Sermons

Agile Minds, Discerning Hearts: February 5, 2017

 

“It’s not down in any map; true places never are.”

So writes Herman Melville in the novel Moby Dick.

When I was an exchange student in Sweden, I had a good friend named Sasha.   Sasha wore a lot of black leather; she had spikey, purple-colored hair, and green psychedelic nail polish.  She also had a pet rat, funky fuchsia-striped wool stockings, and a nail-studded dog collar that she wore on a daily basis around her neck.  Sasha was a tender spirit though—she just didn’t fit the mold of what conventional Swedes looked like.  At the time, I thought she was a true non-conformist…with a surprisingly sweet attitude.

Of course, the older I got, the more that I realized that non-conformity had less to do with your clothing and hair choices, and more to do with your personal world-view.  There are many non-conformists—of all ages– who have little substance behind their refusal to go along with the crowd, except to get attention, to elevate their status, or to be different simply for the sake of being different.

When the apostle Paul urges the Roman Christians not to be conformed to this world, he isn’t telling them to be different for the sake of being different, or to stand out from the crowd, or to use non-conformity as a means to elevate their status.  Paul appeals to these Christians and to us to be non-conformist because following Jesus means having a different and distinctive worldview, a worldview that often challenges the way society customarily does things.  But like Melville wrote, “ it’s not down in any map; the true places never are.”

What is a worldview?  A world-view is your perspective, the framework of beliefs, attitudes, ideas and prejudices that shape how you interact and engage with the world.  Your worldview not only shapes what you think, but what you ultimately do. It’s similar to a map. All of us have a worldview, but that worldview may or may not be religious in nature.  All of us have a worldview, but most of us do not stop to examine it, until some change or calamity happens in our lives.  At those times, we may find that our worldview is too small or too restrictive to encompass the complexity of our lives.

For example, a man goes through a traumatic divorce and loses faith in marriage as an institution promoting health and well-being.  A youth is enraged at the injustice in society, becomes politicized in college, and then, years later becomes profoundly disappointed when her particular theory of government fails to change the world.  A 30-year worker who gave his heart and soul to the company for which he worked becomes embittered after that same company sells out and downsizes, cutting his job and his purpose in the process.  All of these are instances in which a person’s subconscious worldview may potentially come into conflict with reality, or with the true places that he or she has discovered.  A change in worldview can cause one person to embrace a return to church, while another person might leave the church entirely.

Most of us have worldviews that have been pieced together—a little from here, a little from there—a little from economic theory, a little from political discourse, a bit from our parents, a smattering from a philosophy class in our college years, a dose from good ‘ol hard knocks, and a drizzle from whatever we remember from Sunday School.  And many of us have a worldview that contains several unexamined conventional ideas, ideas that quite often prove to be false upon closer inspection or upon a smash-up with reality.  For example, conventional wisdom says that bigger is better.  Or that money buys happiness.  Or that newer is to be desired.  Or that if you fall, all you need to do is to pull yourself up by your bootstraps.  Or that the past was better than the present.  Or that any and every technological advancement will advance society and should be utilized.  Or that a map will always take you where you want to go.

Our predominant worldview shapes us.  It helps, then, to know what worldviews have claimed our attention, and informed our understanding.  Christianity is one such worldview.  All of the world religions provide their adherents with a distinctive perspective, a lens through which to see the world and to respond.  For example, one of the teachings of Buddhism—part of the noble eightfold path—is the concept of “right livelihood.”  Right livelihood refers to the teaching that practitioners ought not to engage in trades or occupations which, either directly or indirectly, result in harm for other living beings: ie. the weapons industry, business with intoxicants, poison, the slaughtering of meat, or the trafficking of human beings.  According to the Buddhist worldview, what we choose to do for work impacts our spiritual lives—for good or for ill.

Paul tells the Roman Christians not to be conformed to the world, but to be transformed by the renewing of their minds.  We, the followers of Jesus, are not to be conformed to the patterns, prejudices, and conventional wisdom of this earthly life.  Instead, we are to have agile minds, capable of renewing themselves, capable of discerning what the will of God is, what is good¸ acceptable, and perfect.  But to do this kind of discernment requires a kind of spiritual nimbleness—the ability to make room for Mystery and wonder in our lives.  It requires the ability to “think with sober judgment” as Paul writes.   And it’s not down in any map, as Melville writes, for true places never are.

