future

What Might Tomorrow’s Faith Community Look Like?

Photo via MilanB / Shutterstock.com
Photo via MilanB / Shutterstock.com

It would be God’s incarnate presence in human life. Not the only presence, but one that many people could enter into. Not so much an institution with structures, rules, and layers of leadership, but rather a dynamic, ever-shifting community that gathered in various ways, ranging from small circles of friends to mass assemblies for special purposes.

It would look outward, unlike other human institutions that look inward. It would see people wanting to draw closer to God. It would see human needs such as grief and tragedy, hunger and hopelessness. It would see key moments in people’s lives, such as partnering and parenting. It would see the ways people hurt each other and the tendency of injustice to become systemic.

The Future Isn't What It Used To Be

IN WALT DISNEY’S Tomorrowland, you still have to push the faucet to get water to wash your hands. I know this because I stood waving my soapy hands at the men’s room spigot for about 15 seconds, expecting water to magically appear, as it so often does these days. Finally the guy next to me said, “You have to push it.”

Still recovering from this irony, I left the men’s room and noticed, along the wall outside, a deserted bank of AT&T pay phones. The future, it turns out, just isn’t what it used to be, but then, at Disneyland, neither is the past.

It was a perfect blue, warm, sunny day in mid-April, Wednesday of Holy Week in fact, when I joined the cosmopolitan herd trekking from the Pinocchio parking lot to the gates of Disneyland—the original one, in California. But unlike the other middle-aged people there, I went unencumbered by children, and I didn’t pay $92 to enter the kingdom of Mickey. My trip was a corporate junket related to my higher-ed day job. I was responsible for three college students, but they had their per diem and didn’t need me, so I was free to wander, observe, and refuse to stand in those mile-long lines for the famous rides.

My first stop was on the faux turn-of-the-last-century Main Street, at “Market House.” It looks like an old-time general store, with wide-plank hardwood floors and rough lumber pillars. But closer inspection reveals a Starbucks in disguise: the same pastries, sandwiches, and drinks as at any Starbucks the world over. But the ultimate Disney touch was the small army of young Latina baristas behind the counter in floor-length, puffy-sleeved dresses straight out of Little House on the Prairie.

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Why is the Cross Necessary?

THIS GENERATION IS wired a bit differently than previous generations. I don’t only mean the vitality of portable multitasking devices that provide continuous streams of global news, entertainment, gaming, and random opinions from 2,157 of their closest friends. In all fairness, it’s not their fault. They are who we taught them to be. Often they seek the good, but not God.

Notwithstanding a persistent rejection of organized religion, many in this generation continue to seek power, transcendence, and mystery. Though church membership is down, a steady number continue to express a profound interest in spirituality. In a post-theistic context, says Diana Butler Bass, “many Americans are articulating their discontent with organized religion and their hope that somehow ‘religion’ might regain its true bearings in the spirit.” It’s worth noting that many remain attracted to the idea of Jesus.

These last weeks of Lent invite a rehearsal of faith journeys that lead to rumors of resurrection. Glittering gadgets and tantalizing trinkets will not rid us of an awareness of the futility of our efforts to bring about change. Gossip and trends will not provide Christians with the vitality that facilitates a genuine hope for good. By submitting our ideas of justice to the witness of the reign of God, we pass on the confidence that the faith of the past can sustain us to live into the future. Not only as if there is a God, but as if our God has the power to rebuild and revitalize all that injustice has shattered.

Joy J. Moore is associate dean for African-American church studies and assistant professor of preaching at Fuller Theological Seminary in California.

[ APRIL 6 ]
Abandon Human Confidence
Ezekiel 37:1-14; Psalm 130; Romans 8:6-11; John 11:1-45

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And Now, the Rest of the Story

From destitution and fear to security, Charlene (Photo courtesy of Sean Sheridan, World Relief)

A FEW YEARS ago in this column, I told the story of Charlene, a woman I had just met in a camp for displaced people in the Democratic Republic of Congo. Charlene’s civilian husband had been murdered by rebel fighters in Congo’s brutal civil war. She and her eight children then fled for their lives, ultimately finding shelter in the hovel of mud and sticks where I met them (September-October 2010).

Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been forced by destitution to hike into the forest for firewood to trade for food for her children. Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been brutalized by fighters who hid in the forests and used rape as a weapon of war. Like thousands of other displaced Congolese women, Charlene had been impregnated by her rapist. Because of the stigma of rape in that culture, the beautiful two-week-old baby she’d named David was destined to a life of marginalization and despair.

Charlene was the first woman I met in Congo. She explained to me that even when the women went to the forest in groups, armed rebels would overpower and rape them. If husbands went into the forest to protect their wives, the rebels would kill the husbands, and then rape the wives. The women took the risk—and paid the price.

For me, Charlene gave human shape to Congo’s horrific story of colonial exploitation, tribal conflict, and foreign greed. In the four years after we met, hers was the first story I told whenever I spoke about Congo. It was her pain that motivated me to keep speaking, writing, and advocating for Congo.

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Apocalypse Redux

EVERY SUMMER brings the end of the world. But not since 1998’s Deep Impact and Armageddon both threatened the end of the world with objects from space has there been such apocalypse redundancy in summer blockbusters: This year, class wars, real wars, ecological exhaustion, aliens, and zombie viruses destroyed our planet in as many different ways.

