If you are a teenager:
You can live your faith in a way that will change the world! There is no better place to be - right now - than in the church.
I grew up in the church. My youth minister was a great guy who wanted to talk about what mattered most: What did it mean to be a follower of Christ? How would God have us respond to violence and war? What about sex, or birth control, or abortion, or our relationships with our parents, or what we wanted to do with our lives?
In the end, my friends and I found different ways to express our faith. We didn't all believe the same things, and we didn't follow the same paths in our lives. In fact, in the last twenty years my closest friends from my high school youth group have done remarkably different things. I became a conscientious objector to war, a mission worker and a reservist with Christian Peacemaker Teams trained to do nonviolent direct intervention in situations of conflict. My friend John put in 20 years as a mechanic in the Air Force. My friend Kathy is a physician, and Dave worked his way up and is now a manager in a factory in the town where we grew up. Looking back, all of us appreciate the way that our time together in high school was pivotal in shaping who we have become.
The point is that the choices you're making right now will impact the rest of your lives. What you're thinking about matters. Much of what I learned about community, and about God, and what I came to believe about the world really began to gel when I was in High School.
There is no better place to do the thinking you want to do than the church. The biggest questions all have to do with where you are in your relationship with God, and who you want to be in the world because of your relationship with God. That's the conversation I want to have together!
A message if you are a young adult:
When I was 21, I left seminary because I believed I needed to let God stretch me in new ways. I ended up becoming a Volunteer in Mission working with Central American refugees who had lost everything, or been tortured, or left their families behind to flee the death squads of their countries. I was converted to a new kind of faith. These were people who knew what it meant to lose everything, and yet they still believed that God was their rock. It was a kind of faith that I had never really experienced before, even though I grew up in the church. Over the years as I've re-read the stories from the Bible that I grew up with, I've learned to appreciate God's consistent focus on those who are "the least of these." Further, my own faith has been profoundly enriched as I've tried to be faithful in following Jesus into that kind of service.
Sometimes I've wondered whether the Presbyterian Church is where God calls me to be. If God calls me to be with those who are barely surviving in the service of the global economy, what am I doing in a Church of privilege? If God calls me to stand with those who are oppressed, what am I doing in a church that often seems to avoid any direct contact with people who are in pain and suffering? Worse yet, what am I doing in a Church that often avoids questions about it's own complicity - my own complicity - in the structural sin that supports the grinding violence of poverty?
The reason I'm still here is Mission and partnership. I've traveled all over the world as Moderator of our General Assembly. I've met our church partners in the Congo, India and Pakistan, the Middle East, and all over Latin America. Everywhere I've been, it's been people of faith who are making a real difference in the midst of violence, war and poverty because of who God calls them to be in the world.
People of faith, followers of Jesus, tend not to burn out. They have a way of grounding that helps them avoid the corruption that is possible in any work.
Our church partners in other parts of the world are hard at work answering similar questions in their own realities. Our Presbyterian Church (USA) provides some amazing opportunities to be Jesus' church in the world, like the National and International Young Adult Volunteer programs, or the Hunger Project, or Presbyterian Disaster Assistance, or my own local church that struggles every week to live Christ's example in the world.
Young people can be the leaders who will build the bridges between the have-nots in the world and the many of privilege in our Church. We must move the Church to confront the current vision for economic globalization without conscience. The Church must stand with economic migrants and refugees fleeing political violence who are searching for a way to provide for their families. We need to speak out against the belief that security depends on missiles and tanks when we know full well that security is all about being in right relationship with one another. There is a place in the Church for us, and there is a place for a prophetic Church that seeks justice in the world.
You are disenchanted with the Church:
Here's the thing. Jesus offers a vision of who we can be and how we can find meaning in the world today. Throughout his ministry, Jesus consistently held a mirror before the injustice of the world, and invited his followers into a new way of thinking about how to be in relationship with one another.
We have the same opportunity today. We can follow a kind of hollow, me-first-ism as Christians of privilege in the world today. Or, with Jesus, we can opt for a life of meaning that is about being with those who have nothing: the hungry, thirsty, sick, imprisoned, and the friendless. Those folks are in every community – the challenge is to find room for them in our church.
Even our imperfect church, God's struggling community, does have its redeeming moments. We are with Jesus when we give ourselves to Mission. We are with Jesus when our Churches are involved in real acts of solidarity with the poorest of the poor in our community. We are with Jesus when we are most honest about our own abundance and our struggles to be faithful.
We can be Jesus' church in the world.
