Wednesday, October 6, 2010

Vocation in the Languages People Speak in Daily Life

The following is the conclusion of the pre-publication article for "Dialog" journal, the first half of which was the post immediately preceding this one.

Vocation in the Languages People Speak in Daily Life“We cannot keep from speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
So said Peter and John (Acts 4:20). God had used them to heal a lame man and they taught the amazed crowds about this God who gives life. For this they got into trouble, were taken into custody and questioned, and ordered not to speak or teach at all in the name of Jesus. But they would not be silent!

In the midst of our ministry in daily life, we are and will be called into question for the ministry we do, and called to give witness to the hope that lies within us. Sharing the faith needs to be done in the languages people speak all week long. Once in a while someone will simply be passing by the church on a Sunday morning and walk in. Once in a while the quoting of a random Bible passage will bring a person to faith. But only once in a while. Most of the time we will need to meet people where they are. In order to do this, we need to speak their languages, listen carefully to their needs and be able to speak of God’s great love in direct relation to their human need.

Peter and John were able to put into words the ministry they were doing and boldly say in whose name they were acting. They knew the Christ in whose name they ministered. We, too, need to know Christ well. If Christians do not understand the biblical and theological grounding of their faith, they may resort to using mere moralistic tidbits and biblical clichés. We need more than a cliché. Jesus walked where people walked. Not only did he often ask, “What do you want me to do for you?” He called self-righteousness and legalistic judgment for what it was: playing God, not ministry. Sharing Christ at the workplace is not effective evangelism when it is merely an assumption that everyone at the worksite or in the world should be “a Christian, just like me.” Likewise, simplistic religious slogans pass right by a person’s real need. We need to learn to share the faith in the languages of people’s daily lives that communicate to them clearly and effectively.

Ministry of the laity is not primarily about “letting a lay person preach,” but rather about lifting up the varieties of vocations the baptized people of God engage in all week long. This means giving attention all year long to equipping all Christians educationally for sharing the Gospel in words that connect to people where they are. To take it one step further, it is not a question of convincing people to teach and proclaim, but first of all seeing what it is people are already teaching and proclaiming in the daily conversations they are having all week long. What are they saying to their neighbors? Do people understand the faith under girding the decisions they are making? And are they making decisions that promote justice?

So often what we learn on Sunday is disconnected from what we talk about all week. Not that we want to disconnect, but we do not know how to put it together. But if we begin in the languages of daily life we know, we may be able to translate God’s word into the vernacular, into ordinary terms, images and vocabulary, so that we can be the evangelizing disciples of God. Many Christians feel more confident and willing to translate God’s love into action than into words. When people are equipped to speak in their natural languages, they become more skilled with words...and, like Peter and John, willing to speak of what they “have seen and heard.”

Education and Evangelism as a Translating Experiences
Educators know the importance of honoring diverse learning styles. People begin their learning most effectively when they can use their native tongue. When a person’s first language, and the culture surrounding it, is honored, people have a sense of self-worth that enhances their ability to learn more languages. Children especially have a marvelous ability to learn a second, or even a third language. English-only speakers in the United States are at a distinct disadvantage globally, and also in their own communities, in being able to communicate with and learn from people different from themselves. We honor the people we meet by respecting their language.

Even when people in a country or region speak one common language, they may disconnect the terms they use in their ministry in daily life from “Christian” terms. So, we need to willingly listen to and learn from someone speaking their “Monday language” not just their Sunday faith language. Are some farmers? What is the language of agriculture? Are some shop-keepers? What terms of business do they speak? Are some caregivers to families? What are the words they use? Do some people in our communities speak “computer”? Do some talk in terms of relationships? Do some use medical terms? By really wanting to know about the person’s life and their world views, and the “languages” in which they think and speak, we connect with them. Tim works in constructing houses. For him, the term “sheltering God” connected. Jon felt abandoned after his wife died suddenly. Knowing that Christ had said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” on the cross, spoke to his reality. Maria was seeking a new community after she moved to a large city from her small town. Even the way people spoke about relationships was new. She felt both comforted and empowered by the Holy Spirit’s work on Pentecost.

Surely people need to learn about the stories, concepts and truths about God from the Scriptures, the language of the liturgy and the confessions of the church. Biblical illiteracy and ignorance about church history and theology undermines the life and mission of a congregation. Martin Luther was convinced that people should be able to read the Scriptures for themselves, and to worship and pray in the vernacular, the common language of the people. The importance of his translating the New Testament into the vernacular cannot be underestimated. How do we help people read the Scriptures and help them let the Scriptures “read them” in regard to the issues they face all week long? How can we help people translate the Bible and the theology of the church into phrases and concepts that prepare them to think, feel, relate, and make decisions in the languages they speak all week?

