Confessions of an Evangelical Liberal

Confessions of an Evangelical Liberal

 Address to the Covenant Commissioner Convocation Dinner

214th General Assembly
Columbus, OH
June 14, 2002
Sponsored by the Covenant Network of Presbyterians

Susan Andrews
Pastor, Bradley Hills Presbyterian Church
Bethesda, MD

 It’s hard to believe how different things feel this evening than they did just twelve months ago, when Amendment A passed the Assembly with a 60% margin. For just a while it seemed as if the Good News of the gospel had been set free — that the gracious hospitality of a just and whole church was beginning to be proclaimed afresh in this fragile world of the PCUSA.

Last year’s General Assembly did an absolutely astounding thing! They agreed to disagree on a non- essential of the church. They encouraged a flexible polity that neither prohibited nor required the ordination of spiritually gifted gay and lesbian pastors. They honored our tradition’s freedom of conscience. Yes, through the creative action of last year’s Assembly, there seemed to be the promise that a fresh wind was blowing in our troubled church — a spirit that could move us beyond infighting into a united witness of mission and purpose in the world.

But it was not to be. Fear instead of faith took over. Whispers of heresy and apostasy and schism and moral decay infiltrated the heart of the church. And Amendment A was overwhelmingly defeated.

I remember clearly the day the decisive presbytery vote was made. I purposely did not open my e-mail. I kept very busy doing important things. I simply refused to acknowledge what was happening. It was too painful and too sad and too hard. Too many people I care deeply about were once more being relegated to second class status in Christ’s egalitarian church. All that time, all that vision, all that prayer, all that fervent hope that so many in this room put into crafting a solution of grace that invited everyone to stay within the church. I simply did not want to deal with it. I simply didn’t want to process it. I simply didn’t want to struggle any longer.

But then I remembered some words from Oscar McCloud — words shared at a Covenant Board meeting last fall. When some of us were bemoaning the trend that was building against passing A in the presbyteries, Oscar cut through our whining with his quiet wisdom. ” Why did you think that this struggle would be over in 5 years or 10 years of even twenty-five years?” he asked. ” Those of us who lived through the civil rights movement during the 50’s and the 60’s and the 70’s — we learned something very important. The battle is hard and the struggle is long, when God’s justice is at stake. And so, we keep on trying. We keep on dreaming. We keep on hoping. And we never let the vision die.” My friends, the struggle that we are engaged in is not about winning. It is not simply about getting the Book of Order changed. It is about catching the vision of the gospel — and holding onto it for dear life — continuing to proclaim the gracious love of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and then stubbornly living as if the vision is true — walking the walk and talking the talk — until, in God’s good time, true hospitality becomes a reality.

There are two misconceptions which are currently alive and well in the maelstrom of our denominational life. The first is that disagreement and conflict within the church is unnatural and sinful. Well, sinful it is, but unnatural it is not.

My favorite church fight took place in the second church I served — a blue collar congregation in New Jersey. The subject was curtains in Fellowship Hall and the antagonists were the older women of the church against the younger women. The older women — the pillars — insisted that we needed to replace the drab ugly lined drapes with new drab ugly lined drapes. The younger women vehemently disagreed. They wanted to brighten up the place with perky, floral bed sheets sewn into fresh and translucent curtains. Perhaps some of you can imagine the conversations that took place behind each other’s back! I suggested that the two groups sit down together and talk with each other, and I offered to moderate the conversation. Suffice it to say it was a tempestuous hour filled with stereotyping and taste attacks and turf tirades.

But then an amazing thing happened. Voices were lowered, ears were opened and a consensus was reached. The bed sheets won. Why? Because they cost less — and because the younger women offered to make the new curtains. But, more importantly, out of this silly skirmish, new life was born — an inter-generational women’s association where cooperation and creativity helped shape a new chapter of fellowship in the church. Who says that disagreement and conflict are always bad? And how can old wineskins accommodate new wine if they are not stretched and pulled and changed a bit?

Kathleen Norris has this to say in Amazing Grace. In talking about her own Presbyterian congregation she writes: “We are not individuals who have come together because we are like-minded. That is not a church, but a political party. We are like most healthy churches, I think, in that we can do pretty well when it comes to loving and serving God… but God help us if we have to agree about things…At the risk of exposing myself as a terminal optimist, I’d say that things are as they should be. As contentious as we seem to be as a church, we are no less so than the fractious congregations of Corinthians, Romans, Ephesians, and Galatians addressed by St. Paul. Can we consider it a good sign — a sign of life — that Christians have continued to fuss and fume and struggle, right down to the present day? It may look awful from the outside, and can feel awful on the inside, but it is simply the cost of Christian discipleship” (p. 272).

The second misconception alive and well in our denomination is that the differences between the two sides are clear cut, we clearly understand those differences, and there is little we have in common. One of the perks of living in Washington, DC is that occasionally I get a glimpse inside the hallowed halls of secular power. Because of a parishioner who serves as the White House correspondent for the Atlanta Constitution, I spent part of last Monday with Jim Tooie , who is the new Director for the White House Office of Faith Based Initiatives. Now, I am going to make an assumption that many of us in this room have had our doubts about the wisdom of this presidential initiative, sure that it is just a white wash for funding the agenda of the Christian right and threatening the prophetic freedom of the church. At least those were some of my stereotypes that I carried with me into our lunch conversation.

