Posts Tagged ‘Ira Glass’

Sermon 09-25-16: “Keeping the Promise, Part 6: Our Witness”

September 30, 2016


This sermon is mostly about integrity: Do we believe what we say we believe about Jesus? Have we experienced the gospel as genuinely good news? If so, why wouldn’t we tell others about what we’ve experienced? Yet most Christians would rather undergo a root canal than initiate a conversation about their Christian faith! Why is this? And what can we do to change?

Sermon Text: Acts 1:1-11

Have you heard of Penn and Teller? They’re a comedy-magic duo famous for outlandish and often squirm-inducing magic tricks. I used to watch them on Letterman when I was in college back in the ’80s. They’ve been around a while, and they’re very good at what they do. Penn Jillette is the half of the duo that speaks. His partner, Teller, never speaks.

Penn Jillette

Penn Jillette

Anyway, Jillette is an outspoken atheist. I mean, he really, really doesn’t believe in God, and he wants you to know about it. Which makes it all the more surprising, several years ago, when he posted a video on his blog describing an encounter he had with a Christian businessman who, like other fans, met Jillette after a show. This Christian began by telling Jillette how much he enjoyed his work. He was sincere. And then he said that he would like to give Jillette a gift. And he handed him a new Bible—from the Gideons, I think—and said he really hoped he’d read it.

And I watched the video—Jillette was deeply moved by this man’s gift. So much so that even as he was describing the incident, tears were welling up in Jillette’s eyes. And he said something surprising. This man—who, again, isn’t anywhere close to becoming a Christian, at least right now—said that he doesn’t respect Christians who don’t share their faith with others. Christians who don’t do that thing that all of us Methodists promise to do when we join a United Methodist church. “I don’t respect it at all,” he said. He continued:

If you believe that there’s a heaven and hell, and people could be going to hell, or not getting eternal life, or whatever, and you think that, uh, well, it’s not really worth telling them this because it would make it socially awkward… how much do you have to hate somebody to not proselytize them? How much do you have to hate somebody to believe that everlasting life is possible and not tell them that? I mean, if I believed beyond a shadow of a doubt that a truck was coming to hit you, and you didn’t believe it, and that truck was bearing down on you, there’s a certain point where I tackle you. And [eternal life] is more important than that! Read the rest of this entry »

“Many of your hopes will have to die…”

June 30, 2016

this_american_lifeLast week’s This American Life episode, “Choosing Wrong,” should remind everyone why Ira Glass’s show remains the best thing in spoken word media. I especially enjoyed Malcolm Gladwell’s piece on Wilt Chamberlain: It explores why the basketball legend, a legendarily bad free throw shooter, refused to shoot underhanded free throws—except for one mid-career season during which his free throw percentage improved from 40 to 60 percent.

But the topic of this blog post relates to Ira Glass’s conversation with British author Alain de Botton about marriage. De Botton gives advice to couples who are getting married during this wedding season:

Be incredibly forgiving for the weird behavior that’s going to start coming out. You will be very unhappy in lots of ways. Your partner will fail to understand you. If you’re understood in maybe—I don’t know—60 percent of your soul by your partner, that’s fantastic. Don’t expect it’s going to be 100 percent. Of course you will be lonely. You will often be in despair. You will sometimes think it’s the worst decision in your life. That’s fine. That is not a sign your marriage has gone wrong. It’s a sign that it’s normal, it’s on track.

And many of the hopes that took you into the marriage will have to die in order for the marriage to continue—that some of the heaviness and expectations will have to die.

When Glass interjects that this sounds “so dark,” de Botton says,

It’s very dark. But in love darkness is a real friend of relationships. Because so many problems of love come from unwarranted optimism.

I think that there are aspects of a good marriage that should encompass a kind of melancholy, as we realize that we’re trying to do such a complex thing with someone: We are trying to find our best friend, our ideal sexual partner, our co-household manager, perhaps our co-parent. And we’re expecting that all this will miraculously go well together. Of course it can’t. We’re not going to be able to get it all right. There will be many areas of misunderstanding and failure. And a certain amount of sober melancholy is a real asset when heading forth into the land of love.

