A few years ago I stumbled across a journal entry of Henri Nouwen; and as so often before, his words deeply resonated with my heart. Nouwen wrote,
“I have come to realize how hard it is to have a real spiritual conversation. I keep wondering how people with deep religious convictions can speak together at table about the life of the Spirit…. It always strikes me how grateful people are for a good spiritual conversation, but also how hard it is to make such a conversation happen.”
In the circles in which I move, I sense a longing among people for better conversations, more soulish conversations, conversations around the big questions and wonderings of their lives. And yet, despite all this longing, people confess a reluctance, or perhaps inability, to initiate such spiritual conversations. Why is this and what can we, who feel such things, do about it?
From youth soccer sidelines or neighborhood chit chat to informal dinner conversations to small group Bible Studies or mentoring appointments, how can we deepen our conversations?
To begin with, I want to invite you to watch our webinar Jump Starts for Intentional Spiritual Conversations, in which we dove into this set of questions.
In preparation for this time, I found myself deeply affirming that the quality of conversation we offer others is inextricably tied to the quality of attention we provide others. How then can we grow in an attentiveness that leads to cultivating more meaningful spiritual conversation?
Three initial thoughts come to mind, growing edges of sorts, for those of us who long for better spiritual companionship and conversation.
- Learn to begin where people are…
One of the many things that stick out about Jesus is his skillfulness in engaging people where they are. Whether it was Jesus’ question to Andrew “What are you looking for?” (John 1), or his encounter with Nicodemus (John 3) or the Samaritan woman at the well (John 4), or his Emmaus conversation while walking with two followers after the resurrection (Luke 24), to sample just a few, Jesus takes their perspective as the starting point. He honors where they are with curiosity, recognition, and compassion.
Spiritual companionship and conversations must be grounded in the ordinariness of our lives. There is not some special “spiritual” compartment we have to find our way to. We can be free to simply pay attention to the nitty-gritty stuff of life.
As one person has put it, “So many people are striving to be interesting to us, but the people who have influenced us the most are those who are interested in us.” Let’s learn to be interested people.
Our gentle curiosity via questions about the comings and goings of life, or school, meals and chores, around anxieties, arguments, illnesses, joys, and sorrows, as well as unexpected turns in the road, puts us in a unique position to pay attention to the presence and activity of God in everything. Key discipline: Asking Open-ended Questions
- Learn to patiently get below the surface…
Educator Parker Palmer has pointed out that for North Americans “the good life” has been reduced to “a matter of outer arrangements.” We too often address the big questions and challenges of our lives by simply changing or rearranging our outer realities. As a result, our responses to the real dilemmas of our lives can be rather superficial.
Just a glance through the Gospels reveals Jesus’ capacity to get below the surface of the challenges and the people he encountered. He did this most often by asking good questions and telling stories to invite and involve people in the real stuff of their lives, both the inside of the cup, as well as the outside (Matthew 23:25-26).
Going deeper with people takes patience and requires trust; such conversations cannot be rushed or forced. Adults will not share their lives until they feel safe–and respected.
There is an ongoing tension in assessing when and how much of your life to share so it encourages spiritual depth in others. God’s Spirit is always present and active when we converse with one another. We don’t need to unduly push an agenda or the pace of the sharing. Key discipline: Listening
- Learn to reflect theologically…
A guiding assumption of the Bible is that God is always and already up to something good in our world, our communities, and our lives. Our primary work as his people is to pay attention to God’s activity and then align our activity with him. This is about noticing, and even expecting, God-at-work in our own lives and the lives of those across the table.
I have sat in many small groups or around dinner tables among friends who long to have more meaningful interactions. Over and again a great temptation is to proceed in our conversations and discussions, as if we were, as Jim Houston puts it, “talking about God behind his back.” It is a wonderful moment when God by his Spirit “taps us on the shoulder” and we realize he has been there among us all along. Our conversation takes on so much more of an honest, lively, and transformative character when we discover the living Jesus among us.
Eugene Peterson points out, “Important in any community of faith is an ever-renewed sense of expectation in what God is doing with our brothers and sisters in the faith.” Are we bringing this sense of expectancy to our conversations? Are we open to being surprised by what God might be doing in our friend or neighbor’s life? Key discipline: Prayerfulness
Father, we confess how hard it is to cultivate real spiritual conversation in our everyday lives, but we long for it.
May you convert our hunger for spiritual conversation into a vocation and a calling.
May we become more attentive, “detectives of divinity” wherever we find ourselves.
May we become catalysts for deepening conversation and companionship in our communities.
Spirit, be generous to our life together, in Jesus’ name.
Jump Starts for Intentional Spiritual Conversations is led by Pam Edwards, Wendy Delcourt, and myself offering steps that might help you jump-start spiritual conversations.