"Encouragement": A Sermon by Will Terry

by Ben Carter

I'm not sure why the thought popped into my head. Maybe it has to do with the election about which he would have had so much to say. Maybe it's because I've recently wished I could ask his advice about some things. Maybe it's because I say his name at least a hundred and fifty times a day: "Will, do you need a new diaper?" "You did it, Will!" "Will, put your bottom in the chair." "Will, use your gentle hands on Rooster." "Go get a book and I'll read it to you, Will."

Whatever the reason, a few days ago I thought, "I'd like to read that sermon, 'Enthusiasm,' that Dean Terry once wrote." I found it in my files, read it this morning, and want to share it with you. The sermon is called "Encouragement,"  not "Enthusiasm."

DT, surrounded by some of his mentees, at his 80th birthday celebration. 

Dean Will Terry, for those of you who don't know, was the long-time Dean of Students at Davidson College and who in his retirement served as a mentor to me and dozens of other students. He passed away last Spring before our Will was born. Outside of my family, no one did more for me to encourage me. As he notes, that encouragement includes not only applauding the good acts and notions, but also lovingly holding us to account for our shortcomings.  

The sermon made me miss him terribly. We could all use his kind of encouragement: genuine praise, kind accountability, all wrapped in a North Carolina draw and served alongside some burgoo. 

The full text is below. Here is the .pdf version with his notes. Here is a pull quote to get you started: 

"Beyond this why should we even be concerned about the gift of encouragement? Because we care about people. Because we care about ideas and causes and wish to see them embraced and see them prosper. Because we care about institutions—church, college, family, town, nation—we care about friendship—and desire that they be authentic instruments of growth and nurture and justice."

For those of you who can subvocalize this sermon in Dean Terry's lilting, wily conversational style, you are in for a special treat. For those of you who must simply hear his words, well, they're pretty good all on their own.   

ENCOURAGEMENT, by Dean William Holt Terry

Several years ago, I was preaching at Steele Creek; it was my third Sunday there. The first two Sundays had passed without incident. On the third Sunday I was preaching away and an elderly gentleman, a newcomer to the congregation, delivered a loud AMEN and his fellow worshipper, also an elderly gentleman, answered with an equally fervent AMEN. I was startled, but managed to contain my composure. The AMEN's continued at intervals throughout the rest of the sermon. I must admit I was encouraged; it gave momentum to the sermon. I'm not sure I would want it as a steady diet, but at least someone was listening, and that is always encouraging.

Today let's talk about encouragement. To encourage is to make another bold, to hearten, to reassure, to comfort. To encourage is to inspire with courage, to make another confident.

The Bible is the story of God's encouragement of men and women. God chose Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, each with his unique gifts, to be the patriarchal leaders of the nation. He made them bold to be pioneers of faith. Moses he inspired with the courage he lacked so that he might be the great emancipator. He heartened Jeremiah, Isaiah, Amos, Hosea, and Micah to be prophets. Prophetic vocation is a hard taskmaster, and it would not have been possible without God's encouragement. The Bible is a book of encouragement. It is significant that the word in the New Testament for encouragement and the word for Holy Spirit have the same root.

Beyond this, our encouragement is found in the deeds, death and raising of Jesus and in his being lifted to power. Jesus Christ is God's supreme act of encouragement to us. It says that God has not destined us for wrath but for salvation, not for despair for for hope, not for destruction but for wholeness. Is there better or more encouraging news than that?

In fact it is the ease that the work of Christ's encouragement enables us to he encouragers. We see it in the life of the Christian about whom we read this morning. His name is Barnabas which means"son of encouragement.” A great Christian scholar has written this moving tribute to him: “Barnabas is one of the most attractive characters in the New Testament. He possesses the rare gift of discerning merit in others. Probably inferior in ability to Paul, he was his superior in Christian graces. He seemed to have been utterly without jealousy, eager to excuse the fault in others, quick to recognize merit, ready to compromise for the sake of peace. Paul's elevation of character seems to have been hardly human while the virtues of Barnabas make him singularly lovable. The Paul of history contributes to the progress of the world. Barnabas and those like him make the world endurable to live in.”

