I had been living in Connecticut for about a year when I went out to meet some friends for dinner at a pub-like restaurant, the kind that has a sizeable and busy bar in it. Which is where we stood, next to one of the patrons of the bar, while waiting for a table to open up. Perhaps not quite two sheets to the wind, but very solidly through her first sheet, she took notice of us and began chatting us up. In hindsight, she may have been trying to flirt, but I have never been very good at picking up on that sort of thing. In any case, that ended abruptly when it eventually came out that I was a priest. Her face changed, her attention locked on to me, and she began confessing why it was that she hadn’t been to church in so long.
Another time I was on a late-night flight back home, seated next to a chatty fellow passenger. We made it through the first half of the flight with little more than the occasional exchange of small talk, but as he kept engaging in new lines of conversation, I felt the inevitable question coming about what it was that I did. Upon finding out the answer, we spent the final hour-and-a-half of the flight exploring his own beliefs and Christian faith. Which was sweet, and I really wanted to sleep.
Then there was the time while I was still in seminary, trying to sell a piece of unneeded furniture on Craigslist. While helping her load it into her van, judging me to be a student, she asked what it was that I was studying. I explained that I was in seminary and in the ordination process to become a priest. Her brows furrowed and she immediately launched into a very concerned conversation about whether I was going to have to be celibate. I can assure you that it was as awkward as it sounds.
I tell you this because I am someone who speaks about faith, even my own faith, publicly and professionally, and there are still times that I am hesitant to have that conversation, times when I would rather deflect and steer the conversation to less weighty topics.
I was thinking about this fact during our Bible study this past Wednesday as we tackled this very question. Why is it that so many of us struggle to speak about our faith, to talk about our deepest beliefs, with others—even out closest friends and loved ones, much less strangers?
Because that is, at least in part, what our gospel reading is about. Who do people say that I am? Who do you say that I am? I can imagine the awkward silence in the conversation as the disciples waited to see if someone else would answer so that they wouldn’t have to. I can imagine myself standing with them in that moment, because I have done it in my own life. Perhaps you can imagine yourself standing with the disciples in this story too.
Who do you say that I am?
Sure, at one level, we don’t want to have uncomfortable, awkward conversations with complete strangers, whether it is on the plane, on the road, or at the restaurant bar. But there is more to it than that, right? Aren’t we afraid to speak of our faith for fear of being judged by others? Whether we are afraid that our faith will be made the butt of a joke or because of the more recent re-discovery of the church’s involvement in the residential schools, is our fear of speaking of our faith borne out of a sense of shame?
Or, perhaps we are afraid that if we talk about our own beliefs, then others will perceive us as trying to push our views upon them. We’ve seen what that looks like from certain Christian traditions, of the way it alienates and hurts others, and we are loathe to be seen as a zealot.
Those are the two reasons I most often hear others express, the reasons I most often have felt myself. But I think they only scratch at the surface. If we really dig in and examine our reluctance to open up about our own faith, I think we find that it is rooted in a fear of vulnerability, of sharing with others something that is deep and profound. A fear of exposing to the world an aspect of our true selves.
But if we dig even deeper, if we really examine ourselves and our reluctance, I think that we are afraid of giving voice to our belief, and in giving it voice, giving it the power to change us. I think that a part of us understand that when we answer Jesus’ question, something about us is transformed.
One of the last trips I made before the pandemic began was to Edinburgh, and while I was there, I had a spare day with nothing planned. So, I decided to do something different, I decided to put myself way outside of my introverted comfort zone. I decided to go and strike up conversations with complete strangers. And not casual conversations, but big, deep conversations that get to the meat of things—questions about joys and about things that break our hearts and about our deep hopes. In other words, questions about life and about faith.
It was an amazing and life changing experience. I met a woman who owned a cake shop and café, and as I drank coffee and she decorated a beautiful cake, she shared with me her experiences of being a Muslim woman in Scotland, about the joys of the local mosque community, and the difficulty of city services in her shop’s neighbourhood.
I met a man who was gathering signatures for a petition. He didn’t live in the city, but he loved the city, and had an infectious laugh has he shared his stories of joy. And I met a young man who had built a new life for himself, having escaped abject poverty in his home country. Expressions of loss, grief, hurt, and anger flashed across his face as he spoke of leaving behind his family and everyone he had known. But they were replaced with pride as he shared about the new life he had found in Edinburgh, where he was now the manager in the café and gaming shop where we sat and talked, and serenity as he spoke of the classes he was taking at the university and attending musical performances at concert halls.
And you know what? In these conversations, I found that I was being changed. For one thing, I found that these were no longer strangers, but people I cared about deeply because we had shared something deep. I found that I began seeing the city through new eyes. As I walked around, visiting the places they had mentioned in their conversations, I started seeing glimpses of the world through their eyes, as a tapestry of joy and grief, of hope and brokenness.
But most of all, I found myself growing in a sense of my own faith and my own discipleship. I began to understand that this was the sort of thing that Jesus wants me to do, wants us to do—to become vulnerable and so enter into the vulnerable places of the world so that we may bear witness to everything that makes up our lives and the world around us—all the wonderful and terrible things, to be witnesses in the midst of it all to truth and faith.
Who do you say that I am? Our reticence to speak about matters of faith with others, stranger or otherwise, protects us from uncomfortable conversations, from awkward silences, from unwelcome questions. But it does more than that. It protects us from the beauty of being vulnerable together. It protects us from hearing the profound stories and truths that others have to share with us and that we have to share with them. And most of all, it protects us from being changed by the experience and transformed by the answer we give.
Jesus has asked the question. What will you answer?