This was originally written as an essay in Vision: A Journal for Church and Theology, published in the Fall, 2009 volume.
Here’s a personal testimony for you, or, perhaps, a confession: I’m a pastor and I’m often not sure how to use language that names God’s activity in the life of the world. It’s not that I’m uncomfortable with theological discussion. Conversations about theology or scripture are ones I greatly enjoy. It’s just that when it comes to using such language to reflect my own experience, or to speak into the experience of another, I can get stuck. I hesitate. I don’t yet know how to do it in a way that feels quite right – both authentic to who I am, and true to the reality of God’s presence among us.
This wasn’t something new I confronted in becoming a pastor, but it has been heightened as I live out a vocation for which such practices are a regular part of how I relate with people. Some of my first questions in fitting into the pastoral role had to do with the use of such language. Now that I’m a pastor, I thought, I wonder if I’ll learn to talk like a pastor. Am I now obliged to end each conversation with “God bless you,” or will “See you later,” still suffice? Can I still encourage people to “Have a nice day,” or do I need to ramp it up a notch to “Have a blessed day?” How often should I utilize key words like “discernment,” “journey,” and “mystery?” Should I sign off on emails with “Blessings, Joel;” “Peace, Joel” or just “Joel;” and should I insert the title in there that some households use to refer to me, “Pastor Joel?” And this was merely the tip of the linguistic iceberg. If testimony has to do with giving voice to what God is doing in and around myself and my community then this form of speech is central to what I’m now about as a pastor. Beyond greetings and parting words, everything in between becomes a space for highlighting the holy.
I’m being somewhat playful here, but only to speak to a point that deserves serious attention: How do we become skilled at explicit forms of naming that which is true, specifically as that truth pertains to God’s abiding presence in our lives? How does the practice of testimony shape pastoral and Christian identity?
If I have hesitations in how I speak of God in conversational language, I can claim that there are some good motivations behind this tendency – motivations with a biblical flavor. When God reveals God’s name to Moses, – the story of the burning bush – God’s self-given title seems like more of a riddle than a definitive name – “I am who I am,” or something to that effect – a name that is just as much a non-name. How do we speak of such a God? Caution around the use of God’s name shows up again soon in the giving of the Ten Commandments. The third word of instruction commands that God’s name not be misused, which I also carry to mean that it should not be used flippantly. At times I am among those who would prefer to live life in the spirit of the book of Esther – where the name of God is never mentioned, but where God’s presence permeates the entire story. Or the Song of Songs – the other book of the Bible in which God’s name is nowhere to be found. There it’s perfectly evident that we can live life passionately, reveling in the goodness of God’s creation and the delights of the body and soul, without voicing the name of God. Given the New Testament theme of incarnation, summarized wonderfully in John’s gospel as the word becoming flesh, I can become satisfied with things moving solely in this direction, rather than the direction of the flesh becoming word.
But if I’m honest with myself, which I try and be as often as I can bear it, I know that this is only part of the picture. Since beginning pastoring four years ago I have been shaped and formed in important ways through the practice of testimony.
What this usually looks like is recognizing and naming the presence of the holy within the ordinary. Those two verbs are both important: recognizing and naming. The story of the disciples’ travels to Emmaus illustrates that it’s possible, perhaps even the norm, to be in the presence of Christ without recognizing it. Forming the eyes to see and the alertness to recognize such presence is key to the Christian life. And the act of naming and testifying transforms the event from an internal perception, a personal epiphany, to a gift made available to the whole community. In naming that which we recognize as Christ among us, we awaken both recognition and the art of testimony in one another.
The other part of the above sentence is also important: the presence of the holy within the ordinary. This theme continues to show itself again and again to me.
On a number of occasions I have taken the opportunity to visit congregational members in their places of work. I ask to see their work area, perhaps meet a few colleagues, and, if possible, sit down for lunch and hear how it is they have entered this particular line of work and how it connects with their gifts and sense of calling. These visits have provided occasions for testimony.
Visiting a person downtown who works for a large corporation and hearing about his enthusiasm for his work, I recognize that he has undergone the gift of Pentecost, inspired by the Spirit to become multi-lingual in speaking the language of faith and the language of business. Through him the Spirit is reconciling, encouraging understanding, translating what these two communities have to learn from each other.
