Read Chapter 1 of Leonard Sweet's Nudge
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It is time for a FIRST Wild Card Tour book review! If you wish to join the FIRST blog alliance, just click the button. We are a group of reviewers who tour Christian books. A Wild Card post includes a brief bio of the author and a full chapter from each book toured. The reason it is called a FIRST Wild Card Tour is that you never know if the book will be fiction, non~fiction, for young, or for old...or for somewhere in between! Enjoy your free peek into the book!
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Currently the E. Stanley Jones Professor of Evangelism at Drew University, Madison, NJ, and a Visiting Distinguished Professor at George Fox University, Portland, Oregon, Leonard Sweet has been Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Theological School at Drew University for five years. Author of more than two hundred articles, over twelve hundred published sermons, and dozens of books, Sweet is the primary contributor (along with his wife Karen Elizabeth Rennie) to the web-based preaching resource sermons.com. Sweet has held distinguished lectureships at various colleges, universities, and seminaries and has presented academic papers before major professional societies. The founder and president of SpiritVenture Ministries, Sweet is a frequent speaker at national and international conferences, state conventions, pastors’ schools, and retreats.
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List Price: $19.99
Hardcover: 336 pages
Publisher: David C. Cook; New edition (August 1, 2010)
AND NOW...THE FIRST CHAPTER:
EVERY BUSH IS BURNING
Brace yourself. This book is set to revolutionize your understanding of evangelism. Revolution—from the Latin revolvere—means “a fundamental change.” This revolution stands to shake the very roots of your faith, rattle the range of your mission, and roll the very limits of your freedom.
Wait a minute, you say! There’s a lot about me in that paragraph; I thought evangelism is about reaching out to others.
Remember “a fundamental change.” I think evangelism changes me as much as anybody.
A friar returned to his monastery after an Ignatian thirty-day retreat. Over granola the next morning, he was interrogated by a grumpy old member of the community who complained, “We’ve been working like slaves while you’ve been swanning around doing nothing! And look at you! You don’t look any different.”
“You’re quite right, I probably don’t,” was the reply. “But you do.”
Jesus’ last words in the gospel of Luke are these: “Go out and proclaim repentance and the forgiveness of sins.”2 But a biblical understanding of repentance is not red-faced anger at other people’s sins but red-faced embarrassment at my own brokenness and complicity in the evils and injustices of the world. Proclaiming repentance is as much about reminding me of my waywardness as it is about setting other people straight.
When I am engaging with people of other religious faiths, I find myself unable to commit to their conclusions or agree with their assessments. Yet at the same time I come away encouraged by the spiritual truths found in their traditions, thrilled by new insights into my own faith, and more passionate than ever about being a disciple of Jesus. The truth is illuminated and elongated in my mind, and my presuppositions and myopic perspectives are challenged and corrected in the process. Anything less would not be a conversation and would imply that truth is a proposition and not Christ.
To be a real agent of God, to connect with the neighbor … each
of us needs to know the truth about himself or herself.3
—Archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams
I believe the lifeblood of evangelism is not propositions, but prepositions. For God to do something through us, God must be doing something in us. If we are not always evangelizing ourselves, we have no business evangelizing others. In fact, it is usually as God’s grace courses through us to someone else that we become aware of God’s love in and for us. Evangelism is an invitation for broken people together to meet the Christ who loves broken people. We all are damaged but loved, crushed but cherished, with a divine embrace. When love is the motivation for evangelism, nudging is love in action. And the cracks in our broken vases are where Jesus leaks out first.
I define evangelism as “nudge” and evangelists as “nudgers.” Evangelism is awakening each other to the God who is already there. Evangelism is nudging people to pay attention to the mission of God in their lives and to the necessity of responding to that initiative in ways that birth new realities and the new birth.
God only asks that we do what we do best, which is nudge; God takes it from there. The nudging act—the human contact, the meeting of eyes, the sharing of space, the entanglement of words, the sense of bodily interaction—is to the soul what blood is to the body. Without nudging, the body cannot reproduce.
