conversation is an engine

A lot can happen in a conversation

Archive for the ‘Prayer’ Category

“How Can I Help You?”

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Hungry for Power Vs. Repairing the World

This question is an invitation—a beautiful invitation.

If you ask me how you can help, I have an immediate gut response: “Yes! Wait. What do I need right now?” Your question makes me an active participant in my life. The question reminds me I have choices to make about my needs. Do I need someone to hold a door or a wrench or a flashlight? Do I need a kick in the butt or a power nap?

What I need right now depends on what I am trying to do at this moment. But longer term, what does an employee need from a boss to do her job? What does a student need from an instructor to apply these writing lessons to his life? You can see the question initiates a call and response—like most everything with communication. A question that needs an answer. A draft followed by a revision.

From Christian theology, I might call the question an artifact of kenosis, that notion of self-giving that is so hard for us power-hungry humans to live out. Then again, maybe it is less an artifact and more an aspiration. Maybe the question is a statement about the person I hope to become: caring and thoughtful and using my time and attention to help you reach your goal. But still aspirational, because I have a feeling you may actually tell me what you need. And then I have to put down my book or turn off the TV or be late to work to help you.

No matter how you look at it, the question asks you to know something about yourself and about your journey through life. What do you need to move forward in your journey right now? Back to theology for a moment: The psalmists who wrote the Songs of Ascent (Psalms 120-134 in the Christian Bible) knew to query the creator and to articulate their need, whether for food or stability or growth or to beat up enemies. These authors (and generations of people who pray) had the sense that the Holy One was waiting in the wings with lovingkindness (“chesed”). They (the authors along with the many who pray) made a career of depending on that offer of help.

Maybe our use of the “How can I help you?” depends on the psalmist’s impulse. We thwart our own power-hungry instincts when we ask it of those who have no chance of moving us forward. But we ask it because of the kind of people we want to be and because we believe there is a deep well of chesed out there.

Maybe we ask “How can I help you?” because we are weary of constant rage and yearn for a vocation of repairing the world.


Image credits: Kirk Livingston

Perfect: This is Impossible.

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That moment when you’ve realize you’ve been doing it wrong all these years

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Father Jacob and Question #4: “Where Does My Ladder Lean?”

The blind old priest in rural Finland hired an ex-con to read his mail. Maybe she was a murderer. Maybe she was innocent. Whatever the case, she brought enough real-world cynicism to her reading job to sway the old man.

Letters came. People wanted help with this and that: Sickness. Poverty. Death Troubles with the law. More sickness. They wanted God-help and the priest’s duty or calling or reputation was that he prayed and stuff happened in the real world. So the ex-con read the letters and the priest prayed. Except the ex-con’s readings, which included critical questions for the priest, gradually exposed his shaky foundations.

What a fool I’ve been, all these years.

The Finnish film “Letters to Father Jacob” continues with a twist, but the question “How have I spent my life and what do I have to show for it?” is central to all that happens next.

What do you desire?

What do you desire?

Seven critical questions help frame how we progress in our quest to balance work, art and economics in real life. One of those questions has to do with where we aim all our efforts: “Where does my ladder lean?” Common assumptions about work include the notion that you want the corner office and the big stock options that come with the high-octane positions. Of course you do: money and power are on everyone’s radar. Writers and artists want fame and money. Athletes want wins and fat contracts. Televangelists want souls with wallets. We all aim at something because that’s how we motivate ourselves.

It’s worth asking again and again what it is we are aiming at. At any point on the ladder it makes sense to stop and consider our end-goal. Especially because our work or art exacts a price from us. We’re used to the notion of the corporate executive who sacrifices family life and interpersonal relationships in his or her climb. But the craftsman or artist also pays a price: maybe relationships. But for certain the crafter or artist pays a price of looking at the world in a particular way. They move through the world with that bit of art or craft as a centerpiece—their own tool set for processing the world. Or perhaps the ladder is a ladder of faith and suddenly you wonder if it leans against, well, anything.

Anything at all.

This is not a rant against aggressive career movement. It is not a diatribe against capitalistic acquisition. It is a lament that there are not more Father Jacobs out there with an existential intelligence and a passion for listening and, well, seeking help for others. And maybe this is a plea for some to keep on seeking and to keep on waiting.

Perhaps there are unseen things worth desiring.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

Decentered. As in “not the crux of all things.”

