When Ken Wytsma was an undergraduate engineering major, he had a health scare that caused him to re-evaluate the fast-paced fraternity partying way of life he enjoyed.
He began reading the Bible, then attended a Christian conference where, his friends said upon his return, he "got religion."
Indeed, Wytsma counts this the time in his life when he came to faith in Christ.
And with this newfound faith, he was trying to figure out what it all meant. As he read the Bible, a passage in the book of James stood out to him: "Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress" (James 1:27).
The 22-year-old engineering major decided to take this mandate to heart in true engineer-mind fashion: conduct an experiment in reaching out to widows, and what better place to find widows but at a nursing home. Wytsma visited a nursing home weekly in the middle of a South Carolina countryside for an entire semester of school, talking to elderly folks, wanting to make a difference in their lives. And maybe get a pat on the back in the end.
After several months, he learned his first lesson in justice and mercy. There are often no rewards in the end. Pure religion, Wytsma discovered early on, was about giving and not expecting anything in return, which is the very picture of God's love. Indeed, the cliché is true: Giving is better than receiving.
Wytsma recounts this story and others related to the heart of God, justice and mercy in his just-released book, "Pursuing Justice: The Call to Live & Die for Bigger Things," published by Thomas Nelson. In this fascinating book, endorsed by dozens of justice advocates like Walter Brueggemann, professor at Columbia Theological Seminary, Eugene Cho, the visionary for One Day's Wages, and Bethany Hoang, the director of the International Justice Mission, Wytsma weaves personal stories, stories from others, and Scripture and quotes with interludes of poems and other artistic expression. The title of his book comes from Deuteronomy 16:20: "Justice and only justice shall your pursue."
In his book, Wytsma analyzes the word justice, beginning with its importance to God. Chapter Two might summarize the book best: when we "do justice" (such as helping the poor and needy) in essence that is proof of truly knowing God (as found in Jeremiah 22).
Wytsma has learned a thing or two about justice and pure religion since those early days at the nursing home. One of his gifts is to connect others in their love, passion, and calling for justice, which led him to found the Justice Conference in 2011. Last year's Justice Conference drew 4,000 folks to Portland Oregon, and this year's event, which begins Friday, Feb. 22 in Philadelphia, will bring together many more from around the country and world.
Wytsma, who is the founder of Kilns College-School of Theology as well as the founding pastor of Antioch Church, sensed a need to write Pursuing Justice after years of teaching, living and learning about justice.
"I've felt called to try and get something out that would redeem the word justice and also show its relevance to the rest of the big questions -- God, life and happiness," he said. "Much of what is out there either leaves people feeling guilty, over idealistic that we can 'fix' the world, or thinking that justice is about certain causes like human trafficking."
"In the end, justice is bigger, deeper and more central than all of that. It leads to joy -- it truly is better to give than receive -- and surfaces the need for grace both to cover us and sustain us," Wytsma said.
In chapter four, "Human Rights and Happiness: Recovering the Moral Right of Happiness," he fleshes out this age-old idea that it is better to give. Wytsma claims that the pursuit of God (or similarly the pursuit of justice) is the same thing as the pursuit of (true) happiness. He cites the "human right" -- the Pursuit if Happiness -- found in Thomas Jefferson's Declaration of Independence. In essence he is redeeming the word "happiness" as well, because true happiness comes when we serve others.
It seems though that the word justice, or social justice, has become a buzzword in today's Christian circles. And Wytsma addresses this issue. Sure, living a just life affects decisions such as where we shop or sending funds to a village in Sub-Saharan Africa. But "a deep understanding of justice, not only calls forward those actions, but also speaks to how we treat our spouse, how we respond to the person who cuts us off on the road, our hidden prejudices, the subtle commitment to choose self before sacrifice, how we are knowingly or unknowingly implicit in unjust structures and systemic problems, and ultimately, magnifies the gospel as the standard of justice while spotlighting our need for grace."
In chapter five, "Love as Sacrament: How Justice Informs Love," he gives the example of his friend Daniel Fan, who talks to him about how people are into helping in far away places such as Africa while missing the needs of their next door neighbor, so to speak, such as the plight of Indigenous people.
"You can't rob Crazy Horse to pay Bishop Tutu and call it social justice," Fan said.
That strikes at the heart of Wytsma's message -- both at the Justice Conference and in his book. Pure religion -- doing justice and mercy -- is doing it when no one is looking, when it's not the hip thing to do, and when no one is patting you on the back or giving in return, as Wytsma learned during months of visits to a nursing home in South Carolina so many years ago.
It's the very picture of God's love for us.