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Home > 2014 > May Online Only > When Meanings Collide

It would be difficult to underestimate the importance of communication in pastoral work. Beyond preaching, there are the tasks of leadership and care. But being human as we are, communication is often clumsy. The challenges of conversation are compounded by hidden biases and unrealistic assumptions. Every conversation is a meeting of meanings. That is, when we enter dialogue, we bring with us a worldview—a certain means of understanding the world. This informs our meanings that define reality—our perceptions of God, circumstances, people, and ourselves.

The potential for misunderstanding is great. In pastoral communication the single most significant tool is listening. We listen to enter into the other person's meanings, to discover where they come from, where they are, and where they need to go. Good listening does not come naturally. It has to be intentional. Good listening also trusts that every conversation is an opportunity to engage the truth of God that can shape our worldview. But before we can seek true meanings, we first need to seek the truth of one another.

The conversations of Jesus in the Gospel of John provide several models for effective communication. In every encounter, Jesus exhibits several constants that shape his dialogues with others. One, Jesus is authentic in self-revelation. There is no pretense or cover-up. He is what we see and hear. Two, Jesus always seeks the truth of God in all social encounters. Three, in every dialogue Jesus has an intention. He is fabulous with sarcasm, irony, and humor, but he always returns to his original intent. Four, Jesus is a good listener. He listens to God and he studies people. What he perceives from God and others shapes his responses.

Redirect the conversation

In John 1:43-51, after his encounter with Jesus, Philip intuitively reaches out to Nathanael to meet the person whom he is convinced is the Christ. Nathanael tips his bias when he says that "nothing good can come from Nazareth." As a student of the Torah, Nathanael is well versed in Genesis. Knowing this, Jesus redirects his prejudices towards a redemptive end. He engages what Nathanael knows by using the Genesis patriarchs as his starting point. Jesus' "with whom there is no guile" is an allusion to Genesis 27:35. Jesus playfully flips the text's description of the duplicitous Jacob to describe Nathanael.

Jesus' intention is to reveal himself in language that Nathanael can embrace. He seeks an intellectual understanding that leads to an emotional acceptance of his identity, not as a man from Nazareth, but as the Christ from God. When Nathanael prematurely exclaims that Jesus must be the Son of God, Jesus reassures him that he "will see heaven opened, and the angels of God ascending and descending on the Son of Man." Again, Jesus uses a patriarchal image (of Jacob's dream) as his context for self-revelation.

Seek a teachable moment

During Jesus' Passover ...

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Posted: May 19, 2014

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