The topics range all over the map... purpose in life, what it means to be truly independent, how to discern God's will, how can we respond adequately to poverty, what is success, who are my real friends...
Yesterday was particularly rich. In the morning over breakfast I talked about what to do after graduation with a student who asked so many good questions. At some point we talked about ministry, grad school, and making a living (quite the trifecta). This then led to a conversation about what it means to make a difference, and how challenging that is to quantify. I shared some things I've been reading recently about justice and mercy, two words I thought I understood. After all, I sang Micah 6:8 in the seventies, right?! Hum along with me...
He has shown thee, O man
What is good and what the Lord
Requires of thee (2x)
But to do justly and to love mercy
And To walk humbly with thy God...
However, this sermon, preached by John Hay, a Free Methodist pastor in Indianapolis, got up in my grill over Christmas break. Take a few minutes to read it in entirety. A few sentences are worth mentioning here:
Most recently, the 2003 denomination-wide (Free Methodist) mission statement includes in the local profile of a healthy congregation: "Every church seeking justice and showing mercy to the poor and disenfranchised." There is no question: the history and challenge of "doing justice" is well-embedded in the denominational DNA. The precedents and practices of "doing justice" are ample. The more pressing question, to me, is this: what range and in what manner should "doing justice" have in the life a believer, pastor, and local congregation as we move into the 21st century?He goes on to break down the separate meanings of justice and mercy in ways I had never really grappled with. He would define acts of mercy as acts of charity, compassion, relief and philanthropy; in other words, they relieve immediate crises and human indignities. Acts of justice look to fight for actions that permanently change social norms and bring about reform. Put another way, they "rectify the crises and indignities that are repeatedly visited upon vulnerable individuals and groups." It's more about seeking to change the systems that create the need for acts of mercy in the first place. Mercy, which is incredibly necessary, is nevertheless more reactive, and justice is more proactive.
Ouch. Maybe I could give myself a B+ on acts of mercy, but whoa nelly, on acts of justice, I have a l-o-n-g way to go. My breakfast companion and I talked through what this could look like in our lives, and we admitted that it is a challenge. Think about William Wilberforce - it took him 50 years to end slavery in England! Yet I can't shake the challenges of this sermon because he calls on the words of Isaiah 58, where believers are called to loosen the chains of injustice, untie the cord of the yoke, set the oppressed free... it is important to feed the poor, but what about transformation of a whole culture? Isn't our God big enough to do that?
Later in the day I met with a group of Westmont students for a new bible study that started last week. We are reading in the Book of Philippians, but the wealth of questions and comments that spin out of the scripture reading (coupled with what they are learning in their classes) are a delight. We talked about what it means to know God's will, and ways we tend to talk about it. There is a lot of "God talk" up at Westmont, obviously, but also within the church, and we spent some time wading through all the standard sayings, looking for real meaning.
I argued that we need to spend far less time trying to figure out God's will for our lives, because let's be honest, we will never know it this side of heaven. Rather, let's just focus on his revealed will, which is summed up in the Greatest Commandment in Mark 12:29-31,
Jesus replied, “The most important commandment is this: ‘Listen, O Israel! The LORD our God is the one and only LORD. And you must love the LORD your God with all your heart, all your soul, all your mind, and all your strength.’ The second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ No other commandment is greater than these.”This brings me back to the breakfast conversation. We can make a difference by seeking after ways to love our neighbor as ourselves by performing acts of mercy and justice. Yet we won't have the strength to do that consistently without loving God with every fiber of our being. We don't have to pray about whether or not we should do that! It's more a matter of getting out of our chair and doing it regularly. What I talked about with both groups is then figuring out what this looks like as a normal part of our lives, rather than just as a spring break projects or a weekend here and there.
For me, it means being where poor people are, and listening. A couple of weeks ago it rained pretty heavily (for Santa Barbara, anyway) and I needed to take the bus rather than get sopping wet on my scooter. There was barely an empty seat as I boarded. I pulled out my earbuds and iPhone for the 30-minute ride, but then for some reason I felt like I wasn't supposed to do that. I put them away and just waited...
Soon I could not help but overhear the conversation in the seat in front of me. Two people who seemed to know each other casually started talking about what they do in weather like this. They started sharing tips with one another about where to buy clean socks, which bus shelters have coverings and which do not, where to buy the biggest burritos for the lowest price... I didn't take long for me to figure out that they were both homeless. My spirit was grieved, and humbled. I was spending my mental energy calculating how to get the most work done in the least amount of time, what to make for dinner that night, whether or not to watch the Lakers game on TV, which CD I wanted to download with my iTunes giftcard... and these folks were helping each other figure out solely how to make it through that day.
I am not saying we can take on all the world's poverty, or even the homelessness of Santa Barbara. But that doesn't mean we don't do anything. I realized I have never even thought about the coverings over bus shelters, or the life-or-death value of clean, warm socks. In the immediate, this requires acts of mercy. But in the long term, it seems ridiculous to just keep putting bandaids on the problem.
Again, I cannot recommend the sermon enough that I referred to earlier. He articulates some very clear, tangible justice-driven responses. This one hits me the most:
We are as redemptively involved in our communities for social reform as we are in our congregations for spiritual formation and revival. Spiritual formation encourages active neighboring as well as service to support congregational life. Volunteers serve local justice concerns in balance with congregational outreach ministries. We see the two as complementary, not competitive or exclusionary.In other words, I hear him saying that we should talk as a church about what we are doing in the name of Christ in our community as much as we are about what Christ is doing in us personally. Sure, it's wonderful that we give away thousands to missions around the world. But what are we doing right here, right now?
And currently, THAT is what I am enjoying the most about these FSE's. These students want to do something as a result of who Christ is in them. I am blessed to know them.
Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves;
ensure justice for those being crushed.
Yes, speak up for the poor and helpless,
and see that they get justice. (Proverbs 31:8-9)