Ash Wednesday Reflections
Offense, it’s what lost the Super Bowl on Sunday. No, that’s not the kind of offense I’m talking about. I’m really speaking about being offensive. Etymologically, they two are related. But I’m talking about something both obvious and subtle; the art of being offensive. Being crude is easy. Crudeness takes little skill or finesse. Like a malformed piece of fruit, crudeness just “is”. In most cases, the effort to be crude requires little more than the combination of respiration and basic brain functions. To be truly offensive is a real art form. It’s much more than politicians engaging in simple name calling on a debate stage. This is why we often confuse rudeness with offense. Rudeness, like crudeness, is a state of being. One either is or isn’t rude. This is where manners come into play.
Thought may be the epitome of crude, rude, and social unacceptable behavior. Thinking runs inimical polite social norms. If you’re in a situation where you’re attempting to use manners, invariably you’re involved with other people, necessitating some kind of polite behavior. You have to listen to the words of others. It’s incredibly difficult to listen and think at the same time. Thinking is innately rude, because when you’re thinking, you’re not listening to the other person. Meaningful conversations are impossible between thinking people. Persons who “think”, those who occupy this state of being, are far from popular, polite, or well-loved. Is thought itself the breeding ground for all offensive behavior? Sometimes it seems that way.
Taking offense and offensiveness exists beyond our identity as persons. Offense is a subject (a specific thing). To offer offense is to present someone with a gift which another person must choose to accept. When the gift is accepted, all the rights, honors, and privileges thereunto appertaining to the offense are now in the other person’s care. Our response, upon receiving the gift of offense, determines many factors: will it be offensive, was the gift intended to be offensive at all, will we be hurt, shall be angry, will we return the gift, or will we do nothing at all? This choice is ours. Once the gift leaves the offensive artist’s hands, their power is gone. We can return their power by returning the offense. Or, we can change the nature of how power is defined and dispense with old notions of what it means to “take offense”?
Saint Paul, prolific letter writer, offender, and sometime seller of illegal Rolexes on the streets of Ephesus, wrote a letter to his friends in Corinth where he talked about being offensive. As big and brash as Paul was, he wasn’t into sharing Christianity for the shock value. He says, “We don’t give anyone any reason to be offended about anything so that our ministry won’t be criticized.” He doesn’t want to intentionally give the offensiveness gift away to people. Paul doesn’t want to alienate anyone or make people angry, hostile, or mad. If he does that, it leads to criticisms he doesn’t want to deal with or need. Again, if he does that, they’ve got some kind of power of him. That’s not the way he wants to operate.
Paul knew there were parts of the faith which were hard to handle and difficult to hear. He doesn’t want to roll up into any church with plans, Power points, and ideas that don’t work. Paul knows more about manners and courtesy than we realize. What he wants to do isn’t divide people along the lines which will lead to obvious tension and rancor. Instead, he wants to bring people together with the one thing he knows holds everyone in common: stories.
I’ll tell you my story. I’ll not get you an offense. If anything, I’ll tell you of the offensives I’ve received on behalf of the Gospel. However, what you’re hearing are simply my stories, what it took for me to get here today.
In 2 Corinthians 6:4, Paul says there were “disasters” and things were “stressful”. We all know about disasters and stress. What started in hope, on the roadside outside Damascus has led to beatings, imprisonments, riots, hard work, sleepless nights, hunger, and riots.” It’s been a hard, beat up road. It’s a story that’s still being written. One offense after another has been given to Paul. In verse 7, he says unmistakably, “We served with the Holy Spirit, genuine love, and telling the truth and God’s power.” I was given the gift of offensive suffering, hunger, sleepless nights, riots, beatings, and imprisonments. Paul says, “I did not give back an offensive gift of hatred, pain, sorrow or guilt.” Paul told the truth, he told his story, a story that others now hear and feel set free to speak their own. God story, told among God’s people, beats giving offense every time.
There’s a German aphorism (attributed to the Austrian poet Elazar Benyoëtz), Je größer die Hoffnung, umso fruchtbarer die Enttäuschung (the greater the hope, the more fruitful the disappointment). I think it speaks to both this passage and the hope of the resurrection. Christianity grows and thrives out of the most fruitful, stressful, and disastrous disappointments. We are who we are because of the fruit grown from shattered expectations. This is the essence of Christianity. We have nothing but own everything. We are beaten but not killed. We live in pain but are always happy. Tonight is the night we begin the beautiful embrace of nothingness. We walk toward the fruitful disappointment of Good Friday. For in Good Friday’s disappointment, we find the fruits of the resurrection.
*Je größer die Hoffnung, umso fruchtbarer die Enttäuschung-The greater the hope, the more fruitful the disappointment.