Thursday, November 08, 2007

Faith in Words

The acclaimed poet and writer Frederick Buechner, in his book “Telling Secrets: A Memoir,” describes an experience he had while teaching as a visiting lecturer at Wheaton College, an evangelical Christian school outside of Chicago.

“One day I was having lunch with two students who were talking about whatever they were talking about – the weather, the movies -- when without warning one of them asked the other as naturally as he would have asked the time of day what God was doing in his life. If there is anything in this world I believe, it is that God is indeed doing all kinds of things in the lives of all of us… but in the part of the East where I live (Vermont), if anybody were to ask a question like that, even among religious people, the sky would fall, the walls would cave in, the grass would wither. I think the very air would stop my mouth if I opened it to speak such words among just about any group of people I can think of in the East because their faith itself, if they happen to have any, is one of the secrets that they have kept so long that it might almost as well not exist. The result was that to find myself at Wheaton among people who… not only believed in Christ and his Kingdom more or less as I did but were also not ashamed or embarrassed to say so was like finding something which, only when I tasted it, I realized I had been starving for for years."

Buechner’s reflections point to a powerful phenomenon, which is that faith is both received and strengthened through words. The old riddle asks, “If a tree falls in the forest and no one hears, does it make a sound?” Perhaps a parallel would be, “If someone has faith and never speaks of their faith, does their faith exist?” I don’t pose this question to elicit guilt among those who are not openly evangelistic; I pose it as someone who is fascinated by the passage of Romans 10 where Paul reminds us that people cannot call upon God (i.e., find saving faith) unless they believe, and they cannot believe unless they HEAR. The gospel is proclaimed in word and actions, to be sure, but without words the actions cannot bear witness to the One in whose name they are done. The Christian faith is an oral life. We sing, pray, speak words of truth and encouragement and exhortation and confession and testimony because we are created in the image of God who spoke the world into being and whose Word was made flesh in our lives.

Many Christians are starving not just for the Word of God articulated in the Scriptures, but for words of and about God in their daily conversations. Yes, I know there is the obnoxious stereotype, the person who references God and faith in every conversation. But don’t let the extreme example dissuade you. Faith comes by hearing (Romans 10:17). Faith also grows by talking and listening and sharing and telling.

The theologian and philosopher Dallas Willard describes prayer as “talking to God about what we are doing together.” It seems that in addition to that, our life of faith should include talking with others about what God is doing in our lives and in the world. Something happens when we put our faith into words.

Friends, talk about your faith, not just so that others will believe but so that you will believe too.


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