Does it seems as though civil discourse is on the endangered species list? When discussion is reduced to talking heads yelling at one another on cable news channels, posting inflammatory commentary on Facebook, or calling each other snarky names on Twitter, where is there space in our world to ask questions, listen to the experiences of others, and stretch both mind and soul?
When my friend Melinda told me she was gathering a group of women for the purpose of conversation, I was all ears. When she was one of the co-hosts of Midday Connection, the one show on the Moody Broadcasting Network to which I listened on the regular, their Friday show was dedicated to something they dubbed The Millrose Club. The format was simple. Each of four cohosts and/or guests would come with a discussion topic, and they’d take 10-15 minutes per topic to talk about it. Subjects ranged from current events to literature to faith questions to relationship issues. The lively conversation and willingness to question ideas in gracious ways drew me in every time I listened. They modeled for me listening well to one another and sharpen one another’s thinking without becoming one another’s echo chamber. Disagreeing with another person’s ideas wasn’t an invitation to a brawl. The program stood in contrast to pretty much any roundtable discussion on CNN, FoxNews, or MSNBC.
When Moody pulled the plug on Midday last year, I grieved its passing just as thousands of other listeners did. I was privileged to be a guest on the show several times, and would fight the temptation to pinch myself in disbelief while I was on the air. It was a high honor to be a part of the ongoing conversation Midday had with its audience. But the warmest conversation of all came when the Midday team turned their chairs to one another in the studio on Fridays and invited us all to listen in.
Those Friday Millrose Club broadcasts were deceptively simple. But think about it: do you have a group in your life with whom you can have thoughtful conversation on regular basis? Some have book clubs, but the discussion is is supposed to be about, you know, the book. Bible studies have their own goals and purpose. Few of us have a place to sharpen our minds, and this life of the mind is an important (and often neglected) component of our ongoing discipleship.
I let Melinda know I’d love to be a part of the in real life Millrose-type gathering she and another friend were planning last fall. They called it “New Conversations”, and was a six-month experiment. The initial group of six women didn’t all know one another, though most of us knew one of the others gathered. We each sent our chosen discussion questions to everyone in the group via email a couple of days before we gathered. We’ve tackled politics (of course), refugee issues, our changing appearance as we age, our faith stories, Target’s transgender bathroom issues, the challenge of feeling invisible in groups, parenting and grandparenting challenges and so many more.We meet over a simple meal. Soup or a simple main course is provided by the person hosting, and the rest of us bring sides (salad, bread, a dessert). We use our meal time to catch up and visit, and then allow about 20-30 minutes to talk through each of those discussion questions. Sometimes we don’t make it to each of them, but we do make an attempt while respecting the time limits we put on our gatherings. Melinda recently told a prospective new member, “This group is all about conversations and practicing civil conversation even if we don’t agree! It’s not a prayer group. It’s not a Bible study. It’s confidential and everything stays in the room.”
Our six-month experiment has continued past the original time frame. I hope at some point to launch a group like this nearer to my home, but for now, I’ve really enjoyed the gift of these conversations with this group of new friends. Many of the topics echo in my mind for days afterwards. I’ve been stretch to rethink my previously-held ideas about several things. I find myself better focused on listening with attention and intention in other conversations I have.
Melinda and I recently sat down with Anita Lustrea, another former host of Midday Connection, to talk about the life of the mind, conversation groups and more. Anita is now hosting an excellent podcast called Faith Conversations. You can click here to listen online, or click here to head over to iTunes to download the episode (or better yet, subscribe!)
If the idea of a conversation group intrigues you, perhaps this podcast will give you a nudge to gather a few people together to try a experiment of your own. If you do, please let me know how it goes!