"You are the light of the world. A city built on a hill cannot be hidden. No one after lighting a lamp puts it under the bushel basket, but on the lampstand, and it gives light to all in the house." (Matthew 5:14-15)
I still have the recurring nightmare about the final exam, upon which my graduation depends. Thinking I am prepared, I open a blue booklet only to discover that I am being tested in a language I do not know how to speak.
I try to explain that there has been a terrible mistake, but the proctor's answer is always unforgiving. Sent back to take a test I have no hope of understanding, let alone passing, the number two pencil shakes limply in my sweaty hand.
When I wake up from this dream, I do not have the satisfaction of knowing that this ridiculous situation bears no relation to reality. No, I wake up to recall my real life experiences with foreign language exams that were all too much like that dream.
After studying French for five long years, I opened the booklet for my Bryn Mawr College placement test feeling as if I had never seen any of this material before. Forging ahead, telling myself this was merely a result of nerves, I did my best on the questions and ended up placing into...first year French. I'd like to tell you it's just a test-taking anxiety, but I have the same panic reaction when confronted with a menu.
Given that my college had a fluency requirement for graduation, I decided to try Spanish instead. For almost four years I pretended to be invisible under the back row "credit/no credit" radar, until at the end of my senior year, my teacher suddenly decided to call upon me in class. "Como te llama?" she asked, and for the first time in college, my eyes made direct contact with the Spanish teacher's. Unfortunately, I had no idea what she was saying. What was I going to do?
Now that I am a grown up, I live with two teenagers who have no shortage of criticism for the world in general, but these days their most piercing sneers are reserved for the lip synchers. These are the starlets and rocker wannabees who perform live by merely moving their lips, while a canned sound system provides the predictably perfect music.
Britney Spears and Ashley Simpson are the lip synchers of our day; but in my college years, it was the famous pop duo Milli Vanilli, who tearfully confessed to the media that, while looking like models and achieving pop chart success, they had never sung a note of their own music in public. It was all lip-synching.
At that moment in my final year of college Spanish class, I was about to be similarly exposed as the fraud I was, tone deaf to a language I had devoted years of study to.
"Como te llama otra vez?" the teacher repeated. She was asking me what my name was. After all, given my total lack of class participation, how would she know? But at that time I had no idea what she was asking, only the cold dread of one about to be found out, wondering: do the same stationery stores that make those elegant graduation announcements also produce recall notices?
"Como te llama otra vez?"
"Lillian," the person sitting next to me said. "Se llama, Lillian."
"Gracias," said the teacher to the student who answered on my behalf, and she made a note in her book. And that was it.
My brief brush with conversational Spanish had ended, and I lived to see another credit. Barely. But the nightmares with the blue exam booklet remain.
So what was going with me in that class? A few weeks later that teacher learned that upon graduation, (God willing, foreign language requirement and the creek don't rise) that I was planning to attend divinity school at Yale, which was her alma mater. So she began at the very end of that semester to take an interest in me, which was, needless to say, my worst nightmare. Eventually I had to confess to her I understood nothing that had happened in Spanish class, ever. "I'm like those football players who graduate without being able to read," I said. "Except I don't know how to play football either."
She puzzled over my case, looked at me curiously and finally offered these words of encouragement. "Lillian, you can't possibly be as ignorant, unaware and non-comprehending as you appear to be," she said, in words that I have since decided were meant as a compliment.
"Not even the stupidest person could take all that Spanish and have literally no word recall whatsoever. They must be rattling around in that empty brain of yours somewhere." Again, more flattery.
"I think it's just that in the pressure of the moment," she said, "in the pressure of having someone look at you and speak to you in another language, you freeze."
Her theory seemed to have merit for me.
She continued, "In the moment when you are asked a question, your mind, which does actually contain the words, suddenly goes blank, and you become so flustered that you are rendered speechless."
Which is exactly what happens when you ask some Christians to tell you what they believe about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit.
Suddenly, in that moment, we who have found our feminist voices, our justice voices, our intellectual voices, our public voices, suddenly we who stand in Christian traditions that have historically valued teaching, prophetic speech and intellect, suddenly we forget it all, and we sit there mute. Unable to talk about our faith.
A conversation might go something like this:
So, what exactly do you believe about God, Jesus or the Holy Spirit?
I don't know...what do you believe?
Well, you, tell me about your faith. I mean how have you experienced the living God in your life?
Well, I wouldn't want to offend you.
No, no, I really want to know.
Well, I can tell you what I don't believe.
