We are called to be witnesses. Period.

Photo by Nik MacMillan on Unsplash

By Joe LaGuardia

In Acts 1:8, Jesus unequivocally identified the role his disciples play in the world: “You will be my witnesses…to the ends of the earth.”  But ask any Christian to bear witness (first-hand!) of an experience of God, and you will likely get a blank stare.  Some will recall a conversion experience. Others may solicit a generic answer.  Many have experiences, profound experiences, but do not know how to explain it.

There seems to be a scarcity of witnessing going on these days.  I’m not talking about street-corner evangelism, but of giving testimonies that attract people to Christ.

I’m not sure what the problem is: Do we not experience God anymore, or is it that we do not know how to put our experiences into words in a way that captivates the mind, touches the heart, inspires a sense of purpose, and communicates God’s power in our life (see Acts 1:8 again)?

Pastors decry a lack of biblical literacy in our churches.  What about spiritual literacy?   Spiritual literacy that can define–specifically–the movement of the Holy Spirit on and in our lives.

Historically, people learned how to witness by hearing personal testimonies of others, by exchanging lengthy letters that communicated the spiritual ebb and flow of life, by reading literature that excited the senses and provided new ways of speaking about–and seeing–God.

In a world of Tweets and Facebook posts, we no longer know how to wield the English language for this purpose.  Our faith has become quite rote and boring, really–and who wants to follow a boring faith?  Instead of witnessing in ever creative ways, we complain, bicker, and bemoan.

Last month, I watched two interviews of sorts that inspired my thinking on this:  The first was with the late Mr. Rogers.  In a video that went viral, Fred Rogers argued for the need for public broadcasting funding before a Senate committee hearing.  In his testimony, he discussed the importance of early childhood education.

Mr. Rogers’ words were not explicitly Christian, but they were powerful and bore witness to his amazing ability to wield the language he certainly gained from his training as a Presbyterian minister.  He spoke simply, but movingly.

The second interview was between the Reverend William Barber II and Trevor Noah on The Daily Show.  Barber argued that Christian ethics is not only needed in pushing back against secular politics, but necessary in being a foundation for the type of moral fortitude that combats exploitation and bigotry in all its guises.  “The language we use,” he said of our contemporary religious and political conversations, “is too puny.”

Mr. Noah asked why Barber’s participation in politics was appropriate, and the pastor gave a remarkable testimony of how the church shaped community through the ages.  You may disagree with Barber’s theology, but you would be hard-pressed to argue against the force of his prophetic delivery.  (Notice, by the way, that Barber states, “Remember when I shared with you about the Bible when we were backstage..?”  He testifies on camera and off.)

Watching these two interviews reveal what is needed to revive the art of bearing witness, witnessing that taps into the power and authority of the Jesus about whom we speak.

For one, we need to speak well.  Our testimonies of Christ– our experience of the Risen Savior and the values for which he stood (and stands)– must break through the shallow platitudes of Tweets, posts, and social media banter.

We need to learn how to speak well by wielding and fashioning adequate narratives, by arguing persuasively and speaking substantively about the Gospel.  This cannot be done from our tribes, from the right or the left–it must be done as wisdom couched in the person and character and intentions of Jesus Christ who stands above our political and ideological labels.

A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in a setting of silver.
Like cold water to a thirsty soul, so is good news from a far country (Prov. 25:11-12, 25).

Speaking well ought to bewilder, captivate, compel, and convict.  After all, we follow a Lord who mustered language in the form of parables to show people what God’s Kingdom looked like.  Jesus never lectured or taught dusty doctrines of yesteryear.  He never offered trite opinions.  Rather, he restored and reconciled and rebuked with compassion, peace, and unyielding intimacy that stemmed from unity with God (“I and my father are one…”).

Second, we must speak accurately.  In a society that fails to agree on facts, Christ’s Church must value accuracy in our presentation of the Gospel, of the justice tied up in God’s reign, and in our understanding of salvation history.

An example might suffice:  Some like to argue that our nation is founded on a Christian heritage, and that is true.  Yet, how people talk about that history–as if our nation is but a large church–is often inaccurate.  Yes, our nation’s founding documents are imbued with certain Christian principles, but we must be accurate when we also bear witness that God detests travesties of our past, such as slavery, racism or genocide of indigenous and minority populations.

