The Meaning of Life: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 25 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about trees, physics, and falling in love with God. You can listen in here.

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There’s a tree I used to climb when I was a kid.

I loved its branches, sturdy and wrinkly as elephant legs – how they cradled my nine-year-old body and lifted me into communion with the sky and the rain and the bats that hung upside down in the leaves.

My parents weren’t really church-goers but I was a spiritual kid. And my first experience of falling in love with God was lying on my back in that in tree.

My first experience of grief was going to climb it one day and finding it on its side, blown down by a storm. As my friend lay dying, I walked into its muddy roots, as vast underneath as its branches on top. I saw weird creatures who lived with the tree on the other side of the ground from me.

Deeper in, the roots became a cathedral. I felt an energy flowing around me – the hairs stood up on the back of my neck.

It’s not like I hadn’t known about roots before – I’d studied my science book. But there’s a difference between knowing about something and actually meeting it for the first time. This meeting gripped me: I realized there was so much stuff underneath the surface that I hadn’t seen before, and this unseen stuff had been holding me up all along.

Now I’m sure my younger self would not have said of that experience: “this is the meaning of life, this is ultimate reality!” But I believe that IS what I came into conscious contact with that day. Not only the tree and its roots, not only a new part of me – but an encounter with the life force in us both, the everlasting love streaming between me and the tree and everything else in the universe.

We name that mysterious connectedness in different ways.

A physicist calls it entanglement, where two different things separated by a huge distance are still somehow physically affected by the movement of the other.

As a Christian, I call it the Body of Christ, the fundamental unity of everything, seen and unseen, visible and invisible – all somehow held together by God.

The nine-year-old might just call it: Wow!

All those descriptions are good, in my opinion. But maybe the best is the nine-year-old’s. Because the meaning of life isn’t merely knowing about the meaning – it’s encountering it, meeting it, and falling in love. Wow, indeed.

My Eleventh Commandment: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 18 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 – about comedy classes, failure, and what to do when we mess up. You can listen in here.

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A few years ago now I signed up for an improvisational comedy class. Improv, as they call it. Now, I’m one of the least funny people you’ll ever meet, but I wanted a challenge.

Improv is a team approach to comedy. You create a story ­­– with others – in the moment. There’s no advanced planning. You start with an idea and you see where it goes. So my improv teacher might say, “Okay, Trey and Vanessa, up on stage. Here’s the scene: you two are long estranged siblings meeting for the first time in years. Go!”

Now, there’s no script – you’re improvising­ – so you have to listen, play, stay open. When it works, it’s hilarious.

It turns out, though: I really stink at it. Every class, I was bombing. One particularly humiliating night, I whinged to my teacher: “I’m so locked down on stage, I feel like I’m dying up there.”

She said, “Trey, you feel like you’re dying up there because – you’re dying up there. You’re trying to control everything. Let it go. What’s the worst that could happen?”

I said, “I could fail really bad.”

She said “Well, you’re already doing that. And anyway, failure is good for the soul.”

I dropped out of class, but her wisdom stuck. In improv, in life, we’re gonna fail. We’re gonna mess up – in small ways that bring laughter, in colossal ways that bring us to our knees. Failure is part of living a true story.

Writer Francis Spufford calls it “the human propensity to foul* things up”. We’ve all been there, we’ll be there again. The question is: what do we do when it happens?

My natural tendency is to ignore it or cover it up or – better yet! – blame somebody else.

But when I got sober, my recovery friends said “we’re only as sick as our secrets” and they challenged me to take an honest inventory of my messy life. To write down the epic failures, the micro-mistakes, the harm I’d caused others and myself. And then to share it all with someone I trusted.

It was scarier than improv, but accepting my failures with compassion has been so good for my soul.

So my eleventh commandment is not another moral from on high, but instead a suggestion for when we foul things up.

Here it is:

Be honest and ask for help.

In my experience, it will set you free.

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*He actually uses a different F-word that radio broadcasters don’t endorse. 🙂

Taking Care of My Mind: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 11 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2 for Mental Health Awareness Week – about running, sobriety, and faith. You can listen in here.

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I read recently that seven million Brits started running during this pandemic year.

I’m a long-time runner, so I totally get it. On a stressful day, before a run, I’m like: “Everything’s falling apart, how’s the world going to make it, am I having a panic attack?” But forty-five minutes later, after a run, I’m like: “Life is miraculous! There is hope! Together we can change the world!”