In her excellent e-book The Zombies are Coming!, Kelly J. Baker reminds us that apocalyptic fantasies have been part of the popular American imagination since at least the Puritan hellfire sermon. Even without a common religious narrative to guide them, end-of-the-world stories mostly function as a form of cultural critique and utopian longing. We can only imagine a desired future out of the ashes of the utterly destroyed present. In other words, things are going to have to get a lot worse before they get better.

If Baker is right that we seize on apocalyptic fantasies both to express a deep feeling that something is very wrong with our current state of affairs and to imagine some better alternative, then this summer’s world-ending movies display a profound lack of imagination. Most of them are not even particularly good at conceiving the end of the world, and none of them offer us a vision of how things might be different.

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Building A World Without Hate

John Lennon memorial mosaic in Central Park, June Marie Sobrito / Shutterstock.c
John Lennon memorial mosaic in Central Park, June Marie Sobrito / Shutterstock.com

The question for me as a teacher is not so much "What could have been?" as it is "What can be?"

I think of my fourth grader holding signs that say, "I am MLK," "I am Anne Frank," "I am Harvey Milk," "I am Daniel Pearl," "I am James Byrd, Jr.," "I am Matthew Shephard," and "I am Yitzhak Rabin." Though she cannot really be them, she certainly can take up their work and carry it on in her own life. She wants to become a doctor so she can help people live. With that spirit, she will help these martyrs live, too.

As a teacher, it is my job not only to help students imagine a world without hate, but also to help them find the tools and the heart to build it.

Maybe the Fighting is Almost Over

Mario Tama/Getty Images
Revelers celebrate in front of the Washington Monument on Inauguration Day. Mario Tama/Getty Images

"Faith in America's Future" — that was the theme of Monday's inauguration activities.

Watching the prayers, the songs, the speeches, the crowd massed on the Washington Mall, I felt the faith. We don't have to hate each other. We can work together for a future that will be good for our country and for us as individuals. We can, as the President charged us to do, make the "values of life and liberty and the pursuit of happiness real for every American."

Inaugurations are times for setting aside differences and wildly celebrating. While Richard Blanco read his inaugural poem, even John Boehner looked teary-eyed.

The political divisions will be back in full force this week, of course. And yet we Americans are in the midst of some really big changes — changes that may make today's partisan squabbles look hopelessly antiquated in just a decade or two. Monday's events highlighted these changes.

Helping Billy Inherit the Earth

Child holding the earth, olly, Shutterstock.com
Child holding the earth, olly, Shutterstock.com

I try to teach in the present. With Billy, though, I found myself thinking about the future. Will middle school be a challenge for him? Will he be an outcast in high school? Or a target for bullies?

I wondered what contributions he might make to society as an adult. Would he start a revolution in the art world?

If his peers constantly slap their hands down and say there's no room for him, how will he react? Will he become a part of what author Alexandra Robbins calls the "cafeteria fringe, those people who are not a part of the school's or society's in-crowd? Because he seems different, will he be labeled geek, nerd or weirdo?

As a teacher I want to help him overcome. But what can I do?

Living Letters

Photo of pile of letters, Kudryashka / Shutterstock.com
Photo of pile of letters, Kudryashka / Shutterstock.com

I love to receive letters. When I was a little boy, I lived on a long, straight street and I could see the mail truck coming from a long way off. After the mailman stopped in front of our house, I ran with hope in my heart down our front walkway, between our two giant maple trees and across the street to our mailbox. Would there be a letter for me? Was someone in the world thinking of me?

One day last year it was not the mailman, but a second-grader on the school playground, who handed a letter to me. I unfolded it.

"Dear Mr. Barton, hi it Odeth from 2th grade I miss you a lot I wanted to know about you so much I am being good I am in 4th grade Do you miss me.  I live in __________  I go to school in __________  I hope you will come to my school … can you come visit me in school ask for my name…I am 10 year old I want you to come to my school.

Your best student,

Odeth"

What a wonderful thing, to be remembered by a student.

Dedication

"Sojourners has inspired us for years, and now I know it will continue to in the future." The woman who spoke these words was a guest at Sojourners' Sunday worship, and the occasion was the dedication of two of our babies. Kate Spivey and Jessica Rice-Longenecker were the center of attention. They and our other children do indeed embody much of our hope for the future.

Joyce Hollyday began the service of dedication by lighting a candle for each child and praying that the light of Christ would shine in Kate and Jessica. Then she led the congregation in the following simple prayer:

We thank you, God, for Kate and Jessica. We receive their new life as a gift to our life.

ALL: As Jessica and Kate come to us right from your heart, so we will take them into our hearts. We here offer Kate and Jessica to you, God.

We release them into your loving arms.

We dedicate their lives in the hope that they will love and serve you.

We also pledge ourselves to love Jessica and Kate, to care for and protect them, to raise arid nurture them, in faith, hope, and love.

We promise to Kate and Jessica our resources, gifts, and faithfulness, that they might know themselves as your children, as our sisters, and as strong women in faith and love.

Joyce then held each child and offered a prayer for her, her parents, and for the community. Kate looked wide-eyed and curious throughout the whole affair, while Jessica was a little unhappy. When Jessica gets older she will appreciate the significance of the robe she wore, which was first worn by her great grandfather at his baptism in 1900. It was indeed a happy day for parents, grandparents, and all of us.

The rest of our children were especially attentive and engaged. During Sunday school time, they had made special flowers as gifts for Kate and Jessica.

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