By Andy James, Pastor of First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone, Queens, NY
I first noticed that something was really wrong during the passing of the peace. I was sitting two seats down from the candidate for ordination at his service of ordination, but he did not return to his seat as the service continued with the scripture readings. A few minutes later, the candidate stood before us and announced what must have been his worst nightmare: the preacher was not there! In the rush of other things before the service, her absence had gone somewhat unnoticed, with a general trust that she was “on her way,” but now the pulpit was empty on this very special day.
The candidate rose to the occasion. After his unexpected announcement, he continued to lead us in worship as he told us about why he had chosen the particular texts that we had just heard read. He recounted how these texts told the gospel story in his life and how they reflected his own journey through difficulty and uncertainty to this day of celebration. He offered us his testimony about how God had been at work in him and through him and in spite of him. In the end, this impromptu reflection was the best imaginable proclamation of the Word on this day when we celebrated the ministry to which this incredible servant had been called.
The Holy Spirit was at work that day, reminding us that the high value of proclamation in our Reformed tradition can sometimes leave us without time and space for sharing the stories of transformation and witness that are very real among us. As I reflected on that day, I came to remember the helpful words of CTS preaching professor Anna Carter Florence in her book Preaching as Testimony:
[Testimony] is a way of preaching, a way of living out the preaching life, that the church desperately needs for its own survival and its own identity. It is the source of a different kind of power, a deeper vibrancy, than those in the center can ever know. (xxiii)
In that moment of fear and uncertainty, in that space where we wondered what word might be spoken to fill the silence, testimony was exactly what we needed. Anna goes on later in her book:
Testimony… is the narration and confession of what we know and believe, which is that nothing, not even fear, can separate us from the love of God. Testimony is the opposite of fear-based preaching. It is confession based and experience fueled; it is a Word of liberation spoken in the face of fear. It is true speech that creates life, even at the margins. Testimony reassures us that fear is the System’s favorite weapon, but groundless, and therefore powerless—as long as we do not fear the fear itself. Is it any wonder, then, that as a preaching tradition, testimony has been so neglected and subverted? How close to the Word it must bring us! And how dangerous that is, and always has been, in the eyes of the System! (121)
Wouldn’t it be great if this were before us so much more often? Why isn’t testimony a bigger part of our lives of faith? Why can’t we find ways to celebrate that allow us to speak the reasons for our celebrations? Why don’t our services of ordination and installation strip off the muzzle of the “I dos” and “I wills” placed on our candidates in favor of giving them the time and space to proclaim the myriad ways that God has been at work in their life and ministry? How can we find ears to hear the incredible ways that God is transforming our world in the face of fear each and every day?
At the end of this service of ordination, I know our new teaching elder was incredibly tired. He had faced a long day with more difficulty and uncertainty than he had ever anticipated, but his words and actions revealed to us the power of God’s grace that had been at work throughout his life and ministry and that would continue in him beyond this day of celebration. I hope and pray that each of us who share that calling with him can offer a similar word of testimony to how God has been at work in our lives every time we step into the pulpit, wander the halls of a hospital, sit together to read and study, or gather in the circle of meeting, so that all who hear will be inspired to join yet again in the gift of God’s transforming life in the world.
Andy James is the Pastor of the First Presbyterian Church of Whitestone in Queens, New York, and the Stated Clerk of the Presbytery of New York City. He is one of the founders of LiturgyLink, an online collaborative space for sharing liturgy, and a 2005 graduate of Columbia Theological Seminary. Find and follow him on Twitter and Facebook and at www.bluedrift.com.
SAVE THE DATE! Preaching the Verbs II, with Anna Carter-Florence and Khalia Williams is scheduled for October 24-26, 2016 at the Center for Lifelong Learning! We hope to see you there.