In Conversation

Proper 25C
Luke 18:9-14

Many of you may know that our senior warden, Lisa Montgomery, teaches 8th grade at Nicholas Middle School.  Well, earlier this week, Lisa was sharing with Lynette Murphy and me, her experience of student conversations.  She has begun teaching conversation in her classrooms after observing a number of so-called conversations between students.  Here’s an example (I apologize if I don’t have the details exactly right, but the gist of the dialogue is here):

Student A:  “My dog died last night.”
Student B: “Oh. I went to a movie last night. It was great.” 
Lisa expressed her concern that the second student had no idea how to move the conversation forward with her classmate.  No condolences offered: I’m so sorry to hear about that. Or That must be really hard. No questions asked: what kind of dog was it? How long did you have your dog?  Are you going to get a new dog? Any of these would have been a move in the right direction toward conversation.  But, instead, the second student’s response consisted of “Oh.” And, then a new topic was introduced.  According to Lisa, this type of exchange is not uncommon among students.  And so she has begun teaching communication strategies in her classrooms.
I looked up the word “conversation” on Wikipedia yesterday – just out of curiosity – and here’s how the article began, “conversation is a form of interactive, spontaneous communication between two or more people who are following rules of etiquette. It is polite give and take of subjects thought of by people talking with each other for company.”[1]
The article goes on to say that “Conversations are 'interactive' because contributions to a conversation are response reactions to what has previously been said.”[2]  Now, if by “response reactions” we mean that the other student did say “oh” before talking about going to a movie, I suppose that aspect of conversation took place.  But as for the rest of the exchange – it can hardly have been said to be interactive and it certainly followed no rules of etiquette.  Instead the students’ exchange of words was a simple exercise in taking turns talking about themselves.
Which brings me to this morning’s gospel reading:  iIn it, a Pharisee and a tax collector go up to the temple to pray.  Before we consider the two men’s prayer, that’s pause for a moment to think about the nature of prayer.  Marjorie Thompson writes in her wonderful book, Soul Feast, that “Prayer involves freely entering a relationship of communication and communion with God, for the sake of knowledge, growth, and mutual enjoyment” (32).  Although Thompson goes on to discount the use of the word “conversation” as a description of this relationship, I think it is an apt word – especially if we understand conversation as an interactive and spontaneous give and take by those talking with each other for company – for companionship. 
Conversation is the heart of Ignatian spirituality.  David Fleming, in his book, What is Ignatian Spirituality? writes that conversation – “'to be conversant with' something or someone” is “to truly know them deeply. It means 'to have dealings with.' To converse with someone is to know them and to be involved with their lives. In the Ignatian scheme of things, to converse is one of our ways of loving.”[3] Prayer then is conversation with God – it is our way of loving God and – because conversation is a two-way proposition – it is one of God’s ways of loving us.
And so we hear the prayer of the Pharisee: “God, I thank you that I am not like other people: thieves, rogues, adulterers, or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week; I give a tenth of all my income.”[4]  It is hard to imagine how this prayer moves the Pharisee toward deep knowledge of God.  (As an aside, that Wikipedia article on conversation has a sub-section called “Conversational narcissism” which is apparently “a term used by sociologist Charles Derber in his book, The Pursuit of Attention: Power and Ego in Everyday Life” to describe individuals who instead of exchanging ideas and following the conventions of conversational etiquette, shift the conversation back to themselves).[5] The Pharisee in today’s gospel seems to be talking to God – after all, he begins by saying thanks to God. But notice that he immediately shifts to a comparison of himself to everyone around him – those “thieves, rogues, adulterers” and “even . . . this tax collector.”  “O, Dear God. Look at me.  I am the perfect model of a religious person.  I am following all the rules.  I am doing all the right things.  O God, look at me and pay no attention to that tax collector who is praying nearby.” The Pharisee, through his prayer, is essentially saying, “God I have no need of you – nor of anybody else – because I already know all the things I must do to be rewarded.”
And then there is the tax collector – perhaps the most despicable person in first century, social outcasts at best.  It is no wonder we are told he stood far off – he was likely allowed no closer to the temple.  And his prayer, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!”[6] - this is a prayer of conversation, a prayer begging to be in right relationship with God. Henri Nouwen calls such a prayer a “prayer of the heart” where we stand
“in the presence of God with the mind in the heart; that is, at that point of our being where there are no divisions or distinctions and where we are totally one. There God’s Spirit dwells and there the great encounter takes place. There heart speaks to heart, because there we stand before the face of the Lord, all-seeing within us.”[7]
It is the prayer of the tax collector that says, “God I have need of you. God, I need only you and your gracious love.”
Tomorrow evening, our vestry will hold its monthly meeting.  We will begin our time together as we do most months – with a period of reflection and prayer.  Tomorrow’s reflection will center around two questions: “Can you recall a time when you felt that you were in love with God?”  and “Can you recall a time when you felt that God was in love with you?”  While these questions are not meant to be easy, the assurance we have is one simple truth: God is, indeed, in love with you.  Not because of the ways in which you are different from other people. Not because you fast twice a week or give a tenth of your income. Not because of the clothes you wear, the car you drive, the friends you keep, or the work you do.  Simply because you are. God is in love with you and desires nothing more than to deepen that relationship with you, to enter into conversation with you, to companion with you.  Will you respond to God in prayer?  Will you enter the conversation that God has already begun in you?  You need not have fancy words, you need not have words at all. You need only to be open to the love of God and say, “God, be merciful to me, a sinner!” Amen.

[1] “Conversation” accessed October 26, 2013 at
[2] Ibid.
[3] Excerpt from What Is Ignatian Spirituality? by David L. Fleming, SJ accessed on October 26, 2013 at
[4] Luke 18:11
[5] “Conversation.”
[6] Luke 18:13.
[7] Henri Nouwen, The Way of the Heart, (Ballantine, New York: 1981), 59-60.