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Living into the life set before us

PC(USA) must walk in faith in unfamiliar places, Nelson tells NEXT Church gathering

April 2, 2014

MINNEAPOLIS

Known as the “weeping prophet,” Jeremiah’s passages are often full of gloom. But in Jeremiah 29: 5-14, we can hear a message of hope when Jeremiah tells the exiled people to put down roots where they are and “seek the welfare of the city.”

“I am struggling with the rhetoric of doom surrounding the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.),” said the Rev. J. Herbert Nelson, director of the PC(USA)’s Office of Public Witness. Nelson was speaking at the NEXT Church gathering here April 1.

NEXT Church is a network of leaders across the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) who believe that the church can be a faithful, fruitful, diverse and engaged church that shares the good news in a changing world. Through national and regional gatherings, an online presence, denominational conversations and local mission projects, NEXT aims to foster congregations, develop leaders and nourish strategies for a new vision of church.

The PC(USA) is in the middle of arguments and anxiety about the future of the church, which can make us feel like we’re in exile, Nelson said. But Jeremiah reminds us to live into the life set before us.

Nelson spoke of his first call, to an affluent church with a history of social justice. He expected the call to be an easy one but ended up officiating at more than 50 funerals within his first three years. Although he was drawn to ministries of justice, he found himself living out a call to pastoral ministry.

“This was not what I had in mind and yet this was the hand that I was dealt,” Nelson said.

The PC(USA)’s challenge is “to learn how to grind it out in the world right now,” he said.

Some claim that the church has no business being involved in radical justice because that work is too controversial, but that’s the work that Jesus did.

“This is what the church is called to be and to do,” Nelson said. “We ought to be excited about going into the barrios and the ghettos and all the places of life where things are falling apart.

“We ought to be a daring example of what it means to go into the places God calls us to go.”

We’re not called to grow congregations — we’re called to serve communities. Justice work won’t tear down the church; in fact, it will build the church, Nelson said.

“What do we do when we have no idea what to do?” he asked.

Jeremiah 29 reminds us to trust in God and be willing to walk in faith in unfamiliar places. We’re called to make the church a place for exiles, Nelson said. 

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