Some Thoughts on Paul Metzger’s “Sustaining a Justice Movement: How did John M.Perkins, Mother Teresa, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Do It?” at the Justice Conference

It’s been a week since attending the Justice Conference and prior to that I was away with my family vacationing at our in-laws in FL. As I have been catching up on all things we call “reentry,” I’ve been rereading my session/workshop notes and reflecting on what I heard/saw.

Prior to the “general conference,” there were a series of pre-conference workshops. There were 5 hours and 8 options per hour. Yeah, selecting which 5 of the 40 to attend was challenging. My friend Bassim and I decided we would divide and conquer and try to debrief each other over meals and the ride home. While there were some excellent options for the first hour, one leapt off the page for me – Paul Metzger’s “Sustaining a Justice Movement: How did John M.Perkins, Mother Teresa, and Dietrich Bonhoeffer Do It?”

John Perkins and Paul Metzger

Some incredible names in that title and I have really appreciated what I have read of Dr. Metzger like Consuming Jesus: Beyond Race and Class Divisions in a Consumer Church and the chunks of The Word of Christ and the World of Culture: Sacred and Secular Through the Theology of Karl Barth during my independent study of Barth at Biblical. So would this workshop deliver? And could it delver to me at 9am having arrived late and running on a few hours sleep? Yep, turned out to be one of the best parts of the weekend.

The Nature of Calling
Indeed we can learn so much from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Mother Theresa and John Perkins. We should look to their admirable qualities and habits to imitate but not in a mindless “copy and paste” sense but rather as models for growing in our Christian faith and practice as we seek our unique identity in our Creator. As Dr. Metzger was teaching, I couldn’t help but consider the nature of calling as it pertained not only to these heroic figures mentioned but also to how calling works with each of us. Everyone has one, some never find it, some squander it, some have flashes of brilliance, some are scratching the surface of it and many of us are trying to grow in our understanding and practice of it. So what would Dr. Metzger tell us about how these three figures made it sustainable for them?

Here’s the bullet point summary on the Bonhoeffer segment:
We need a robust theology of cultural engagement
– Believe in the suffering God.
– Forfeit certain luxurious privileges for the benefit of others.
– It’s not about taking something back – but laying it down.
– Bonhoeffer believed Karl Barth’s teaching that it was Jesus’ resurrection that allowed him to protest against Hitler.
– We need to be sure that our concern for the” right now” also carries a concern to sustain for the long haul.

I could get lost in thought on the idea of a “suffering God.” Why anyone who had the ability to avoid the hardships of pain would choose to place themselves in the position of suffering is mind-boggling. I mean the only legitimate reason would be to not abandon someone you loved. Oh.
How humbling it is to receive and know the love of God and what an essential reminder: Imitating the love of God moves us to place ourselves within the suffering of those whom we love (and those whom we try to love).
I do have to keep asking myself am I doing this?
The good news is that ministry offers many moments when you can answer yes to that. The bad news is if you’re being honest, you realize that sometimes you miss them. This bracket of points was a needed reminder.

The second set of points was of Mother Teresa:
– Lay down your life for your friends. – “It’s hard to get burned out of ministry with this attitude.”
– Have a sense of your own poverty.
– Remember God’s favor and compassion for all the poor in the Scriptures.

I’m still not sure how I feel about the phrasing of that first point. I want to agree but question whether avoiding burnout is about serving your friends (and others, who I assume means they are either “future friends” or everyone being served is a “friend”). It sounds a bit overly-romanticized as burnout comes from the overextension of a good thing without slowing down for things like rest, celebration with family and friends, and spiritual formative practices like prayer, fasting, reflection, etc.

The second and third ones though are valuable for consideration. What does having a sense of your own poverty mean? Is it to compare your standing among others? Is it to confront all the deficiencies in one’s life? Who are the impoverished? It is simply the material poor? What about the relationally poor and the morally poor?  Thinking about that creates a whole lot of “people in poverty.”

Every time we see a news update on Oscar Pistorius, I think we see poverty. We see it in Reeva Steenkamp’s family, we see it in Pistorius himself. These are extreme examples but I wonder if we can find similarities in the thoughts and attitudes that lead up to the tragic extremes.

I hope I’m not stretching the concept of poverty too far and I hope to avoid sounding judgmental too. But for those who are not in material poverty, it would be both emotionally and spiritually good for us to consider how our inability to control our emotions and fears can ruin us. Passion that becomes anger, prudence that mutates to paranoia, experiences that breed an untamed fear of loneliness – these are the signs of poverty for some of us.

Seeing ourselves this way and Mother Teresa’s words of remembering that God shows favor and compassion to all “the poor” becomes quite the beautiful idea – one worth sharing with others.

Lastly, Metzger summarized what we can learn from John Perkins:
– Invest in people
– Invite them to partner
-The story of how his mother died while breastfeeding him (for many years he believed he killed her)
– We cannot operate from sense of entitlement but rather sense of gratitude.- Be creative in your suffering.

That third bullet point is arresting. I can understand the statement but imagining the experience of spending your adolescent years believing this is overwhelming.

Must one go through such a tragedy to avoid entitlement and experience gratitude? Have we not also heard other tragic stories that have removed all traces of gratitude and leaving the scene fused with entitlement, bitterness and selfish anger?How did Dr. Perkins avoid that?

What does being “creative in your suffering” mean? I’m not sure I’ve spent enough time on this to contribute anything beneficial. At first thought I think I can say I’ve used my past experiences of suffering creatively but Im not sure how creative I am in the midst of suffering. I do however think Metzger has shared Perkins’ wisdom as valuable advice for future suffering.

Back to sustainability then. I know some are annoyed by the overuse of that word but I for one am always glad to see it. Our society tends to give us these extremes of, “Don’t worry about the future … ever” and future doomsday scenarios that rob us from the joy of the present. For Christ followers seeking to join God in bringing His redemption of all things near, it seems we need to find a healthy balance of living with the shalom of Jesus now, trusting Him with our future and being good stewards with what He has given us. In this light, sustainability seems part of our discipleship and the wisdom of John Perkins, Mother Teresa and Dietrich Bonhoeffer given by Paul Metzger is needed.

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