Five Spiritual Resolutions for 2014: What Elders, Suffering, and Loss Have Taught Me About the Gospel
This past year taught me so much about the gospel and caused me to go deeper into my faith. As this new year begins, here are five spiritual resolutions I learned from last year:
1. Return to the gospel. Gordon Cosby, the founder and pastor of The Church of the Saviour in Washington, D.C. passed away in early 2013. He was a mentor, elder, and spiritual director to me. I miss Gordon greatly and often have things I would like to talk with him about. But I usually know what he would say to me and it would always be about returning to the gospel. In his last sermon, spoken from his death bed, he spoke of Jesus’ “clear and frightening statement that the last shall be first and the first shall be last.”
It’s the end of the year and, as always, a great time to reflect on what has happened over the past 12 months. I’ve been blessed to have so many talented and diverse writers share their voices and views alongside me on the God’s Politics blog. I want to take this opportunity to share some of my favorite posts from this past year with you, in no particular order.
We had so many great posts this year that explored the different facets of our faith. If you haven’t read them yet, make sure you look at:
What Good is a Ph.D. for reading the Bible? by Rev. Dr. Guy Nave
Five Things That Are Holding Christianity Back by Christian Piatt
10 reasons Why Men Should Not Be Ordained For Ministry by Eugene Cho
Women and Girls
Since the 1970s, Sojourners has been committed to resisting sexism in all its forms, while affirming the integrity and equality of women and men in the church and in the larger world. This year we’ve been even more intentional about looking at these topics through our blog and magazine.
Pope Francis is TIME's Person of the Year. But that is only because Jesus is his "Person of the Day" — every day.
Praises of the pope are flowing around the world, commentary on the pontiff leads all the news shows, and even late night television comedians are paying humorous homage. But a few of the journalists covering the pope are getting it right: Francis is just doing his job. The pope is meant to be a follower of Christ — the Vicar of Christ.
Isn’t it extraordinary how simply following Jesus can attract so much attention when you are the pope? Every day, millions of other faithful followers of Christ do the same thing. They often don’t attract attention, but they keep the world together.
Today I had the great honor of saying a prayer at the memorial service for Nelson Mandela, the most important political leader of the 20th century. This was an honor, not only because of Mandela’s stature on the world’s stage, but because he was someone I admired very deeply and personally. His fight for justice and reconciliation is one that has inspired me in the work that we do at Sojourners.
There were several highlights of the service today. There were several choirs, two of which brought each mourner to their feet, clapping along to their versions of Shosholoza and Siyahamba. There were many beautiful speeches and recitations, including a reading of Maya Angelou’s poem for Mandela called “His Day is Done.”
But what stood out to me the most was the homily by Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, Director of the Desmond Tutu Center at Christian Theological Seminary, Butler University. As he paid tribute to Mandela’s life and described his “long walk to freedom,” he punctuated his remarks with “it ain’t over, until God says it’s done,” a quote from Maurette Brown-Clark’s song of the same name.
Saying an opening prayer at the Nelson Mandela Memorial Service on Wednesday, in Washington, D.C. was both an honor and a blessing for me. The theme of the homily, by my good friend Rev. Dr. Allan Boesak, was “it ain’t over until God says it’s done.”
I sat there listening to those words from an African American gospel hymn in the midst of my own circumstance of being on the ninth day of a water-only fast for comprehensive immigration reform. In my weakened condition, I was grateful that I had done the opening prayer and wouldn’t have to do the closing prayer! But fasting focuses you and it made me consider how Nelson Mandela would feel about a broken immigration system that is shattering the lives of 11 million immigrants, separating parents from children, and undermining the best values of our nation.
In our nightly meeting at what is now a packed fasting tent, I could imagine Nelson Mandela there with us, telling us to never give up until we win this victory for so many vulnerable people reminding us, "it ain’t over until God says it’s done." Or, as he would tell cynical pundits and politicians, “it is always impossible until it is done.” Today, following a procession from the Capitol which will now include many members of Congress, we will go to that tent and proclaim that immigration reform is not over, and we won’t give up until it’s done.
