Can we talk? I mean, really have a meaningful conversation where we sit down together, look each other in the eye, risk disagreeing with each other, and share our hearts? So much of life revolves around conversation, for without conversation, there is no relationship. Why is it, then, that we have such a difficult time trusting each other (and ourselves) enough to converse with honesty, authenticity, and passion?
In the first several months of this year, the lack of real conversation is everywhere.
- Weeks ago Governor Scott Walker ofWisconsindecided that in order to alleviate a $137 million budget shortfall, state employees should no longer have a right to collective bargaining. 14 Democratic state senators subsequently left the state to avoid a vote, conversation has been non-existent, and protesters have inundated the state capital. Last Thursday the Senate used a procedural move to bypass the missing senators and strip away most of those bargaining rights. Stay tuned.
- “Talk” radio hosts and callers talk “at” each other, spew venom, and freely ridicule others.
- Charlie Sheen’s self-destruction and ongoing conversation with himself has made real relationships almost impossible while the world watches with sadness.
- The inability of the National Football League Player’s Association and the owners to agree how to divide up $9.3 billion in revenue may result in a lockout. The average player salary in 2010 was $1.9 million, and the average net worth of the 32 NFL private majority owners is $1.4 billion. Neither side will go to bed hungry.
- In the Arab world citizens of Tunisia, Egypt, and Libyahave risen up in historic opposition against autocratic leaders who repress and refuse to converse with citizens who want a say in their government. Other protests have taken place in Algeria, Bahrain, Djibouti, Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Oman, and Yemen.
In the United States free speech is protected by the First Amendment of the Constitution, even if it is hateful, ugly, threatening, and hurtful. A few weeks ago the Supreme Court upheld an appeals court ruling that dismissed a $5 million judgment to a Maryland man who sued members of Westboro Baptist Church after they picketed his son’s funeral. The Kansas based church believes that deaths of American soldiers are God’s punishment for the acceptance of homosexuals, especially in the military.
Chief Justice John Roberts wrote for the majority a few weeks ago, “Speech is powerful. It can stir people to action, move them to tears of both joy and sorrow, and – as it did here – inflict great pain. On the facts before us, we cannot react to pain by punishing the speaker.”
Everywhere we turn conversation is at the heart of relationship: at home, at work, at church, in our communities and our country, and among the nations of the world. How do we sit at table and talk to each other in ways that matter? As I work with Staff Parish Relations Committees to set the tone for healthy communication in local churches, I often hear how challenging it is for SPRC’s and pastors to engage in spirited, bold dialogue with gentleness and graciousness and without causing harm. Unfortunately, by avoiding difficult issues, church leaders and committees jeopardize the long term health of their congregations.
As you go about your daily living, which inevitably includes conversation, I invite you to become more aware of what you say, how you say it, and why you say it. The following suggestions may be helpful.
What you say
- Be very intentional about the words you choose, especially if you are leading. Once you say something, you can never take it back.
- Do not cling to your position as having the only truth. Acknowledge that each person in the conversation has a portion of the truth.
- Don’t be afraid of silence in the conversation. New insights often emerge in the silence.
- Be totally present and fully engaged in all conversations.
How you say it
- Be direct and transparent, with no hidden agenda.
- The key to honest and holy conversation is respect, the acknowledgement that every person is a child of God and deserves to be treated with care and compassion, no matter what.
- Be aware of what your body language and tone of voice communicates to others.
- Listen more than talk. Seek to understand, then to be understood.
- If you need to engage in potentially painful conversation, take time to prepare carefully and prayerfully.
Why you say it
- Come into a conversation with open hands and without preconceived ideas about the outcome.
- Do not withhold or avoid important information for the sake of being kind.
- Recognize when your own buttons are being pushed so that you do not respond in the heat of the moment.
- Converse with yourself, pay attention to your heart and your motives, and trust the leading of the Holy Spirit.
- In all conversations seek the shalom of Jesus Christ and the building of God’s kingdom.
Trusting relationships are developed one conversation at a time. Vital churches, schools, communities, and nations are sustained by healthy leaders who continually refine the art of conversation. Great leaders know that the purpose of conversation is not to produce winners and losers but first to understand, then to be understood. To prove that we are right by vilifying those who believe differently not only shuts down conversation but can permanently damage relationships. The 13th century Sufi poet, Rumi, wrote, “Out beyond ideas of wrongdoing and rightdoing, there is a field. I’ll meet you there.”
It’s gratifying to see many people in that field right now, sincere, faithful folk who are learning how to have effective conversations. I see pastors and lay leaders engaging in honest dialogue with their local churches about how they might need to change in order to become who God is calling them to be. I see denominational leaders encouraging holy and bold conversation so that theological disagreements do not supersede our unified vision to make disciples of Jesus Christ for the transformation of the world. I see ordinary people, like United Methodists inWest Michigan, discuss important issues with passion as well as respect.
Have you been following the reaction to Rob Bell’s new book, Love Wins; A Book About Heaven, Hell, and the Fate of Every Person Who Ever Lived? Many people, without even having read the book, have released a maelstrom of vitriol, having once thought Bell was “on their side” but now claiming heresy because he might imply universalism, the belief that all humans end up in heaven. My prayer is that Love Wins will encourage others to meet in the field to engage in vigorous conversation as well as prayerful listening.
I’ve also been following the tragic story of Wes Leonard, the 16 year old Fennville High School student who collapsed on the basketball court and died of a heart attack after scoring the winning basket on March 3 in the last game of a perfect 20-0 season. Wes Leonard was an unabashed Christian and a United Methodist, having been confirmed in theFennvilleUnitedMethodistChurch.
The worldwide reaction to Wes’ death has been amazing. Why? Because, as Pastor Gary Peterson preached in Wes’ funeral, “Wes walked the talk. … He was a man of action. He stood behind those words.” Because Wes met others in the field, members of 12 rival basketball teams attended the visitation or funeral and witnessed to the impact that Wes had on their lives. So many teenagers have spoken to Wes’ parents and pastor about how he was not afraid to talk about Jesus and shared his faith freely. So many holy conversations have taken place because of the witness of Wes’ life and death.
- What will it take for you to meet others in the field, out beyond ideas of rightdoing and wrongdoing?
- Are you willing to stay in relationship, especially when the issues are difficult?
- How might God be calling you to be a catalyst for an important conversation that needs to take place at home, school, work, or church?
- Is it possible to bring positive change to our world, one conversation at a time?
Sometimes all it takes is 3 simple words. Can we talk?