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"How Do We Talk to Others About Our Faith?" (Summer Sermon Series) - Rev. Sarah Walker Cleaveland

Posted on August 11, 2019 by Kathy Miller

How Do We Talk to Others About Our Faith?

(Summer Sermon Series)

Prayer of Illumination

Present God,

            Settle our hearts.

                        Still our minds.

                                    And stir our imaginations,

                                                That we might hear your Word for us this day.         Amen.

1 Peter 3:8-16

Finally, all of you, have unity of spirit, sympathy, love for one another, a tender heart, and a humble mind. Do not repay evil for evil or abuse for abuse; but, on the contrary, repay with a blessing. It is for this that you were called—that you might inherit a blessing. For

“Those who desire life

    and desire to see good days,

let them keep their tongues from evil

    and their lips from speaking deceit;

let them turn away from evil and do good;

    let them seek peace and pursue it.

For the eyes of the Lord are on the righteous,

    and his ears are open to their prayer.

But the face of the Lord is against those who do evil.”

 

For who will harm you if you are eager to do what is good? But even if you do suffer for doing what is right, you are blessed. Do not fear what they fear, and do not be intimidated, but in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence. Keep your conscience clear, so that, when you are maligned, those who abuse you for your good conduct in Christ may be put to shame.

––––––––

How Do We Talk to Others About Our Faith?

The final question in our summer sermon series based on questions that you asked is how do we talk to others about our faith. There were a few variations of this question that, reading between the lines, seemed to be speaking to different contexts. One question seemed to be asking how we talk about faith when the topic comes up at Thanksgiving dinner and what has come out of someone’s mouth makes you choke because it sounds nothing like the faith you profess. Another question seemed to be asking how to talk about faith so that those who don’t believe might be enticed to give it a try. And then still others seemed to be asking the more general question of how to put words around faith when language seems inadequate and their faith contains as much doubt as belief.

So, before we can address the question of how to talk about faith, we need to first address the question of ‘why’—because if you want to talk about your faith in order impress someone (or to bore someone so you can get out of a conversation), you’re going to want to learn some of the big theological terms like perichoresis, pneumatology, hermeneutics or eschatology (and if you’re goal is impressing, you’re going to want to rethink your strategy in general). If, on the other hand, you want to talk about your faith in order to counter someone else’s belief, you’re going to want to learn some of the common arguments they use and research how others have argued against those points.

If either of these are your motivation, I will gladly lend you a theological dictionary or point you in the direction of some books and resources that can help you. Although I also feel the need to warn you that there are easier ways to end a conversation, and it’s unlikely that you’re going to change anyone’s beliefs no matter how much research you do or how well-crafted your argument might be.

 If, on the other hand, you want to talk to others about your faith because you want them to convert them or save them, my strong recommendation is that you don’t. If you’re concerned about their salvation, my very unhelpful advice is, don’t be. Both Martin Luther and John Calvin, two of the primary theologians behind the Protestant Reformation (the break with the Catholic church that happened 500 years ago) argued forcefully that we are not capable of saving ourselves or anyone else. There is nothing, they insisted, that we can do that would merit salvation—it is beyond our ability to earn and can only be understood as a gift that God chooses to give us. The faith we profess is not one of fear nor of merit—so you are off the hook when it comes to saving yourself or others.

If you want to talk about your faith to others because it has meant so much to you and you want someone else to have that gift in their life as well, my recommendation is still, unless specifically asked, that you not—at least not with words. If you think they’re interested or seeking, invite them to come with you to church or to a book study, perhaps offer to talk about faith if they’re ever interested, but leave it in their hands. Instead, let your life speak for you—share your faith by living it. Actions always speak louder than words.

So, now that we’ve addressed some of the reasons why you perhaps shouldn’t talk about your faith, there are in fact two reasons why I think you should talk about your faith.

 The first reason is personal: talking about our faith is one of the primary ways in which our faith grows and develops. Saying things out loud—putting words around feelings and intuitions—helps us to clarify what it is we believe, and that is frequently the first step in learning more about who we are, who God is, and who God calls us to be. It’s one of the reasons therapy and spiritual direction can be so helpful.

Putting words around our beliefs, whether it our religious beliefs or our beliefs about a set of events, helps us to clarify and, ultimately, to solidify those beliefs. As one theologian memorably put it, “unless you can say it, you don’t really believe it … When we talk about our faith, we are not merely expressing our beliefs; we are coming more fully and clearly to believe. In short, we are always talking ourselves into being Christian.”[1]

In the safety of this community, we need to practice putting words around what we believe because it’s one of the ways in which we grow in our faith—it’s both how we figure out what we believe and how we allow our beliefs and faith to mature and grow.