Barnabas does not dominate Acts as do Paul and Peter, but he always seems to appear at the crucial time, not just in the life of the church but in the lives of individuals. His first act of encouragement was financial. He sold his farm and put the proceeds at the feet of the disciples to be used for evangelism and for the help of the needy. His stewardship illustrates his encouragement of mission and people.

He was Paul's great encourager. After his conversion to the Christian faith, Paul came to the church to be put to work. They rejected him. It is no wonder, for he had been a literal monster, the one who consented to the death of Stephen and persecutor of many more. Their rejection deeply depressed him, for he believed his call to ministry was a genuine one. Self-doubt began to creep in, Was he wrong, had he not been called? Barnabas took him for real. Be stood up for him, he stood beside him, he spoke for him. It was because of Barnabas that Paul had a future in the church. Later Paul wrote "love thinks no evil" and Barnabas illustrates the point in the superlative. In a sense Barnabas represents the gospel in microcosm, his grace is illustrative of God's grace for us all, forgiving our past and giving us a future

Another incident indicates the part of encouragement which involves wisdom. The church at Jerusalem had heard of strange happenings in the church at Antioch. There Gentiles were being swept up into the church. Disturbed, they needed an investigator. Barnabas was the overwhelming choice. William Barclay said, "It was by the grace of God they sent the man they did, for they sent the man with the biggest heart in the church." When he saw this marvelous sight of Gentile converts being swept up into the church, he was glad and encouraged a ministry to these new believers. Not only did he encourage them with his words, but with a better form of encouragement by rolling up his sleeves and going to work. There was more work there than he could do and so he sought help. The partner he called was Paul, and the first real missionary team was formed. He gave Paul his first real job. It takes great wisdom to find the right man for the right job. It takes even more grace to push another ahead of you, because you perceive that he is abler and will enhance the cause for -which you are both working. The being willing to be upstaged for a cause more important than your own career is at the heart of encouragement and may be its most eloquent part. And that too is why Barnabas is known as the "son of encouragement.”

One of the great tragedies of the early church was the severing of the friendship between Barnabas and Paul, but that too was the result of Barnabas’ habit of encouragement. The issue was John Mark, a cousin of Barnabas' who was a member of the team that went out on the first missionary journey. He had gotten cold feet and quit. Paul refused to take him on their second trip. Barnabas thought he should be given a second chance, just as Paul had been given a second chance. Though his friendship with Paul was important, it was not as important as the future usefulness of another person, se he let Paul and Silas go on their way, and he took John Mark under his wing. He saved John Mark, and as Paul later acknowledged, Mark became a valuable disciple. Wherever Barnabas went he left lives and churches enriched and growing. Barnabas and those like him make the world livable and illustrate that the encouragement of Christians of one another is indispensable for Christian growth.

BUT I am not encouraged about the abundance of Barnabas in each of us or the number of Barnabases among us. We live in a time of put-downs. The “nabobs of negativism" have center stage in our culture. Churches often make the mistake of confusing piety or orthodoxy or their special cause as being of more importance than the harmony of body, the nurture of persons or the proclamation of the gospel. Frankly, I am depressed by the rigidity, the hostility (downright hate) that appears in letters by Christians in the newspaper. There seems to be more delight in imagining people in hell than joy in their calling to heaven. Is encouragement a forgotten grace? More to the point, is it even a possible one in our kind of world? There is much about the style of the Christian community and individual Christians that discourages rather than empowers.

Moreover, we need to look at the sources of discouragement among us. Why are we more prone to be negative and discouraging than encouraging? The first reason is a low opinion of ourselves. If we do not feel good about who we are, when something is missing in our lives, then the basic instinct is to put down the other guy. Negativism about other people is bred in insecurity. It festers in jealousy. It breeds in failed personal expectations and goals. Hostility is another origin of the discourager as is frustration and unhappiness. There are many reasons why we neglect the grace of encouragement and we need to be introspective enough about our foibles and failures to understand our condition.

DT with a hippie only someone truly committed to encouragement as a spiritual value could encourage. 

DT with a hippie only someone truly committed to encouragement as a spiritual value could encourage. 

