“For wherever two or three are gathered (drawn together as My followers) in (into) My Name, there I AM in the midst of them.” [Matthew 18:20AMPC]
(Part of the Series of Practical Instruction for Disciples of Christ)
What is ministry? “A person or thing through which something is accomplished.” [Merriam-Webster Online dictionary]; to serve the needs of others, especially their spiritual needs.
What is conversation? Conversations are discourses, usually between two (2) individuals or, at most (in numbers) small groups of 6 to 9 persons. Conversations are characterized by: intimacy and proximity (although this latter has been redefined by modern communication technology); respect; good listening skills; patience; good intentions; positive energy/passion; no fear; trust/honesty and honest differences of opinion; integrity; hope for a strengthened relationship from having participated in the conversation.
Conversations are usually intentional but may occur spontaneously between two strangers “on a boat, in a car, on a train or on a plane”. One can “strike up” a conversation to “fire up” a relationship.
Conversations occur at the “intersection of our interactions” (from “Discipleship and Discipline: Second Edition” by William H. Hicks, copyright 2005, 2019). Conversations are the traffic pattern, the thoroughfares of our exchanges, occurring on the social, educational, economic and political freeways of society and culture as well as on the corners of the Main Streets and Maple Avenues of our minds.
Ever notice how some people are described as skilled, even “brilliant” conversationalists? Debates, even arguments, are conversations (though ‘specialized’). Debates are usually highly structured, with attendant “rules of engagement” and sometimes pre-defined terms that identify the meaning of certain words and may also describe the parameters of the debate in order to identify the winner(s). Arguments are different. Arguments are almost always subjective, having elements of disagreement based on emotions/feelings vs differences of opinions or competing source materials, aka “facts”.
What then, is the ministry of conversation? It is a special and “specialized” approach to conversation which prioritizes not just the strengthening of the relationship between the apparent participants in the conversation. The highest aim of the ministry of conversation is to strengthen the relationship of the visible participants with the Object and Focus of their conversation, the Lord God, Whose presence is not always ‘apparent’.
This essay will look at five (5) conversations taken from the Bible to examine their characteristics for clues as to how to successfully navigate a relationship (WHAT WE SEE HERE). There are, of course, other conversations that can be reviewed. Further, what the participants bring “to the discourse table” are also important considerations, such as personality, personal history, values, culture, their sense of what makes “community”, their “gender”. The five instances chosen are: The conversation between The Lord God and Moses in Exodus 33:11(AMPC); Paul at Athens on Mars Hill, Acts 17:17-34AMPC; Jesus and Nicodemus, John 3: 1-10AMPC; Jesus and the Samaritan Woman at Jacob’s Well, John 4: 1-30AMPC; and, Jesus, Cleopas and Cleopas’ companion on the road to Emmaus, Luke 24: 13-35AMPC.
Exodus 33:11aAMPC: “And the Lord spoke to Moses face to face, as a man speaks to his friend.” As we arrive at Exodus 33, we see that God and Moses have a history shared between them, a history of conversations that detail the nature and substance of their relationship (burning bush, Mount Horeb/
Sinai). The Hebrew word for “friend” used in this verse, rea, “connotes companion, friend” (Vine’s; Strong’s), but the connotation in the Hebrew regarding the participants to this conversation conveys a superior (God) and subordinate/supplicant (Moses) aspect to their relationship. This is borne out by the nature and substance of their conversation as it follows in Exodus 33: 11-23AMPC.
Of the many aspects of the conversation, these stand out: Moses says to his Friend, “Yet You said, I know you by name and you have also found favor in My sight. Now therefore, I pray You, if I have found favor in Your sight, show me now Your way, that I may know You [progressively become more deeply and intimately acquainted with You, perceiving and recognizing and understanding more strongly and clearly] and that I may find favor in Your sight.” Moses establishes his position vis a vis his relationship with his Friend as based on God’s statement that Moses has “found favor” in God’s sight. Yet Moses beseeches God, based on that assurance, that God show Moses His way, so that Moses “…may know You… and that I may find favor in Your sight.” This seems rather ‘circular’ to the casual observer, but Moses is really moving to strengthen his relationship with his Friend, having found favor with Him, by seeking greater, deeper intimacy. Moses reminds his Friend, “And [Lord, do] consider that this nation (that, in prior conversations, you have commissioned me to lead) is Your people (my italics)”. Moses takes his commission seriously and his friendship with God as essential to his ability to be successful in discharging his responsibility. Moses knows where he stands with his Friend and Moses knows that he must never abrogate that position. Moses seeks greater intimacy with his Friend as the only position from which he can do successfully what he has been called to do.
