HOW TO WITNESS!?…

The title of this blog isn’t suffering from one of those strange electronic glitches that sometimes produces unexpected characters in text. It actually represents something of my personal journey (and confusion) when it comes to the process of being a witness to my faith.

Early in my faith, I was sure that being a witness involved direct action, strong words and clear purpose, hence the !. Witnessing was and is a basic requirement of all believers and as a young, evangelical new believer, I knew that I had to witness to my faith always. The books and sermons and seminars on witnessing always included a “!”—there was always someone telling me how to be a more effective witness—with at least one ! in every title and paragraph.

I read all the classic witnessing tools: Four Spiritual Laws, The Roman Road, The Sinners’ Prayer. I knew all the arguments to cut down opposition to the faith. I had answers for the questions I was going to encounter. I had lots of !!! in my approach, my understanding and enthusiasm.

But no matter what I am doing, I am an analytical person: I need to examine things, take them apart, understand them and evaluate them. And I discovered that the certainty of witnessing wasn’t all that certain. Most people weren’t paying attention—and no matter how many !!! I and others used, our approach wasn’t working.

I began to see witnessing with a ? instead of a !. I had lots of questions: Why aren’t people listening? Why aren’t the approaches working? Why can’t I find the right words? How come the !! aren’t working? My analysis began to suggest to me that the witnessing process wasn’t as clear-cut and as easy as all the books and trainers had lead me to believe. In fact, I began to wonder if it was possible to witness at all.

My journey from ! to ? didn’t stop me from wanting to share my faith and it didn’t stop me from actually sharing my faith—but it did change my approach. Rather than understand witnessing as an aggressive, verbal offence on my part, I began to see it as a waiting for the other person to give me an opening, which I could then exploit. It didn’t actually happen all that often but when it did, I found that none of the canned responses actually worked. My witnessing sessions had a lot less ! and a whole lot more ?, questions from both the witnesser and witnessee.

And the ? phase of the witnessing journey also didn’t produce all that much in the way of results. I had some great conversations about faith and sometimes really was aware of the presence of the Spirit in the process but often, the person would thank me for the time and insights and continue on their way, not having walked the aisle or raised their hand or prayed the sinners’ prayer.

And thinking on that has led me to the present stage of my witnessing journey. I see witnessing as a process, something best exemplified by …. Witnessing is a long and involved process that is much bigger than me, my words and my actions. I am not THE WITNESS—I am a witness, one among many influences, all of us working under the leading of the real witness, the Holy Spirit.

Ultimately, it is God who brings people to himself. In the process of helping someone to open themselves to his love and grace, God graciously allows us to play a part. He could do his work without us and many times, I am sure that he would have an easier time if we weren’t involved. But he invites us to participate in his work of bringing others to himself. Sometimes, we have a clearly defined and clearly important part in the process—he uses us to deliver the right words to the right person at the right time. Other times, he gives us a less clear but nonetheless important part—who knows how the cup of cold water delivered in his name is going to affect the process?

So, for now, I see witnessing as …–an ongoing process where God is seeking to bring someone to him and gives me a task along the way. As I faithfully seek to know and do what God wants, he lovingly and graciously uses it in his process—and the witnessing goes on…

May the peace of God be with you.

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LET US PRAY

I have been involved in some form of ministry for more than 45 years. That reality has a lot of implications and connections and complications and even some confusions. One of the implications is that fact that I have a very long history of being a professional prayer maker. Because I have been involved in ministry for so long and rarely ever spend time in places and situations where people don’t know that, I am the go to person when prayer is needed. I pray a lot: during worship, before meals, in hospitals, in homes, before funerals, during weddings—if something seems to need a prayer and I am around, I pray.

I can and do rise to the occasion—but I find that praying is much harder for me than it was 45 years ago. Way back then, it was easy to rattle off the prayer and fulfill my role. I had lots of words and had no trouble pulling a prayer together for any occasion. But as the years have piled up and my understanding of people, situations and prayers have all grown, I find it more and more difficult to throw words together and snap off a prayer.

This isn’t because I have had a crisis of faith somewhere along the line and have trouble praying because I don’t believe or struggle to believe or anything like that. I know this happens and have known people in ministry who have had such crises and who have not only stopped praying but also have stopped ministry. I can’t actually say they have stopped believing but they have stopped believing in their faith.

No, my struggle with prayer is more basic. I see prayer as an opportunity to specifically address God about a specific focus. Prayer is more than just a time to toss some words into the air and hope that somehow they catch God’s attention. When I am praying for and with people, I am acting as their priest, the one who carries their needs to God and carries God’s reply to them. For me, this is a scary and demanding task. As a Baptist, I know that anyone can and should go to God on their own at any time about anything.

But as a pastor and counsellor and theologian, I know that there are times when we all need someone else to pray for us. We all need a priest—and I have discovered over the years that when I or someone else needs a priest to talk to God, it needs to be more than just throwing words into the sky. This priestly prayer needs to find the words I cannot find myself and carry them to the God I need to connect with but need help with in the process.