So what do you believe?
Well, I believe everyone should be free to believe what they want to believe...
And for you that is...
Well, I just said it.
For some of us, our noble and honorable impulses toward tolerance and inclusivity have turned us into spiritual illiterates who, being out of practice, have forgotten how to speak the simple words of our faith.
We who love to talk have a fear of public speaking on the one topic we should be most excited about, which is our experience of the living God.
And so I challenge you. How comfortable are you discussing your faith and your experience of God with another person?
And would you be comfortable doing that in worship? It's called "testimony," and in the church I served, we started doing it, even though it was not a part of our particular tradition, and it may not be a part of yours either. We decided to try it any way, telling our faith stories to one another, in worship, with honesty, talking about God.
Let me be honest, that was not a practice that came naturally to us, but it turned out to be a risk worth taking, as talking about God always is.
I ended up writing the story about how talking about our faith turned our church around, and that book is called Tell it Like it is: Reclaiming the Practice of Testimony. In speaking about my book around the country, I can tell you that there is a common thread I see in the many diverse examples out there of church vitality.
And the thread is this: the church members and the pastors have learned to testify to their faith. Even if their faith is in a universal salvation for all people of all religions, or a faith that calls for justice and welcome of all people in their diversity, they have learned to tell the story of how they have experienced God's grace and to share that story with enthusiasm. That's how churches grow inside and out.
Was God doing something remarkable in that church I wrote about? Absolutely. Were we unusual or remarkable ourselves? Absolutely not.
You could have found another rich story at the church across the street from us, and I know you can find it in your own churches.
You can find God's story in fellowship halls where the tables are old and stained with the sticky red punch of generations of church suppers to the grand impressive sanctuaries with their glorious art, to the church gathered under a leaking roof with a crackling sound system, people are being formed and shaped by the gospel to go out and be the light of the world.
As Matthew's gospel urges, we need to get our light out from under the bushel and overcome our fear of public speaking. Which takes me back to my recurring foreign language exam nightmare, the painful memories of verb conjugation and humiliation, the irony of preaching to you about it decades later. Twenty years later, now living across the country in the Chicago area, I found myself sitting in a classroom at our local community college in a class terrifyingly entitled "Introduction to Conversational Spanish."
I was there with nine other kindred spirits, trembling for a tutorial we both desired and dreaded. After all, you don't end up in a non-credit continuing ed course at the community college because you are already a linguistic genius. Every one in that class had a story a lot like mine. In more ways than one.
As we went around the room introducing ourselves, marveling that ten people who have never met before could all have the exact same recurring nightmare, another common story came up over and over again. In the middle of this secular community college, it was the story of the church.
Some people had been on mission trips and returned with a desire to learn the language of the people they had visited. Another person's church had started a Spanish language worship service, and she had simply wandered in one morning and thought that God wanted her to know these people better.
Others were hoping to go on a church work trip, to a Spanish-speaking country; and in that hope, they were willing to risk returning to the land of their scholastic failures and to try to learn a language once again. That was my story.
At the final class of the semester, we who had begun so nervously now listened to one another's oral presentations on the topic of the speaker's choice. In very stumbling Spanish, I learned about Sammy the black pug puppy, about an Italian cousin who came to visit, about a castle in Germany that looks exactly like the one at Disneyland. Go figure.
I actually understood and followed a lengthy tale about a bird watching club's trip to Ohio to see a Magnolia Warbler en route to Canada; and let me be frank, that's a tale you would have lost me on had it been in English.
I also heard about AIDS orphans in Kenya, an Anglican church in Mexico, and house building projects around the world.
In a culture of lip-synching pop stars and glitzy productions, our little Spanish class seemed remarkable for its lack of finesse, but the fullness of its witness. It soon became obvious that almost everyone struggling to conjugate verbs in the spotlight was there because of a church, some congregation that had called these people to look outward, to look outside themselves and their small worlds.
No more fear of public speaking. The Holy Spirit had propelled fearful adults to get to the point where they could speak to the class in a new tongue.
Underneath it all, it could only be faith that got us in the door that first day.
Against the wisdom of experience, we were back in the classroom that haunted our nightmares, back to those grammar charts where we had all known defeat, but now hoped for victory.
Como te llama, otra vez?" I heard my teacher ask.
And now, because the God of second chances and new life keeps working on me, I could respond. "Me llamo Lillian."
Let us pray.
Gracious God, we know that you are still speaking. Free us from our fear of public speaking that more people could hear from us of your goodness and your love. Amen.