Friday, May 27, 2011

A Radical Centrist Manifesto I


Once, while sitting in the back of a class in seminary, I turned to a friend and said, “I’m a radical centrist.” At the time I was mostly just amused by the oxymoronic irony of the phrase. But, upon reflection, I have come to appreciate the term. Properly understood, being a radical centrist might actually be a good thing. One could make the case that that is part of the genius of the Anglican tradition (though, I’d suggest there are ways in which we haven’t always been radical enough). I think the church where I get to be the rector/pastor has tried to embody a sort of radical centrist community (though, again, we could probably be more radical).

I propose to attempt a sketch of what it might mean for a Christian to be a radical centrist beginning today and on subsequent Fridays.

I. What it is Not, Part 1: Not Moderate

Radical Centrist is not the same as “moderate.” I confess that I am congenitally cautious. Thus I find moderation in and of itself an attractive idea. It can be a short-coming for sure. But I am also convinced that there can be nothing moderate about following the one who said things like:

"If any want to become my followers, let them deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me.” - Mark 8:34

“But I say to you, Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,”
- Matthew 5:44

“For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few.” - Matthew 7:14

“He who finds his life will lose it, and he who loses his life for my sake will find it.” - Matthew 10:39

“To him who strikes you on the cheek, offer the other also; and from him who takes away your coat do not withhold even your shirt.” - Luke 6:29

“It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God." - Mark 10:25

“But I say to you that everyone who looks at a woman with lust has already committed adultery with her in his heart.” - Matthew 5:28

“But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgment; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, "You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.”
- Matthew 5:22

"Whoever divorces his wife and marries another commits adultery against her; and if she divorces her husband and marries another, she commits adultery." - Mark 10”11-12

"If any one comes to me and does not hate his own father and mother and wife and children and brothers and sisters, yes, and even his own life, he cannot be my disciple.” - Luke 14:26

“So therefore, none of you can become my disciple if you do not give up all your possessions.” - Luke 14:33

“He who believes in the Son has eternal life; he who does not obey the Son shall not see life, but the wrath of God rests upon him.” - John 3:36

"Truly, truly, I say to you, unless you eat the flesh of the Son of man and drink his blood, you have no life in you;” - John 6:53

"I am the way, and the truth, and the life; no one comes to the Father, but by me.” - John 14:6

"I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another. By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another." - John 13:34-35

To be a radical centrist means being centered on Jesus and taking seriously the radical challenge of his whole life and teaching. It also means being suspicious of attempts to rationalize or interpret away that challenge in any of the particulars in order to make Jesus safe. And it means being honest about one’s own failure to live into his radical challenge. There’s nothing very moderate about any of that.

Next week: Something else it is not

Tuesday, May 24, 2011

Grace = the First and Last Word

For Christians,
The first word is grace
The last word is grace
And every day along the way is grace, grace, grace

I was reminded of this last week as I drove from Chicago to California. I was listening to a lecture series on Augustine of Hippo, that great theologian of grace, and then to a U2 CD that included the song below.

Grace is God's favor extended toward us, unearned and undeserved. Grace is the invitation extended by Jesus (and made possible by his life, death, and resurrection) to enter into the irresistible and penetrating light of God's love. And more, it is the gift of God's own Spirit working in us enabling us to RSVP. Still more, grace is the promise of the Holy Spirit working in us to bring about a radical transformation through forgiveness, healing, and the infusion of God's own love such that we may become partakers of the divine nature.

In an interview, Bono of the rock band, U2 had this to say about grace:
Bono: You see, at the center of all religions is the idea of Karma. You know, what you put out comes back to you: an eye for an eye, a tooth for a tooth, or in physics; in physical laws every action is met by an equal or an opposite one. It’s clear to me that Karma is at the very heart of the universe. I’m absolutely sure of it. And yet, along comes this idea called Grace to upend all that “as you sow, so you will reap” stuff. Grace defies reason and logic. Love interrupts, if you like, the consequences of your actions, which in my case is very good news indeed, because I’ve done a lot of stupid stuff.

Assayas: I’d be interested to hear that.

