The church as a prophetic community is delicately poised on the brink of irrelevancy unless it rediscovers a new way of communicating its primary message to the potential current day audience.
In colonial days the church sat at the centre of cities and towns (literally) as a beacon of light that commanded the attention of the people and as the talk of the town. Church was more than an institution, it was the central faith constitution of family life. As the world has evolved our voice has become archaic and propositional, over-reliant on an ancient loyalty rather than staying relevant to the everyday conversation.
The message of Christ historically is seen as something written in stone but the ministry of that message has always been a fluid conversation, adapted to the subjective cry of the human soul. We prided ourselves on becoming good communicators by commodifying a monologue diet for our clientele that unfortunately no one is buying anymore, rather than becoming good conversationalists who invited people into a new type of dialogue.
How do we recover from our cultural laryngitis and recapture the imagination of the unsuspecting public, including them in the grand conversation that reflects the heart of God for all humanity; a conversational theology, so to speak?
The day of Pentecost, which is largely recognised as the inception of the early church was a significant occasion that was described as a divine baptism of linguistic genius.
'All of them were filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues as the Spirit enabled them….In the last days, God says, I will pour out my Spirit on all people. Your sons and daughters will prophesy…' Acts 2:4,17
Here was a sudden language upgrade that enabled universal understanding by all of those present, and people from multiple ethnic and cultural backgrounds were able to interpret each others words with divine precision. As one of my colleagues says, 'we are not sure if the miracle was in the speaking or in the hearing’, but either way we see the first notion of what God is wanting to do in the birth of church community; a re-languaging of humanity with the language of heaven, a new conversation outlining a new chapter in the story of humanities interaction with God.
The establishment of the Church community would reawaken the notion that God is a dialogic God, not a monologic deity who passes down edicts to his earthly congregation, but an intimate and interactive collaborator who would be up close and personal. St John, in his opening stanza to his gospel uses the metaphor of WORD to describe the idea and purpose of the Jesus story as a new conversation that has been going on before the beginning of time.
Humanity is made for dialogic intimacy, so much so that we constantly create ways to broaden our language base in order to deepen our affection towards one another and form cultural ways of being. In the world today there are over 6,900 languages which include over 30,000 dialects, proof that we are constantly evolving in our need for connection, not to mention the most powerful and formative of all expression, ‘body-language’. Here we see language housed in human vessels through which 80% of all communication is expressed.
Language is an evolving entity with new words being created every day. Some 8,000 words are added every year to our dictionaries suggesting that we are still learning how communication as a living organism informs our becoming. Words find their genesis in the imagination, the creative centre of our humanity. All good writers are wordsmiths, providing an outlet for the innovative thought of linguistic maturation. The genre of Fantasy writing gives usartistic licence in continuing the trend to invent new words as a way to keep explaining the mysterious nature of knowing. The most popular writers in this genre are credited with not only creating new languages, for example J.R.R. Tolkien’s ‘elvish’ in the LOTR series, but also with capturing the imagination of a generation, so much so that their words have been immortalised, for example J.K.Rowling whose linguistic innovation inspired the inclusion of ‘muggle’ in the Oxford Dictionary. The magic of Harry Potter has cast a spell on the minds of a new generation.
Learning to speak a new language became the first priority of the early church who interpreted this historic occasion as a pentecostal recommendation for a new kind of prayer mode. This interpretation, even though a present day reality is in some ways exclusionary. It has been limited to a select group, missing the point that this new ‘glossalalia’ was also perhaps an opportunity for people to connect with one another cross-culturally in ways they never had before.
We are called to be ambassadors of the ‘great conversation’ because ‘Conversations are the verbal acts of hospitality’ Becoming a conversationalist is about opening our hearts and lives to include others, treating people with the dignity and respect they deserve, being kind-hearted, inclusive and generously liberal with our time and attention. Hospitality in some cultures views the guests 'as God’, acknowledging the divine in them, portraying an openhearted vision of God for humanity.
In chapter four of the gospel of John we recount the story of Jesus stopping at Jacobs well to rest and engage in conversation with a Samaritan woman. This story has multiple layers of insight that will helps us understand the crucial nature of what it means to be a conversationalist:
- Conversation involves the willing participation of two parties.
Starting an interactive dialogue is never just about your contribution, but the mutual beneficiality that each party brings. Jesus had the advantage of being able to play the 'God card’, the divine pronouncement of providence that had arrived to set things straight and put things in order. Something we often do as religious advocates is enter a conversation with a high and mighty arrogance that tries to come off as an altruistic desire to help the sinner. Jesus starts the conversation by asking for a drink, a deliberate expression of need on his behalf, reminding us that every great dialogue starts with humility, a very earthy acknowledgement of need that can only be met through ‘God in the other.’ The gospel message is not a fixed set that we load on to others in order to obtain their acquiescence, but rather an open set that requires the participation and contribution of the outsider in order to evolve. Somehow the kingdom of God is hiding in the hearts of people that we need to meet in order to obtain its refreshing benefit. The point of water in the story suggests a mutual and universal requirement of all humans.
