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becoming conversatioanl

Jesus had a wonderful ability to talk with outsiders. A woman who’d gone through five husbands. A religious leader fraught over his daughter’s health. An officer in the imperial army of occupation. A rich and influential young man. Jesus was so good at engaging outsiders that He was popular at dinners and parties. Religious people, however, dismissed Him as a friend of drunks and sinners.
Celeste Headlee of NPR in Georgia writes, “I’ve been told many times in recent years that there are some people you ‘just can’t talk to’. One person told me she can’t speak to anyone who won’t acknowledge the existence of institutional racism.” But, in this tense era of deep divisions, talking to each other—engaging in even difficult conversations—is more important than ever.

Christ-followers should be good conversationalists; this is rather different than being good talkers. In a time when more and more of us are less and less likely to talk with anyone with whom we disagree, Christians need the skill and grace that invites conversations; particularly with people who disagree with Christianity.

Cicero—perhaps Rome’s greatest orator—compiled a list of rules for conversations: Speak clearly. Speak easily, but not too much. Invite others to speak. Be courteous, never interrupt. Deal seriously with serious matters and gracefully with lighter issues. Never criticize people behind their backs. Choose subjects about which others have some knowledge. Do not talk about yourself (or your health). And never lose your temper.

Celeste Headless offers her own rules for conversations for our fractured times. She opines, “a good conversation isn’t necessarily an easy one. But there isn’t a human being on this planet with whom you have nothing in common.”

First, be curious. Be ready to learn something—even from someone with whom you vehemently disagree. In the 1960’s Xernona Clayton, an African-American woman, over-saw a neighborhood improvement project in Atlanta. In that neighborhood lived Calvin Craig, a grand dragon in the KKK. Despite his devotion to white supremacy, Ms Clayton kept an open door to Mr Craig. He found her “fun to talk with.” In 1968, Craig announced he was leaving the KKK and would dedicate his life to building an America in which “black men and white men can stand shoulder to shoulder.”

Second, resist the impulse to judge. Stop listening for code-words and
dog-whistles. Stop grouping people. Confessing that you, too, are biased is a silent prayer that can launch many great, though not necessarily easy, conversations.

Third, show respect. You can actually practice this alone in your car. When someone cuts you off, instead of critiquing their intelligence or ancestry, try imagining an explanation for their poor driving. Maybe they’re rushing to a hospital, or late to pick up a child. Let’s see people as we see ourselves, damaged humans trying to do life in a broken world.

Fourth, stick with the conversation. The apostle Paul challenges us to
not be easily angered. Try to avoid getting frustrated or self-righteous. Never walk away in the middle of a conversation. If you have nothing good to say, just listen. Silence is preferable to flight.

Finally, end the conversation well. We don’t need to get in the last word. Thank others for sharing their thoughts. Express gratitude for their time and openness. If we end conversations with grace, we leave them with the peace of Christ. He does miracles.

Nobody is a perfect. If, like I too often do, you say something tacky, apologize immediately—offer no excuses. Repentant people are attractive people. And your apology may provide one more thing to talk about. ~

Dan Nygaard