Monday, 28 September 2009

To bear witness does not always mean to be a martyr or a saint ...

Through the Ecumenical Prayer Cycle Christians are encouraged this week to pray for Armenia, Azerbaijan and Georgia. In the Ecumenical Centre chapel this morning Carla Khijoyan and Tamara Grdzelidze led prayers with a simple Orthodox form and some glorious Armenian chanting. They each shared a story from their own culture about what it is to bear witness to faith. Carla, who works with the WCC's migration programme, spoke powerfully of the Armenian genocide, how to be Armenian is intrinsically to be Christian but also to be part of a people driven into the desert, persecuted and today scattered across the nations of the world, but with a strong identity which still seeks to bear witness to essential truths in the present.
Tamara, who works in Faith and Order - among other things on the Cloud of Witnesses project - spoke about the witness of a Georgian Orthodox priest and theologian who lost his life in 1943 in the gas chambers. Not technically a martyr to the faith but someone whose life story speaks volumes of where it is that faith may lead some of us in extreme circumstances.
Each of our cultures has stories of the lives of witnesses: individuals and sometimes groups of people whose tenacity, goodness, powerful words, faith, standing up for what was right, prayerfulness, generosity and much more, speak to others across borders of time and place. We need someone else's story to make sense of our own sometimes. For those stories to speak to us the people do not need to be saints or martyrs to faith, their story has in some way to touch our own. We need to be open to receive from the past and to recover sometimes forgotten stories from the past.
Early in November All Saints and All Souls' days approach and in my Protestant, feminist and certainly not very saintly way I'm beginning to think about how I might meaningfully remember stories that touch my own. Perhaps I need to begin gently making lists of those - both dead and alive - whose witness to the gospel and whose life-stories have touched mine. From year to year if I made such a list it would also chart my personal and spiritual changes perhaps, some parts of the list would remain the same, it would change or be added to in other areas. Theologically this idea speaks to me not of fixed immoveable tradition but of open and evolving tradition.
So who would be the first five women, the first five men and the first five groups of people whose witness have touched your story and spoken to you deeply of gospel faith?