WHAT WE SEE HERE
These aspects of the conversation between God and His friend, Moses, characterize a healthy relationship between them: intimacy and proximity; respect; good listening skills; patience; good intentions; positive energy/passion; no fear, although on Moses’ account his reverential fear of the Lord is real and tangible; trust/honesty; integrity; hope for a strengthened relationship from having participated in the conversation. This latter is the unspoken, yet core desire of each party to any conversation. As the conversation proceeds, Moses gains confidence and asks his Friend to assure him that his Friend’s Presence will always be with him as he pursues his mission. Emboldened further by his Friend’s assurances (v.17), Moses makes the ultimate petition: “…I beseech You, show me Your glory.”
The relationship between God and His friend was so strong that the Lord even shared with Moses His intentions to destroy the Israelites out of His righteous anger at their idolatry. I mean, God was “incensed”! The Lord says to His friend, “Now therefore, leave Me alone, that My wrath may burn hot against them and that I may destroy them; but you (My friend- my addition), I will make of you a great nation.”(Exodus 32:10AMPC). God’s friend, Moses, does not “leave God alone.” A friend sticks closer than a brother. A friend knows the value of listening to their Friend’s heart, when to be silent and not being quick to offer “solutions”. God’s friend ‘helped’ Him with managing His righteous anger by interceding on Israel’s behalf, reminding his Friend of His prior promises and commitments outlined in previous conversations between them. Ultimately, God strengthened His and Moses’ relationship throughout its duration. Yes, Moses did disappoint his Friend on subsequent occasions, but Moses’ Friend was always faithful to their relationship.
MISSION TO MARS (HILL)
Acts 17:15-34AMPC recounts the apostle Paul’s visit to Athens, Greece and specifically to the Mars Hill neighborhood of that city. Mars Hill was where the “intellectuals”, the Epicureans and the Stoic philosophers hung out and engaged in discourse among themselves. Two things of import are noted in the passages recounting the ensuing conversation between Paul and the Grecian intellectuals: 1) Paul was ‘angered’ by the presence of all the idols in Athens; 2) Paul’s personality- fiery, confrontational, fueled by his great passion and energy (Acts 9:1-2AMPC; Acts 15:38-40AMPC; https://1drv.ms/w/s!Al4xqC0eZvxWilPY3JKzrY0PiMCJ) was the “accelerant” God used to motivate Paul’s engagement of the Athenian philosophers. Paul was also an intellectual, a linguist and skilled also in the methods of conversational engagement so as to be able to meet the denizens of the Areopagus on their own terms.
WHAT WE SEE HERE
Paul’s point of entry into engagement with the Areopagans was first to notice something about them that he (Paul) had observed. Paul engaged in competent observation before he made any judgments about the Athenians: ‘I notice your shrine to “the unknown god”’. This is a hallmark of a good conversationalist: “My, what a lovely hat you’re wearing, dear! Wherever did you buy it?” Having established “common ground” upon which they could converse, Paul then moved to engagement. Paul proceeded to present the Gospel as the answer/insight to their curiosity about that which they sensed intuitively but couldn’t quite put a finger on. Some of the Athenian philosophers scoffed; some of them were engaged but not, at first, convinced; a few (Dionysius and “a woman named Damaris”) were convinced and converted. When Paul was confronted by Jesus on the road to Damascus and converted from being Christ’s enemy to being Christ’s advocate, the Lord did not change Paul’s personality. Paul was the same “fired up” individual he was when he was called “Saul”; what changed about him, among other things, was the purpose, focus, direction and method of application of his energy. Paul was, essentially the “same guy” from a personality perspective (Type A), but he was changed for the better in order to discharge more effectively the mission upon which he had been sent.