I agree. I’ve explored many of these ideas in sermons, book studies, and blog posts over the years. What resonates with me today are these words: “Many of the hopes that took you into the marriage will have to die in order for the marriage to continue… A certain amount of sober melancholy is a real asset when heading forth into the land of love.”

This is true, but it’s true of life in general: The hopes that we take with us into any worthwhile endeavor need to die. A certain amount of sober melancholy is a real asset when heading forth into any land.

Have you noticed that the dreams you had for your life haven’t come true? Have you spent any time grieving that fact? Why not? They were good dreams. It’s sad that they’re dead.

Nevertheless, “Except a corn of wheat fall into the ground and die, it abideth alone: but if it die, it bringeth forth much fruit” (John 12:24 KJV). The death of our own dreams can always mean new life for us, when we summon the courage to choose it. God’s dreams for our lives are always better than our own.

At least that’s been true in my experience. What about yours?

Sermon 09-15-13: “Back to School, Part 6: Love & Marriage”

September 20, 2013
Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

Marriage is not a romantic comedy.

We Christians understand the nature of self-denying, cross-carrying Christ-like love when we choose to love our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field, suffering and sacrificing for the Lord. When we marry, however, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof, sleeps beside us, and makes a life with us. Are the demands and expectations of this kind of love any different?

As I explain in this sermon, the answer is a resounding no.

Sermon Text: Matthew 5:31-32

The following is my original sermon manuscript.

[Ask congregation to snap along. Begin by singing:] “Love and marriage, love and marriage/ They go together like a horse and carriage/ This I tell you, brother, you can’t have one without the other… Try, try, and separate them/ It’s an illusion/ Try, try, try and you only come/ To this conclusion.”

Today’s sermon is about, yes, love and marriage. In so many words, Jesus tells us in the Sermon on the Mount that you can’t have one without the other. They are inseparable. Last week’s scripture touched on that theme. But Jesus goes a step further in this week’s scripture to say that not only are they inseparable, they are also permanent. Or at least they ought to be.

Obviously, when we consider the divorce rate, even among Christians, it’s clear that we are failing to take Jesus’ tough, uncompromising words as seriously as we should. There’s no way to read these words of Jesus and come to some conclusion other than divorce, in most cases, is wrong. It’s a sin. Listen: I made this point in last week’s sermon, and I need to make it again and again. We are all sinners. Church is a sinner’s club to which everyone is invited. We’ve all fallen short of the glory of God. And even if we haven’t sinned in one particular way, we have sinned in so many other ways. When it comes to sin, none of us has any moral high ground on which to stand. O.K.? The good news is that there’s always, always, always forgiveness for us sinners who repent, and our gracious God always gives us an opportunity to start again. If you hear me say nothing else, please hear me say that. Remember God’s grace! Read the rest of this entry »

The story you hear from “every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs”

September 10, 2013

I love the most recent episode of This American Life, first because it name-checks my alma mater in Ira Glass’s funny interview with Georgia Tech’s director of undergraduate admissions. Glass concludes the interview, appropriately enough, with the cheer, “Go Jackets!”

As if that weren’t good enough, I was blown away by the episode’s main story, “My Ames Is True,” narrated by Blind Side author Michael Lewis. In it, Lewis talks to Emir Kamenica, an economist from the University of Chicago, who describes his unlikely path from a childhood in war-torn Bosnia to Harvard. The way Emir remembers the story, he was one of a small handful of white students in a dangerous inner-city high school in Clarkston, Georgia (not far from where I grew up, by the way, in Tucker), after his family emigrated to the U.S.

One day, for a writing assignment, Emir translated and then plagiarized a passage from a favorite Bosnian novel that he had stolen from a library before he came to America. His teacher, Ms. Ames, was so impressed with his paper—not suspecting the plagiarism—that she persuaded an elite private high school in Atlanta to offer Emir a scholarship. Emir changed schools and, as a result, drastically changed the course of his life—all because of a plagiarized passage from a stolen book and one idealistic teacher.

