I’ve been thinking about the word witness this week – it came up in light of the recent trial in Minneapolis and the difficult and brave testimony that was given by those who witnessed the killing of George Floyd. I’ve also been thinking about witness amidst the tragic impact of the COVID-19 virus in India right now.
But it has also shown up for me in scripture this week as well. In Luke’s gospel, Jesus appeared to the disciples on the first night following his resurrection and he opened their minds to the scriptures making sense of what they had experienced in witnessing his death and resurrection. And he told the disciples that they were his witnesses to these things.
I came across this word witness once again while studying for a seminary class. According to the author of this book the most famous lines in the Torah, known as the Shema, are:
“Hear O Israel, the Lord our God alone is One God”
and which Jesus repeated. These words are a call to witness.
For two of the letters in this verse, written in the Torah, are in larger letters than the rest, and combined, these two letters form the word for witness. In other words, we are commanded to witness this phrase, to observe, and pay attention to what we see, hear, and experience. That’s what shema means, to pay attention.
My own experience of the word, witness has generally not been a positive one. Too often it has been associated with a bible-thumping kind of convincing others to believe what the witness believes. But this week I began to see it differently.
For the first time, I saw the accent in the word, witness to be on the activity of the Divine rather than on me. For we have been invited into a relationship with God, and as such, have been given the opportunity to witness God’s activity in the world around us. We get to observe it, to experience it, and – like the disciples – to have our minds opened to the reality of it.
How this forms us and shapes us can’t help but have an impact on the world we serve and the cities we love. But one thing I’m pretty sure of – there can be no impact if we have not had an authentic experience that we can bear witness to. This idea of witness is a call for us to pay attention, to observe, to watch for God’s activity and then to give our own unique voice to it.
So, amidst the tragedies and heartbreak, the deep sadnesses and bold hopes in our world’s cities today, let us pray:
Lord, we come to you today amazed and frankly, humbled at Your invitation to be Your witnesses, to observe what You have done as well as what You are doing right now in our midst. Thank you for opening our minds to the reality of it, and for helping us to understand.
We long to have an experience of you today, through this time of prayer and throughout our day. We know that you often come to us, Lord, in the Stranger – may our eyes be open to witness you and to welcome you in those we meet.
We know, also, that you are with the broken hearted and with those who suffer and so we pray for the ability to observe and meet You there, to bear witness to your presence with those who are hurting today. We think of our colleague who has recently been diagnosed with cancer and ask that he might know your presence with him today and we pray for his healing.
Lord, we know that you are present in the cities of this world, in Delhi, in Minneapolis, and in all the cities we love and serve. Lord, help us to see You there and to bear witness to your activity by joining with you in our service and desire to see the city flourish.
And, Lord, we know that you are with each one of us, which can often be the most difficult place to witness your presence. Lord, help us not to miss you today as you are active within us – may we recognize You and may we bear witness to you through our very lives. Thank you for hearing our prayers today and for allowing us to be in your presence.
Barb Marshall serves as a board member for the Leadership Foundations global office and resides in Seattle, Washington.