Friday, February 18, 2005

Born Again Progressive

I had the great good fortune to preach Wednesday evening at the monthly worship at Sojourners. We talked together about the third chapter of John's gospel -- the genesis of "born again" and the subject of lots of "John 3:16" signs at baseball games.
For too long now the phrase "you must be born again," has been the trumpet blast of triumphal Christianity. To be born again, from that perspective, means an "unflinching belief and loyalty" to a Christianity that assumes for itslef triumph "over all ignorance, uncertainty, doubt, and incompleteness, as well, of course, asover every other point of view (Douglas John Hall, The Cross in Our Context)."
Such an understanding of Christian faith removes all doubt, and I suppose that is attractive if what you crave in life is certainty and order. Empires, after all, are quite good at imposing order. But if you love the deep mysteries of life, the unfathomable depths of God, then doubt must be part and parcel of faith, and incompleteness must be part of theology itself.
As for me, I am in love with mystery. As Isaiah knew, our thoughts are not God's thoughts nor are our ways God's ways. I find little support for empire in what I know of Jesus. Being born again is not a ticket to the front row in the victory parade of the empire, but is instead a calling to renounce the very identity that empire imposes and reclaim the identity that God gives each of us: we are the beloved, each and every one of us.

Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Ash Wednesday -- Stories of the Dust

Our lives are surrounded by and suffused with stories that flow together like a river whose source sprang forth eons ago before the dawn of time. It flows past, picks us up along its way and sweeps us on in a weave of infinite complexity on channels and river beds that wind a tortuous route toward an eschatological ocean at history’s end. Sometimes our stories flow together and draw us into community, but often, along the way, each of us somehow comes to believe that our stream is the only one, and thus our lives become fragmented and we become deaf to any other story.

We live in just such a time, when the controlling mythology has us convinced that we are isolated individuals whose lives are radically disconnected from each other. The Marlboro Man is the icon of our age of rugged individualism, and the “welfare mother” is his opposite number. The dominate story in which they play leading roles frames a vision of reality in which poverty or disease are signs of moral failing and compassion is weakness.

The dominant story of our time tells us that we are part of a species that is even more radically disconnected from the rest of creation than we are from each other. In this story nature is merely economic resource, and its beauty is reduced to another consumer good or, too often, simply reduced to waste without even the dignity of returning to dust. But the poet Wendell Berry offers an alternative economy with but a handful of words:

We join our work to Heaven’s gift,

Our hope to what is left,

That field and woods at last agree

In an economy

Of widest worth.

High Heaven’s Kingdom come to earth.

Imagine Paradise.

O dust, arise!

This strikes me as the perfect Lenten discipline for a people journeying from Ash Wednesday’s reminder – you are dust and to dust you shall return. Yes, certainly, but also this: O dust, arise! Imagine paradise! Cast a vision for a future otherwise.

From “The Clearing Rests in Song and Shade,” in Wendell Berry, A Timbered Choir (Washington, DC: Counterpoint, 1998), 49.