Or at least that’s how Emir remembers it.

With the help of a private investigator, the show’s producers tracked down Ms. Ames (who had long since left teaching and moved to another state) to get her side of the story. She remembered Emir as her most gifted student. In fact, she said she checked the names of Nobel Prize winners each year, half-expecting to see Emir’s name on the list.

But she didn’t remember the plagiarized essay and said it would have played little role in her effort to get him into private school. She said that Emir had distinguished himself in her class in many ways over the course of months. It was hardly any one thing that he had done to inspire her to help him.

Moreover, the school she taught at was hardly a dangerous “ghetto school.” It had a sizable white minority (which statistics proved) and a large international population. Even if he hadn’t changed high schools, she said Emir would have gotten a good education. And from there he would have gotten into either the University of Georgia’s honors program or Georgia Tech (my alma mater, again!), after which he could have easily gone on to Harvard.

In other words, even without her intervention, Ms. Ames believes that Emir’s own talent and hard work would have enabled him to achieve the same level of success—if only by a different path.

If Ms. Ames is right, however, then the story that Emir had been telling himself and everyone else his entire adult life was wrong. He hadn’t simply been the beneficiary of some dumb luck that altered his destiny. As it turns out, he was just a bright, conscientious, hard-working kid who was responsible for his own success, just as everyone thought.

For his part, however, Emir wasn’t quite ready to let go of his story: about the stolen library book, the plagiarized essay, and the angelic teacher who comes to his rescue after mistaking his plagiarism for a mark of genius.

Why? Michael Lewis offers a possible answer:

Why does a man who makes his career as a scientist cling to his story in spite of evidence that it isn’t true? And that’s when it dawns on me: Emir Kamenica is just an unusually happy human being. He exudes the emotion from every pore. [Lewis asks Emir] “Have you always been happy?” [Emir answers] “I think I’ve been happy for a pretty long time now.” 

There was no obvious connection between a person’s happiness and the way he tells stories about himself. But I think there’s a not-so-obvious one: When you insist as Emir does that you’re both lucky and indebted to other people, well, you’re sort of prepared to see life as a happy accident, aren’t you?

It’s just very different if you tell yourself that you simply deserve all the good stuff that happens to you: Because you happen to be born a genius, or suffered so much, or worked so hard.

That way of telling the story is what you hear from every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs. Or for that matter, every other A-hole that ever walked the earth.

Did you catch that? Lewis is suggesting that gratitude is the secret to Emir’s happiness. Emir’s version of events, more than Ms. Ames’s, conforms to his outlook on life: He doesn’t deserve all these good things. Therefore, he can afford to feel grateful rather than entitled. And the difference between those two states is nearly as great as the difference between heaven and hell.

Like “every miserable bond-trader at Goldman Sachs,” my own life is at its most hellish when I think I’m not getting what I deserve.

By contrast, when I realize that I deserve nothing and instead receive every moment of life as pure gift from a loving God, well… not that I achieve this outlook as often as I should, but when I do, I’m truly happy.

Sermon 04-28-13: “The Word Is Love, Part 3”

May 2, 2013

Paul and Linda McCartney, circa 1970. Paul’s decision to include Linda—not previously a musician—in his new band Wings was deeply unpopular with both fans and music press. On the other hand, the two never spent a night apart (except for the nine days he spent in a Japanese prison in 1980).

We understand that Christ-like love is self-giving and self-sacrificial when it applies to loving our neighbor “out there”—in the mission field. But when we marry, we now have a neighbor who lives under our roof and sleeps beside us. We have a neighbor who manages the household with us, raises kids with us, and makes a life with us.

So now that we’re married to our neighbor, it suddenly matters a great deal how we feel? It matters what we’re getting out of the relationship? Isn’t this a double-standard?

