Monday, June 27, 2011

The Curse of Christian Niceness

excerpts from a sermon preached June 26

This sermon may not apply to you. But I suspect it will apply to many of us who are afflicted with the Curse of Christian Niceness.

I think you know what I'm talking about, but in case you don't, here is an illustration:

I was recently in a parish where one of the staff members had left and been replaced. When I had worked with that staff person, I found she had been unable to perform the tasks assigned to her, so I thought it was a good thing there was a new person in place. Before the service, I asked one of the servers what had happened. He praised the former staff member saying, "She was good. She was slow...but she was good." I blurted out, "She was terrible!" The server laughed and said, "I was just trying to show I had learned something," and proceeded to tell me about how this staff person had also leaned on him to do her job.

He had indeed learned something: he had learned the Curse of Christian Niceness, in which saying anything critical is perceived as UnChristian.

The gospel for today is the ending to a long chapter full of instructions Jesus gives to the disciples before sending them out. It includes such tidbits as
  • If people don't welcome you, shake the dust off your feet as you leave that house or town (Matt. 10:14)
  • Be wise as serpents and innocent as doves (Matt.10:16)
  • What you hear whispered, proclaim from the housetops (Matt. 10:27)
  • and the classic, Do not think that I have come to bring peace to the earth; I have not come to bring peace, but a sword. (Matt. 10:34)
And yet somehow we've gotten the message that as Christians, we must be nice.

Reading the gospel for today, I had to laugh when I got to the part about how "Whoever welcomes a prophet in the name of a prophet will receive a prophet's reward," since Jesus is very clear that prophets don't get much in the way of tangible remuneration. The righteous don't do much better. Which explains, in part, the Curse of Christian Niceness.

The great reward of niceness is no one chops your head off. No one gets mad at you for saying nice things. The problem is that niceness is one of the more insidious ways we are tempted to gain the approval of the world at the cost of our own souls.

We lie to ourselves and others because to tell the truth isn't nice.
We accept things we find unacceptable because criticism isn't nice.
We stay in places we'd rather leave because to walk out isn't nice.
We are silent because speaking out isn't nice.
We hand over the reins to whoever is willing to run the show because taking charge isn't nice.

Let me be clear: the solution to the Curse of Christian Niceness isn't hostility. I'm reminded of the time a vestry was taught about using "I" statements in order to foster more open and honest communication. One man, not totally clear on the concept, told someone in a vestry meeting, "Well, I're stupid!"

Simply saying whatever is on your mind is not what I'm talking about. It's something much more difficult and subtle than that. It's about being as wise as a serpent and as innocent as a dove. It's about acknowledging the truth about a situation without blame or judgment.

I'm not saying that's easy. But Jesus is not sending us out into the world to be nice, but to do the work of love.


Buffy said...

Good stuff, as always.

Tamie said...

Really good stuff. Thank you so much.

Kurt said...

Nicely done! (snicker...nicely).

Seriously, it's a good post. Charles LaFond, our Canon of Congregational Life for the Diocese of NH, says this at his Stewardship Institute:

Kind + Effective - Nice

It's our call to be kind (which is real), not nice, which is often fake and avoids truth.

it's margaret said...

oh yeah... ain't it the truth!

wv: cringaly
The thought of being 'nice' to him made her all cringaly.

songs of a soul journey said...

I like this.

Perhaps silence is better, in some cases.

Perhaps just going ahead and doing what needs to be done is better, in other cases.

Certainly, there is a place for honesty, but where honesty does not serve the need of the moment, then another tool needs to be brought forth, one that will serve.

Our society too frequently follows the dictum attributed to Protagoras. When we complain about that, have we risen above it?

Thought provoking entry, as always.