Friday, February 20, 2015

The Church as Friend to the Community, Advocate to Children: Reflections from Weekend with Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson

"Has the church become so insular, in light of our perceived problems and divisions, that we've missed the opportunities in the global society emerging all around us?" This was possibly the most profound and pointed question posed by Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson, Director of the PCUSA Office of Public Witness.

We were gathered at The First Presbyterian Church of Germantown in Philadelphia for day two of conversations on Race and Christian Witness, a collaborative event hosted by the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Black Presbyterian Caucus and the Presbytery of Philadelphia in celebration of Black History Month. Sunday's remarks built upon a foundation laid by the previous day's challenge, "If we [the church] are still boxing one another at the bottom we will never be able to confront the real and oppressive power struggle at the top."

The pastor, prophet, and social advocate dared us to consider if our church speak and ecclesial debates serve the greater good- the greater good not being the legacy and preservation of bricks, mortar, and polity. Rather, do our church systems and committees, debates and varied theological convictions birth a concern for the greater good of our community and our neighbors with whom we share a zip code?

This may have been the reason Rev. Dr. Nelson shifted the tone of the gathering's discourse and the sentiment of his rhetoric. Better said, the traveling preacher broadened the conversation on reconciliation, frequently limited to black versus white, to include issues of immigration, corruption in the prison systems, violence in our neighborhoods, and the education afforded to our children.  Rev. Dr. Nelson raised his prophetic voice, "If the community with a church on every corner is crumbling, there's a problem with the church.  If there's a church in the community, education should not be a problem. The church has to become again a friend to the community, a friend to the children."

This missional commitment to communal engagement reminds us over and again that our mandate as the people of God is not solely to leverage the church, although there is a proper place for such ecclesiastical work that has now become my own, but more so to work towards the in-breaking of God's dreams for the world.  Disclaimer: these dreams are not for the establishment of some sort of eternal church in the age to come. In the verbiage of Presbyterianism, God has called the church as a provisional demonstration of and to bear witness to the kingdom of God already here and yet to come.*  This sobering reality of the church's finitude should not cause us sorrow, but propel us towards renewed and authentic works of love, justice, and reconciliation. 

Rev. Dr. Nelson was not raising any radical ideas or innovative paradigm shifts this past weekend. I am confident he would say the same. Instead, his powerful preaching was a call to memory and recollection of the church's shared history of fidelity and incarnational labors of love in diverse contexts around the world.

Yet somewhere along the way, likely as the faithful became immersed in the age of individualism, our collective narrative became isolated rituals cemented in doctrinal and governmental systems. Which led to some of the preachers final statements of hope and exhortation, "God can [and will] work through us, but we've got to get out of the cultural mindset of me, myself, mine."

Rev. Dr. Nelson reminded the church that despite an age of decline, we still have work to do.  God is not finished with the church or our missional witness near and far. As long as two or three are gathered...

I am blessed to be a part of the rich heritage and creative spirit that is the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.).  While there is much to lament, there is far more to celebrate.  If we have the eyes to see and the ears to hear, we will find great encouragement and renewed strength in the vast collection of stories, past and present, whereby the church has embodied it's call:
"This community, the church universal, is entrusted with God’s message of reconciliation and shares God’s labor of healing the enmities which separate people from God and from each other." (Confession of 1967,  9.31)
The conversations that took place this weekend are only the beginnings, actually the continuations, of reflections framed for the purpose of participation in Jesus' call towards reconciliation.  The world around us is indeed divided, saturated in racial, generational, economic, religious, political, educational, and denominational segregation. What message does the body of Christ reverberate in a world all too familiar with division and strife? Is it any better?  We can do better.  We must do better. As we fix our eyes on our call as a reconciliatory people who follow a crucified and resurrected Savior, we will do better.

Thanks, Rev. Dr. J. Herbert Nelson. You not only moved our conversations a little bit farther, but also pushed us to put into practice real Christian Witness.

"We have to do something better; we have to do the one thing that is needed.  We have to believe; not to believe in ourselves, but in Jesus Christ...So far as it lives in and from itself it is a religious community like any other, serving the enmity against God's grace...As soon as [the church] looks into itself it finds only a religious community.  But it must not do this."
Karl Barth, Church Dogmatics II. 1 159-61

*I love the old language from earlier edition of BOO, "The Church of Jesus Christ is the provisional demonstration of what God intends for all of humanity." (G-3.0103). Provisional is defined, arranged or existing in the present, possibly to be changed later.