As I discuss in this sermon on love and marriage, happiness in marriage is important, but there is no path to happiness in any part of life that doesn’t lead us up a mountain called Calvary.

Sermon Text: Ephesians 5:21-33

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

I’m a fan of the public radio show This American Life with Ira Glass. Each week the show features a theme, and they have a series of real-life stories related to the theme. Last Valentine’s Day their theme was “people going to extremes to find and pursue their one true love.” One of the stories featured a 30-year-old man named Kurt.

Kurt had been with his girlfriend for 13 years—they started dating as high school sweethearts. And they had lived together for their entire adult lives so far. But they never tied the knot. And Kurt started to wonder why. “Maybe the reason I haven’t married this person that I’ve been with for 13 years is that she isn’t ‘the one.’ And since we’ve never dated anyone else, maybe we should take some time off—a month or two—and just play the field. See what else is out there first, and then decide whether or not to get married.” So that’s what this couple did. They took a break from each other. And after several months, they decided to break up once and for all. Read the rest of this entry »

The comfort of marriage’s “no escape” clause

April 24, 2013

In his book The Meaning of Marriage, Timothy Keller puts his finger on one of the fatal modern myths of marriage: that marriage shouldn’t be based at all on “a piece of paper”—the law, the contract. Law stifles true love. Marriage should always be voluntary, never coerced—or else it cheapens love. As Joni Mitchell sang back in 1971, “We don’t need no piece of paper from the city hall/ Keeping us tied and true.”

One guest on the most recent Valentine’s Day episode of This American Life, Kurt Braunohler, certainly endorsed this viewpoint. He and his girlfriend, his high school sweetheart, had been together for 13 years, but they had never gotten married. One thing was holding them back, they came to believe: they had never been with anyone else romantically or sexually. What if there was someone better out there for them?

So they decided that they would take a month-long break from their relationship—the secular New York City equivalent of the Amish Rumspringa. And during that month, they would allow themselves to sleep with other people—which they did. One month turned into many months. The couple finally decided to break up entirely.

Read what Kurt took away from this experience. Then read what Ira Glass, the married host of the show, says in response.

KURT: I do have a theory now that if I do get married in the future, what I think I would want to do is have an agreement that at the end of seven years we have to get remarried in order for the marriage to continue. But at the end of seven years it ends, and we can agree to get remarried or not get remarried.

IRA: Why?

KURT: Because you get to choose, and I think it would make the relationship stronger.

IRA: I don’t know what I think of that, because I think that one of the things that’s a comfort in marriage is that there isn’t a door at seven years. And if something is messed up in the short-term, there’s the comfort of knowing, like, we made this commitment, and so we’re going to work this out. And, like, even tonight if we’re not getting along, or there’s something between us that doesn’t feel right, you have the comfort of knowing, like, you’ve got time to figure this out. And that makes it so much easier! Because you do go through times when you hate each other’s guts. And the “no escape” clause is a bigger comfort to being married than I ever would have thought before I got married.

Guess whose side I’m on?

Keller contrasts the stick-to-itiveness of marriage that Glass describes (not to mention the Bible) with the consumer mentality that Kurt describes. If Kurt had his way (and I suspect he’ll outgrow this particular conviction), he and his future wife would have to keep selling themselves. I’m exhausted just thinking about it!

There is another way in which the legality of marriage augments its personal nature. When dating or living together, you have to prove your value daily by impressing and enticing. You have to show that the chemistry is there and the relationship is fun and fulfilling or it will be over. We are still basically in a consumer relationship, and that means constant promotion and marketing. The legal bond of marriage, however, creates a space of security where we can open up and reveal our true selves. We can be vulnerable, no longer having to keep up facades. We don’t have to keep selling ourselves. We can lay the last layer of our defenses down and be completely naked, both physically and in every other way.[†]

While I’m not endorsing the singer’s viewpoint, here’s the beautiful young Joni Mitchell singing what will become the second track on one of my favorite albums, Blue.

Timothy Keller, The Meaning of Marriage (New York: Dutton, 2011), 85.