When I am the priest in the process, I am deeply concerned with understanding the cause of the need for prayer and shaping the prayer to express the needs of the person I am interceding for. I know that I can ultimately rely on the all knowing God to understand the need and the situation before any of us involved is even aware of it—but while that theological reality is important, it needs to be balanced with the reality that I as priest and the other(s) as supplicant(s) are better served emotionally and spiritually when we have a handle on what we are praying.

And so I work hard at prayer for others. I listen carefully to both the verbal and non-verbal messages. I make use of my ability to collate information and see themes and trends and underlying issues. I ensure that people have as clear an idea of what they are needing as possible. And before I pray for and with people, I will often share with them the intended content of the prayer to see if that is really what they want me to say to God on their behalf. Only then do I pray. My prayers are short, focused and sincere. Rather than trust that if I throw enough words upward, the message will get through, I seek to understand the request or need well enough that I can clearly and succinctly fulfill my role as priest.

I pray a lot—and when I pray for others, I work hard at being an effective and caring priest.

May the peace of God be with you.

HONESTLY

We were discussing a possible addition to our church’s official board. One possibility was mentioned. Since I was relatively new and didn’t really know people, I let the others carry the discussion. In the course of the conversation, one of the people suggested that we not include that person because they had two personal habits that might cause problems: they liked to gossip and liked even more “telling more than they knew.” I suspect these days, they might have been described as purveyors of fake news.

I do have to be careful here. I am a preacher—and preachers make a lot of use of stories. I confess to tailoring my stories to some degree. Sometimes, details need to be obscured so no one recognizes the people involved—because most of my ministry has happened in a limited geographical area that is a big consideration. Sometimes, though, I edit the story to make it fit better with the sermon theme or to make me look a bit less inept or stupid. There is truth in the story as presented but how much depends on the sermon needs and how much sleep I had.

There have always been issues with personal honesty, even within the church. People make claims that are blatantly false to anyone in the know and go on to defend those claims vigorously, even to the point of attacking those who disagree. I like to think that some of the people doing this sort of thing aren’t actually lying—they are just mistaken and because of their personality, they need to defend what they believe it right.

But there are others whom I am pretty sure know what they are saying is wrong and keep saying it and defending it because doing so advances them. They might gain power, followers, notoriety, money or some other benefit. When the person doing this is an advertiser or a politician, I can almost understand the dishonesty. They are getting paid to be dishonest and most of us don’t actually believe what they say anyway.

When it is a member of the faith doing this, whether pastor or layperson, I tend to be more upset and even angry. Honesty is one of the basic requirements of an ethical and faithful life. If we can’t trust a person to be honest about one area of their life, how can we trust them to be honest about their claims about their faith?

But the painful truth is that our whole culture suffers when people are knowingly dishonest. No matter what the purpose of the lie, it undermines the basic trust that a culture depends on. When a culture allows whole groups of people to lie with impunity, it allows itself to drift into a state where anything goes. Soon, we come to the place where we prefer the lies to the truth. We want to be lied to, since the lies are generally prettier and more comforting than the truth. We might know that it is a lie, but it is a nice lie and we begin to prefer the lie to the truth.

When people who speak the truth become the targets of anger and even persecution; when those who knowing lie are seen as heroes; when right becomes an inconvenience to be hidden behind a more convenient lie, we are all in trouble. The lie works in the short term, but eventually, the sea will rise, the air will choke us, the economy will collapse, the preacher will be caught in immorality, the victim will demand revenge, the pyramid scheme will collapse, the partisan manoeuvring will be seen for what it is.

While more painful and difficulty, honesty does work better. The Truth is not just one of the foundations of the Christian faith—it is also a foundation of a healthy culture. Unfortunately, our western culture seems to have abandoned both the Truth and truth itself, preferring the temporary comfort of the lie and the liar. We are paying for this, we will pay even more for it. The price we pay and will pay isn’t worth it.

When liars become our leaders and when lies become our vision, we are doomed. Whether it is the church, the club, the local council, or the nation, when we build on lies, we are building on sand and what we build will collapse. As cliché as it might sound, long term, honesty is the best policy.

May the peace of God be with you.

ANONYMOUS AGAIN

Many years ago, I was approached by a friend to serve on a committee. Committees involve meetings and since meetings are something I try to avoid as much as possible, I didn’t (and don’t) do committees all that much. My friend knew all that but still wanted to nominate me for the committee. He explained his reason for asking me.

The committee was dealing with some significant issues in our denominational life, issues that I and many others, including my friend, were concerned about. He felt that the views we held needed to be expressed and he believed that I was the person to express them on the committee because I said what I thought clearly and openly and wasn’t intimidated by disagreement.

Over the years, I have developed a reputation as one who sometimes (often? too often?) speaks the unpopular view. I have a tendency to see things differently at times and in the right circumstances, am willing to speak out. Early in my ministry career, I confess to speaking out often and loudly. These days, I still think a lot but tend to speak less often and less loudly. I let a lot of stuff pass by—I might have some thoughts and even some disagreement but I am not really interested in putting out the effort to comment or engage.