Editor's Note: New Vision Renewable Energy connects Christians with opportunities to provide renewable solar lights to people in the developing world. Their Christmas Lights Advent Devotional features daily readings and questions from prominent Christian thinkers, including Sojourners president Jim Wallis. This Day 10 of Advent devotional from Jim Wallis is reprinted and adapted with permission of New Vision Renewable Energy. You can find the full Christmas Lights Advent Devotional guide and solar light kits here: http://nvre.org/devotional-order.html
Proclaiming Jesus as light of the world is an audacious statement. It directly challenges all those idols that persistently attempt to replace God as the center of our lives and our world. In our culture, a selfishness that denies any obligation to anyone or anything beyond our own self-interest may be the greatest idol of all. It denies that demanding more and more energy at great cost to our environment and the people who live close to the land has problematic consequences. We have lost sight of the common good and the consequences have been devastating.
In many places, hope has turned into despair. Darkness seems to be crowding out light. From where will our help come from?
When racism is tolerated, the reconciling work of Christ on the cross is contradicted.
(Editors Note: This post contains updates from Jim Wallis as he experiences the "Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship," taking place on the National Mall.)
Dec. 10: This is the eighth day of the water fast for me and the 30th day of the Fast for Families with many people coming to participate in the tent — almost 200 so far.
This has become a very spiritual place, even a holy place. And when people come here, including members of Congress, senators, faith leaders, celebrities, heads of organizations, and so many “ordinary” people, and undocumented immigrants themselves, the stories being told are changing people’s minds and hearts.
To join Jim Wallis in prayer and fasting, click here.
I was grateful to be at the beginning of the Fast for Families on November 12. Courageous leaders from many communities were making an incredible sacrifice to remind our leaders what is really at stake in the fight for immigration reform. It was an honor to commission the core fasters, such as my Sojourners’ colleague Lisa Sharon Harper and Eliseo Medina, a veteran organizer and a disciple of Cesar Chavez, by placing crosses around their necks as they began abstaining from food.
After 22 days, the core fasters had grown weak, nearing the point of medical danger. When they decided to pass the fast to a new group, I was humbled to join the effort this way. On Tuesday, in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol, I received the cross from Eliseo that I had given to him three weeks before.
At Tuesday’s ceremony, each of us shared why we were committing to this discipline and willing to subsist only on water for various lengths of time.
Feast with Your Family this Thanksgiving; Then Fast with Us Next Week -- for Families in Great Distress
The debate about immigration reform has been very productive in America over these past several years. And that debate has been won — by those who favor a common sense agenda for reform.
Two out of every three Americans now favor fixing our broken immigration system — two out of three! According to a recent report by the Public Religion Research Institute, 65 percent of Americans say that the U.S. immigration system is either completely or mostly broken. That same report found that 63 percent of Americans favor immigration reform that creates a pathway to citizenship, crossing party and religious lines. 60 percent of Republicans, 57 percent of independents, and 73 percent of Democrats favor a pathway to citizenship.
However, a minority of lawmakers — almost all white legislators in artificially gerrymandered white Congressional districts — is blocking a democratic vote on immigration reform. The Senate has already passed a bipartisan bill to reform the immigration system; written and forged by an impressive coalition of Republican and Democratic Senate leaders. And if a similar bill was put to a vote in the House of Representatives, it would also pass.
Last week, a controversy erupted over Twitter when it came to light that a prominent evangelical conference with 110 speakers only had four women on stage.
Journalist Jonathan Merritt, did a quick informal study and discovered that out of 34 prominent evangelical conferences, only 19 percent of speakers at plenary sessions were women.
This is a problem.
As a white male evangelical and a black female evangelical who spend a lot of time speaking at conferences, events, and college campuses, we know from experience this is a problem.
Conference spaces have become one of the primary discipleship spaces for evangelicals. These are the spaces where evangelicals go to learn all that it means to be a follower of Jesus.
