Naivety

There are very few people in the world who will defend Pollyanna. It’s one of the things that makes my wife unique. She gets righteously angry about a few things, and one of them is the flagrant misinterpretation of this beloved children’s classic.

If you don’t know the novel, it follows an orphan named Pollyanna, who moves to Beldingsville, Vermont, to live with her Aunt Polly. Now, Aunt Polly is not a pleasant person. And neither are many of the other residents of Beldingsville. But, in good early-twentieth-century children’s novel fashion, Pollyanna is going to change that.

You see—and this is how everyone interprets the book—Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless optimism. She plays the Glad Game. Whenever she finds herself in a less-than-ideal situation, she plays the Glad Game. She finds something—one thing… anything—to be glad about.

When she looks in a charity box one Christmas and finds crutches instead of a doll, she is glad that doesn’t need the crutches.

When her aunt forces her to stay in a bare room in the attic, she is glad that it has such a wonderful view of the garden.

When she is sentenced to have a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she is glad because she likes bread and milk and Nancy the serving-girl.

And because she is so relentlessly optimistic, her name has become a by-word for naive optimism.

When someone is unrealistically optimistic—when someone maintains their gladness by ignoring the harsh reality of the world around them—we say that they are a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

And in today’s reading from James… James sounds like a little bit of a Pollyanna.

“Show by your good life that your works are done with gentleness born of wisdom,” he writes, “The wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, willing to yield, full of mercy and good fruits, without a trace of partiality or hypocrisy. And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace… Submit yourselves therefore to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God and he will draw near to you.”

Draw near to God and God will draw near to you. Resist the devil and the devil will flee from you. Be a peacemaker and there will be peace.

It all sounds a little… unrealistic.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is teaching, and the disciples are arguing. It’s an argument that you know. It’s probably an argument that you’ve been a part of. It’s the argument about who is greater.

And I always imagine that the disciples are arguing about who is greater because we so often think that greatness is about power. Somewhere in life, we learn—and those disciples learned—that greatness and power come as a set. You get one, you get the other. If you are great, you get power; if you have power, you must be great.

We argue over this. We jockey for position. We fight wars for power and control and authority.

And cruelty is born out of those battles. The big cruelties of one nation subjugating another and driving out its people. The petty cruelties of an aunt forcing an orphan girl to stay in the bare room in the attic. Cruelty is born out of those battles.

And Jesus responds to his arguing disciples, “If you want to be first, you have to be last. You have to be the servant of everyone. Here is a child, she has no power, she has no status, she is the least among us. Welcome her. Show her a world defined by love.”

Holy power is not power over others. It’s power under others. It’s not the power to push someone down. It’s the power to lift them up.

Whoever welcomes a child, welcomes Christ. And whoever welcomes Christ, welcomes God. And what better thing can we do than welcome God?

There are a million things in the world that I cannot control. But one of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at the world. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how I look at other people. One of the things—one of the things—that I can control is how much power I give to a world that relishes power.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is not her relentless optimism. She is not a naturally optimistic person.

Pollyanna’s defining characteristic is her relentless discipline. She works at the Glad Game.

Pollyanna knows that the world is a dangerous place. She knows that the world is, sometimes, an evil place. he knows that the crutches aren’t a doll. She knows that being forced to stay in a bare room in the attic is a form of abuse. She knows that a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl is a punishment.

She knows that there are thorns and thistles in life. And the Glad Game is her way of refusing to accept that.

There’s an old ‘Native American’ story that floats around the internet. In it, an old man tells his grandson about a fight going on inside him. There are two wolves. One is evil. He is anger, envy, sorrow, regret, greed, arrogance, self-pity, guilt, resentment, inferiority, lies, false pride, superiority, and ego. One is good. He is joy, peace, love, hope, serenity, humility, kindness, benevolence, empathy, generosity, truth, compassion, and faith.

And the same fight is going on inside is grandson. It’s going on inside you and me and everyone else.

His grandson asks him, “Which wolf will win?”

The old man answers, “The one you feed.”

And that is not a First Nations story. It was invented by Billy Graham sometimes in the late 70s. But it’s still true. What we feed, thrives. And Pollyanna is absolutely committed to feeding the goodness in the world and the brightness in herself.

And, more than that, she is going to tell the evil in the world that it does not have power over her. She is going to say that even in the face of her own suffering—even after a car hits her and she loses the use of her legs—she is going to find and celebrate the goodness in the world.

And by doing that, she will make the world slightly better. A little bit of the tarnish will come off. A little bit of the shine will come back.

And James is fully aware of the position that his Christian friends and neighbors are in. They are a persecuted religious minority surrounded by the most powerful empire in the world. Any sane person would be afraid. Any sane person would be preparing to fight. Any sane person would be grasping for power over the forces that are arrayed against him.

But the wisdom that comes from above is pure and peaceable. It is gentle and willing to yield and full of mercy and good fruits… even with its enemies. It is without a trace, even a trace, of partiality… even towards the people who are already on its own side. It is without a trace, even a trace, of hypocrisy: we don’t just talk about love, we go out and love.

And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace for those who make peace.

Being a Christian—following this Jesus person—is a choice. It’s a choice every day. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the temptations of power. It’s a choice every time we are faced with the struggles of this world.

And one part of that choice is welcoming the lost child, even if they aren’t our child, because there’s no such thing as other people’s children.

And one part of that choice is finding the good that God has so carefully planted in this world. Part of that choice is pushing the thorns and thistles aside to get to the flower of love that they are hiding. Part of that choice may even be finding the beauty in the thorns and thistles of life.

Now, I need to be clear here. This doesn’t absolve us of responsibility. Just because we see and acknowledge and nurture the goodness of the world does not mean that we are unaware of injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil.

Pollyanna can play the Glad Game. She is still staying in a bare room in the attic, she is still having a dinner of bread and milk with Nancy the serving-girl, she still has to learn to walk again. She is not ignorant of the world, and we can’t be, either.

But, when someone looks for the goodness in the world, it is easy to call them a Pollyanna. A word which here means, a fool.

When we look for and nurture the goodness in the world, it will be easy for people to call us a pack of Pollyannas, a phrase which here means, a group of naive folk who do not know how the world works.

But here’s the thing: that is how the world works. And part of the work of fighting injustice and poverty and terror and hurt and evil is finding the goodness in the world and making more of it.

It is sowing a garden of peace in the hope that there will one day be a harvest of righteousness.

Amen.

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Words

May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O God, my rock and my redeemer. Now and forever.

When I was young, I learned a saying. You know it, too. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.

And I can tell you something that I’m sure you already know: that saying isn’t true. It’s a lie. It’s a lie that we tell ourselves and our friends and our children when someone else is teasing them or insulting them or bullying them. It’s a comforting lie. It might even be a useful lie. But it’s a lie all the same.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

Baptism is as much about the words as it is about the water: “I baptize you in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.” The Lord’s table is as much about the words as it is about the bread and wine: “This is my body broken for you… this cup is the new covenant in my blood, poured out for you.”