Beyond this why should we even be concerned about the gift of encouragement? Because we care about people. Because we care about ideas and causes and wish to see them embraced and see them prosper. Because we care about institutions—church, college, family, town, nation—we care about friendship—and desire that they be authentic instruments of growth and nurture and justice. It is interesting that much of the literature being written about business success is couched in positive terms, where success is attributed to a positive relationship with people rather than a negative response, where confidence building takes precedence over harassment and motivation by fear. Because as teachers, as lovers, as parents and preachers and as friends, encouragement is the best way for our fellows to grow to,be healthy mentally and spiritually. Because encouragement is a more productive lifestyle than carping and faultfinding. Supremely because we no less than Barnabas are the recipients of God's great encouragement in Jesus Christ.

If we follow Barnabas' model, we find that encouragement allows people to seize upon their strengths and work through their weaknesses; to acknowledge guilt but to seize forgiveness. It is a method of trying to catch people doing something right rather than glee in finding them doing something wrong.

On the other hand, we may not make encouragement a Pollyanna exercise, merely sweetness and light. Encouragement often has in it the element of judgment. Encouragement includes often telling people what is wrong with their behavior. True encouragement tries to separate the behavior and the person.

Several years ago a clergyman designed a technique called crisis intervention and its method illustrates what I am trying to say. He discovered it when he was trying to help a lady who was dying with cirrhosis of the liver but would not admit that she had a drinking problem. He had the family gather around her bed to recount to her incidents that they had observed of her drinking and its ensuing behavior. They told her how they felt about what she did about their anger, frustration, embarrassment. Then they told how much they loved her and they instinctively touched her to demonstrate that love. They indicated how they wanted her to live and to enjoy life once again. It was because they loved her that her actions so disturbed them. They affirmed her as a person, but confronted her behavior. Such also is the nature of encouragement. It was a method our Lord has used time and again with us.

To be an encourager, to aspire to be a latter-day Barnabas, is a model for ministry well worth the attention of every Christian who wishes to build up the body of Christ. We have all been objects of encouragement by a parent, a brother or sister, a grandparent, a preacher or teacher, a friend or coach an employer or employee. It is their encouragement that has made us as whole as we are. But the question is: are you an encourager? Is your vocation to encourage adopting encouragement as a way of living and loving?

Holy 💩, I Need a 💒

by Ben Carter in

On Wednesday morning, some of the first people I sent texts to were Geoff and Derek, friends I’ve made through Douglass Boulevard Christian Church

“I have always viewed DBCC as an important presence in our community and an important voice in the conversation,” I said. “Now, 'important' has changed to 'necessary.' We have a lot of work to do.”

I said that on our Slack channel, because, you know, we fancy. 

Since then, a few of my friends have expressed a desire to connect or reconnect with a faith community after the election. And, at church this morning, I noticed a dramatic increase in visitors (from our usual 2-3 to 9 or 10; so, dramatic for us). 

I think there are three things (at least) animating this interest in faith communities despite the reality that Americans are not really "joiners" anymore. We keep our social commitments loose and the number of groups who can lay claim to our precious free time pretty low, but still...let's talk about faith with the orange visage of Donald Trump on the horizon rising like a terrible tropical sun. 

First, it is disorienting and scary to see your friends and neighbors be willing to elevate “economic issues” above things like, say, basic human decency, not watering the seeds of hate in our country, and not grabbing women by their pussies. “But, wait,” we are thinking, “I thought religious freedom and racial equality and not committing sexual assault were things everybody has agreed on for decades.” Apparently not. Or, at least, we learned Tuesday that huge numbers of Americans (like, tens of millions!) are willing to tolerate a little wink-and-nod racism and a lot of fearmongering about Mexicans and Muslims and refugees if we think America isn’t winning anymore or enough. 

I think it's natural to want to orient ourselves in anticipation of President Trump. And, for centuries and for many of us as kids, church was where we have gone to get moral guidance and clarity. Not to mention providing a community of people who can hold us up and hold us accountable and be our friends. (Meanwhile, many people at my church were hurt by the faith traditions in which they were raised, so I don't want to ignore the very real fact that "church" has also been a source of hurt rather than solace in for many.)

Many of us feel like we are on the precipice of a long national gaslighting. We are already being told, “[Insert one of a dozen odious, cruel, or unconstitutional policy proposals] will never happen.” “He didn’t really say that.” “He didn’t really mean that.” “Now is the time to come together.” 

