In Praise of Simple-Mindedness

Simplicity

 

I’m becoming simple-minded.

 

And it’s a good thing.

 

Well, mostly. Some of my simple-mindedness is just old-fashioned stupidity, a failure to grasp the obvious. I spent, for instance, considerable time on the phone last Saturday morning with a con artist posing as a Microsoft rep. It took me almost an hour to confirm my initial hunch that he was the modern equivalent of a highway robber. When I finally hung up, I promised myself to be shrewder next round.

 

To be less simple-minded.

 

But there is a simple-mindedness I desire, and need, and can’t get enough of. It’s singleness of heart. It’s purity of devotion. It’s uncomplicated affection. It’s giving myself wholly and freely, without calculation or manipulation, to the One who gives himself wholly and freely to me, and it’s loving others without agenda or ulterior motive.

 

Let’s call it simplicity, and let’s name its opposite: duplicity. Duplicity is double-dealing. It’s being two things – a pretend self, polite and pious, parading in the spotlight, and the real you, devious and spiteful, crouching in the shadows. Duplicity is treachery. It is posing.

 

An example, from the gospel of Luke.

 

Keeping a close watch on him (that is, on Jesus), they sent spies, who pretended to be sincere. They hoped to catch Jesus in something he said, so that they might hand him over to the power and authority of the governor. So the spies questioned him: “Teacher, we know that you speak and teach what is right, and that you do not show partiality but teach the way of God in accordance with the truth. Is it right for us to pay taxes to Caesar?”

He saw through their duplicity and said to them,  “Show me a denarius. Whose image and inscription are on it?”

“Caesar’s,” they replied.

He said to them, “Then give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s, and to God what is God’s.”

They were unable to trap him in what he had said there in public. And astonished by his answer, they became silent (Luke 20:20-26; my emphasis).

This is such a great story, not least because it serves up such a clear distinction between shrewdness and duplicity. Jesus is shrewd. The spies are duplicitous. Shrewdness sees through, duplicity hides behind. Shrewdness exposes, duplicity evades. The duplicitous sets traps, and the shrewd catch them in them. I wish I’d had such shrewdness with the fake Microsoft rep. Such shrewdness is a virtue.

Not so duplicity, and this story is also great because it gives us a vivid portrait of duplicity in action. Duplicity’s hallmark is the contrast, comical if not so tragic, between words and thoughts. Note the gushing flattery from these men’s lips, and yet the treachery in their hearts. They’re spies pretending to be students, betrayers posing as believers, stoolies acting as seekers.

And the key symptom of that is this abyss-wide gap between their words and their thoughts. Their words hide rather than reveal their intent. Their words mislead rather than disclose. Their mouths speak love while their hearts plot destruction. What is said and what is thought bear zero resemblance to each other.

Jesus sees through it. He knows their duplicity. The word in the Greek for duplicity – panourgian (literally “all act”) – indicates Gollum-like trickery. The outward bearing is all façade. It’s utter sham. It’s all act.

Which is the exact opposite of simplicity, where what you see is what you get, and what is said is what is meant.

Add love to this, and a revolution is underway.

There is too wide a gap, for most of us, between what we say and what we mean. Between our words and our thoughts. The first thing the Prophet Isaiah said when he saw the living and exalted God was, “Woe is me, I am ruined. For I am a man of unclean lips and I live among a people of unclean lips” (Isaiah 6:5). Isaiah was one of the most godly men who ever walked the earth. But seeing God, he sees also, abrupt and stark and grief-making, his own duplicity. Then God does what only God can do: he sears his lips clean (Isaiah 6:6-7).

 

And herein lies our hope: truly seeing God, we truly see ourselves, in all our woe-begotten duplicity; but crying out to God, we are truly and greatly helped.

 

So how then shall we live? The Apostle Paul, urging the church to attain to “the measure of the fullness of Christ” and to no longer be “tossed back and forth and blown here and there… by the cunning and craftiness of people in their deceitful scheming” lays out a basic condition: “speak the truth in love” (Ephesians 4:14-16).

