Friday, August 31, 2012

How Not to Give Speeches

One political national convention is now finished with another to come next week. Watching and listening to the primetime coverage, the closest thing I find to compare it to is a stereotypical, religious, revival meeting. There was a token amount of attempts at appealing to those outside the party, but it was mostly about energizing the insiders and providing the necessary impetus to carry forward their mission over the short term – to get their nominee elected.

The speeches were full of flowery and fiery rhetoric, frequently without much or any support for the conclusions listeners were given. There was plenty of appeal to emotion, appeal to personality, appeal to party loyalty. There was little to no appeal to good, sound logic and critical thinking – except perhaps critical thinking to sort out integrity vs. misrepresentation and spin.

Earlier I likened the convention to a religious meeting. Suppose it was a religious meeting and the speakers were pastors and religious leaders. Would we allow the sort of speeches (referring to use of rhetoric rather than subject matter) that were given during the convention? For the sake of argument let’s suppose that all speakers were speaking truthfully. Would we want pastors to be saying things that could raise questions about their truthfulness, even if they were ultimately determined to be true? Shouldn’t pastors stay well clear of the edge and stick to things that are plain and clear? Some religious speakers do appeal to emotion and personality, but that doesn’t make it right and for Christians who follow the bible, at least how I understand it, those are techniques to be avoided.

Do we have a double standard when it comes to political speech vs. religious speech? Is that appropriate? acceptable? Or should we apply the same standards to both types of speech? Both types of speech attempt to persuade, to cause people to make judgments, to inspire people to action. I believe the same standards should be applied to both.

Both political and religious speech should steer away from questionable practices that involve attempts to manipulate information and people. Both should stick to use of sound reasoning principles. Excitement should come from truthfulness rather than artificial attempts to whip up the emotion.

If there is one thing I learned from the convention speeches it was this: examples of what not to do in sermons and speeches I give.

Sunday, August 26, 2012

Sermon: The Prophet Who Didn’t Like His God

Passage: Jonah
Audio MP3 (37 minutes)
Key Texts: Jonah 4:10-11; Luke 6:35-36

I think if asked about the story Jonah, most people first think about the big fish that swallowed him. The fish is mentioned only in three verses out of the entire book. The book ends with a question from God about his mercy and that is where the main theme is to be found.

This sermon was given at the Presbyterian Church.

Friday, August 03, 2012

Boxes and Labels

When many of us decide to clean, sort, and organize the chaos that is around us we might set up a bunch of boxes and label each one. We may not actually write labels and stick them on the boxes, but in our minds we know what the contents of each box are. As we go through the process of sorting we place items that we come across into one of the boxes based on the labels given to them.

We don’t put labels onto boxes just in the arena of our stuff. All of us create boxes and labels for everything that exists in the world around us, including people, including ourselves. We identify others and ourselves according to gender, ethnicity, social status, gender, political affiliation, religious affiliation, employer, occupation, and the list goes on ad infinitum.

Every single box we set up means there are those who are inside and those who are outside. Every single box both unites and divides. As long as there are boxes, there can be no peace.

As I write this the 2012 London Olympics have been going on for about a week. The Olympic rings symbolize the uniting of diverse peoples. Yet the very nature of competition divides. Athletes are divided by nations. Even within a national team individuals can be pitted against one another because only one can win the gold (albeit rare occurrence of a tie).

Last night I saw Gabby Douglas win the all-around gymnastics gold, the fourth American to do so, and the first African-American. She did a great job and I congratulate her for her hard work, dedication, and the results that came from them. She should be proud of her accomplishments.

The thing that caught my attention watching the NBC coverage was how quickly they had to make the observation that this was the “first African-American gymnast” to win all-around gold. I do understand how important this historical accomplishment is, yet I am saddened that after all these years we still must place people into boxes and qualify accomplishments based on labels.

I don’t believe America can be a “nation… indivisible” until it is able to let go of these distinctions. Likewise there can be no global peace until national and ethnic interests are placed behind the common worth and value of all humanity. (Now I don’t believe the ideal will ever occur in the present age, so I do accept the inevitability of having to work through “boxes” such as nations.)

I don’t like to self-identify as a Christian because in addition to all the connotations that come along with the word, both good and bad, it sets up a wall – I’m inside the “Christian” box and you might or might not be, depending on your confession of faith. Implied there is that if you are in the box, you’re automatically my friend and if not, you’re not. (Reality is, obviously, more complicated.)

I admit that I place people into boxes with labels. It’s easy to do. It’s easier to make sense out of the world when I can pigeonhole each person into their boxes. But I don’t want to do that. I want to learn to be able to see every person as a human being and nothing else.

When I read the story of Jesus and reflect upon his life, I get the sense that he viewed every person as a friend1, even if the feeling was not reciprocated (eg., Judas at the betrayal – Mt. 26:50). That is where I want to be: to be able to see as friends even those who are hurting me. I want to get to the place where I no longer have any boxes and the only label I possess to place onto people is “friend.”

Paul writes (Rom 10:12; Gal 3:28; 1 Cor 12:13; Col 3:11) that in God’s family there are no distinctions. Does becoming part of the Church somehow supernaturally erase distinctions? No, the distinctions and labeling are part of the sin problem. I don’t think Paul is writing that labeling people outside the Church is okay. I think he is writing that the Church needs to work on throwing boxes and labels into the rubbish heap. As the Church does that, she will no longer see the world through those lenses either, and instead will be able to see the world as Jesus sees it: friends. Not every person will accept the Church as a friend, but that must not prevent the Church from seeing every individual as a friend. Our identities as individuals and communities should not be on those things that can cause divisions, but only on things that can unite. Easier said than done, however.

1I am not writing about salvation here and belonging to God’s family. Jesus doesn’t force anyone to be his friend, and he clearly taught that salvation implies mutual friendship. What I am writing is that Jesus did not consider anyone his enemy – that category does not exist for him – but that does not prevent a person from considering Jesus their enemy.