I don’t think I’ve ever posted essays or assignments from school, but since this one is so personal, I wanted to share. This essay was written with the prompt: Explain how your emerging understanding of righteousness and new creation affects your understanding of faith and how your approach impacts who you are and will be as a Christian public leader. How will it influence the way you conduct ministry?
I’ve written many candidacy essays and applications describing my faith story over the last few years, and not once in any of those essays did the words “righteousness” or “new creation” appear. Which is funny to think about now, since in the midst of this course on righteousness and new creation, it’s obvious to me how accurately this vocabulary describes my own faith story. The ways in which God has broken into my life and made me new now speaks to my understanding of God’s righteousness. Not only this, but as my understanding of righteousness and new creation grows, it describes the ways in which I find myself ministering to others, my beliefs about God’s love for God’s creation. God’s righteousness as power and gift has been the foundation for my ministry, even though two months ago that word would never have entered my faith story.
So my story, shortened, as it has been written and rewritten so many times at this point (I can now describe twenty-six years of life into an elevator ride) is this: I grew up in a Lutheran church. I was baptized as a babe and attended Sunday School regularly. My life revolved around the church building during many of my formative years. Part of that formation is of course adolescence, and teenagers tend to be a little less accepting of truths from adults. I found myself in my second year of confirmation with too many questions. Unfortunately the interim pastor was too busy to foster my deteriorating faith. At fourteen I realized that the “faith” I had was not mine. It seemed to me that the faith of my childhood was a shallow obedience to my parents’ rituals. I had no idea why I believed in God or Jesus or anything, and I wasn’t going to take my parent’s word for it. I spent eight years bouncing between atheism, agnosticism, Wicca, and Buddhism. With most of this time being spent as a professed and proud atheist.
Even in my final year of confirmation, I had tried to convince my parents to let me quit this fruitless Wednesday ritual, as I had no faith to confirm. But grandma decided it was a little money to have me finish this rite. She bribed me with the shiny technology of 2002, a new laptop, so I continued to trudge through this final year. Our new pastor started that year, and in my final confirmation interview I honestly told him my doubts, my adamant refusal to believe, and my desperate need for a laptop. He nodded solemnly and apologized. He wished someone had been there to tell me my questions were okay. He confirmed me anyway. Off and on throughout the coming years, this pastor reached out. He never kept me away when I wanted to join in the mission trip to Mexico. He bought me lunch on the request of my mother, with no agenda or proselytizing. He continued to affirm my doubts, and rather than proclaiming the Gospel with words, he proclaimed the Gospel through his actions and care for me.
So what happened? What changed? What brought this prodigal daughter back into the fold? I suppose it was the Holy Spirit. That’s what my learned theological understanding says. At twenty-two years old, I found myself lamenting in my car over a toxic relationship, talking to myself over the noise of traffic, and then suddenly feeling as though I weren’t alone. The skies didn’t open up, there was no vision of bridges or prophetic words spoken to me. It was just this sense, this feeling, and in that moment my life was changed. And yet – not. I realized that this monolog-turned-dialog was my ranting and raving turned prayer, and I didn’t know what to do with this feeling.
So here I was, this new person, filled with faith and hope that I am loved, cherished, and forgiven, and at the same time surrounded by my vehemently atheist friends, filled with embarrassment over my confusing and unsolicited faith. It was unsolicited, and greatly needed. “Without our merit – since, after all, we cannot merit anything – He wants to give us forgiveness of sins, righteousness, and eternal life for the sake of Christ. For God is He who dispenses His gifts freely to all.”1 And so accepting that this gift of faith was part of my life, I continued to pray secretly in my car for several months. I didn’t feel as though I could share this gift with anyone else, it seemed too small, too fragile, and I wanted to keep it safe from sarcasm and mockery for as long as I could.
Eventually, as I was this new creation hiding in my old world, the mobile altar of my steering wheel was no longer meeting the need of my growing faith. I needed to hear God’s Word, I needed more of God’s promises, and so I needed church. I found myself going back to the church that I grew up in, the church that fed me green eggs and ham in preschool and gave me first communion. It was in this church that our new pastor confirmed my proclaimed-atheist self and gave validity to my doubts. I knew that my parents wouldn’t be there that Sunday, and I hadn’t kept in contact with anyone from my old church life. Maybe I could still keep this new creation secret, maybe I could still protect my tiny faith.
