This past Sunday, I had the opportunity to listen to a friend of mine (also named Pete) preach. He started the sermon with a clip from a movie we’d seen together several years before and he concluded it with a poem I’d shared with him a few months before. And several times during the sermon, he included things we’d talked about over the last few weeks.
What was so great about the sermon wasn’t just Pete’s interactions with me, but seeing his interactions with the Scriptures, his theological tradition, and with other friends and writers.
A sermon seems like a one-sided monologue, but it’s really a gathering of conversations brought together, mulled over, and harmonized into a single message.
As I thought about this, I realized that the same is true of Paul’s letters in the New Testament. Each is a collection of conversations between Paul and those he’s writing to. But not only them, they’re conversations with the Scriptures and with the Jesus he’s come to know.
In Galatians, he references a conversation he’d had with Peter. It was a painful conversation, but it’s one that taught both of them the importance of maintaining a common table for both Jewish and Gentile Christians. Had Paul understood this before the conversation? Probably not. But Peter’s action of separating himself from Gentile Christians and the conversation that came out of that action clarified what Jesus had done, something Paul wrote about in more detail in Ephesians 2:11-3:15 and throughout Romans. But all of Galatians itself is a conversation with the church in Galatia about their slide toward requiring non-Jews to be circumcised and the fall from grace that it entails.
When reading 1 Corinthians, it’s easy to pick out the conversations Paul has had with at least some of the members of the Corinthian church, because he moves from topic to topic (conversation to conversation) and even quotes from the conversations. And when it comes to his famous description of love in chapter 13, we discover that it is deeply informed by the conversations he’s dealt with earlier in the letter. Why write that love doesn’t keep a record of wrongs suffered unless that’s what the Corinthian church had been doing with one another? There are lots of other negatives in the description of love that arise from conversations about the Corinthian struggles — it doesn’t brag, doesn’t boast, doesn’t rejoice in evil — instead of a completely positive list that you’d expect in a meditation on love.
The same is true of the lists of the qualifications of elders in 1 Timothy and Titus. They’re surprisingly negative when we would have expected a very positive list, a list like the fruit of the Spirit. Wouldn’t that make for the best list of character qualities? But conversations with Timothy and Titus had revealed to Paul the negative state of church leaders and so he is writing to correct the situations as they remove bad leaders and pick new ones.
And when you think about it, the gospels themselves are mostly collections of conversations that Jesus had. And if the gospel of Mark is really Peter’s gospel, as recounted by his nephew Mark, then it arises from Peter’s conversations with Mark. And if it was originally written for the church in Rome, it is a conversation with them which is organized in a way to engage them in Jesus conversions with others. And in Luke’s case, he tells us from the outset that what he is writing about Jesus and his followers comes from a series of conversations (Luke 1:1-4) he had with Mary, Paul, and others who are obvious sources for both Luke and Acts.
So, the very Scriptures themselves arise from conversations. Conversations with God. Conversations with all kinds of other people, believers and unbelievers both. Conversations with culture. Conversations with the Scriptures they had at that point. (I love how certain parts of the Bible refer to earlier parts as the Scriptures they rely on and are in conversation with — 2 Peter 3:15-16 referring to Paul’s letters as Scripture; 2 Timothy 3:14-17 referring to the Old Testament as Scripture; all of Psalm 119 referring to the Torah as Scripture.)
Our faith is not written in stone and it’s not done alone. It arises from conversations. The question is: Who are we conversing with and how useful and trustworthy are they?
So, who are we having conversations with? Are we actually listening in our conversations or are we doing most of the talking?
Even in our reading of the Scriptures, it is possible to do most of the talking, listening to the thoughts in our heads more than the Word of the Lord. I know I’m guilty of that more often than I’d like to acknowledge.
And too often, we treat our faith as a solitary endeavor, trying to do it on our own instead of in the company of a faithful community. Not only is this impossible, it is counterproductive, for isolation stunts faith along with the rest of life.
But it’s not only a matter of having conversations, it’s a matter of the quality of those conversations and the quality of those we are conversing with.
If the Scriptures aren’t a major conversation partner in our faith development, we’re missing out on the best there is. Just take a dip into Psalm 119 to get a taste of the richness the psalmist experiences by listening to and engaging with the Scriptures. All of life is enhanced.
We should also consider the quality of the media we engage with. There is plenty of popular media — TV, movies, books, graphic novels, music, magazines, etc. — which make for great conversation partners. But not all of it. Some are just candy. Some are worse. But much of what’s out there can make for excellent conversations (see The book that taught me to read like a pastor).
We should also consider the quality of the advisors and mentors we listen to. Are they themselves faithful people who are engaging with good conversations partners? I’m grateful for most of the conversation partners I’ve listened to, but not all.
And, of course, there is the most important conversation of all: our conversation with God himself. Prayer is the foundational conversation of our lives. It is the conversation that all our other conversations point to.