Presidential Perspective: To What Story Are You Sticking?

Philip AmersonThe voice came from a woman seated behind me. “I’ve just ordered the new macaroni and cheese dish, and this is the best day of my life.” She was on her cell phone, speed-dialing friends. One after another she would leave the same message, “I just ordered macaroni and cheese... best day of my life.” I wanted to turn around and examine this lover of pasta and cheddar. However, my mother taught me it is not polite to stare. My mother, however, had no such advice about listening in on silly phone conversations, so...

After leaving four recorded messages, she reached friend number five. Delighted that a real person answered the phone, she delivered the momentous news. Apparently that person was just as skeptical as I was about macaroni and cheese. The caller persisted and then announced, “That’s my story and I’m sticking to it!”

The television nearby showed a couple of political pundits locked in churlish ideological battle. There I sat, between macaroni and cheese and the emotional national debate over health care and the economy. Some of my friends classify macaroni and cheese as “comfort food.” That was it! The television debaters and the woman behind me each had their story and were “sticking to it.” It was, plain and simple, “comfort food” for the stomach and the mind.

Apart from determining that I should not eat in this airport restaurant again, I wondered if there was a larger lesson here. I found myself reflecting on the stories that shape us, the ones that we “stick to.” I found myself thinking of Margaret Sagan, a life trustee at Garrett-Evangelical, who recently passed away. She was the daughter of J. Waskom Pickett, the remarkable missionary bishop in India.

Pickett, like his longtime colleague E. Stanley Jones, had little regard for easy ideological answers. His story was always, first and foremost, rooted in his concern for God’s purposes in the world. I remember hearing Bishop Pickett speak when I was young. He spoke of the centrality of Christ and how great social movements could give evidence of God’s purposes for the world. He spoke of the false choice presented by the ideologies of capitalism and socialism. He spoke of both as being mere tools. His words, as I remember them, were, “I do not serve capitalism, nor do I serve socialism. I serve the risen Christ. The only question for me is how might any of our tools serve his kingdom?” Pickett spoke of the error of substituting any designs or prejudice for obedience to Christ. This remarkable man, who began his work in India with the untouchables, the poorest of the poor, left a remarkable legacy. For nearly five decades his ministry stretched from the poorest to the wealthiest, from radical activists to presidents and prime ministers.

Pickett insisted on a rigorous engagement with a Christ- centered theology that critiqued all else, even as he stayed open to new lessons from his research. He was always learning, always growing in his understanding. Everything about his story was open to change except his commitment to Christ.

As I consider his life and my own, I realize that too often I live between macaroni and easy ideology. I am aware of the significant role seminaries can play in our world; I am aware of the heritage and potential role of Garrett-Evangelical in providing more faithful, more constructive narratives whereby we shape our lives. Must we be stuck with the comfort foods of macaroni and cheese or Fox News or MSNBC?

In February Garrett-Evangelical hosted a conference on ethical leadership and the global economy. I was struck by a rather simple theme that emerged from the conference. It was that the most helpful thing we can do is tell and retell the great story of biblical faith for each new generation. (Many of the lectures and sermons from the event are available in video on our website.) At that event we also inaugurated our new Institute for Transformative Leaders and Communities, to be led by Dr. Mark Fowler. Surely this conference and this new institute is a faithful successor to the work of Bishop Pickett.

Can persons be politically liberal or conservative and still be open to a reshaping of their perspectives by searching the riches of the foundational story of Christian faith? Yes, of course. Here is where the seminary becomes a great gift for the church and the world. We are given the great task of telling and retelling the story of redemption and the Exodus of God’s people from slavery. We are to retell the story of the prophets speaking their words of judgment and hope to an empire. We have the story of Jesus the Christ, who broke the bonds of death, and of the church called to live as a faithful witness to the transforming power of God.

Wendell Berry writes, “The idea of the current crop of ‘conservatives’ – that government can cater to greed and leave charity to volunteers – is vicious and it can’t work. The ‘liberal’ idea – that the failures of a greedy and wasteful economy can be effectively patched by government services and regulations – is also hopeless. There is no way to get a good result from an economy that institutionalizes greed as an honorable motive and excuses waste and destruction as ‘acceptable costs.’” (Berry, Conversations with Wendell Berry, p. 179)

What role might a school of theology play in providing a more compelling and constructive story line? What might we say about the life of redeemed and reconciling communities? Is it possible to craft a story that begins with scripture, church history, and theology and leads to a more hopeful narrative for the larger culture? Can our everyday lives display a trust in God’s story of redemption for our world and reconciliation amid the brokenness and violence all around? Can persons be politically liberal or conservative and still be faithful Christians?

Surely our lives can be given over to something better than macaroni and sloppy ideological comfort food. Surely the easy texts of the political left and right need to be replaced by people of faith with a rigorous examination of our story as God’s people who seek to live faithful lives.

I believe in the demanding, paradoxical, life- transforming power of theological reflection, prayer, and social witness. I believe in the claims of the gospel on our lives to share the good news and to live toward justice, all the while reflecting on that which is central. I believe that discipleship requires openness and a willingness to think and re-think the common and popular, beyond the comfort of any ideological space. I believe Jesus still calls us to follow him. That’s my story... and I’m sticking to it. That’s why what we do at Garrett-Evangelical is so essential.

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