That is until I found myself kneeling at the altar, surrounded by aged faces of those I once knew. My heart was full and tears of joy were attempting to escape from me, this sense of home and comfort were overwhelming me. Then the pastor came up to me. Kneeling not with my family, but on my own, in that moment he looked down and said, “Is this Megan?” The tears escaped. My head upturned to him and I just nodded, reaching my hands out to get the body of Christ, given for me, the thing that I needed. This was really my moment of God’s righteousness breaking into my life. God started slowly in my car months prior, but it was in this moment where I knew that God’s mercy and faithfulness were in me, changing me and making me new.
This is my story, the foundations for who I am as a minister, as a Christian public leader, and as a person of faith. This is God’s righteousness in my young(er) life, shaping me and changing me in God’s power. “God’s righteousness is associated with an active manifestation of God’s power.”2 Part of believing that God’s righteousness is God’s power, God’s action in our world and in our lives, means for me that my responsibility as a minister, as a Christian public leader, is only to share God’s Word and promises, through my words and through my actions. Being a broken person myself, I’m able to share in the brokenness of others, and share in the hope of others. For me, it means being vulnerable to God’s actions in my life, and being vulnerable with those I minister to. My vulnerability culminated to that moment at the altar, completely open and new to God’s work in the sacrament. I think that its in that vulnerability that I find God’s righteousness in my ministering to others.
New creation isn’t a simple thing. God’s righteousness inbreaks into our old selves and into our lives, breaking open our hearts and revealing something new. Simultaneously our old selves don’t die so easily. God’s righteousness begins the story. “Faith itself is a gift of God, a work of God in our hearts, which justifies us because it takes hold of Christ as the Savior.”3 God’s kingdom only fully comes when Christ comes again, but in the gift of God’s righteousness, we are able to see glimpses of that kingdom in our lives now. The hope in our new creation, the hope in the ever-changed person in God’s gift, is a simultaneously broken wholeness. Like the favorite mug that falls on the floor, God doesn’t throw us away, but carefully glues together our pieces into a mosaic. With faith as epoxy, we become a cup that God continues to fill, even if it leaks a little.
I think faith is a lot like that favorite mug. A little broken in spots, dripping the coffee into a ring underneath, yet still something we hold close to our hearts. God does not give up on his broken creation, but instead makes us new in faith, something different than what we once were. It’s not always obvious to us, looking at another new creation from the outside, or even looking at the new creation in ourselves, but God knows his favorite mug. We are broken, God does heal us, even if it is a little jagged and piecemealed together.
It was a small and quiet revelation of God’s love and grace that flipped my switch. It was God’s righteousness in his faithfulness and love that allowed for this change in me. For me, this was a miracle. Being a broken, hurt, suffering person living in my own sin and the sinful world around me, was almost too much to bear, but in Christ’s love and mercy in that first moment of God’s righteousness, and in all the moments that came to follow, I was changed. I was made into this new creation. And yet, even within this new creation, still broken.
As this broken person, made whole by God’s gift of faith, old but new, I find myself listening to the stories of those who also live in this broken world, and who also need reminders of God’s righteousness, of God’s action, in their lives. “It is a union between Christ and the believer, established by Christ and experienced through faith in him”4, it’s this union where God makes us whole, and by this gift that Christ works in us and through us. More than anything, within this emerging understanding of righteousness, my role in its action has become twofold: being able to name those moments of new creation in the lives of others, and also creating space for others to share the stories of their lives, their hopes for God’s promises and their sorrows in the times where God’s absence seems most prevalent.
Describing my understanding of God’s righteousness in my own life, faith, and ministry comes in many roundabout ways. It’s through the story of my faithlessness and God’s faithfulness in his gift of righteousness and faith has shaped me, this power has torn me from my previous life. It has helped me to see the wonder in vulnerability, to be able to share in the vulnerability of others. It’s cheesy metaphors and hope. My understanding of God’s righteousness reminds me that God’s unending love and mercy and God’s power is working in us and through us. God’s righteousness and his making of me and others into new creation holds promise. Righteousness is God’s promise – mysterious, faithful, and complete gift.
Bassler, Jouette M. Navigating Paul: An Introduction to Key Theological Concepts. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox, 2007. Print.
Luther, Martin, and Jaroslav Pelikan. Luther’s Works. Vol. 26. St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 1958. Print.