Every person who crosses your threshold today is ripe for nudging. A nudge happens in proximity. Even the nudges across the Internet or by phone take place in a proximity of relationships. The integrity of a nudge requires that it be welcomed and that it be reciprocal. The purpose of a nudge is to manifest Christ in a moment of mutual knowing, which benefits both the person being nudged and the nudger. Nudging is not best driven by fear or by some need within the nudger. Nudges are not contrived but are the natural consequence of being with someone in a moment and wishing them to join you in recognizing a God-moment. The best nudges culminate in a grunt of mutual recognition. God nudges me because God likes me. I nudge others because I like them. There is an implied caring that comes with nudging.
So there you have it. Nudge—gently pushing people off their seats more than it is sitting people down or driving them to their knees. Nudging is more about sowing than reaping. To be clear, nudging encompasses the full range of gardening—from dropping a tiny seed into the ground, to loosening the dirt, watering, weeding, fertilizing, protecting from predators, picking the fruit, and even helping, in Jesus’ words, “the birds of the air … nest under its shade.”4 But every encounter is aimed not to “bring in the sheaves.” Nudging aims to bring people less to a decision than to an impression: not just to an hour of decision but a lifetime impression of God’s presence and the nearness of God’s kingdom. In fact, isn’t this the essence of sanctified living: to make our whole life a Un Oui Vivant,5 a “Living Yes” to the living Christ?
This is exactly the opposite of ignoring the need for a decision. Rather, it is respecting and reverencing the process, if one looks back on it, by which each of us came to that place of decision. When an impression leads to a decision, it’s “Hallelujah!” (or in my preferred way of stating it, “Javalujah!”) time. But the ultimate answer to that question “Who do you say that I am?” is best forthcoming from another question: “What’s up?” Or when translated theologically, “What’s the I AM up to in your life?” We find the living One in the midst of living.
Images exist not to be believed but to be interrogated.6
Don McCullin is a British photojournalist who specializes in capturing images of the downtrodden and forgotten and making these moments of forsakenness universal. McCullin is also one of the greatest war photographers of all time. He says this about the role of a professional photographer: “If you take one good picture a year for each year of your career, you are doing well.”7
If, for every year of your life, one person honestly relates that God nudged them through you, and that your nudge had kingdom significance to them, you are a master evangelist; well done! Of course, we ought always to be hoping and praying for what I call these ushering nudges. Always be closing. Even with a gentle nudge, or a God-wink nudge, always be closing in prayer and desire. But remember that every Jesus nudge, whether it leads someone to an altaring moment or not, is part of an answer to a two-thousand-year-old prayer in Matthew 9:38: a prayer Jesus prayed and taught his disciples to pray, when he asked the “Lord of the Harvest” to send out workers for the harvest. Sometimes a nudge will lead to conversion, but most often it will lead to a conversation, a confession, a connection, maybe a germination, but always a blessing.
Businesspeople who become entrepreneurs often learn the hard way that constantly chasing home runs will exhaust and bankrupt them. Good business strategists live on base hits. They are ready for a homer should it present itself but are not drawn into the delusive and elusive hunt for the home run. Evangelism is like that; too much emphasis on an evangelistic home run from a nudge is not only unlikely, but also prone to being motivated by impure and selfish motives.
Evangelists always nudge. They travel the Emmaus and Jericho Roads as often as the Damascus and Roman Roads.8 They end up praying, “God is great, God is good” as often as “The Sinner’s Prayer.”9 Their words when spoken are not so much “You are lost in sin” as “You belong to God.” Their attitude is less “Look at what you’re doing! What are you thinking?” than “Look at what God is already doing in you!” Nudgers give attendance more than they take attendance or count attendance. They less tuck people in than rustle them out of their sleeping quarters to awaken to more interesting, more humorous, more unique ways of being. Nudgers leave more tracks than tracts.
All your words were one word: Wakeup.10
—Spanish poet Antonio Machado referencing Jesus
Nudging is more about dialogue than monologue, more Facebooking than blogging. Acts of evangelism intentionally scooch and shimmy people in the direction of truth without the need for knee-bending, beat-my-back altar calls.11 Evangelists nudge the Jesus in people to sit up and take notice. Evangelists are nudgers, not shovers. Whereas evangelism has been known to violate others’ dignity,12 which I call the reproach approach,13 nudgers are not smudgers of the divine in people.