A note about venue: Paul converses with anyone at any time in any place: Acts 17:17AMPC: “So he reasoned and argued in the synagogue with the Jews and those who worshiped there, and in the marketplace [where assemblies are held] day after day with any who chanced to be there.” See prior reference to “planes, trains and automobiles.” The “church” has no walls.
A DISCOURSE ABOUT ANATOMY
In John 3:1-11AMPC, Nicodemus, identified in the translation as a “Pharisee, a ruler/leader (member of the Sanhedrin), an authority among the Jews”, visits Jesus by night to engage Him in conversation. Some might say, to debate Jesus; I don’t agree. Seeking to establish a rapport with Jesus, Nicodemus calls Him “Rabbi”, notes that “we” know and are certain that You have come from God [as] a Teacher;… Thus, I believe that Nicodemus came seeking instruction and not merely validation of his status as an authority, his “position power”. For Nicodemus, the conversation goes in an entirely unexpected direction. Jesus ignores Nicodemus’ attempt to establish a rapport based on ‘common values’ of flattery and “position power” recognition, to establish a “common ground” in a hierarchy in which Jesus has absolutely no interest whatsoever. Jesus starts talking about “anatomy” (or so thinks the learned Nicodemus)! Jesus completely ignores Nicodemus’ attempt to “butter Jesus up” and goes straight to the heart of His concern: Nicodemus’ salvation. Nicodemus, thoroughly disconcerted, defaults to biology until Jesus, the Teacher, begins to educate Nicodemus about “spiritual biology”. Jesus diverts Nicodemus’ attention away from the temporal to the eternal, from the mundane to the magnificent.
WHAT WE SEE HERE
Once Jesus had created the opening in Nicodemus’ mind to consider spiritual matters vs merely “religious” concerns (“we know…”), Jesus turns the conversation into a teaching opportunity. Jesus goes straight to the heart of the real reason Nicodemus came to him (by night) in the first place: (“we… are certain that You come from God [as] a Teacher;…) Nicodemus is really seeking enlightenment and illumination. Jesus gives Nicodemus what he is truly seeking, that is, insight into the God Whom “we” (the Pharisees) worship. ‘We’ are “certain” that You are acquainted with and know our God. Tell me about God. Jesus obliges Nicodemus’ curiosity by use of metaphors (water and wind), temporal things with which Nicodemus is familiar. Jesus assures Nicodemus of His authority to speak on these matters based on the truth (and fact) that He is speaking from experience, Gr., epignosis, or knowledge based on actual interaction with that about which (and Whom) He is speaking (John 3:11-13AMPC). At this point in the gospel narrative, it’s unclear whether the conversation with Nicodemus continues, but what follows is the Great Declaration: “For God so greatly loved and dearly prized the world that He [even] gave up His only begotten (unique) Son, so that whoever believes in (trusts in, clings to, relies on) Him shall not perish (come to destruction, be lost) but have eternal (everlasting) life. (John 3:16AMPC)”.
We know from further reading that this conversation with Jesus was so impacting on Nicodemus that Nicodemus advocated for Jesus before the Sanhedrin (John 7:50-51AMPC). Further Nicodemus was the one who bought (at his personal expense) the items necessary to the anointing of Jesus’ body (John 19:39-40AMPC) to accord Him a proper burial. In a sense, it could be said of Joseph of Arimathea and Nicodemus that they risked their lives going to Pilate to seek Jesus’ body, thereby identifying themselves as Jesus’ followers and potential threats to the Roman hegemony. The impact of honest, in-depth conversations where fear is absent and trust abounds, can have lifelong and positive implications.
