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Knoxville, TN, United States
Interim Pastor of Evergreen Presbyterian Church (USA), Dothan, AL.

Saturday, June 09, 2012

2012-06-10 That's Weird - Part 1

2012-06-10 That's Weird: Part 1 - To become strong we must become weak
James McTyre
Lake Hills Presbyterian Church (USA)
*Series based on N. Graham Standish's book:
Paradoxes for Living: Cultivating Faith in Confusing Times, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011.

We're starting a new series of messages, called, "That's Weird." And it's about Christian contradictions.

This morning, I want to ask Carla's help in illustrating harmony vs. dissonance.

[#1 A piece of dissonant music.]

[#2 A piece of harmonious music.]

Which did you like better? If you had to pick one to listen to all day long, which would you pick? If you came to church and we played dissonant music, and tried to sing dissonant hymns, would it enrich your spiritual life? Would you come back? Do you think you might complain to the management? I would.

But... if you were going to choose a soundtrack for your life, something that honestly conveyed your moods, or captured the ups and downs of your days, wouldn't you maybe, sometimes, a little... pick the dissonant piece? Not because you like it, but because it's accurate? Maybe not. Maybe your life is always harmonious. Like the Statler Brothers. (I would kill to sing bass like that brother.) But, just, maybe your life sounds more like the Statler Brothers' car alarms. I'm assuming they don't harmonize. Or, your theme song is more like dogs barking. Ringtones all going off at once. Kids crying. Fox News blaring. Dad snoring. Life isn't always a barbershop quartet singing "Kum By Yah." Sometimes our stuff is a little more "pitchy, dog." Sometimes life sounds more like dissonant, discordant, off-key. More puree than pure. Eh?

If that's true, then you really need to be reading your Bible more. Because you've got a lot in common with the people in it. You've got a lot in common with the people who first read it, and lived by it, than you might think.

People think the Bible is all harmonious. And then they read it. The Bible was written for people whose lives were more way pitchy than melodic. The people of the Bible were almost always more dissonant than harmonious. We make a crucial error when we think otherwise. Because it sets us up to think if we're not always peaceful and smiling, we're bad. That's just not right. It's not Biblical, either. I know. It sounds weird. But it's true.


Around the 1920's, Grenville Kleiser was a writer, a collector of sermons, and an expert on public speaking. He taught at Yale Divinity School and was very well-regarded.

Kleiser wrote: "To every problem, there is already a solution, whether you know it or not."

That's nice. If you've got a problem, just rest assured there's a solution. You'll find it. Someday. Everything will turn out alright. Harmonious. Eventually.

H. L. Mencken did some writing around the same time as Kleiser. Mencken was a journalist, editor, and satirist who was (quote) a cheerleader of scientific progress, skeptical of economic theories and particularly critical of anti-intellectualism, bigotry, populism, Fundamentalist Christianity, creationism, organized religion, and the existence of God. (unquote) (Wikipedia). If H. L. Mencken were alive today he'd have a show on HBO. A dissonant guy.

Mencken wrote, "For every problem, there is a solution that is simple, neat, and wrong."

Two educated men from roughly the same era of progress came to vastly different conclusions. One said there's a solution to every problem; you just haven't found it yet. The other said there are no simple solutions, and maybe there is no solution to your problem. One was Christian. The other, an atheist.

Now, just because you're an atheist doesn't mean the other atheists harmonize with you. There are almost as many different brands of atheists as there are Christians. Almost. Religious people are much better than atheists at drawing distinctions. Especially between themselves and other religious people. For instance, did you know, there are over 20 different kinds of Presbyterians? There are more than 20 different Presbyterian denominations. An atheist would say, "Seriously? Because y'all look alike to me." PCUSA (that's us). PCA, EPC, OPC, CPC, RPC, APC, ARPC, and UPC. No, wait. That last one's the bar code on groceries. Christian denominations are a lot like families. We can't remember why we got mad at each other, we just know we are.

Here's the irony of Christian denominations. We're all pretty sure we agree with Grenville Kleiser, that there's a solution to all the world's problems; we just don't know what it is. We may not know the solution yet, but if we keep on like we've always kept on, eventually, the truth will be revealed. All churches are pretty sure they're on the right track. Just ask them. But on the other hand, we all kind of think the "other" churches are dead set toward upholding solutions that are simple, neat, and wrong. So. We agree with Kleiser (about ourselves), AND we agree with Mencken (about "those other people.")

As Christians, then, we can hold two opposing ideas at the same time. There ARE solutions (even though we may not know what they are) AND there are NO solutions (even though other people mistakenly think they've found them).

Psychologists have a name for this condition. They call this "cognitive dissonance." It's the ability to hold two contradicting ideas at the same time. I like you, but I can't stand being in the same room with you. I love you, but I hate you. You're my child, but you're the spawn of Satan. Anyone who's in a family understands cognitive dissonance. God made man and woman from the clay of the earth. But, men are from Mars, women are from Venus. Same image; different planets. Contradicting ideas, both true.

We do it all the time. There's nothing on TV, but we still stare at it. We don't like big government, but we want our beef inspected for e coli. We want lower taxes, and we want improved schools. Contradictory ideas, but, you know. We can handle the dissonance. Out there, we can handle the cognitive dissonance.

Here's the thing. I think Christians, and by that I mean American Christians (because I don't really know any other kind very well), Christians switch off the dissonance-handling part of their brains the moment they walk in the church doors. When it comes to belief, Christians, particularly American Christians have a very, very hard time with cognitive dissonance. We're very, very uncomfortable with faith contradictions. We want our church faith to harmonize as well as our church choirs.