“There’ll be time enough for counting when the dealing’s done”

June 18, 2012

This American Life came through last week with another winning episode, this one entitled “Blackjack”—about the casino game that seems easiest to win. Of course, like all casino games, players won’t win—at least not in the long run.


Unless they master a technique known as “counting cards.” If you saw the movie Rain Main, you’ll recall that Tom Cruise takes Dustin Hoffman, his autistic brother who’s a whiz at math and memorization, to a casino to a win a lot of money counting cards. As the show host, Ira Glass, explains, you don’t actually have to be a math whiz or have a photographic memory to master the technique—all it takes is practice and a great deal of concentration.

Contrary to popular belief, counting cards isn’t even illegal or against casino rules. Casino officials will ask you to leave or find another game if they suspect that you’re doing it—but you have to win a lot before you attract anyone’s attention.

I was most intrigued by the story in Act One: “Render Unto Caesar’s Palace What Is Due to Caesar’s Palace.” It tells the story of a young man named Ben, a waiter who scraped by on minimum wage and tips before learning how to count cards. The narrator, Jack Hitt, continues:

Ben formed a small crew of card-counters to hit the casinos together. And they did O.K. for a while. But after three years, that team fell apart. Ben said they just had different values. So Ben and another player, his good friend Colin, decided that if they were going to create a great team, then they had to find a group of players they could trust completely. And that’s when it hit them: the perfect source of blackjack players. It was right in front of them—at least on Sundays. Church.

Ben and Colin, it turns out, are Christians. They formed a team of Christian card-counters, who convinced their fellow churchgoers to cash out their retirement savings and “invest” with them. In return for paying each card-counter a modest annual salary of $40,000 a year for about 20 hours of work per week, the investors received a substantial return on their investment.

I know, I know… It sounds bad. Christians aren’t supposed to gamble. And I agree. I’m the biggest fuddy-duddy on the topic. I’m opposed to state-sponsored lotteries—much less pari-mutuel betting, horse-racing, or casinos. My answer is no. And many of the Christians who participated in the card-counting system, either as players or investors, shared my sentiment. Ben and Colin’s sales pitch, however—delivered via PowerPoint at well-organized meetings—was that card-counting wasn’t gambling. It was simple math. If the players counted cards properly, everyone would win in the long run.

If their investment scheme was going to work, however, the card-counters had to be honest and trustworthy. Stealing, after all, was enticingly easy: No one other than the player could account for his winnings or losings on a particular day. It was a pure honor system. A team member could easily lie about what they won or lost and then skim the difference off the top. Who would know?

This was why, according to the story, Ben and Colin’s fellow Christians made the best card-counters. They were honest!

Isn’t that remarkable? This isn’t Focus on the Family, after all. This is a secular public radio show whose host, Ira Glass, is a congenial atheist!

Not that the show’s producers intended to paint these Christians in such a flattering light. But that was the effect. After all, from the perspective of the casinos, these Christians were Vegas high-rollers, with access to all the sordid perks that came with that status. To their credit, they seemed oblivious. One player, a woman, described being put up for free in a casino hotel’s best suite—complete with a stripper’s pole in the bathroom! What was she going to do with that?

Of course, it’s not completely positive. The players lost trust in each other at times. They experienced loneliness and isolation. And I don’t think they ever quite convinced themselves that playing blackjack for a living was the Lord’s work. But when the team finally broke up, they did so for reasons the listener hardly expects. As the narrator says:

In the end, the church team split up—in 2011. And not because any of them succumbed to gambling or any other temptation. They believed in God and his glorious gift of math. But apparently God gave none of them the patience of Job needed to endure the mind-numbing work of card-counting. So they all went their separate ways…

God works in mysterious ways. Sometimes he enlightens you, like Paul on the road to Damascus—a blinding epiphany convincing you to quit your old ways. Other times God gets you to virtue by boring you to death.

The full story of this Christian card-counting team is told in a documentary called Holy Rollers.