This is my final article in this Progressive Voice column. I have accepted a new call and will be relocating in August. While I am sure there are some who may be dancing in the streets over this news, it’s quite bittersweet for me. I’ve lived and served in Grand Rapids for 16 years and I’ve enjoyed just about every single minute of it. I arrived in 2003 at the ripe age of 26, just a few months after receiving my Master of Divinity degree. I’ve grown up here, you could say. Over the years, my theology and personal relationship with Christ has been encouraged, challenged, tested, and ultimately, deeply fostered. Grand Rapids, and especially Community Presbyterian Church, will always hold a significant place in my life journey.
As you know, my personal faith and values align with what has been described as Progressive Christianity. While there is no one definition, my favorite explanation of this worldview is penned by TheChristianLeft.org: Christianity characterized by willingness to question tradition, acceptance of human diversity, with a strong emphasis on social justice, or care for the poor and the oppressed, and environmental stewardship of the earth. Progressive Christians have a deep belief in the centrality of the instruction to “love one another” (John 15:17) within the teachings of Jesus Christ. This leads to a focus on compassion, promoting justice and mercy, tolerance, and working towards solving the societal problems of poverty, discrimination, and environmental issues.
Many don’t like it. They tell me I’m doing it wrong, that I must believe in man-made theology that was built upon institutional control, and that I must condemn people to the fires of hell if they don’t fit their ideals of what humanity should be. Their words are ugly and do not echo the story of the Christ in sacred scripture. Whether or not everyone agrees with me, I have a deep and right relationship with God and I am not concerned with conforming that to anyone else’s wishes. My relationship with God challenges me to focus my faith on the realized ministry of Jesus – that is – the actual ministry of Christ. Jesus wasn’t concerned about the rules of those in control, he spent his time with the sick, the poor, and the outcast. In fact, Jesus challenged oppressive institutions, he was a voice for human rights and he died because he wasn’t willing to sell-out to the powers that wanted to control and define him. This is the good news. Jesus Christ came into the world to share a love we desperately need. The world is hurting, my friends. What was created to be beautiful and life-giving, has become destructive and oppressive. As people of faith we have a choice. We can set our sights on healing the world, or we can actively contribute to its brokenness. While we all falter and fall short of the glory of God, we are encouraged by Christ time and time again, to get back up, dust ourselves off, and get back to the work of his ministry on earth. That’s discipleship, accepting responsibility to be the hands and feet of Jesus in the world today. Sure, it won’t be easy. We will be ridiculed and persecuted by the same crowds that spit at Jesus and cried out for his persecution. But we need to realize it stems from a fear of losing control, of not being right. It runs rampant and it destroys the faith of people who are subjected to its power. And that’s why it’s utterly important for disciples to stay the course, to do the good work of reconciliation; empowering the healing process that Christ was born to empower.
Jesus shared a sermon with his followers, it’s known as the Sermon on the Mount. And in that sermon Jesus spoke, “Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matthew 5:10-11).” Do your good work, fellow disciples. The best prayer I have ever heard was spoken by a four-year-old child in a room full of adults. “Dear God. Help us to get along. Amen.” May it be so.
The Rev. Kimbrel Johnson is the Head of Staff Pastor at Community Presbyterian Church of Grand Rapids, Minn. You can submit questions for consideration at firstname.lastname@example.org