For the past century, evangelism has been built on this one question:
“If you died today, do you know without any doubt that you would wake up in heaven?”
This is supposedly an updating of the evangelism of the eighteenth-century Wesleyan revival, which was mistakenly seen to have been built around:
“Do you desire to escape from the wrath that is to come?”
For the twenty-first century, evangelism will be built on nudges that have more to do with life before death than death and the afterlife, that focus more on the love of Christ than the wrath of God, that worry less about dying than about never having lived.14 Some parts of the church have been slow to speak against the turn-burn evangelism of WOGS (Wrath of God Syndrome), which my friend Vern Hyndman calls “the bad news about the good news.” James chapter 3 is quite clear here: This should not be so. If truth be told, love has always been paramount. In the definitive Wesley hymnbook, of the 525 hymns, only 1 is about hell.15
If you came alive today, would you think you had died and gone to heaven?
If you were offered to live forever, would you want to?
If you really woke up today, could you catch up to what God was doing in your life?
Why the focus more on life than death? The basic biblical distinction is not between “mind” and “matter” or “soul” and “body” but between “spirit” and “flesh.” In one of the most helpful insights into recovering the mind of the Bible I have ever read, Cambridge theologian Nicholas Lash reminds us that when the Bible talks about living systems, it distinguishes “between things coming alive, and things crumbling into dust; between not-life, or life-gone-wrong, and life: true life, real life, God’s life and all creation’s life in God.” That’s why the metaphor of wind, or the breath of life, is so important. Only the breath of God can neutralize the closed system of death, also known as the second law of thermodynamics, with the open system of life and the theodynamics of grace.
Whether sent forth from God, breathing all creatures into being, renewing the Earth and filling it with good things; whether whispering gently to Elijah, or making “the oaks to whirl, and [stripping] the forests bare”; or breathing peace on the disciples for the forgiveness of sins—it is one wind, one spirit, which “blows where it wills and we do not know where it comes from or where it goes.” To confess God as Spirit is to tell the story of the world as something, from its beginning to ends end, given to come alive.16
Evangelists nudge people to life. Evangelists nudge people to take deep breaths. Evangelists blow breath into people. I often wonder how the literary career of French philosopher and novelist Jean-Paul Sartre might have been different if he had been nudged at a time when his faith was trying to take root. But I will let him speak for himself:
I have just related the story of a missed vocation. I needed God. He was given to me. I received Him without realizing that I was seeking Him. Failing to take root in my heart, He vegetated in me for a while then He died. Whenever anyone speaks to me about Him today, I say, with the amusement of an old beau who meets a former belle: “Fifty years ago, had it not been for that misunderstanding, that mistake, the accident that separated us, there might have been something between us.”17
Life and death are sometimes in the power of the nudge.
“Nudge evangelism” is based on the following three revolutionary notions (okay, some not so much “revolutionary” as hibernating—but when these “notions” cease logging zzz’s, they will have revolutionary consequences). We will explore these more in depth a little later. But let’s lay them out in full now:
Jesus is alive and active in our world.
Followers of Jesus “know” Jesus well enough to recognize where he is alive and moving in our day.
Evangelists nudge the world to wake up to the alive and acting Jesus and nudge others in the ways God is alive and moving (I call these nudges “small saves”).
I was late to nudging. MSN Messenger first introduced the nudge decades ago, but it was not until I entered the Twitterverse in late 2008 and Facebook in 2009, that I was introduced to the “nudge” and “poke.” The nudge has now even achieved elevated status in the leadership literature with a book by a Harvard law professor and a University of Chicago economist who argue that nudges are a form of “libertarian paternalism” designed to alter “people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”18 In their opinion a nudge is not coercive, but cajoling.19
Even though I hold the E. Stanley Jones Chair of Evangelism at Drew University, I waited to write up my perspectives on evangelism until I had finished two other projects on “default systems.” It’s amazing the unintended messages we send, and defaults are some of the biggest “unintended” nudges in existence. Humans tend to live on autopilot, both as persons and as communities, which is why worshippers tend to sit in the same pew, and students in the same seat.
