If you had to name the twelve disciples from memory, how many could you name? My guess is you would probably get Peter, James, and John. You might also name those with a slightly higher profile than others, such as Thomas, Andrew, and—of course—Judas. Nathanael, I would guess, would not make most people’s top five or six guesses. Nathanael’s question is at the heart of the Courageous Conversations project. “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?” (John 1:46) Nathanael’s question in John 1 reveals much about him and us.
Looking back, it is easy to laugh or just dismiss Nathanael’s question. Yet Nathanael’s question was legitimate. Nazareth was so unimportant, it probably would not have shown up on any maps. If GPS had been available, it would have had a hard time directing anyone to the tiny city. It seemed implausible for Nathanael to consider that the long hoped-for Jewish Messiah would have come from such an insignificant town.
For Philip (another forgotten early disciple) to suggest to Nathanael that they had found the One who had been predicted by the Old Testament prophets seemed unlikely—even laughable— to Nathanael.
Had Nathanael’s skepticism remained too high and had he not at least been open to Philip’s advice to “come and see,” Nathanael would have missed it. He would have missed Jesus, the very One who would not only shape Nathanael’s future, but the One who—for Christians—stands at the center of history.
While it might be easier to see ourselves as Peter, who, on the one hand, displays great faith, and a lack of it moments later, I contend that we also need to see ourselves as Nathanael. Skepticism and, in some cases, even cynicism, is ingrained in the American way. The origins and foundational documents of our constitution display our skepticism regarding authority and tyranny. More recent evidence is displayed in polls that uncover just how little we trust our elected officials. Even more particularly, we can see how little we trust one another as our political affiliations become more entrenched. This is true politically, but it is also true theologically. It has been said that conservative Catholics have more in common with conservative Baptists than either has with liberals of their own denomination. The result is that we label and ultimately dismiss the perspectives of those we worship alongside and attempt to engage in mission to the world. On the one hand, we might affirm our “unity in Christ”; on the other, we fail to respect our fellow church members. Rather than talking about deeper values that might give us a more meaningful image of God’s kingdom, we dismiss, and worse even, divide. We, too, ask, “Can any good thing come from a Democrat? a Republican? a liberal? a conservative?”
The Courageous Conversations project is aimed to help us be like the aspect of Nathanael that was willing to move from skepticism to curiosity and even openness to encounter God’s grace. Courageous Conversations is a toolbox that local churches can use to inspire and encourage the church and individuals to participate in conversations that might seem difficult. Many in our churches are hesitant to engage in such conversations, often viewing them as pointless since “we won’t convince anyone to change their opinions” or are fearful of causing further harm to relationships. However, with careful planning and structured dialogue, the aim of Courageous Conversations is learning. Adults learn best when they question their assumptions and others’ assumptions. Additionally, adults learn best in community; that is, in dialogue with one another.
These structured conversations for learning might be frustrating for some at first. The deliberate pace and focus on listening requires participants to have the courage to stay at the table when the anxiety and emotional turmoil are painful. Yet, it is through such courageous conversations that we display our unity to the world. It is also through such courageous conversations that we might, like Nathanael, be willing to encounter the grace of the God who is among us.
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