Bono: That’s between me and God. But I’d be in big trouble if Karma was going to finally be my judge. I’d be in deep shit. It doesn’t excuse my mistakes, but I’m holding out for Grace. I’m holding out that Jesus took my sins onto the Cross, because I know who I am, and I hope I don’t have to depend on my own religiosity.
— The Poached Egg: Bono Interview: Grace Over Karma

She takes the blame
She covers the shame
Removes the stain
It could be her name

It's a name for a girl
It's also a thought that changed the world
And when she walks on the street
You can hear the strings
Grace finds goodness in everything

Grace, she's got the walk
Not on a ramp or on chalk
She's got the time to talk
She travels outside of karma
She travels outside of karma
When she goes to work
You can hear her strings
Grace finds beauty in everything

Grace, she carries a world on her hips
No champagne flute for her lips
No twirls or skips between her fingertips
She carries a pearl in perfect condition

What once was hurt
What once was friction
What left a mark
No longer stings
Because grace makes beauty
Out of ugly things

Sunday, May 22, 2011

C. S. Lewis and the World's Last Night

In light of the recent mistaken prediction of the world's end, I commend C. S. Lewis' essay, The World's Last Night. Here is an excerpt from the last paragraph of that essay:

"I do not find that pictures of physical catastrophe – that sign in the clouds, those heavens rolled up like a scroll – help one so much as the naked idea of Judgment. We cannot always be excited. We can, perhaps, train ourselves even now to ask more and more often how the thing we are saying or doing (or failing to do) at the each moment will look when the irresistible light streams in upon it; that light which is so different from the light of this world – and yet, even now, we know just enough to take it into account."

Tuesday, May 17, 2011

Beyond Velcro and Teflon, there is a Shepherd

When we are confronted with the mystery that is God we tend to make one of two common mistakes. Both are ways we try to avoid coming to grips with the mystery and to avoid the mystery coming to grips with us.

The first mistake is to presume mastery over the mystery. It is to believe that we have God somehow captured, somehow defined, such that when we say “God” we think we know exactly what we are talking about. We presume that every name and definition we throw at God sticks. It is as if God is made of Velcro. It is the way of various fundamentalisms. And it is rooted in fear. It is an attempt protect ourselves from the ambiguity of mystery by building walls of certainty.

But, there is no such certainty. God is not made of Velcro. Not every name, every image, every definition, no matter how good, that we throw at God sticks. And God is always more than and, in a profound way, other than, all our images and definitions and names for God.

If all images and definitions of God fall short, perhaps it is better to say that all the names for God are off the mark and no one really knows. Perhaps if we take the mystery seriously we should acknowledge that we do not know all that much about God. Perhaps we should accept that all names, images, and words for God are more or less right and more or less wrong. This has in fact become a popular approach. Some people stop using the word “God” because even that is too definite. It has become fashionable in some circles to refer to the “Sacred” or the “Holy.” One popular writer suggests that what we call “God” is the “something more” about reality. In this understanding all of the particular names and ways of understanding the divine are more or less equal human attempts to address the mystery. We throw names, words, and definitions at the mystery, but none of them sticks. It is as if God is made of Teflon.

But there are problems with the Teflon understanding. For one thing it surrenders too much to agnosticism which leaves us knowing nothing about the mystery. But, it also masks a desire to prevent the mystery from having any mastery over us. When people say they don’t care what you name God, what they usually seem to mean is, “I don’t care what you name God, as long as the God you name supports and endorses those things that I consider most important. I don’t care if you name God “Allah”, or “Yahweh”, or “Vishnu”, as long as the God you name supports what I hold most dear and considers obvious what I consider obvious, and reprehensible what I consider reprehensible.

Another problem with the Tephlon approach is that it leaves us in charge of the ambiguity. We tend to find ambiguity where it is convenient – in those areas that don’t mean much to us. If God is Teflon and no name sticks we are left with the prejudices we have picked up elsewhere. God-talk becomes merely a way to give our biases extra gravitas. Thus, as with the Velcro understanding, speaking as though God is made of Teflon is, in its own way, also a kind of hiding. If God is all ambiguity, then none of my most firmly held values or prejudices are challenged. My political and cultural assumptions are safe. My ideological prejudices are unassailable. It is possible to hide from the mystery behind walls of certainty. It is also possible to hide in a fog of ambiguity.

If the mystery at the heart of it all is not Velcro or Teflon, what might be a better understanding? What if, out of the mystery, God has made a gate in our walls and come searching for us in our fog to call us out and lead us deeper into the mystery? We might then have some direction and some knowledge, but we would not pretend to have mastery over the mystery. God does not give us certainty. God does not leave us guessing. God gives us Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

It is important to remember that God is mystery. An attitude of humility is essential and all of our knowing is partial. But, Christians believe God has not remained utterly unknown. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, then we begin to have some idea of the paths we should follow. If the Good Shepherd laid down his life for us, we ought to lay down our lives for one another. We will not demand the lives of others to protect own security or way of life. We will understand the world’s goods as things to be shared. We have some idea of what it means for us to love, not in word or speech, but in truth and action. And that will reassure our hearts.

