My church recently lost a great man.
Actually, I can confidently say that not just our church, but our community lost a great man.
As we wrapped up sharing memories of him during coffee hour on Sunday, a few friends (around my age) stood wondering with each other. We talked about why we looked up to him so much. It was because he communicated with everyone in their preferred communication style (he bought a smartphone so he could text with the “younger” people). It was because he was so consistent. He was the same gentle, loving soul with his family, church family and friends – even on a bad day – and because he genuinely wanted the best for everyone. “It makes you ask yourself, what kind of person am I?” one of us asked. And then we joked about how possibly he just had some extra God pieces inside of him from the very beginning. Was he a saintly kid too? Or did he have to work at it all the time to be able to reflect God’s image with his life? Which is it? We wondered. Do we have pieces of God inside of us or do we reflect God’s image?
Yes, I am the pastor, but I didn’t have an answer in that moment. As I reflected on that question over the following 48 hours, it seems to me the answer lies in the age-old struggle between faith and works — or maybe grace and works with some Calvinism/Arminian debate thrown in there too. There is danger in ascribing to only one of these. I love to say that each of us has pieces of God in us and that part of being a Christian is drawing out those God pieces in one another, pointing them out, celebrating them and encouraging them in each other. But if we believe that each of us is born with a certain amount of God pieces in us, then we could easily make the argument that some of us are just born more holy than others, and therefore, for some us, we’re never going to measure up, so why try?
I remember leading confirmation at another church I served. On a confirmation trip with our students, another pastor shared with me that he sensed that a student in our group was called to ministry. I prayed over his words and decided to share them with the student’s mother when she picked him up from the retreat. Her eyes got all big and she remarked, “He wouldn’t have said that if he saw him fighting with his brother at home.” The God I know was never about excluding humans from finding their way back to the Divine. Whatever those verses on election really mean, God spent books of the Bible and years of ministry working through Paul to do exactly the opposite: to expand the kingdom of God rather than confine it. We should be grateful for the God-like qualities that we have within us whether they have been there since we can remember or even if our parents remember a time where we were without them. Yet, even if we don’t feel we are naturally kind or compassionate or patient or full of self-control, there is hope!
Yes, we are made in the image of God, but the God of the Bible calls us to act out God’s kingdom here on earth. We are to be active participants in the kingdom of God. And, this implies that we also have an opportunity – a choice – to reflect Jesus Christ … or to not reflect Jesus Christ. When we don’t feel joyful, we can still choose joy. When we find ourselves losing patience, we can reset, take a deep breath and prayerfully choose patience. And when we lack self-control, we can put safeguards in place (other people to hold us accountable, a lock on the cookie jar) to help us build self-control. If we don’t believe it is possible to do a better job of reflecting God’s image – to improve or to grow – then why would we even try?
As a pastor, I am guilty of using both these phrases – “pieces of God in us” and “reflecting God’s image” – but what I am really guilty of is not putting them together. For someone to look at us and see Jesus is among the highest compliments of a Christian. But truly, much of that Jesus in us at any time and place will be God’s grace, and the reflection of God’s image will come from us working as hard as we can to not get in the way of it.
If we believe that this refining process is both God’s grace at work in us (those God pieces) and our work in line with God (reflecting God’s image), then what are we waiting for?
I’m reminded of the dichotomy of Advent. Advent is always a frustrating liturgical season for me because our churches tend to choose comfort (the image of Jesus in the manager and celebrating the birth of Christ in the world) rather than the challenge of the second coming of Jesus. Yes, what made this wonderful man in my congregation such a mentor was that he had both those God-pieces in him and reflected God’s image, but more than that, he lived life as if the challenge of Jesus coming back was always on his mind. He was always honoring others, always serving and always worshipping. It was as if he could never be ready enough, so he was always preparing. As I sit here and shed a few tears remembering his life, I want to focus more on the challenge on Jesus’ second coming. Because, what – or more correctly who – are we really waiting for?
JULIE RAFFETY serves as the pastor at First Presbyterian Church in Franklin, New Jersey. Julie is a violinist, aspiring writer, snowboarder, runner, identical twin and crazy about popcorn.