Listen: I’m never, ever going to “come together” with the KKK. And, I’m not going to support a President who still—stillhasn’t denounced the hundreds of acts of violence and intimidation that have been perpetrated in his name since his victory on Tuesday night. 

People: this is just gaslighting. 

And, when we're being gaslit by the soon-to-be Commander-in-Chief, I think it is natural to want to gather with other people and be like, “I’m not crazy, right? Like, it is still important to show compassion for the dispossessed and to try to heal the hurting, right?”  Like, "Donald Trump totally said he wanted more countries, not fewer, to have nukes, right?"


Second, I think there is a growing realization in the wake of Donald Trump’s candidacy, hurtful, divisive statements, irresponsible silences, and his ultimate election that, “OMG, we have so much work to do.” And, combined with that first realization is its corollary impulse: “I don’t want to work alone.” I know this is how I feel about it, for sure. DBCC gives me events to go to, actions I can take toward living a life of faith and conviction.

As I said in the only sermon I’ve had the chance to give

This faith community gives me, us, the foundation and opportunity to start doing something—anything—toward living a faithful life. And, more importantly for me, gives me role models to emulate, people every day modeling what faith—an active faith, a heroic faith, not some middling, weak sauce faith; what a courageous faith—looks like in the world.

When I come to church, when I go to events, when I read the emails, here’s what I see: people working to expand access to healthy, local foods, people welcoming the outsider in. Since I have been here, this church has been an example in Louisville and around the nation of a community that says, “There is no them and us, in and out, cools, dorks, your side, my side. There is only we, us, together.”

Most recently, you all have worked to make a home and a welcome for Syrian refugees and for a lesbian couple outed against their will who can’t safely return to their home country anymore. Think about that. You have made a home for two families who had no home and a welcome in a foreign land to people who have lost everything.

I see our choir providing encouragement, comfort, solace, and beauty with a song. People performing thousands of selfless acts each year to make this campus nicer, more efficient; people working to make our community fairer, greener; to make sure everyone has access to the same opportunities, the same justice. I see people visiting the sick, the lonely, the inconvenient.

Sometimes, there’s a church. I won’t say a heroic church, because what’s a hero? But, sometimes there’s a church that opens its doors wide and says, “Come inside. Those weights look heavy. We’ll take those for you. Welcome.”

Church, after Tuesday, seems not just important, but necessary to many of us and ¿maybe? relevant and potentially useful once again for many more.

Third, and I have the least to say about this, I think when people are feeling out of control, it is comforting to believe that there is a Larger Plan™️ being executed by a Higher Power. As I have said before, this kind of faith is hard for me, but I think it is part of the renewed interest for some people in finding a faith community.  

Now that I’ve outlined why people might be interested in engaging or re-engaging with a faith community, I want to be clear about something: I’m not writing this essay to invite you to Douglass Boulevard Christian Church or suggest that DBCC is right for you, specifically. (Though you are invited, of course.)

Most of the people reading this aren’t in Louisville (though we do have a podcast of the sermons 😉 and the one from today is a great place to start) and there are other options for those who are. Sarah goes to St. William Church, a #hyperlegit Catholic Church in Old Louisville. I have friends at Highland Pres and Highland Baptist and know them to be welcoming, compassionate communities of faith that act on their faith and conviction, too. And, though I've never heard him preach, Rev. Bruce Williams of Bates Memorial gave a speech earlier this year that I will never, ever forget. 

Instead, this is just to say that Donald Trump’s election to be President of the United States is baffling and frightening thing. On Wednesday morning, I was glad as hell to have a church community to reach out to, to SMDH alongside, and who I knew would double-down on its commitments to the poor, the marginalized, the fearful and oppressed.

This is just to say that all across the country there are churches and mosques and synagogues and meditation centers working damn hard to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God. That is, places of worship who are doing their best to deliver justice to the oppressed, comfort those in pain, feed those who are hungry. Places of welcome. Places that are way less concerned about "saving your soul" than they are figuring out how the refugee family is going to get to their doctors' appointments on Friday. 

