Tuesday, February 01, 2011

small town Sunday: a justified life

Each week at church, somewhere near the middle of the service, we practice "the passing of the peace." Church members rise from their pews and offer warm greetings, "Peace be with you," and, "Good to see you." I have to say that our pastor does a great job of at least puting forth the intended power of that gesture; he reminds us again and again that it is a time to speak peace and reconciliation to one another as a people who have been reconciled to God and to one another. And honestly, I try. I want to look into the eye of my neighbor and mean it in a powerful way. I want to speak, "Peace be with you" as one who believes that the power of the Spirit of peace is somehow present in those words. It has always disappointed me that I am somehow unable to make that transition from random, amiable greeting to powerful declaration of truth.

A few weeks ago, when our pastor was enjoying a much needed vacation to sandy places, we had a guest speaker. His story was a powerful one; he had personally met Martin Luther King Jr. and had lived a life marked by a willingness to act on behalf of justice even when doing so ran counter to the status quo (which is most often the case of genuine justice, I suppose). However, though his message impacted me, what has remained with me most is what he said as an introduction to our weekly peace-passing. "Offer one another signs of peace," he said, "and while your at it, perhaps ask your neighbor what he has done to justify his existence this week." I didn't hear anybody ask the question. I mean, for the most part those who fill pews are shy about such questions, if not afraid of them altogether. I wanted to ask it, but I didn't.

We should have asked each other the question.

I may not have posed the inquiry to anyone in the church that day, but I have been asking it of myself for many days since. What have I done to justify my existence? To justify my existence? It is a profound and unsettling question. The temptation, at least at first, is to find the question a bit offensive. "What do you mean, justify my existence? I don't have to justify anything; God created me simply because he loves me." This, of course, would be simultaneously true and a cop-out of sorts. We must balance the notion that we are created simply out of love with the biblical assumption that we are not created to be well-loved bumps on a log engraved "theology". Case in point: Abraham was told quite plainly that God's promise stated both that he would be blessed and that he would be a blessing. Millenia later, Jesus, when commisioning his disciples before he returned to the Father, did not, surprisingly, tell them to go and spend their lives thinking about how much he loved them, warmly shaking hands on a million successive Sundays. He told them to go and make disciples. To go and be a part of bringing about a Kingdom marked by justice and love and compassion. In a way, he told them to go and justify their existence. Following that command seldom left those disciples in safe places. It generally shook up the very existence he had told them to justify.

I think of it this way: I ask myself if I can stand before God and say, " Today I have been a good steward of the life you gave me. I have allowed you to use it as you wish, no matter the cost." Essentially, today I have been willing to be shaken up and taken to uncomfortable, unsafe places. On the day our guest speaker asked us that question, I don't know that I could have said those words. May I strive to live up to them in the days to come, to embrace the radical challenge that found me right in the middle of a small town Sunday.