Marriage is as much about the words as it is about the signature on a license: “I do… I now pronounce you…” Years are taken away as much by the judge’s words as they are by her signature on an order, “I sentence you to…”

Or, closer to home… remember the first time that the right person said, “I love you.” Think about the names people called you or the ways they insulted you, when you had to remind yourself that sticks and stones may break your bones, before breaking down in tears. Let your mind sidle up to the words we don’t say: the cursèd words that we call only by their first letter: the n-word, the c-word, the f-word.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And James knows this. In todays reading from his epistle—his open letter to all of the churches, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion, to all y’all—James is writing about the power of words. He knows that words are small fires that can set a whole forest ablaze. We can use them to bless our God and savior. We can use them to curse people.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words can bless and curse me.

And here is Jesus, asking about words.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus and his disciples are on their way to the villages in the region of Caesarea Philippi when Jesus asks them, “Who do people say that I am?”

And his disciples reply, “Some people say that you are John the Baptist, back from the dead. Other people say that you’re Elijah, back from his sojourn in heaven. Still others say that you’re one of the prophets.”

You see, people are looking for the words to describe Jesus. They’re looking for someone to compare Jesus to. They’re looking for a category to slip Jesus into. And they know who John and Elijah and the prophets are. They know what those words mean. If Jesus is one of those, then they can make sense of him.

But Jesus pushes the question further. “Who do you say that I am?” he asks, “Not your families or friends or people who we’ve met along the way. You… you who know me the best. Who do you say that I am?”

And Peter, as usual, doesn’t miss a beat, “You are the Messiah.”

And he thinks he know what that means. He says, “You are the Messiah.” And he means, “You are God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again.”

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

The word ‘naughty’ used to mean ‘poor’, as in a person who had nought. Now it means bad.

The word ‘nice’ used to mean ‘ignorant’. Then it wandered drunkenly around the language and meant ‘showy’ or ‘refined’ or ‘cowardly’ or ‘lazy’ or ‘intricate’. It settled on ‘precise’ for a while. And now it means agreeable.

Words are powerful things. But they are also living things. Words change and grow and shrink.

And Jesus is about to do something to the word ‘Messiah’.

He is about to tell his disciples that the word ‘Messiah’ means that he must undergo great suffering, and be rejected by the elders, the chief priests, and the scribes, and be killed, and after three days rise again.

And that… sounds bad. That doesn’t sound like God’s anointed, the great king, the one who will redeem the Jewish people, the one who will make Israel great again. That sounds like someone who will die. And Peter doesn’t like that. But it gets worse.

Because if we want to follow him, then we’re gonna have to follow him. Cross and all.

When we say, “Jesus is the Messiah.” When we say, “Jesus is the Christ.” When we call ourselves Christians, we are saying something about ourselves. We’re saying that we will pick up our crosses and follow him; that we will lose our lives for his sake and for the sake of the gospel.

Jesus asks us who we say that he is, and we put our lives on the line.

Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words… words have almost unimaginable power.

And it isn’t just about who we say Jesus is. It’s about who we say anyone is. It’s about who we say each other are. There is amazing power in what we call each other. There is amazing power in how we speak to each other.

Most of you know that I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission. That is something that might come up on a quiz sometime, so I’ll repeat it: I used to work for a nonprofit organization in Mississippi called Back Bay Mission.

And one of the things that I learned there was the power of words. We didn’t call the people who came to spend time in our day center ‘clients’. We called then ‘guests’. There is a difference between calling someone a client and calling them a guest.

And one of the things that was drilled into me starting on my first day at the Mission was that everyone who came to us was, first and foremost, before they were anything else, was a precious child of a loving God.

In a world where people living in poverty are told that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, we started with, “You are the precious child of a loving God.”

And that meant something to the people we served. And it meant something to me.

I believe that people will tend to live up to the expectations we put on them. Not every time, but most of the time. If we tell someone that they are small or worthless or really nobody at all, they will meet that expectation. If we tell someone that they are the precious child of a loving God, they will strive to meet that expectation. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

But there’s more to it than that. When I say that someone is the precious child of a loving God, I’m putting an expectation on myself: I have to act like that person is the precious child of a loving God. I cannot call someone the precious child of a loving God and then treat them as anyone less; as anyone small or worthless or really nobody at all. When I say, “You are the precious child of a loving God,” I call myself to be something greater than I was before I uttered those words. Those words can make a huge difference. They have almost unimaginable power.

The words we use matter. What we call people matters. What we say to each other matters.

I’ve been preaching about love the last few weeks. Love is a good sermon topic. It’s a major Biblical theme. It’s the kind of thing that we should talk about in church.

But love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

It isn’t enough to say, “I love you.” I have to love you.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are loved and you are worthy of love.” I have to live as though you are loved and you are worthy of love.

It isn’t enough to say, “You are the precious child of a loving God.” I have to treat you as the precious child of a loving God.

Love isn’t just something we talk about. It isn’t just something we say. It’s something we do. Love is a verb. Love is an action.

But, like so many things, it starts with those words that have almost unimaginable power. So I want to try something a little bit different. I want you to turn to someone who is sitting near you… maybe not a family member, but someone who just happens to be nearby.

And I want you to say this. Just repeat after me.

You are loved and you are worthy of love. (Repeat)

You are the precious child of a loving God. (Repeat)

And I will love you, by the grace of God. (Repeat)

Amen.

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The Revolution Will Be Commodified

Last week, Nike unveiled Colin Kaepernick as one of the faces of an ad campaign celebrating the 30th anniversary of their iconic ‘Just Do It’ slogan. That’s something to celebrate. Kaepernick has been marginalized by the NFL and mocked by the political right for his protests against police violence in black communities. Having his face on print ads and his voice in commercials has helped reignite a national conversation about those protests and, maybe, it will encourage more conversations about these issues.

But I’m not writing this post to congratulate Nike for good marketing. Nike has been an expert at using both advertising and earned media to sell its products.

I’m writing this post to expand on something that I put on Twitter and on my personal Facebook timeline, and that generated some serious discussion. Here’s the content of the original post (on Facebook, I added an edit later):

God, I hate to be that guy, but does anyone know Nike’s current practices around sweatshops, prison labor, and environmental exploitation? Asking, apparently, for all of my friends.

I mean, don’t get me wrong, I like the message of the new ads. I just kind of think that the motivation isn’t justice so much as it’s profit. And we shouldn’t let an ounce of social justice sauce cover a multitude of sins.

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Let me start with some background. Most of my friends, almost regardless of what part of my life they’re from, share two things in common. First, they are strongly supportive of social justice movements in general—though different people have different issues that their own struggles are centered on—and of Kaepernick’s protests in particular. Second, they tend to be suspicious when it comes to the motives of large corporations. A lot of my friends are people who have participated—or who are participating right now—in boycotts of Wendy’s, Taco Bell, Chick-fil-A, Amazon, and other companies.

