Whatever happened to conversation?

Leighton Ford
Leighton Ford

Our grandson was signing up this term for a university course on Interpersonal Communication, which offered three sections.

“One was 100 percent online,” he told us. “Another was also 100 percent online. The third was 50 percent online.”

Interpersonal communication online. What irony!

Ben wasn’t happy with any of the options. He wants to communicate face-to-face with real people and gets upset if his family members or friends are looking at their cellphones instead of talking together. So he reluctantly chose the 50 percent version.

Sherry Turkle’s new book “Reclaiming Conversation,” focuses on the importance of talking in a digital age. “We find ways around conversation,” she writes. “We hide from each other even as we’re constantly connected to each other.” Social media becomes all consuming. One of her colleagues calls her smartphone “her tiny god.” Our technologies, says Turkle, are silencing us. Her remedy? A “talking cure.”

She notes that In “Walden” Thoreau wrote: “I have three chairs in my house, one for solitude, two for friendship, three for society.”

That makes me think of my own chairs. The first is a large green leather one where early most mornings I sit with coffee, listen to some classical music and simply listen – to my own heart. What am I thinking? Planning? Thankful for? Concerned about? Mary Oliver describes prayer as “a doorway to thanks, and a silence in which another voice may speak.” I open my Bible and listen for God’s voice through the Psalms speaking quietly with direction for the day.

My “two chairs” are at our breakfast table where Jeanie and I talk about the day to come, the joys and concerns we have for friends and family. Or two chairs at lunch or afternoon coffee with a friend, with smartphones (hopefully) out of sight, as we share what’s going on, and talk about life’s trivia or terrors as only good friends can.

Thoreau’s “third” chair for me is a circle of five. Every few weeks I meet with four other men in my home office. (Buddy the dog also finds a place on one of the chairs!) All of us are involved in ministry with others. Each of us needs a safe place and time where we can open our hearts, listen to one another, share our blessings and burdens, and know that we are cared and prayed for.

As I picture my “chairs” I am aware that God is listening in on these conversations, remembering a wall plaque in my childhood home: “Christ is the unseen host at every meal, the silent listener to every conversation.”

Jesus was a great conversationalist. Take a quick read through the Gospel of John and you will find him not only speaking to crowds, but just as often engaging in conversation – with his friends, with those in need, and, yes, even with his enemies.

I think also of empty chairs – of those who need that saving, living presence of Christ, the Word of God made flesh, in the lonely hours or difficult times of their lives.

Jesus’ words in the last book of the Bible are an invitation to a continuing conversation with him – the Word of God in the flesh. “Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you and you with me.”

Sounds to me like very real “interpersonal communication.”

In this season leading up to Easter how about turning off our phones and computers for a time? I tried that last year – put an “away” message on my computer that I would not be responding except for emergencies until after Easter, and to call or write again later. It helped to focus on where I was and who I was with at each moment.

Ben chose the best option available for him – the 50 percent online version. You and I could choose to disconnect at least 50 percent of the time – so we can reconnect – with ourselves, with others, with God.

Leighton Ford of Charlotte is a Presbyterian minister known internationally as preacher, writer and mentor.