Saturday, February 27, 2010

Important Invitation

I know my blog posts are long and dense attempts to explore critically important theological, spiritual, religious subjects and how I see their relevance to contemporary personal, cultural, social, political issues.

To assist me in that effort and to ensure my posts address what interests and matters to you, I warmly invite you to send me your questions, issues and suggestions for future blogs and how I might make them better. You can do that either by making a comment on a recent post or send them directly to me at

Think about it, and thanks. Ted

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Faith's Twin - #4

O God, you are in the beginning and end of all things, and in your sight a thousand (ages) are like an evening gone. Still, you have assured us that not even a sparrow is forgotten in your sight. In our sight, then, that makes our evenings at least as precious to you as they are to us, and we even more precious to you than we are to ourselves and each other. In that assurance is our struggle to grow in awareness, trust and love. And in that awareness is rooted our courage, peace and hope for each day and night of our lives ... Excerpted from Loaves, Fishes and Leftovers: Sharing Faith's Deep Questions by Ted Loder

For several reasons I won't go into, I've been delayed even longer than usual in publishing this post but one of them was that when I tried the first time I mistakenly deleted much of it. So I had to rewrite it after finally recovering my cool. I suppose this apology for the delay is not needed by any of you but I need to record it anyway. Sorry!

Without further delay then, we come to the last of my reflections on courage being faith's indispensable twin. In that effort I've referred to three thoughts or convictions of the remarkable theologian, H. Richard Niebuhr because of their particular relevance to the subject. Two were the focus of preceding posts.

Now, in Niebuhr's own words: "The third conviction which ... underlies the former (ones) ... is that Christianity is 'permanent revolution' or metanoia which does not come to an end in this world, this life, or this time. Positively stated these three convictions are that (humans are) justified by grace, that God is sovereign, and that there is an eternal life."
The Meaning of Revelation by H. Richard Niebuhr.

It's refreshing, enlightening and compelling to realize that Christianity is permanent revolution. That concisely stated definition is why authentic faith requires courage because it indicates that the Christian faith is a continuing, transforming process rather than a fixed, secure state or condition.

At least since the Reformation, Christianity as permanent revolution recognizes that no assertions or descriptions of God are absolute and final. It recognizes that religion's institutions, scriptures, creeds and practices are formative but not divinely ordained repositories of infallible truth. They guide, support but do not justify us or our actions to ourselves, others or God. Christianity as a permanent revolution means that being born again is neither a qualifying necessity nor a decisive indication of anyone's rank in the kingdom of God. A more accurate application of that metaphor would be that Christian faith is about "being born again and again and again," perhaps two or three times a day, maybe once before lunch in my personal history.

Remember what Luther said so incisively: "Whatever you get your sense of worth from and to which you give your loyalty, is properly your god." The truth is that all of us frequently succumb to the constant temptation to get our sense of worth from and give our loyalty to one or more of the finite gods or idols of our society. After all, no one wants to, or really can, long endure feeling worthless. So we take the worth ("you deserve...") bait of our culture's little gods and loyally go with them. Our idols are our insistent pre-occupation with ourselves, our ingrown self-centeredness and inflated self-promotion. They're our self-serving groups, associations, institutions; the status rank of our racial, gender, ethnic factions; our respected occupation, income, class, national identities, even our sports teams, any and all of which bestow on us not only a sense of worth but of superiority similar to the way we scream, "We're number One" when our team wins or, after an hiatus, even when they don't.

The list of our little gods goes on to include family, possessions, sex, economic system, technology, political party, country, patriotism, military power, whatever makes us feel worthy, proud, popular, confirmed, rewarded, well-off. All of them promote the experience of feeling all warm and fuzzy -- and that's the problem, isn't it? Warm and fuzzy doesn't last very long or deal well with the cold sweats in the night or some kind of a weary hangover in the morning.

Doubtless it's true that "After all, no one wants to, or really can, long endure feeling worthless." But, if we're honest with ourselves, the "after all" always hits when some inkling of the "after" starts nagging at the edges of our lives, a vague but stubborn feeling that none of our little gods, even added together, really come close to being "all." So there we are, caught in the between of all and not all.

