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Faith and Values: Finding your center on the margins

UPDATED: Sun., Jan. 27, 2019

Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
Paul Graves, Faith and Values columnist for The Spokesman-Review. (Colin Mulvany / The Spokesman-Review)
By Rev. Paul Graves For The Spokesman-Review

Nearly four years ago, I wrote about a book idea I considered writing, “Finding God on the Margins.” It hasn’t been written, and may never be written. The title was inspired by my book-studying practice of underlining my books plus writing words and notes in the margins.

God shows up in those book margins on occasion. But I also, nearly always, observe God showing up on the margins of our lives as well. That makes me wonder if our spiritual centers just may not always be where we think they are.

Often, we consider those centers to be where we are most comfortable. Think of a lump of clay on a potter’s wheel. That clay needs to sit on the center of the wheel in order to be worked and shaped. I’ve dabbled in “throwing pots” so I know the disaster of being off-center.

In daily life, however, I’ve both observed and experienced that the spiritual center of a person’s life isn’t always found in the “comfortable.” My mind is drawn to the now-cliché sentence “to comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”

For years, I’ve thought that phrase was coined by some famous preacher or theologian, because it’s often quoted in the context of what preachers are called to do (but do too rarely). To my surprise, the phrase was created by a Chicago journalist, Finley Peter Dunne, in 1902.

Afflicting the comfortable and comforting the afflicted are both “center actions.” So that begs this question: Where do followers of Jesus find that center? To read the stories about Old Testament prophets and Jesus, plus men like Martin Luther King Jr., many religious people are off-center.

Prophets demanded that kings and even Israel move away from their center of religious practices of purity and sacrifice to care for the widows and orphans. Jesus challenged the religious leaders to reach beyond their center tradition keeping when that failed to be humane and compassion.

Martin Luther King Jr. challenged the political and religious center-keepers to join him in standing side-by-side with the poor, the stranger, the victims of rampant racial and economic injustice. Countless others have taken up MLK’s cry and passion today. And rightly so.

Very well-meaning church folks believe their “right beliefs,” their traditional orthodox practices, are the center of what God wants in their lives. But I’m often convinced that we who hold to that belief could actually be off-center.

God is more often calling us to reach out to those persons, even to those social/economic/ecological causes, that are on the margins of politically and religiously correct perceptions. King’s famous “Letter from Birmingham Jail” is a good illustration of this.

While in that Birmingham jail as an arrested demonstrator, King received a letter from eight well-respected, white clergymen who cautioned him to bide his time and be measured in his quest for justice. His very long letter explained why injustice anywhere threatened justice everywhere.

To MLK, biding time was the center position for too many people. Injustice lived in the margins of society. Yet God lived in those margins of injustice. God still lives in those margins of injustice.

Thus, followers of Jesus are daily called to step away from their safe centers. We are called to join God, Jesus, MLK, and whoever else is moved by authentic compassion, and by authentic efforts to rebalance the social, religious and cultural imbalances we’re bombarded with each day.

But we are so often comfortable in the centers we have created for ourselves. Ironically, we’re too often off-center and don’t even realize it. Maybe we can find our real faith centers on the margins.

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