Local churches engaged in Social Justice are on their way to revival

Speaking to a group of Baptists at the recent Cooperative Baptist Fellowship of Georgia general assembly, the Reverend George Mason challenged churchgoers to engage in social justice ministries that help the poor, empower the oppressed, and bring healing to the brokenhearted.

One of the more profound things he said was that if churches did commit to social justice, there is a good chance that more young adults would also re-engage with the local church.

For churches that are struggling in reaching this age group, this sermon was a breath of fresh air.  More significantly, I think Mr. Mason is on to something larger than just encouraging a particular age group to grow closer to God.

pope

.The Catholic Church is recognizing how popular it is to do social justice in partnership with young people.  The new Pope Francis, named after the saint who gave his whole life to help the poor, has revitalized the church, energized people of all ages, and has garnered some unique ecumenical attention.

But the more startling statistics are related to Catholic seminaries.  According to Cathy Lynn Grossman, writing for the Religious News Service, there is a higher percentage of candidates for the priesthood in seminaries than at any other time in the last two decades.  Young people are getting excited about ministry, and local churches are rediscovering their skill sets for outreach and missions.

This trend echoes George Mason’s point, and then some: When local churches plug into the needs of local communities, they are able to join the very presence of Christ already at work in the lives of neighbors and neighborhoods.  It is an ingredient for revival for all age groups and for the church as a whole.

This call to do social justice is reminiscent of the prophetic message of many of the Old Testament prophets and, of course, Jesus.

Micah’s message to Israel in 6:8 was this: “What does the Lord require of you, but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Jesus gave a similar warning in Luke 23:23: “Woe to you…for you tithe mint, dill, and cummin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith.”

It’s not enough to merely come to the building to worship, hear good preaching, and fellowship.  Each and every church is called to reach out to its local community and partner with the community to provide for the needs of the many.  God gives us opportunities to help those in need, and we turn around and give locals the opportunity to help one another.

It’s a mutual partnership of finding where God is at work, not a presumption that we know what people need to meet God.

This is something I learned in pastoral care classes.  Our instructors told us that we cannot assume that we know what people need when they come to us for help.  Rather, most people know what they need.  We need to merely listen and help people find the resources that will best fill those needs.

Doing social justice and helping people in the local community on a community’s own terms is a basis for hope.  It’s born out of a conviction that the Holy Spirit is at work in the world, and that we don’t need to fear the world but join God where God is already at work.

My predecessor here at Trinity, Sonny Gallman, often said, “God is already at work redeeming those in the world; its our job to let people see it for themselves.”

I am delighted that Pope Francis’ leadership over the past few months and my Baptist brothers and sisters in Christ this past weekend have put social justice back in its proper place as a priority for the church.  It is refreshing, vibrant, and Spirit-inspired.

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Finding solidarity with the suffering Christ

crucifix-2-flashAll of us have our own image of Christ ingrained in our imagination.  It’s the image that confronts us when we close our eyes in prayer.  It’s the one representing He whom we worship when moved by a particular hymn or praise chorus.

I raised this idea in a Bible study on the epistle of John.  The epistle, I argued, was basically a commentary on who Christ is: fully human, fully divine–the word, Logos made flesh.  It gives us a vision of who Christ is with graphic language, affirming that “water, blood, and spirit” bear witness to Christ’s work on the cross.

Then I asked the class what kind of “Christ” showed up when they pray.  Many people, myself included, had trouble answering that question.  Not many folks wonder what “image” of Christ their prayers or worship conjures for them in the midst of a spiritual experience.

As a Protestant since childhood, I always had as my image of faith that of an empty cross.  I had a glow-in-the-dark cross on my bedstand to help me sleep at night.  Later, in middle school, Mom and Dad bought me a gold cross to wear around my neck.

There weren’t any crucifixes in my household, no icons either.  “We have an empty cross,” my parents told me, “Because Jesus had been raised from the dead and is alive in our hearts today.”  Perhaps they told me that to make sure that I didn’t turn Catholic (I had been baptized Catholic, and my parents went to a Protestant church only a year after I was born); I don’t know, but it stuck with me.

In high school and especially college, however, when art became important in my life and faith, crucifixes did start to make an impression.  There was something about seeing Jesus on the cross that made an impact on my heart and enriched my prayer and worship.

It’s been years now and I have traveled a little longer down my spiritual path, and I no longer see those two images–the empty cross and the crucifix–as conflicting or contrasting symbols.