THE WELL IS DEEP… AND SO IS THE CONVERSATION
John’s Gospel Chapter 4 has a lot in it; most of it (vv. 1-42) is devoted to the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman from the village of Sychar. The chapter opens with the observation that first John the Baptist, and now this Jesus, are winning the “popularity contest” with the Pharisees. It’s highly questionable whether John or Jesus was engaged in or interested in a ‘competition’ with the Pharisees to see who could gain the most followers, but it’s noted that Jesus was aware of the Pharisees’ concerns. Jesus and His disciples then leave Judea (the region of Jerusalem, Bethlehem) and head north to Galilee (Nazareth, Capernaum, the Sea of Galilee, Chorazin). Why is the geographical orientation important here? First, verse 4AMPC reads: “It was necessary for Him to go through Samaria.” The route taken by Jesus and the disciples was the shortest route to their destination (it usually took three days to make the journey). It is important also to note the context in which the conversation between Jesus and the Samaritan woman took place because the route went through the region of Samaria which the Jews of the day avoided like the plague so as to prevent coming into contact with those nasty, half-breed Samaritans. Sychar is on the west side of the Jordan River, near Mt. Gerizim and Mt. Ebal. The Jews of the day usually went along the east side of the Jordan, through Perea, in order to avoid contact with the Samaritans whom the Jews considered anathema.
As there was no public transportation system at that time (planes, trains and automobiles), the journey was made on foot. By the time Jesus and the disciples got to Sychar (about noon), they were hot, tired, hungry and… wait for it…thirsty. “And Jacob’s well is there” (v.6), given by Jacob to his son Joseph. Jesus sits down near the well to rest His tired, aching feet and asks a Samaritan woman coming to draw water to give Him a drink. Oh, it’s on, now! Er, I mean, the conversation ensues.
WHAT WE SEE HERE
I encourage you to read this entire chapter 4 of John’s Gospel CLOSELY. As noted earlier, it has A LOT in it.THING ONE: Jesus, by His behavior, condemns racism and misogyny in one fell swoop. He’s thirsty. Jacob’s well is nearby. A person is coming to draw. Jesus is not concerned nor does He take into consideration that the person is a Samaritan AND a woman. Jesus asks for a drink to quench His thirst. Recall the similar encounter between Abraham’s chief servant Eliezer and Rebecca in Genesis 24 (please see “Discipleship and Discipline: Second Edition” by William Hicks, Zondervan Westbow Press for further insight into the significance of that encounter). The woman recognizes that Jesus is a Jewish man; she knows the socio-ethnic-religious paradigm currently in play at that time, so she is curious that this Guy seems to be ignoring the rules (v.9); He might just be a prophet! Jesus has “set the hook” and He takes over the conversation, steering it in the direction He always intended, towards the woman’s salvation. THING TWO IN THREE PARTS: a) the Spirit/spiritual vs the physical; b) sparkling/living water vs the plain old variety; c) husband vs no husband number 5 (RELATIONSHIP).
Thing Two Part a: the woman of Samaria has been drawn into a deep spiritual conversation. She enters therein by noting the Samaritans’ history of worshiping on Mt. Gerizim and the schism between the Jews and the Samaritans regarding the PROPER PLACE to worship the Lord (Mt. Zion vs Mt. Gerizim). Jesus takes her DEEPER, stating that “place” has no place for the true worshipers of God. As God is Spirit/a spiritual being, worship is appropriate, née, de riguer at any time in any place (vv.23,24). In JK Rowling’s “Harry Potter” books, the Hogwarts students play Quidditch, a game in which the “shortest route” to a win is to catch the Snitch; only the seeker can capture the Snitch. Jesus states that salvation is the ultimate objective of God, its no game and God Himself is the Seeker; we are the “snitches” God is pursuing. This is directly in line with the Great Declaration in John 3:16AMPC and Jesus demonstrates and manifests that He is all about that, even for the hated Samaritans and the ill-treated, disrespected women, not just for the “Chosen ones”, the Jews.
Thing Two Part b: sparkling/living water vs the plain old variety. All water is good… as long as its not polluted! We/our bodies are said to be 55% (women) to 60% (men) water (usgs.gov); water is necessary to life…physical life. You cannot make tea or coffee with it. You cannot “shower” in it, but having been “bathed/washed” in it, you are clean. The water Jesus references is necessary to spiritual life, eternal life. This living water is not H2O. You cannot make it out of anything merely physical, like two hydrogen atoms and one oxygen atom. This living/sparkling water is the Word/word of God itself. It is the Deuteronomy 8:3/Matthew 4:4/Luke 4:4 Word/water that proceeds out of the mouth of God. Note that this Word/water has different qualities and potentialities than the H2O variety. Yes, H2O is necessary for life…physical life, but this living/sparkling Word/water is necessary for eternal life. This Word/water is life itself/has a “life” of its own (Hebrews 4:12AMPC). This living/sparkling Word/water, once ingested, operates ON AND FROM the spirit inside us, changing each of us, our leb (Hebrew), our “heart-mind” fusion from the inside out.