However, when I chose to engage, I am always going to do it openly and clearly. When I disagree with something or someone, I will make it clear that I disagree. I am not going to hide behind someone else; I am not going to use an anonymous web name; I am not going to become a “they” whispering around the edges. I will speak in my own voice, with my name openly and clearly attached. If need be, I will even put it in writing, clearly accepting responsibility for what I am saying.

I am aware that this puts me at odds with a major trend in our society. Thanks to the proliferation of social media, a great many people get to make a great many comments about a great many things without ever having to take any responsibility whatsoever. It is incredibly easy to comment when you can become anonymous commentator 219. People now have an powerful outlet for the hate, the anger, the vitriol, the mindless, the pointless, the ignorance that at one point might have been put in an anonymous letter but which more likely rarely if ever saw the light of day in another age.

But today, anyone can say anything, safe and secure behind the barrier of their keyboard and screen name. As Randy Legassie, I am responsible for what I write and say. But as anonymous commentator 219, I am no longer responsible—I am anonymous and cannot be held responsible for what I have said or written.

Obviously, some people find that incredibly liberating and freeing. But in the end, freedom without responsibility is never a good thing. Freedom without responsibility tends to being out the worst in people. We become rude, nasty, biased, prejudiced and just plain not nice. I gave up reading comment threads on websites a long time ago simply because they very quickly degenerated into the kind of interchange I used to require my kids to take a time out for engaging in.

There have been times in my ministry when my comments and opinions have cost me. I have been fired, passed over and ignored. It would have been much easier to be anonymous—I might not have suffered as much. But in becoming anonymous, I would have suffered even more because I would have stopped being me. I would have lost some essential part of who I am. My ideas might have been expressed but I wouldn’t really be there—I would be hiding behind some convenient shelter.

That may work for some—and I can even envision a few scenarios where in might be the appropriate way to proceed. Those scenarios, however, tend to involve bullets, death squads and unjust imprisonment. Most of the time, though, well, hiding behind anything or anyone really doesn’t cut it for me. If I am going to say it, I am going to say it knowing that I will be held responsible for what I am saying.

May the peace of God be with you.

AN INTERESTING MEETING

I was working on a sermon recently and remembered a meeting that I attended years ago that seemed to be a perfect illustration of a point I was trying to make. Since the story involved our time in Africa, I kept thinking about it after finishing the sermon—and even after preaching the sermon, the story of that meeting stayed with me. The more I think about the story, the more I discover exciting realities about God and the Christian faith and the difference it can make to individuals and the world.

The meeting happened in a classroom of a pastoral training school in Rwanda. The school was somewhat hard to get to—either a four hour drive over roads that included a rickety bridge that we walked over after the car successfully made it across or a 30-40 minute boat trip. We were meeting with the school faculty and officials of the denomination that ran the school.

The meeting included both Hutus and Tutsis—and although this was about 10 years after the genocide, the scars and trauma were still obvious and real. Several of those at the meeting has lost family members, others had suffered personally, all carried emotional issues relating to that time. There were some others there from the Congo, who were dealing with their own issues from the genocide and the civil war happening then in the Congo. There was one Kenyan, separated from his family and somewhat concerned about what was going on back home. And there was also two Canadians. While we didn’t carry the emotional load that some of the others did, we were part of the wider international community which had effectively ignored the genocide and was pretty much ignoring the civil war in the Congo.

The first order of business was language. With so many languages represented, we had to discover one that we could all work with. At the end of a brief discussion, we discovered that all of us at the meeting were fluent in Kiswahli, a language that none of us were born speaking. All of us had learned to speak it as at least our second language.

That to me provided an essential key to understanding the significance of this meeting. None of us felt the need to insist on our native or national language. It would have been possible for some group or another to insist that we meet in their language and rely on translators for those of us who couldn’t speak the chosen language. The Rwandans didn’t insist on Kinyarwanda. We Canadians didn’t insist on English. We happily went with a language that all of us spoke with some degree of fluency so that we could all be a direct part of the meeting.

For me, this has always been a Kingdom moment. We met there in that classroom as fellow believers. We were discussing ways that we could work together to carry out the work God was setting before us. And we were able to do that in spite of all the barriers that could have disrupted the meeting, things like ethnic tensions, national rivalries, language issues, cultural issues, national and international politics and on and on.

The Kingdom brings people together. Our shared faith bridges divisions. Our faith in God through Christ changes our perspective. We learn how to work together. We learn how to care for each other. We learn how to give up what some consider important for the sake of a bigger cause, the Kingdom of God.

We met together and the spirit and flavour of the meeting was set by our common willingness to give up our language for the sake of the others. We all gave up our fluency and familiarity with our birth language to work in a second or third language that none of us spoke well but which we all spoke well enough to understand each other. That is the Kingdom at work, one of the many manifestations of the Kingdom here and now that give us a glimpse of what the fullness of the Kingdom will be like.

The Kingdom call us out of our selfish and sinful ruts and allows us to open ourselves to the wonder of being united with the rest of God’s Kingdom people so that we can all reach well beyond our human limits.

May the peace of God be with you.