You wonder whether there is another way to respond to violence:
Many of us in the U.S. have had to seriously question what we believe since the events of September 11, 2001. Unfortunately, as a society we've been encouraged to find security by striking out against others and by acting in violence. This is antithetical to everything that Jesus taught his followers.
A friend of mine wore a pin this year that haunts me. It says, “When Jesus said to love your enemies, I think he probably meant, ‘don't kill them'.” This simple statement cuts to the heart of my faith, and my struggle to determine what it means to be faithful as a citizen of the most powerful nation in the world. We must have the courage to believe, as Jesus believed, that true security comes from being in right relationship with our neighbor, even when that neighbor is across the world..
We are not going to change our country's military strategy anytime soon. But if we in the Church are not willing to develop alternatives to violence as a way to respond to violence, no one else will. This is the time for our Church to think carefully about how war has changed over the last 100 years. As Walter Wink points out in his trilogy, civilians now die in far, far greater numbers than professional soldiers. It is time to rethink what we believe, and to lead the way out of the vicious circle of violence and insecurity and terrorism and war and rage. We have Christ's example to follow: it will take courage to stand against the wrong-headed responses that we know Jesus never could have supported.
Most of us don't think twice about sending Presbyterian men and women into extremely dangerous wars as soldiers, but it wouldn't occur to us to do the same as nonviolent, unarmed peacemakers. The church must lead the way into a new way of thinking about war and about our security.
All of this is why I've decided to dedicate my energy to the Presbyterian Peace Fellowship. PPF is asking the central questions, doing the faith-based organizing work and inspiring a new generation of Presbyterians of all ages. The challenge is to take genuine risks for peace. There is no more important work in our time.
If not us, then who?
Evangelism seems a little scary to you:
The Gospel is absolutely clear that we are asked to go out and share the Good News of Jesus. The Great Commission in Matthew 28 is pretty compelling stuff. We are commanded by Christ to go out into the world and make disciples of all nations. In Mark 6, Jesus instructed his disciples to take nothing with them as they went out to spread his story and perform miracles. They were to depend fully on those around them, without even a second set of clothes to fall back on. In the book of Acts we find an amazing act of faithfulness as those in the earliest church committed to give up everything they owned, give it to the poor, and depend fully on one another as they went out into the world to build the church.
The bottom line is that its tough for any Christian to avoid the hard work of evangelism. Heres what it means to me.
Jesus is good news for me and for others. Sharing that Good News is not just a momentary encounter to tell someone Jesus died for them, its about building the kind of relationship that leads to long-term commitment and discipleship. Thats why I find Jesus words in Mark 6 so instructive: we’re to stay with those we meet in their homes and build relationships with them.
That kind of evangelism begins with accompaniment, with the long-term commitment to enter fully into other’s lives. In my experience, as I become closer to someone, sharing who Jesus has been in my life is unavoidable. What’s more, as we build relationships, we can be confident that God will work miracles not just in their lives, but also in our own.
I think evangelicals worry that liberals who are oriented toward social justice simply skip over those parts of the Bible that push us to share the Good News of Christ with others. To be fair, most of those from that social justice perspective are anxious because they assume that evangelicalism is kind of a one-shot, take it or leave it affair. Neither characterization is fair.
We are called to build relationships and to share the Good News. We are called to accompany those in need and to live the Good News. Jesus certainly understood how those two things are mutually dependent on one another, although it seems that many of us have trouble making the connections. Jesus Christ is Good News.
That Good News has never been more needed than it is today.
A message if you are frustrated by the false separation between evangelism and justice:
Me too. I want to share a story.
In April of 2003, while I was working at the Evangelical Center for Pastoral Studies in Guatemala, I was invited by a colleague named Veronica Perez to lead the Bible Study at her small, Mennonite, Pentecostal church in a poor neighborhood on the north side of Guatemala City. She particularly wanted me to share some of my experience with migrants on the border between the United States and Mexico.
The small sanctuary was comfortably filled with about 35 or 40 people that Sunday morning. There were a couple of teenagers with a drum set, electric guitar and a key board up on the stage at the front of the room, and, as in every self-respecting evangelical church in Guatemala, there was a powerful amplifier and large speakers on either side of the pulpit. As was the custom at Rock of Salvation Church, we began with more than an hour of prayer and praise. There was never a pause as the worship leader led us from one song immediately into the next. We moved into prayer several times and then would transition seamlessly back into the music.