In fact, I would say that "belief" or "faith" is kind of like our Christian cheat-sheet for all the answers we don't have. We ask God, Why did these things happen? Why did you do that? We don't know. But there has to be a reason. There's got to be a solution to the problem. We just don't know it yet. You've gotta have faith. Someday, it'll all make sense. Atheists think that makes us sound like know-it-alls. When actually, we say it because we don't know enough.

We go to our Bibles. Because the Bible's got all the solutions to all our problems, right? Well, yes. But you have to pick and choose your passages carefully. Read the parts you agree with and everything harmonizes. That's one way to solve your problems. Come up with the answers you like and then find scripture to back you up. Churches do it all the time. Christians do it all the time. Because we like harmony.

But is that really the way the Bible operates? Is that what Jesus would have said?

Or was Jesus more open than we are to dissonance?

Think about some of the more popular things that Jesus said. And for just a minute, take them at face value. To be strong, we have to be weak. To save our lives, we have to lose them. To be the greatest of all we have to be the least of all. To be rich we have to be poor. To live, we have to die. Every single one of these very popular sayings of Jesus are examples of cognitive dissonance. Every single one of these sayings of Jesus is a contradiction. Jesus was OK with contradictions. That's weird.

We're talking today and over the next couple of weeks about stuff from the Bible - from Jesus - that sounds weird. When you take it on face value. We're getting a lot of background on these ideas from the book, Paradoxes for Living: Cultivating Faith in Confusing Times, by Graham Standish. Some of you have already read it, or were supposed to read it for a Sunday School class. You can get it on Amazon. There's even a QR code in the bulletin you can scan if you have a smart phone. There's another contradiction: smart phone. Phones aren't smart. They just think they are. Siri, what's the sound of one hand clapping? [Phone says nothing.] See? Not so smart now, are we? Or, wait. Maybe that is the sound. I'm so confused.

That's weird.


True confession time, here. Many years ago, when I was a young minister, I was scared to death of hospital visits. At first, it was because I was afraid I was going to see something eewy and gooey. Bad form for your pastor to pass out. "Oh, you're looking so much buhh..." Klunk. But then I found out that hospitals do a good job of keeping the eewy and gooey stuff covered up. They don't want to pass out, either.

The real reason I was afraid of doing hospital visits was because I was scared to death someone was going to ask, "Why did God do this to me?" And I didn't want to disappoint the church member (or, worse, God) with a wrong answer. For a while, I considered side-stepping by pointing my finger at them and shouting, "Because you're a sinner!" Decided against it, though. And I think that was a good career move.

I didn't know it but I was in a paradox of cognitive dissonance. On one hand, as a Presbyterian, I believed that God's in charge, God has a plan, but we can't know the plan, yet we're part of it, and God loves us, even though hurtful things are part of a world created in love. When I tried to explain this to patients they sprained their thumbs hitting the button on their morphine pumps.

It took me a while to understand this in my gut. But my fear of saying the wrong thing at hospital visits was just a symptom of trying to be smarter, and stronger, and more answer-ish than I really am. That, and I also realized lying in a hospital bed is really, really boring. It's so boring, people are often glad to see even a preacher. So, over time, I learned to embrace my ignorance. And hospital visits weren't so scary anymore.

That's kind of like what the Apostle Paul said about himself and his own weakness in his second letter to the church in Corinth.


In Second Corinthians, chapter 12, Paul writes of amazing things that he can't explain very well. God's ways are just too much for him. God gives him this marvelous vision. But at the same time God gives him some sort of "thorn in the side." Cognitive dissonance. Paul gets deep belief. But shallow abilities. Two contradicting concepts at the same time. Paul prays for relief, but God says, no. Your relief is in your frustration. God says...

"My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, [Paul says] I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

Therefore I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities for the sake of Christ; for whenever I am weak, then I am strong.

Now. I would never encourage anyone to pray for weakness. We've already got more than enough. The trick is not being so afraid of your weakness that your fear gets the best of you. I think what Paul is saying is to accept the fact - the fact - that the world grades on a curve. You may think you're relatively smart. And compared to the person sitting next to you, you might be. But compared to God's power, compared to God's wisdom, compared to the objective complexity and grandeur of the universe, well, maybe God's grace is what you really need. In the face of all life's contradictions, grace is the best, most sufficient gift we could possibly receive. No one should ever hope or pray for weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. No one needs to. If you live long enough, you'll get some. Pray for the strength to confront your limitations. Paul says, the Bible says, embrace your weakness. Because in your weakness is strength.

And, yeah. I know that sounds weird.


In his letter to the church in Corinth, Paul did NOT say he ENJOYED weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. He didn't seek them out. Actually, Paul was kind of a fist magnet. Trouble found him. What Paul said was that he was "content with" the troubles. In other words, he didn't fight them, and didn't fear them.

When your life starts sounding like car alarms, when your theme song sounds like dissonant chords. What do you do? Do you jump into your supersuit and go avenge cosmic evil?

Try this, instead. The next time you get that twisty-sick fear feeling in your stomach think of it as your teacher. Why is it there? What brought it on? Does it effect everyone the way it effects you? Maybe you're jumping to fight a burden you'd do better to embrace, or at least, be content with. So that the feeling might not be a call to arms. It could be a prayer to God. A prayer for God's grace. A prayer that God's grace might - for once - might be sufficient.


I'll finish and leave you with this verse, verse 9.

In verse 8, Paul says, "Three times I appealed to the Lord about this, that it would leave me,

And here's verse 9:

but he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for power is made perfect in weakness." So, I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me.

May the power of Christ, who embraced his weakness, and drank the cup he prayed to have removed, be the source of your power.

And may you learn to sing harmony with the car alarms.

Sent with Writer.

- James