I think there are times when we need the victory of the empty cross.  It’s the image that communicates the end of the story, the triumphal finish in which all death will be defeated.  All of us will be raised with Christ.

We also need the Christ who died on the cross and is beholden to it.  We need that reminder that God chose to feel pain, to suffer on our behalf.  We need a Christ who knows how we feel when tears are our only companion, when we are left alone with sorrow because our friends fall asleep in our Garden of Gethsemane.

After the loss of his son to a tragic hiking expedition, theologian Nicholas Wolterstorff wrote that it was the crucified Christ, not necessarily the Risen Christ, who brought hope.  He needed Jesus on that cross to show up because it was that Christ who related to Woterstorff’s own grief.

He reflected on the crucifix, “God is not only the God of the sufferers but the God who suffers.  The pain and fallenness of humanity have entered into his heart.  Through the prism of my tears, I have seen a suffering God…Instead of explaining our suffering God shares it” (Lament for a Son, p. 81).

Facing tragedy in my own life, I admit that I know what Wolterstorff is writing about here.  I too am not ready for the “victory in Jesus” hymn but insist on the Christ who we sing about in “Man of Sorrows, What a Name.”  That man came back this past Monday, in fact, when 13 more victims succumbed to gun violence in our nation’s capital.

It is the crucified Christ indeed who comes to us as one in silence, humble head bowed, eyes and mouth closed.  There are no answers there, but a very real sense of solidarity.

The cross will surely be empty later, but for now I see myself there with Jesus.  He and I, broken and battered, with something profound and meaningful held in common.  And there, through that darkest valley, I shan’t fear no evil, for God is with me.

A new year, a fresh start: The spiritual discipline of confession

The Bible assures us that “If we confess our sins, he who is faithful and just will forgive us our sins and cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9).  With the start of a new year, we have a chance to have a fresh start in Christ as well.

One of the things that attracted me to the Christian faith so long ago was its affinity for second chances.  I, like so many other people in the faith, came to Christ because I knew I was a sinner and feared the consequences of that sin.  I took God at His word: I entrusted him with my life, confessed my sin, and turned toward Him.

But our faith is not just about second chances; it’s about third, fourth, and fifth chances too.  Seven times seven Jesus once said. It’s about continual sanctification in Christ.  Even when we confess our sins, we are still inherently sinful.  That’s what it means to be human and not divine: that we will always be the sum of the best and the worst of who we are as individuals.

Christianity makes room for this dichotomy of fallen and redeemed natures.  We are human, and only the atoning death and resurrection of God’s son can redeem us.  Christ clothes us with His righteousness, and its only by that act of grace that we are saved.  When we come before God’s court of law, God sees Christ on us rather than our fallible selves.

We often forget the power of confession in our lives because we tend to take this salvation–and the grace of God–for granted.  What better time of year to rediscover the spiritual discipline of confession, however, than at the year’s beginning?

Forgetting this power is not new, at least in the Protestant church.  Years ago, when my parents explained why they switched from the Catholic church to the Protestant one, they explained that there was no need for a priest to mediate between God and man.

The Catholics, my parents explained, had to go to confession and have mass every weekend while Protestants celebrated the empty cross and Christ’s act of redemption once and for all.

Now that I am older, I have learned that the Catholic understanding of confession is not as simple as my parents made it seem.  Confession and mass alike can have a powerful, transformational effect on someone’s life.  We Protestants can go to the opposite extreme and fail to practice confession whatsoever.

I realized this when I visited a friend’s Episcopal church last year (and, later on, my late grandmother’s Catholic church).  The Book of Common Prayer, the main resource for worship at Episcopal churches, even has a litany of confession.

One prayer, designed specifically for Ash Wednesday, has the congregation confess to God and each other “what we have done” and “what we have left undone” (p. 267).  No stone is left unturned.

This act of confession is so very meaningful.  It allows us to acknowledge the sin that so easily ensnares us and, in the midst of worship, come to terms with how far we stand from God.

That sense of awe and wonder towards God is something I think we Protestants can gain from practicing confession.  It can be a catalyst for growth and a balm for the spiritual ruts all of us find ourselves in every once and a while.

The book of James says, “Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed.  The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective” (5:16).  It’s a beautiful reminder of the way community can help sustain us in our darkest moments.

This new year, we have the opportunity to come to God anew and confess to Him those regrets that we carry with us.  The adage, “Let go and let God,” is appropriate here, as well as encouragement from Psalm 103: “As far as the east is from the west, so far God removes our transgressions from us” (v. 12).