I heard many words in conversation, story, and liturgy growing up in the church. Some didn’t stick. Others never let me go. Some words dropped plumb lines in my spiritual formation and helped me flesh out the meaning of my faith. Whether it came from the preacher, the parishioner or the parent, my faith deeply seeded itself in one consistent phrase that hooked something inside of me from childhood: “If you are going to be a Christian, you need to walk the talk.”
In my home and community it was common knowledge that the worst thing a person could be called was a “hypocrite.” I rarely heard anyone referred to as a hypocrite, which is probably why I knew it was a pretty bad name. Before I could even explain the meaning in words I had a feel for it and I knew I didn’t want to be one. Matching words with actions was essential to being called a Christian. I didn’t want to be called a hypocrite.
When I was in high school I asked for a Bible because I wanted to find out for myself what Jesus said about the “walk.” My strategy was to find red lettered words because I was told they were Jesus words. The red letters led me to Matthew 5-7, referred to as the Sermon on the Mount. The words talked about how to live in a way that challenged something inside of me. The words helped me to think outside myself which relieved me of adolescent angst and misery. To walk the talk meant that the universe didn’t center around me. The sermon was relevant for how to deal with people I wanted to hate in the hallway fray of high school. It was relevant in ways that put my worries over nightly reports on the civil rights movement and the Viet Nam War into some kind of framework. The things I didn’t understand in the Jesus Sermon I set aside. Plenty of ideas remained that challenged me. They held a tension that kept me thinking about how I was going to have to pay attention to some things in life I just as soon would have liked to forget. For example teachings like: don’t hide your light under a bushel and don’t show off your good works; don’t just love people who love you, anyone can love people who love them, but I say love your enemy; live generously and don’t let the worries of tomorrow consume you today; don’t throw your pearls before the swine and don’t judge others until you clear the log out your eyes.
Regardless of what I learned about the red letter edition later in life, I am grateful for the red sea of words that I waded through as a young adult. They led me into a wilderness of questions for choices I would wrestle with regarding life and what I believed. By the time I was 25 there seemed to be an equilibrium of words, faith and experience that kept my belief system in balance.
At some point life began to tip the scale and what I lived began to impact the way I believed. Two events were weighty in the tipping: the death of a neighbor boy because of child abuse and a young woman who had lived with us showing up at our doorstep after being beaten by her new husband. These experiences led me into becoming an advocate for women and children who had been abused. Sometimes people I worked with wanted to know where I went to church. When I invited them it seemed nothing in the liturgy touched anything in their reality. By the time I was 34 I was still going to church on Sundays but I was becoming more involved in the community and less involved inside the church. My walk in life started to inform my talk of faith. And so my plumb line seemed be shifting. As a youth I learned to walk my talk; as an adult woman I began to talk my walk. The naming of patriarchal systems was an essential component of advocating for abused women. I had no idea how much struggle my female metaphors and experiences would bring me in the patriarchal institution of Christianity. I began to wonder if liturgical language and doctrine were more sacred than God and Spirit.
I went to seminary in 1990. I was 37. During this time mega church models were in the limelight for Church Growth. Their success had identified a suburbia market for the failing church. Books and workshops were developing a message for the suburbia audience that was out of sync with my own focus. Mega churches were successful in marketing a message that being saved meant being right and following Jesus meant investing in a Christian community where one could feel good and safely raise their family. From my lens of advocacy, the promise of “rightness” and “safety” seemed to limit the talk and walk of the church. “Family values” were words that replaced “community values.” For me the covenant, the prophets and Jesus seemed to say that the children of God were not called to come and get a blessing; they were called to go and be a blessing. While the mega church model focused on coming, my call to ministry focused on going.
I was ordained as an ABC minister in 1993 and began to share a vision with 11 other people for a new church start that would be without walls, both physically and spiritually. Wellspring Community Church began in Advent of 1994. We wanted to create a worshipping space on Sunday morning for people and stories to cross back and forth across the threshold of struggle and hope. Without the burden of real estate we were freed to explore the expression of our faith in the communities where we lived.
I am a bi-vocational minister. I study theology in my office but I work it out in my experiences of listening and helping young people who live with the stresses of poverty. Sometimes my theology informs my work; sometimes my work informs my theology. It is a two way street. Several of our church members serve as mentors, volunteers, cooks, tutors and drivers in various ministries that we support. The conversations that come back on Sundays bring a texture to the morning text that has surpassed any thing we had even imagined in the beginning. The language is fluid and dynamic as we practice the talk and walk of faith. Currently we serve 35-50 people on a Sunday morning and 45 young people in Des Moines during the week….along with many other involvements we have in our personal lives from participating in the arts to serving meals at Children and Family Urban Ministries.
As a youth I wrote down Webster’s definition of hypocrisy in my diary: the condition of a person pretending to be something he/she is not, especially in the area of morals or religion; a false presentation of belief or feeling. What one says and how one lives are the companions for authentic faith. The church cannot afford to be lazy with its spoken word. Many people I meet say they left the church either because they don’t understand the Bible and the language, or because people don’t live what they say they believe. It is engaging and invaluable to evaluate if we are walking our talk as well as talking our walk. That old plumb line of not being a hypocrite is a universal hope that we still hear in our culture: the hope that people, especially politicians and preachers, will not pretend to be something we are not or falsely represent what we believe or feel.
When we read to the end of the Sermon on the Mount the narrative reflects on the response of the audience: Now when Jesus had finished saying these things, the crowds were astounded at his teaching, for he taught them as one having authority, and not as their scribes (Matt. 7:28-29). Jesus found words of instruction that were tempered with grace, prodded by love and honed by the reality of life on the margins. His language and ethic surpassed the rigid purity codes that the poor could never fulfill. Maybe that is what made him an authority: he got who they were. He talked the walk and walked the talk so everyone understood the message clearly. He did not try to be something he was not. This goes a long way in our world still. Wrestling to speak the core meaning of faith, rather than the core marketing phrases that fill the pews, is a work that is engaging for me as minister and for a community of faith.