However, most of us have a very hard time changing our minds, or allowing ourselves to be open to transformation.  We hold our maps tightly, Christians included.  The economist, John Kenneth Galbraith, once said, “Faced with the choice between changing one’s mind and proving that there is no need to do so, almost everyone gets busy on the proof.”[1]  We tend to prove to each other that there is no need for us to change our minds, or our hearts, or our financial choices.

The ability to renew our minds also requires a profound egalitarianism and humility.  “For by the grace given to me,” Paul writes, “I say to everyone among you not to think of yourself more highly than you ought to think.”  During the second year of nursing school, Joann Jones had a quiz in one of her classes.  She breezed through the questions until she read the very last one: “What was the name of the woman who cleans the school?” Surely, she thought, this was some kind of joke.  The professor couldn’t be serious.  She had seen the cleaning woman several times, but how would she know her name?  Joann handed in her paper, leaving the last question blank.  Before the class ended, a student raised her hand and asked if the last question would count toward the quiz grade.  “Absolutely,” the professor responded.  And then he said this: “In your careers, you will meet many people.  All are significant.  They deserve your attention and care, even if all you do is smile and say hello.” Joanne never forgot that lesson.  And Joann learned the name of the cleaning woman.  It was Dorothy.[2]

In Paul’s worldview, we are members of one body in Christ, and members of each other.  We have different gifts and talents, gifts that differ according to the grace given to each of us, but we are still one body in Christ, and each of us—like the cleaning woman—is important to the strength of the body.  Treating others with dignity and compassion, no matter their status in your eyes or the eyes of others is part of Jesus’ worldview.

Friends, our Christian worldview will put us at odds with society.  Too often, we assume that living a Christian life is an easy thing, a thing to pick up and put down as it suits us, based on how we like Sunday worship, or how disgusted we are with the Church’s latest scandal, or how convenient we find God’s commandments and Jesus’ example to our lives.  But a worldview isn’t simply a map to fold up and tuck under the seat of our car until we need it, or until the GPS voice drives us batty; a worldview worth its salt ought to help us to navigate the truest places, and the truest moments of our lives.  But sometimes we confuse the map with the destination.  And often our conformity to the status quo blinds us to the true places that the best worldviews try to envision.

Shortly after the Rev. Martin Luther King was installed as the 20th pastor of Dexter Avenue Baptist Church, in Montgomery, Alabama, he preached a sermon on the “Transformed Non-Conformist.”  These words were preached in 1954, but they are as true today, as they were then.  King writes:

“As Christians we are a colony of heaven thrown out, as pioneers, in the midst of an unchanging world to represent the ideals and way of living of a nobler realm until the earth should be the Lord’s and the fullness thereof.  I’m sure that many of you have had the experience of dealing with thermometers and thermostats. The thermometer merely records the temperature. If it is seventy or eighty degrees it registers that and that is all.  On the other hand the thermostat changes the temperature. If it is too cool in the house you simply push the thermostat up a little and it makes

it warmer. And so the Christian is called upon not to be like a thermometer conforming

to the temperature of his society, but he must be like a thermostat serving to transform the temperature of his society. In spite of this imperative demand to live differently we are producing a generation of the mass mind. We have moved from the extreme of rugged individualism to the even greater extreme of rugged collectivism Instead of making history we are made by history… Even the Christian church has often been afraid to stand up for what is right because the majority didn’t sanction it. The church has too often been an institution serving to crystalize and conserve the patterns of the crowd. The mere fact that slavery, segregation, war, and economic exploitation have been sanctioned by the church is a fit testimony to the fact that the church has too often conformed to the authority of the world rather than conforming to the authority of

God”[3]

So the question for us today is what worldview shapes our thinking and our actions?  Do we have agile minds and discerning hearts?  And is the church simply a thermometer or are we a thermostat?

 

 

 

 

 

[1] Quoted from Paper Lanterns, More Quotations from the Back Pages of The Sun.  Edited by Sy Safransky, Tim McKee, and Andrew Snee (Chapel Hill: The Sun Publishing Co., 2010), 88.

[2] Quoted from Paper Lanterns, More Quotations from the Back Pages of The Sun.  Edited by Sy Safransky, Tim McKee, and Andrew Snee (Chapel Hill: The Sun Publishing Co., 2010).

 

[3] Martin Luther King, “Transformed Nonconformist,” http://mlk-kpp01.stanford.edu/primarydocuments/Vol6/Nov1954TransformedNonconformist.pdf