Running seems to give me direct access to free medicine from God. Whether I’m on city pavements or trails in the countryside, I feel this transfusion of peace flowing through my veins. I feel my soul loosen up.

Running has been a big part of how I take care of my mind since I got sober.

When I first stopped drinking, I felt amazing – fresh, detoxed, with a new lease on life. But soon after, I started to feel like rubbish. This is a normal rite of passage for folks healing from addiction. As someone’s said: Before the truth sets you free, it tends to make you miserable. When you stop using your drug of choice, all the problems you’ve been numbing start to come to the surface, and you get to choose whether you keep ignoring them or actually face them.

For me, to face that backlog of misery that was messing with my mental health, I needed a lot of help. I needed a community of recovery, I needed a practice of meditation and prayer, I needed counseling and a couple years of anti-depressants.

But running has been the healing thread through it all.

At the beginning of sobriety, I ran mostly to escape the temptation to drink again. Whenever I felt the desire to open a bottle, I’d put on my trainers and hit the streets. I’d trade the buzz of alcohol for the buzz of a runner’s high. And it worked: thanks be to God, I haven’t wanted a drink in over 11 years.

All these years later, running is not so much an escape from life but an adventure deeper into it. I joined a running club and made loads of new friends. I ran a marathon and felt embodied in a way I never had before.

I still take my problems with me on runs, but now I try to use the extra oxygen to work through the problems instead of repressing them. At least some of the time.

The Bible says “Let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us.” For me, taking care of my mind – and my soul and spirit and body, for that matter – it’s about perseverance.

Day in, day out, whatever the weather outside, whatever the weather in my head, I’m learning that my job is to show up to life as it comes. And – sometimes quickly but usually very slowly – to welcome the healing that’s on offer.

My Favourite Walk: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 4 May 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. As you’ll read/hear, this one is for our beloved dog Jake, of blessed memory. You can listen in here.

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I feel like a bit of an impostor, because I haven’t always been a fan of walks. Maybe it’s because I’m from the US, where people drive more than walk. Many streets don’t even have pavements.

But all that changed a decade ago when we adopted a rescue dog – a big, grey Weimaraner named Jake. Very quickly I became a walker. Three times a day Jake pulled me along the lakefront in Chicago, where we lived. We moved to Birmingham, he pulled me down canal paths – and once he pulled me right through the doorway of very surprised new neighbors. We moved to London, he pulled me down busy streets.

My favourite walks in life have been with him. Especially the walks where Jake wanted to explore – and pulled us from the street into the park, or off the park path into the woods.

At first that frustrated me – I didn’t think we had enough time, I didn’t want to get my shoes muddy, I didn’t want to navigate brambles with 40 kilos of clumsy canine joy – but eventually, I learned to accept it as a gift. If I followed Jake’s lead, I might find myself in a grove of stately pine trees, staring up with him into the swaying canopy. Or crawling on my belly into the undercroft of an ancient hedge. Or taking off my shirt and shoes and walking into a lake to swim, to watch the geese at eye level across the water.

John Muir, the Scottish-American environmentalist, said:

“Of all the paths you take in life, make sure a few of them are dirt”.

Jake would definitely agree.

I’ve been lucky in life to hike the Grand Canyon, in Cappodocian caves, on Icelandic glaciers – but I’m not sure I would’ve said yes to any of those invitations if Jake hadn’t taught me how to walk.

Some people think of faith as merely a list of beliefs you say yes or no or maybe to, but as a Christian, I think faith is more a willingness to walk where I did not plan to go. A willingness to be led into a life more interesting than I can construct by myself: led out of my apartment into the world, out of my head into friendship, off the map into the wild.

Jake died just a month before the pandemic hit, at the gorgeous age of 13. After thousands of miles together, one of our last walks was on a Welsh beach.

Jake wasn’t pulling me anymore; we sort of ambled together across the sand, into the surf.

We looked out across the water again – this time, for that other shore.

Thank you God, thank you Jake: for the gift of muddy shoes, and a faith that life is more beautiful than we can imagine alone.

World Book Day: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 5 March 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Vanessa Feltz on BBC Radio 2. You can listen in here on the BBC website, starting from 1hr13:20 or so.

