All my life, I’ve been told that Lutherans evangelize (share the Good News of Jesus) by setting a good example. Our lives are supposed to be so compelling that people will notice our peace and love and joy and simply flock to church to get some of that for themselves. In the 80’s, the ELCA launched a media campaign with photos of a variety of people in their work clothes with the tag line, “You may live next to a Lutheran and not even know it.” We were proud to be anonymous, perhaps as a reaction to the drama of TV evangelists at that time. But the plan continued. In 2002, as a newly ordained pastor, I ordered the latest evangelism DVD, planning to train my parishioners to share their faith more openly in the world. The video arrived, and as I previewed it, I discovered that the entire 15 minute show was void of talking. There was background music with images of Lutherans living their lives, anonymously doing good works, with no reference to how we talk to people about our experience of God’s love. Apparently, we doubled down on our silent evangelism plan.
As I began my training as a yoga instructor, I fell into the same trap. I was comfortable on my yoga mat. I could even feel ok about putting that mat in front of a group and going through my own yoga routine for my class to watch. I felt safe on my own mat, experiencing the power and grace of my practice. I was growing stronger and finding inner peace, but what about my students? When I finally looked up, I realized that several of them were floundering, unsure of what pose I was instructing, unclear about where to fold or stretch or twist. Clearly, I had some work to do.
First, I worked on my language. I had the images of the poses in my mind and the feel of the poses in my body, but I didn’t have the words to convey to others. So I turned to my manual that listed all the steps needed for every pose. I read through the steps, not as a student, but as a teacher. How would I describe that move? Would I use that phrase or would I say it a little differently? As I worked through those decisions, I came up with my own version of the instructions. Then I wrote down my version. I recorded my version. I listened to my version. I began to internalize my own instructions, the description of how the poses work. But I still wasn’t fully ready to get off the mat.
It took a lot of courage, a lot of prayer, a lot of deep breaths to take the next step. I had to leave the comfort of my own practice and my personal experience. I couldn’t stay loftily apart on my mat in front of my students. I had to be with them, among them, beside them. I had to learn how to give instructions and then help them follow. I learned which points on the body could lead to a more extended spine, a more comfortable bend, and a deeper twist. And then I had to reach out and touch the people I was trying to help (always asking permission first.)
And after I had finally developed a close relationship with my students (my fellow teachers-in-training), I got to practice even deeper assists. I learned where to place my hands on my student and how to position my legs to protect my back so that I could give this amazing assist for fish pose that feels like a massage on the lower back. I was helping people, really helping where they needed it.
Today I’m at the airport after spending the weekend with 30,000 Lutherans in Detroit at the Youth Gathering. For the past three days in a row, groups of youth and adults have blanketed the city, cleaning up parks and planting flowers and boarding up abandoned houses with murals painted at the activity center. And the best part is that they were doing all of this alongside the neighborhoods’ residents. Moms and sons, uncles and grandparents, daughters and friends all turned out to partner with these kids in Skittle-colored T-shirts who came to show God’s love. For some of these Lutherans, traveling to inner-city Detroit to help strangers is a stretch. And for most of them, finding the words to share why they would come so far to do so much is terrifying. My hope and prayer is that along the way, they were able to find their own language, their own version of the gospel story, and share it with confidence and authenticity. Because it’s when we get off our mats and out among our neighbors that we truly discover the power of God alive within us, empowering us to share the story of Christ’s transforming love with the world.