After about the first 30 minutes, one of the women in the congregation began to cry and wail. It was a kind of a keening sound – truly a lament in the way the Bible speaks of lamentations. She moved to the front of the sanctuary and prostrated herself on the edge of the stage in front of the pulpit, and she continued her weeping and crying. Her pain was so strong that we all could feel in with her.
Almost immediately, some of the lay people, together with Veronica, moved forward to comfort her. They also got on their knees, and they held her and prayed with her while the rest of the congregation sang even more loudly than before. We sang several more songs, at least for another ten minutes, and then slowly the worship leader began to choose quieter, calmer songs. Little by little, the energy of the congregation dropped, and with it, the woman’s crying. Eventually, the songs became a prayer, again led by the worship leader, for the woman and her family. We prayed that God might give her strength and heal her from her pain and suffering, and we prayed with the complete conviction that God would hear our prayers.
Eventually, the woman returned to her seat, and we finished our time of prayer. When it was my turn to lead a Bible study about migrants and the life-threatening dangers they confront where I live on the border, everyone in the congregation remained focused and interested as I shared my experiences.
We talked about their families, because almost everyone in the room had a close family member who had gone north. We talked about the economy in their own neighborhood and the ways their families were struggling, and the pressures on them to give up and head north themselves. Overall, they were more aware, savvy and interested in these issues than the average church or college group with whom I speak in the US, and they had no trouble understanding how to connect the issues to their faith and their reading of the Gospel.
I share the story because although it is common in the Latin American church, it’s not typical of my experience of the Presbyterian Church in the US. Here, we’ve lost the connection between our personal relationship with Jesus and our utter dependence on God on the one hand, and the very real political implications of our faith on the other. Here, most of us have experienced the kind of pain this woman experienced, but few of us would find the kind of deep, spiritual and community support that Rock of Salvation offered this woman. Here, many of us are taught to believe that somehow God cares about our personal suffering without any particular concern for the context – the world – in which that suffering occurs.
In my experience, we have a great deal to learn from the church of the Latin America, Africa, and other places of the ‘two-thirds’ world.
If you have a heart for mission in the world:
I am a product of mission, Presbyterian style. Since 1986, I have served almost three years as a Mission Volunteer, twelve years as a Mission Diaconal Worker (used to be called International Subsistence Service), and four years as a Mission Co-Worker with the title ‘Facilitator for Cross-Border Dialogue.
I believe in Mission through Partnership. That means we work hard to develop relationships of confidence with our partners. It means that we trust our partners to know their context and their needs. It means we state our own needs clearly and recognize and respond gracefully to the imbalance of power that is inherent in most of our relationships with mission partners around the world. Our partners are typically theologically grounded and they certainly know their culture far better than we do. It takes God’s grace and a lot of patience on all sides for us to become genuine partners in building the reign of God.
Mission that begins from the seat of power in our world today is at least as much about how we will be converted by the experience as it is about how they will be converted. Good mission is all about careful listening, accompanying in moments of struggle and pain as well as moments of joy and triumph, and witnessing to Jesus’ radical good news in everything we do.
The United States is both revered and reviled in the world today, and both for good reasons. After September 11, 2001, I had friends in Mexico, Guatemala and Argentina who called me to offer their condolences and to grieve with us as a people. After the US declared war on Iraq in March of 2003, I had many of those same friends contact me to express their outrage and to grieve once again as we as a people defied much of the rest of the world and attacked another nation. Guatemalans said to me, “We know what war really is, and it is never an acceptable solution. There is too much pain, too much suffering.” They were referring to the pain and suffering that we call ‘collateral damage.”
As Christians, we have a responsibility to share who Christ is for us and can be for others, and to live as Christ would have lived. We also have a responsibility to listen and learn from Christians and Presbyterians in other places in the world about how they see us. Holding those things in tension is what mission should be all about.(Link to Rick’s Worldwide Ministries Division website)
If you are a person of power (anglo, male, heterosexual, well-educated, financially secure, etc.):
This pretty much describes who I am, and it means that I have a special responsibility as a Christian to be a committed ally to those who are not born into positions of privilege as I have been. Presbyterian Theologian Robert McAfee Brown once told me about an event where his friend Gustave Gutierrez, A Latin American theologian) was asked what it takes to live faithfully as a Christian person of privilege. His answer challenges me.
Here is what he said:
First, we must find ways to spend regular, consistent time with people who are on the margins. Over time we must develop friendships with folks who are excluded from their communities: religiously, economically, politically. This is hard work and requires a significant commitment for busy people whose worlds don’t overlap with people on the margins.