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I remember packing for a family holiday once, I was about seven, and I filled up my suitcase completely with books. It weighed more than me, but somehow I dragged it down the stairs, ready to go. My mom said: You might need some clothes and a toothbrush?! But honestly, the thought hadn’t crossed my mind. If I had enough books, I knew I’d be okay.

At that age, I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure series popular in the 1980s. In these books you the reader were also the main character. Every few pages you had a couple of choices, each of which would unfold a few pages later into more choices, and on and on until one of many possible endings. The bookcover said: “You’re the Star of the Story!” and I loved exploring all the different paths.

Exploring ourselves – knowing ourselves well – is so important in life, and books can help us figure ourselves out. I remember being 13, nervously pulling a book from the library shelf and reading for the first time about being gay. Or at 19, diving into the Bible and finding ancient descriptions of mind-blowing spiritual experiences like the one I was having 2000 years later. Or at 32, opening the Big Book of Alcoholics Anonymous and feeling like someone had taken pages straight from my journal.

Knowing yourself is important, but let’s be honest: if you’re always the star of the story, it gets boring, narcissistic, even dangerous: if the only information we take in is from people just like us, with the same backgrounds, politics, and beliefs, we risk living in the echo chambers that are killing our society.

Good books help us know ourselves but they also help us know others. I recently read Bernardine Evaristo’s wonderful novel, Girl, Woman, Other, which won the Booker Prize in 2019. In its stories of 12 mostly Black, British women, I was struck again with the truth that we are not all the same, we’re different, and that’s actually a beautiful thing. The best stories always unfold into the stories of others. The best endings are the ones where our differences don’t isolate us but hold us together. Life is not just about me, it’s about us.

There’s a verse from the Bible, about the ways Jesus meets different people right where they are. The verse goes: If these stories were all written down, the whole world wouldn’t have room for the books that would be written (John 21.25).

That’s a lot of books, that’s a lot of life. Way too much for me to fit in my suitcase alone, and that’s a beautiful thing.

The Real Me: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 26 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The Real Me is sort of a weird person, and so I know this is a bit unusual: I see a spiritual director every month. She’s a mixture of therapist, mystic, personal trainer, and general straight-shooter.

For example, she tells me how much God loves me, but in the next breath, how full of rubbish I can be at the same time. The real me is apparently wonderful and also quite a mess.  

But welcome to being human! This is us – we’re a mix of things that don’t seem to go together but actually do. We’re courageous and yet we colossally screw up. We’re luminous but a mere pixel in the universe. Beautiful and broken ­­– not either/or but both/and. And life is about navigating these double-truths. 

I remember experiencing this in my mid-twenties on a gay cruise in the Caribbean. A cruise is not my general idea of a good time, but my then-boyfriend, a jazz singer, was playing a concert on board and I went along for free. Free is my idea of a good time.  

It was a week of sun, cocktail parties, and dancing until dawn on the Lido deck.

One afternoon at the pool, I got chatting to a woman who turned out to be the chaplain on board. When she discovered I was a minister, too, she asked me to help with the worship service that day, which was Ash Wednesday.  

Ash Wednesday’s the first day in the season of Lent, which began last week ­– a time when Christians remember what it means to be real.

And to get started, we mark our foreheads with dirt crosses and, though we’re still alive, we hear the words: remember that you are dust and to dust you shall return. It’s one of those weird double-truths: You’re going to die, but you’ll be okay. 

Later that evening hundreds of folks gathered in the ship’s rooftop bar and we put ashes on each other’s faces. I remember old men in wheelchairs, two women partnered for 60 years, and loads of fresh-faced university students with their whole lives before them. All of us crowded in to mark the glorious weirdness of being human, the truth we’re all facing in these pandemic days: we’re going to die, and here’s to life. 

The worship service in the bar flowed onto the dance floor that night. Our bodies pulsing in the light of the moon, you could still see the ashes on people’s faces, shining in the dark. 

My Biggest Temptation: a BBC “Pause for Thought”

Here’s the text for the 19 Feb 2021 “Pause for Thought” I offered on the Early Breakfast Show with Jane Middlemiss on BBC Radio 2. You can listen to the audio clip here on the BBC website.

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The first time I went to a meeting of Alcoholics Anonymous, I was doing research for a sermon on addiction. From my own experience of active alcoholics in my family, I expected to hear a load of whingeing and blaming other people for their problems. 

