New York Nights by Geraint Rowland

A Protestant Parish?

There are aspects of Roman Catholicism that I find myself envious of. Please don’t misunderstand me; I am a committed Reformed and evangelical Protestant. One of the benefits of ecumenical engagement is that it can help a tradition recover part of its heritage that may have been ignored or fallen out of usage.

The concept of “parish,” for example, has largely fallen out of usage in the Protestant imagination. Historically, a parish was a geographic area consisting of a particular town or a collection of neighborhoods in which a church had a sense of “ownership” or responsibility for in terms of its spiritual, material, and relational well-being.

Reclaiming a Lost Vocation

One of the most pressing needs for Christians in North America is to deepen their awareness of their particular “parish” and take on a growing responsibility for the well-being of others who live or inhabit that geographic place. 1 Peter 2:9 highlights the “priestly” role of God’s people: chosen by Him to be a blessing to the nations. The vocation of a priest or priestess is to intercede between God and humanity. This vocation requires us to proclaim the good news of Jesus while at the same time having an incarnational ministry of “presence” in the lives of others. In order to fulfill this exciting and challenging priestly function we need to be prayerfully alert to what Nicholas Wolterstorff calls the “trumpets, ashes, and tears” of those in our parish. This is an integral part of our mission in this world.

The trumpets are those evidences of God-honoring activities that we see which call us to praise God for his blessing of common grace that he has poured out on everyone (Matt. 5:45). The ashes are those unjust and/or immoral actions in our parish that require corporate and individual repentance. Tears are those broken parts of our shared life in the parish that demand us to cry out to God in lament and protest. Finally, petitions are those specific areas where we have the responsibility to intercede between God and those in our parish with specific requests for God’s intervention.

In her address, “Living Scripture Missionally Between and Across Cultures,” Ruth Padilla Deborst spoke prophetically about the need for Christians to think deeply, ask poignant questions, and prayerfully engage the pressing issues facing our world today. As God did not abstract himself from the suffering of the world but rather entered into humanity’s suffering, she said midway through her presentation (at the 22-minute mark), so should we enter into the pain and brokenness of the cities and neighborhoods in which God has placed us today.

Cultivating a Praying Imagination

So what might this mean for you? I want to offer you a concrete practice for cultivating a praying imagination for your parish.

For one week I invite you to become more aware of your parish context—those everyday routines that compose your life and work. Take a few minutes and reflect on the following:

  • If you were to use a GPS tracker to chart your daily routines of school, work, church, shopping, hobbies, etc., what geographic range would be encompassed in the course of a regular week?
  • Draw a mental map of the geography covered in your daily/weekly routines highlighting the key locations, paths of travel, and modes of transportation.
  • Track your “paper trail” of where you spent money this past week and locate these spots on your map.

Now consider this your “parish” for this next week or two. During this time your focus will be on coming to learn the deeper joys, struggles, idols, and gifts of your parish and to developing a praying imagination for life in this place.

  • Name as many people as you can think of whom you regularly encounter in your parish.
  • In what locations do you cross any “boundaries” and encounter people who do not share your socio-economic, ethnic, or religious background?
  • What can you do to alter your routines in order to engage with people from different socio-economic, ethnic, or religious backgrounds?
  • From your conversations and observations, what have you learned about the ambitions and dreams, fears and anxieties, needs and pain of people in your parish?

From what you see and experience in your parish and encounters with people, what trumpets (praises), ashes (confessions), tears (laments) and petitions do you feel led to voice to God?

By way of illustration, here is a prayer by one of my students (Jay Crossen) at Calvin Seminary for his Knollcrest neighborhood that deeply moved me:

I pass between the residences along the winding paths towards campus: calm, cold, quiet and reflective.

Thank You, Lord, for the Calvin Seminary community, and surrounding community. Thank You for earnest hearts that seek You and Your will.   

Thank You for the multitudes of good that You are doing through those that live in the seminary units, suburbs and throughout the city. Praise be to You!

I walk down the slushy edge of the poorly plowed suburban street without sidewalks: visible breath, bear trees, and big open blue heavens. I see myself in the reflections of the windows of these homes. I see fear, I see ignorance, I see busyness, I see self-centeredness, I see comfort, I see dysfunction, and I see dissatisfaction. We yearn for your community of servanthood, but we set about a path of self-centeredness to get there?

Lord, forgive us. My heart aches.

From the suburb, as I peer out from under my toque, I see the seminary apartments only a stone’s throw away, yet seemingly a world away. Thank You Lord, for You’ve begun to reveal to me some of the sharp lines of distinction we’ve created in this world. I pray Lord that You continue this work in me, and in all of us: to better see all the lines we’ve created in our local, Grand Rapids, and global community.

Lord, give us courage, strength, discernment, and love to take action to seek to deconstruct these lines appropriately and seek Your justice, mercy, and righteousness for all the beauty you’ve created, rich in diversity, in these broken situations.

Lord, break our hearts for the lost and the least! Lord, open our eyes to these injustices and, in so doing, cause us to mourn for them and to take action!

Further learning: