I Told Myself (A Sermon on Testimony)

“Always be ready to give reasons for your faith” – 1 Peter 3:15

A friend of mine has a four year old nephew who I am going to call Matthew. Matthew has leukemia and spends most of his time in a hospital. And when he is not undergoing treatment, or sleeping, Matthew is painting and drawing and sculpting with clay. There isn’t a medium that he has not taken to with enthusiasm.

And so the walls of Matthew’s hospital room are covered with his creations. With watercolors and scribbles with crayons, with coloring book pages colored outside the lines, and blank sheets filled with the images and hues of his imagination.

On the table next to the bed are a few things he made out of clay, and every once and a while, he takes what he has made and smush-es it back into a balls so he can start again and create something new. It gave the room this sort of magical feel, despite everything else.

So when my friend went to visit him a few months ago and commented on the creations that adorn his room, he said, matter-of-factly: “I am an artist.”

She must have looked puzzled, because he repeated himself. “I am an artist, and do you know how I know?” he asked.

“How?” She asked.

“I know because my art teacher told me, and because I told myself.”

I am an artist, because someone told me, because I told myself, and because now I am telling you. From the mouth of a little boy who knows better than many of us just how scary the world can be, how out of control life can feel.

Do you know / how I know / that I am / who I am?

I told myself, and now I am telling you.

What I admire so much about that young boy, is that in the midst of long hospitalization, and scary treatments, is that he did not lose the ability to tell the truth about himself. Even in the most shadowy valley, he could bear witness to something simple, and something beautiful about himself. I am an artist.

We get this glimpse into the early church in the letter I just read. No one is quite sure who wrote it, probably a later follower of Peter… Its kind of an internal memo of the early church, and here is what they were saying to each other.

“Always be ready to give reasons for the hope that is in you” In other words:

“Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know.”

Be ready to tell the truth about who you are so that you can stand firmly in a world that will otherwise spin you around.

In church we call that testimony.

At the last congregation I served, I offered a class on the Christian practice of testimony. And I was really excited about it. I planned to have us practice writing and sharing testimony with one another. I outlined a course over a few months where we would read the testimonies of others, and then set about crafting and sharing our own.

I wanted the members of my church to get a chance to do what the scripture text for this morning recommends. Always be ready to give reasons for your faith. Be ready to tell people the truth about who you are, and be ready to tell them how you know. Learn how to claim your identity boldly and publicly, otherwise you might just conform to the culture, and make yourself into what everyone else expects.

I was excited. But it was a tough sell.

Testify is one of those words that has had its meaning perverted. And I learned that quickly talking with my congregation. People suggested changing the name of the class to “telling our stories” or “sharing our faith” anything but the name I had chosen: “Testify.”

There were quite a few people who avoided me while I was walking around at coffee hour because they did not want to get roped into this ‘testimony’ business.

I think that when we imagine testimony, we imagine something manipulative. Maybe even something a little bombastic. Often we associate testimony with someone’s attempt to convert people; to change “non-believers” into Christians. And there are few things that send Congregationalists running quite as quickly as that sort of fervent evangelical zeal.

But here is what the author of 1 Peter says about testimony.

“be sympathetic, love one another, be compassionate and humble… Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have. But do this with gentleness and respect, keeping a clear conscience”

I think that is a great image. Speak with respect, but don’t apologize for your truth. Be humble enough to speak only for yourself. Love one another enough to listen to each other’s stories.

That is the kind of testimony I love. And, in our class,  that is exactly what we got.

Some people told hard stories about difficult childhoods and the scars that linger even still.

Some people shared the joy that they felt when they first found a home at church.

Some people told us about experiences with God that took our breath away.

And at the end we were all transformed. Not because the testimony was aimed at converting anyone, or changing anything about any of us.

We were transformed because receiving such raw and true stories, and having a space to share them, deepened our trust in one another and it widened our experience of God. That is the beauty of true testimony. It does not shift our gaze so much as it widens our field of view. It does not make us feel bad about who we are, but gives us the courage to share our story too.

Charles Wright is the Poet Laureate of the United States. So you can imagine my surprise when I heard him say one day on the radio “I do not really think of myself as a poet.”

Wright said “it’s kind of a sacred trade, I don’t think I have passed all the barriers yet to call myself that.”

Compare that to Matthew. The 4-year-old hospital patient who said: I am an artist. I think Matthew knows what testimony is.

He knows intuitively that he does not need credentials to call himself an artist. And he knows that calling himself an artist does not mean he has perfected his craft. Its who he is, he knows it, and he is telling us.

But I think most of us live more like Charles Wright than like Matthew. We expect that some day we might have the credibility or the authority necessary for what we say to matter. The danger though is that one day he woke up as the poet laureate of the United States, and still did not feel like a poet.

Do you have a truth that you have a hard time claiming with Matthew’s boldness?

What part of your story has been left untold?

What is your testimony?

In your very core, what is true to you?

What is the foundation of your faith?

Won’t you tell us?

At coffee hour, in the parking lot, after the PTA meetings, on the sideline of the soccer fields,

Scriptures word to the church is my word to you: “be ready to tell someone the truth, about who you are.” Be ready to account for the faith and the hope that lives in your heart. Testify!

Here’s my testimony:

Often I have a hard time saying that I am a Christian. Or at least, I have a hard time saying it without the next word being ‘but…’

I am a Christian, but my church celebrates the love between same gender couples.

I am a Christian, but I do not assume that people of other religions need to be converted.

I am a Christian, but I still have questions and doubts

I am a Christian, but we can still be friends, I can talk about other things too…

Then I realize that I am missing the chance to proclaim the reasons for my faith, filling that space instead with my apologies and corrections…

So let me try it a new way, here, with you:

I am a Christian because In the life of Jesus I see the way I strive to live.

I am a Christian because I have witnessed God’s spirit work in people’s hearts

I am a Christian because I will never stop needing forgiveness and love.

So I am learning how to say these words. It is easier to say them here, harder out there.

Still, I am learning that I can state my truth without having it all figured out. I have doubts. I wrestle with the big questions about God. I walk around with an unsettled heart in uncertain times.

I just know I’m a Christian because deep down something about that word names me.

So I told myself

and now I’m telling you.

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