If the first reason to talk about our faith is motivated primarily by self-interest, the development of our own faith, the second reason is more outwardly focused. We live in a culture where language about faith is quickly vanishing from the public sphere—as more and more people identify as non-religious and as fewer and fewer people grow up in the church and learn the language of faith, there are fewer and fewer conversations about faith happening in public discourse. And those that do occur tend to be less conversation and more loud manifesto. As one writer puts it, “the way certain groups of people use sacred words [can give] the rest of us the holy heebie-jeebies. Holy phrases become tools of manipulation … [or] are fashioned into clubs by combative [believers].”[2] For those of us less angry or less certain about our own faith—more aware that there are many ways of viewing things, it can feel like there are only two choices:

  • set aside our uncertainty and adopt the assertive and assured posture of others in order to engage in public discourse about faith
  • or withdraw and hope no one who sees us pulling into a church parking lot associates us with the loud and abrasive voices asserting what Christians believe.

But neither of these options are good ones. They do little to inspire faith in others, to teach our children what it looks like to be a faithful person living in the world, to model for our youth how our faith informs our opinions and views. And they do little to advance the concerns of faith in our public life—concerns about the poor, about justice, about immigration. Concerns we find on almost every page of the Bible—about the need to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry and protect the weak. When we fail to speak, and when we fail to allow our faith to infuse our speech, we fail to proclaim the gospel. We fail our children, we fail ourselves, and we fail the world.

So, now that we’ve covered why you ought to talk to others about your faith, here are my top four tips for how to do it.

  1. Humbly—don’t become one of the loud assertive and self-assured voices that uses faith to bully other people. Speak for yourself and not for all Christians or even all Presbyterians. Use “I” language and admit when you aren’t sure or you have doubts. If you hear yourself say something and realize that that isn’t quite what you mean, correct yourself. Acknowledge that putting words around your beliefs is hard and that words will never adequately convey what you believe, or have experienced, to be true.
  2. Use a thesaurus—faith language is a weird kind of language and it requires more translation than I think we often realize. We tend to throw terms around like God and grace and forgiveness and assume that everyone knows what they mean, that we know what we mean when we say them. But more often than not, that isn’t the case. So, try to define your terms. What do you mean when you say God, is there another word that you might use instead? The Bible calls God Love, Beauty, Goodness—would those words work instead? If not, what might?

    In our passage from this morning, we heard part of a letter written to a community that was struggling to stay faithful in the face of persecution. In the midst of some helpful reminders about not repaying evil for evil and not being intimidated, the author of the letter offers some helpful advice for speaking of faith: “be ready to make your defense,” the author writes, “to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you; yet do it with gentleness and reverence.” When talking to others about our faith, sometimes it is as simple and as challenging as explaining why we have hope—where we see goodness, love, or beauty at work in the world.
  3. Sparingly—Keep in mind that old adage beloved by parents everywhere that God gave you one mouth and two ears for a reason—so that you would listen twice as much as you talk. Speak about your faith as a means of invitation—a way of beginning a conversation and inviting others to share what they believe. Be curious. Ask questions. Remember that we each see only a part and that the experiences and beliefs of other can help us to see a larger portion of who God is and what God is up to in the world.
  4. And finally, remember the wisdom of St. Francis who said, “preach the gospel at all times. Use words when necessary.” Sometimes the best way to talk about our faith is not with words but with actions. We need only look at the local news from this past week to see but one example of this: as the pastors and leaders of the ELCA (the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America) met for their annual church-wide meeting in Milwaukee this past week, they followed in the footsteps of their namesake, Martin Luther (who started the Protestant Reformation by nailing 95 theses that outlined his grievances with the Roman Catholic Church to a church door in Germany 500 years ago) by marching to the Immigration and Customs Enforcement building in Milwaukee and taping 9.5 theses to its door that expressed their concern for immigrants and refugees. They then went back to their meeting and voted to become the first sanctuary church body, encouraging their churches to provide shelter and support for undocumented immigrants even as they continue to work to stop deportation.

There’s more than one way to talk about our faith, and, if we’re doing it right, none of them are easy or without consequence. It’s hard to find the right words, hard to find the right audience, fraught with the possibility of causing offense, and loaded with the risk of being pigeonholed as “one of those Christians.” But not talking about our faith means not being true to who we are—not allowing our faith to grow and mature, not modeling to our children and youth what it looks like to live faithfully as we wrestle with hard questions and hard issues, and not being faithful to who God created us to be and the ministry that Christ calls us to engage in. So, find your voice, use your feet, and let your faith speak into this world of ours that so desperately needs more good news.

Amen.

 

 



[1] Tom G. Long, Testimony: Talking Ourselves into Being Christian.

[2] Merritt, Jonathan. Learning to Speak God from Scratch (p. 5). The Crown Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.

 
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