I am reminded of the mightiness of that default setting every time I approach a toll plaza on the New Jersey turnpike. A lane’s white lines are like the strings of a corset, keeping the car in that configuration even though it would be faster and easier to turn the wheel, cross the line, and get in another lane. There may be twenty cars ahead of you in your lane, but you will sit where you are, ignoring the toll booths with only two or three cars in waiting, because of that mighty default setting.
If we don’t set the correct defaults to faith, our evangelism will be full of sound and fury, but futile. Hence my books on the default interface that connects with a Google world (the EPIC interface)20 and the default operating system that God designed for life and the church (the MRI default).21 We often forget that Satan is an evangelist too. The forces of darkness want nothing more than to recruit people to the ethics of evil and the aesthetics of hell. And the pandemics of terrorism, ritualized violence, environmental degradation, and genocide attest to the success the enemy has had in writing a powerful counternarrative. As Alfred the butler (Michael Caine) says to Batman in The Dark Knight (2008) as they struggle to understand the psychology of the Joker: “Some men just want to watch the world burn.” And judging from the seventy million people killed in the twentieth century, the bloodiest century in history, Satan may have been the most successful evangelist of the twentieth century.
Nudges are inevitable. We nudge even when we don’t know it. For example, whenever someone says “most people,” they are nudging you in the direction of conformity. And they don’t even know they are nudging you. Conformism is one of life’s (and evil’s) biggest nudges.
Evangelism as we know it hasn’t worked. Either evangelism is so aggressive you want to get a restraining order, or else evangelism is so restrained you want to call it to order. Our strategies have been spectacularly useless at best, counterproductive at worst. We have lived through an exodus, but not of the biblical kind.
It’s time to fundamentally change this approach: nudge. Nudge is built on five God-guarantees:
Every person you notice, every person you brush up against, is a child of God, a Jesus-in-you noticer.
Every brush is a bush.
Every best is a blest.
Every worst is a juncture for grace.
Every noticer needs a nudge.
What does this mean?
Human beings are created in the image of God.
God is already present in that person’s life in the form of some burning bush.
The best things about that person are blessings from God.
The worst things about that person are arenas for God’s redemption.
People are hungry for encouragement and love and need help noticing the presence of the divine in their lives.
Faith coaches and spiritual directors are God’s A Team nudgers. They make a life’s work of carefully and skillfully nudging those who trust them. And these wise and loving mentors have a saying:
Tell them: and if they can’t understand,
Show them: and if they can’t see it,
Do it to them.
There are three forms of nudges that increasingly demand more creativity
from the nudger. These forms become more intimate and loving to the
nudge as they progress.
The trudge formula for nudge evangelism is simple: Start small; scale fast; and live, Jesus, live! Nudge is encapsulated in Jesus’ first postresurrection directive: “Go quickly and tell …”22 To “go” is to move forward and do something, however modest: “Start small.” To be “quick” is to use momentum to “scale fast.” To “tell” is to lift up the name of Jesus, tell the good news that everyone has the potential to become a different kind of person, and with our ancestors, “speak that we do know, and testify that we have seen.”
A brick wall is … essentially
an aggregation of small effects.23
1. Start Small
Nudging is made up of small things, but it is no small thing. Small inputs can have massive consequences. It is less that “everything matters” than that small things matter everywhere. No moment is too small, no person is too small, to gently steer and move people down life paths and away from death valleys. Nudgers encourage first steps, small steps, and are open to the surprise of giant leaps forward.
One of the most distinguishing features of Jesus’ teaching was precisely in this notion that from tiny beginnings God’s reign grows. The ancient Hebrews compared God’s workings to the monstrous cedars of Lebanon and wings of eagles. Jesus loves looking at mustard seeds, grains of wheat, leftover crumbs, and barnyard hens. He invites us to look around at our fields, our gardens, our orchards, our vineyards, our backyards. Jesus is not against large but invites us to start small and do little large. “Little is much if God is in it.”24
It would be hard to overestimate the tremendous power you have to influence the direction of people’s lives, even when that person is a stranger. Anthropologist Margaret Mead famously pronounced that we should “never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed individuals can change the world, indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”25 The world has been changed by one word here, one story there, metaphors above and over all. It is not just that “a word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver.”26 A nudge here, a nudge there are like baskets of blessings that pop out just when you need them the most to give life a burst.
