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

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