If you are feeling an impulse toward connecting with a community of faith, you might be surprised in 2016 by what you find. (At DBCC, you’ll find at least one member who cusses more than he probably should.)

If the Jesus that resonates with you is the one who told the parable of the Good Samaritan, the one who turned over the moneychangers’ tables in the temple, the one who told his followers to invite the poor, crippled, lame, and blind to dinner, well, you’re not alone.

There are, literally, every day, people being beaten in the streets by Trump-inspired thugs. There are still moneychangers’ tables that need upending. And, there people waiting for invitations to dinner all around us. 

Our neighbors' wounds won’t bind themselves. We are the Samaritans they have been waiting for. The tables are too heavy for just one person. And—let’s be real—I’m a terrible cook.

These communities of faith need you to help them do their urgent work of loving the forgotten and welcoming the disregarded just as you might be thinking that you need them. 

There’s plenty of work to be done. Joyfully and together.  

Here is a gratuitous pic of my beautiful family. 

Here is a gratuitous pic of my beautiful family. 

Ours is a Journey into Nearness

by Ben Carter

We often cast our spiritual quest—our grappling with fundamental human issues—as a journey. But the kind of journey we'll embark upon is not a journey in the usual sense of the word. 

Generally we think of a journey involving movement and direction, either going out somewhere into the world or else leading inward, into the self. But in Buddhism our journey must go nowhere—neither in nor out. Rather, ours is a journey into nearness, into immediacy. Our journey must be to awaken here an now, to awaken to here and now. To be fully alive, we must be fully present.

—from Buddhism Plain and Simple by Steve Hagen, p. 19 (Broadway Books, 1997)

A New Quality of Life

by Ben Carter in

People in the chattering class are finally starting to realize what my generation has known for a few years now: young people today will not have the same quality of life as older Americans enjoyed and are enjoying.

When people fret over some future quality of life benchmark we are supposed to achieve, it is clear that what they envision is “more of what we’ve got.” They want my generation to enjoy more of what they’ve enjoyed. A “better quality of life” for these hand-wringers just means jamming down the accelerator.


People in my generation, understanding that we aren’t going to go where our parents have been, are beginning to ask each other, “What if we didn’t want to go there anyway?” What if we’re better than what our parents had planned for us? What if our parents’ “quality of life” is a pig in a poke?

Here is what our parents’ generation has enjoyed and overseen during its heyday:

  • Obesity and an explosion of first-world health problems (diabetes, heart disease, cancer).

  • They’ve fallen into the two-income trap —their “quality of life” based on the inherently tenuous proposition of both partner’s incomes being necessary to making the family’s nut each month. Many in the financial services sector have profited from pushing (or at least covering up) the two-income trap. Beyond that, their “quality of life” has been based on the availability of cheap debt and fanciful home values.

  • They’ve allowed many in their generation to be bankrupted by medical debt by failing to build an affordable health insurance infrastructure in this country.

  • They’ve watched America’s infrastructure crumble and allowed our education system to become second-class, even while building up massive amounts of government debt for their children to pay off.

  • They’ve participated in an erosion of community organizations and civic spirit; their cynicism erodes our politics.

Upon examination, it appears that pundits have been eulogizing a “quality of life” that never was alive to begin with. They might as well eulogize Huck Finn or John Galt.

Fewer and fewer people in their own generation enjoy the “quality of life” advertised on Cialis and retirement commercials (sailboats, surfing, vineyards, bicycling, granite countertops). Growing income inequality in their own ranks means that “quality of life” more often includes payday loan sharks, putting $10 in the tank, and using the Emergency Room as a first (and last) resort.

Their “quality of life” is a fifty year-old man swinging a sign along a busy road that screams, “We Buy Gold and Silver!” The string on the sign rests on his neck like a guillotine’s blade.

Their “quality of life” is a passing driver desperate enough to consider selling.

Indeed, much of the hand-wringing going on about diminishing prospects at achieving the same “quality of life” as our parents arises not from declining American greatness, but of an awakening from the older upper class from their fantasy. Having invested heavily into the idea that selfishness is a virtue, the Baby Boomers are beginning to recognize that the products of selfishness are not worth producing.