While Nike’s ad debut sparked a predictable outcry from the right, I also saw something I wasn’t expected among my friends. On the right, people were cutting the Nike Swoosh off of their socks, burning their shoes, and otherwise destroying things they owned in their frustration with Nike and with a protest that they don’t understand. Among my friends, I saw people celebrating Nike… and people bragging about how much Nike stuff they were going to buy.

One of the things I write about in my upcoming book is how capitalism shapes the ways that we think. Capitalism isn’t just an economic system that we happen to use, it involves a specific way of imagining our world. In the book, I mostly focus on how capitalism encourages market thinking: the idea that anything can be bought and sold, that assigning a price is the same thing as determining a value, and that transactions and trades are the basis for social interactions.

In the book, I focus on charity, and we can see one of the big ways that capitalism and market thinking have affected charity in the ways that charity skeptics promote a kind of compassionate capitalism as the solution to poverty. Charity skeptics are obviously skeptical about charity, but they embrace more capitalism-friendly tool like microfinance, entrepreneurship programs, and so on.

But the reaction to Nike’s ad campaign highlights another way that capitalism affects how we think, and, specifically, how we think about justice issues. I don’t have a clever name for it yet. For now, let’s call it ‘justice branding’.

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Brand loyalty is an important idea. Most of us are loyal to a few specific brands. And, once we are loyal to a brand, we tend to stick with them unless something major happens. I’ve worn Skechers sneakers for ages; I even bought the same design several pairs in a row. I drive Toyotas because I grew up with them. Different clothing items come from L.L. Bean, Old Navy, Banana Republic, and Brooks Brothers. My ice cream is Ben & Jerry’s. My tomato sauce in Newman’s Own. My computers and phones are Apple. I use Expedia for travel.

And I am fully aware of two things. First, I am psychologically locked into these brands in the same way that other people are locked into their preferred brands. They aren’t rational choices. In fact, I buy most of them because they worked once and it is almost always easier to buy the same brand the next time than it is to switch to something new. Laziness wins.

Second, most of them—if not all of them—have deep ethical problems. I know that my lifestyle is dependent on sweatshops, slavery, poverty, child labor, environmental destruction, government oppression, and dozens of other evils that I preach against on a regular basis. The fact that I am embedded in a web of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence is precisely what I mean when I say that I am a sinner. It isn’t just that I sometimes break rules—though I absolutely do that, too—it’s that my very way of life relies on systems and structures that hurt others. And the fact is that I am complicit in those systems and structures.

I’ll come back to that another time. For now, I want to focus on this: justice identities are ascendant brands.

Politics has always been about a certain amount of branding. I vote for Democrats because that is usually the party that is most closely aligned with my views and that win, but it’s also true that my family has supported Democrats for as long as I can remember. I am a progressive because, well, I support the things that progressives support. But it’s also true that I grew up in a liberal family, went to liberal schools, belong to a liberal denomination, and so on. Social realities have shaped my political choices, and my politics have shaped the social circles I choose. It’s not a delightful idea, but the fact is that the way I select candidates probably isn’t that different from the way that I select tomato sauce.

In today’s highly polarized political environment, these identities are incredibly important. And that’s not only true along the Republican-Democrat axis or Conservative-Progressive axis. A lot of factors come into play to give someone an identity as pro-Kaepernick or anti-Kaepernick.

And Nike knows that.

According to Vox, Nike, “has had Kaepernick under contract since 2011, and reportedly began negotiating a ‘new, multi-year pact’ with him months ago, well after he initiated the lawsuit alluded to in the ad’s text. The timing is not a coincidence.”

Nike knew that people would be mad at the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people would not only destroy their products, but would buy their products in order to destroy them. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would broadcast that destruction on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their anti-Kapernick identities.

Nike also knew that people would be elated by the Kaepernick ads. I’m sure that Nike knew that people who normally didn’t buy Nike products would rush to buy Nike products in order to show their support for Kaepernick. And I’m sure that Nike knew that people would talk about that on the internet. Nike knew that it would make money from people who wanted to reinforce and broadcast their pro-Kapernick identities.

And there’s one more thing: Nike knew that each of those identities, broadcasting their actions on the internet, would not only reinforce a message to people who shared their identities, they would galvanize the other side! People would buy Nike products to destroy or wear just to own the people who were doing the opposite.

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Ethical consumerism is probably impossible. And apparel companies present a particular challenge to anyone who even wants to try to be an ethical consumer. Global supply chains are often opaque. We all know that an American brand might sell clothing made in China, Bangladesh, India, or any number of other countries. Just as importantly, that clothing might be made by en entirely different company, in a factory owned by another company, and transported by yet another company, and so on. By the time we actually get to the person sewing an item of clothing in a factory in Bangladesh, the work might have been contracted and subcontracted so many times that the American brand has no idea who is making them.

And that means that American consumers often have no idea who is making their clothes. In his book Out of Sight, labor historian Erik Loomis writes about corporate mobility in general, and puts it this way:

Corporate mobility— supported by state and federal governments through trade agreements, free trade zones, and labor law exceptions— has outsourced industrial risk to the world’s poor, separating the costs of industrial production from consumers and undermining labor rights and environmental protections in the United States and around the world.1Erik Loomis. Out of Sight: The Long and Disturbing Story of Corporations Outsourcing Catastrophe, Kindle Edition. (New York: New Press, 2015), p. 11

We might now know who is making our clothes, but the people who are making them are almost certainly poor and exploited women of color.

And when we start talking about justice identities, that matters. Nike used to have a reputation for deeply unethical labor practices that were enabled by their supply chains. At the time, Nike took the attitude that, since they didn’t own the factories, they couldn’t control what happened in them, and therefore they weren’t responsible.

Now, I’ve been assured that Nike has made major improvements in their labor practices. But they are still a multinational apparel company using global supply chains that often support labor exploitation in developing nations.

And that matters when we think about racial justice and justice identities. The question I wanted to raise in my Facebook post and Tweet is whether those of us who are pro-Kaepernick were being too eager to support the use of one of the faces of Black Lives Matter by a company in an industry that regularly exploits black and brown lives in other countries. Were we saying #AmericanBlackLivesMatter while living as though #BangladeshiBrownLivesDon’t? Were our identities divorced from our actions?

As I wrote above, ethical consumerism is probably impossible. Especially when it comes to apparel, we almost certainly don’t face a choice between good and evil. We face choices between evil and evil. But that doesn’t mean that we’re absolved of our responsibility or that we don’t have a need to repent. And while we will often fail—and I will certainly often fail—to make the most ethical decision among a selection of unethical ones, we have a responsibility to try nonetheless.

And part of that is asking how corporations and marketers might be manipulating our justice identities: are we buying something because a company is doing the right thing, or because they are creating an image that we want to be associated with?

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So, where does that leave us?

First, Colin Kaepernick appearing in Nike advertisements is a good thing and there is room for celebrating that this is happening. Hopefully, it will reignite conversations around protest, police violence, and related issues. Even if it doesn’t, it provides recognition to a figure who has been marginalized by his profession for his justice work. We can recognize and celebrate that even as we acknowledge that profit—not justice—was probably the primary motivating factor for Nike.