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A place for everything and everything in its place

I’ve put a recurring early-morning block on my calendar titled “Decenter.” The block or early morning quiet and focus has actually been on my calendar for decades, but I’ve recently retitled it based on a cue from Merold Westphal, a philosopher who teaches at Fordham University.

Westphal, writing in The Phenomenology of Prayer (NY: Fordham University Press, 2005), introduces prayer as a “decentering” activity. As a conversation, prayer takes me out of the center of my universe. Like the prayers of the old poet-king or the prayers of the inveterate letter-writer, these are conversations that recognize some other as the center of everything. Those two saw God as the center—I’m with them on that.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

There is mystery beyond our convenient placeholders.

Of course, “de-centering” is not the way we could describe many of the prayers we pray. We send up endless lists to some imagined order-taking god, with caveats about when (“Now works for me. How about now?”) and where and how. And especially how much. But listen to Westphal:

…prayer is a deep, quite possibly the deepest decentering of the self, deep enough to begin dismantling or, if you like, deconstructing that burning preoccupation with myself. (Prayer as the Posture of the Decentered Self, 18)

Again and again I find myself at the center of all existence. Maybe you do too. We’re sorta set up for that, given eyes and ears that operate from a central pivot, constantly swiveling about to take in all we possibly can.

It seems natural enough to think everything revolves around us.

The truth is we need help to back away from this “burning preoccupation.”


Dumb sketch: Kirk Livingston

God-Talk and Other BS

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Do Communication and Spirituality Connect?

I say “Yes.”

And I say it manifests in the ordinary conversations of everyday life.

Let me prove it: deep down in your brain-pan, where you instantly recoil from people who snap at you; back down there where your inner child says snarky, politically incorrect, frankly obscene, stuff that your adult, outer-self edits and translates to “Hmm. I see….”

Deep down there in the hidden recesses—that’s part of the connection.

Your immediate responses to the stuff of everyday life can tip you off that things are not right—deep down in the soul. Yes—I’m talking about weird stuff. But you have an inner life, right? A place where no one visits but you.


If that inner place is full of doubt, while your outer self—the adult self in tie and loafers, who edits and translates the inner child’s voice so the rest of the world remains unaware what a low-life that kid is—if that outer self proclaims stable faith in God and corporation and the upright institutions (ha ha) that surround us—that’s where the cognitive dissonance starts. That’s the precise locus of hypocrisy.

Mind you: I’m big on doubt. Questions are good. Questioning institutions and the quick answers to life’s hard questions—I’m all for that. Talking unbelief to God makes perfect sense to me (Just read Job, my patron saint of doubt honestly-processed).

It’s the saying one thing while believing another I’m not for. It is that very place where God-talk becomes BS. And I believe most of us have sixth-sense/BS detector that goes off when outer words don’t match inner life—even if we cannot put our finger on exactly why. I am most certainly talking to myself here as well.

We need to process our bouts of cognitive dissonance together to keep our God-talk from becoming BS—rudderless words without the ballast of belief and action a life-lived.

If you don’t have a friend to be honest with, find one.

This is important.

Today is Good Friday—a day when the Christian Church celebrates (is that even the right word?) Jesus’ death. Three days later we celebrate that this dead guy is dead no longer.

I appreciate this time of year for processing doubts together with others. Quite often we come away rejoicing. And somehow more whole.


Image credit: Kirk Livingston

By the way: I’ve written ListenTalk: Is Conversation an Act of God? to explore this connection. Pre-order here.

Worthwhile work is hard: A visual meditation

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All day long.

It is difficult to unearth the material we need to move forward.

It is difficult to unearth the material we need to move forward.


Which is why we pray. And hope.

Which is why we pray. And hope.



“The work will teach you how to do it.”

–Estonian proverb


Images of Pipestone National Monument


Image credits: Kirk Livingston

Written by kirkistan

December 5, 2014 at 9:54 am

Ahh: Back To Work

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ListenTalk: The Promise. The Mission. The Chapters.

Dear Reader: A word, please.

Speakers' Corner, London, mid-1960s

Speakers’ Corner, London, mid-1960s

Over the next few months I’ll be writing in response to a couple classes I’m teaching at the University of Northwestern—St. Paul. That means I’ll be dealing with questions and ideas that pop up in class. The classes tend to be quite collaborative and the students have interesting contributions that I may work out in this forum.

