Oh, My Word, Part 5: Staying in Conversation

One challenge offered by Marilyn McEntyre in her book Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies is for people to “Stay in Conversation.”[1] It was that nasty little word “stay” that first caught my attention. All of us converse from time to time—out of sheer pleasure and/or necessity—but it doesn’t come easily for many of us. As an introvert, I could be tempted to think that conversation is the verbal equivalent of kale; it may be good for me, but I don’t have to like it. On the other hand, I do enjoy conversation when it features the right blend of seriousness, wit, insight, encouragement, and/or inspiration. Small talk is just exhausting (and annoying) to this INTJ.

McEntyre laments, “Conversation is not simple. Good conversation is rare. We do not live in a culture in which the art of conversation is widely cultivated.”[2] While I agree with her observation, I also recognize that I’m part of the “culture” of which she speaks. Consequently, it’s necessary for me to cultivate my abilities when it comes to the art of conversation in order to help the cause. In this post, we’ll look at why good conversation is important, why it can be challenging for someone like me, and what I need from God to improve my conversation.

Why Good Conversation Is Important

Human beings were made for community. It’s part of who we are as creatures made in the image of God. The Lord has revealed himself to us as the divine Three-in-One, a single, triune community of love, joy, and mutuality. Moreover, God has said it is not good for people to be alone. He designed us for relationship—with him and with each other. Thankfully, the gospel makes both possible.

Indeed, the twelve disciples were a community group, formed by Jesus himself. This band of petty and pugnacious men had little in common with each other besides Jesus, yet within three years, their lives and their communities were transformed into a world-changing movement. They lived, loved, learned, and talked together as they followed Jesus, overcoming their differences as they did. Divine grace was the glue that held them together.

William Ham has said, “There are many things which a person can do alone, but being a Christian is not one of them. As the Christian life is, above all things, a state of union with Christ, and of union of his followers with one another, love of the brethren is inseparable from love of God. Resentment toward any human being cannot exist in the same heart with love to God.”[3] Ouch. Staying in conversation can be tough, especially when there’s tension or grievance in the air, right?

Moreover, we live in a culture that prizes individualism, one that views community as something to consume rather than commit to. On top of that, community is not always easy. But when we abandon community—and the rich conversation that holds it together—we deprive ourselves of the very gifts God may want to bring into our lives. McEntyre writes, “Conversation is an exchange of gifts. Native American tribal wisdom teaches that when you encounter a person on your life path, you must seek to find out what gifts you have for one another so that you may exchange them before going your separate ways.”[4] Such verbal hospitality is a form of loving one another. It’s the way we share life experiences, thus caring for people by learning their stories and practicing the “one anothers” of Scripture. 

“How rich is anyone who can simply see human faces,” said Corrie ten Boom.[5] She was right, especially as applied to our age of digital technology, media saturation, and personal isolation, especially during a pandemic. Quality conversation in the context of genuine Christian community is the antidote to such trends of depersonalization. As C. S. Lewis said, true friendship is born when one person says to another, “What! You too? I thought that no one but myself . . . .”[6] Loneliness is thus pushed back in the course of dialog, and the image of God is lived out through us as we do life together. Conversation, then, fulfills the image of God in us, even as it serves to deliver God’s good gifts to us.

Why Good Conversation Can Be Challenging

As already noted, I’m introvert. I say this by way of description, not by way of excuse. I simply tend to focus my attention on the inner world of my own ideas and impressions. It’s a natural preference for me, and it always has been. Conversation, then, sometimes pulls me out of my comfort zone and into a world of apprehension. As McEntyre observes, “To ‘converse’ originally meant to live among or together, or to act together, to foster community, to commune with. It was a large verb that implied public, cooperative, and deliberate action. When we converse, we act together toward a common end, and we act upon one another.”[7] Ouch again. Introverts don’t like being acted upon.

When I was young, my imagination was my favorite toy. Consequently, I came across to others as distant, aloof, and sometimes even arrogant—largely because I spent most of my time in my own thought world. Playing around in the sandbox of my own mind was fun, and it still is. Taken to the extreme, however, introversion can be a rank form of selfishness. Others need to be heard, and I need to listen, but that takes energy and concentration. As McEntyre notes, “A good conversationalist directs attention, inspires, corrects, affirms, and empowers others. It is a demanding vocation that involves attentiveness, skilled listening, awareness of one’s own interpretative frames, and a will to understand and discern what is true.”[8]

On the very first performance evaluation for my entry level job out of college, I received high marks and good feedback in every are except one. My boss said, “You’re not a very good listener.” She was right. Two dynamics were at work in those days. First, if I ever heard an interesting thought or idea from an external source, my mind would secretly “run with it” to new and deeper places in the moment, causing me to miss other elements of the conversation. 

