The Weekly Practice:
ONE HOUR A WEEK IN INTENTIONAL CONVERSATION
Saying what you mean is the seed of friendship. And friendships will make or break your life.
This is why The Common Rule tries to make a weekly habit out of intentional conversation.
There are two reasons why this habit is fundamental to a life of loving God and neighbor: The first has to do with the importance of friendship. The second with the importance of telling the truth.
I believe that real friendships – what I like to call covenant friendships – will make or break your life. I define covenant friendships as vulnerability sustained across time. Put otherwise, they’re the people who know everything about you, and they aren’t going away. Covenant friendships are a matter of life or death because with them, you will thrive, and without them, some essential part of you, if not all of you, will die. Recently a Boston Globe article has described the actual health risks of loneliness, which is very interesting, but stops short of the whole truth: We were made for friendships, body and soul.
The reason this makes or breaks life is because the Gospel is made concrete in friendships. I do actually believe that Jesus knows me completely and yet loves me anyway. But when my friend listens to my fears and struggles, hears of my addictions and oddities, and then stays close to me – I feel the reality of Christ’s love embodied. I can touch it.
But you don’t get friendship without truth-telling, which is part of the habit here. The whole world is familiar with our strange relational default – to be with the people we love, over and over, yet never say what we actually mean. This is why habits of friendship are not only shared time & hobbies, but must be punctuated with intentional conversations.
By intentional conversation I am thinking of nothing more complicated than saying what we mean. But that is not to say it is easy. I think it is very hard because it is very counter-cultural.
It begins with someone you can be frank with, complain to, let your hair down with. Then it becomes focused conversation. Maybe about a mutual hobby. Maybe speaking deeply and openly about a public concern or debating something worth hashing out. Often this means just being honest enough to admit you actually care about something, whether big or small, and then proceed to talk it through. Finally, though, this must develop into the art of telling secrets – letting people into what only they or a few others know, which is to say that you finally become totally honest.
When the seed of saying what you mean with others grows into a norm, vulnerable friendships grow and we enter a new counter-cultural realm. A world where our communities bear out the habits of vulnerability and intentionality by default.
A word on what I mean by counter-cultural, since the concept is in some ways the heartbeat of The Common Rule:
This doesn’t mean opposition to our culture because we feel some compulsion to morally distinguish ourselves. That is pride and legalism. But it may mean resistance to the malformational aspects of culture so that we can remain a distinct, live and loving presence within culture. For example, a resistance to a culture that is more bent on curating its online life than telling the unorganized and unfiltered truth in conversation to friends.
Neither does it mean retreat from culture because we are scared to be near “unholiness,” as if it will rub off by proximity. But it may mean separating enough to be formed in love, while staying close enough so that we can be missional with that love. For example, resisting the frenzy of modern American schedules that puts us in the utterly bizarre place of saying – “I’d love to have a real conversation with a friend this week, but I just can’t make the time."
Habits of intentionality and friendship are generous examples of this counter-cultural impulse to be against the world for the sake of the world. By creating habits of intentional conversation we resist a world too distracted to allow the time for the vulnerability we need to survive. And in creating habits of friendship we come alive in love – which is contagious, and which becomes a space of blessing for our neighbors who long for someone to let their guard down with.
In my life, creating the regular space for this type of conversation of course requires planning and scheduling – coordinating two modern American parents’ schedules is a serious feat – but on the other hand, it’s like making space for a doctor’s appointment when you are sick – you cancel other things.
The metaphor is not just a metaphor, I actually do think of these times as a life saving habit. The presence of friends has brought me out of times of serious addiction and emotional instability, the kinds of phases that if they don’t ruin you now it’s only a matter of time. It’s hard to be serious enough about this. I’m not talking about the quaint idea that I get to ‘be heard’ on a regular basis. I’m talking about resisting evil. I’m talking about substance addictions, sexual addictions, raging anger, crushing fears, nervous breakdowns and the other depravities that crouch at the door of almost every man’s heart. Some men live lives of quiet desperation, I know many of them whose desperation is not so quiet – I am one of those. But I have never found a better antidote to the chaos that lives within me than making the Gospel concrete through friendships. My friends act out Christ to me other on a regular basis by saying Yes, you are torn apart, but yes I love you still, and no I’m not leaving.
If that seems sentimental, fine. Call it what you like, but I am trying to stay alive in the love of the Gospel, and I need the love of friendships to do that.
The habit in practice works out a few ways. A standing Thursday morning coffee with a best friend. With work demands and sick kids, we tend to average every other week. But it’s the fall back. Sometimes we have to cancel it, but we don’t have to schedule it – it’s always there.
Likewise my wife and I have a standing every other week hangout with the same couple where we split the babysitting costs. Sometimes we drink wine late into the night. More often we steal a quick 90 minutes and hurry home to make the boys’ lunches. But again, it’s the standing norm.
There are lots more ways to plant the seed of this habit. Perhaps you have a norm of hosting someone in your home once a month. Perhaps you have a standing phone call with that friend overseas on the first Tuesday of every month. Maybe this is an accountability partner, a small group or a roommate. I’m in a parish group (read: community group / bible study) which sets aside one weeknight a month to give the floor to two or three people, each for a few minutes, just to tell an honest story about something. We ask them questions. and then pray for them.
Other habits must begin to revolve around this. For example, for us this means budgeting money. Keeping a generous budget for food, alcohol and babysitters is one of things that actually creates the space where intentional conversation can grow. And the goal is to tend it and grow it.
After years of these one-on-one coffees and beers going back and forth in my community of friends, we have gotten used to saying what we mean. It has become normal to make the counter-cultural turn from jokes, sports or work to our inner lives and our public lives. Then, when the weekend comes and schedules cooperate, we default to beer, fire, friends and conversation in the backyard. People we don’t know or don’t know well show up – and just like that, you offer up love to the world.
The warm fire of friendships is something that inevitably others want to pull up beside. I think maintaining the habits of close friendships is not something that keeps us inward, but exactly the opposite. It makes us people who are familiar with giving and receiving honesty. And so many of our neighbors need this kind of conversation. Invite them in.
May we be people who admit they need it, who practice it, and who offer it outwards.