But this meeting felt different. Laughter filled the room. I was welcomed, given a coffee. Someone helped me find a seat.  

The meeting started with celebrating sober anniversaries. One guy said, it’s been hard but today it’s a year without a drink. And the crowd clapped and whistled.

Other folks said: it’s been 90 days, or it’s a decade, or today I’ve got a week sober.

I could feel a lump forming in my throat. 

Then people told deeper stories – of what had gone down in their lives, stuff they’d done, what they’d lost, the secrets that were killing them.

But also stories of how things had changed when they found the courage to be honest, when they shared the secrets, when they admitted they had a problem. 

Their stories were diverse, but there was a common theme: everyone who was getting better had realized they couldn’t get better by themselves. They couldn’t make it alone. Instead of blaming other people for their problems, they’d discovered that other people could actually help. Someone said: Welcome to being human. 

That lump in my throat had turned into tears.

A woman offered me a tissue. I said, thanks, I don’t know why I’m crying, I’m not an alcoholic, I’m just here for research purposes. She looked at me, she looked into me, really. She said, okay baby, okay. She knew. 

I knew, though It took me two more years to admit my drinking problem.

But the biggest obstacle to recovery for me was asking for help, learning that I need others.

My biggest temptation still is control freakery. I think I can sort it all out by myself. If I work hard enough, focus, organise, do enough yoga, I can fix anything. I’m a recovering alcoholic, but I’m also a recovering control freak.

But I’ve come to believe that everybody’s addicted to something. If we’re honest, we all struggle with some substance or behavior or attitude that’s just draining the life from us, and we cannot fix it on our own.

But that is actually good news: because it pushes us outside of ourselves. And help is only another human away. 

A post-General Conference riff on Galatians 3

In the wake of the egregious harm being perpetrated against LGBTQ people, over and over again, by 55% of the 2019 General Conference of The United Methodist Church, three brief things:

1. I’ve said it before, but I need to say it again, to reassure all my straight peeps out there. I know that some of you are now wondering, even agonizing: “Is it possible for me to be both straight and Christian? Can I be a practicing heterosexual and a faithful disciple of Jesus at the same time?” Let me just say that though there’s a lot of evidence to the contrary in the Bible and in the world out there, I for one believe that, by God’s grace, it is possible. Don’t believe the naysayers: straight people are beautiful and loved deeply by God.

2. To my queer peeps: remember that not only are we God’s beloved, we are Christ’s own forever and ever – and we are called to lead. Our joy, our awe at God’s beauty, our assurance in Jesus Christ, our Holy Spirit courage and call – the General Conference didn’t give us these things, and so the General Conference can’t take them away!

3. God made us all a promise, and we are heirs – recipients, participants, full-sharers, ministers – according to that promise. So don’t turn back to the margins, or the liminal edges, or the shame of the shadows. No. Live from Christ the Center: cast vision, risk, bless those who need a blessing, bind folks in love, evangelize! And let’s plant a million new Gospel-inclusive churches where people meet Jesus and love has no asterisks and lives are changed. Because we can. Because we are heirs, and so we are free.

LGBTQ or straight, whatever decisions we make in the aftermath of the horrible decisions of this week, I pray that God will help us find, shot through our anger and grief, the space to make our discernment from a place of Christian freedom.

As for me, I’m going to try to take each day as it comes, to keep doing the work that is mine to do, that I’ve been sent to do, and to surrender my life over and over again to the Love Who Excels All Loves, who is the Joy of Heaven Come Down, even Christ our Lord.

May his peace be with all y’all.

#OneChurchForAll
#EvangelicalAndInclusive
#GC2019
#UMC

 

A Church For All

I am praying this morning for The United Methodist General Conference, which meets in St. Louis for the next four days to discuss a presenting set of questions about ministry by and with LBGTQ+ people, which represents of course a deeper discernment about the kind of Church we believe God is asking us to be in general in the 21st century.

(I’m not there. This picture is a rare shot of me crying after a restrictive vote at the 2004 General Conference; one GC is enough for me for a lifetime!)

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I love the diverse people of The United Methodist Church. Through them, God changed and continues to change my life.

My grandparents, Jean and Louis Hall, introduced my sister and me to church when we were kids, taking us to Sunday school at their beloved St. Luke’s UMC in Memphis, TN, whenever we spent the weekend with them.

