The Deep Roots of Reformation

By Brianna Lantz

Nations Media is built around four core values: Advocacy, Beauty, Life-Risk, and Reformation. These values shape the skeleton of every story we tell, animating each with form and forward movement. In this series, four essays will consider each pillar through a narrative lens. (Read previous essays here and here.) In this next installment, Brianna Lantz explores the value of Reformation. 

Two thousand miles stretch out before me: San Diego, CA to Montgomery, AL. I unfold my paper map and trace my finger in a straight line through the American South. I need only memorize two essential directions: take I-8 through California until it becomes I-10 in Arizona, and then it’s a straight shot from there.

I have committed myself to three weeks on the road, naming my journey the “Reformation Road Trip.” Inspired by the late Eugene Peterson’s turn of phrase “a long obedience in the same direction,” I am on a quest to find the reformers planted in the South’s toughest communities. I have been haunted by an ever-present question in our fractious era: who is filling the gaps between our common humanity? Who is laying down their life as a catalyst for hope, healing, and transformation?

The Reformation Roadtrip sounded nice in theory, noble even—that is, until I begin talking to myself somewhere west of Austin. (You don’t know boredom until you’ve driven the width of Texas and its 900 miles of desert and Waffle Houses and Whataburgers.) I‘ve burned through my podcasts, I’m bored of my playlists, and my eyes are heavy from staring at the same horizon for twelve-plus hours.

I think about the reformers I will soon meet: Jimmy Dorrell, who has been ministering to Waco’s homeless for 25 years; Gaynor Yancey, who has given over 40 years of her life mobilizing churches to engage in community development; Sister Alison McCrary, who has spent over a decade giving a prophetic voice to systemic change in the Deep South; Dr. John Perkins, who has modeled Gospel-centered racial reconciliation for over 50 years; Bryan Stevenson, who has spent over 30 years challenging bias in our criminal justice system.

The Reformation Roadtrip sounded nice in theory, noble even—that is, until I begin talking to myself somewhere west of Austin.

And with this reality check, I am instantly humbled. Surely I can spend three weeks driving 4,000 miles to tell these stories, to champion these reformers. It is the least I can do.

My mid-Texas loss of enthusiasm was minor but emblematic of the exhaustion we often face on the road of reformation. Maybe we’re spinning our wheels day-in and day-out, repeating a cycle of monotony without any perceived sense of purpose. Or conversely, maybe we’ve set out with a dream of changing the world—we’ve identified a need, found the intersection with our passion, and we’re off to the races. But somewhere in the trenches (statistically by year two, often earlier) we’re sidelined by any number of things: boredom, distraction, despair, depression, anxiety, secondary trauma, compassion fatigue.

In a distracted, burned-out activist culture, a person who drinks from deep streams and pushes past despair is a rarity. A true reformer is not immobilized by the daily onslaught of discouraging, often heartrending news. Instead, they are able to rise above the noise of the moment and heed the big picture. That ability is not a supernatural talent graced upon an extraordinary person, but rather it is a daily practice in faith that God will do what He said He would do, as promised in Revelation 21:4: “He will wipe every tear from their eyes. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” A reformer clings to this truth not out of resignation but as fuel for the tough journey ahead.

In a distracted, burned-out activist culture, a person who drinks from deep streams and pushes past despair is a rarity.

At Nations, we define reformation as “the act of ushering that which is broken into alignment with God’s heart and will.” The very act of ushering (see also: helping, guiding, leading) implies an action that may not yield an immediate end result. Perhaps the work of the reformer is to tend soil for fruit that she might not see in her lifetime.

Author Rebecca Solnit describes systemic change in this way: “Change is rarely straightforward…Sometimes it’s as complex as chaos theory and as slow as evolution. Even things that seem to happen suddenly arise from deep roots in the past or from long-dormant seeds.”

Perhaps the work of the reformer is to tend soil for fruit that she might not see in her lifetime.

The deep roots make up the so-called “big picture.” Acknowledging that we might not see the fruit of our work in our lifetime is not a natural inclination, nor a cheerful one. In fact, a site for activist trauma support illustrates a human predisposition toward burnout: “Activist burnout often appears to be caused by people setting themselves unrealistically high standards, which they are never quite able to meet, no matter how hard they drive themselves. Taking the weight of the world on your shoulders and not allowing yourself to rest until the problems of the world have been solved is a sure way to burn yourself out.”

Reformers, rooted in the Gospel and rested in the Divine presence, can be an exception to this trend. They need not take the weight of the world on their shoulders because they recognize that it’s not their burden to bear. Reformation is a partnership with God, who makes all things new, and who delights in our efforts—no matter how small. Reformation means recognizing Christ as savior. Our work, if done in light of the Gospel, will always point back to him.

During my visit to Montgomery, Bryan Stevenson echoed a similar sentiment: “Justice is a constant struggle. I think you have to expect a certain level of weariness, you just have to have a strategy for managing it. I feel really fortunate to be in some ways well-trained because I was surrounded by people growing up who had so much to make them weary, who had to deal with so much that could push them down. And yet they persisted, and yet they prevailed. That witness has been really important to me.”

Reformation is a partnership with God, who makes all things new, and who delights in our efforts—no matter how small.

A life committed to reformation is inevitably marked by bleak moments of exhaustion and despair. But emboldened by the witness of our predecessors, we endure with the assurance that we are not alone. We plant our seeds alongside the reformers who came before us in the hope of future harvest. We lean upon the Lord and His promise to bring darkness into the light (Job 12:22). And we keep on driving for as long as it takes, eyes fixed on the road ahead, readying ourselves for a long obedience in the same direction.