 

It’s a lofty vision: being a people whose every word conveys truth and love in equal measure, one never diminishing the other. It’s a vision of a people free of duplicity, within and without, neither practicing it nor falling prey to it. A people whose words and thoughts exactly align, and the whole thing steeped in love.

 

I long to be part of a church like that.

 

All it will take is all of us being gloriously simple-minded.

My Techno Deficiencies

Techno problems

 

Most technology baffles me.  It’s to me what Russia was to Churchill – a mystery inside an  enigma inside a riddle.

 

I think my deficiency is genetic. If certain skills are partly genetic – making a cello weep, spanking a fastball deep into outfield, dancing high on a tight rope – then, I guess, so is technical proficiency. The ability to manipulate all the secret esoteric intricacies and mysteries of iPads and smart phones must be only half acquired. The other half – the genetic part – we either have or lack.

 

I lack it. I’m deficient in techno genes.

 

We just acquired our first flat screen TV. It’s a thing of austere beauty. The only problem is neither my wife nor I can figure out how to make it work. It turns on, but the channel program is all black emptiness. We read the instructions carefully. We fiddle the buttons endlessly. We wave, like a magic wand, the control stick at the screen, trying to pull a bunny from a hat. Or just trying to get a signal.

 

Nothing happens.

 

I’d chalk it up to some glitch in the TV, except for two things: my son had it working before he left town; and yesterday.

 

Yesterday, I tried for the second time in two days to engage two friends, both far away, in a conference call. Both times I got hopelessly lost in the labyrinth of technology. Other people find these things simple, intuitive, child’s work. Me? I find them enigmatic, elusive, bedeviling. It’s like threading a needle with oven mitts.

 

But here is my consolation: the stuff of the heart requires no technical skill. To love deeply, to listen attentively, to pray earnestly, to give generously, to extend grace – all take skill, and work, and resolve, and discipline, just none of it of a technical order. 

 

My son is coming back later today. He has the genes for technology (don’t ask me how). So hopefully he’ll do his thing, and soon the Great Portal will open. He’ll explain it to me, but likely I’ll forget. And my next clash with technology, I know, is only a matter of time.

 

But I’m thankful that, though sometimes it takes technology to talk with a friend, it takes none to be one. And we all got the genes for that.

Join the Song

 

 

Godspell

 

A friend posted on facebook this week a video of a young man singing his heart out on an Interstate in southern California. His windows and sun roof or wide open, and he chimes happily along with a song spilling loud from his car. “Fill me up, Buttercup,” he shouts for all to hear, bobbing and weaving to the beat. Traffic is thick, so drivers and passengers to the right and left take notice. He invites them to sing with him. Many do.

 

It’s brilliant. It’s a little outbreak of the kingdom of God: infectious joy invading a world of grinding routine, gruelling tedium. One man singing subverts a thousand stone-faced commuters, and calls them back to wonder and thankfulness.

 

I always loved the 60s musical GodSpell, despite its theological shortcomings. Jesus shows up in San Francisco during the height of the Flower Power era. He is the proto-hippy, a bell-bottomed, peace-sign wielding, afro-sporting vagabond grooving to the scene. All that is hokey and oddball. The movie’s genius, though, is this: Jesus comes singing, and keeps singing. And those who follow him hear the song – in the midst of dance recitals, board meetings, traffic jams, domestic arguments – and drop everything to join him in it.

 

Three biblical texts converge around this theme – well, more than three, but these three I find especially compelling. The first is a question God asks woebegone, sore-afflicted Job:

 

Were you there… when the morning stars sang together, and all the angels shouted for joy? (Job 38:7).

 

The second is the picture of God that the Prophet Zephaniah gives to frightened, disheartened people:

 

Do not fear, Zion;
    do not let your hands hang limp.

The Lord your God is with you,
    the Mighty Warrior who saves.
He will take great delight in you;
    in his love he will no longer rebuke you,
    but will rejoice over you with singing (Zeph. 3:16-17).

 

And the third is the story of Paul and Silas in the book Acts, two men bleeding from a scourging, locked and manacled in the inner cell of a dank prison because of an act of compassion they committed in the city of Philippi:

 

About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them (Acts 16:25).

