Power and responsibility


Ira Glass is pretty much amazing, in my book. There are certain people who inspire me to preach better, even though their work has nothing to do with preaching. Glass is one of them. Sarah Vowell. David Sedaris.

Wait there’s a running theme here…. Hhmmm… is it great story-tellers with nasally voices? Maybe… oh no. It’s that they’re all on This American Life.

Anyways, this week, Ira outdid himself. He hit a nerve with this episode on power. A really weird nerve. It’s just in the first four-minute prologue. (How did he do that in four minutes?)

It’s worth a listen, but I’ll try to sum it up. Glass meets with a couple of friends, missionaries who work in Chicago, with at-risk kids. They had just seen Schindler’s List and wanted to talk to Ira because they felt they understood Jews better. They knew about the Holocaust, but movie somehow made the horror and devastation sink in.

The part of the movie that struck them the most was at the end, when Schindler was so distraught that he didn’t save more Jews. And so the couple says, “That’s us. That’s our lives.” They explain how at the end of their lives, they’re going to regret all of the time that they did paperwork when they could have been saving kids. Or, they watched a football game, when they could have been bringing people to God.

What’s interesting about the four minutes, is that Glass holds their story very gingerly at this point. I was cringing, waiting for him to point out the latent anti-Semitism, or for him to talk about when they tried to convert him. The point where Glass mocks them and says that they have an over-inflated sense of their work. But he doesn’t. He says that he understands them for the first time. He says that they have the power to bring people to God, and with great power comes great responsibility.

I easily related to this couple. In my fundamentalist past, I could have met them. I could understand their sense of responsibility, and the idea that it was up to them to save those lives. That was one of the heaviest burdens I gave up when I became Reformed–I finally realized that it wasn’t up to me to do the saving. God would draw people. I could help, but it would be God. It wasn’t up to me to make a church survive. Pastors came before me. Pastors would come after me.

But I do wonder if there’s a bit of this idea left in me. Perhaps it lurks about in all of us… Is that why pastors often work too much? You know, when people are upset and call late at night, and I (of course) answer the phone. Or when I work on my days off because there’s been a tragedy.

I tell myself it’s because I want them to know that the church will be there when they’re distraught. I want to do what I can to help. I don’t want to abandon people when they need the church the most. I do it because I care. But, I also wonder if it’s an over-inflated sense of my own power. Or is it just what Glass says (and of course, Jesus says it too)–that with great power comes great responsibility?

Oh, and I’d love to know. Who’s the story-teller, writer, fictional character who inspires your preaching? The person who’s not necessarily religious, but motivates your art the most?


14 thoughts on “Power and responsibility

  1. I’ve heard sooo many great preachers but my greatest inspiration came from a couple of men who were really, really bad. I would take notes on how not to preach. They loved me because I was the only person in the audience who wasn’t sleeping but taking notes.

    Oops, I never thought of it but maybe I was inspiring them to continue their awful sermons. Both men, thankfully, got out of the ministry and quit preaching after about ten painful years.

  2. I too am an avid This American Life listener. I get it on podcast because I’m never in my car at the right time and there’s no radio signal in my house. I love it because I can listen to the stories over and over again.

    I suspect TAL and Ira influence my preaching more than I know. Definitely the narrative style and dry humor are more me than the preaching I was “raised” on (as in, when I joined the church as a college student until the time I was ordained in that same church…). They are very academic in that congregation, and I’m more of a storyteller. Thanks Ira, and Carol. 🙂

  3. I also really like This American Life, but had missed this one – thanks for sharing it.

    The folks that inspire me to do ministry better are Tyler Perry (playwright) and Shrek (i based an entire week of junior high camp on relating Shrek with Moses)

  4. ok, i will confess that i dig for golden preaching nuggets in buffy the vampire slayer, and admit i often find good stuff therein. being in ky, i find myself inspired by wendell berry. and i, too, am drawn to This American Life. my most memorable episode was the conversation Ira had with Bishop Carlton Pearson, an evangelical/pentecostal preacher turned reformed?/universalist? he had a conversion in which he realized that the “saving” wasn’t his to do but that it had already been done by God. i still have theological conversations about that episode, even after a couple of years.

  5. Eugene Peterson. The way that he puts words together, especially in his recent work in spiritual theology (ie. Christ Plays in Ten Thousand Places) is beautiful. He is both a wordsmith and a storyteller. I also look for stuff to use in popular tv shows, like Friends, Grey’s Anatomy, Scrubs, and The Office. If I can take the questions these tv shows ask and formulate them with the artistry of Eugene Peterson…ahh, there is an aspiration!

  6. I appreciate your post and can really relate to it. I have recently come to understand what you (and a few of you in the comments) have mentioned about God being responsible for saving people. The faith community I was brought up in functioned in a way that encouraged folks to take that upon themselves. I definitely want to share the gospel with folks…Jesus changed my life and I am stoked about it. But I have to trust that God loves people more than I do and make sure to follow the Holy Spirit’s leading when I talk with people instead of trying to keep the blood off my hands so to speak. I can’t remember who used this term, but someone (Rob Bell? Brian McLaren?) called that type of evangelism “terrorist evangelism” or “rape evangelism.” Obviously the images that come to mind with those terms are horrible and potentially a slight over exageration in many cases, but there is something to glean from that for sure.

  7. You know, I should probably add CS Lewis. Not his “theological” work, but his fiction, particularly the Chronicles of Narnia. The simple and compelling story-telling, interesting (and very human) characters, and the interweaving of simple truths about God, people, and relationships.

  8. Ok – I had resisted several times, but this year on Easter I tried borrowing some of David Sedaris’ story on trying to describe Easter to the Moroccan woman in French class from Me Talk Pretty Someday. It wasn’t terrible, but I think I lack the nasally voice and sense of timing. And my congregation, for the most part, is not the NPR kind of crowd. I still love him.
    They – the adults, at least – seem to really love Rob Bell right now. Which is cool. Because I appreciate the connections he makes, and how his theological approach sweeps broadly yet precisely.

  9. Jesus said “to whom much is given much shall be required” in the parable of the faithful servant which is basically the same thing as “with great power comes great responsibility.”

    But I think Ira took his quote from Stan Lee and the Spiderman comics:


    Peter Parker’s Uncle Ben tells him this before he gets killed as a result of Peter’s inaction, and the experience is what convinces Peter to use his powers for good.

  10. Yes, people who feel the need to be “always on call” (in non-emergencies) tend to have inflated views of their own indispensible nature. Try screening your calls. I resent it when (non-working) parishioners feel free to call at 7 or 8 pm with ordinary business. Do I not get an evening off?

    It’s about educating people about what church really IS. If the paid professional (me) is not available for some reason, and the need is dire, then there are other lay people who can be called. Of course, if it’s truly dire, I’m there. But if it’s a call at 9 pm to notify me that someone was admitted to the hospital at 10 am, or yesterday — I can wait till 9 am tomorrow, unless said someone is literally dying, or otherwise in need of my presence RIGHT NOW.

    I hope I don’t sound too uncaring. But the balance between personal, private time, and “on call” professional time is a difficult one.

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