Our ideological and tribal rhetoric suffers from inaccurate portrayals of God’s work in the world, bad theology, and partisan positions that have become the very fake news we loathe.

Last, we must speak what is true.  This is different than accuracy.  You cannot begin to speak with truth if you are not accurate with the facts.  If you play loose with the details, then your entire testimony will fail you–you will be a false witness, and your testimony will likely be bad news instead of the Good News Jesus intended the Gospel to be.

There are many people–Christians, pastors, church leaders–who are not bearing witness to a true vision of who God is, what the church is about, and how the Kingdom of God erupts, disrupts, and usurps in our midst.  This has taken a toll on the church.  If you don’t believe me, just look at all the empty pews across America on any given Sunday morning.

Speaking what is true about God means testifying about Jesus’ vision for justice, restoration and reconciliation in the world, most poignantly outlined in Jesus’s explicit mission in Luke 4:18-19, a vision that promises liberation to those who are oppressed and exploited.

This reminds me of Mr. Rogers’ insistence, for example, that children need communities that provide hope and trust, or Rev. Barber’s citation of Luke 4 in his protest against voter suppression laws and political malpractice.

Jesus told us to be Great Commission people, people who attract (not repel or appall) others to Christ by bearing witness to our first-hand relationship and restoration in Christ.  His call in the earliest chapters of Acts still applies today; but it will require some prayer and work to reclaim our long history of being the kind of wordsmiths worthy of the Gospel we are to promote.

We must speak well.  We must speak accurately.  And we must speak what is true.

Easter Justice and a thirst for righteousness

 

One of last things Jesus said before he died on the cross was, “I thirst.”  It is hard to imagine the very Savior who promised a woman by the well (John 4) everlasting water being thirsty, but he was.  Perhaps there is a deeper meaning to this illusive Easter text.

We live in a desolate and parched time.  The government is gridlocked; ISIS is sweeping across Africa and the Middle East; a precarious presidential election has nearly nose-dived into the gutter.  Black lives matter; gay and lesbian youth are committing suicides at an unprecedented rate due to bullying and discrimination.  Income inequality is at its greatest since the Great Depression.  Businesses and churches are surviving against all odds.

I can’t understand why Jesus thirsted, but I know why I thirst.  I thirst because we still have to live in a world in which Jesus’ Kingdom-vision, one of peace, liberation, redemption, and embrace has yet to be realized.

Easter happened.  Jesus arose from the grave.  He promised eternal life to those who believe; but, we are still living in the times between Good Friday and silent Saturday of our own souls.  We haven’t experienced resurrection with our Savior yet.  We stand, instead, between death and Jesus’ Second Coming.

Until Jesus comes with a final trumpet sound to inaugurate once and for all God’s reign on heaven and earth, I thirst.

I guess that when Jesus said “I thirst,” he was referring to Psalm 69.  At least that’s what the notes in my Study Bible say. But what if Jesus had Psalm 42 in mind instead?

As a deer longs for flowing water, so my souls longs for you, O God.  My soul thirsts for God, for the living God.  When shall I come and behold the face of God?  My tears have been my food day and night” (v. 1-3).

What if Jesus said “I thirst” because he wants us to remember his Sermon on the Mount?   While we mourn at the cross, we may recall that Jesus’ Sermon mandated that we still have work to do, even in the midst of our own thirst: “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness” (Matt. 5:6).

Righteousness is a biblical term that means “to be in right relationship with,” and it is a benchmark of God’s activity on earth.  Ever since Adam and Eve sinned, God’s desire was to reconcile that ruptured relationship, to put things right.

Jesus must have thirsted for righteousness because his death was the next step in this process of reconciliation.

I too thirst for righteousness that includes advocating for justice and mercy and kindness in a world very much in need of repairing.

I thirst for righteousness because I want to fight for what’s right in the world in order to see balanced budgets, terrorism abated, peaceful conclusions to war, and a more equitable tax code and quality of life for all lives.

Before he was crucified, Jesus told parables and healed the sick and ate with tax collectors and sinners.  He said that the reign of God–the very kingdom of God–had come to earth and was in our midst.

This reign was more than a fancy idea or personal wish; the reign drew heaven’s goal and earth’s future closer together so that God’s will would be accomplished “on earth as it is in heaven.”

Although I thirst still, I am thankful that Jesus is indeed the Everlasting Water who gives us a chance to spread God’s righteousness even in the least expected places, like at the local halfway house or in Congress.

