Growing up as a Southern Baptist, I experienced many things that now seem almost inconceivable. We had to go to church not just once on Sundays but twice; we had both a morning worship service and an evening one. As far as I can tell, no one liked going to church on Sunday evening, but for unknown reasons they went ahead and did it anyway. That meant there was a lot of “air time” to fill on Sunday nights. It’s one thing to expect a minister to have something good to say in a sermon once a week, but to expect two quality sermons was just pushing it. Thus, there were Sunday nights when the homiletical well was dry and we had the equivalent of “open mike night:” it was known as “testimony time.”
Lay people would amble up to the pulpit, adjust the microphone and give their testimonies. For those of you unsure of what exactly a “testimony” is, I will explain it simply: a person tells about what God has done in her or his life. In the Baptist world I inhabited, all the narratives usually took the same arc—1. I was a really lousy piece of no good dog vomit, 2. I did a lot of really bad things—here let me tell you about them, 3. Until Jesus came into my life through the form of either a near-death experience, the death of my sainted mother or a disembodied voice that woke me from a drunken stupor, 4. And I’ve been perfect ever since (at least until 5. I blew it all over again and then 6. Jesus gave me another chance).
On the one hand, “testimony time” was not so great, because the same people tended to hog the microphone and tell the same stories over and over again, not to mention that it promoted a kind of theology that implied you had to be a really bad sinner in order to experience the grace of God. On the other hand, “testimony time” had its uses, namely lay people became used to articulating their own faith experience. Telling one’s story by necessity involves reflection and introspection—two good practices for anyone’s spiritual health.
I don’t miss Sunday night services nor do I miss “testimony time”—at least the way I experienced it growing up, but I do miss hearing the stories of my fellow church members’ experiences of God. In the mainline church world I now live in, faith is more private and more humble. We are wary of claiming special dispensations from God and fearful of replicating the excesses of our brothers and sisters in other churches. Yet, in our desire to avoid maudlin displays of emotion and manipulation of the divine for our own ends, we have lost something—sharing our stories with one another. Sharing one’s journey in faith is left to the clergy alone; meanwhile the whole church is poorer for missing out on the many different ways God moves in the lives or all kinds of people.
As your minister, many of you have shared your stories with me, and I am deeply honored and grateful to receive those gifts. Yet, I often wish that others in the church could know your stories, because there are many who need to hear what you have to share. So this year, I wish to offer a proposal, I am going to give up this space in the weekly newsletter to any who would be willing to share their story with their church. You don’t have to get up and speak, just write about 500-600 words about your experience of God. I’m not necessarily looking for the dramatic “Road to Damascus” conversion stories—although those are good to share too. Instead, I would like for your church to hear your story about God—trust me, you may think it is ordinary or even dull, but those who love you in this church will find it meaningful and even magical.
A column of this size is not big enough for a full autobiography. Instead, you may want to share one or more of the following:
· How did you come to First Christian Church and why have you stayed?
· Which Bible verses or passages are particularly meaningful for you?
· When did you feel closest to God? When did you feel farthest away from God?
· What did you think about God when you were young? How has that changed, or has it changed at all?
· Have there been things taught to you at this church or other churches that you chose not to believe? What were they and why didn’t you accept them?
· Who are the people that have shaped your spiritual journey?
I’m going to be asking some church members to share their story over the coming year, but this is an open call for stories. If I don’t make it to you individually, consider this column to be your invitation and go ahead and get your story to me. We will all grow together by learning how God has worked in the lives of the people who call themselves First Christian Church of St. Joseph.
Grace and Peace,