In my first year of college, a thriving United Methodist campus ministry in Murfreesboro, TN, led by Bill Campbell, helped me personally and consciously undergo God’s grace for the first time. Because of the theologically very diverse friends I made there, I experienced justification and assurance, and knew myself forgiven and freed by God. That experience of salvation, of meeting the risen Lord, gave me the spiritual power, at 19, to unashamedly come out as a gay man and to receive a different calling for life than the one I’d planned for myself.

A United Methodist seminary (hey, Candler School of Theology – Emory University!) prepared me well for ordained ministry amidst scholars and colleagues who were much more theologically liberal than me (hello, process theology friends!) and much more theologically conservative than me (what up, neo-Calvinists!). I wouldn’t have had it any other way.

Three Chicago bishops (Joseph Sprague, Hee-Soo Jung, & Sally Dyck) have commissioned me, ordained me, taught me, and humbly listened to me when I pushed back at their interpretations. Because of them, I have been sent to serve with fabulous people in two established congregations (Glenview United Methodist Church and Holy Covenant Umc), a new congregation (Urban Village Church, Chicago), and now in Britain as a coach and general church staff in evangelism with theMethodist Church.

Life has been an adventure because of the people of The United Methodist Church. There has been joy and pain and doubt and drama and transformation and anger and capital-T Truth. To recall Jesus’s parable, it’s been a mixed field. Welcome to being human in Christ.

And welcome to being an institution. I think the nature of big institutions is that they’re mixed fields. They just are, more complicatedly mixed than even the individual human heart. Which makes them hard to love. And though I don’t know how precisely to say it, I guess I don’t actually *love* the institution. What would that even mean? What would it mean, really, to love a compressed set of political processes and agents called the General Conference? It’s necessary, of course, to have some ostensibly representative decision-making body, and I pray that the Holy Spirit fuels it, but does anyone actually love it?

But everywhere I go, with very, very few exceptions, I love – and like – the United Methodist people that I meet, even the ones I disagree with and who disagree with me.

I desperately want us to change. Since I came out 24 years ago now (!), I’ve been standing on the shoulders of giants and working with so many other sinners and saints for a rGospel-inclusive church, centered in the Good News of God in Jesus Christ and therefore increasingly open to repentance, transformation, santification, and world-changing ministry.

I’m praying for us this weekend. Not just the 800+ delegates, but the 13 million of us around the world – in Africa, Europe, Asia, and North America. That we will speak the truth as we see it in charitable ways, that we’ll ask forgiveness when we have hurt others, and that all of us, somehow together, will be caught up in God’s dream for us and move towards God’s whole will for us.

How Testimony Saves Lives (Mine Included)

Testimony saves lives.

That’s one of the reasons that when people ask me for best practices for starting or revitalizing churches, I almost universally recommend it.

Every week in worship, organize a layperson to stand up and share in five minutes or less what it feels like to undergo God in their own particular skin. Every week, make sure someone who is not the preacher tells a true story of faith, that is to say, an honest personal account of gratitude or struggle or changed perspective or joy or lament or doubt or beauty or surrender or anger or trust or love or anything that finds and searches for a grounding in Christ. Call it testimony, call it spiritual autobiography, call it whatever you want – just start doing it. Every time you meet, make room for diverse people to translate their faith experience into public words.

Because of its capacity to channel spiritual power, testimony has been and still is a crucial part of the pioneering days of many Christian traditions and movements, but it often falls out of vogue as we grow more “refined” or bureaucratic and contract out our fundamental need for storytelling to clergy or other religious “professionals.”

WHAT HAPPENED TO ME

That may be one of the reasons that the first testimonies I heard were not in Christian worship but in the rooms of a 12-step recovery community that I visited one sunny Saturday morning to “do research” for a sermon series on addictions that I was planning.

I arrived a bit late, and as the meeting was in a grotty church basement and as I had a lot of assumptions about substance abuse, I expected to find a fragmented collection of miserables possessed by guilt and teetering on the verge of self-destruction. But instead I was greeted by a happy crowd of people and volunteers trying to add more cheap metal folding chairs to rows that already almost touched the walls of the packed-out room. I saw an open seat and squished in between a young white guy with dreadlocks and a cigarette tucked behind his ear and an octogenarian black woman touching up her lipstick and wrapped in a flawless floor-length fur coat.

