One of the side effects of our internet-saturated culture is the destruction of honesty. Instead we rely more heavily on self-construction, which forces two opposing realities to emerge at once. First, the person must obscure their intimate intentions and motivations. Second, the person must inflate whatever virtue is trending at the moment. With the true self out of the way, the false construct can take center stage. Whitewashed tombs indeed.
All of this posturing makes it impossible to become anything. We must already “be,” fully realized and without flaw in our universal theory of everything. This is the definition of a fruitless endeavor. No one can grow up in an environment that punishes failure with exile.
Of course we are always anxious. What if our real self leaks out in public; and, even worse, what if someone puts that real self online, stripping it of context and making it timeless? We are no longer allowed to be people in process.
I recently watched comedian Aziz Ansari’s newest special. Beforehand I had seen about a hundred think-pieces about how it was “problematic.” Ansari is complicated, as his infamy during the past year has shown. Thank God we don’t all have media trails stretching decades into the past, just waiting to be found and called out. At least not yet. (I wonder how this article will age over time?)
“What if we stopped trying to be clever and simply trusted God?”
In the Netflix special, Ansari talks about his mistakes and gives a sincere recounting of his walk through the wilderness, through private confessions and apologies, through public exile and shame. He claims to have matured through the struggle. Later he tears into the virtue signaling that has taken over progressive woke culture: everyone trying to outdo one another in perfect posturing.
The show is hilarious, and more than a little indicting. Ansari is showing us how struggle helps us grow up, and doing so sincerely (even though a writer for The Atlantic called Ansari’s effort “a work of winkily manufactured authenticity”).
The name God gives to the chosen people translates as “the one who struggles with God.” No one learns how to dance without first tripping up a bit. No one learns how to kiss without accidentally biting their lover’s lip and bumping front teeth. This struggle refines and clarifies. It can also be fun if you trust the process and are kind to yourself along the way.
As a preacher, I am constantly tempted to pretend perfection. When I was in conservative circles, the demanded perfection was about doctrine and Bible interpretation. In progressive circles, the demanded perfection was about social positions. Both groups demand perfect partisan voting too. And a perfect hatred of the other side of the perfection divide. This perfection is not serving anyone.
I propose that ministers let go of perfect posturing and embrace sincerity. Sincerity means we tell the truth about what we really believe, about what we hope for and about how we want to show up in the world.
Let me share about a recent time I risked sincerity with my church. This is not to say I got it right (how stupid would that be given what I have written so far). I surely didn’t. But I decided to trust the congregation by showing up and sharing sincerely. The Scripture for that Sunday was about the Ethiopian eunuch in Acts 8. My emerging interpretation was about gender and sexuality.
I knew the Spirit was nudging (shoving?) me to share my convictions about God’s expansive family definition. I knew I needed to tell my people the truth as I saw it, but I did not know how they would take it.
“I was not trying to convince people I was right, nor that my vision was perfect. I was just being sincere.”
There is a moment in the sermon, around minute 29, when I pause and get quiet. It is the moment when I am deciding if I am going to show up or not. It comes after all of the interpretation and historical background and Greek definitions have been shared. I have demonstrated that I know my Bible, and now it is time to share what it means for us today.
I had tons of notes for the first part of the sermon. All I had for the riskier part was a hundred hours of prayer and a sense of God’s Spirit. On this occasion, that was enough for me, so I leapt. I shared what I was seeing and feeling about this text and our church, including the struggle of being in process on this and many other aspects of being human and being God’s beloved child.
Sometimes the sermon appears when you need it. I trusted God would guide my speech, and I relaxed into the experience. It was terrifying, yet I have never felt so alive in my vocation. When I closed with a prayer and sat down, the church exhaled in applause – not for me, but for the thing that had been born in our midst. We now had permission to speak honestly with one another. Would we be perfect moving forward? No way! But we could finally grow up around this conversation.
“Life is too short to distort your heart so others don’t have to make room for you.”
The week before, I shared with my spouse and staff where I felt the sermon was headed. I asked for prayer and courage to trust God. What if we stopped trying to be clever and simply trusted God? My wife asked why I felt like this was the right time to preach a sermon that could cause friction and anxiety. I told her I felt calm inside, and I trusted that the church would receive me, and thereby receive my words, with generosity.
“Just be sincere. Do not try to manipulate or control outcomes. Trust God and your people. And show up.” That was my mantra, my constant prayer.
In the weeks after the sermon I received only two letters of concern, both from people outside of our local congregation, and neither was antagonistic in their dissent. If you are keeping score at home, this qualifies as a miracle. I was not trying to convince people I was right, nor that my vision was perfect. I was just being sincere. Why had I waited so long?
Side note: my congregation is an anomaly of kindness and generosity of Spirit. They are some of the least anxious people of faith I have known. I am fortunate beyond deserving. Many other preachers are in hostile environments, where showing up and being sincere might get you reprimanded – or fired. Some ministers have been defrocked for sincerity. But I still believe it is worth the risk.
Life is too short to pretend you don’t have sincerely held beliefs and convictions. Life is too short to distort your heart so others don’t have to make room for you.
Preachers, you deserve to be seen and heard in your full humanity. You have a view of the world and faith that is beautiful in its particularity. It was formed through struggle and study, through prayer and practices. You are a gift to your congregation, and your vision is honed by the process of your living in (and out of) tune with the Spirit. Unless, that is, you are a jerk who is posturing rather than struggling, in which case you should get a new line of work less dependent on your wisdom or lack thereof. But if you have fought for wisdom, wrestling God in the wilderness for a glimpse of glory and a faith you can hold with sincerity, then show that to us.
In a world full of posturing perfection, sincerity might just be the best antidote.