If Jesus is the Good Shepherd we are faced with a decision. Do we risk following him into the mystery or not? We live in a society in which to choose one way over others and suggest it is nearer the truth is offensive. But, there is really no escaping it. Sooner or later, we choose something or someone, some principal or ideology, to shepherd our thoughts and actions – whether we name it “God” or “the Sacred” or “Spirit” or something else. Choosing Jesus, and claiming Jesus as the Good Shepherd, is no more presumptuous or arbitrary than choosing any other idea to shape our lives. And following Jesus as the Good Shepherd does lead to some conclusions about the nature of the mystery of God. The Church has summarized those conclusions in the Creeds. At the heart of the Creeds is Jesus who calls us by name and calls us to follow. That call is a challenge to all our usual ways of thinking and being. We cannot hide in ambiguity and fill the mystery with our own definitions. If we want to be led along right pathways through the valley of the shadow of death, there is no better shepherd than Jesus, the Good Shepherd.

Still, if we follow Jesus out of the fog of ambiguity he does not lead us behind walls of certainty. God remains a mystery, neither Velcro nor Teflon. What we are offered is humble confidence. If Jesus is the Good Shepherd, we can have confidence that, following him, we are headed in the right direction. He will lead us to still water and green pasture.

Jesus, the Good Shepherd, has come to us from the Mystery at the heart of it all to lead us back, ever more deeply into that Mystery. The Good Shepherd does not come to grant us the security of certainty. Nor does the Good Shepherd allow us to avoid the risk choosing. But, the Good Shepherd does call us to lie down in green pastures and leads us beside still waters. The Good Shepherd does lead us along right pathways for his Name’s sake. Jesus comes to us and calls, “Come out, come out, wherever you are. Come out from behind your walls. Come out of the fog. Follow me into the open country of faith. It is for us to decide whether or not we will follow.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

C. S. Lewis on Praying for One's Enemies

The practical problem about charity (in one’s prayer) is very hard work, isn’t it? When you pray for Hitler and Stalin how do you actually teach yourself to make the prayer real? The two things that help me are (a) A continual grasp of the idea that one is only joining one’s feeble little voice to the perpetual intercession of Christ who died for these very men. (b) A recollection, as firm as I can make it, of all one’s own cruelty; which might have blossomed under different conditions into something terrible. You and I are not at bottom so different from these ghastly creatures.

Letter to Dom Bede Griffiths, 16 Apr 1940

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Lost Coins

Given the news that Osama bin Laden was killed on Sunday, I reread the sermon I preached the Sunday after 9/11/01. The scriptures appointed for that Sunday were
Exodus 32:1,7-14
Psalm 51:1-18
1 Timothy 1:12-17
Luke 15:1-10
The basic message still seems relevant in light of this week's developments:

In the wake of last Tuesday’s terrorist attack, Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson were quoted in the papers as saying that the blame lays partly on the moral bankruptcy of America. You know the usual suspects: feminists, homosexuals, secular humanists, abortionists. Others have been pointing out that America does not have completely innocent hands in the world. To the extent that the United States has propped up oppressive and unjust systems around the world, it is no surprise that some people strike back. This point of view has its own list of usual suspects. I wonder if both of these responses don’t spring from the same impulse. It is the desire to distance ourselves from the evil and the horror that unfolded before our eyes this week.

We see this same impulse at work at some point during every presidential administration. As soon as the current president gets into some trouble, bumper stickers show up saying, “Don’t blame me; I voted for (the other guy).” Don’t blame me; I voted for Dole. Don’t blame me; I voted for Gore. A similar thing seems to be happening here. Don’t blame me; I’m not a homosexual or an abortionist. Don’t blame me; I’ve been speaking out against America’s injustices for a long time. Don’t blame me; I’m a pacifist. Don’t blame me; I’m not a terrorist. Don’t blame me; I’m an American. We want desperately to distance ourselves from the deeds of September 11th. We desire to draw lines over which we can step so we can be among those who are righteous and innocent. We can then point across the line at those who are guilty, unrighteous, evildoers. We come up with a list of suspects and assign responsibility. But that desire to distance ourselves from the sinners is the desire of the Pharisee. We should know better.

For all the horror, the shock, and the enormity of Tuesday, the deep evil of it, Christians of all people should not to be surprised. After all, we believe that the deepest mystery of the world is played out during Holy Week: the Passion, the cross. We know that the human situation is desperate. We know that we are lost. There is no distancing ourselves from the disaster of human history, the disaster of current events. We are all members of the human race, not just sharing in the tragedy of human history with those who are suffering victims, but also sharing in the guilt of humanity, which is capable of such evil. We share the human stain. To be human is to be implicated. We are all suspect.

