By Sharon Gartland

The Art of Conversation

“So, who did you vote for in the last presidential election?” My stomach clenched as I heard this question come out of the mouth of a new friend. This was someone I really was hoping to be in deeper friendship with and I wasn’t sure this budding friendship could survive an honest political discussion. “Can’t we talk about sex or religion instead?” I silently thought to myself. I live in a state that is full of heated opinions about elected officials and strong feelings about all things political. I feel a weariness as we approach another election season and I risk being rejected or judged for not sharing the opinion of whomever I am interacting with. We survived the above discussion with the friendship intact — but it made me think about how to prepare myself for the coming election season.

I have many dear friends and colleagues (both in my ministry job and in my academic position) who vote differently than I do, for very good and thoughtful reasons. I am deeply saddened that political affiliation has become a litmus test for “true” faith in many Christian circles and it has created disunity at a time when we desperately need to be working together for God’s purposes. My hope is that we as well-educated believers can be people who are thoughtful and prayerful about the privilege we have to vote in America and will challenge each other to be responsible citizens, utilizing God’s wisdom and discernment in the process. I am equally saddened by other friends who judge and dismiss positions out of hand without truly listening to other perspectives. I am very wary of dogmatism, and of anyone that thinks any one party or candidate is the answer to all of society’s ills, or that any of them align completely with biblical (or secular human) values. We are talking about flawed, sinful, human politicians. Anyone who puts their hope in a particular political party or candidate is going to be gravely disappointed. What the country needs is Jesus, and Jesus used a distinctly non-political approach to growing his Kingdom. I try to keep that in mind during election season.

Having friends who are bright, articulate, and thoughtful has been a delight on all sorts of levels, even when we aren’t completely aligned in our thoughts or opinions. Those kinds of friends are a treasure and have been in life like iron sharpening iron; all involved are the better for our interactions. We should all try to submit ourselves to the process of God refining and maturing us and our view of the world, in hopes that it increasingly aligns with his.

To me, that looks like not being afraid of listening to other opinions, staying open to the possibility that we might be wrong, and regularly getting out of our comfort zone in numerous ways. I need to constantly use Scripture as the measuring stick to evaluate any new perspectives and ways of thinking. This means I need a regular discipline of being deeply steeped in God’s word. Learning to have civil discourse with friends, neighbors, colleagues, and brothers and sisters in Christ is an important life skill and opens the door to others being willing to thoughtfully listen to what I might have to say, including a gospel message.

The truth is, I need wise people who I admire and trust to help me sort out very complex civic issues. I want to be less afraid of losing relationships or experiencing conflict and more willing to listen well and process communally with the people in my life. I am particularly grateful for informed and scholarly people who seek to be obedient to Christ in the ways that they vote and participate in the political process.

Above all, I treasure the people in my life who, even in their political discourse, live out Proverbs 16:23–24: “The hearts of the wise make their mouths prudent and their lips promote instruction. Gracious words are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

I pray that, even in election years filled with contentious issues, our speech will be prudent, instructive, gracious, and healing.

About the Author

Sharon Gartland, OTD, OTR, is a Clinical Assistant Professor in the Occupational Therapy Program at UW-Madison where her specialty is in developmental disabilities.  She enjoys the combination of teaching, administrative and clinical responsibilities that makes up her job. She is the former national director of Women in the Academy & Professions and continues to participate in the ministry as a volunteer and frequent contributor. She is married to Craig Gartland, a local church pastor and former long-term InterVarsity staff and leader. Together they have four children who are gradually getting launched into the world as functional adults but continue to store a lot of their stuff in the basement. She believes strong prayer practices and a supportive faith community are key to flourishing in career and family life. 

Comment via Facebook