They have chosen enormous debt (both personal and communal), ecological devastation, growing inequality. They have demonstrated an inability to solve (or even confront) big problems (opting instead to grab what they could for themselves), and have overseen the growing power and influence of big money business interests in search of a sanitized, atomized, commoditized, isolated existence.

My generation has watched our parents grow up. We have watched their generation believe the advertisements that told them that if they were just a little less bald, had a little more money, had a little smoother ride, had a little less bacteria on the countertop… then…. then they would be be secure, be safe, be admired, be loved.

Our parents have mistaken comfort for security.

That fantasy has played out.

The generation coming of age now, graduating from college now, the ones who are looking for jobs in the worst economy in living memory, they know that a comfortable security is a myth, that love and admiration cannot be bought. They have witnessed the emptiness of materialism and turned away. Young people today understand that something fundamental has shifted in America, that the old paradigms have crumbled before new paradigms have been built.

They know it is up to them to build those paradigms. Young people want desperately to do something that matters. They want to give gifts to the world, even as they have less money in their pockets, fewer health benefits, and no pension plans.

Young people today understand that security comes from living in the world, not trying to rise above it, defy it, insulate yourself from it. It is an uncomfortable security because it accepts the limitations of human existence, it confronts the pain of life and attends to it.

In the face of titanic economic failures, young people have developed a kind of stoic faith that if they just keep doing the right things, the universe will take care of them. Though they will not express it this way, they have the kind of faith Jesus urges in Matthew 6:24–34:

No one can serve two masters; for a slave will either hate the one and love the other, or be devoted to the one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.

Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? Look at the birds of the air; they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. …But strive first for the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well.

So do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will bring worries of its own. Today’s trouble is enough for today.

Young people have learned (beyond all odds) that people matter, community matters, communities matter. They know that love comes from loving, not buying. They know that if we are to reach some gentle, golden promised land, we will all get there together.

We will not enjoy the same quality of life as our parents’ generation did.

Thank God.

Acting Faithful: The Only Way I Know to Become Faithful

by Ben Carter in

I cannot escape the notion that what we do matters far more than what we believe. This is an old debate. As far as I can tell, it’s one of the primary reasons[1] Protestantism exists today.

Sure, having both faith and works is optimal–two of the Buddha’s eight big things (known formally as the Noble Eightfold Path) are right understanding and right action. Martin Luther, the man largely responsible for the sola fide doctrine in the first place even recognized that

“Faith cannot help doing good works constantly. It doesn’t stop to ask if good works ought to be done, but before anyone asks, it already has done them and continues to do them without ceasing. Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever…Thus, it is just as impossible to separate faith and works as it is to separate heat and light from fire!”

In Martin Luther’s view, faith leads inexorably to good works. Good works are the measure of faith: Anyone who does not do good works in this manner is an unbeliever. Same as the Buddha: right understanding is the foundation of right intention and, next, right action. I really love what (I just found out) Scottish theologian John Murray said,

Faith alone justifies but a justified person with faith alone would be a monstrosity which never exists in the kingdom of grace. Faith works itself out through love (Gal. 5:6).

I recognize that this is a very nuanced area; I feel myself wanting to set up an antinomian straw man that I can knock down in service of my point that what you and I do on this earth matters. Instead of doing that, let me tell you a couple reasons why I think the church gets it wrong if we insist on faith instead of insisting on action.

I am, therefore I choose

I believe that suffering and pain exist because God allows them to. Given God’s omnipotence, God could easily have created a world in which God’s creations were automatons incapable of either wrong thought or wrong action, capable only of embodying God’s will 24/7. But, that’s (clearly) not what has happened. Most suffering and pain exist because of very human failures: greed, selfishness, cowardliness. Failures God allows us.

The implications of this are enormous. Suffering, injustice, oppression, pain–all are abhorrent to God. But, more abhorrent would be a world without agency. Choice, then, has to serve as the justification for all of life’s pain, all of the systemic inequalities that bestow riches and inflicts poverty. For God,[2] your freedom to believe and do as you please is everything. Or, if not everything, at least worth suffering for.

Freedom appears foundational to God’s creation. Everything flows from the primacy of freedom. What we do with that freedom matters. And, what I’m trying to say is that I think the real inquiry is what we do, not what we believe.

