Parish Vitality as Public Good

by The Rev. Dr. R. Leigh Spruill

In his First Letter to Timothy, St. Paul urges Christians to pray for heads of the state, for those who bear the authority of government in this and every land, whether kings, emperors, or duly elected officials. And indeed, we do so in our worship every Sunday. In the “Prayers of the People” we pray by name for our president, our governor, and our mayor. We may also name specific concerns of national importance.

St. Paul has various things to say about the complex and sometimes dangerous relationship between followers of the King of heaven and followers of the “kings” of this world. It is not the purpose of this reflection to explain a Pauline theology of Church and State. It is to suggest that, given the very large challenges and issues that our nation faces and given the state of our political life in the United States, Paul’s exhortation to pray for governmental leaders seems very wise.

I would also suggest—and rather strongly—that the most influential contribution believers can make for the common good is to be the church God is calling us to be. What if our commitment to Jesus and our shared life together through St. John the Divine was more important than all our other civic or political commitments we may have, however passionately we hold them? Paul says we pray for those in “high positions” that “we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and dignity” (1 Timothy 2:2). I do not read Paul merely asking us to pray that the government would leave the church alone. Nor is Paul a political partisan asking prayers for his favored leaders or causes. Rather, what I think Paul invites us to consider from 1 Timothy goes to the very heart of our calling as a church, our reason for being: to be a distinctive witness of blessing in culture; to be a unique source of light in a world that can be very dark.

We pray for leaders, the government, and the public sphere because they are a vital part of our mission field. And the best way to be blessing and light is to be the church God is calling us to be. Paul would remind us that Christians serve the common good best by being good Christians! The Church is most influential in society by being a faithful church—not by adapting to the ways of a broken political order or being blown about by every cultural whim, nor by being consumed with anxiety, nor by deciding to withdraw or turn our head away. Our political capital is spiritual life. Our public witness is parish vitality.

In this season of Advent leading us to the shortest day of the year in terms of daylight—the winter solstice—we remember where the season lands us: the star of Bethlehem shining over the Light who comes into his power not as we would ever think of power. God comes to save his world not as emperor or conqueror or president. God comes as the infant Jesus who will be crucified. The miracle of the Incarnation and the crucifixion of Jesus ought to forever situate our political concerns in their proper perspective. They are subordinate if not unimportant.

What a light St. John the Divine has been over the years for our neighbors and the City of Houston! The question I want always to be asking is how we can become an even brighter light, an ever more creative and dynamic witness that the realities of the gospel are not relegated to the margins of life. How might our parish life shine blessing directly into some of our most pressing problems and greatest challenges?

May we affirm the importance of these questions while at the same time embodying a deep and faithful humility that only the coming Christ holds the Kingdom, the power, and the glory in his hands. This is the season to rekindle great gratitude that God comes to the likes of us.

Wisdom for the Week

Light for the City 12-5

Perhaps ionically, I am inspired in the reflection above about a robust Christian public witness from a Jewish leader. The late Jonathan Sacks formerly served as chief rabbi of the United Hebrew Congregations in Great Britain. Speaking several years ago at the Chautauqua Institution in New York, Sacks offered the following:

"So, what do I mean by religion in the public square? I mean simply religion as a consecration of the bonds that connect us, religion as the redemption of our solitude, religion as loyalty and love, religion as altruism and compassion, religion as covenant and commitment, religion that consecrates marriage, that sustains community and helps reweave the torn fabric of society. That kind of religion is content to be a minority. Jews have been a minority wherever we went for 2,000 years ... So, religion can be a minority, but it can be a huge influence. It doesn’t seek power; it seeks influence. It’s engaged with the world; it’s not retreat from the world. If we can do that, we might just bring those two cars closer together. We might just find that we can have our feet in society and our head in Heaven and we can bring light that will vanquish the darkness. That is the kind of religion the world needs right now."

—Jonathan Sacks

One Good Recommendation

Watch for the Light: Readings for Advent & Christmas ‎(Plough Publishing House, 2014) 

Several times I have returned to this devotional book in Advent and the weeks following Christmas. I highly recommend it. There are 40 days of devotions, each written by one of a diverse collection of Christian writers such as Annie Dillard, Thomas Merton, C. S. Lewis, Henri Nouwen, John Donne, Meister Eckhart, Dorothy Day, T.S. Eliot, Thomas Aquinas, Philip Yancey, Dietrich Bonhoeffer, and more. Each day’s devotion is just a few pages long and requires less than five minutes. I often recommend this book to parishioners inquiring about devotional reading for this time of year.

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