If you live in our area, you’ve seen the bright blue signs Locust Grove has distributed as part of the “Change the Conversation” campaign. We jumped into this movement because it’s clear that public conversation is not currently in a healthy state. Sadly, it’s a mess. There’s too much anger, too much fear, and too much willingness to speak with cruelty and contempt for those seen as being on a different side.
And so…we believe God is calling all His people to work towards changing the public conversation.
I love to dig into the meaning and history of words, and the word “conversation” has an interesting past. Nowadays we use it to refer to talking to one another, but originally it meant, “the place where one lives or dwells.” Over time, the word became used to refer to how people in a certain area conducted themselves.
A people’s conversation, then, was their way of life.
I didn’t know that when we began our campaign. It fits though, because our way of life is more than just what we say. Of course, our words and tone and style matter. All three must be healthy if our conversation is to be healthy.
But even our best way of speaking won’t ring true, and won’t last, without the right foundation beneath our words. I’m reminded of what Jesus said in Matthew 15:
“…what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this is what defiles.”
Out of the heart, he said, come evil thoughts, false testimonies, insults, and worse. And that means if we want the conversation to really change, the change begins in the human heart.
And that’s not easy. Changing hearts – whether our own, or others’ – for the better is not under our control. Deep, lasting change in the human heart always occurs in response to a divine call. For our words to truly change for the better, the Word must first be spoken into our being.
So if we want to see it done, we should look at Jesus. The Gospels repeatedly show Jesus entering situations filled with fear or selfishness or conflict, and changing the conversation by changing hearts.
Jesus found Matthew sitting at a tax booth. I imagine what Matthew spoke about most was money, and maybe how best to squeeze a little more of it out of people. But Jesus knew Matthew’s heart hungered for something better, and he reached out to this man others shunned as a sinner, and said, “Follow me.”
Jesus changed Matthew’s conversation.
After Matthew became a disciple of Jesus, he and the other disciples were once in a boat with their Rabbi when a storm blew up. In fear, they cried, “Lord, we’re dying. Save us!” But after Jesus had a conversation with the wind and the sea, their fear vanished.
Jesus brought calm and peace to a conversation filled with tension and fear.
Those same followers later complained to Jesus about all the hungry people gathered around them, and they asked him to send them away. Jesus said, “They need not go away; you give them something to eat.”
Jesus has a way of changing the conversation that we might not be expecting.
A woman in Samaria encountered Jesus at a well. She was probably there alone because she was not someone with whom the “right kind of people” would associate. Knowing both the customs regarding males speaking to females, and her own outsider status, she would have not expected this Jewish Rabbi to say a word to her. She would have expected just his stony, judging, silence. Because he was a Jew, and she was a Samaritan. Because he was a man, and she was not. Because he was a moral teacher, and she was…disreputable. But Jesus broke the silence demanded by custom to ask her for water. And then he changed her life by telling her about living water.
Jesus changed her conversation, just by starting one.
Zacchaeus was a tax collector who’d become quite wealthy, and not always through fair means. He’s famous for having needed to climb a tree to see Jesus. But it would be better if he were remembered for the change in his heart when Jesus said, “Come on down from there, Zacchaeus. I must stay at your house today.” In response to that invitation, Zacchaeus gladly welcomed Jesus in, gave away half his wealth to his poor neighbors, and more than restored anything he’d taken unjustly.
Jesus changed the conversation, and it changed both Zacchaeus and his community.
Of course, we humans may resist the call to change. Jesus once met a rich young leader who could boast of how clean his record was. And Jesus listened, then said, “There’s one more thing. Sell everything you own and distribute the money to the poor. Then you will have treasure in heaven. And come, follow me.”
Jesus changed the man’s conversation from a statement about his own goodness, to a question about what he truly worshipped.
And the man wasn’t ready for that. He went away sad – grieving – because of his attachment to his possessions.
But others responded to the Word, even if the response was reluctant. A woman was caught in a compromising situation. Though two people were involved, she alone was brought before Jesus because certain leaders wanted to make use of her vulnerability for their own ends. And as we see so often today, a mob formed, ready to destroy her from their own sense of self-righteousness. But Jesus said, “Whichever of you is without sin should throw the first stone at her.” The crowd could not have been happy with the light being turned back on them, but they could not deny Jesus’ penetrating diagnosis of their condition, and they dispersed.
Jesus ended that conversation.
And on the cross, where Jesus had taken on the burden of sacrifice and suffering, he looked out at people who’d decided He was the problem. They’d decided that His call to become something better than their natural selves was a call they didn’t need to hear, so with their shouts and lies and mockery, they would drown out his words, and example, and life. In the face of such treatment, surely a response involving curses and hatred and condemnation would come quite naturally.
But Jesus looked out with love and said, “Father. Forgive them. They don’t know what they’re doing.”
Jesus loved enough to change the conversation for us all.
He changes our hearts. He changes our way of life. Though sometimes we don’t want to hear that. Sometimes we want to be left to our natural impulses, even to our worst selves. Even though when we are, we divide and cut each other to pieces.
But God enters into our mess. To redeem us, and to change us. To change our conversation by making a better way. A divine way. Christ calls us all to follow Him, and to not only speak words of peace and love, but to live them out.
He calls the church to be the living conversation that changes the world.
May God give us the grace, courage, and wisdom to make it so.