“Reality, in fact, is always something you couldn’t have guessed. That’s one of the reasons I believe Christianity. It’s a religion you couldn’t have guessed.”
I’m sitting in a Greenwich Village cafe, listening to the sounds of Sinatra while on a canvas-covered chair that tilts slightly to my left because the floor at this windowside table just isn’t level. There’s a massive ivy-covered wall right outside my window, with leaves tilted upwards to face the sun, looking like a splattering of little shelves that would glisten and gleam if they were just given the right sort of light. I’ve been part of a touring musical production for the last two and a half months, and somewhere amongst one thousand five hundred hipstamatic photos is a proper, albeit colored, chronicle of what this whole experience has been like for me.
People light up when they hear I’m touring the world. In some ways it’s a little like winning the lottery–free travel and fine dining across four countries, two continents, seven cities. They sometimes ask how I got involved. The simple story is that a friend wrote it, I signed on to help, and it…grew. The longer one involves a particularly painful night where I volunteered to help on a show and ended up getting cold-shouldered by someone I cared about, a series of online conversations with a friend amidst trying times, finding my everyday life as a mild-mannered techie turned upside down within a month, and one of those moments where you realize that with all your roads before you, there is, still yet, one clear path that calls out for your footsteps.
The difference between those two stories is striking: both are factual, but the second one has far more color to it, far more little fragments that would make no sense to the average listener, yet are indispensible in my own account of how it all came to be. I rarely trot out the second one–proper conversation begs for me to be succinct–and yet the first one always feels inadequate, functional, soulless. Too brief to capture the magic of the story, too constrained by the demands of brevity, and with no help, sadly, from the many tacitly shared understandings between me and my good friends that would actually afford me the right to tell the second and know that they will realize why this seemingly random assembly of anecdotes, this series of the mundane, is actually meaningful to me and to the grand narrative, overall.
And so it is, I find, in my endeavors to articulate Christianity to modern people. The personal testimony, I’ve found, is sometimes recommended to last no less than five sentences and no greater than twenty: long enough to be self-contained, short enough to remain captivating. Or formulaic. I never did get it right–when it came my turn to speak some sort of testimony, one mission trip many moons ago, I pantomimed a man washing someone’s feet and then spoke of a world where that act of humility and service would not just be the royal decree, but one that the king himself would pioneer. Somehow, that felt like the better testimony for me in that moment, the purest articulation of a love so rich that it could use nothing but a tub of water and yet break down the walls around people’s hearts.
As I get older, I’m starting to see that I was onto something. Personal testimony does indeed have its place in ministry, but I don’t think it’s supposed to be some sort of elevator pitch story that’s rehearsed to salespitch perfection. If that’s how it’s done, that’s all it’ll ever be–a sales pitch. I’ve come to think that the essence of testimony is something far grander. It’s the sense of wonder, of surprise, of heartbreaking relief that only comes when we realize how close to death we came, and what it cost to rescue us. Tim Keller has it right when he says that the phrase “I’m a Christian” says little, that what punctuates it is the amazement that the notion of Christ elicits: “I’m a Christian–me! Can you believe it, that someone like me gets the right to call myself a Christian? Me! A freed spirit? A child of the king?”
And so it is–there’s an element of fantastic grandeur in that love that we are given, something that really is unexpected. An end to the tit-for-tat affection reciprocity that underscores so much of our modern culture and economics, and the audacious promise that everything sad in this world, every cry of anguish and sorrow and pain, that everything sad is coming untrue…not in a moment, not in an eternity, but on a subtle yet certain path that is bringing the kingdom of heaven down to this earth. Everything sad is coming untrue…and we are the ones called to take up the shovels, the scalpels, the pencils and the cameras to make it happen.
I’m looking at a wall of ivy, looking at a world of little shelves that will gleam and glisten when they are given the right kind of light.