In Psalm 51, we are faced with this hard truth, “Have mercy on me, O God, according to your loving kindness. In your great compassion blot out my offenses. Wash me through and through from my wickedness, and cleanse me from my sins, for I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. Against you only have I sinned and done what is evil in your sight. And so you are justified when you speak, and upright in your judgment. Indeed, I have been wicked from my birth, a sinner from my mother’s womb.” Hard words to hear. It sounds like original sin, the idea that from our birth, something is not quite right. It is not a pleasant idea and one that we want to deny. But, it remains the invisible elephant in the living room of human history and human society. Too be sure, we are created in the image of God and are therefore glorious creatures, capable of great good. We’ve seen that as well in the last week. But Christians know the sobering truth that being created in the image of God is not the only thing that unites us. We are all bound together as a race that has made a mess of things. The radical nature of sin, to which the doctrine of original sin points, means that each of us is born into that mess and each of us bears the stain. Each of us is the lost coin. I am the lost coin. Much as I want to separate myself, there is no escaping the uncomfortable realization that, however much I try to wash my hands, like Lady MacBeth and Pilate before me, the stain remains.

There are no lines we can draw that make us innocent and “them” guilty. That does not let those who planned and executed the evil on Tuesday off the hook. They are guilty of a heinous act. There should be an accounting. But we should be wary of self-righteousness and the impulse for revenge. The line that separates good from evil, light from darkness, righteousness from unrighteousness, is not a line that we can draw such that we end up on the right side. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, who knew what it was to experience injustice, wrote, “The line separating good and evil passes not through states, not between classes, not between political parties either, not between ethnic groups, but right through every human heart and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of hearts there remains an unuprooted small corner of evil.” We all like sheep are gone astray. Each of us is the lost coin. It is not hard to see that in the case of Osama Bin Laden and the terrorists. But, the psalm calls for us to look carefully into our own heart to see our own share in the stain.

Each of us is the lost coin. I am the lost coin. You are the lost coin. The homosexuals and abortionists are the lost coin. The most ardent militarists are the lost coin. Jerry Falwell and Pat Robertson are the lost coin. The people buried in the rubble; each one, a lost coin. Indeed, the whole world is the lost coin. That is the deep and disturbing truth that we know.

But praise God! We know a still deeper truth. As the Pharisees were amazed and offended to see, “This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them.” If the reality we live is the valley of the shadow of death, we know that God has entered into that valley. We, as individuals, as a nation, as a species, are not left to our own devices. As 1Timothy says, “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Sinners like me. Sinners like you. Sinners like us all. Amazing grace, how sweet the sound that saved a wretch like me. This fellow welcomes sinners and eats with them. God, like the woman in Jesus’ parable, lights the lamp, sweeps the house, and searches carefully until she finds what was lost, seeking out the lost coin, seeking out you, seeking out me. Seeking out the lost coins in the rubble. And, hard as it is to fathom right now, seeking out the lost coin that is Osama Bin Laden because God cherishes even that lost coin.

Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. He seeks the lost coin. This does not necessarily mean that we should not seek to stop Osama Bin Laden or to seek an accounting for that which he is apparently responsible. But we do well to remember that we are not the only ones who seek him. And we do well to remember that we are not other than he is. He also is human. He also is created in the image of God. We should be careful how we go about seeking an accounting. God is seeking Osama Bin Laden, too, and God seeks those who are around him. There are innocent people between him and us. We do well to take care.

We are given disturbing word of our condition and joyous news of our deliverance. We in the church are called to proclaim both and to remember that we are in the mess along with everyone else. As a kingdom of priests, we are called, like Moses in the Old Testament lesson, to intercede before God for the whole world. As 1Timothy suggests, we who have received such mercy and know what it is to be found can now become agents of that grace, embodiments of God’s mercy, seekers and healers of the lost. As the church we name injustice and evil, always starting with and remembering our own. We also proclaim the grace of the God who seeks us all. We share the suffering, not alone, but with the one who came to seek the lost, suffered for us, and rose again.

Oscar Romero wrote, “For the church, the many abuses of human life, liberty and dignity are a heartfelt suffering. The church, entrusted with earth’s glory, believes that each person is the creator’s image and that everyone who tramples it offends God. As the holy defender of God’s rights and of God’s images the church must cry out. It takes as spittle on its face, as lashes on its back, as the cross in its passion all that human beings suffer. Even though they be unbelievers, they suffer as God’s images. There is no dichotomy between humans and God’s image. Whoever tortures a human being, whoever abuses a human being, whoever outrages a human being abuses God’s image and the church takes as its own that cross, that martyrdom.” Let’s speak out against injustice and violence. Let’s pay careful attention to our own contribution to injustice and violence. Let’s seek justice and peace. Let’s resist evil. But let us always remember that we too are the lost coin. And remember, there is one who welcomes sinners and eats with them.