An article appeared last month in the New York Times with the enticing headline of: “How to Give People Advice They’ll Be Delighted to Take.”
It starts off with this:
A friend recently approached me in distress saying they weren’t sure if they should dump their boyfriend or not. With wide, wet eyes, they asked what I think they should do. It gave me pause. Of course, I thought they should get rid of the guy, but I didn’t want to put our relationship at risk in case they stayed with him after I shared my opinion.
As anyone who has offered guidance knows, giving spectacular advice doesn’t necessarily mean people will take it. Advice is a gift, albeit one bundled with inherent power dynamics. That “I know your situation best and here’s what you should do” attitude is what can make advice-giving so fraught.
“Expertise is a tricky thing. To take advice from someone is to agree to be influenced by them.” Sometimes when people don’t take advice, they’re rejecting the idea of being controlled by the advice-giver more than anything.
I’d guess that most of us have been in the awkward situation of being asked for advice that we know the recipient doesn’t want to hear! It’s a quandary with no clean way out. Pastors are asked to weigh in on all kinds of things and most of us dread the question: “What do you think I should do?” My prejudice is that people who ask that question already know the answer and are looking for confirmation so I typically turn it around and ask them what they think. If I agree, I’ll nod knowingly and reassuringly; and if I don’t, I might say, “well – that’s an interesting approach – how did you come to that conclusion?”
My ultimate goal is to protect the relationship and if I offer advice that’s not taken, or that’s taken and doesn’t turn out well, it makes things decidedly awkward! Hence, I treat requests for my opinion with kid gloves!
We talked last week about the difference in authorship between First and Second Thessalonians – “First” is a largely undisputed letter written by Paul, “Second” not so much! Few think Paul wrote it and it was probably written by a member of his community and possibly composed after Paul’s death. First Thessalonians is noteworthy in its compassion and pastoral tone; Second is much more parental, even stern – possibly in need of some of those kid gloves!
The issue at hand? Two-fold. On one hand, the early Christians didn’t seem to have a friend in the world. The Romans were running the place and were not fond of the Jews. They considered this splinter group of Jesus followers to be part of that same cult. The Jews knew the difference and had no use for the Christians either – they were taking heat from all sides! On the other hand, Paul had promised them in his first letter that to be strong because the end was imminent – Jesus was on his way back and all things would be over – good would triumph over evil and their suffering would be vindicated!
That lovely bit of reassurance, however, brought with it some unintended consequences: folks figured that if the end was indeed near why bother getting up and going to work or paying their credit card off or taking care of any of their responsibilities? Life is a giant party and it’s time to blow the savings on fun and frivolity!
Not hard to figure out that this may not have been the best advice Paul ever gave!
Enter the second letter with its more temperate admonishment: in essence – live calmly and faithfully.
This probably wasn’t what they wanted to hear. Frankly, it’s probably not what we want to hear either.
As I eluded in my weekly email – there’s a certain similarity between the frustration and anxiety faced by that early Christian community and that of this day.
Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God.
The writer continues:
The coming of the lawless one is apparent in the working of Satan, who uses all power, signs, lying wonders, and every kind of wicked deception for those who are perishing, because they refused to love the truth and so be saved.
In antiquity, evil was personified – the Devil, Satan, Beelzebub – all seen as agents that worked against the purposes of God and who had the power of temptation and deception and preyed on helpless and gullible humans!
Catastrophe and evil are still real – even if we no longer personify them. As one of the participants said on Tuesday morning in Bible study: “we don’t personify evil – we elect it!” Today evil permeates institutions, regimes, economic and political systems and legislation – evil incarnate.
Frustration and anxiety are rampant in society – it’s increasingly hard to watch, read, or listen to the news without yelling, throwing, or crying. I find it telling that the news program I watch at 6:30 p.m. feels the need to end the broadcast with a segment called “America Strong” that offers a heart-warming tear-jerker story of some do-gooder or courageous soul. We need to end the news with a 2-minute glimmer of hope since the previous 28-minutes make us question our reasons for living.
Wasn’t always like that. Used to be that America was strong all the time, when the “lawless one” was in Germany, or Japan, or the Soviet Union, or Iraq, or North Korea.
Wasn’t always like that – and won’t be forever. “Everything will be all right in the end and if it’s not all right, then it’s not yet the end.”
Listen again to the end of today’s scripture, the pericope that Beth read earlier:
But we must always give thanks to God for you, [siblings in Christ], because God chose you as the first fruits … through belief in the truth. So then … stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
The lesson ends with gratitude and encouragement. Give thanks and hold fast to the traditions.
I read recently that one definition of “tradition” is “peer pressure from dead people.”
It’s funny – but it’s true – especially when we honor the people who have served their country and defended human rights throughout the world. Our veterans, whether by choice or conscription, represent the best our country offers and provide all a worthy tradition to emulate – the tradition of allegiance and service to a greater good.
So here’s the advice you didn’t ask for and probably don’t want.
Finding it hard to fathom the lawlessness swirling our most honored institutions as we witness advances in social justice, environmental health, and economic equity erode and erased? Service. Find a way to serve – give of yourself – do something for someone else without regard of recognition or reciprocity. Give. Serve. Help.
In the example I detailed in the email, 741741, it’s a Crisis Text Line and a means of persons in crisis to garner support via texting, you don’t even have to leave your home and still be the life-saving connection a troubled person needs. Anonymous and immediate.
The only way to endure troubling times is calmly and faithfully – and the best way I know to be faithful is to put into tangible practice exactly what we recite every week: Love God and love neighbor.
As anyone who has offered guidance knows, giving spectacular advice doesn’t necessarily mean people will take it.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.