Can We Talk?

Sometimes I wonder whether we have lost the ability to talk. I don’t mean the ability to form and speak words. I mean the ability to talk – really talk – with others.
Think about all the “conversations” about race, politics, or religion that you have heard or participated in recently, on TV, at public meetings, in church, on Facebook. It appears to me that, on the whole, we are pretty good at making demands, spewing projectile perspectives, yelling, interrupting, accusing, labeling, and making sweeping assertions about whole groups of people or about how the world ought to work. But we are not very good at conversing, especially when the stakes are high. At least, I don’t hear much genuine conversation going on around the very difficult issues we face together as the body of Christ and in the world, issues like racial tension, violence, politics, religious perspectives, sexual identity, even the future of the church.
In her wise and important book, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies, Marilyn Chandler McEntyre reminds us that “To ‘converse’ originally meant to live among or together, or to act together, to foster community, to commune with…When we converse, we act together toward a common end, and we act upon one another…Indeed, conversation is...a way of building and sustaining community.”[1]
If we are going to find a way forward through these challenging times somebody needs to create spaces in our life together for genuine, careful, caring, honest, mutually-honoring conversation, the sort of conversation that changes the participants and builds and sustains community toward a common good, rather than tearing it apart in a wrestling match over who will get their way, over whose perspective or interest or power will dominate the day.
Of all people, we who have been marked with the cross of Christ and sealed with his Spirit ought to be able to engage and create space for this sort of conversation. After all, trust in the grace of God made known in Jesus who is our forgiveness, love, and hope frees us to go deep into the sorts of paradox, ambiguity and pain that so often give rise to fear and angry imposition of hardline demands. We who rest in amazing grace and walk in the way of the cross are able to face hard, harsh truths about the brokenness and sinfulness of life – together – and to lead the way in our human search for life-giving paths forward.

All this is from God, who reconciled us to himself through Christ, and has given us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them, and entrusting the message of reconciliation to us. So we are ambassadors for Christ, since God is making his appeal through us. [2 Corinthians 5:18-20; NRSV]

This sort of conversation is neither natural nor easy. In many ways, it’s quite countercultural. It involves deep listening to the other, listening at the risk of being changed, not listening in order to find a hole in an argument or a target for rebuttal. Community building conversation that moves to action calls each participant to honest sharing of their experience or perspective in an non-judgmental environment that honors each and is committed to working together for the common good. It’s walking, or rather, talking in the way of the cross, trusting that there really is “one God and Father of all, who is above all and through all and in all.” [Ephesians 4:6; NRSV]
How might we create space for this sort of conversation in our families, our neighborhoods, and our congregations this fall?
How might your book group or Bible study or youth meetings or congregation council or committee meetings be different if genuine conversation about difficult issues were to become a high priority?
What if we all looked around our congregations, communities, and workplaces for people who are different from us or who hold perspectives different from ours and invited them into genuine and sustained conversation about the very things about which we differ? 
Such conversation certainly won’t remedy all the challenges, divisions, and injustices that we face. But I do suspect that, with McEntyre, we’d discover “conversation that discloses us to one another and brings us into relationship that reaffirms our common dependencies and our importance to each other. Like prayer, good conversation fashions words into vessels that carry living water.”[2]

[1] Marilyn Chandler McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans, 2000), 89.
[2] McEntyre, 110.

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