At another visit I get a tour of a campus where a member works closely with children from troubled families. In hearing some stories of her interactions with the lives of these young people it is clear that I am in the presence of the holy. She says that this is the place where God chooses to incarnate Godself through her, and I affirm that through her and others working here this place truly is holy ground; that this is her parish, her sacred turf. All who enter this campus enter a place where God is indeed becoming incarnated through the love of each worker and the emerging life of each child.
One of ways our congregation relates with our mixed income neighborhood is that we host and serve the Community Meal twice a month. Hosting the meal involves planning, gathering the food items, preparing and cooking the food, setting the tables, opening the doors, sitting and conversing with our neighborhood friends who come to eat with us, and cleaning up afterwards – all ordinary enough activities. The only overtly spiritual thing that we do during the time is sing the blessing “God is great and God is good” before the meal. But the truth of the matter, I have recognized, is that the whole event is filled with the holiness of God. Here, in our church basement, twice a month, we not only gather for a meal, but we enter into the sacramental, the holy act of sharing bread and cup, where Christ is the host and we are all guests. This was the point where the Emmaus travelers recognized that they were indeed in the presence of Christ, and we at Cincinnati Mennonite have witnessed to the same truth. In the testimonies that we share together through Community Meal we enter more fully into our mission together and our sense of bond with our neighborhood friends.
These kinds of exchanges are powerful. Through testimony a high rise office, a children’s home campus, a church basement, become places where we learn to recognize God among us. Personally, learning this art has been an exciting part of pastoral ministry. It feels essential to what I am to be about.
And then there are times which are not so ordinary. Which are rare or unusual occurrences – perhaps unanticipated, or, at least, not a part of one’s plan for life.
A little over a year ago my wife and I underwent a great loss. We had been expecting our third daughter, Belle, to arrive into the world in September, and instead, due to complications in the pregnancy, received her, stillborn, in May. In the days following, part of my way of grieving this loss was to write. Being surrounded by such a strong and holy presence of family, friend, and church support, and being near the season of Pentecost, the theme unifying the writing quickly emerged. The reflection, shared here on Pentecost Sunday, was titled “Stillbirth and live birth: the gift of Holy Spirit.” In the process of writing, I was mindful of the way that, in this experience, my identity as a husband, a friend, a father, and a pastor had merged. What I had to say, my testimony, felt as if it was coming from a place deeper than any of these markers – the place where the self finds communion with God. This in itself was a valuable insight for me. At times it is certainly important for there to be some lines between who I am as a pastor and who I am in these other roles, but there is also the abiding reality of the self as a unified whole. It is out of this depth of being, the place where our “I” encounters the divine “I am,” from which all identity, including pastoral identity, flows.
The writing and the conversations that have flowed out of this experience encapsulate for me the way that testimony comes into being. A stillbirth is, by its very nature, an experience of deafening silence. At the time of birth, where a parent imagined sound, hoped for cries and coos, eagerly anticipated the small body’s first attempts at expression, there is stillness and quiet. Like God’s name itself, one finds oneself in the presence of the ineffable. Only groans and tears seem to be able to convey the weight of the moment. Here, bearing witness to the truth involves remaining speechless.
But then, after however long, something rather remarkable happens. The nearly unspeakable begins, slowly, to find articulation. Words are given. Phrases are found. Fragments and then whole collections of speech begin to form. They are offered between mourning spouses. They are given from loving friends and family and spiritual guides. They form in the mind and demand to be preserved in poetry or paragraph. To one’s amazement, the words feel as natural and organic as the act of childbirth itself – at times coming painfully, no doubt, but arriving with a life of their own, with creative ability to bind together those in whose presence they form. We are speaking deep mysteries to one another, testifying to Holy Spirit among us. Remembering that we are a gathering of two, or three, or more, and Christ is so brilliantly in our midst. The testimony, we recognize, is being spoken through us, but comes from a place beyond us – the Creative Spirit of the Universe itself seeking expression through us, asking that we may be channels of its flow.
As a pastor, I am honored to be in a position where I am so often given opportunity to be such a channel. I consider it a sacred challenge and honor to walk with people through the ordinary and extra-ordinary moments of life with eyes wide open, recognizing and naming the holiness that pervades our existence.