After a short welcome, the meeting’s chairperson asked, “Is there anyone here who’s celebrating an anniversary or counting days?” and that’s when the testimonies began. People scraped their chairs back on the dusty tile floor and lined up in the aisles. One by one, they moved toward the front to say phenomenally beautiful things:

“Yesterday I celebrated a year of continuous sobriety,” someone almost sung into the microphone, and the crowd broke out into applause.

“Today I have twenty-five years free from alcohol and drugs” someone else said, to whistles and cheers.

“Today it’s two weeks, and it’s hard as f***ing hell, and I’m just trying to take it day by day, but I’m here. Two weeks.” The already enthusiastic clapping intensified to ovation, and I started to cry.

I was genuinely surprised by the tears running down my face, and off my face, and onto my notepad, smearing the “research notes” I’d taken for my sermon. Why am I crying? I asked myself, but I knew – somewhere deep down, beneath all the calcified layers of self-deception, I knew that these testimonies of lives-in-the-process-of-being-saved were meant to save my life, too.

I managed to pull myself together for the rest of the celebrations. “I’m just here for research,” I said to the fur coat woman, and she looked me in the eyes, nodded her head, and called me “Baby” as she offered me a tissue to dry my face.

The meeting didn’t stop with the testimonies of celebration. My tears continued as two other speakers got up to share slightly longer stories that included not only that their lives had been and were being saved but also what they had been and were being saved from – all the addictive, compulsive stuff that had gone down, that had landed them in the pit where they finally accepted they needed help that they couldn’t conjure by themselves. From relational misdemeanors to serious slips to colossal moral bankruptcies, people were telling the truth – in detail. Stories of waking up next to people who weren’t their husbands or wives in foreign countries where they hadn’t been three days before on the last day they had any clear memory of. Stories of losing their life savings or their jobs or their dignity or the custody of their children. Stories of losing everything. Stories of lying and falling and failing and embarrassing themselves (and many others) in epic or everyday fashion.

Interestingly, while I was crying, it seemed like everyone else in the room was laughing. It wasn’t a laughter that made light of these testimonies or tried to cover over their thick descriptions, however grave or garden-variety. You could easily intuit that there wasn’t an ounce of denial or shame anywhere. Rather, it was the laughter of joyous freedom, fueled by the deep knowledge that telling the truth, a miracle in itself, was the doorway to a life of miracles. The knowledge that God can use even the most ersatz sense of freedom (which is finally all your drug of choice can offer you) to break you out and into the Something More that is shatteringly freeing and truly saving and always, always on offer.

Why don’t we do that in the church?

Probably for a host of reasons: the idol of polished “excellence” in worship, clergy control freakery (I cry “Guilty!”), Christianities that have prioritized the rational or the official or the “liturgical” over the subjective, the false notion that “real” testimonies are only about dramatic events and not the boring, ordinary parts of day-to-day human life, the individual fear of exposure, the pain of invidious comparison with others’ stories and the anxiety that “my story isn’t _____ enough” or “I don’t have a story to tell.”

WHAT CAN HAPPEN IN CHURCH

Make room for testimony and as true storytelling becomes a norm in worship, these negative barriers will begin to diminish. Your community will begin to teem with new verve and potential. People will listen more attentively, as they recognize themselves in the testimonies of others, as they relax into the awareness that they are not alone in their own stuff, both good and bad: Oh, right, she’s talking about me! I totally do that, too. I’ve also felt that way, or wondered about that. I want what he has. Yes!  Laughter, tears, and deep existential rest — all symptoms of the spiritual assurance that can be opened with testimony – will begin to transfigure congregations and individuals that before seemed stagnant or hesitant or repressed.

Make room for testimony and your church’s mission statement about changing lives will no longer only be something that you print in your bulletin every week; now it will be narratively demonstrated every week in people’s stories. And a mission story is always better than a mission statement. Missional power and humility will expand as people come to subjectively experience what they might have cognitively believed (or not) for years, that their true stories are what God wants. Which is why regular lay testimony is also one of the most evangelical commitments a church can make. In my experience, most unaffiliated folks are not that interested in checking out a worship service to hear an unknown preacher’s sermon, but they’ll show up to hear a friend of theirs tell a story. I’ve baptized a number of adults who came to worship only because of a friend’s testimony and ended up sticking around and rather unexpectedly coming to faith.

