The Art of Conversation


James 3:1-12


(Watch sermon here.)

Our passage today is a snippet of a letter.
I am going to continue reading it,
so you hear how James emphasizes wisdom
after speaking of the dangers of speaking.

James writes,
“Are any of you wise and understanding?
Show that your actions are good with a humble lifestyle
that comes from wisdom.
However, if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart,
then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.
This is not the wisdom that comes down from above.

“What of the wisdom from above?

“But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable,
gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits,
impartial and sincere.” (1)


James reminds us of the link between wisdom and speaking.

Wisdom illuminates for us the time when we should speak,
and she cautions us away from an excessive vomit of words.

It seems a bit ironic to be talking about a passage
that cautions us from talking too much.

Perhaps, like the Quakers,
we should meditate in silence
and discern what words are worthwhile to speak.

However, James writes shrewdly on this topic,
revealing gems, so let’s turn to them,
with caution and trembling.


The art of conversation.

It’s not something they teach in art class, is it?

Yet it is essential.

It is the one tool we have to connect,
and to learn from each other.

How can we use it well?


James writes:

Only a few of you, my siblings, should be teachers.
You should realize that those of us
who are teachers will be called to a stricter account
.

Teachers are models who influence:
How do you influence others?

Perhaps this passage should read:
Only a few of you should tweet,
because those of you who tweet
will be judged with greater strictness.

It could also ask:
How many of you should post on Facebook? Share memes?
Repeat what you have heard through cable news?

Have you researched it?
Checked multiple sources?
Read what people would say from another perspective?

What process do you use to examine
the excess of words that the world produces?

Memes are a great example
of something that is meant to be shared thoughtlessly.

What is a meme?

A meme is a picture with a caption of a few words,
shared frequently online.

It’s meant for you to share instinctively,
without pondering content.

I can imagine James saying this:
Only a few of you should share memes,
and those of you who share memes
will be judged with greater strictness.

It’s a powerful way you influence others.

Before you share a meme, have you researched it?
Have you considered writing it in your own words?
Have you considered how it could harm someone?
Do you have an editor that you can send the meme to,
to tell you if it’s worth posting?

The same rigorous vetting process worthy of books
is worthy of our Facebook posts,
our memes, our tweets, and our cable news citations.

How do our words harm or heal?

It takes longer to think about this
then it takes to click the Post button
or to parrot another’s opinion.

The click of the button, and the ease of parroting,
betrays the ethic of loving discernment,
research, and wisdom.

The tongue, James warns us,
creates a tiny spark that burns down the forest.


No one can tame the tongue, the author of James continues.
Its a restless evil, full of deadly poison.

Is the tongue really a restless evil filled with deadly poison?

The words seem to exaggerate.
However, these pointed words
help us to see the tongue’s power.


The tongue influences.
The tongue also creates drudgery.

Are we aware of that?

Have you been the recipient of the drudgery of a monologue?

Coming to an awareness of our share of talking time
is one way we can begin to bring
equity, instead of domination, to a conversation.


Author and activist Glennon Doyle
describes a conversation this way:
it is a river that we all agree to flow down. (2)

We surrender to it,
discovering each new bend together.

When you focus only on what you will say,
you are holding on to the bank,
as everyone else continues down river.

You miss the journey.

In contrast, Jesus models for us
the river of conversing, listening,
and opening to the perspectives of others.

In the dialogue with the Syrophoenician woman
that we heard last week, Jesus changes his response
based on the woman’s words.

Jesus models for us metanoia,
the practice of allowing ourselves to be changed.


Although James cautions us against speaking too much,
another question to consider is this:
What happens when we keep silent,
but those with the most poisonous tongues speak loudly?

Forest fires blaze around us.

In situations when others take the conversation hostage,
your words matter.
Maybe what you most need to speak about
is speaking dynamics themselves
so that
all
may be
free.


Speaking of equity,
I find dear James’ affinity for the teachings of Jesus.

In James, the author writes that wisdom
comes only from one source: above.