Second, even as we celebrate this ad campaign, we can recognize that Nike, the broader apparel industry, and capitalism in general have major ethical problems. And if we are serious about our justice identities, we cannot simply suspend our criticism in the face of an ad campaign that speaks to those identities. We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to lives that are more aligned with justice and mercy.

Third, to take that point even further, those of us who are Christian can celebrate this ad campaign as a good thing done by a sinful company in a broken world. And when I say that Nike is a sinful company, I mean that it is no different from other companies or us as individuals. We are all caught in those webs of marginalization, exploitation, oppression, and violence that I mentioned earlier. And while we can strive to do our best within those webs, we are dependent on the grace of God to push us further.We can celebrate that Nike did a good thing—and we can buy Nike products—and still call Nike and ourselves to greater repentance.

Fourth, and finally, it is important to maintain our hermeneutic of suspicion when we see something that we like. It might even be especially important to maintain it then. As justice identities become more important brands, there will be more and more companies who seek to manipulate them in their advertising: who want us to align with their message instead of their practices. We should be aware of that and we should be critical in the face of that.

So, by all means, buy your Nike stuff and celebrate the ads. Just be careful about falling into the kind of thinking that appeases the pleasure centers of your brain while tarnishing your soul. Because the revolution will be commodified, and there is a difference between the substance of that revolution, and the shiny packaging that will hold a cheap imitation.

Footnotes   [ + ]

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Cool.

Last weekend, there were two funerals.

I don’t know how many of you saw Aretha Franklin’s funeral. I didn’t watch it live, but I watched some of the eulogies and musical tributes on YouTube after it was over. And while there were a couple of rough spots, it was a good service. The music honored God and Aretha, and Jennifer Hudson can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about Aretha’s art and about her work for justice, and Rev. Dr. Barber can preach here any times he wants.

It honored the Queen of Soul and it called the people who watched to continue her work. It was a good service.

I don’t know how many of you saw John McCain’s funeral. I saw a little bit of it live, and I watched some of the eulogies and musical pieces on YouTube after it was over. And it was also a good service. The music honored God and John, and Renee Fleming can sing here any time she wants. The eulogies talked about John’s service and about his legacy, and President Obama can preach here any times he wants.

(I know not all of you liked him as a president, but the man can give a speech).

It honored the maverick of the Senate and it called the people who watched to continue his work. It was a good service.
And I know that there were people watching them on television or the internet or wherever, who saw them and thought, “If only my church could be like that.”

I know that because I know that some well-meaning white pastors got on Twitter and Facebook and said so. They said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Greater Grace Temple in Detroit, Michigan. I wish someone would shout ‘Amen’ during the sermon. I wish there was dancing in the aisles during the hymns. I wish that people would clap on two and four.”

And I’m sure that some well-meaning pastors said, “Lord, I wish my church could be like Washington National Cathedral. I wish that we had flying buttresses and a mighty rose window and clever gargoyles. I wish that we had our own string quartet. I wish that we had the pomp and circumstance and weight of tradition.”

And I’ll bet a few people who attend church faithfully on Sunday mornings said the same things.

And I get it. I know where folks are coming from when we wish for those things. We are here this morning in a mainline, Protestant church. And while we generally have good attendance, there aren’t as many people here as there used to be. And while we aren’t panicking about money, the budget isn’t as big as it used to be.

And, let’s face it, it’s-not-how-it-used-to-be is a story that’s playing out in churches across the country. In mainline churches, in evangelical churches, in Catholic churches, in Orthodox churches. In white churches and Black churches and Korean churches and Latinx churches.

And we are all looking for the thing that will get folks to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. We are all looking for best projections, and the gospel choir, and the pomp and circumstance, and the dancing in the aisles, and the hip young pastor.

We all want to get some of that cool. And when the line-up has Michael Eric Dyson and Tyler Perry and Stevie Wonder and Chaka Khan, or a couple of former presidents and the United States Navy Brass Ensemble… well, that’s pretty cool. We all want to get some of that cool.

One of today’s readings is from the Epistle of James. The Epistle of James is the ancient equivalent of an open letter. It wasn’t written to a specific church. It was written to all of the churches. To the twelve tribes in the dispersion. To all y’all.

And in this morning’s passage, James is talking about the difference between style and substance. And he’s telling us about a problem he’s seeing in too many churches: they’re trying to look cool.

When someone with gold rings and fine clothes shows up, they pull out all the stops. They usher them in and say, “Here’s the best seat, please. And be sure to fill out the little visitor card. And please join us for coffee after the service, use one of the special mugs with the black outside and the red inside and the logos on it. Oh, and let me introduce you to our pastor. It’s so nice to have you here.”

But when… other people… come in. Well, they’re not as nice. Maybe they’re even a little dismissive.

You see, they’re trying to be the church where the influencers go. They’re trying to be the church were the hip kids go. They’re trying to get people who aren’t there yet to say, “Did you hear so-and-so goes to that church? We should check that out. I heard Ariana Grande is doing the special music next week.”

They want to look cool. And I get that. I want to look cool.

But James reminds them… and us… and everyone… that looking cool isn’t the same as being cool.

And he says to them… and us… and everyone… “You say you’ve got faith, but you don’t have works. You see someone who’s naked and hungry and you say, ‘Oh, go in peace, keep warm, eat your fill,’ but you don’t give them any clothes or any food. You’ve got the look, but not the thing; you’ve got the style, but not the substance. You think you’re cool, but I can see right through you. You are posers.”

You see, it’s not about the gold rings and fine clothes. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about something else entirely.

Way back in the third century, there was a theologian named Tertullian. Even if you’ve never heard his name, you’ve probably heard a quote from one of his many writings.

In one of his books, he is describing the Christian community and contrasting it with the pagan world that surrounds it. He describes worship and prayer and discipline and charity. “But,” he writes, “it is mainly the deeds of a love so noble that lead many to put a brand upon us. ‘See,’ they say, ‘see how they — see how those Christians — love one another.”

Now, Tertullian was writing when Christianity was a minority religion, surrounded by a society that did not share its beliefs or its culture, persecuted by the powers-that-were. And he imagined that non-Christians did not so much love one another. He imagined that Christian love was unique and impressive and radically counter-cultural.

And we are not in the same position. As Christians in the United States today, we are part of a majority religion; we are surrounded by a culture that we have influenced and, and times, dominated; and we are far from persecuted. Some of our Christian friends and neighbors are far more likely to be doing the persecuting, than being persecuted.

But… we live in a society where there is not enough love.

Last week, I reminded you that you are loved and that you are worthy of love. And the truth is that there are far too many people in this world who do not know that they are loved and who do not know that they are worthy of love. We are so desperate for love that we will run to anything that looks like it might be love.

And worse than that, we live in a society where people look at the church and see a community that does not love. They see a community that talks about love. They see a community that pretends to love. They see a community that has a the style… but does not have the substance. They see a community that does not love.

And far too often, far too many churches are happy to live up to the low expectations that people have of us.

