There are moments in my life that I remember with amazing clarity. One of these happened in 10th grade. An evangelist from the Billy Graham Evangelistic Association had come to town. This was such a big event in our small town that the local churches had to rent the high school gymnasium. Wednesday was “youth night,” which meant no hymns. A night of contemporary Christian music followed by a sermon for young people.
I still remember Mrs. Davis approaching David and me before the service began. Apparently God had spoken to her and we were supposed to go forward at the end of the service. She then proceeded to lead David and me to the second row. To this day I cannot recall anything about the service other than when the preacher asked the congregation to sing “Just as I am.” For three verses Mrs. Davis stared at us; by the fourth I went forward. Eventually the preacher called the spiritual counselors forward. Soon there was a hand on my back and we were lead into a special room just off the gymnasium. The walk was excruciatingly long. I wasn’t quite sure why I went forward, other than to avoid the wrath of Mrs. Davis.
Once we were in the room I sat across from my counselor. He asked why I came forward; again, I cannot recall what I said. The end result was that I heard about four spiritual laws and prayed for Jesus to forgive my sins.
That night shaped my understanding of faith and Jesus. Christianity had something to do with my sin life. If I accepted Jesus, then I would be made clean and could spend eternity in heaven. This idea was and still is comforting. To know that God desires to forgive my sins is life-giving and freeing. To this day I find hope in this message.
As I grew beyond 10th grade this understanding of sin and salvation began to feel incomplete and small. There is a significant element to sin that is structural. And the “I just need to confess my sin to Jesus” approach doesn’t adequately address this.
Racism doesn’t just come forward at church, pray a prayer, and go away. Corporate greed that has decimated family farms, emptied retirement accounts, charged outrageous interest rates, and chosen profits over health care doesn’t disappear after a prayer.
More often than not it seems like the church has turned its back on structural sin. It is easier to have a gospel that is only me and Jesus. Focusing on structures is hard work. It will disrupt our lives, interfere with our comfort, and push our faith out of the church and on to the street.
Jesus came for humanity, not just the individual. Our Holy Scriptures are about the people of God. Justice isn’t just for me, it is for all. The church needs to be about revival for all and prophetically confronting sin at every level.
“The purpose of life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself.” With these words David Books concludes his column bemoaning the advice dispensed at so many of this year’s commencement speeches – “find yourself, find your passion and then pursue your dreams.”
Books’ lament is based on a certain reality. After all, in what world is a young adult mature enough to know who they are? Isn’t life a journey of discovery? To assume that the journey towards self-understanding is over at 21 is naïve at best. I am 46 and still trying to find myself. I have developed an inkling of what my passions might be. As for perusing my dreams, I am still dreaming new dreams!
So, what does it mean to lose yourself? According to Eminem losing one’s self has something to do with the music. I have two teens and they have developed an uncanny ability to lose themselves in the music. But I do not think that this is what Brooks was referring to.
Jesus talked about losing life in order to find life.
Could it be that Jesus understood what many of this year’s commencement speakers failed to fully grasp? Meaning and purpose come when we turn our focus outward.
Servant-hood, discipleship and following Jesus are inextricably linked. The Kingdom of God has often been described as an upside down kingdom. Everything gets reversed – purpose, passion and meaning come when service towards others becomes a first priority.
A more helpful commencement speech might better be framed with these words:
Graduates, before you today there is a fork in the road. One fork will ask you to find yourself, ignite your passions and follow your dreams. The temptation will be to choose this path, but know that this road ultimately leads to a type of self-centered hell. The other fork will ask you to ignore yourself focus on the needs and concerns around you. The cost will seem high but the payoff will be meaning, purpose and life.
The choice is yours.
Last week, I attended a gathering of urban church leaders. The afternoon session began with sharing.
The first pastor to share started with these words, “Jesus was a communist.”
It certainly got my attention. I do not normally think of Jesus in quite that way.
When I hear the word “communism,” I first think of Stalin. Some historians claim that this guy is responsible for killing more people than Hitler. Placing Jesus in this camp seems wrong.
But as the pastor started unpacking this idea, I began to wonder about Jesus’ political leanings.
Would Jesus have voted for the Democrat or Republican candidate? (This question by itself assumes a lot: Would Jesus have come to earth as an American? Probably not.)
Would Jesus have supported the Western ideas of capitalism and individuality?
As this pastor continued sharing, he reminded us that scripture has a bias toward the poor, the immigrant and the widow. He then went on to suggest that capitalism and individuality do not easily make space for the poor, the immigrant and the widow.
If we define communism as a system that puts the needs of the community ahead of the desires of the individual, then it becomes possible to define Jesus as a communist.
Jesus was known for putting the needs of others ahead of his own.
Jesus was known for including the outsiders and outcasts.
If being a Christian means being Christ-like, maybe we all have to become a little less capitalist and a little more communist.