These thoughts started a conversation that was had at Lee Memorial United Methodist Church on Sunday, January 21, 2018. The discussion was based upon a reading from Romans 10:8-15.
I have developed a handout to accompany this teaching and, hopefully, further the discussion in your home or small group. You can download it here. Note: the questions on this handout are often different from the questions raised in the discussion.
Chandra, my partner, was perturbed as I walked into the room. She was beginning to raise her voice as she talked into the telephone. Her mother had taken her computer apart and she was trying to hook it back up.
“Mom,” I heard Chandra say with as much patience as she could muster, “everything should be color-coded. The purple end of the chord goes into the purple plug. Do you see the mouse? [silence] Can you find the end of the chord? [silence] Everything is color-coded, plug it into the purple plug!”
It was evident both mother and daughter were getting frustrated. They’d been on the phone for quite some time when I walked in. This same exchange went on for several minutes. “There has to be a purple plug.”
Chandra was now pacing the room. “I don’t know what to tell you. It should be there. They’re all made that way.” There was silence. I think Chandra was trying to figure out what to say next, when out of the blue, her mother remarked, “I don’t see a purple plug, but I do see a lavender one.”
Language is a powerful thing. It shapes the way we see and interact with the world. In her recent book, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes, Dr. Nancy Ammerman, a sociologist of religion at Boston University, challenges the notion that spirituality and faith is on the decline. She even challenges many in her field who presume that as people become more knowledgeable and economically stable that religion will disappear. “There are,” she notes, “too many spiritually serious, well-educated, economically sophisticated, civilly engaged religious people in the world. There is no doubt that the nature and role of religion has changed, but these founding myths of social science [that suggest the death of religion] have run their course.”
Ammerman’s research finds that “everyday life” is filled with what can be well defined as “spiritual experiences.” While institutionalized religion is undoubtedly on the decline in the United States, it appears as if spirituality is still important for a majority of persons.
So what’s the place of the church in such a world? Perhaps, it’s the same as its always been, helping people see lavender.
Religious communities of faith help provide the words for people to see what they otherwise would not. Ammerman writes,
When people do not have regular sites of interaction where spiritual discourse is a primary lingua franca, they are simply less likely to adopt elements of spirituality in their accounts of who they are and what they do with themselves. If they do not learn the language, it does not shape their way of being in the world. They can neither speak of—nor perhaps even see—a layer of spiritual reality alongside the mundane everyday world. Conversely, the more deeply embedded people are in these organized sites of spiritually infused conversation, the more likely they are to carry strands of that conversation with them. It’s not that they have learned a set of doctrines or subscribed to a set of behavioral prescriptions—although they may have done both. It is that they have learned to “speak religion” as one of their dialects.
Words shape the way we perceive and interact with the world. And, perhaps, Paul intuitively knew this when he said that “confessing with the mouth leads to salvation.” Our willingness to engage in the conversation, telling people about the way in which we have experienced the love of God found in Jesus Christ not only helps others see that Love, but also helps us to see it more clearly.
At our baptism, or the confirmation of it, we are asked: “Do you confess Jesus Christ as your Savior, put your whole trust in his grace, and promise to serve him as your Lord, in union with the Church which Christ has opened to people of all ages, nations, and races?” This is, I think, at its most basic level, a call to be in conversation with others about the saving Love of God found in Jesus Christ. It is a call to conversation that we might all—in and outside the Church—become faithful in seeing and serving Christ. The discussion—the conversation about the Divine reality all around us—is important for without it we will not experience salvation.
Have you ever learned a new language? How did you learn it?
If you’ve studied a language, but you’re not bi-lingual, what made learning that new language so difficult?
What if faith is more like learning a language than a set of “beliefs and behavioral prescriptions”?
How might you share your story such that others can see the grace and love of God that has already been offered to them? and teach them the language of faith?
Other thoughts and questions:
- In what ways do you regularly engage in the discussion of the Church?
- In what ways is the church’s gathering a discussion and acquisition of new language?
- Who do you engage regularly in discussion about the things of God?
- How, in what ways, do you carry “strands of the conversation with you” into the world? and help expand the conversation?
- What’s your story? and who are you telling it to? What kind of faith are sharing when you share your story?
 Nancy Ammerman, Sacred Stories, Spiritual Tribes: Finding Religion in Everyday Life (New York: Oxford University Press, 2014), p5.
 Ammerman, Sacred Stories, p301. Emphasis added.