Second, if I ever heard a banal thought or idea from an external source, I would quietly realize that what was going on in my own head at the time was much more interesting, again causing me to miss other elements of the conversation. Consequently, I was never seen as “a people person.” In fact, my own dear mother, upon hearing my announcement that I was going to be a pastor, said with utter incredulity, “You???” She was shocked.

Truth be told, there was a third dynamic at work in those days, and it was the same family of origin issue I’ve struggled with my whole life—a tendency toward perfectionism. That was a coping mechanism I utilized to help calm the troubled waters at home. I was determined to earn parental approval, but I seemingly fell short every time. For a sensitive kid like me, that feeling of failure was a recurring source of pain and disappointment. Sadly, it wound up affecting numerous areas of my life, and the sting of it lingers to this day. 

Along with everything else in our lives, perfectionists have to converse perfectly, too. That feels threatening. “What if I say something wrong?” “What if I say something stupid?” “What if I say something that doesn’t go over well in a group?” As a result of this fear, patterns of isolation developed early in life. Even into my twenties and early thirties, those patterns were there and seemed to be set in stone. I could say of myself, in the words of Simon and Garfunkel, “I am a rock.”

A winter’s day
In a deep and dark December
I am alone
Gazing from my window to the streets below
On a freshly fallen silent shroud of snow

I am a rock
I am an island

I’ve built walls
A fortress deep and mighty
That none may penetrate
I have no need of friendship
Friendship causes pain
It’s laughter and it’s loving I disdain

I am a rock
I am an island

Don’t talk of love
But I’ve heard the words before
It’s sleeping in my memory
I won’t disturb the slumber of feelings that have died
If I never loved I never would have cried

I am a rock
I am an island

I have my books
And my poetry to protect me
I am shielded in my armor
Hiding in my room
Safe within my womb
I touch no one and no one touches me

I am a rock
I am an island

And a rock feels no pain
And an island never cries

Simon said it was his most neurotic song ever. 

A related aversion I have to conversation is connected to the internal struggle I experience whenever someone is overly domineering or acting like a “word hog” in discourse. (That aversion is likely connected to my family of origin issues, too, as my dad could be quite intimidating.) I tend to be much more persuaded by logic, substance, and good argumentation than by mere volume, emotion, or trivia. One interesting fellow comes to mind in this regard. Bob (not his real name) has a lot of volume and copious gesticulations to go with his big words, myriad insults, and theatrical pronouncements of useless information. Nevertheless, he thinks he’s clever. Most of us, however, think he has a lot more to be humble about than he realizes. If I ever write his biography, it might be titled, The Lucubrations of a Loquacious Ultracrepidarian, just to illustrate the point. People like Bob tend to make me clam up, and I haven’t learned yet how to deal with them in a healthy way. I have a lot to be humble about, too.

What I Need from God to Improve My Conversation

Despite these personal challenges, I know I need to “stay in conversation,” which means I need to stay in community. As Charles Colson once said, “Though I know intellectually how vulnerable I am to pride and power, I am the last one to know when I succumb to their seduction. That’s why spiritual Lone Rangers are so dangerous—and why we must depend on trusted brothers and sisters who love us enough to tell us the truth.”[9]

Consequently, what I need from God is grace to overcome the feeling that I need to “perform” while talking, thinking that every statement I make in a conversation is being evaluated by others. Without that grace, I could easily revert to those days of being “a rock” or an “island.” But it’s far better to be vulnerable than to be isolated. The last thing this world needs is another neurotic introvert.

Image Credits: jooinn.com; lynda.com; unsplash.com.

[1] Marilyn McEntyre, Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 2009), 87-110.

[2] Ibid., 88.

[3] William T. Ham, “Candles of the Lord” in Spiritual Renewal through Personal Groups, John L. Casteel, ed. (New York: Association Press, 1957) 169. 

[4] McEntyre, Caring for Words, 95.

[5] Corrie ten Boom, Elizabeth Sherrill, and John Sherril, The Hiding Place (Grand Rapids: Chosen Books, 1971, 1984, 2006), 165.

[6] C. S. Lewis, The Four Loves (New York: HarperOne; 1960, 2017), 113.

[7] McEntyre, Caring for Words, 89.

[8] Ibid.

[9] As cited in Kathi Lipp, Praying God’s Word for Your Life (Grand Rapids: Revell, 2013), 67.

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