This post repeats a Cor Deo offering. Please offer any comments at that site. Thanks!
A Friday morning chat with Terry about conversations, and then reading Pete Sanlon’s book on Augustine—including a feature on Augustine’s conversations with God—set me up for this post.
It’s a topic worth revisiting on a regular basis even apart from these reminders. Conversations are the threads that make up the fabric of life and our sense of belonging to community.
What is a conversation? In basic terms it’s a word-based exchange of thoughts: the informally expressed first fruits of inner reflections exchanged between or among any participants. They are topical and spontaneous, usually maintained by social conventions of mutual curiosity, caring, and humor. Assertions, questions, answers, and counter-questions prosper in a good conversation.
The reflections are reciprocal: an exchange of thoughts in a dialogue. What one says will shape, in some measure, what the other says. Yet each is also contributing from his or her unique point of view. So a new reality—the substance of shared thoughts—is formed by every conversation.
It’s possible, of course, for one voice to dominate—to move to a monologue. It’s also possible for the combination of lecture and dialogue to occur: for a teacher to engage any questions. But these variations only serve to accentuate the unique quality of a true conversation: when two or more hearts and minds are joined in a search for insight and accord.
The place of the heart is important here. In Bible conversations the writers regularly assume the heart to be prior to the mind in what a speaker says. And with that they assume the affective foundation of a true conversation.
Isaiah cites the LORD, for instance, in challenging the citizens of Jerusalem, “this people draws near with their mouth and honor me with their lips, while their hearts are far from me” (29:13); and centuries later Jesus cited this text against a different generation of Jerusalem leaders (Mark 7:6). This addressed a truism that it’s always possible to be insincere in what we say. So, as we discover here, God makes it clear he isn’t thrilled with insincerity.
Consider, too, the exchange in Judges 16 between Delilah and Samson. In a scene that anticipated television soap operas, Samson was holding back information from his girlfriend as they talked at night. Her complaint? “How can you say, ‘I love you,’ when your heart is not with me?” In time he caved in and “told her all his heart” with a transparency Delilah recognized at once. And, given her own insincerity, she promptly betrayed him.
And this feature of heartfelt motivation is where examining conversations becomes intriguing. If we recognize a difference between “good” conversations that consist in heart-to-heart exchanges, and our “ordinary” conversations that consist in swapping loose thoughts and opinions about football or restaurants—exchanges in which our hearts are largely out of sight—we may have stumbled into something important.
And we have. A host of Bible texts presume that our souls consist in the substance of our collective conversations: the stuff of who we talk to; what we talk about; and the level of heart-birthed honesty in our sharing. In Isaiah 32, for instance, the prophet set up a contrast between the transformation of all who will respond to the coming King of righteousness versus “the fool [who] speaks folly”—“But he who is noble plans noble things, and on noble things he stands.”
Jesus also allowed his disciples to listen to one side of a conversation with his Father in John 17. In this prayer Jesus discriminated between those who will “see my glory that you have given me because you loved me before the foundation of the world” and those who are with “the evil one”—a judgment that was based on their being conversation partners with Jesus.
The disciples, in other words, had been drawn into the substance of the Son sharing what the Father had shared with him: “For I have given them the words that you gave me, and they have received them and have come to know in truth that I came from you” (verse 8).
And this participation by the disciples in a conversation with Jesus also set up a participation by us—in a chain of hearing and responding—so that even today we share in a line of conversations going back to the Triune conversation in glory: “I [Jesus praying] do not ask for these [immediate disciples] only, but also for those who will believe in me through their word” (verse 20).
Let me return to my Friday visit with Terry. We talked, in part, about the proper boundaries of conversations: what makes a good conversation? And when are conversations fruitless or misguided?
This morning I took that question to God. The conversation started when I both listened to—on my iPod—and read Isaiah 25-44, and then talked to him—praying—for the next couple of hours. The day started at a friend’s house in Cannon Beach. From there I drove the short distance to Hug Point soon after my time in the word.
What came to mind and to voice in my prayers? My concerns included some recent decisions I’ve made; some thoughts stirred by Terry and by Pete’s book; and the most compelling thoughts came from reading Isaiah at length. My earlier questions and circumstances stirred my reading and listening, and then my praying. It was a working conversation, and it’s certainly not finished!
Two final thoughts.
First, if I had more space I’d love to return to 1 Corinthians 2—a hobby-horse passage for me—to trace how the Spirit supports a Heart-to-heart, Spirit-to-spirit, communion with God. Please go there if you don’t know it already.
And second, I always come away from Hug Point wanting to talk to others who love God. It’s a joy to talk about him and the difference he makes in real life. He changes us, and then he changes the conversations we have with each other!