In the animal kingdom, the bigger the brain, the smaller the face. We big-brained people do not know our face, who we are, and how severely we have been defaced from our original divine design. In the words of William Golding, whose book Lord of the Flies (1954) was inspired by his wartime experiences, anyone who could not see that “man produces evil as a bee produces honey must have been blind or wrong in the head.”27 In small, everyday ways, evangelists nudge out of others their original human face and what God is doing to summon them to become new human beings called to renew human society. The more I discover what I am, the more miserable I get; the more I discover who God is and who God made me, the happier I become.
In the Jesus kingdom, the bigger the brain in your head, the bigger the love in your heart. And that one-pound heart, made large with love and connected to a two-pound brain, made small by humility, can challenge the world to give peace and love a fighting chance.
To be sure, there is no path through life without detours. But detours, roundabouts, and imperfections, as the incarnation’s setting straight of our sidetracked humanity makes clear, are the paths used by the Spirit to take us home.
2. Scale Fast
Once you have learned the nudge on a small scale, you can leverage and reuse attentional strategies to expand evangelism across every aspect of your life and across your connections.
You know a nudge is providential when the person being nudged already knows they need that very nudge. A nudge is only of value if there is an “aha” moment that accompanies it. Jesus never did anything the Father had not already been doing, and the very instinct to nudge is predicated by a knowledge that God had somehow prepared this very event. The most powerful nudges are those that coax someone in directions they already know they should be going. When a nudger pours fuel at the right moment to a low-grade fire already burning in the heart and mind, the combustion is explosive and the conflagration is breathtaking.
In God nothing is empty of sense … so the conviction of a
transcendental meaning in all things seeks to formulate itself.28
—Dutch historian Johan Huizinga
To the ears of faith, we are never out of the range of God’s voice: every distress a call, every surprise a service, every relationship a blessing, every phone call a connection, every hesitation or doubt a direction. We respond to each of these, trusting that our small saves will make a saving difference even if we never know how it all plays out or how it all works in God’s scheme of things. Most often we never know “the rest of the story.”
But we don’t need to. What counts in evangelism is not cognition, but recognition. Can we identify the face of Christ when he shows it to us? What is our receptiveness to the Spirit, who appears in others and in one another? Are we able to decipher the playings of the Spirit in others’ lives? That’s enough. Jesus “appeared” to the Twelve, to Cephas, and to the five hundred; and Paul says, “He appeared to me.” Has he “appeared” to you? If he “appeared” to you, would you know it? Can you apprehend his appearing?
3. Live, Jesus, Live!
Do we have any faith “to speak of ”?
There comes a time when nudging means a no-beating-about-the-bush stepping forward to meet the other and tell it like it is, or in other words, to tell who Jesus is.
I call dropping the name of Jesus the “Nudge Bomb.” Yet even when we throw the bomb, the nudger seldom throws his or her voice. While slow to speak,29 we are always to be ready to give the “reason” for our high-hope living.30 Jeremiah’s confession about the futility of holding his breath is ours: “If I say, ‘I will not mention him or speak any more in his name,’ his word is in my heart like a fire, a fire shut up in my bones, and I am weary of holding it in; indeed, and I cannot.”31 Our nudges toward lives of freedom and communion and hope will require speaking the name of Jesus and inviting others to accept the liberation that comes with surrender, the communion that comes from submission.
One day a nudger asked a question of John Wesley: “Do you know Jesus Christ?” Even though Wesley was an Oxford don, a theologian, hymn writer, Christian author, and missionary to America, he realized that he really didn’t “know” Jesus Christ in all of these activities like he was being called to know him. What Wesley had been living out of was a Christian faith based more on rational defenses of the cold logic and coherence of the Apostles’ Creed or the Thirty-nine Articles rather than a personal experience of and a heart strangely warmed by the fires at the altar of Jesus the Christ.
Intimate spouses of fifty years know the nuances of their love, the snorts and grunts in sleep, what is normal and what is not. It’s what poet Galway Kinnell calls the “familiar touch of the long married.”32 Do we, after years of walking with Christ, know him and his familiar touch?