 

I bet they were, those other prisoners. Who does this? Songs in the night. Songs in the face of brutal suffering. Songs breaking out in the midst of conditions that invite anything but singing – sores from head to foot, threats from powerful enemies, violence from an oppressive system. Traffic on a grid-locked highway. They don’t complain. They don’t curse. They don’t rail against the system.

 

They sing.

 

GodSpell, for all it got wrong, got this right: into this mess and pain, the great Troubadour comes singing, singing, singing, and the kingdom opens to all who hear and join him.

The Kingdom Belongs to Such as These

 

Last week in Toronto,  speaking at The Peoples Church, I had a heart-altering experience. I was speaking from the passage in John 5 where Jesus asks a man who has been “an invalid for thirty-eight years” if he wants to get well. The man doesn’t leap at the opportunity. Essentially, he whines.

            Jesus heals him anyhow.

            One of the puzzles of this story is, Why only one? John says that there was a “great multitude of disabled people – the blind, the lame, the paralyzed” lying about the place. Why didn’t Jesus heal them all, or at least a baker’s dozen?

            In the first service, I wondered about that, and offered a few thoughts on it.

            Then I attended the Friendship Class. The Friendship Class is for adults with physical and/or mental disabilities. About 15 came that day – I was told that sometimes up to 40 people come, but it was brutally cold that day and most of people in the class depend on public transportation and so many stayed home.

            For the next half hour, I joined their fellowship, worship, testimony, and Bible discussion. None of it was polished. All of it was a bit chaotic. It was full of glitches and interruptions. The singing was mostly off key.

            And yet I have never experienced the Kingdom of God so tangibly.

            Everyone was utterly free of pretention. There was no posturing. There was not a whiff of envy or rivalry. There was love, and joy, and real pain, unconcealed, and a deep spirit of heartfelt welcome. The first thing many of the people did on meeting me was hug me, and lay their head on my chest. Some pinched my cheeks. It was disarming.

            I went back to preach the second service, wrecked. What had I just witnessed?

            I got to the place in my sermon when I asked the question, Why just one?

            But this time I answered differently: “I’ve just come from visiting the Friendship Class. I stood in the presence of some of the most Christ-like people I’ve ever met. So I’m wondering if the reason Jesus only heals one man here is that he looks around at all the disabled people, and he only sees this one man who isn’t whole, so he helps him.” 

            Jesus pointed to the weakest, the smallest, the least in our midst, and told us to pay special attention: the kingdom belongs to such as these, he said.

            I’m starting to get what he meant.

A Theology of Interruptions

Systematic Theology is a central part of the curriculum of any seminary. Systematic Theology takes the messiness, the sloppiness, the ambiguity of our God-thoughts and puts it all into neat rows, tidy categories. It gathers key Scriptures and a breadth of historical reflection and debate on a range of topics, and distills it cleanly. A typical Systematic Theology textbook will have sections on the theology of God, the theology of Christ, the theology of mankind, the theology of the church, the theology of last things, and so on.

Systematic Theology is foundational to any pastor’s training. I wouldn’t want to handle, week after week, the challenges of ministry without a deep and solid bedrock of it.

But the longer I’ve been a pastor, the more I see wide swaths of human experience crying out for theological reflection that no Systematic Theology addresses.

We have, for instance, a poor theology of time.

Or of friendship.

Or of aging.

In the next few weeks, I want to reflect biblically and theologically on a few of these less conventional, non-systematic, but theologically-starved parts of our life.

For instance, few of us have a theology of interruption. And I’ve never seen that discussed in a theological tome.

And yet we’re desperate for one. We have placed such a high value on convenience and efficiency that any interruption – a traffic obstruction, a bad internet connection, a sick child, a flat tire, a phone call when you’re in the middle of something – is seen almost as a personal affront. My habitual thought at such moments – and sometimes what rushes from my lips – is “Why me? Why this? Why now?”

Another word for that is whining.

My default is to hoard time like a miser. It’s to guard it like a Doberman. It’s to resent interruptions like thieves.