Business leaders, law enforcement officials, and evangelical Christians—key constituencies that are typically part of the Republican base—have been at the forefront of immigration reform. Given the obvious benefits of, and broad public support for, immigration reform, why are many arch-conservatives in the House of Representatives refusing to address the issue in a serious way? The answer may point to an issue that we still hesitate to talk about directly: race.
Fixing our broken immigration system would grow our economy and reduce the deficit. It would establish a workable visa system that ensures enough workers with “status” to meet employers’ demands. It would end the painful practice of tearing families and communities apart through deportations and bring parents and children out of the shadows of danger and exploitation. And it would allow undocumented immigrants—some of whom even have children serving in the U.S. military—to have not “amnesty,” but a rigorous pathway toward earned citizenship that starts at the end of the line of applicants. Again, why is there such strident opposition when the vast majority of the country is now in favor of reform?
When I asked a Republican senator this question, he was surprisingly honest: “Fear,” he said. Fear of an American future that looks different from the present.
(Editors Note: On Nov. 12, faith, immigrant rights, and labor leaders launched the “Fast for Families: A Call for Immigration Reform and Citizenship,” taking place on the National Mall. The following remarks are from Jim's speech given at the event.)
Despite the overwhelming public support — among all political stripes — to fix our broken immigration system, Washington's utter political dysfunction is blocking change.
It is time to pray and fast for a change that now feels like a "miracle." And that's what we now pray for. Pray against the racial fears and messages that are being used against immigration reform. Pray for courage and character on all sides — for Republicans who believe in an inclusive party and nation to stand up to Republicans who want an exclusive party and nation and for Democrats not to use this as a political issue for their self-interest. Pray for political leaders to do what few of them do well — to put other people's needs, especially poor and vulnerable people's needs, ahead of their own political agendas.
In the Hebrew and Christian scriptures, there is a Psalm that proclaims: “the earth is the Lord’s and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it” (Psalm 24:1). There is no part of this world that God is not aware of, cannot lay claim to, and does not rule. Christians affirm that as people of faith we’re called to be stewards over creation, answering one day for how we’ve treated the earth.
And part of that stewardship means understanding how this world works and what it needs in order to thrive. Unfortunately the din of our political ideologies has too often drowned out the biblical calling to care for creation.
In Texas, the State Board of Education will recommend new textbooks for all its students—and because it has such a large population, what they decide could determine what students in other states learn about science. There are several ideologues submitting textbook critiques to the board and their reviews will factor into each book’s overall score and likelihood of being approved by the school board. These ideologues could block the use of textbooks that teach the reality of climate change for the whole country’s public school students.
To feel the pain of the world is to participate in the very heart of God.
For many, including myself, the past few weeks have been discouraging, given the state of our politics and culture and what many vulnerable people across the country are experiencing. But despite the frustration and even grief sometimes I have been reminded of the importance of “saving faith.”
My favorite Twitter response last week said this, “If all American Christians behaved as you do, I wouldn’t have to be such a huge a**hole of an atheist.” (Edits mine.) It came in response to a column I wrote about the new film, 12 Years A Slave (see it if you haven’t yet!), the continuing realities of racism in America that we still tolerate, and the need for churches to provide leadership in the changing demographics of the country by becoming the multiracial faith communities we were intended to be.
The week before saw many of faith leaders, pastors, and young people out in the rain at the U.S. Capitol during the government shutdown in a “Faithful Filibuster,” reading each day through the 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak of how we should treat the poor and vulnerable. One of those nights a family friend, the father of one of the boys I have coached in Little League baseball, came over to our house. He said, “You know I am an atheist, but I really admire what you are doing at the Capitol — that’s what Christians ought to be doing.”
Right after the government shutdown ended, Sojourners had our annual staff orientation. The program included each staff member telling their story of when and why they came to join us. Listening carefully, I was struck by how many Sojourners staffers recalled times in their lives when they were about to lose their faith, but rediscovered it after stumbling upon Sojourners. In my remarks to them that day, I also told stories of a few of the legion of people who have told me over the years of how they had lost or were about to lose their faith until they heard the messages about a faith that does justice.
It has all reminded me again how Sojourners began.