Thing Two Part c: RELATIONSHIP. It has been noted that we are “spiritual beings having natural experiences.” For most of our lives this reality has been presented as a conundrum, a “confusing and difficult problem or question (Google online dictionary)”. While we are, indeed, physical creatures, we are constantly in pursuit of affirmation/confirmation of our spiritual natures, whether through sex (orgasms), religious experiences (“enlightenment”, “nirvana”, “slain in the spirit”) or interpersonal relationships (marriage, community, culture). The Samaritan woman had been on a quest, a quest to find personal meaning and affirmation. To the point of her encounter with Jesus, her efforts had been futile, fruitless and frustrating. Her culture and community had indoctrinated her to the point that she was convinced that meaning and affirmation could only be achieved only in a certain place (Mt. Gerizim) or in a certain way, i.e., in relation to and in relationship with a man/male. Thus, she had sought meaning and fulfillment through five (5) “husband” (v.18) relationships. Note to today: this is the root of misogyny.
Jesus dismantles the Samaritan woman’s entire paradigm, in favor of a more solid, substantial and eternal foundation. Jesus re-orients her in space and in time: in her “inner” self perception (that space between “her” and “self” is deliberate), spiritually and physically; and in her ethnicity/culture. The Samaritan woman is changed so profoundly that she now becomes the instrumentality through which the reality of her friends and neighbors can be changed. She becomes (instantly?) an evangelist, leaving her “water jar” to become a living/sparkling water “jar”, enabling her compatriots to come into relationship with the Source of her (and their) salvation (vv.27-30, 39-42) through facilitation of a conversation between Jesus and the citizens of Sychar.
Luke 24:13-35AMPC, records a conversation about current events, a topic which, historically and perennially, has formed a foundation for conversations among acquaintances, friends and even strangers since the beginnings of civilization. In this example, two friends are walking along, discussing the most important (to them) events of recent days, commiserating with each other about the implications of these occurrences and the (seeming and assumed) dashing of their hopes, dreams and aspirations as a consequence of these events. The two friends are joined by another Traveler going in the same direction Who, catching up to them, engages them in conversation about their discourse: “Hey, guys! How’s it going? What’s up?” To them, this Person is a stranger; but, they actually stop walking to look at Him. Cleopas is somewhat amazed that this Stranger, coming from the same direction from which they had just come, could be unaware of what has just happened in Jerusalem (current events). Cleopas shares the news (the crucifixion of the Prophet from Nazareth) and its impact on him and his companion (they are sad and downcast and disappointed). Cleopas gives the Stranger the straight up “skinny”, including all the details of who did what, when these events occurred and the astonishing news from “some women of our company” that the Prophet, having been publicly put to death, was yet alive(!).
WHAT WE SEE HERE
At this point in the conversation and along the journey’s way, the Stranger takes the lead in the conversation and begins to explain the significance and implications of these current events. The Stranger uses a kerygmatic method to share His eschatological world view… wait, what?! He “breaks it down” for them, “beginning with Moses and [throughout] all the Prophets, explaining and interpreting to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning and referring to Himself (Luke 24:27-27AMPC).” The traveling companions are enthralled. As they near their journey’s end and the Stranger signals that He was going further, they “urge and insist” that He stay with them so that they could continue their conversation over a meal. It was at this point, the point of worship, fellowship and the giving of thanks that the two companions were enabled to recognize Who had been traveling and conversing with them and instantly, He was gone.
