On Sunday, November 1, we concluded our fall Stewardship Campaign by celebrating the lives and witness of our saints—those whose death over the past year has brought them into the Great Cloud of Witnesses watching over us. I have already heard from many of our members that worship on Sunday was particularly meaningful and, aside from the glitch in our start time, it was a truly great day.
Each week since the beginning of October, we’ve considered one of the Vows many of us who grew up in the UMC remember so well. We have added another dimension to that formula, as well, suggesting that each of these Vows corresponds to the way we cultivate and nurture a specific resource God has entrusted to us:
- Prayers allow us to cultivate our Spiritual Life, both in the regular practice of prayer and in our participation with others in spiritual growth and development
- Presence centers our use of Time around God’s purposes, radiating out from our commitment to worship into all areas of our life
- Gifts refers to the spiritual discipline of giving, which helps us have a healthy spiritual relationship with our and Material Possessions, particularly our financial resources
- and Service reminds us that our Talents & Abilities are a gift from God, not just a source of personal achievement.
The final Vow of United Methodist Christians, “Witness,” was added to the others by the General Conference of the UMC in 2008. Because it was new to me, I struggled to identify a specific resource that God entrusts to us that would correspond to our Witness. Over time, I came to understand that the witness of a Christian was simply the story of how God’s presence has shaped a person’s life. In fact, our Story is a resource God has given to us to cultivate and nurture.
When I was growing up in my home church in Richardson, most of the adults and my peers were leery of the word “witness.” We had a fairly restrictive view of what it meant to witness on behalf of Jesus and, although there were plenty of folks in our community who did that, it certainly wasn’t us. Most of us understood witness to be the very assertive sort of verbal testimony that was sometimes a personal story, sometimes a more formulaic version of the gospel that focused on the sinner inside each of us and relied heavily on the word “saved.” Although we took our faith lives seriously for the most part and were very regular in our participation in the life of the church, my friends and I understood faith to be a private thing, rather than as something to be shared for the purpose of converting others to our way of thinking.
I know now that such an understanding was much too restrictive and, for that matter, I can remember that I was very judgmental towards those who understood that kind of verbal testimony to be “witness.” I’m much more comfortable talking about my faith with others, because I have become more confident in it, even as I have become more willing to accept differences in perspective about Christianity and other faith traditions. Furthermore, I have come to understand my personal journey as a story of salvation and am happy to share it with others, even those who wouldn’t already be inclined to receive a Christian “witness.”
What has changed the most, however, is my understanding of what constitutes “witness.” I could talk about this for a very long time, so I’ll try to contain myself and focus my comments in three areas.
- Our primary witness is with our lives, not with our words. We’re all familiar with the stories of evangelists who’ve spent their lives pointing out the sins of others, only to fall horrifically and publicly from grace. What I’ve learned throughout my life and particularly during my ministry is that when we tell people about Jesus and what it means to be saved, or holy, they begin to watch us very carefully to see if we’re holding ourselves up to the same standards we’ve set. And, invariably, we fail. Our failings may not be as dramatic or as horrific as the ones that make the news, but somehow, some way, we fall short of the grace of God. On the other hand, if we strive to live a life of faith first, to love God and to demonstrate our love for God in the way we love each other and our neighbors, people are much more likely to accept what we say about how Jesus has changed us. I’ve heard that these words attributed to St. Francis of Assisi weren’t really his own, but they still speak volumes to this point: “Preach the gospel constantly and, when necessary, use words.”
- As United Methodists, we witness to our faith by actively carrying out the other Vows of Membership. When I talk with people about joining the church, I almost always share with them about the distinctive nature of membership in the Methodist Tradition. For us, the primary question is not whether we are Methodist, but whether we are Christian. So, our first commitment is to faith in Christ and the way we have chosen to practice that faith is as a Methodist. Despite my initial skepticism about the addition of this fifth Vow of Membership, which was based primarily in my own formerly restrictive sense of that word, I have come to be grateful that it is now one of our Vows. In fact, I see it as a sort of “master vow,” one that says, in essence, that the way we hold ourselves accountable to the first four of the Vows is our primary witness. Utilizing the language of this year’s Stewardship Campaign, we demonstrate our faith in the ways we fulfill our Promises: We have said we will do these things and holding ourselves accountable to them demonstrates the work of the Holy Spirit in our lives.
- Witness is every bit as much corporate as it is individual. This aspect is one that I think many people miss. In our culture, the individual is front and center. Many of our great stories are about individual heroes and the idea that anyone can succeed if they work hard enough is still very much a part of our consciousness. And that consciousness has affected our understanding of faith, as well: We understand faith more as an individual journey than a journey of God’s people together. But the scriptures of the Old and New Testaments are a story of God’s people, in which the stories of individuals are simply a part. It’s not that we lose our identities when we gain faith in Christ; it’s more that our perspective is changed, so that we understand ourselves to be part of a bigger story of what God is doing in the world. Think of it this way: Most people will never get the chance to know us individually, but are much more likely to be aware of who the people of Open Door Churches are. In the years to come, the ways our “brand” is perceived in the community is the most likely determination of whether people will want to join us.
I told you I could talk about this for a long time! If you’ve gotten this far, I hope it was worth it. And I hope that you will continue to walk this road of discipleship along with me.
Grace and peace,
Pastor John Fleming