And we can do better than that. We — we the whole big worldwide church, we the people of First Congregational United Church of Christ in DeWitt, Iowa — can do better than that. It is not about the style. It’s not about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about love. That is what people are hungry for. That is what God calls us to do. To love.

See how they love one another.

And more.

In today’s gospel reading, Jesus is in a house in Tyre, and he’s trying to not be noticed. But this woman — this gentile woman — comes up to him and starts talking about her daughter, who has a demon.

And Jesus, who we know is loving and caring and ready to help and ready to heal… dismisses her. He isn’t for her. He is Jesus. He is Jewish. He is the deliverer of the Jewish people. He is the Messiah of Israel. And this woman is a gentile. He isn’t for her.

“Let the children be fed first,” he says to her, “for it is not fair to take the children’s food… and throw it to the dogs.”

‘See how they love one another’ means ‘see how they love one another. See how they love people who are already inside.’ But there are people who aren’t inside — there are people out there who need love. They need to know they are loved. They need to know they are worthy of love.

And this woman won’t let go. This woman is going to school Jesus, who is in this house in Tyre trying to not be noticed, on love.

“Sir,” she says, “even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.”

“If you want to call me a dog you can call me a dog. But you are still responsible for the dogs. You don’t get to have this gift — you don’t get to have this power — and not share it around.”

We don’t get to have this love and not share it around.

See how they love one another? No. See how they love everyone.

See, that’s the thing. That’s the substance. That’s the cool. It isn’t about the best projections, or the gospel choir, or the pomp and circumstance, or the dancing in the aisles. It’s not even about clapping on two and four. It’s not even about having the hip young pastor.

It’s about the love. It’s about the endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love.

It is about love when we are celebratory and raucous. It is about love when we are somber and staid. It is about love in our joy. It is about love in our sorrow. It is about love for people inside. It is about love for people outside. It is about love. It is about love. It is about love.

And, yeah, I really believe that love — endless, infinite, indiscriminate, foolish love — is the thing that will get people to come through the doors on Sunday morning and open their hearts to the gospel and join our community. But, just as importantly, it is what will bring us closer to God.

Cool. Cool cool cool.

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On Giving Up My CFRE

Before I became a pastor, I spent around eleven years as a professional fundraiser. I worked my way up in that career, beginning as an administrative assistant in the development office at Chicago Theological Seminary, directing the annual fund and advancement services programs at Northeast Ohio Medical University, serving as church relations associate at Back Bay Mission, and consulting with churches and other nonprofit organizations. And, if I do say so myself, I was pretty good at it. I kept up with the literature, took a lot of continuing education, started new fundraising programs, and raised millions of dollars for worthy causes.

And one of the things that I managed to accomplish, fairly late in that career, was becoming a Certified Fund Raising Professional (CFRE).

If you’re not familiar with the CFRE, it’s a professional certification for fundraising professionals. I had to demonstrate that I had worked in the field for a number of years, raised a certain amount of money, had a certain number of hours in continuing education, volunteered, and done other things that showed my commitment to the profession. Then, I had to take a test to demonstrate my knowledge of fundraising techniques and ethics. It was difficult… and expensive.

And now, I’m letting my certification expire. Because, as a pastor, I just don’t spend enough time fundraising to keep my CFRE.

And while it’s a little hard to do — like I wrote above, earning my CFRE took a lot of work and cost me a fair amount of money — I don’t really feel bad about giving it up. The fact is that having one didn’t do a lot for me. Those four letters didn’t make me more skilled, more ethical, or more successful. They simply added a line to my resume. And, honestly, I only have one more class to take to earn my Certificate in Fund Raising Management from the Fundraising School at Indiana University-Purdue University Indianapolis if I really need four more letters.

Still, it does feel a little bit more like my development career really is over.

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Chewed Up Gum

“My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice. My beloved speaks and says to me: ‘Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away; for now the winter is past, the rain is over and gone. The flowers appear on the earth; the time of singing has come, and the voice of the turtledove is heard in our land. The fig tree puts forth its figs and the vines are in blossom; they give forth fragrance. Arise, my love, my fair one, and come away.’”

Oh… my.

I tend to be a lectionary preacher. If you haven’t heard of the lectionary before, it’s a list of scriptures for every Sunday of the year, plus holidays like Christmas and Good Friday and All Saints Day and even Thanksgiving (and Canadian Thanksgiving).
It runs over a three year cycle. So, if we followed the lectionary really closely, and read all four of the suggested scriptures in every worship service, we would get through a pretty good chunk of the Bible over the course of a few years.

I like it because it forces me to grapple with scriptures that I might not choose if I selected my own scriptures every week. I have my favorites. And there’s a risk that I’d preach on them every week. And this makes sure that I spend time with other scriptures.

But, sometimes, I get this: “My beloved is like a gazelle or a young stag. Look, there he stands behind our wall, gazing in the windows, looking through the lattice.”

This morning’s Old Testament reading is from a book that is often called the Song of Solomon. But, in Hebrew, it’s called Shir haShirim: Song of Songs. And, again in Hebrew, when someone says that something is the ‘thing of things’ that means it’s the best, the greatest, the most beautiful: Lord of Lords, Holy of Holies, Song of Songs. This is the best song.

And people have spent thousands of years trying to figure out what to do with it. Because it’s in the Bible. And it’s a love song. People have tried to make it into a love song between God and Israel, or between Christ and the church. And maybe it is. But it is also a love song. Period. And it gets… well…

And I looked, and this might be the only time it shows up in the lectionary.

In today’s reading, the woman in the song is describing a visit from her lover. And it’s a scene we’ve seen played out in a thousand movies and television shows. And maybe some of you have seen it in real life.

A boy shows up at the house and throws pebbles against the window. And the girl opens the window. And the the boy says, “Come away with me. It’s springtime. The night is warm. The birds are singing. The flowers are blossoming. Come away with me and we’ll kiss on a mountaintop. Come away with me and I’ll never stop loving you.”

(Some of that is Norah Jones, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

When I was younger — when I was involved in a more conservative church organization — I encountered purity culture. Or, at least, something that looked a lot like purity culture.

Purity culture is hard to describe, but you’ve probably run into it… at least a little. Maybe a lot. Pledges to abstain from sex until marriage; maybe even to abstain from kissing until marriage; maybe even the practice of wearing a purity ring as a reminder of that pledge. Chaperoned courtships to make sure that no one gives in to impure thoughts or impure urges. Absolutely a four-feet-on-the-floor-at-all-times rule. Absolutely heteronormative. Absolutely cis-normative.

And there’s the gum metaphor. You are like a stick of gum. And if you step outside the boundaries of your purity — if you have sex outside of marriage — then it’s like someone has chewed you up. And when you’re done, who’s going to want a chewed up piece of gum? No one. That’s who.

And I want to be clear here: while we see purity culture a lot in conservative evangelical culture, we also see it in plenty of other places.

And I want to be painfully clear here: purity culture is harmful. It hurts people who have been the victims of sexual violence. It hurts people who haven’t been victims, but who gave in to their own hormones that one time. It hurts people who haven’t given in, but who stand in a place of judgement over their friends and neighbors.

