In helping couples prepare for the Sacrament of Marriage, one of the questions I ask is, “Do you know what each other prayers for?” I am not asking if they can infer, deduce, guess or just have a “pretty good idea” – but do they know? And in this case that probably means, to have direct knowledge because their fiancé told them. The overwhelming response is “No, but….” This is but one example from our everyday life of how private we are about our life in faith.
Several weeks ago, in his letter to the Colossians, St. Paul urges to “put on heartfelt compassion, kindness, humility, gentleness, patience, forbearance, forgiveness, and over all these, love.” (Col 3:12) And so with good intent and hopeful hearts we work away in our personal lives and in our families – to be the person, the family, the witnesses who does those things in the world. We want those virtues in our lives and in our families, yet when was the last time we talked about the presence or absence of those virtues in our lives. We pray about it, we work at it, we succeed, we fail, we start over… mostly silently. We are hesitant to speak about it within the safety of home, much less testify about it all in the company of others. It is one thing to put on heartfelt compassion, but to let people know why you are doing that… that’s another thing. We are called to be witness to the world concerning our faith in and love for Christ.
In today’s first reading We are challenged – or we should be – when the prophet Isaiah tells us: “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant…. I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” A servant can be present, silently present, taking it all in, but never part of the conversation. Yes, we are called to be servants, but we are also called to be more. Called to moments in our lives, when the virtues already shine through, but we also called to testify. Called to testify as did John the Baptist, “Now I have seen and testified that he is the Son of God.” And not in whispered voices, but loud and proud in the public square of our life. We are called to testify!!
Maybe there is no word more terrifying in the Catholic psyche that “testify.” To stand up and give a witness for Christ. It’s not what we do. Yet, such testimony can move us. We hear the stories of lives changed and uplifted by the grace and mercy of Christ. At our deepest core we connect to the story. We are moved, inspired…but like I said, it’s not what we Catholics do. It is not part of our heritage.
I grew up in a completely Baptist neighborhood. I have spent a summer evening or two at tent revivals. Where men stood up and testified, words honed by years of practice. There were epic tales of sin and redemption wherein Jesus pulled them from the devil’s grasp and washed them in His blood. Women, spoke of love betrayed, and of loss and pain and joy so fierce that it almost seems to slice apart the humid summer air. Everyone praised the times Jesus saved them from despair, raised them up, wiped away their tears, and set them on the road to righteousness. And the witness did not stop at the revival’s tent walls. It spilled out into the ebb and flow of life. People gave witness in the Winn-Dixie, the Piggly-Wiggly or outside the post office. If you couldn’t (or didn’t) tell your story of sin, redemption and being saved out loud to others, well, then you weren’t really much of a Christian, after all. It was just part of the fabric of life. …but like I said….
Yet, there I was this Catholic kid who at best had a story about First Communion living in a world where public witnessed mattered. Such things were not the fabric of my life. Sin and redemption was confined to the safety of the confessional. Never in a million years would I take to heart the wisdom and advice of the Apostle James when he tells us: “confess your sins to one another and pray for one another, that you may be healed. The fervent prayer of a righteous person is very powerful.” (James 5:16) The fabric of my life did not have the heat, the passion, or the fire of the Pine Street Pentecostal church. My fabric was cautious and reserved. The witness of faith out loud was fascinating but it was foreign to my world where we Catholics whispered our prayers in hushed tones, chanted familiar medieval melodies, and reverently knelt at the altar rail to receive the Eucharist. We were good and faithful servants, even if not part of the conversation.
In time, I began to tell myself that my own faith was more discrete, more private more, well…… more sophisticated than asking someone in the local WalMart if they had been saved. But if I am honest, it was more because I did not think that I had stories of loss and redemption, of joy and sorrow, or of the hand of God reaching into the cesspool of sin to snatch me from the devil’s grasp. Even if we Catholics wanted to witness, what on earth could we say about our messy lives, our doubts, our mistakes? Who would listen? Besides…. Isn’t that why we have priest, nuns, and religion teachers? Isn’t that their job to witness?
I mean, what if we opened our mouths and looked like fools? What if we did more harm than good? What if people laughed, or even worse… ignored us? What if we just aren’t important enough, or faithful enough, or nice enough for our stories to matter? Can’t we just be present, silently present, taking it all in?
“It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, …I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.” (Isa 49:6)
I look back to those times and now I understand Isaiah: It is too little and it is important to remember, it is not “you will make yourself.” It is the promise of God that He will make us, shape us, form us, give you voice. Because it is not our salvation, it is His salvation. And in the face of so great a gift, it seems to me, that silence is not a grace-filled option. Like it or not, if we are people of faith, among our own tales, are stories of sin, redemption, love and joy, pain and sorrow, the hand of God grasping us and raising us up, and the hand of God simply resting on our shoulder in patient consolation. In our own stories are a witness that someone else may desperately need to hear. We have seen something— maybe something big, like the ones who wrestled evil in the gutter and lived to tell the tale. Or maybe something small— so small and fragile that it will be almost transparent except to the one who is really searching. Our life testimonies, as ordinary as they seem to us, are truly heroic. They are the stuff of legends, worthy to be told and retold, whether anyone is really listening, or not. They are part of the Greatest Story ever told.
Out there somewhere. In the pew next to you. In the school lunchroom. At the office. At the dinner table, someone waits for your story. “It is too little, the LORD says, for you to be my servant, …I will make you a light to the nations, that my salvation may reach to the ends of the earth.”
Tell your story…. Be the light for another. Amen.