Cleopas and his friend realized that they had to share this experience with the other disciples and immediately journeyed back to Jerusalem to tell the Eleven apostles and the other disciples that they had encountered the risen Messiah on their way, only to hear from the disciples the same Good News they were intending to share with them! And then, Jesus Himself appears among them! They see Him. They feel Him. He eats food they had prepared with their own hands. Jesus again employs kerygmatic methods to share His eschatology- OK, He engaged them conversationally in order to translate and transfer to them His biblically-based world view- as the foundation to empower and commission His followers to spread the Good News and to “make disciples” among all the nations (see also Matthew 28:18-20AMPC).
LESSONS LEARNED (SHOUTOUT TO PASTOR TIMOTHY CAREATHERS)
- WE SHOULD TAKE TIME TO MAKE TIME TO TALK TO EACH OTHER. When we are in conversation with each other, it becomes easier to recognize our common humanity. Conversations facilitate our recognition of the God in each other, thereby making it much harder to not “love one another.”
- CONVERSATIONS ARE AT THE LEAST RELATIONSHIP “GAME CHANGERS” AND AT THEIR MOST, “LIFE CHANGING” ENCOUNTERS. If our conversations exhibit the characteristics of positive, intentional interactions- “intimacy and proximity; respect; good listening skills; patience; good intentions; positive energy/passion; no fear; trust/honesty and honest differences of opinion; integrity; hope for a strengthened relationship from having participated in the conversation”, it will be well-nigh impossible for those so engaged to walk away unchanged and to not be the “better” for the experience.
- LISTENING IS A RELATIONAL ACTIVITY. Some one person talks, another or others listen. Good communications in relationships is built on how well the parties to the relationship LISTEN to one another and not on how smooth one talks or how large the vocabulary of the other. The CHIEF COMPLAINT in most failing relationships- whether they be failing marriages, failing parent-child, teacher-student, employer-employee or Teacher-disciple relationships- is that some one is not listening or some one is being misunderstood. Not allowing your partner the opportunity to express him or herself is the same thing as not listening. Matthew 28:18-20AMPC; Acts 1:8AMPC; Romans 10:14AMPC.
- “CLEAR YOUR MIND OF QUESTIONS” (Yoda, Jedi Master). “It’s OK to ask God questions; it’s not OK to ‘question’ God”. Be careful with questions in conversations. Some types of questions are usually the product of a negative attitude and can be a product of prejudice and self-centeredness. The difference is the attitude of our hearts and the position of our minds. Contrast the conversations at Genesis 3:1ffAMPC and John 3:4ffNASB; and see also James 1:5-6AMPC.
- THROW OUT THE GARBAGE: We often “hear” through filters. These filters can be:
- The residue of past experiences;
- Traditions strongly held;
- Emotions which echo down through the years.
- KNOW YOUR MATH… God gave us two (2) ears and one (1) mouth and we should use them proportionately (Romans 12:3ESV) …AND DON’T LISTEN WITH YOUR EARS FULL. For most of us, we can’t listen well because our ears are full of the sound of our own voices, our own thoughts. We focus on me, myself and I rather than on the one who is speaking to us! Don’t drown out your partner! Allow one who is speaking to you TO BE HEARD BY YOU! Example: “I already know what you are going to say before you say it!” (Jeremiah 6:10NIV; Zechariah 7:11-13NIV; 2Timothy 4:3-4NLT).
- CLARIFY, DON’T ASSUME! Often, we assume we are speaking the same language as the person with whom we are exchanging words (Genesis 11:1AMPC). Make sure of this! (John 8:43AMPC). Practice Ardena Hicks’ “Reflection Method”: Reflect, then Respond.
- “LOOK BEFORE YOU LEAP or PAUSE BEFORE YOU SPEAK”. Hear what YOU are going to say BEFORE you say it (SEE #7, Reflection Method). CHOOSE YOUR WORDS CAREFULLY. Don’t just blurt out the first thing that comes to mind. (Proverbs 18:13MSG; Proverbs 29:20NLT). CHOOSE YOUR VOICE CAREFULLY. Be mindful: it’s not so much alone WHAT you say as it is also important HOW you say what you say. (I Corinthians 13:1 MSG/AMPC/KJV/TLB and other translations of this verse.
- Finally, Isaiah 50:4-7NASB/AMPC/TLB/KJV/NIV/NLT/MSG.