, nothing has changed much. I know the routine. While having two people and a bunch equipment in my mouth is not my favorite, I was composed. The work began. I was watching the TV mounted parallel to my body for easy viewing. What a cushy life we lead these days if we have dental insurance. Then I heard my doctor asking me if I’m okay, and he was really genuinely concerned. With the best enunciation possible considering all that stuff in my mouth, I communicated that I was fine. Why is he so concerned? I’m being obedient and even endured the shot without making a sound. Then I noticed my body was as tight as a top. I was completely tense, with every muscle contracted, and I hadn’t even realized it until my dentist sincerely checked in, not just once, but every few minutes. At one point, while explaining the procedure, he used the word drill. I’m pretty sure my whole body flinched as the word DRILL, shocked my consciousness. Why am I so uptight? I’ve been to the dentist hundreds of times, birthed three children (two without epidurals) and in general am pretty unflappable in an extroverted, dramatic kind of way except when I walk passed the snakes at the zoo.
When I asked myself why my body didn’t match up with my brain, it was screaming obvious. My body was in full out defensive mode. Yes, my brain knew this dental procedure was not fun, but everything would be okay. My body was far more skeptical. So while I thought I was fine, my body was saying otherwise. I wasn’t feeling pain, nor was I particularly nervous about being at the dentist. But to the other people in the room, I was not okay, but was very apprehensive about what might happen.
I find this same series of events happening in my church family. When anything controversial comes up, people get tense and become super afraid of what might happen. If people are talking, the conversations can be quite tense, accusatory and fearful. Granted, churches aren’t exactly great role models of conflict management, and there are plenty of bruises to remind us of past wounds. If people are uptight, it is because they are feeling defensive in some way and are feeling the need to prepare for an attack.
But what if, instead of getting all uptight like my body at the dentist's office, we poked around and asked a few questions? What am I feeling? What else am I feeling? What are you thinking, feeling, fearing, hoping? What are the facts? Have I/we studied this thoroughly in Scripture? What is Jesus’ example? What are we being asked to do right now? Does something hurt, or am I just afraid it might hurt? What actually is happening right now, and is that really so scary? Am I afraid of conflict? Get in line; everyone is. But the truly scary thing is when people refuse to endure conflict. That is the sure death for any organization or relationship. Delusions of safety through ensuring things stay the same is our emotional way of tensing up in the dentist's chair. Safe and same are neither safe nor the same. Our bodies and minds work together, but they don’t work the same. If someone is about the throw a punch, your body’s reaction to that is extremely useful because of its defensive reaction and in fact will keep you from getting hurt. But when we behave this way with each other, it doesn’t work at all; it causes the very things we fear rather than preventing them.
I’m happy when people are talking, no matter how tense. A tense conversation is always better than tense silence, avoidance, or withdrawal. A tense conversation means people are willing to engage with each other, pray together, study together and seek God’s blessings together. Had I not been willing to stay in the dentist's chair, the rest of my tooth would have likely crumbled. In the midst of being tense and uncomfortable, my very ability to recognize what was going on in an honest way allowed progress and even a few laughs post-repair. I wish church conflicts were as easy as a tooth repair; they aren’t. Still, my prayer is that we can check those unproductive behaviors to reap God’s blessings on the other side of the conflict.