It's no secret that I haven't done really well at keeping new content and communication in the "Pastor's Blog" section of the website. Well, one of the steps we're trying to take as a congregational leadership team is to provide more communication through the website.
The plan will be to have a new blog post every other Friday that addresses something we've discussed at the recent leadership team, something that has come up in my sermon preparation, or some tangential insight from other theological or biblical reading. Sometimes it will be some material that seems interesting to me, but just doesn't fit into the flow of a sermon--often because it is a long or dense quote.
This week we will start with a passage from Søren Kierkegaard. In these few paragraphs about one of Jesus' parables, I hope you'll be led to reflect on the relation between promising, commitment, and fidelity. This coincides with the present sermon series from Christine Pohl's Living into Community that I'm using with the series and reviewing for the Wesleyan Theological Journal. She is the one that led me to Kierkegaard this time. He offers a profound framing of this story that really highlights the importance of how we choose to use our promises. S.K. illustrates one more way in which our lives together are intertwined with each other and even a tendency to too quickly say "Yes" has further rippled effects on the community and our relationships.
Excerpt: from Provocations, pp 13-15.
There is a parable in the Scriptures that is seldom considered yet very instructive and inspiring. “There was a man who had two sons. The father went to the first and said, ‘Son, go and work in the vineyard today.’ And he answered, ‘I will not’; but afterward he changed his mind and went. And the father went to the second son and said the same and he answered, ‘I will go, sir,’ but did not go. Which of the two did the will of his father?” (Mt. 21:28–31). We could also ask in another manner: which of these two was the prodigal son? I wonder if it was not the one who said “Yes,” the one who not only said “Yes,” but said, “I will go, sir,” as if to show his unqualified, dutiful submission to his father’s will.
Now, what is the point of this parable? Is it not meant to show us the danger of saying “Yes” in too great a hurry, even if it is well meant? Though the yes-brother was not a deceiver when he said “Yes,” he nevertheless became a deceiver when he failed to keep his promise. In his very eagerness in promising he be came a deceiver. When you say “Yes” or promise something, you can very easily deceive yourself and others also, as if you had already done what you promised. It is easy to think that by making a promise you have at least done part of what you promised to do, as if the promise itself were something of value. Not at all! In fact, when you do not do what you promise, it is a long way back to the truth.
Beware! The “Yes” of promise keeping is sleep-inducing. An honest “No” possesses much more promise. It can stimulate; repentance may not be far away. He who says “No,” becomes almost afraid of himself. But he who says “Yes, I will,” is all too pleased with himself. The world is quite inclined – even eager – to make promises, for a promise appears very fine at the moment–it inspires! Yet for this very reason the eternal is suspicious of promises.
Now suppose that neither of the brothers did his father’s will. Then the one who said “No” was surely closer to realizing that he did not do his father’s will. A “no” does not hide anything, but a yes can very easily become a deception, a self-deception; which of all difficulties is the most difficult to conquer. Ah, it is all too true that, “The road to hell is paved with good intentions.”
It is the most dangerous thing for a person to go backwards with the help of good intentions, especially with the help of promises; for it is almost impossible to discover that one is really going backwards. When a person turns his back on someone and walks away, it is easy to see which way he is going. That is that! But when a person finds a way of turning his face towards him who he is walking away from, and in so doing walks back wards while appearing to greet the person, giving assurances again and again that he is coming, or incessantly saying “Here I am” – though he gets farther and farther away by walking back wards – then it is not so easy to become aware. And so it is with the one who, rich in good intentions and quick to promise, re treats backwards farther and farther from the good. With the help of intentions and promises, he maintains the honest impression that he is moving towards the good, yet all the while he moves farther and farther away from it. With every renewed intention and promise it seems as if he is taking a new step for ward but in reality he is only standing still, no, he is really taking another step backward.
The good intention, the “Yes,” taken in vain, the unfulfilled promise leaves a residue of despair, of dejection. Beware! Good intention can very soon flare up again in more passionate declarations of intention, but only to leave behind even greater desperation. As an alcoholic constantly requires stronger and stronger drink, so the one who has fallen under the spell of good intentions and smooth-sounding declaration constantly requires more and more good intentions. And so he keeps him self from seeing that he is walking backwards.
We do not praise the son who said “No,” but we need to learn from the gospel how dangerous it is to say, “Lord, I will.” A promise with respect to action is somewhat like a changeling (an infant secretly changed for another) – one needs to be very watchful. In the very moment a child is born the mother’s joy is greatest, because her pain is gone. When because of her joy she is less watchful – so says the superstition – evil powers come and put a changeling in the child’s place. In the crucial initial moment when one sets out and begins, a dangerous time in deed, enemy forces come and slip in a changeling promise, thus hindering one from making a genuine beginning. Alas, how many have been deceived in this manner, yes, as if cast under a spell!