Second, we must use our power to become advocates for people on the margins. This cannot be done without the first step of developing relationships, because in order to help someone find a voice, or in our attempt to take action on behalf of someone else, we must use great care to assure that we understand other’s needs as fully as possible. Too often, people of power assume they know what is best for those on the margins without taking the time and being committed enough to become close to those for whom they’re attempting to advocate. Put another way, my position of privilege never means that I know more about what someone else needs than that person himself or herself knows.
Third, and perhaps most difficult for most of us, we must be willing to take risks with people who are on the margins. When they ask us to stand with them, we should be there. This is true of workers as they attempt to organize; migrants as they cross borders; prisoners as they seek humane treatment; homeless folks as they seek to be heard; women, and people from the Gay, Lesbian, Bi-Sexual and Trans-gendered community, or people of color when they are excluded in painful ways from the responsibility of full inclusion in the church. The list is long and the work of standing with those who are marginalized is challenging. Each time Jesus took similar risks, he was criticized by other religious and political leaders of his own time. We can expect the same.
If you want the kind of faith experience that claims your heart and soul:
You want the kind of faith experience that claims your heart and soul:
We live in world of pain and hurt. Eighty percent of the world’s population can expect to spend their lives working without end and never getting ahead in order to provide material comfort beyond any reasonable standard to the other 20 percent of us who are born to privilege.
Those of us who are the winners in the world economy today have a painful choice to make. Will we choose to follow a watered-down Jesus who expects nothing of us and who blesses our riches? Or, will we allow Jesus to be Jesus, and try to live into his hard teachings about our special responsibility to live out faith and to seek justice in the world.
There is no meaning in trying to accumulate more and more toys, a nicer house, a more expensive car, or more status in the world. There is no meaning in living as if our only responsibility is to our immediate family. There is no meaning in a faith that demands nothing of us.
There is incredible meaning, and the joy of being part of God’s community, in sharing – even giving away, what we have to others. There is meaning in trying to live with less, to make a smaller footprint in the world, and to learn that we are not defined by what we consume. There is meaning in depending on one another, and in giving our lives to make sure that everyone has enough.
That’s what working for the reign of God is all about.
If you wonder where moral vision and clarity come from in the midst of our diversity:
Moral clarity comes not from rigidly following a set of rules and making sure that no one deviates from those rules. It comes from living in communion with one another, and struggling to determine who God would have us be in each situation. That’s why Jesus challenged many of the rules of the religious leadership of his time. They had become so consumed with the rules that they had lost their sense of what it means to be people of God.
What Jesus stood for is clear. He sought to include everyone in his vision of God’s people. Time and again, Jesus surprised his followers and infuriated the religious and political leaders of his society by opting for those whom others wished to exclude from the community. Jesus built relationships with women and children and tax collectors and lepers and gentiles and blind beggers and the list goes on and on and on.
Southside Presbyterian Church, my faith community for the last 15 years, is one of the most diverse Presbyterian Churches I have ever attended. There are people from all different economic classes. Although there is a majority of Anglos, there are also significant numbers of African Americans, Mexicans, Hispanic Americans, Native Americans, and Asians. Each week there is a prayer in the Native American language of the ‘O’Odham,’ and a New Testament Reading and hymn in Spanish. The preaching tends toward a prophetic voice, and we all know that the heart of the church is the choir, which sings mostly African American spirituals. It’s a wonderful, amazing worship experience and faith community.
However, we don’t necessarily agree on all issues related to our faith, our church or our theology. Sometimes we struggle mightily to reconcile those differences. Every once in a while, we decide that we just need to agree to disagree for awhile, because we value the unity we feel even in the midst of such a diverse community.
No one who reads Jesus’ story can doubt for a moment his moral clarity, nor should anyone doubt ours when we opt over and over again to include everyone possible in the church and the family of God.
If you wonder what it will take to make us feel safe:
We are not safe. In the world in which we live today, we will never be safe until all of us in the world feel secure and we can imagine a future for ourselves and for our children. As US citizens, we must become allies instead of enemies in that process of creating basic security that is extended to that global community.
In a secure world, a day’s wage would be enough to provide for the basic needs of one’s family, everywhere, period. In a secure world, my use of the world’s resources would be appropriate and measured so that I am not destroying the environment where someone else lives, or where our children or our grandchildren will live.
In a secure world, my lifestyle in the ‘first world’ would be balanced and sane so that there can be no perception that my family’s well being has come at the expense of another family on the other side of the world.
