Responding to Conflict

Have you ever realized something went wrong just as your boss, teacher, or parent came on the scene and there was no time to correct the problem before everyone knew? Do you remember that weird combination of a sinking feeling and a panicked response? I can relate to that experience because it happened to me a few weeks ago in Guatemala.

I spent a week leading six Guatemalan students, an assistant, and a translator through a 5-day art curriculum during an I AM ART camp in June. On the fourth day of the camp, we had some extra time at the end of the workshop and we were headed off the playground to play. On our way, we played follow the leader. I was the leader. I’m over 50, not in the best shape of my life, and used to living just above sea level. Here I was, jumping, hopping, and generally flailing around like a crazy woman at about 6,000 feet above sea level. I got tired pretty quickly. So, I did what all good leaders do, I delegated! I put my 15-year-old assistant at the front of the line and I moved to the back, giving me the perfect vantage point to watch everything fall apart.

As my teen assistant (who was awesome by the way, this could have happened to anyone) searched for things to have the kids copy, she began to make shapes with her arms. This led to a salute. Which made her think of soldiers, so she stopped, faced the side (so the kids could see), extended her arms, clasped her hands, and formed her hands in the shape of a gun. Predictably, all the kids turned to the side, extended their arms and pointed their arm-guns in the same direction.

Time stood still for a moment. I watched as this line of elementary students playing in the sunshine turned obediently into a line of soldiers. Our Guatemalan translator was walking to our right in the grass. When the kids turned to the right, they essentially became a firing line with Ivette in their sights. While she didn’t freak out, a strange, uncomfortable look came over her face as she realized what was happening.

This is a country still feeling the ravages of a 36-year civil war. The area we were ministering saw a lot of conflict. Many adults my age suffer from PTSD today born from the atrocities experienced during that conflict. This was an especially bad place to create a firing line out of children.

At the moment that both Ivette and I realized what just happened, the camp director walked past. Then everything sped up. My assistant yelled “hugs” and immediately the small soldiers broke rank and rushed Ivette, attacking her with huge hugs from all sides. We had moments of laughter, a big group hug and the crisis passed. We dismissed them to the playground and all was well again in our corner of the world.

But, I was left unsettled.

The Next Day

If you’ve read my trip overview post, you know that the following day didn’t go well. We were working on a group project for the first time and we had personality clashes and the group didn’t work together well. Morale was low. We completed our project which was the culmination of the week’s curriculum, but the kids’ hearts weren’t in it. I decided we needed a break. So, we went outside and had this conversation:

I said, “We had a conflict yesterday. Do you remember it?”

Everyone looked confused because the conflict day in the curriculum had been two days prior, not the day before.

“Remember when we were playing follow the leader?” Lots of nods yes.

“Remember when we saluted? And acted like soldiers? Remember when we all aimed our guns at Ivette?” Understanding dawned and they all said yes.

“Do you remember what Ivette’s face looked like when we did that? How do you think she felt?”

They answered, “Not good,” “sad.”

“What did we do next?”

“Hugs!” came back the excited reply.

I spoke quietly and intently. “I want you to remember that when this week is over. I want you to remember it when you have conflict in a group like ours. I want you to think about it when you have conflict at home or here at school. You have a choice in how you respond in any conflict. I want you to remember what it felt like to extend love. I want you to remember how it made you feel and how it changed Ivette’s face and feelings. When you experience conflict, you can choose to respond in love.”

They promised to try.

We went on about the rest of our class and the mood and energy level had upleveled. We were preparing for the camp art show and performances. All the parents of the students had been invited to see what their kids had done throughout the week and we needed to prepare. During the afternoon I would have a few minutes with my students to share about our week and two of the girls had agreed to be interviewed. We had been busy for an hour setting up our week’s worth of art and decorating our group banner, but just before we left, I pulled aside the two girls who were going to share and asked them some sample questions. One of those questions was, “What did you learn this week?” The youngest child in my class was seven, and she answered without hesitation, “that I can respond to conflict with love.”

Yes!

We experienced a very visceral teaching moment and I hope that lesson stays with them as it’s stayed with me.

“Love your enemies! Do good to them. Lend to them without expecting to be repaid. Then your reward from heaven will be very great, and you will truly be acting as children of the Most High, for he is kind to those who are unthankful and wicked.” (Luke 6:35)

If you’re a Christian, you’ve received the ultimate kindness when you were still an enemy of God, unthankful and wicked.

For since our friendship with God was restored by the death of his Son while we were still his enemies, we will certainly be saved through the life of his Son. (Romans 5:10)

Easier to read than to practice, but what would happen in your relationships if you began to respond to conflict in love? What would that look like?

Sit with the truth that Christ offered you a joyous welcome hug when what you deserved was the firing line. Know that he lives in you and can empower you to respond the same way to others.

What is one small way you can respond to conflict in love today?

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