U-C: What I See

Wednesday, September 29, 2004

Dr. James Forbes - the next Great Awakening!

Last night I had the good fortune to hear the Rev. Dr. James Forbes, pastor of Riverside Church in New York, preach at the Peacemaking Conference at the Presbyterian Conference center at Stony Point, NY. I’ve known of Dr. Forbes’ work for many years, and I’ve been looking forward to meeting him for many weeks. For the past six months or so, he has been spending half of his time traveling and preaching on the “Prophetic Justice Principles” tour. I wasn’t disappointed. I wish you could have been there as well.

Here are some of the high points. (consider these a mix of direct quote, what I managed to scribble down as he spoke, and what I was feeling as he spoke.)

The topic was “How do we challenge the culture of fear?”

Dr. Forbes described the moments after the disaster at the World Trade Center on 9/11. As he gathered with other religious leaders in the wreckage that was ground zero, he looked up and saw a traffic light hanging in the tangled debris. It occurred to him then, that the first task after the disaster, even in the midst of caring for the victims, was to fix the metaphorical traffic light of our country – that we were in need of help in determining what activities our country should stop, where the yellow lights of caution were appearing, and discerning when we should move ahead.

Instead, he suggested, we didn’t wait for the traffic light to be fixed, for some amount of discernment to take place, before we moved immediately to revenge.

Dr. Forbes expressed regret that the African American community didn’t move immediately to go to Washington to offer their counsel. “Wait,” they might have said. “We have some experience on how one deals with a population that has been the object of scorn. Be careful how you swagger in front of those who have nothing left. The kind of anger directed at us on September 11 seeks to be understood. We know that you can’t “John Wayne” these people,” Dr. Forbes said.

Since then, as a nation, we’ve been dealing with the long-term, psychological impacts of Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. In many ways, we have been a people that wants to be deceived. We want to believe that someone other than God can make us safe.

“In the end,” Dr. Forbes suggested, “our biggest problem is that we don’t believe in our own God’s transcendence, in God’s ability or interest to do something with us. We are simply unsure that God has a compelling influence in our time.”

Dr. Forbes suggested that what the nation needs is another Great Awakening! Our theological task is to restore a sense of the reliability of God to provide for us. What is needed from religious leaders right now is “courage education.” By that he means that our religious leadership must be willing to speak out in a nation that has abandoned its mission and its fundamental principles and substituted the mission of pursuing terrorists in the world. Because we have done so, we have become a nation at risk.

But Dr. Forbes reminded us that the bible is full of story after story where the people of God or told, “fear not.” He went on to reflect on the story of Esther the Queen as a study in courage. He talked about Jesus of Nazareth as a model for courageous behavior for our time.

Dr. Forbes reminded us of the courage that it takes to live as Christians in this time when our country is at risk and is driven by fear.

May God be with us as we struggle to be a faithful people.