“Are you a preacher, then?” The question came from the giant, cheerful, middle-aged man in charge of lining up airport shuttles for wayward travelers. Apparently my destination, a nearby retreat center, gave me away.
“I am,” I replied with a cautious smile. In the four years since my ordination I’ve learned that conversations about ministry are a gamble. They run from gentle encouragement to arguments of why religion is flawed and, on one memorable occasion, even a long monologue on why women shouldn’t be ordained. I considered myself rescued when an elderly couple stopped to inquire about rates and schedules. When it appeared that his attention had shifted I moved away to a nearby bench to wait for my ride.
Suddenly, the man was next to me again. “What do you preach?”
This time his voice was just a little gruff, his eyes probing. I’d like to say he caught me off guard. It had been a rough couple hours. I’d just left my 2-year-old daughter in the capable hands of my husband and mother-in-law for what would be my longest time away from her. My as-yet-unknown colleagues had been told that my flight landed and I wasn’t on it, so they quite logically decided to take a car and go on without me. I was standing in a dark, foggy tunnel surrounded by the noises of traffic and confusion, praying I’d get to the conference on time. All in all, I may have been distracted by my anxiety, excitement and the taste of car exhaust filling my mouth.
The reality, though, is that I probably wouldn’t have answered well under any circumstances. I often find it difficult to talk about my faith outside of church. In part I’m afraid to appear pushy. I am also afraid to be criticized, rejected or disagreed with on the issues I hold dear. So, I fumbled my way through an answer that wasn’t really an answer. I think I said something about not serving a church full-time right now but I was doing a bit of preaching and teaching on a supply basis. I’m quite certain that I talked about my incredible daughter and my decision to take a leave of absence while she was young. In the end, I answered his question, “What do you preach,” at only its most basic, literal level, as though he had asked, “What’s your next sermon title?” rather than “What do you most want the world to know?”
No sooner had I finished speaking then my shuttle pulled up and like Peter hearing the third crow of the rooster I was filled with the remorse that only comes from deep failure. For weeks the question and my lack of suitable reply haunted me. The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on me. I was, after all, on my way to a writer’s conference for a new resource on giving testimony. (Yes, really.) A deep part of me considered calling it quits right then. I wondered, not for the first or last time, why God hadn’t chosen a “talker” for this work.
The undeniable fact is that as Christians, we are called to walk the walk and talk the talk. I believe this is a challenge for those of us who grew up in some modern version of a “social gospel.” We think that actions speak louder than words and that real Christianity lies in what we do, not what we say. At some level, we may even believe that the evangelical tradition is embarrassing or hypocritical. While I can’t find it in my heart to disavow the importance of walking the walk, in that moment I came to the realization that we must also talk the talk. Yes, we must do justice and love mercy but if we fail to share the name of the One who calls us to these things then we fall short. We are not called to acts of charity but to ministry. To engage fully in the work of God we must also share our stories. These are the missing pieces that link what we do with who God is and maybe, just maybe, through our witness others may begin to see God’s presence in their lives.
The opportunity to share our faith rarely presents itself in such a straightforward form. If it happens again, I hope I’ll be ready to say something—anything—that might hint at God’s work in the world. I hope I’ll be able to find the courage to speak about the things that I hold dearest to my heart, the love of God and my calling as a minister.
For now, I hope that God sent someone else to answer the man’s questions, whatever they might have been. I pray he will find what he seeks. I pray, too, for me—for all of us. The world is in need of Good News; may we find the courage to speak.
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