As a follower of Jesus, I feel called to share the good news that I have experienced. It’s news of a whole new way of living and being in relationship with God and other people. It’s a message of an upside-down kingdom, where all the supposedly important people of the world are humbled; meanwhile, the outsiders and misfits get invited to the party.
This is good news that I just can’t keep to myself. It’s a social reality where a life and power bigger than ourselves inspires us to joy, peace and action for justice. This good news is a reality that has to be experienced in community. It must be shared with others, or not experienced at all.
But I have a conundrum. I live in a society that is emerging out of many centuries during which the religious language and symbols of Christianity have been used to conquer, dominate, subvert and oppress. Far too often, the message of Jesus has been twisted. Jesus died homeless, penniless and alone on the Roman version of an electric chair, but he has suffered even more dreadfully over the last 2,000 years as his name and image have been co-opted to support the very types of domination systems that nailed him to the cross.
After two millennia of abusive, false religion, many of us are often afraid to talk about God at all. So much evil has been done under the banner of religion; why not just leave it alone?
In the circles I run in, religion is mostly considered a private matter for each individual to figure out on their own. Bringing our faith into public conversations often feels taboo. Better to talk about your sex life than your prayer life. Safer to invite your friends to go out drinking than to a prayer meeting. Some things are just too personal.
I’m one of those weird ones who regularly talks publicly about God, but even for me it often feels risky to share about what God has done for me. What if they think I am judging them? What if they think I am one of those Christians who hates gay people and supports war in the Middle East? What if they hold a different perspective and my faith experience offends them?
With such a potential minefield awaiting any public expression of faith, flying under the radar can seem like the best option. Maybe I’ll say, I’m thinking about you instead of I’m praying for you. Perhaps instead of speaking out of my own experience of Jesus in my life, I’ll tone it down and make vaguely spiritual statements. Everything happens for a reason.
I notice that vocal prayer is especially daunting. As our public conversations increasingly become no-God zones, it can even feel scary to speak openly about God within our Christian communities. As a newer Christian, learning how to pray out loud for others has felt really risky, and I’m still amazed when we pray for one another in our meetings at Capitol Hill Friends. To explicitly ask the Holy Spirit to come into our lives, heal our woundedness and equip us for positive action? That feels pretty radical!
And it is. Every time we invite God to work in our lives, we are participating in a fundamental restructuring of the cosmic order. But how much more radical would it be for us to take what we have learned in our little disciple community and apply it to the rest of life? If prayer is powerful in a meeting for worship, how much more impact might prayer have if I dared to practice it in my daily life? If the good news is worth sharing in the company of others who are seeking to be disciples, what impact might it make if I shared it with those who would benefit from it, even if they don’t go to church?
I want to acknowledge how intimidating this is for me, and for most of the people I know. I don’t want to be laughed at like Jehovah’s Witnesses or Mormon missionaries. I want people to feel comfortable around me, to think I’m a nice, normal guy. I certainly don’t want to make anyone feel oppressed, or triggered, or excluded. It’s really tempting just to focus on being a good person and leave God out of it.
But then I remember the kind of hell I was living in ten years ago, surrounded by nice people. I remember how desperately I needed to see demonstrated the good news of God’s transforming love, power and justice. In that place I was in, miserable and spiritually desolate, just being nice to me wouldn’t have been very nice at all. I thank God for those who went beyond decorum, who spoke to my soul, shared the message I needed to hear, and invited me into a new family in Jesus.
What has been your experience? Have you noticed a similar private/public divide when it comes to expressions of faith? Do you feel comfortable talking about God with strangers? Praying with friends in a restaurant? Inviting a co-worker to Bible study? Why or why not? Whether it is socially acceptable or not, how can we best be faithful as followers of Jesus?