Jim Tooie is a small, energetic man, with electric blue eyes and an engaging manner. A life long Catholic, he attends Mass every day at 6:30am. He keeps his Bible on his desk. He is the father of four boys under the age of 10 with a fifth child on the way, and he identifies himself as a pro-life Democrat. Jim Tooie was trained as a lawyer in Florida and spent his early professional years working for Senator Mark Hatfield. As part of that experience he found himself visiting Mother Teresa one day in India. And the experience changed his life. He was immediately handed a basin of warm water, a wash cloth and a gentle order to bathe a dying man — a grotesque skeleton who was covered with pus and scabs. Now, Jim was too proud to admit that he was afraid to touch this wretched creature. So he meekly obeyed. And he ended up staying with Mother Teresa for two years.

As a Catholic, he said, he had always been taught to experience Christ through the sacraments. So to meet Christ in the disturbing disguise of the poor, to be drawn into a personal relationship with Jesus through the lives of the least of these — this was both a revelation and a conversion for Jim Tooie. And that experience has refocused his life’s work. For him the President’s Faith Based Initiative program is just continuing the partnership between government and religious organizations that has thrived for years in the international arena — government funded efforts carried out by Church World Service, by Catholic Charities, by Jewish philanthropic groups. And if the compromise legislation that is now before the Senate passes, the office Jim Tooie directs will move into a new role — that of implementation, monitoring and compliance. As he said, “We need to make absolutely sure that Uncle Sam’s money is not being spent buying Bibles or pushing religion down people’s throats. The purpose of this initiative is first and foremost to serve the poor.”

Well, either Jim Tooie is a consummate con man, or he’s the real thing. But the stereotypes and assumptions I brought with me to that lunch were transformed by the end of the meal. We remained a liberal and a conservative at odds about many things. But we had found common ground as Christians — agreeing that the Lord we both serve has a gracious and compassionate bias for the poor. And if I had a vote, I would say yes to the Faith Based Initiative legislation now before Congress.

This is a long way of saying that assumptions and stereotypes can be dangerous things. When we claim to know and understand the “other” we are usually wrong. During the past year, I have been disturbed by the assumptions that some of our more conservative brothers and sisters have made about those of us who share a progressive vision for the church — assumptions that we are wishy-washy, anything goes liberals — that we are suspect at least, and heretical at best — that when it comes to the basic theological affirmations of the Christian faith, there is little we stand for and a lot we accommodate to in our passion to create an inclusive church. I believe that it is time for us in this room and in the progressive organizations of this church to proclaim what it is we do stand for — and how dependent we are upon the grace of God and the power of the Holy Spirit to give us life day after day after day. I can’t speak for all of you. But I can speak for me. And so I want to end this evening with some confessions — confessions of a sinful, hopeful, evangelical liberal.

I confess that I love Jesus — not the sophisticated intellectual Christ who hibernates in dogmatic theology — but the living Christ who walks with me and talks with me, who comforts me, judges me, irritates me, challenges me and changes me on a daily basis. As my personal Lord and Savior, Jesus is the way, the truth, and the life for me — and he is the clearest window that opens me up to the mystery of God.

I confess that to love this Jesus means to follow this Jesus. To turn the other cheek. To love my enemy. To forgive seventy times seven. To welcome all the prodigals home. It means to be salt and light and yeast in the world. To preach good news to the poor. To proclaim liberty to the captives. It means to willingly pick up the crosses of suffering — other people’s suffering — and to lose myself in order to find myself amid the enormous injustice and pain still festering in God’s world.

I confess that to love Jesus means to live in faithful, monogamous covenants of love — imitating the dependability and fidelity of Christ’s relationship with us. To love Jesus means to glorify God and enjoy God — God, not Jesus — because Jesus always points beyond himself to the much bigger mystery of the Lord of the universe. To love Jesus means to sit at a global, interfaith table, sharing the truth I know about God in Jesus, BUT also listening to the truth about God which comes from other voices — the voices of those whom Jesus himself calls the sheep of other folds who do not know his name.

I confess that the Jesus I know and love is so alive that he cannot be buried in the static pages of scripture but is resurrected into a lively Word that gets up off the page of my worn and beloved Bible and runs eagerly into our broken and bleeding world. The Risen Christ is a fresh Word, a surprising world, an uncontrollable Word that makes all things new.

I confess that because I love Jesus I am an evangelical. Yes, I am one who eagerly witnesses to Good News — Good News that is wider and bigger and more gracious than any of us can even imagine. And because I am an evangelical, I am born again — born again and again and again– constantly being recreated by a God whose designs on me are never finished.

These are some of my confessions. What are yours? What is it that you stand for? What is it that you stand on? What is it that you stand under? What is the Good News for you? And how can that become Good News for others? This week let us be bold. Let us be free. Let us be faithful. Let us be prophetic. And let us as church — be the resurrected Body of a gracious Christ– transforming both the church and the world.

May it be so — for you and for me. Amen.

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