When the dialogue fails, the conversation continues

The sky is alive tonight, in the silence (photo by Martin Malina, May 2022)
audio for ‘When the dialogue fails, the conversation continues’ by Martin Malina

One of the joys I find in reading the bible is noticing the common, connecting points or themes in two or more texts. For today, the 2nd Sunday after Pentecost, according to the Revised Common Lectionary, the Gospel is from Luke 8; and, an alternate option for the Hebrew scripture is from 1 Kings 19.

What is similar in these seemingly disparate readings? In both, the primary character experiences a divine encounter. From 1 Kings, Elijah the prophet experiences God in the sound of sheer silence. In the Gospel, the man from the region of the Gerasenes is healed by Jesus. And, both Elijah and the healed man are called to go back to the place they had earlier—and for different and justifiable reasons—left.[1] 

In the Gospel text the man inflicted with demons had been shunned by his community. Because of his illness, he remained locked in chains, living in the caves on the outskirts of town. He was not only an outsider, he was despised, rejected and feared. 

After his healing, I can understand why he wants to travel on with Jesus. A better option, for sure. I can understand why he wants to get out of dodge and begin life over far away from the place associated with his rejection and hate on him. I can understand his desire to stay away from the source of conflict, uncertainty, risk, even danger for him. 

It would be hard to imagine going back. Going back to a community and family that had disowned him, and treated him like a second class citizen, banishing him to the fringes. Even though after Jesus cures him he is better as an individual, his relationship with others in his home country remains at best uncertain. At worst, poisoned beyond repair. 

But Jesus throws him a knuckle ball: No. “’Return to your home, and declare how much God has done for you.’ So he went …”[2]

The healed man was going back to a different situation for him. It wasn’t going to be like it used to be. He was a changed man, for one thing. And his relationships with family and friends were going to be very different.

The same with Elijah. He was called to go back to the “wilderness around Damascus”[3], where he would be exposed, and continue to live under the threat of assassination. This was the place where Elijah would have to continue doing God’s work—in the wilderness, a place of danger, and personal risk. God was calling him to go back to appoint a new leader for the people. He was going back to an entirely different situation than before.

Coming back to church will be different. Not like it used to be. Anyone who has come back will testify to this. Yet, the most important and rewarding thing is renewing our relationships. Somehow, we feel it, that we enter a deeper stage in our relationship. It’s not that we can’t grow in our relationships online. It’s not that Zoom meetings don’t have a purpose. 

But once in a while, and at some point, God may be calling us—not to escape risks, potential danger; not to avoid contact at all costs, retreat into our comfort and safety zones, for all time. God may be calling us to come back to reconnect with and grow current relationships, and make new ones.

What can we do to affirm our bond in Christ and deepen our relationships with one another, even in averse conditions and when things are different?

As part of my continuing education leave over the past week I attended and took leadership in a conference of the World Community for Christian Meditation. I am the Canadian national coordinator of this worldwide community.

The national coordinators of Ukraine and Russia have been for some years meeting online to meditate, during which participants pray in silence together. No words. No speeches. Just a heartfelt recognition of Christ’s living presence among them, unifying them in the silence.

Nevertheless, as with any social group meeting online or in person, when you gather people ask, normally, how everyone is doing – just a little chit-chat – before the prayer time. It’s an important part of any group including meditation groups. 

However, the Ukrainian coordinators expressed disappointment and concern that in the last couple of months when the Eastern European groups met online to meditate, the Russian meditators didn’t even ask how the Ukrainians were doing. Perhaps, they thought, they shouldn’t or couldn’t say anything that might be construed to the authorities as sympathy for Ukraine. So maybe they were afraid.

Something was lost. The dialogue had failed. Those relationships were on the brink. The Ukrainians felt hurt that their meditation cohorts wouldn’t even ask how they were doing.

If their communion was based solely on what was said, or the words that needed to be said, or grandiose ideological speeches about right and wrong, it would very well feel like a great chasm, a great divide separated them, their relationships irreconcilable.

When the dialogue fails, what is left? Where is God? Is it worth it? is there any point to go on? The way the story is told, Elijah expected God to be found in the noise. But God was found in the sound of sheer silence.[4] In the silence, God is found. A holy silence. And that is where the healing begins, the breach can be restored. And unity is reestablished in Christ.

And I wonder how that would be accomplished. Words might need to be part of the conversation at some point, obviously. But the conversation might also need a whole lot of silence in between.

So how would silence accomplish this, practically? Paul Tillich, the great Lutheran theologian of the 20th century wrote that “The first duty of love is to listen.”[5]

What does Elijah’s obedience teach us about how we have conversations? When the dialogue fails, the conversation can still continue. By listening. Even in a momentary pause, we communicate by listening. Listening is not the easy first-option in relating with others. We would rather speak first, make sure we are heard, and our opinions shouted from the roof tops. But this is not the only, and certainly not the most effective, way of maintaining and growing relationships.

In the silence God is. In the silence, God listens to us. But sometimes we have to stop talking. We have to quiet our busy minds. We have to nurture the gifts of stillness and simplicity in our lives. And listen.

The Ukrainian and Russian meditators are on two opposite sides of a huge divide. It appears all hope is lost. The war goes on. More people die. The chasm grows deeper and wider with each passing day. 

And yet, despite the failure of words and actions, to say the least, the Ukrainian and Russian meditators continue to pray together in unity, in the silence. In the meditation room, virtually, they will still gather to pray. In their faithfulness to return regularly to be with one another they acknowledge in the silence the living Christ who continues to pray for them. They practice love by listening to God and each other in the silence. 

And in the silence, God listens to their hearts. In the silence the presence of Jesus through the power of the Holy Spirit unifies them. And gives them all hope, for the future.

In case you haven’t heard yet, the doors to the church are unlocked. The doors are open. A few of us gather on Sunday mornings in this lovely sanctuary, to pray, to sing, and celebrate Christ’s presence. And you are welcomed to join us in person. Come. Come back, to reconnect. And maybe we can all start over, first by just listening to each other.


[1] 1 Kings 19:1-15; Luke 8:26-39

[2] Luke 8:39

[3] 1 Kings 19:15

[4] 1 Kings 19:12

[5] Paul Tillich. Love, Power, and Justice (New York: Oxford University Press, 1954), p.84.

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