Would you rather live in a world in which everyone believed in Jesus or one in which everyone behaved like Jesus? Which do you think God would prefer?

I know that for Martin Luther and other nuanced protestants, separating belief from action is difficult if not impossible, but I’m not that sophisticated. For me, I’m trying to figure out whether if you had to choose between either belief or action, which would you choose as the modality that mattered more?

God decided to make this Earth one on which humans could inflict enormous suffering, unthinkable injustice, upon each other. Clearly, to God, freedom to act matters. It matters terribly. I don’t think it’s overstating things to say that for God, choice is the foundational rock on which Creation rests.

For humans, choosing is inescapable: I am, therefore I choose. All day. Every day. Even the most mundane choices–where I eat, where I bank, what I drive, whether I drive–matter. These choices either foster humane, just relationships and systems or they reinforce systems that oppress and profit from pain. These things matter to God. We exist to make these choices, to act.

The only justification for suffering that makes any sense to me is that it exists because our freedom to act is more important than human suffering. Considering the cumulative amount of past, present, and future suffering on Earth, it’s on us to act with wisdom, compassion, and love. If we do not, all the suffering is for naught; the cruelty of the situation becomes overwhelming.

Do Justice

Second, in my experience, faith is the product of action, not the other way around. Asking people to believe first then act is backwards.

For me (and I suspect for a lot of people), the only way I have ever found faith is by backing into it. Do something that is a gift for someone else, act small against large injustice, especially act alongside someone else–WHAM! …there’s God. God wasn’t there before, but God’s here now. Faith is a constant process of backing up. Act, then believe. Faith can’t be thought, it has to be done.

I reject a model for right action that says first you believe, then the actions based on that right belief will be holy.


You give a hungry guy a peanut butter sandwich–that act is holy whether you believe in Jesus or not.

Elevating belief over act forecloses participation in the physical and spiritual life of a church for many modern Americans. Telling people, “First you must believe in all this blood and body stuff, then the good works count” drives a wedge between the church and many people who want desperately to participate in their neighbors’ lives, to make a difference in their neighbors lives and have their lives reciprocally enriched, deepened, challenged.

It says to people, “We can help you think your way out of that paper bag.”

Young people don’t want to think, they want to act. What is happening in America, what is happening on Earth is not okay. Poor kids grow up without a chance at success; drugs consume young people; people starve; they die from malaria; racism, homophobia, and xenophobia persist. Corporate power grows across political parties and across borders. Young people know that the economy they’ll inherit is one based upon exploitation of human and natural resources. They are not okay with any of this.

They want to do something about it.

They want some corporate power themselves, though they probably wouldn’t say it like that. They want to experience the power of living in a body of people trying to cultivate just systems, people willing to sacrifice, to work. The corporate power they seek is the power that flows from being part of the body of Christ on earth.

But you can’t say it like that.

You can’t say it at all.

You have to act it.

Young people hear a lot of cheap talk out of churches. They heard a lot of cheap talk from rich Christians when they were growing up–that’s why they’re not Christians anymore.

There’s a reason why Micah 6:8 is my favorite single verse from the Bible: it emphasizes action.

God has told you, O mortal, what is good; and what does the Lord require of you but to do justice, and to love kindness, and to walk humbly with your God?”

Do justice. It’s not something you can think. You can’t do it from the pews on Sunday morning. It’s what happens after.

“The voice of the Lord cries to the city… ‘Can I tolerate wicked scales and a bag of dishonest weights?’”[3]

I don’t care what you believe about Jesus or his dad. If you cannot tolerate wicked scales, if you want to fight for honest weights, if you want to do justice, I am there for you.

If you will walk beside me, pick me up, I’ll do the same for you. You spread the peanut butter, I’ll cut the bread. I’m confident we’ll find faith together somewhere in the crumbs.

And if we don’t find faith, we’ll find each other. As far as I’m concerned, that’s enough.

  1. Sola fide (Latin: by faith alone), also historically known as the doctrine of justification by faith alone, is a Christian theological doctrine that distinguishes most Protestant denominations from Catholicism, Eastern Christianity, and some in the Restoration Movement.

  2. as far as I can tell… through a glass darkly and all that…

  3. Micah 6:9–11