It can leave a person an empty shell of themselves, under the waves, in the blue of their oblivion.

(And that’s Fiona Apple, but that’s okay. I think she gets it.)

In today’s reading from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus and his disciples are eating. And they’re eating without washing their hands.

Now, the Pharisees and the scribes had a tradition that they did not eat without washing their hands, and whatever they bought at the market, and their cups and pots and kettles.

And Mark even uses a sort of hopeful superlative: “All of the Jews,” he says, “had this tradition.” Now, ‘all of the Jews’ certainly did not. But Mark is trying to paint a picture here.

And the scribes and Pharisees ask Jesus, “Why do your disciples ignore the tradition of our elders? Why are they eating with unclean hands? Why don’t they keep pure?”

And here the lectionary is a little weird, because it skips some verses. And Jesus gives three answers here.

To the scribes and Pharisees he answers, “You are terrible. You are putting your human tradition over God’s commands. In fact, you avoid following God’s commands by creating a loophole through tradition.”

To the crowd he answers, “There is nothing outside a person that can defile him by going in.”

And, later, to the disciples he answers, “Food cannot defile you, only what comes out of your heart: fornication, theft, murder, adultery, avarice, wickedness, deceit, licentiousness, envy, slander, pride, folly. All these evil things come from within, and they defile a person.”

And while the gospel just kind of moves on after that, in this moment, whether they realize it or not, the disciples stand condemned. In this moment, whether we realize it or not, we stand condemned. Because we’ve all had things come out of our hearts that defile us and make us less than pure.

And, yes, some of those are sexual: fornication and adultery and licentiousness. But most of them aren’t. And while some of them might seem rare — like theft and murder, though those aren’t as rare as you might think — most of them are things that we do in our everyday lives, one way or another: avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly.

And they are not ranked. There is not one evil inclination that’s better than another. There is no grading on a curve. We have all sinned and fallen short of the glory of God and we all stand in complete equality before her, defiled and impure because of that sin.

If anyone here is a chewed up piece of gum, we all are. And who wants a chewed up piece of gum?

God does.

That is the heart of the gospel. No matter how beat down you are, no matter how heavy and dirty your soul is, no matter who you are… where you are on life’s journey… what you’ve done… what has happened to you… God still comes to your window and throws pebbles and asks you to come away with him. God still calls you his dove. God still asks to see your face and hear your voice, because your voice is sweet and your face is lovely. And God will never… ever… ever… stop loving you.

And I cannot tell you how important that message is. There are people in this world, there are people in this town, there are people in this church community, there are people in this sanctuary, who have been told that they are not loved and that they are not worthy of love.

There are people in this world who lie about love. They lie to others and they lie to themselves.

And I want this message to be resoundingly clear: you are loved and you are worthy of love.

You will lose your confidence. In times of trial, your common sense. You may lose your innocence, but you cannot lose God’s love.

(And that’s Sara Groves, but that’s okay, I think she gets it).

And it doesn’t stop there.

We are Christians. We are imitators of Christ.

We’re not always good at it. I’m not always good at it. But that’s what we are. And that means two things.

First, it means that we are called into a new life. We are called to be better than we are. We are called to shun fornication and adultery and licentiousness. And theft and murder. And avarice and wickedness and deceit and envy and slander and pride and folly. And everything that is not love.

And we’re going to fail. That’s okay. We get up, we know that we are loved, and we try again.

Second, it means that we’re called to share that same indiscriminate love that God has or us with everyone in here and with everyone out there. We are called to remind each other that we are not chewed up pieces of gum, but precious children of a loving God.

Because, you see, God has a love song. It is the love song of love songs. It is the greatest of all love songs. And we can all sing along. Amen.

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Not Against Flesh and Blood

Most of you know that Mariah and I have a dachshund named Hildegard. A while ago, we started having a little problem with her: she started refusing to go for walks. She would be fine in the fenced-in yard, and she was willing to step out into the rest of the yard and maybe even walk around the house a little bit. But, once we got to the sidewalk, she would tuck her tail and shake and sit down and refuse to move.

A trip to the vet ruled out any medical problems. And we know that Hildegard has had some scary run-ins with loose dogs in the neighborhood… and fireworks over the summer… and loud noises like motorcycles and backfiring trucks.

So now we’re taking a behavioral approach. Hildegard thinks that the world outside of our fenced-in yard is scary, and we need to do the long hard work of teaching her that it is not. Or, at least, of giving her the resilience to overcome that fear and go for a walk.

Today’s reading is from the letter to the Ephesians. Our reading a couple of weeks ago was also from this book. In that the sermon I gave then, I told you a few important things about this letter… but I thought a refresher might be in order.

So, four things:

First, this letter is almost certainly not by Paul, even though his name is right there at the beginning. It’s probably by an anonymous person who followed Paul and who wanted to borrow some of Paul’s credibility for his own letter.

Second, this letter was almost certainly not written to the church in Ephesus, even though its name is right there at the beginning. It was probably a circular letter, sent from church to church, with each sender writing the recipient’s name into the letter: to the saints who are in Ephesus, to the saints who are in Laodicea, to the saints who are in DeWitt.

Third, this letter by an anonymous author, passed from church to church, is sometimes very wrong. And fourth, it is sometimes very right.

In today’s passage, the author takes a moment to recognize the struggles that his audience faces. For the the early church, these struggles included conflicts between Jewish Christians and Gentile Christians, persecution at the hands of the Roman Empire, and challenges in figuring out who they were and how they lived and what they believed.

For us, two thousand years later, these struggles are different. In some parts of the world, our Christian friends and neighbors are persecuted and threatened. In some parts of our nation, our friends and neighbors — Christian or not — are marginalized and oppressed. And even in this relatively privileged congregation, we face loss, illness, loneliness, and heartache.

Struggle is real… every one of us is facing our own version of a big world beyond the fenced-in yard.

When Hildegard faces her world beyond the fenced-in yard, she does it as a dog, and dogs don’t think the way that we do.

Hildegard doesn’t think in abstractions. She doesn’t think about walks-in-general, or other-dogs-in-general, or parks-in-general. She can’t have one good walk and think that’s what walks are like.

And she doesn’t quite have the same kind of episodic memory that we have. She probably can’t quite remember the time that a dog ran out from a house and started a fight with her… at least, not in the same way that I can.

She might not even know that the world outside the fenced-in yard is scary; she probably doesn’t think to herself, “I am now in the world outside the fenced-in yard and bad things have happened here and they might happen again.” Her knowledge of the world, I think, is deeper in her bones. She steps into the world beyond the fenced-in yard and she is just scared. It’s a brute fact.

We are different.

When I am afraid, I can sit down and think about why I am afraid. When I am upset, I can sit down and think about why I am upset. When I am angry, I can sit down and think about why I am angry.

And, if I think through those things and work on them — by myself or with a therapist — I might be able to overcome them. I might be able to go through my struggles and come out the other side… different, but whole and healthy.