In all of our nudges, in all of our helping people see the God who is already at play in their lives, we must never forget that we ultimately do not offer others our skills, our wisdom, or our expertise. We offer others Christ and the Holy Spirit, the only powers that can create the new humanity. Or as the apostle Paul put it, “To me, to live is Christ.”33 Not acknowledging Christ when he appears is dereliction of discipleship.
As you walk down the stairs toward baggage claim at the Memphis Airport, there is a sign that greets you when you land on the ground floor. It is the motto of Graceland. The sign reads: “Discover Your Inner Elvis.” Nudgers help people discover their inner Jesus. Nudgers do that by lifting up Christ, not themselves, and trust Jesus to stir others to new life and new relationships.
Will someone mistake you for Jesus today?
For nudge evangelism to work, we must bring together two things seldom seen together: evangelism and semiotics. Since you now have some notion of what I mean by “evangelism,” let me say a word about the more unfamiliar term semiotics.
A teacher walks up to a chalkboard and writes “H2O.” H2O is an abstraction of water. You can’t drink it, be quenched by it, swim in it, or float on it. It’s a useful abstraction. Semiotics is an attempt to get our eyes off the chalkboard and into the real world. It is the art of making connections, linking disparate dots, seeing the relationships between apparently trifling matters, and turning them into metonymic moments.
Most important, semiotics is a Jesus word. In fact, Jesus instructed us to learn semiotics. It’s a direct order.
One of Jesus’ favorite sayings went something like “Red sky in morning, sailors take warning; red sky at night, sailors delight.” He then went on: “You know how to read the signs of the sky. You must also learn how to read the signs of the times.”34 The Greek word for signs is semeia (from which we get the word semiotics). We are directed by Jesus to learn how to read signs, to read “the handwriting on the wall.” God’s hand is still writing on walls today. Evangelists are people with red-sky-at-morning sensitivities.
Hence the yoking of evangelism and semiotics.
The world is ruled by signs, with money the most mastered semiotic system out there. We all do semiotics, whether we know it or not. Waiting on tables is a semiotic system, with every interaction an exchange of visual and verbal markers. At Le Peep restaurant in Peoria, Illinois, my waitress turned to her trainee and said, “See the crumpled-up napkin on his plate? That’s the universal sign of ‘I’m done.’ Take his plate away.”
Some things look easy until you try them (like juggling and jigsaws). Other things look hard until you try them (like semiotics).
Here’s an example. You’ve just purchased a new car. You drive your new car out of the dealership, and as soon as you hit the highway, something happens. The moment your rubber hits the road, something starts to happen. What is it?
You say, “Depreciation.” How true. You’ve just lost three thousand dollars, at minimum. I call the smell of a new car the most expensive cologne in the universe. Lasts about a month. You do the math: three thousand dollars divided by thirty days.… By the way, scientists now tell us that the smell of a new car is toxic.
But something else happens as well. You begin to see that car you just purchased everywhere. Am I right or what?
I don’t think people are now buying that car to copy you. Nothing has changed except one thing: Because of your investment in that car, you are now in a state of “semiotic awareness.”
And when people observe you and your car, they are also in a state of semiotic awareness whether they know it or not. In the land of semiotics, cars are driven less to get you somewhere and more to be seen and to be read. Cars are identity signals. They are signs of who we are or want to be.
We see what we choose to see, as artists have been telling us for centuries. Michelangelo is said to have remarked that he released David from the marble block he found him in. “The painting has a life of its own. I try to let it come through,” confessed Jackson Pollock.35 Artists are simply people with high levels of semiotic awareness.
Most disciples of Jesus are not in a state of semiotic awareness. The church especially is not good at reading signs. Those who are preoccupied with reading signs are looking for one thing only: not signs of our times, but end-times signs, signs of the return of Christ … signs of the latter days and the end of days.
By reading the signs of the times, I am referring to the signs of the Spirit’s activity in the world. Jesus wept over Jerusalem because it could not read the signs: “You did not recognize the time of your visitation.”36 Nudgers are connectors of signs and channelers of their significance. Are you ready for signs? Are you able to read signs?
