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Living in Faith

Sparking sacred conversations

By Keith Howard

Conversations change lives. The Gospels are full of encounters where words are spoken and the arc of a life takes a new direction. I have been part of a few. None, at least as I remember, were lengthy, involved complex argument or immense detail. But when they were over, the world and my place in it were somehow sketched anew.

Near the end of high school, as the great emptiness of life after school loomed, one of the things I did to deflect that awful question “What are you going to be?” was to apply to become a millwright apprentice. A phone call from a local smelter confirmed my acceptance and informed me that I would start in September. Then, perhaps following a hunch, the caller asked, “Are you sure this is what you would like to do?” After a moment’s silence, I responded, “No, I think I’ll go to university instead.” Two minutes, maybe three, would have been the total time that I stood by the wall, holding the receiver of that black rotary phone to my ear. But a path was set.

Another time, I was just about to escape from the boredom and irrelevance of a Sunday morning worship service when, at the door, the minister said, “Your mother tells me you read a lot. What do you read?” I stammered something inconsequential. When we next met, he handed me two books by C.S. Lewis. The compass marking my direction shifted.

Sometimes simple introductions to persons unknown begin a conversation that, over the years, nurtures possibilities and stretches one’s understanding of discipleship as those people move from strangers to agents of the divine. 

It would not be an exaggeration to say that each of the many conversations that affected my life, even to a degree, had about them a whiff of the sacred. A word, phrase or question opened a portal, named a truth or modelled a way of being that called to me. In hindsight, such exchanges, however brief, contained a power within them, something that connected the depth of who I am or might become with the depth of the great I Am.

As an introvert who doesn’t often initiate conversation, I have been astounded to discover that the desire to engage in significant conversation runs deep in our society. At its best, The United Church of Canada’s wondercafe.ca draws about 100,000 visitors a month to discuss spiritual topics, moral issues and life’s big questions. Other social networking sites draw thousands if not millions more. Critics often note that banal chatter comprises much of the interaction. That’s true, but not totally. Social networking sites also satisfy a yearning for conversations that matter with people who speak with integrity and authenticity.

Part of the new thirst for nurturing conversation results from a fundamental shift in our society. Relationships are now the central defining framework of our time. Of course, relationships have always been important, but in times past, they were often subservient to work and other duties. Now the ability to enhance relationships is the criteria by which much is evaluated. Does this work enhance my relationship with others, the creation and my spirit? Businesses and other organizations consciously recruit and sell on the basis of their ability to be a positive partner in their client’s life. Community involvement is one of the major eight criteria by which the Top 100 companies to work for in Canada are judged. Institutions, including the church, that are not seen as making positive contributions to their communities are shunned.

Those who want to change the world find technology a helpful tool to establish direct links and relationships between people. Matt and Jessica Flannery founded Kiva (kiva.org), an online organization that allows individuals to provide small loans to others around the world. The Kiva slogan is “Loans that change lives.” 

The Create the Good website (createthegood.org) links volunteers with service opportunities in their communities, enabling “good people . . . to create good, in whatever way works for them.” Conversations and relationships begin that change lives.

The Hebrew Scriptures open with God initiating a conversation: “Then God said.” The result was a new creation. The final book of the Bible, Revelation, ends with another word about a new heaven and a new earth. The conversations between the opening and closing are full of promise and challenge, lamentation and hope. Through them, as through those that transform our lives, we glimpse the sacred. 

Author's photo
Rev. Keith Howard is a Victoria writer and executive director of the United Church Emerging Spirit campaign.
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