2013 16 August

Testimony – Moderator Gary Paterson

Posted in Steinbach United

I am so appreciative of the many comments and responses to the various blogs I have posted, even though I am not usually able to respond in writing. Thank you for the support and the challenges. I learn a great deal in this sharing of ideas and questions.

I’m never sure if other people have the time to read all the responses that are posted, and sometimes I receive personal emails about the issues I have raised, so occasionally I like to write a follow-up blog that catches up some of what has emerged from a previous piece of writing.

So, you might remember that a while back I talked about a workshop at Naramata where I invited people to share their experiences of when “church” was most meaningful for them. We told stories that ranged from Sunday morning to support groups and prayer; to outreach and service in the community.

One friend was quite critical, worried that we might simply be spending our time sharing “comfy thoughts” instead of taking action, “we should be focused on real problems and what must be done. There is lots of time afterwards for nice thoughts.”

Now, I don’t disagree that there are very real problems facing the church and the world, and that action needs to be taken; if all we are doing is sitting around having “comfy thoughts” then my friend is right to be critical. But the importance of storytelling, for me, is to help us remember why church matters, not just theologically, but personally. “church” isn’t a social club that gets together on Sunday morning and that does a bit of charity work now and then. People are hungry for “real” connection with God, with the Spirit, something that enlivens them, something that truly makes a difference. Telling these stories in our own circle is a way of recapturing energy and hope, as we bear witness to what Christ has done in our lives. As another friend wrote, “I often think of Dorothee Sölle’s comments about remembering being an act that re-members the community (at least I think she was the one to say that.)”

We can sometimes become overwhelmed by the bad news that is facing the church; it helps to remember that good news is also occurring, and we need to talk about this as well; without being Pollyanna-like. Maybe if we become clearer about “why” we gather together as church, about those moments where or when we have experienced life and transformation, then we will have more energy and clarity about “how” we will do church, how the community of faith might take new forms and shapes.

However, another person wrote, “While we’re at it we should tell the rest of the world our small, holy stories too…”; a helpful caution not to keep talking endlessly to ourselves. Yes, we need reminding, re-membering, re-energizing – but our purpose is to share in God’s love for the world, to “tell our stories boldly.” Another friend took this idea even further, saying,

…we need to rediscover the value of testimonials that used to be part of the church’s culture.  Perhaps one reason we are not connecting with folks is that they don’t see the value of a spiritual/religious life because they have never heard the stories of people with whom they could identify. Maybe recapturing evangelism is not by telling the biblical stories but by telling our own stories in fairly specific details, about the change/difference our faith has made in our own lives, so that other folks might see themselves in these stories. Now that would be a radical change in the United Church. I know from my experience in AA that it works.

I remember a story told by a ministry colleague, about a lay person in the congregation preaching about how his faith had supported him when recovering from a heart attack and in living with the scary news that his heart had been permanently damaged; and after that sermon, another man coming forward, saying, “I want to join this congregation – I want…no, I need some of what that guy has.”

I believe that the United Church needs to re-discover what evangelism means for us, not letting that word, that practice, be defined by other branches of Christianity. If we don’t have a “holy fire in our bellies;” if we’re not passionate about our faith; then I’m not sure what our future holds, no matter what structural changes we might bring about.

Finally, another friend made powerful connections between the stories we tell ourselves, and our need to listen to the stories of others, particularly the hard and painful stories of our Indigenous brothers and sisters:

I’m still involved with our (congregation’s) working group for reconciliation (with First Nations peoples) and note that the importance of storytelling and gathering for storytelling is something we share with Indigenous people…. As we get ready for the Truth and Reconciliation Commission gathering here (in Vancouver) next month the thought that resonates in me is the invitation to all Canadians, to all members of the United Church, to be present, and listening and responsive, open to new ways of living together. Or, in the Commission’s words, to be witnesses, to bear witness, to “carry” the story of the past forward in respectful, healthy ways. Always honouring the Creator.

We need to tell our stories; we need to listen to others tell their stories; we need to respond to those stories  –  trusting that they are all being woven together as part of God’s ongoing story of creation – a story of beauty, harmony and complexity; a story of love, justice and peace.