Likewise, in Matthew 23,
Jesus teaches, you shouldn’t be called Rabbi,
because you have one teacher, and all of you are siblings.
Don’t be called teacher, because Christ is your one teacher.
 (3)

Like James, Jesus distrusts the status of instructors.
Jesus abolishes teachers and the hierarchy
that presupposes that some people know more
and others know less.

You are all equal, Jesus proclaims.

We all make mistakes, James warns.

Both Jesus and James create egalitarian visions of relating.


What do you use your words for?

To establish connection? Relationship? Equality?

Or to defend your perspective of reality?
Or to defend yourself because you know better?


James presses the point when writing,
“If you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your heart,
then stop bragging and living in ways that deny the truth.”


What James is saying is,
become aware of your own biases.
Be aware of your jealously and rivalry.
Be aware when your perspective is so tenuous
that you cannot tolerate the perspective of others,
and you have to shout, I have more of a claim on the truth than you!

Jealousy and rivalry are not God’s kind of wisdom.


In contrast, James explains that
the wisdom from above is open to reason.


The wisdom from above invites you to
be willing to yield to others.
Like Jesus with the Syrophoenician woman.

Flow down the river of conversation.
Don’t cling to the bank.
Be willing to yield
and ask curious questions.

It’s not all about you,
you as yourself or your preferred in-group.

Yield to those with less power.
Be aware of power dynamics.
Did everyone else grow up locally
and there is only one newcomer in the group?
What are people’s genders, abilities, or nationalities?
Are the people with more power in society
taking up most of the talking time?

How do you create a space
where all have equal access in the conversation?


Change begins with conversation.

Conversation is where we practice social dynamics.
James challenges us to consider if this is the place
where we also live out our values.

Speech, rest, silence, talking.

How do we make room for all living beings?
This includes the earth who speaks to us.

Do we listen?

I have not listened for so long,
but when I finally tune in—
to the earth, to others—
they are there, as they always were,
sharing their wisdom.

Are we speaking a blessing to them?
Or a curse?

Most relationships are predicated on transaction-based inequality.
We order everything we need from Amazon,
never mind that I depend on people who have infrequent, timed
bathroom breaks, because I have to get my thing in 24 hours.

What gives me my daily bread brings hardship to others.
It’s a vampiric interaction.
Our lives take advantage of others,
where they suffer a loss.

How can we overcome that way of living?
Yield to others.
Listen to others.

Live into a community life where
we mutually reinforce and support each other.

We are so dedicated to actualizing ourselves,
but we are not as dedicated to actualizing others
as much as ourselves.

Be yourself, we say.
Be you.

That’s the focus.

However, what James is saying,
what Jesus is saying, is that the means don’t justify the ends.

Don’t be “you” at the expense of others who are striving to be who they are,
at the expense of suppressing them, silencing them, overcoming them in words or actions.

We are a we, which is multiple “I”s.

Your “I” is not the only one to be considered.

Start a life of change by conversing with others,
rather than talking at them.

James and Jesus specifically use sibling language as a sign of equality.

Move to equality; move to a posture of openness,
for Jesus has deposed all teachers.

The good news is that
God has wisdom.

We all have access to that wisdom,
so we can learn from one another.
That wisdom goes out the window
as we think, how will I get my talking point in,
as we assume the person is there to listen to us.

When we do that,
we have already missed the image of God in front of us.

God has been speaking all the while.

Do we talk so much
that we talk right over God?

Amen.

(1) James 3:13-14, 17-18

(2) Doyle, Glennon. (Host). (2021, August 31). REAL TALK: How can we begin to use conversation as a key to unlocking each other? [Audio podcast episode] In We Can Do Hard Things. Cadence13 Studios. http://wecandohardthingspodcast.com/

(3) Matthew 23:8, 10

The featured image, “Graphic Conversation”, is by Marc Wathieu. It is licensed with CC BY-NC 2.0. To view a copy of this license, visit https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-nc/2.0/

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