I was trying out a new yoga class this past December when the teacher asked if there were any particular areas of focus we wanted for the class. I found myself speaking without really intending to. “A practice that focuses on opening our hearts, on unity, something to ground me in the midst of all the awful news this week.” Realizing I had just exposed much more than I intended to a roomful of strangers, my cheeks flushed red and I added meekly, “and hip openers to help with my running.”
You might remember that week. It was early December, smack in between hope and peace on our Advent journey. Grief over the terrorist attack in Paris had not yet abated when its place in the news gave way to a Christmas party turned lethal here in the U.S. World leaders were gathered to talk about the very real threat humans are to this planet. We remembered a brave woman who refused to give up her seat on a bus 60 years ago and meanwhile protestors marched on college campuses and in front of police departments, reminding us that we have not yet come to a place where no one is judged by the color of their skin.
Tens of thousands of refugees moved across Europe that week and there was a surge of children coming into the U.S. from the southern border, fleeing violence and seeking a better life. And, of course, the undercurrent of political sniping that makes up our presidential election process and highlights the polarization of civil society.
That December week was a particularly difficult one in the intensity and frequency of events, but not so far removed from the events that make up life in this country and the life of the world.
In the face of these complex problems, there are choices to be made in how we go forward as Christ’s church — as individual disciples, as congregations, as a denomination.
Much church-related conversation has, in recent memory, focused on a very real crisis many congregations feel as more and more people do not choose to affiliate with organized religion. This affects congregational viability, livelihoods for pastors and church staffs, systems of health care and pension, and education and training for professional church work. It affects the structures that govern us and hold us accountable. Perhaps most importantly, it affects our ability to proclaim the kingdom of God in tangible ways that make a difference in our communities.
Almost a century ago, Dietrich Bonhoeffer wrote about the cost of discipleship. His time was one in which much was demanded of those who profess to be followers of Jesus — those who seek to bear the message of salvation in a broken and fearful world. Almost 50 years ago, the Presbyterian Church confessed reconciliation as the heart of the gospel and the “peculiar” need of reconciliation in Christ. Today we embrace the Belhar Confession and its witness to the reconciling power of the gospel. Perhaps we, too, find ourselves in a time in the life of the church and the world when much is demanded of us who profess Christ as Lord — a time when Christ’s work of reconciliation feels particularly urgent.
In Paul’s second letter to the Corinthians, he calls us to this work, writing, “if anyone is in Christ, there is a new creation.” Indeed, in Christ, on the cross, God was reconciling the world to Godself and entrusting the ministry of reconciliation to Christ’s followers. We are ambassadors for Christ, carrying on his work of reconciliation.
This is messy work. Theologian Robert Schreiter, in his book “Reconciliation: Mission and Ministry in a Changing Social Order,” names the challenge. Reconciliation does not mean hasty peace. It does not take the place of liberation for the injured nor for the perpetrators of injury. Reconciliation is not a managed process that we achieve just by moving through a series of steps. Rather, reconciliation begins when we experience the power of God’s reconciling grace to break open our old lives and usher new life in its place. It is messy and powerful work.
If we are to set about this reconciling work together in faithful, Christ-honoring ways, there are questions we need to address – for ourselves, within our congregations and throughout our denomination. Certainly there are more, but those that come immediately to mind are these:
- What’s at stake in the mission of the church today? Why does the church matter to the world?
- What does it look like when the community of faith engages in reconciling work in a fractured city or town? What practices make this work possible?
- For what are we willing to give up the past and present form of the church we know and love? For what are we willing to sacrifice ourselves and lose our lives?
- How do we practice the reconciling work about which we preach without giving in to partisanship or confines of ideology?
- How do we give voice to places of sin, brokenness and violence without becoming stuck and overcome by guilt, but remain able to move forward in hope and humility?
These questions need not be answered in isolation. There are leaders, congregations and nonprofits who are already engaged and moving forward in this work. They have stories to tell, wisdom to share, resilience to model and inspiration to offer.
As we seek faithful paths forward in this work of reconciliation — as individual disciples, as congregations, as a denomination — it becomes clear that the we carry the good news we have in Christ in clay jars that are fragile and often cracked. At times we will not know what to do, nor which way to go. At times we will stumble and fall. At times we will lose much. At times the darkness seems too much. But we move forward with an “urgency born of hope” (Confession of 1967) and the promise that Light shines in darkness and will not be overcome.
JESSICA TATE is the director of NEXT Church. The 2016 NEXT Church National Gathering in Atlanta (February 22-24, 2016) will focus on the theme, “Faith at the Crossroads: What’s at Stake? For you? For your congregation? For your community?”