And yet the Bible is filled with amazing and holy things that happen in the thick of interruptions. The gospels and the book of Acts can be read, at one level, as chronicles of interruption. Jesus is teaching – and someone breaks the roof open above him and lowers a man down through the hole. He’s interrupted, but healing bursts forth from it. Or Jesus is walking to some village, and some loud beggar or pleading father or chronically ill women hails him or grabs hold of him. One interruption after the next, but the kingdom is loosed through it. Or Peter is fasting and praying, and swooning with hunger, and a vision tumbles down on him. Interrupted, but the entire course of history changes because of it. Or Paul is bent on destroying the church, and Jesus waylays him and turns him inside out. He is eternally and radically interrupted, but you’re a Christ-follower, all these 2000 years later, as consequence of it.

And so on, and so forth.

It happens so often in the Bible, it starts to look like interruptions are anything but. They bear uncanny resemblance to God-appointments, holy ambushes. The mess of human efforts and schemes, it appears, is continually overridden by divine choreography. God hides in the seeming randomness of things. God lurks in the inconvenience of the unplanned. God skulks in the surprise of the unexpected.

Let me put it bluntly: God’s main disguise is an interruption. Just take any gospel – Luke, say – and watch how often the kingdom of God – a healing, a miracle, a parable, an epiphany, a moment of breathtaking divine presence – breaks out through the device of an interruption.

If you watch that enough, three things start to happen.

One, you get a lot more curious about personal interruptions.

Two, you start spying God in them.

Three, you start wishing for more.

 

Question: What personal interruption did you discover God at work within? 

Do You Hear What I Hear?

 

I’ve been preaching for 23 years now (not without ceasing, though I’m sure a few of my parishioners feel that way). I think I’m at best half way there: my preaching could improve in every way, from deeper preparation, to tighter presentation, to clearer illustration, to more practical application. It’s a task for a lifetime, and I intend to spend the rest of my days getting better at it.

For those who sit under my preaching currently, thanks for your patience.

I recently enjoyed a nearly 6 month sabbatical. That meant I spent half a year listening to sermons, with only a few times preaching any. And so I’ve become freshly aware of the other side of homiletics: hearing. Jesus, after all, was far more concerned about how and what we hear than about how and what we speak (though, of course, he was concerned about that as well). “Let him who has ears, hear,” was his refrain, not “Let him who has a mouth, speak.”

I have come to believe that the Spirit of God seeks to impart two anointings during any sermon: one for the speaker, the other for the listeners. He anoints both lips and ears, tongue and eardrum. He desires empowered words, both in the giving and in the receiving. Preaching is both oratory and auditory. In Acts 2, when the Spirit falls on the church in Jerusalem and they began to speak in various tongues, the miracle isn’t so much their speaking: it’s that each ethnic group present hears the wonders of God in their own language (See Acts 2:8, 11). The spirit’s anointing is on the hearing, not just the speaking.

In my 6 months of mostly hearing and seldom speaking sermons, I learned a few things about anointed listening. Here are four:

  • Come with expectancy that God will speak. God will reveal, convict, confirm, rebuke, and/or guide us, at least in part, in every sermon we hear, no matter how eloquently or clumsily executed.
  • Leave with a resolve to act today on what God says. I think the most damnable thing is good intentions. The paving stones of hell are laid with good intentions – with ought tos and should haves and one days. Break the habit of hearing a sermon about loving your spouse, or blessing your children, or giving generously, or granting forgiveness, or repenting wholeheartedly – or whatever – and agreeing with it but not acting on it.
  • Hear the sermon for yourself. It is sermon-listening malpractice to sit through a sermon and think, “I wish so-and-so were here,” or “I am so glad so-and-so is here, and hope they’re really getting this.” God didn’t appoint you as their proxy. This word is for you.
  • Hear the sermon for others. It is equally sermon-listening malpractice to keep a good word to yourself. It is like the lepers in 2 Kings 7 who find bread and start to hoard it. When God speaks to you, tell at least one other person what you heard, preferably that day. It seals it up in your own heart, helps keep you accountable to it, and God often uses it to speak a word in season to the person you tell.

There’s more, but that gets at a few core things.

I am preaching this coming Sunday. I am asking for the Spirit to anoint my words, both on my lips and in our ears, mine included.

What about you? What have you learned about the art of listening to sermons?