“Reformed and Always Reforming!”
By Don Ludwig, July 26, 2020
Acts 16:16-34, Another voice by John Lewis

What Business are we in?

Many people have found value in revisiting the question that Peter Drucker made famous: “What business are we in?” I admit it, it seems to be such a simple question, but it is one that has profound implications when answered. For example, business analysts have examined corporations in an attempt to discover why there were so many bankruptcies in the 1970s and 1980s. They came up with a theory: many corporations did not realize the nature of their businesses. They simply had too narrow a view of what they were about. In fact, they studied the railroad business and found that in the 1930s, ’40s, and even in the ’50s, the railroad business was the greatest industry in the USA. In the year 1950, the Pennsylvania railroad company was voted, without question, the number one managed corporation in the USA. So what happened to them? Well, the tragic flaw, according to Theodore Levitt of Harvard University, was that the executives became too self-confident. They thought that railroads would go on forever and since they were in the railroad business, they had nothing to worry about.

But that was their mistake. They were not in the railroad business, they were in the transportation business. If only they would have realized this, they would have realized new opportunities that began opening up to them in the 1950s. Highways were being built, the shipping and trucking industry began to flourish, jumbo jets were manufactured. All during the 1950s the transportation business and the communication business were booming, their stock was skyrocketing. Yet, the railroad industry was plummeting. If only they had realized what business they were in…

The Business of Reformation

What business are we in as the church? As Presbyterians, we are considered to be Reformed Christians, but what does that mean? When I first went to seminary I was a fish out of water. Growing up in poverty in a dysfunctional family, I marginally succeeded in high school and barely got into college, not alone seminary. When I entered the Princeton academic environment, everyone was talking about “reformed faith” and our “reformed heritage.” Largely, I was in the dark as to what this meant. So I asked fellow students and even professors — what does it mean to be reformed? To which I mostly received looks of confusion and struggles to define it. I finally asked my mentor in ministry—he looked at me—“Don, that is the best question you could have asked. Most people do not have a clue. Being reformed is simply being open-minded and open to change.” To which I responded, “really—I get it now—I was born reformed.”

John Calvin, the father of our faith as Presbyterians, declared that one of the key aspects of the Reformed faith is to seek to reform every aspect of society. Our goal is to reform and always be reforming everything in our society toward justice—becoming the kingdom of God on earth—the Beloved Community as MLK envisioned. I think sometimes we get caught up in maintaining our church structures and plethora of committees—we look inward—when our purpose has always been to look outward.

Reformed and Always Reforming

Jesus was reformed and always reforming. From healing a person on the Sabbath, to the acts of mercy and kindness, to the tears over a close friend, to befriending a prostitute, to the prayer he uttered for unity —Jesus taught that BEING ONE—was at the heart of the gospel.

Paul and Silas in our Christian lesson today, both were reformed and always reforming. Both were thrown into prison because they welcomed a slave girl who was crazy. Then they had the gall to sit down and have dinner with the Roman who was guarding over them. They embraced open-mindedness over rigid laws.

Ten days ago, preacher—politician—and reformer John Lewis, passed away. John Lewis was a legend—a solemn voice of conscience in America—a voice for justice and equity who instilled hope in American politics and life. Crossing aisles to hug rivals—he was beaten time and time again but never missed an opportunity to speak up for civil rights. Lewis didn’t have the time nor the inclination to nurse old wounds. His moral leadership was astounding. And he was always there, always ready to lead with clarity and courage. He was reformed and always reforming.

As Presbyterians, this is our calling. That is why it frustrates me to no end to meet a close-minded, inward-looking, presbyterian. I want to say to them, we are not in the railroad business… we are in the transportation business. I want to refer them to our Book of Order where it clearly says that Presbyterians believe in doing good and righteous things regardless of rigid laws that would prevent us. We believe God is the only Lord of our conscience, and if we are punished for pursuing that conscience, then so be it. We believe that justice is for all—that is the mission of the church—and is more important than institutional practices. We believe God hasn’t quit speaking to us yet. And like Lewis’s life taught us, we believe that “when you see something that is not right, not fair, not just, we have a moral obligation to do something, to say something.” Because we are reformed and always reforming!

The Passion and Conviction of John Lewis

Perhaps what inspires me the most about John Lewis was his passion and deep-seated conviction. I love his story about being a shy black kid with a stutter who was determined to be a preacher while growing up in rural Alabama during the Jim Crow era. He’d practice his calling by going to the henhouse on his family’s farm and delivering sermons to his captive flock. Lewis grew so attached to his feathered congregation that he conducted chicken weddings, baptisms, and even eulogized chicken funerals. When his chickens were unavailable for worship, he would corral his younger siblings and cousins and preach to them. They nicknamed him “Preacher.”

Lewis no longer preaches to the chickens. And he never became that preacher he intended. He would have a much larger audience. He deeply understood his calling and became a bridge between the just and unjust. He is that rare unifying figure who commands respect from the left and right, someone who can call his political foes “brother or sister” with virtually no one questioning whether he meant it—someone who inspired us all to be our better selves.

Reformation is more than a Spectacle

Let me close by saying something about our current calamities in Portland. I have heard from many of you share how disgusted you are with the spectacle that has been happening in our streets—vandalizing government buildings—hurling projectiles at law enforcement—images of “Naked Athena”—the well-intentioned “wall of moms”—all of it has served to redirect attention away from the issue of black lives matter and police brutality. And let me just say: there are those that benefit from it becoming a spectacle—those who benefit from diverting energies from the real issue at hand: namely—white supremacists.

As people of faith who are reformed and always reforming, we must realize that making a spectacle does not produce change. We are in the transportation business. We must see the long game. We must not simply be reactionaries but be thoughtful and intentional in all that we do. E.D. Mondaine, president of Portland’s branch of NAACP wrote in an Op-Ed in the Washington Post on Friday (July 23, 2020); “We cannot settle for spectacles that endanger us all and ‘benefit the deceptors’….we must take the cause of Black Lives Matter into those places where tear gas and rubber bullets and federal agents cannot find us and where there is less risk of spectacle distracting from our true ‘mission’.”

John Lewis is preaching to the angels now, but his words will continue to reverberate through us. May we pledge to follow his lead and the “sermon” he spent a lifetime preaching. In his words: “Do not get lost in a sea of despair. Be hopeful, be optimistic. Our struggle is not the struggle of a day, a week, a month, or a year, it is the struggle of a lifetime. Never, ever be afraid to make some noise and get in good trouble, necessary trouble.”

A-men.

 

Your Turn Questions:

  1. Who is someone you admire as a “reformer”?  Why?
  2. What concerns you about the current calamities in downtown Portland?
  3. How should we be reformers of racial injustice without distracting from our goals?