Of course, many of our little gods are good things, good pursuits, good gifts which is why they are so appealing. To some extent they genuinely make us feel worthy, and the rightly require a degree of our loyalty. And yet, that good is always limited and relative. Sooner or later the insufficiency of our little gods dawns on us and the "after all" becomes, "Is that all?" Sometimes that happens at the end of a day, or week, or month, or year such as a mid-year crisis, our 40th or 50th or 60th birthday. But even then we tend to just run faster and harder after our little gods or turn in despair to other little gods like booze or drugs or affairs or self-pity or viral fear or judgmental rage or stoic cynicism, and begin to die a little every day.

Friends, to face and live fully with all life's uncertainties takes the faith and courage to join a permanent revolution against all our little idolatries, to face into and trustingly live out those nagging questions with no absolute answers, to persist in the process of faith and to travel light in it. That's what it means to be "in" or "with" God who is always "on the move" and always more that we think or know or understand. It takes courage for faith to be that humble albeit that daring. Never-the-less that is what it is to be justified by God's grace. Faith holds, or better, is held by, the truth that God doesn't seek worth, or demand it - God gives it! That what love does, and God's love does unqualifiedly - gives worth. That's what grace is. That's the love that gave us life, the love we live and die in.

Faith requires courage to trust and live in that love. Repeat with me, "faith is a process." It isn't so much about a conversion, a Pauline "knocked off your horse" dramatic event, as it is a slow, continuing acceptance and living out of God's love. A courageous faith discerns anew and yet anew and anew again what it means to live not for, but in and from God's love. Faith is about trusting the worth God gave us at birth and keeps giving every day because for God there is no "after all" and so there isn't for us either. Niebuhr puts it simply: there is an eternal life.

When you hit the bottom of those "after all," middle of the night, or whenever, sweat soaked questions, there's that no ducking the truth that if nothing else does, death makes brothers and sisters of us all. No matter who we are, we are all going to die. Death is the chilling, often denied and inchoate question lurking at edge of everything, under all questions about what life means. Woody Allen asked it this way when portraying his boyhood: "Since the world is going to end in a million years anyway, why do my homework?"

One way or another, some form of Woody's question is really everyone's question, isn't it? Stripped of all the heady nuances and split hairs, answer it one way, and nothing really matters much, it's dog eat dog, or rich eat poor, my way eats your way, our missiles eat your missiles, and yet who really gives a damn because anything goes, or better, everything goes around and down the abyss drain.

Answer it another way, and nearly everything and surely everyone, matters, and the permanent revolution goes on because death can't stop it or stop God. That revolution affirms that, by God!, each life is of eternal worth, that justice and mercy, reconciliation and peace, beauty and compassion are worth our effort, that love is not just a feeling but more what you do, the quality of your life, how you live and why, and though none of it is easy, it's about living your worth, our worth, which is truly joyful.

His close friend, Lillian Ross, said in her Remembrance of J. D. Salinger, that he was so delighted after he bought a washer and dryer, "that the salesman had quoted Ruskin to him, 'Something about where quality counts, price doesn't' (and) that he was sure that the line wasn't part of the man's spiel." (The New Yorker, Feb. 8, 2010). I love that line, don't you? It has many applications. To me, one of them is that where the deepest quality of life counts, the price to live it doesn't. That's what it means that faith takes courage to be in the process of permanent revolution and living in and with the grace of God.

Paul put it this way which is creed enough for me: "I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, not things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything in all create, will be able to separate me from the love of God in Christ Jesus."

You're worth thinking about it. Ted

Wednesday, February 3, 2010

Faith's Twin - #3

Wondrous Worker of Wonders,
I praise you, not alone for what has been, or for what is,
but for what is yet to be,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
I praise you that out of the turbulence of my life
a kingdom is coming, is being shaped even now
out of my slivers of loving, my bits of trusting, my sprigs of hoping,
my tootles of laughing, my drips of crying, my smidgens of worshiping;
that out of my songs and struggles, out my griefs and triumphs,
I am gathered up and saved,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
I praise you that you turn me loose to go with you to the edge of now and maybe,
to welcome the new, to see my possibilities, to accept my limits,
and yet begin living to the limit of passion and compassion until, released by joy,
I uncurl to other people, and to your kingdom coming,
for you are gracious beyond all telling of it.
--From Guerrillas of Grace: Prayers for the Battle

With all the problems entangling us these days, it's easy to get discouraged, even a bit despairing. Throw in the late winter blues of "lasts forever February" doldrums seem to be the order of the season. How's that for a segue to this post on my blog series concerning courage being faith's indispensable twin? If it doesn't seem to connect, hang in and let's see why I started this way.

