National Public Radio's Krista Tippett was no stranger to the grateful fans who filled a ballroom during the 27th General Synod in Grand Rapids, Mich. If she had her audience in the palm of her hand, they had the originator of the popular weekly radio program, "Speaking of Faith," in the arms of a giant embrace.
She described how surprised the NPR's skeptical staff was with the overwhelming reception of the program in which men and women — many unknown, some prominent in their fields — share their journeys to the center of life's meaning. At a time when several golden-voiced radio preachers have fallen from their pedestals in scandal, "Speaking of Faith" meets the needs of listeners from many religious persuasions and others who reject institutional religion.
"The Terri Schiavo case, that involved a young woman on life support, revealed how politicians and media ghouls abused the privacy of one tortured family and missed the real story of how countless families face the same hard choices," she said. Her program featured a psychologist who described how human beings "are naturally equipped to die. Having accompanied many people as they made their final journey, he believes that the dignity of death is never defeat, but always mystery."
"Speaking of Faith is more about questions than answers," Tippett said. "I believe that faith's territory is the drama of life. It is to be found not in formal statements or creeds but in that part of life that is intimate and personal."
At the same time, she is convinced that how a person lives out a life is important. "The soul needs a trustworthy space in which we can express the meaning of creation," she said. "It is not only what we think, but how we trust our friends and enemies. While our culture denies suffering and frailty, our faith looks for expressions of hope, passion and creativity."
Tippett said she believes that our society is looking for people who connect "grand ideas with messy experiences." She told Synod delegates and visitors that "whatever else you do, you can be a public theologian. We need a new generation of people who work out their understanding of faith in the midst of their lives."
Tippett, from Minnesota's Twin Cities, knows the United Church of Christ well. For a time she served on the board of United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities. Asked why she accepted an invitation to speak at the Synod's River City Saturday, she had a ready answer: "I am convinced that the people of the UCC are very much like my audience. They are thoughtful people, eager to discover their faith as they engage in life, ready to take risks in response to the call of faith."
At the end of her hour-long talk, she seemed to enjoy visiting with the dozens of people who lined up to get her autograph, to have their picture taken with her, and to tell her, as James Hollister did, "You are the reason I bought an iPod."