I often marvel at how easily some speak of God. My experience has tended to be more tentative. I see the presence of God more clearly in the rear-view mirror than through the windshield.
Is the sticker on the side mirror meant to be a spiritual reminder? “Objects may be closer than they appear.” The distance between profound spiritual insight and platitude is not that great.
As a young pastor, I struggled with what to say to a young mother whose husband had just been killed in a snowmobile accident. Or, how to respond to a confession of marital infidelity or to the news that a friend’s medical tests revealed a tumour not benign?
In the face of deep struggle and grief, so many words sound trite or like a slogan.
“I am sorry for your loss.”
“You are in my thoughts and prayers.”
As I grow older I have come to believe that it is not so much the specific words that matter — though I am a strong believer in the power of words — but how truthful and authentic they are.
Too often, phrases become shields. “I’ve been thinking about you” can cover for “Sorry I never contacted you during what must have been a terrible time.” “Don’t give up hope” can mean “I can’t see any possible way out of this but I can’t deal with you dissolving into a quivering mass of need before me right now.”
On the flip side are those who speak with integrity and authenticity. During the Emerging Spirit project, people have said to me, “I pray for you every day because I know how difficult the church can be.” I believe them, and I am grateful.
Even the old chestnut, “God never closes a door without opening a window,” can ring with hope when given as testimony by one whose life has trembled with the force of slamming doors.
“We are not alone. We live in God’s world.” Familiar phrases can roll off the tongue as rote; they can also sound like the bells of heaven when spoken with integrity by one who knows the awful aloneness of depression, chronic pain or failure.
Part of what the Emerging Spirit research tells us is that many of those outside the church view religious language with skepticism because it appears disconnected from the lives of those who simply recite it. The desire now is for conversation about things that matter with those who live lives rooted in authenticity.
In many ways, the desire for honest conversation frees us. We no longer need to feel bound to give a long and academically precise treatise on all aspects of the Christian tradition. We simply need to tell what we have experienced to be true. It is like telling our children the stories of their birth and of our own youth; no need to make anything up.
If we have been forgiven, we can talk about forgiveness. If the tunnel ahead has been ink black and then a glimmer appeared, we have something to say about hope. If our lives have been blessed beyond our own construction, we have something to share about grace and community. If we know something of what it is to be bound by an illness, a job, a deception, a mistaken vow and then to have experienced release, we can testify about salvation.
No flowery rhetoric required, just truth. Truth is what makes a testimony and moves us from a platitude to the profound.
Susan Scott, author of the book Fierce Conversations, is fond of saying that the conversation is the relationship. No conversation, no relationship. The Hebrew Bible talks a great deal about the need for right relationships. “Righteousness” is the term.
In these times, so much seems to pull us apart. Outward acts belie inward intention; deeds contradict words; desires deny commitments. We feel a particular hunger for that which can be counted upon to bring together. We desire wholeness.
But what can bring that at-one-ment? Could a start be as simple as the practice of our speaking?
Perhaps if our speech reflects our deepest core and bears the marks of truth, integrity and authenticity, so will our relationships. And if our relationships are so characterized, then perhaps, at such times, we are not only bound more closely to each other but we touch the realm of the sacred.
Scripture: Matthew 5:6
Hymn: 577 (Voices United), I’ve Got Peace Like a River
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