In my last post, I stated that the seminal theologian H. Richard Niebuhr was the major influence on me when I studied at Yale Divinity School. In his book, The Meaning of Revelation, Dr. Niebuhr laid out three convictions that underlie his thinking. Each seem to significantly relate to the topic of courage being indispensable to faith. In my last post, we examined the first, namely that self-defense is the most prevalent source of error in all thinking.

Here's Niebuhr's second conviction for us to consider: "... the great source of evil in life is the absolutizing of the relative, which in Christianity takes the form of substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God."

At first, that seems a disturbing, discomforting assertion. But think again. It isn't that we can't find any degree of spiritual or psychological truth, or bit of insight into God, or semblance of justice and goodness in our lives and relationships, or our religious heritage; it's that we should not and cannot claim for any of them the status of an absolute or universal or inviolable truth or statement of a permanent state of reality. To claim that for any of them unleashes great harm or evil on our world and the human community. To accept that everything is relative is to realize that it's all conditioned and by time, by changing historical situations, new knowledge, varieties of experience, our always compromised spirituality and our finite mental capacity.

In simple terms, for Christians it means that though Jesus is our primary clue to who God is, there is still impenetrable mystery about God because God is more than we can see in Jesus: not completely other and yet more than we see in Jesus in ways we cannot grasp being mere mortals. To insist, to proclaim, to demand otherwise is to dehumanize others and ourselves.

How? Absolutizing our finite grasp of truths reduces human life to a power struggle between contending "absolutes." It distorts human relations into struggles for dominance and against submission. Both are dehumanizing and generate evil consequences. It inflicts great damage by insisting, even forcing others to accept and confirm to our "absolute truths." We do that by any means at our disposal from manipulation, subversion, institutional authority and intimidating warnings, to exercising all kinds of physical, psychological, economic power, even threats or acts of violence.

In personal relationships we do it by gossiping about others, distorting their views or actions, demeaning them, disrespecting them while exaggerating our own. Listen to how you and others talk about mutual "friends, neighbors, colleagues, social acquaintances when they're not present. That's a form of absolutizing our own relative views and behaviors. To practice any of that kind of absolutizing, or pieces of it, in society, or nation, or personal affairs, does in fact unleash evil on ourselves, others and the world. Think racism, sexism, gay bashing, ethnic discrimination, arrogant nationalism, war, nuclear proliferation, classism, economic manipulation, religious discrimination and pretentious claims as ready examples.

Recently I went to see my granddaughter, Lyle, act a small part in an off-Broadway production of Arthur Miller's, The Crucible. I assume you know the play. It's about the Salem
Witch hunt in the late 1692 and after. In his comments about the play, Miller wrote about the practice in that time of appointing a two-man patrol to check on whether people attended Sabbath worship services and behaved themselves properly and to take the names of any persons who did not and give them to the magistrates to take action against the offenders.

Miller goes on to write,
This predilection for minding other people's business was time-honored among the people of Salem, and it undoubtedly created many of the suspicions that were to feed the coming madness ... so now they and their church found in necessary to deny any other sect its freedom, lest their New Jerusalem be defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas. They believed, in short, that they held in their steady hands the candle that would light the world. We have inherited this belief, and it has helped and hurt us ...The times, to their eyes, must have been as out of joint ... seemed as insoluble and complicated as do ours today. It is not hard to see how easily many could have been led to believe that the time of confusion had been brought on them by deep and darkly forces ... it is too much to expect people to hold back very long from laying on (others) all the force of their frustrations.
Miller wrote those words, and The Crucible, in 1952 in the time of Senator Joe McCarthy's witch hunt of communists he saw lurking behind hundreds of desks and positions in Washington, D.C. and all across the country. Millions of citizens supported the witch hunt and many careers were ruined by it to say nothing of its destructive affect in international circles. It is subtle and yet insidious to define ourselves, or our nation, as a "New Jerusalem" in constant danger of being "defiled and corrupted by wrong ways and deceitful ideas." But it is devilishly easy to do that.