Once people are able to conceptualize the faith in the common parlance of family, work and other activities, they will be able to more naturally talk about God in those places. We need to develop a healthy rhythm of being the gathered people of God for worship and for education, and the scattered people of God for mission and ministry in daily life. In order to do that, both places need to be translating experiences. Our Christian education can help people learn the biblical and theological heritage of the faith and help them connect this faith to daily life. Likewise, education for evangelism includes helping Christians listen carefully to the languages the people they meet speak in their daily lives and understand the real needs of people. Once people know they have permission to use those languages and to make those connections, they will never again not make such connections; they will become more effective evangelizers in the broadest sense of that term. This does not mean trying to shape the global society into an image of one’s own country; that’s simply a new form of colonialism. This mean being able to share the love of Christ in a language of love people can understand. In giving people permission to speak and learn in the vernacular, we further equip them for their vocations in society.

Articles of Faith
Beyond their languages of every day life, Christians who hold the same faith speak a common creed using the same words. The historic creeds, The Apostles’ and Nicene, are confessed together in Sunday worship.
The Apostles’ Creed Article 1: I believe in God the Father Almighty, Creator of Heaven and Earth
The God whom we confess creates not only “me,” but all that exists. Cultural beliefs focus on a God whose job, we presume, is to protect me, my family, my job, my church, my country. Rather, in this article a faith community, together with Christians around the globe and through the ages, confesses that they fear, love and trust in the Triune God above all things. Saying “I” we also say that this God is the Creator, the Protector, and the Provider of all. This is grounding for vocation in society.

The words people confess on Sunday need to ground their lives comprehensively all week long. How people translate the meaning, as well as their interpretations of these words, has significant consequences in the decisions they make in the arenas of their ministries in daily life. In every dimension of life, one needs to ask, “What is God creating here? How is God providing? Just whom is God protecting?”

The educating faith community will help people raise questions about this God who is almighty and the creator of all. Where do people stand on the issue of war and peace? Immigration? How do one’s Christian beliefs relate to capitalism? Consumerism? Globalization? Economic justice? The people among whom we minister, whom we lead to be disciples in the world, live inside all of those systems and both benefit from them and oppress others by them. The issues are large, the choices complex. How do you care about people suffering malaria, from hurricanes, from earthquakes near and half a world away? What does it really mean to believe in a creating, providing, protecting God?

Article 2: I believe in Jesus Christ, God’s only Son, our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended into hell. On the third day he rose again. He ascended into heaven and is seated at the right hand of the Father. He will come again to judge the living and the dead.

Jesus Christ draws the faith community into the streets, where ordinary people live and work. So, too, our teaching and preaching is not confined to the classroom or the sanctuary. It needs to equip people for their roles and relationships in ministry opportunities on the streets, at their workplaces, at the medical center, wherever they go all week long. Who is this Jesus Christ in whose name we teach? Where did Christ walk? Or, maybe the question is, “Is there anywhere Christ did not walk?”

Incarnational ministry is a ministry of presence, “real” presence, an active presence that reaches out to engage people in their real-life ministry settings, whether dramatic or mundane. This calls for biblical and theological teaching that can help people translate the death and resurrection of Christ into liberating, life-giving ministry. It may begin with encounter on the streets which can lead to deeper engagement. In saying we believe that Christ was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of Mary, we confess the power of the Spirit at work through human beings; we believe Christ was incarnate, put on flesh and lived among all kinds of people, proclaiming God’s reign and caring, healing, and calling for justice.

His death defeated oppressive forces of sin, Satan and death itself. We confess that the One who rose from the dead and ascended, is still incarnate. We might ask with Mary what in the world God is calling us to give birth to? What are the oppressive, death-delivering powers that need new life? And how is Christ present in the world today so that all might be united in God’s love forever? To believe in Jesus Christ is to fully encounter and engage the world and its people and to minister with the good news of Christ’s life-giving power in society.

Article 3: I believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.
What makes people holy? What does it mean to confess together that one believes in the Holy Spirit? The Holy Spirit brings individuals and whole communities to faith, and, after disillusionment, back to faith again and again. Ministry is rooted in the forgiveness of sins. Life everlasting is not just a ticket to heaven, but new life in Christ lived in community as the body of Christ now.

The Spirit transforms entire communities for ministries in daily life. And those ministries are diverse. The various callings of different people in a faith community may take them in opposite directions culturally, economically or politically. No matter. As the community gathers each time at the communion table, they are restored, strengthened and empowered to go forth to serve in the world as one body of Christ with many members. As they gather for rich, relative and relational Christian education, they are equipped to be the holy people who are not afraid to become involved in the dirt and grime of what may seem like “unholy” work.
On Pentecost, people from many nations came together. The disciples “were all together in one place” and were “filled with the Holy Spirit and began to speak in other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” The amazing message of Pentecost is that the people who had come to Jerusalem all heard in their own language what the disciples were saying. They were bewildered, amazed and wondering, but they heard! The Good News of the Spirit is that the Spirit enables us, too, to speak the Good News in languages in which people can hear about Jesus Christ. “We hear them telling in our own tongues the mighty works of God” (Acts 2:l1). By the Spirit, the Church, through its many and diverse people, can be empowered for vocations of peace and justice in society, locally and globally.