The most controversial sentence I ever wrote, considering the response to it, was not about abortion, marriage equality, the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, elections, or anything to do with national or church politics. It was a statement about the founding of the United States of America. Here’s the sentence:
"The United States of America was established as a white society, founded upon the near genocide of another race and then the enslavement of yet another."
The comments were overwhelming, with many calling the statement outrageous and some calling it courageous. But it was neither. The sentence was simply a historical statement of the facts. It was the first sentence of a Sojourners magazine cover article, published 26 years ago titled “America’s Original Sin: The Legacy of White Racism.”
An extraordinary new film called 12 Years a Slave has just come out, and Sojourners hosted the premiere for the faith community on Oct. 9 in Washington, D.C. Rev. Otis Moss III was on the panel afterward that reflected on the film. Dr. Moss is not only a dynamic pastor and preacher in Chicago, but he is also a teacher of cinematography who put this compelling story about Solomon Northup — a freeman from New York, who was kidnapped and sold into slavery — into the historical context of all the American films ever done on slavery. 12 Years is the most accurate and best produced drama of slavery ever done, says Moss.
In her New York Times review, “ The Blood and Tears, Not the Magnolias,” Manohla Dargis says, 12 Years a Slave “isn’t the first movie about slavery in the United States — but it may be the one that finally makes it impossible for American cinema to continue to sell the ugly lies it’s been hawking for more than a century.” Instead of the Hollywood portrayal of beautiful plantations, benevolent masters, and simple happy slaves, it shows the utterly brutal violence of a systematic attempt to dehumanize an entire race of people — for economic greed. It reveals how morally outrageous the slave system was, and it is very hard to watch.
Watching the dysfunction in Washington over the past two weeks has been painful. Our leaders have grown too comfortable with pushing the limits, and we let a few dozen of our own representatives — the people elected to promote the common good, or “general welfare,” as the Constitution calls for— hold the nation's economy hostage for the sake of their political self-interest.
But after the storm comes the promise — the hope of lessons learned and new ways forward together. A few key groups of people have renewed my faith that this is possible.
During a sunrise vigil at the U.S. Capitol this morning, three senators unexpectedly joined us. They were all women, all Republican and, it turns out, all Catholic. Sens. Susan Collins of Maine, Lisa Murkowski of Alaska, and Kelly Ayotte of New Hampshire are part of a new 14-senator bipartisan, women-led group engaged in their own kind of vigil: trying to end the government shutdown and prevent the nation from going into debt default.
A chuckling comment from a male colleague in the Senate perhaps expresses a hope in the midst of this incredibly dangerous political crisis: “The women are taking over.” This morning, the senators walked over to thank us for praying for them and the government at this critical moment and told us how much they felt the need for our prayers right now. The looks on their faces showed us the seriousness of their plea for prayers.
People of faith are instructed to pray for their political leaders, and their need has never been more evident in this completely dysfunctional Capitol City. For the seventh day now, faith leaders, pastors, young people, and passersby lifted up prayers for the common good across from the Capitol. Until this morning, there was no response from our elected officials or the national media pundits.
But the #FaithfulFilibuster has taken off across the country through word of mouth and social media — our prayers are trending.
On our way over to the Capitol, I re-read the story of the Tower of Babel in Genesis 11. I was struck by the phrase of those building the tall tower "we'll become famous." That sounded a lot like lawmakers and politicians in Washington — it seems that they all want to become famous. In the story, the people were confounded by speaking different languages and their words went past each other. The words of the politicians and pundits are going past each other and their words are not really meant to be understood. They're not meant to find solutions or common ground. These are words that are meant to fight. To win. To defeat. Even, it seems, to foster hate.
The words we're hearing are of politics and punditry, meant to divide and not to unite. The words coming from the top have consequences for those at the bottom. And like Babel, these words are just babble.
We're hearing lots of babble at the Capitol, but across the street, we're trying to hear the word of God — what God says about the people, families, and children who will suffer the most because of Washington's babble. These words aren't just directed to churches and charities about what we should do with the poor. They're about the obligations of kings, rulers, and government to protect the poor.