I’m also trying to work out how the notion of ListenTalk applies to the different audiences I work with as a copywriter. ListenTalk: Conversation is an Engine is built on a theological basis and is first a meditation on a new (or—I maintain—a very old) way of looking at how we spend time with each other. Over the course of the year I hope to enlarge the argument to help workers talk with bosses (for instance) and vice versa. I’d like to enlarge the argument so conservatives and liberals can put down their label (and libel) machines to engage in productive talk. I hope to work out the notion of commercial conversation so companies can begin to talk with customers in a way that treats people as rational collaborators versus emotive flesh-encased ATMs.

But first, and to bring a bit more focus on this initial argument, I present the promise and mission of ListenTalk, as well as the chapter synopses:

ListenTalk Promise:

Read ListenTalk and you will be stimulated to reconsider how even your smallest, most ordinary conversations are part of a much larger story.

ListenTalk Mission:

ListenTalk was designed to help individuals in faith communities see how God works through the most ordinary and common conversations—and to see how those conversations transform everything from personal calendars to cultural mandates.

ListenTalk Chapter Synopses:

  1. The Preacher, Farmer and Everybody Else. What do you expect from a conversation? Preachers preach and hope for the best. But farmers work the soil in a studied way that collaborates for growth. Meet five thinkers who have studied the ways and means and opportunities hidden under the surface of ordinary conversations. These five show that ordinary conversation is full of collaborative potential and regularly turns into some of the most important, creative and lasting work we can do together.
  2. Intent Changes How We Act Together. If we enter a conversation itching for a fight, that’s just what we’ll find. But we can change our intent. And one thinker shows a better way to engage in persuasion, while the apostle Paul shows God’s intent to pull us toward Him without a fight.
  3. How To Be with a God Bent on Reunion. The first thing to know is that conversation with God is not limited to a lifetime. Second: talking with God over a lifetime tends to change a person. Third: what does it look like to befriend, follow and serve a God whose full energy is spent on connecting with people?
  4. Your Church as a Conversation Factory. Peter found a way to incorporate God’s old words into a very new situation. Conversations among believers do the same, person to person, with world-changing results. How conversations emerging from within a church change everything outside the church.
  5. Extreme Listening. Extreme listening opens us to live in a larger story: Just ask Hannah. Five misconceptions about listening. Become an extreme listener by adopting three attitudes, four motivations and three strategies.
  6. A Guide to Honest Talk. How to walk your talk in three steps: 1. Show up. 2. Know this about people. 3. Join in and move out.
  7. Prayer Changes Our Listening and Talking. What really happens when we engage in conversation with God? Conversation with God as our model for talking with each other.
  8. Go ListenTalk. We are most alive when helping others see the true thing inside us. Marching orders and opportunities.


Image credit: Moyra Peralta via Spitalfields Life

The “Aha” Outta Nowhere

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ListenTalk: Conversation is an Engine [One Page Summary of the Book]

Every once in a while you have a conversation that makes you say “Aha!”

I have those conversations too.


These are the conversations you did not see coming: The offhand comment from the guy in the next cubicle stuck in your brain. You turned it over and over and an hour later the phrase surprised you by unlocking some long-term vexation. The funny thing about these conversations is how they pop up at the most unexpected times—even from clear strangers—and how they can go on to solve pretty big problems. Even funnier: The person we are talking with can be entirely unaware of the importance of the thing they just said.

ListenTalk: Conversation is an Engine is all about where those “Aha” conversations come from and how to have more of them. In ListenTalk we grab conversation and hold it to the light and look at it from a few different angles. We look at what happens when we try to persuade each other of something (which we do constantly) and what happens when we listen deeply. In fact, three smart thinkers offer a refreshing take on what it means to really listen. These three show how the practice of listening gives back far more than it consumes. ListenTalk asks about what happens when our words get launched into a conversation. The answer is another surprise, because words tumble out more often as invitations than commands (even commands are really invitations because of how words bump against human agency). Words have the power to make permanent solid bonds in our physical world. They also have great destructive power.

ListenTalk spins a few ancient stories about how words worked when God talked with people and people talked with God. These old stories begin to make clear just how much is at stake in our ordinary conversations, not just for us but for generations to come. These old stories also hint at deep thick ways of forming insoluble communities that can withstand lots of pressure and still remain collaborative while becoming ever more hopeful. ListenTalk finally links ordinary conversation with the satisfying sorts of conversations humans were meant to have with God—and offers those conversations as a path forward.