But sometimes, that doesn’t work. Sometimes, when we sit and think about our struggles, we find someone to blame. And Lord, there are people out there who will tell us who to blame for our problems.

There are people in our families and communities and churches who will tell us who to blame for our our struggles. There are people in the paper and on the radio and on the television who will tell us who to blame for our struggles.

There are people who will tell us to blame our family members. There are people who will tell us to blame strangers. But the message is consistent: “Here is the cause of your problems… it’s their fault.”

There are people who try and push us apart from each other… who want us to believe that our struggles are against each other.

Hildegard doesn’t see the world that way. She doesn’t blame her struggles on that dog that got loose or those people who set off the fireworks. She just knows that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is a world of struggle.

And the author of Ephesians doesn’t see the world that way. He knows that our struggle is not against enemies of flesh and blood, but against the cosmic powers of this present darkness and the spiritual forces of evil.

Now, I know, we’re good modern twenty-first century mainline protestant Christians and good sensible practical Iowas. We don’t usually talk about cosmic powers and spiritual forces. We are too level headed for that. But I think Hildegard might know something we don’t. And I think the author of Ephesians might know something we aren’t always aware of.

All of us — all of us: you and me and everyone — are subject to forces that we do not understand and that we might not even be aware of. Some of those are wonderful, like that pull to help a stranger stranded on the side of the road. Some of them are terrible, like those unconscious biases that push us to be suspicious of people who are too different from us.

We don’t always know why we do things… and, sometimes, the things that we do are the wrong things. And that’s true for all of us. And that is the key.

You see, our struggle is not against flesh and blood. It is not against our family or friends or neighbors or strangers. You see, all of them are caught in the same struggle that we are. All of them are having to endure the world beyond the fenced-in yard. All of them are subject to forces that they do not understand and may not even be aware of. All of them are going through what we’re going through.

And the only way to help them through that struggle — the only way to help them through that struggle; a struggle that they might not even know they’re engaged in — is to love them. The only way to get through this world of struggle is to love each other.

The author of Ephesians wants us to be safe in this struggle. He wants us to put on the armor of God: the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, the sword of the Spirit, and — the metaphor rapidly losing steam — the shoes of whatever will help you proclaim the gospel.

And he’s not wrong. The world is full of struggle. But…

The thing about a suit of armor is that only one person can fit inside. And truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit and the gospel aren’t like that. We’re gonna need a bigger metaphor.

Enter the house of God. Not just the house, but the mansion of God. A great mansion with hallways that stretch on forever, with room after room after room, with space for everyone. This is the beauty of that gospel that holds within it truth and righteousness and faith and salvation and the Spirit: it is big enough for everyone. This is the beauty of God’s love: there is more than enough to go around.

Hildegard is scared of the world beyond the fenced-in yard. And there are reasons for her to be scared. There are forces she does not understand. Some of them will try to hurt her. Some of them won’t try, but will hurt her anyway. And the only way through that fear is for Mariah and I to show her that the world beyond the fenced-in yard is also full of treats and scritchies and love.

The world that we live in is a world of struggle. For all of us. And the only way through that struggle is for us to share the assurance that we have and to show each other that this world is also a world of love. That it is mostly a world of love. That it is intended to be entirely a world of love.

That is the call… to take up this armor and share it around until it is something more, until the world is full of the gospel; until the world overflows with the presence of the God who is love.

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Book Announcement: Radical Charity

I’ve already announced this on my personal Facebook profile, but I haven’t said anything here yet: I recently signed a contract with Wipf and Stock to publish my first book — the working title is Radical Charity: How Generosity Can Save the World (And the Church) — through their Cascade Books imprint. I spent more than two years working on the manuscript, and who-knows-how-long before that accidentally researching a book. While there’s still plenty if work to be done, I am very excited for this project to be in its final stages!

Here’s my draft for the back cover copy:

Right now, there is a movement in churches and nonprofits arguing that charity is toxic, that helping hurts, and that the entire nonprofit sector needs to be reformed to truly lift people out of poverty. These charity skeptics are telling Christians that traditional charity deepens dependency, fosters a sense of entitlement, and erodes the work ethic of people who receive it. Charity skepticism is increasingly popular; and it is almost certainly wrong.

Radical Charity weaves together research and scholarship on topics as diverse as biblical scholarship, Christian history, economics, and behavioral psychology to tell a different story. In this story, charity is the heart of Christianity and one of the most effective ways that we can help people who are living in poverty. Charity—giving to people experiencing poverty without any expectation of return or reformation—can save the world and help make God’s vision for the church a reality.

I’ll post more updates here as the project moves forward.

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The Fear of the Lord is the Beginning of Wisdom

“The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.”

That’s not from our reading today. It’s from our call to worship. It’s from a Psalm. The psalmist sings that he will praise the Lord. He sings that the Lord’s works are great; they are full of honor and majesty; they are faithful and just. He sings that the Lord is renowned for her wonderful deeds; she has provided food to the people; she has sent redemption.

And he sings that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

And that sounds terrible. The Lord is my savior. And this makes it sound like God has plucked me out of the abyss and I am hanging from a string as thin and fragile as a spider’s thread, and that I am afraid, because if I do the wrong thing… he might just… let go.

And that would not be a healthy relationship. If you ever find yourself in that kind of relationship — a relationship where you are afraid that, if you do the wrong thing, your partner will hurt you or kill you — get out. That is abuse. That is a dangerous place to be.

That goes for religion, too. If that is the fear we’re supposed to have — if that is the beginning of wisdom — then God is a monster. And, as Christians, we do not believe that God is a monster. We know — from scripture and from experience — that God is love and that perfect love casts out all fear.

And yet, the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.

In today’s reading, David is dead. He has gone to sleep with his ancestors. And his son, Solomon, now sits on the throne.
Now, Solomon is a good kid. He loves God. He walks in the statutes of his father. He offers sacrifices. And in a dream one night, God appears to him and asks him, “What should I give to you?”

And Solomon shows God… his fear.

“You have made me the king of your people,” he says, “and I am young, and there are so many of them, and I have no idea what I am doing.” And you can hear it in his voice. He is afraid. He wonders how he is going to live up to this responsibility.

I am forty. I have reached a point in my life where I know two things. First, there are a couple of things that I am really good at. Second, there are a bunch of things where I’m just faking it and hoping no one notices. And I’m starting to suspect that this is just what adulthood is like. And, sometimes, that’s scary.

And a while ago, I started thinking about all of those adults and authority figures who I knew growing up.

I started thinking about those elementary school teachers who seemed so old, but who were probably, like, in their twenties. I started thinking about my parents. My parents were in their thirties when I was born. I even looked up one of my college professors who I really admire. And when he was teaching me, he was younger than I am now.

And while I believe — I really believe — that all of these people had some things that they were really good at… it seems like they might have also been faking some things and hoping no one noticed. And it seems like they might have, sometimes, been afraid.

Because that just might be how it is for everyone. We’re all a little confident, and we’re all a little afraid. We all understand how Solomon felt… at least a little bit.

