Friday, September 14, 2007

BEARING WITNESS



(News-Herald, September 13) For all the complicated theological concepts that people of faith wrestle with, I think it’s the simple matter of witnessing that makes so many stumble.

The simple approach is that you bear witness to your faith by talking about it. I can remember what seem like hundreds of hours spent in meetings and gatherings and worship marathons with people standing up to tell their story. “This is what God means to me” or “This is why I love Jesus” or “This is how Divine Love changed my life.’

But talking about one’s faith is undoubtedly the least effective witness that any believer can offer.

I suppose I see more of this because I work with so many people who are relatively young in their faith. Students will write about how important faith is, or write about how religion changed their lives. Sometimes students will even talk about it in front of their peers. Then those same students will turn around and mock other students for being fat or wearing the wrong clothes or just being uncool.

Nothing bears witness to your beliefs (religious or otherwise) like the way you treat other people. Some people believe their faith gives them an obligation to treat other human beings well. Some people believe their faith gives them permission to treat other human beings poorly.

If you spend a lot of time in church circles, you’re probably familiar with a type. I call them Softball Christians, because the first place I encountered them was in college in church softball leagues.

In church or group meetings, they speak of God’s abiding love and heavenly grace, often with great warmth and sincerity. But put them on a softball field, and they will pursue secular victory in an earthly game with more hard-bitten ruthlessness than any Godless heathen. The same person who was earlier pointing at the world and saying “We must Save them” will now point at the other team and declare, “No mercy! We must obliterate them.”

Their competitiveness, their willingness to pursue victory even in something as trivial as a game—this is a mighty strong witness to the world.

There are those people of faith whose witness is that God has certified them as being special. And by “special,” they mean “better than the rest of you.”

They know better than to say the words, “I’m perfect.” The witness that comes out of their mouths is, “I’m imperfect, like every other human.” But the witness that comes out of their lives is, “I’m right. My understanding of God is perfect, and my understanding of His rules is perfect, so you had better do as I say. I don’t need to do any searching; I just need to straighten you out.”

We tend to make fun of our Puritan forebears—their funny hats, their dour banning of dance and music, their all-day church services. But give the Puritans their due—to a large degree, they walked the talk, and even a mute Puritan bore witness to his beliefs.

Modern witnesses often run into a consistency problem. Little Janie goes to church on Sunday morning and bears tearful witness to how Jesus has changed her and fills every single moment of her life and being. Then she goes home and logs on to Myspace to brag about how she drank everybody else under the table at Saturday’s party, including that stupid wench Ethel, who she hopes will get an awful disease and die soon. Exactly what sort of witness does she imagine that presents?

Understand, I do not agree with the school of thought that declares that since people of faith turn out to be merely human, that somehow proves that their faith is a crock. It’s seems fairly clear to me that being human means being flawed and limited, which in turn means that human understanding and practice of faith will always be imperfect.

But I have limited patience for the Magic Incantation school of religion, the idea that as long as I say the words, it doesn’t matter what I do or how I live.

It is human to be a mess on contradictory impulses, thoughts and actions. The search for meaning and direction in our lives is a search for something that can help us bring that big tangled mess into line. But the lazy man’s shortcut is finding something that provides an excuse for just indulging himself in whatever he already wanted anyway.

Religion and faith can be used either way, to provide direction or excuses. Most folks can tell which one they’re looking at, whether it’s the witness we intended to provide or not.

3 comments:

Mrs.C said...

Amen! I got the biggest kick out of this article. Have you seen the movie "saved!" with Mandy Moore? I know, it doesn't sound very good, but everything you've said here seems to play out in this movie. It's quite funny.

Peter A. Greene said...

I have seen that flick-- a great piece of work and most of the characters were instantly recognizable from my years of church rallies and camp.

j parson said...

likewise, mr. greene, you might be interested in netflixing 'jesus camp'. a documentary highlighting the 'military' model for youth church camps. God's army and whatnot. yikes.

From my Flickr