In a secure world, or country’s notion of justice would change. As Quaker philosopher/rancher Jim Corbett would have said, we would work for a community built on the values of cohesion rather than community built on coercion. Gently put, we would learn the art of negotiation and consensus building. We would forego the too-easy solutions that come with the threat of a gun.
In a secure world, we would cut out the unbelievable profits that are currently made by providing military, police, prison, and guard ‘security’ to protect us. We would begin to put those profits into the components that really do build strong, safe communities – community infrastructure, good housing, basis education, good health care – and we would work to make that happen for everyone, all over the world.
Helen Keller said “Security is mostly a superstition. It does not exist in nature, nor do the children of men (sic) as a whole experience it. Avoiding danger is no safer in the long run than outright exposure. Life is either a daring adventure – or nothing.” Inspired by Helen Keller, if there is no way to be safe in the world today, I’d rather take a risk on building relationships of friendship than cower behind a wall and a security guard in a gated community, or hide behind 10,000 Border Patrol agents “protecting’ my country’s borders, or hide behind an aggressive military making it possible for my country to consume far more resources than any other country in the world. If none of those things will make me any safer in real terms, then the challenge is for me to risk going into the world to try to build better security.
If you are concerned about the hot-button ordination issues confronting the Church today:
My commitment is to stand consistently with those who are most marginalized and most likely to feel excluded in the world and in our church.
Although honest and committed Christians may disagree, I see in scripture a clear mandate to draw a circle that includes as many people as possible in our community of faith. All of us are imperfect and none of us qualify to enter the kingdom of heaven. In spite of that, the good news of the Gospel is that all of us who believe will do so. By grace, all of us who confess Jesus Christ as Lord and Savior, who feel a genuine call from God, and who are willing to test that call in our community, can be called to serve in God’s Church.
One hundred and fifty years ago, there were committed Presbyterians who were absolutely convinced that abolition went against the authority of scripture and would be the ruin of our country and our church.
Fifty to sixty years ago there were committed Presbyterians who were totally sure that scripture definitively barred women from serving our church as ordained leaders, and that any attempt to allow or encourage women to be leaders would be our downfall.
Today, the issue is the inclusion of gay, lesbian, bisexual and transgendered persons who are serving our church and who have a genuine desire to do so openly. Their service should be welcomed by our church. Unfortunately, I expect that we will continue to struggle about whether they are fit to serve for quite some time. We are, after all, a divided church on this issue.
I love the Presbyterian Church (USA) and I care deeply about people in the GLBT community who love the Church as I do. I will work with them, in a Church that is reformed and always being reformed in mysterious ways by our God, help the Church to struggle with the issue, and to find ways to welcome all of God’s people who desire to serve into the leadership of our Church.
Here’s my bottom line. I am called by God to follow Jesus’ example and to seek justice for those who are most marginalized in our society. This is one instance, among many in my life, where I do my best to be an ally and to stand with people who are most marginalized.
Having said that, we are nowhere near consensus on the issue of ordination for those who are gay, lesbian, bi-sexual and transgendered. We are a divided community. Good people, whom I respect a great deal, disagree on this issue. None of us fully knows the mind of God, and a little humility on all our parts would go a long way toward maintaining a sense of civility in a divided church. Passionate commitment in no way precludes caring relationships with those with whom we disagree.
On interfaith relations:
I am a follower of Jesus. This is more than a statement of belief; it is a way of life. My belief in God and my commitment to follow in the way of Christ transforms my life, and has the potential to transform the world.
Of course, one would have to be completely clueless to miss the fact that many, many Christians, especially those who have great privilege, corrupt the meaning of the Gospel and contort Jesus’ words and his example almost beyond recognition. Further, no thinking person could miss the fact that much of the violence, inequity and environmental destruction in the world today is fueled by religiously motivated people – Christian and otherwise.
So, here is what I will continue to try to do:
· I will do my best to live my own faith in a way that honors a God who clearly desires justice for all people; and I will invite others to do the same.
· I will share my own story and my own belief with those of other faith traditions, and I will listen respectfully and with an open spirit when they share their convictions with me.
· I will seek common ground with every person I meet, and do my best to work energetically with others on those issues where our traditions embrace.
Finally, I’m pretty comfortable with the Presbyterian way of looking at these questions. We affirm that the Gospel is clear that Jesus is the way to a fulfilling and enriching experience of God, and we recognize that we do not fully know the mind of God ourselves. As a result, we do not presume God’s right to extend the reign of God to whomever God chooses.