As part of my sermon preparation every week, I listen to a couple of podcasts on the scripture lessons assigned to the upcoming Sunday. One of them, Pulpit Fiction, really caught my attention this week.
Their musings on what it means to “testify” in the Gospel reading from John 1 (around the 28 minute mark) really struck a chord from me. As a Lutheran, I, too, come from a religious tradition where people just don’t testify. We talk about God in the abstract, or in the general, or in the Biblical sense, but rarely in the personal sense. The answer to the question “Can I get a witness?” if ever asked in any congregation I’ve belonged to would most often be a resounding “NO.”
When I was applying for entrance into candidacy (in other words, asking my synod to allow me to start the process of training to become a minister), one of things I had to do was write a six-page essay about my personal faith journey. Nothing fancy, just six pages about my experience of God in my life, and how I responded to it. I should say, at this point, that I am a writer; it’s always been a hobby of mine. I do it for fun. I’ve written novels, poems, short stories, you name it, I’ve done it–and had done it by that point in my life. And my undergrad degree is in history, with a minor in English; I’d written many longer essays.
Those six pages were, by far, the hardest thing I’d ever written. I was reduced to tears many times. I grumbled about it to my family, until my parents pointed out that as a pastor, my JOB would be to teach people about Jesus and lead them to stronger relationships with him, and that if I couldn’t talk about my own journey along that path, I was going to run into serious trouble. Eventually, I got it done, and thanked God as I sent it off that it was over.
But why was it so hard? What was the issue, the block, the underlying problem? The simplest layer was simply inexperience; as I said, I come from a tradition that (while it does many other things very well) simply doesn’t do a good job of witnessing. I’d seldom seen my elders or peers in the faith witness to their own experience of God, and when I had it was people from other traditions, whose perspectives and experiences were so different that I could not fit my own understanding into it. I had no model to use as a baseline or guide.
But I think a lot of it has to do with fear of vulnerability. My experiences of God’s presence are times when my soul has been touched, times when things have happened to me that I can’t ever really put into words. They are personal, in the most deeply intimate way possible. I was writing for an audience of Christians, of course, who were predisposed to believe me, which helped. (I certainly could not have written that essay for an audience of skeptics!) But I knew they were going to be judging me on it, just the same. And judging me, not just my interpretation of a Bible passage or something like that. It’s hard, at an time, to talk about something so personal as your own experiences of God. But for the first time I really seriously did it be for an essay to people I mostly didn’t know, who would then decide my future partly on their impressions of that essay–that was excruciating.
Witnessing or testifying to our experiences of God is difficult and intimate, but at the same time it’s part of our calling from God as Christians. It’s not something that just belongs to formally-trained ministers, but to all who believe and are baptized. And yet I know I haven’t done a very good job of it since becoming a pastor myself, either in my own witnessing or in teaching others to witness. The two are very connected; how can I ask my people to do something I am not comfortable with? But how can any of us get more comfortable with doing it–with sharing the stories of our faith, with sharing what God has done for us–not just in Bible stories, but in our own lives and experiences–without just buckling down and doing it?