I thirst, but it is God who nourishes us with hope that one day even broken legislatures and warring enemies will eventually bow to His lordship.

A Christmas Prayer

untitledBy Matt Sapp

At a recent Wednesday Bible study group at my church, we spent time talking about what we would pray for if we really believed that God came to earth at Christmas to redefine justice, righteousness and peace.

I organized the group’s thoughts and wrote them down. What follows is our collective prayer:

God who comes to us at Christmas,

We honor you with our focused attention as we pray for your growing presence in us and in our world this Christmas season.

As we wait for your arrival, we remember the power you have to redefine our world. We pray that you will bring us new definitions of justice, righteousness and peace.  We pray that we can receive and apply those definitions with hope, joy and love.

JUSTICE
Lord, show us true justice.  Show us the justice of the Bible, and help us understand how that justice is different from the world’s justice. Show us a justice marked by equity and fairness and compassion and mercy.  Teach us that care for the vulnerable—the widow, the orphan, the immigrant, the poor, the sick—is a central element of the justice represented in the manger of Christmas.

Open our hearts to the needs of others.  Make us consistent bearers of your image, and give us eyes to see your image in everyone else, too.  Give us the courage to represent you every day—even when it’s hard, even when it’s dangerous.  Give us the courage to name injustice when we see it—racism, discrimination, bigotry and hatred.  Give us compassion and empathy for people who are different than us.

We pray for justice in our nation and in our court systems.  Raise up fair and honorable judges and prosecutors and representatives in our court system who seek and distribute justice evenly, impartially and equitably.

RIGHTEOUSNESS
On this Christmas we pray not only for the world around us, but also for ourselves. We pray that you would lead each of us to new understandings of righteousness.  We pray that you would change us.  Change our hearts and our minds and our attitudes.

Help us find more space to focus on the needs of others.  Give us a spirit of neighborliness and friendliness to share with all in our communities.

Make us more tolerant and more forgiving.  Make us more accepting of differences.  Help us to be people who listen to others, who pray for others, and who have the right words and the right helping hands for others.

And in all these things help us to overcome the fear and mistrust and selfishness that often prevents us from doing the good we know we should do.

HOPE
As we wait for the arrival of your justice and righteousness, we do so with great hope: Hope for health and contentment and peace in our families and in our hearts.   Hope for a renewed faith that reminds us we can trust in you no matter what. We wait with hope for balance and harmony among all people, and with hope for spiritual rejuvenation and vitality here and all over the world.

We pray for our church with hope, too. We pray with hope for spiritual and physical growth, with hope for the courage to speak together with a prophetic voice and with hope for the wisdom to know what to say.

We pray with hope for a continued and expanded ability to look after the marginalized and the poor in our community.

PEACE
We pray for peace–for a new attitude and a new feeling in our world and in our hearts. We long for a peace that is more than the absence of hostility. We pray for a positive and active peace that itself represents the enactment of your justice in this world.

Help us find peaceful ways to express our differences.

Rid us of violence, anger and fear. Remind us that kindness doesn’t equal weakness. Help us create a world where tough exteriors are not required and where gentleness is celebrated and admired.

Help us to remember that our eternal security lies in you, that war is never in your will, and that one day you will reign on earth in peace upheld by your justice and your righteousness. We pray for that day to come.

JOY
Heavenly Father, even as we look toward an eternal future, we take joy in the assurance of your presence with us now. We pray with joy at our ability to be distributors and champions of your justice today. We pray with joy in our responsibility to reach out and speak out. We pray with joy in doing what is right. We pray with joy in our call to reach future generations for you. And with pray with joy in our salvation.

LOVE
Fill us with love this Christmas–love for you and love for others as we passionately pursue your justice in our world and your righteousness in our lives. Give us love that lasts even when we don’t get our way.  Give us love that endures through fear.  Give us strength to love even when we don’t feel like loving.  Give us love that helps us realize we always have more to give.

Help us remember that your love in us is only multiplied as we give it away.  Give us a love that is as perfect and innocent and holy as the baby in the manger and a love that is as transformative and self-sacrificing as the Savior on the cross.

We pray with hope, joy and love for your justice, righteousness and peace to come to earth with Christ this Christmas.

May they and we be made perfect in your name, AMEN.