But this is a different kind of fear. It isn’t the fear that someone will hurt us or punish us. It isn’t the fear that we’re dangling from a spider’s thread, and if we mess up, God might just… let go.

It is a fear that we are ill-equipped for the life that we face. It is a fear that we will hurt someone we care about. It is a fear that is, in a strange and mysterious way, born out of love.

That is the fear that Solomon has: the fear that he doesn’t have what it takes — that he doesn’t have what he needs — to be a good king.

So he asks… “Give me… an understanding mind to govern your people; make me able to discern between good and evil.”

He fears God with a fear born out of a love for God’s people. And he asks for wisdom.

I once read that persuasive writers and speakers project certainty. People who are convincing sound sure. They state opinions as though they were facts. They avoid qualifiers like “I think…” or “I suppose…” We’re all faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices. And if you really want to keep people from noticing, project certainty.

But know: there’s a price.

Solomon asked for wisdom because he feared God; because he was willing to say to God, “I don’t know if I can do this. I am only a child, I don’t know how to go out or come in.” And there is power in that admission. There is power in saying, “I am not certain. I’m faking it — at least a little bit — and hoping no one notices.”

There is power in saying, “I need help,” to God. Because when we say that, God might just help. And there is power in saying, “I need help,” to each other. Because when we say that, our friends and neighbors might just help. And we might not have to fake it, anymore.

When Solomon asks God for wisdom, God responds by giving him wisdom. And there’s something interesting happening here.

When Solomon asks for wisdom, God responds by saying, “Because you have asked for this — and not for a long life, or great riches, or for the death of your enemies — I will give it to you… and, on top of that, I will give you riches, and honor, and a long life.”

And it looks a lot like this: if Solomon had asked for those other things, God would have said, “No.” But, because Solomon asked for wisdom — because Solomon said, “I need help,” — God gave him what he asked for and more.

God is generous. When we are vulnerable before God, God gives us what we need and more.

And, I think, in general, so are we. When we are vulnerable before each other — when we say, “I am doing my best, but I’m a little scared and I don’t know exactly what to do,” — we turn to each other and offer each other those three magic words, “Let me help.”

And when we help each other, when we become the hands and feet and heart of the Lord Jesus Christ who saves us all… and when we accept that help, when we become the outstretched hand of the marginalized Christ who is the least of these… then we will have wisdom and insight and knowledge. And, even more, we will have riches and honor and abundant life.

Because, it turns out, if we give up on the idea that we have to fake it and hope that no one notices, if we give up on the necessity of foolish certainty, if we admit that we are dependent on God and on each other… then we can grow in God, and have all that we need and more.

The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom. But the fear of the Lord isn’t some fear that we’re hanging over an abyss by a spider’s thread and that if we mess up, God will just… let go. We know that God doesn’t do that. God has redeemed us and rescued us and saved us. Because God is love.

Period.

The fear of the Lord is that admission that we can’t do this by ourselves, and we don’t want to fake it, and we don’t want to hurt the people who we care about… and we know that we are called to care about everyone. And it is when we admit that, that we can turn to God in prayer and ask for what we need: minds that can discern the difference between good and evil, hearts that can choose to choose the good even when it’s hard, and spirits that can ask for help.

Because knowing that we cannot do this alone — and that we are not, in fact, alone — is the deepest wisdom.

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Preaching and Listening

For my birthday this year, my wife generously bought be a new tenor saxophone. I started on clarinet in sixth grade. In college, I switched to tenor saxophone (and still doubled on clarinet), and played on school horns. A few months after college, I bought a late-60s King Cleveland off eBay. Despite hundreds of dollars of repairs and adjustments, it’s never been a high quality instrument. The octave mechanism stick, there is always at least one leaky pad, the action is slow, it feels like it’s made out of tin, and it’s always a little stuffy. Now I have a P. Mauriat Le Bravo 200 that feels and plays much better. So… a huge thank you to my wife!

And that means that I’m practicing again. It’s something that I have to make time for, but I can usually get an hour or two in every day: practicing the blues in different keys, running scales and arpeggios, striving to get my tempos up, going through different tunes, and… transcribing.

Transcribing is the practice of listening to another musician’s solo and trying to replicate it. So, right now, I’m working on Miles Davis’s famous solo from Kind of Blue. I’m not writing it down — so, I suppose, I’m not technically transcribing — but I listen to a few notes or a few bars and try to play them back. And, as I get more of it under my fingers, I can play more of the solo right along with Miles. The point of this exercise is to train my ear; to get to a place where I can hear a phrase — in principle, any phrase — and repeat it.

And I do this because of something that I heard saxophonist Bob Reynolds say. To paraphrase: improvisation is the art of transcribing ourselves in real time. I want to be able to play what I’m hearing in my head at the same time that I’m hearing it.

And I started thinking about this in the context of preaching.

Specifically, I started thinking about why I don’t listen to — and imitate — other preachers? We have a handful of rockstar preachers in the United Church of Christ; and even outside of those rockstars, I know many pastors whose preaching I admire. Technology has made it easy to record and share sermons, and many churches publish recordings of sermons, so they’re easily available. And I know that listening to other preachers deliver good sermons well invigorates and inspires me when I hear them at denominational gatherings; so surely listening to them on a regular basis, for the purpose of learning from them, would make be a better preacher.

So why don’t I do it?

I think there are a few reasons.

First, I don’t think we usually think about preaching as performance or about sermons as a form of music. But it is a performance and public speaking has a lot in common with music. As preachers, we each have our signature patterns and phrases. Volume, rhythm, and phrasing all matter. Even where we look, how we gesture, and what facial expressions we wear make a difference. And while it is a lot of work to compose a new sermon every week, part of that composition should include thoughts on how I will deliver it.

Second, we tend to think that ‘borrowing’ from another preacher is bad form. The reason that I transcribe on the saxophone is to train my ear; and part of what I am training my ear to do is learn the language of jazz. I am learning new phrases that I can add to my repertoire… and that I can deploy elsewhere. I will never play Miles’s solo during a performance, but a measure that sounds like it might possibly be based on something from that solo might sneak into a solo on another piece where there’s an Em7 chord. The same principle should apply to preaching. I will never deliver the same line that some other preacher delivers, but a rhythm or inflection might slip in during a sermon on a different scripture. Of course, it will only do that if I add it to my own ‘language’. Not necessarily the words I say, but how I say them.

Third, I think many of us are scared to experiment. On Sunday morning, I have to use the time I have during the sermon to do a lot of work. Not only do I have to deliver an inspiring message; I often have to provide a basic education on the Bible, comment on current events, and do a dozen other things. Experimenting with a new style of preaching means taking a risk that my congregation might not be open to. The last think I want people remember is an awkward moment in the sermon; especially if that means they aren’t remembering something else. But that should be easy to manage: only use new things in practice until you’re comfortable with them.

So, I’m going to try an experiment. Along with practicing my saxophone and working on that Miles David solo, I’m going to take the time to listen to other preachers and — as it were — work on their solos. Hopefully, that will add some licks to my preaching vocabulary and make me a better, more interesting, and more diverse preacher.

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