It was the Apostle Peter who reportedly said, "Always be prepared to give an accounting for the hope that is within you." Or, in other words, you never know when you will be called upon to talk convincingly about your faith—so just get ready.
Perhaps no one has bumped up next to this biblical truth more bruisingly in recent weeks than Howard Dean, a Democratic candidate for President and a member of First Congregational UCC in Burlington, Vt., who has been called upon to offer decisive evidence that he's not only a Christian, but a good one.
In response, Dean has earned few accolades for his theological acumen, and his biblical juggling act has left a good deal up in the air. (Sorry, Howard, the Book of Job is in the Old Testament.) Although Dean may spend a lot of time on the campaign trail talking about peace, the poor and the marginalized, the old idiom still has been raised, "Ain't you got no religion?"
To be fair, God's "sincerity police" are bipartisan. For every person who doubts the honesty of Dean's faith confession, there are just as many on the other side who doubt George Bush's religious platitudes as well.
Make no mistake, Bush has made his own fair share of godly gaffs. So much so that Gary Bauer of the right-wing organization American Values, commented in November, "Since everybody agrees [Bush] is not a theologian, he would be much better advised to punt when he gets that kind of question." The Southern Baptists' Richard Land put it this way: "He's the commander-in-chief, not theologian-in-chief."
I think we all have experienced the awkwardness of public religion. In everyday life, just as in politics, the milieu of spiritual competition—"I'm more religious than you are"—seemingly invites critique of others' convictions, especially if we think we smell a lack of them. If someone feels reluctant to reduce life's meaning to a T-shirt-sized slogan or resists the notion of wearing such a garment to the mall, popular religion twists that sort of cowardly (or noble) behavior into some kind of neo-paganism.
But the whole situation does beg the question: Who among us, politician or otherwise, stands ready to talk convincingly about matters of faith? If Ted Koppel asked for an accounting of the "hope that is within you," would you have an intelligible thing to say?
We do need to find our answer, but not to appease some sudden onslaught of reporters and not even to shush the annoying fundamentalist who lives next door. More so, we need to author our own easily-triggered inner response so that whenever the proverbial shoe drops we will have something valuable to which to cling. Our individual nighttimes, more than the nightly news, demand our ready answer. "On thisÉ"—you must fill in the blank—"I hang the balance of my life."
Interestingly and ironically, in the UCC lately, we have been talking a good deal about our denomination's public face. What is the unique calling that rightly identifies us? Over the last couple of years, we've settled on a mantra that seems to sum it up; we're the people who believe in a "still-speaking God." As a church with a fairly impressive track record for arriving early on a countless number of justice issues, experience has taught us that this is true.
But, if we are honest with ourselves, the ultimate struggle is not in believing that "God is still speaking," nor is it in believing that a loving response to God's strong yet gentle leading is both faithful and necessary.
Instead, more than anything else, for religious folk of all persuasions, the struggle is to find within us the words—yes, the words—to express just how this still-speaking God has embraced us and welcomed us home. Anyone who has been called upon to speak about such impossibly beautiful things knows just how difficult a task it can be.
In the UCC, we share ancient and present-day stories of an extravagantly welcoming, justice-seeking, humanity-serving God who invites us to taste freedom and forgiveness. God, in the likeness of our brother Jesus, has come among us. Now, if only our mouths could express what our hearts already know.