[This is a draft summary of my book, which I’ll be shopping around to a few publishers shortly. Comments? Questions? Issues? Angry retorts?]


Image credit: imgur

Written by kirkistan

January 9, 2014 at 9:11 am

A better way to set goals

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1000 words: from goal to discipline


Revisit and add detail as you go forward

Mrs. Kirkistan and I talked up goal-setting with our good friends over New Year’s Eve. Goals get a bad rap these days and I know why.

Looking back at my 2013 goals, I see they were too ambitious and without proper milestones. Even so, they served as directionals that propelled me forward as I revisited them over the course of the year. Mrs. Kirkistan and I will take an hour or so and talk through and pray through our goals before the weekend. Then I’ll post them on the back of the door into Suite 102 of the Livingston Communication Tower (high over Saint Paul).

As I labor to expand and then trim back my personal, business and spiritual goals, I realize more than ever this is not a static process. Much like the sketch above, I’m sort of blocking out broader desires and expectations while adding in definite dates and details for only a select few. But some of these goals fit better as disciplines than goals with timelines attached. For instance, the discipline of writing 1000 words a day has served me well over the past few years (thank goodness I never stipulated they had to “good” words—that kind of pressure would gum the works). That goal has turned to a discipline, which is great—the day feels wasted if I’ve not written 1000.

I have a goal of publishing ListenTalk: Conversation is an Engine early this year (that’s right, Juxtapose: How to Build a Church that Counters Culture is back to the original title, for those who follow such things), and I have a few milestones with dates attached to help make that happen. Last year’s goal helped me finish the book and get it to and back from an editor, though I severely underestimated how much time it would all take.

But some things just work better as disciplines, like ongoing exercise and the daily ground-breaking conversations with colleagues and potential collaborators.

How does goal-setting work for you? Rather than give up on goals because they are too hard, is there some useful piece you can take and make work for you?

By The Way: Check out this meditation on goals from The Pietist Schoolman: I like his challenge to focus out, rather than just in, on personal goals.


Image credit: via 2headedsnake

Written by kirkistan

January 1, 2014 at 2:49 pm

Prayer is just magical thinking. Right?

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Asking for your own private cascade of miracles11252013-2-la-table-de-pique-nique-architecture-by-benedetto-buffalino-designboom-03

Magical thinking is the hope that something out of nowhere will happen and change everything. When I was a kid writing stories and got stuck, it was magical thinking that rescued: suddenly the space ship landed and my main character got on and was whisked away. These were not cohesive stories. As a kid I engaged in magical thinking when I had a speech to give the next day: “Maybe the Russians will bomb us tonight and I won’t have to give that speech.”

That seemed like a fair trade-off at the time.

Some of my friends will say religionists routinely engage in magical thinking. It is this notion that someone (God) will rescue me from the pit I’ve landed in or the cul-de-sac I’ve driven into. I cannot disagree: I often have more than passing interest in rescue to come from above. Whether a work issue or a personal issue, health or wealth or life or death. Any and all of this succumbs to magical thinking. And that is what prayer is, right? A request for rescue, the more magical the better.

Magic defies logic by definition. Buying lottery tickets is magical thinking. Wearing lucky underwear on game day is magical thinking. Avoiding the professor’s eye contact is magical thinking.

But is prayer magical thinking? Sometimes, certainly: I hope I did not pray for Russian bombs to avoid my fourth grade speech on the cold war. If I did I was engaging in magical thinking.

Is prayer always magical thinking? No.

Can you bear a bit of nuance?

Say there is a God (this is not a given for some readers) and this God hears pleas for mercy. It could be that God engineers circumstance in mighty, global ways that I can neither see nor understand. As a person of faith I believe this is possible and even likely. But magical thinking asks that it happen for me and mine. Magical thinking is always about my zip code, my location, my self-interest. This is precisely where magical thinking and prayer part ways. If there is a God (and I believe there is), then prayer for magical interventions in my life will fall short. That’s because God is not just for me. God is for others too. Many others. If God is bent on reunion with people, then prayer is not answered according to magical thinking, but instead according to some other logic. The person maturing in faith starts to parse out the differences between magical thinking and honest prayer by allowing for silence. The person maturing in faith looks for this other logic.



Image credit: benedetto bufalino via designboom/thisisn’thappiness

Written by kirkistan

November 25, 2013 at 8:52 am

Posted in Ancient Text, Prayer, soviet

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