I was visiting with a member of my first parish one day many years ago. He was also a tall, humble man, a retired pastor who had spent all of his ministry serving churches in rural Nebraska and South Dakota. Now he had come back home to retire. I remember him stopping in to my office often to chat, to ask me questions about the current state of the Lutheran church. He was a Norwegian Lutheran, and my background as a child had been with the Swedish American Churches.
"We always thought that the Swedes were more liberal," he said to me that day. "Liberal?" I asked. "In what way? Liturgically? Morally? Theologically? Politically?"
He didn't even bat an eye. "All those ways," he said, with a sweep of his hand.
Liberal. Conservative. We bat those words around a lot these days. Sometimes when we say them, they sound like accusations, or even like character assassination. "We always thought that the Swedes were more ... liberal", he said. "Watch out! He is pretty... conservative," (as if in warning.) Liberals are permissive. Conservatives are judgmental.
But I can't help thinking: At their roots, Conservative and Liberal are both good words.
Think about it: Conservative means to conserve, to recognize value, not to throw out the old in pursuit of everything new. I love to go to antique stores, and sometimes I think that the treasures I find have more character than all of the new, cheap stuff I can find in the discount stores. Does this mean I am conservative?
Teddy Roosevelt, a Republican, started the National Parks system. It was a conservative initiative, a movement to preserve something of value for future generations.
My conservative congregations in South Dakota did not chase after brand names with big price tags. They weren't flashy. They didn't go in for expensive, flavored coffee (at least not while I was living there). They weren't caught up in the latest fad.
I knew that they didn't like "Liberals", and I heard it bandied about in a scornful way. But what does the word "Liberal" really mean? It means -- generous. "Apply liberally" -- means -- Apply generously. Use a LOT. And whatever you think about people you CALL liberals, it would seem to me that being liberal would itself be an attractive thing. I want to be around generous people -- people who are generous with their time, generous will their good will, generous with their resources.
So the word "liberal" really means generous and the word "conservative" really means to conserve, to save what is of value. And maybe what those of us who call ourselves liberal or conservative need to ask ourselves is: are we really being generous? Are we really preserving what is valuable? Are we who we say we are?
Liberal and conservative are both good words.
But are we who we say we are?