Do you see any connection of this to what we are experiencing in our time? Does absolutizing the relative have anything to do with the ugly partisan battles of our political parties, with making slanderous attacks on anyone who doesn't conform to our absolute positions from other nations to the President to large swathes of voters in our own country, with demonizing all Muslims (No, I am not in any way in favor of terrorists of any kind), with the constant postponing of action on global warming and erecting road blocks to health care reform because government regulations are contrary to the absolute good of free market capitalism? Do you see any connection of this absolutizing process to racism which is still alive in the country, or the dismal record for helping the poor here and across the globe, or the slow progress of gays for equal rights, or the inaction on immigration reform? Or do you sense of it in any of your strained or increasingly distant relationships, catch a whiff of subtle witch hunting at work, among colleagues, or neighbors, or friends, or even families, because we all tend to absolutize our views or positions and gather exclusively with those who agree with us? To some degree we all do because that's the temptation to which we tend to succumb.

You may think I'm overstating the point and perhaps I am. But I don't think by much. It's that evil sneaks up on us, or out of us if we don't pay close attention to our inclination to absolutize our views. Evil isn't easily identified by appearing with a forked tail, horns and pitchfork. It slinks around like a mould, a leak in the exhaust pipe, a thoughtless, ill-tempered choice, a faith curdled by cowardice into making us feel proudly secure in our rightness, or more accurately, self-righteousness by doing what Niebuhr warns us of doing, namely "... substituting religion, revelation, church or Christian morality for God" -- and I'd be bold to add a few other substitutes like country, class, cause, comfort, certainty.

It's that last one, certainty, that's the clincher because it is damnably hard, or better, blessedly hard, to live without it. That's why the whole issue comes down to courage being the indispensable twin of faith. That is why I do not in any way want to have this post read as collaboration in a nurturing sense of despair, or of the midwinter blues that run from January to November, and if you get that from what I've written, I haven't been clear enough.

So, PLEASE, stay with me as I make the effort. First this: However destructive our knee jerk absolutizing of our relative views may be, that is still no cause for throwing up your hands, or sinking down in spirit in chronic despair or spiritual paralysis. No human situation, no personal crisis, no national or international condition is that overwhelming or immutable. To think or say that is just another form of absolutizing. That's the good news here. Really!

You see, when faith is fused with courage, we can begin to live with uncertainty but without anxiety, even if it takes a lifetime to achieve that condition. Or to quote the prophet Isaiah, we can "wait for the Lord ... renew (our) strength ... and run and not be weary ... walk and not faint" as we move in the direction of living with uncertainty with the courage of faith.

Faith twinned courage enables us to live with uncertainty in the honest realization of the evil consequence of absolutizing our little relatives but also to live with the awarenesss that such realization has with two good consequences:
One is the relief or freedom of spirit in realizing that God is not limited to our little relative views but is at work in human life and history in His/Her own gracious but mysterious way and according Her/His own purposes which exceed but do not necessarily exclude our little relative views or faith;
Two is the freedom, the relief, of realizing that we can add our little bits and pieces of truth to the work God is about in human life and history. To do that also involves faith with courage.

Those two consequences enable us to work persistently and gladly, but humbly as well, for whatever relative views we have of justice and peace, compassion, love of neighbor and enemy. We can do that because of our gratitude to and love of God who will use our efforts as He/She determines. We can do that with a kind of joy precisely because we aren't absolutely wed to having a particular outcome result from our efforts at a specific time or particular way.

So here's the so called bottom line. Courageous faith is not in, or defined by, our side, our view and values winning whatever fight we're in. It is not in achieving a particular outcome we hold to be the only right, true and good one. Our courageous faith is in God and His/Her mysterious ways. So, we're free to be humble, open and attentive to other views, and yet daring, persistent, intelligent guerrillas of grace, as I titled one of my books.

Adam Gopnik says the what made van Gogh such a powerful painter was that, unlike so many artists who paint to be popular in a sort of flamboyant, self-aggrandizing way, he had the spirit, passion and courageous faith to risk "making something that no one wants in the belief that someday someone will." As a young man, van Gogh set out to be pastor of a church but then felt himself called by God to be an artist. He was on speaking terms with God all his short life.
That's what he painted and we are in that someday and among the someones who want the something he had the courage of his faith to give us.

We're not alone in our struggles and it is not ALL up to us. Yes, God can and does use our efforts,surely in ways we don't fully understand. That doesn't matter. But how we live, for and with whom and Whom, and for what does matter. And that's more by far than enough.

Think about it. Ted

If you're willing, give me your suggestions and criticisms.