HOW TO DO IT

So, how do you start a regular ministry of testimony in your congregation? For some longer reading, check out two wonderful books: Lillian Daniel’s Tell It Like It Is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony and Thomas Long’s Testimony: Talking Ourselves Into Being Christian.

But to get you started, here are some basic suggestions:

For church leaders:

  • You can start whenever you want, but some find it helpful to launch a testimony trial run that is framed in a particular season of the program, liturgical, or calendar year. Whenever you start, share in advance with your congregation what testimony is and isn’t and why you’re embarking on such an experiment.
  • Since the first experiences of testimony in a congregation will begin to establish a culture, choose the first 8-10 testimony givers with several things in mind. You’ll want a diverse range of people (age, gender, race, sexuality, etc.), a diverse range of experiences and stories (incorporate the wide spectrum of the human experience so that you don’t privilege one personality or spirituality “type”), and people that you trust to take it seriously.
  • Reach out to these individuals well in advance, tell them what you’re hoping for, and ask them to pray about it. Give them a list of guidelines (see below) and if they say yes, schedule them for a particular worship service. I like to have testimonies scheduled at least 6 weeks in advance so that testimony givers have time to reflect and prepare.
  • Especially if the practice is new for your congregation, offer to read folks’ first testimony drafts or meet up with them one-to-one to encourage them. When they stand up to share in worship, you want them to feel as confident as possible. As the practice continues and deepens in your congregation, you may decide to add an additional one-to-one meeting afterwards, as the experience of testimony often unlocks callings, purpose, and questions in those who give it.
  • You can place testimony anywhere in the service. I personally think it works best in the first half of worship, perhaps before the Scripture reading, so that people connect it to the other proclamations of the Word.
  • Have someone briefly introduce the testimony each week, sharing in a sentence why your church does it, and inviting the testifier up by name: “Here at ___ Church, we believe that stories change lives. So let’s give Demetrius a round of applause as he comes to share testimony with us today!”
  • Have the testimony giver close the time with prayer, or have someone else pray for the testimony giver.

For those giving testimony:

[The following is from an email I send to people several weeks in advance of their testimony.]

Thanks for being willing to share some of your testimony in worship on [date]!

Plan on your testimony lasting no more than 4-5 minutes. The time goes quickly, and written words take longer to speak than we might imagine, so be sure to prepare in advance and to practice.

We’re trying to help people get connected to each other and so we would like to include your email address in the worship program so that folks who identity with your testimony can be in touch directly. If you would prefer us not to do that, just let us know.

There aren’t a ton of dos and don’ts for testimony, but these suggestions may help as you prepare:

1. Your testimony is your testimony. Don’t feel like it has to be like others you’ve heard in worship. If yours is funny and full of levity, that’s great. If it’s more introspective or chill, that’s great, too. A short reflection, a story, a poem that you’ve written or some other media: share authentically how God is moving/active/present/working in your life and you’ll be just fine.

2. We hope that testimonies will share “new life” experiences – a new perspective, a change of heart, a new belief or practice or question, a new community, etc.

3. Don’t try to cram too much in; pick a point or two and let that be it. Remember: 4-5 minutes goes quickly.

4. If you are sharing something marked by pain, we suggest, as some have put it, that you “speak from your scars, not your wounds.” Both scars and wounds are part of the Christian experience, of course, but scars are perhaps better material for testimony as they often include the reflection and wisdom gained by walking through time in the pain, whereas speaking in public about open, current, unexamined wounds can sometimes hurt more than help.

5. Don’t diss directly on other churches or denominations or religions. We understand that we all come from some place and sometimes this includes a difficult religious experience. It’s totally fine to be honest and to reflect on that, but we ask that you not single out particular groups; for example, please don’t say anything like “the Baptist church is horrible and exclusionary” or “Roman Catholics don’t understand” or “Muslims don’t believe in grace.” We want to avoid the potential stereotyping and demonizing of other traditions.

6. Be yourself, for Christ’s sake. You can only be where you and who you are. No need to pretend, because, after all, it’s your testimony.

7. Don’t forget introduce yourself by name at the beginning of the testimony and to close in prayer at the end.

8. Did we mention 4-5 minutes? 😉

So, that’s it. Try it for a few seasons in your congregation, and see what happens as people start to tell the honest-to-God truth, in detail, in public. Church renewal is not guaranteed, but lives-being-saved are.

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