- Conversations level the playing field and redefine the value of our humanity
For Jesus to be speaking to a Samaritan and a Woman is a double whammy. The Samaritans were a despised cultural group ofsyncretistic religious origin that constantly conflicted with the main body of the Jewish population, and for a Rabbi to be speaking alone to woman was considered inappropriate. A dehumanising cultural subjugation of women had become common in ancient near eastern society, devaluing femininity to an underclass status. Jesus momentarily levels the playing field and resets the equilibrium of humanity. Conversations confront our bias, prejudice, preconceived cultural hangups and our moral predilections. Conversations are no respecter of persons, they refuse to categorise or stereotypically place others in our very myopic boxes. They break the mould of what is appropriate and level the playing field in order to confront the over bearing hierarchy and class warfare. A water carrying Samaritan women talking to the Rabbi Saviour of the World offer a lesson in equality and equal opportunity. This interaction reminds us that nothing is too below or to above us to elicit our full attention and engagement. Honour and love for our neighbour must be the defining qualities that govern our conversational connections. Her shock response to Jesus' very direct interaction became an awkward theological dialogue around mountains, water, and worship. The ambiguity of Jesus words enlivening her inquistiveness.
- Conversations expose the greatest need of the human condition…LOVE
When St. Paul wrote to the Corinthian Church, a rather wild and untameable bunch, he deduced that after all is said and done, there are three things that matter most, Faith, Hope and Love, and the greatest of these is LOVE. Paul had a lot to say about the behaviour at Corinth and some may read him as a moral policeman, yet his underlying message is that he still believes that Gods love accepts, forgives and frees us regardless of our how we are seen, perceived or understood.
'Healthy religion is always about love.’ - Fr. Richard Rohr.
In the midst of the conversation with the woman Jesus makes a strange and oblique statement…"Go call your husband and come back”?? Jesus dips into his divine clairvoyance, the intuitive space outside of the limitations of words, not so much a ‘word of knowledge’ as we commonly refer to it, but a deep rich heart to heart knowing that reminds us that God is deeply involved in our maturation. He remarks on her numerous attempts to do relationship, (talk about up close and personal!). Nothing would have been more shocking, the exposure of her deepest felt need; to be loved, which just happens to be the universal need in all of humanity. Conversations zero in on the real needs of humanity, the deeply relational and down to earth stuff that defines our happiness and ability to cope in life. Every great story leans into this reality, the magic of a 'love-at-first-sight' moment that culminates in a 'happily-ever-after’, the romantic idealism of every human heart. C.S. Lewis in his book, 'The Four Loves' suggests that Love is a metaphor for the multi-faceted ubiquitous presence of God in the world today. As it incarnates in our life we discover the layers of its rich transcendence. Love as affection, friendship, charity and eros invites us into its rich texture and relational outworking, not a guarantee for a perfect life, but an invitation into vulnerability.
‘To love is to be vulnerable’ - C.S.Lewis
While we love to break it down into tangible categories that comfortably fit into our world view, we never quite seem to give it the definition it deserves. Maybe a story will do it justice…
‘For all you singles out there looking for love,
we will repeat one of the best singles ads ever placed in a newspaper.
It is reported to have been listed in The Atlanta Journal.
“SINGLE BLACK FEMALE seeks male companionship, ethnicity
unimportant. I’m a very good looking girl who loves to play.
I love long walks in the woods, riding in your pickup truck, hunting,
camping and fishing trips and cozy nights lying by the fire. Candlelight
dinners will have me eating out of your hand. I’ll be at the front
door when you get home from work, wearing only what nature
gave me. Call ********** and ask for Daisy, I’ll be waiting…'
More than 15,000 men found themselves talking to the Atlanta Humane Society about an 8 week-old black Labrador retriever.
Love is all-consuming and all-powerful, the most dominant need of all human relationships, the best conversation piece on the planet. It needs to dominate our every waking moment and be the central theme for how faith makes sense in peoples lives. The Samaritan woman was exposed by love, not necessarily in an embarrassing way but in a deeply personal and healing way. She returned to the village (the place of belonging) and told everyone what had transpired in her conversation with Jesus. With a little hyperbole thrown in she said, 'come see a man who told me everything about my life.'
Maybe not quite everything, but enough to restore her sense of self-worth and dignity. The end result of this particular conversation was one of huge ramifications, a chance meeting with LOVE in the person of Jesus had viral affect on ‘village life’, many found themselves swept up into the inclusivity of loves agenda.
When we think of the conversations that we are daily engaged in I am constantly challenged by the relationship between faith, hope and love. How do they need each other, how do they connect us to something more than our self-indulgent propensity to narcissism? Love gives hope an eternal trajectory and Love gives Faith a divine point of reference. It would seem that they all need each other in order to help redefine human health and well-being.
So let me pose some questions that you may need to ponder on for many months and years to come... be patient with yourself.
What is it about your experience of love that the world can't live without?
Am I a candidate for new moments of acquaintance and interaction or am I highly avoidable due to the nature of my predictable interpretation and expression of love as it is seen through my religious experience?
Does my neighbour have me in a box that I need to break out of in order to redeem my reputation?
Is my love a fixed set of rules and regulations or an open set of relational interactions that are accepting and affirming?
Does my religious dualism exclude me from peoples company, because I always see a ‘them and us’ scenario?
One day when I wrote the word CONVERSATION down on a piece of paper I noticed something quite amazing that has changed everything about how I understand the salvific grace of God.
Hiding in the word conversation is the word conversion, the power of transformation lurking in the background, something that is not the result of a short prayer or a particularised religious practice, but an ongoing discussion in the human heart. Out of conversation will emerge moments of conversion, change experiences that will ultimately affect our ‘village’ life.
Open your mouth and watch God fill it with wondrous words that light up peoples lives. Be the conversation and let God bring the conversion.