Nudge is an invitation to move beyond church-centric Christianity to a holistic, omnipresent theology of the signified reign of God. God is, Paul told the Athenians, “not far from any one of us.”37 If God can speak through a burning bush, through plagues of locust, through Balaam’s ass, through Babylon, through blood on doorposts, through Peter, through Judas, through Pilate’s jesting sign hung over the head of our Lord, and through the cross itself, then God can and will speak through art deco architecture, abstract expressionism, classic literature like Virgil’s Aeneid, ass media, disease, Disney, hunger, Twitter, etc. The question is never, “Is God using this?” Rather the question is, “What is my/our invitation upon hearing?”
God meets us everywhere, in a bewildering variety of forms and fashions. Eighteenth-century hymn writer Isaac Watts called John’s book of Revelation “the opera of the apocalypse.”38 We grow giddy over mystic numbers, signs and seals, heraldic beasts and composite beings, but what about the opera of the everyday? The ordinary and mundane? John Updike believed his only duty as a writer was “to describe reality as it had come … to give the mundane its beautiful due.”39 Updike was a brilliant semiotician.
Nudge argues for the triangulation of all three: Scripture, Culture, Spirit. But we walk a tonal tightrope: in touch with the world but in tune with the Spirit through highly pitched souls, with heightened sensitivities that connect to the Scriptures and then to the Spirit and then to the culture.
As we watch for the signs of your kingdom on earth,
we echo the song of the angels in heaven.40
—Eucharistic Prayer F, Common Worship
Why are we fascinated with the CBS network’s CSI franchise? We are transfixed by how investigators can “read” a crime scene. We read anthropologists’ works because they can “read” a culture. We read Dan Brown novels in record-bursting numbers (The Da Vinci Code, Angels and Demons, The Lost Symbol) because of the power and mystique of symbology (the Hollywood name for semiotics) and our interest in the hidden forces at work in people’s lives and in our world.
The ultimate in social as well as spiritual illiteracy is the inability to read the handwriting on the wall. There are many forms of biblical, cultural, and spiritual illiteracy that go beyond not knowing the difference between Melchizedek and Methuselah, or between Dorothy Day and Dorothy Sayers … and Doris Day, for that matter. How many people have been waiting their entire lives for a message from God when they have been staring it in the face all along? How many people are deaf to the dog-whistle voice of the divine that only they are vibed to hear?41
Life without Landlines
To get into “Len’s Lair” (aka, my study), I bend down and step up at the same time, and then pass through a small corridor to enter a totally silent room. I switch on some lights, burn some candles, and wake my computer.
Suddenly, there it is: the world. I’m connected to the far reaches of the planet. On our little island I’ve picked up signals that were there all the time. I have the world at my fingertips. All I need is the right
apparatus, the right wireless card or radio or TV or whatever) that can “connect” me with what was always there but was invisible and unavailable until the receiver was activated.
Think of semiotics as a receiver. We live in an ocean of waves—radio, cell phone, wi-fi, infrared, cosmic. These waves not only surround us; they pass through us and can even penetrate walls. These waves will continue to remain invisible unless there is a receiver that can channel them into forms we can hear and see. That “make me a channel of blessing” stuff? Semiotic awareness at its best.
This book is your wireless card to pick up the signals of transcendence, the immanent transcendent, that are out there but not being downloaded. Semiotics is the art of finding channels and making connections. Evangelism as semiotics is the art of tuning our receivers to the “I AM” channel and setting the controls to receive and transmit transdimensional frequencies. This book is your compass in a world where the magnetic lines of the earth are invisible. These magnetic lines have always been there and are not dependent on our compass. But the compass becomes our means of making visible and interpreting what we cannot see.
Marius von Senden, reviewing every published case of blind people receiving sight over a three-hundred-year period in his classic book Space and Sight (1932), concluded that every newly sighted adult sooner or later comes to a motivation crisis—and that not every patient gets through it.42 There are plenty of people out there who are “seeing but not seeing.” Or to put it another way, too many Christians are walking blind through life when they don’t have to.
Our survival, individual and cultural, depends on our ability
to read and interpret ecologically what our man-made
environments are saying to us and doing to us.43
Throughout Scripture God uses sign language to communicate relationship: Noah and the rainbow,44 Abraham and circumcision,45 Moses and the Passover blood posts,46 Moses and the exodus cloud/fire pillars,47 Samson and his golden locks,48 shepherds and the manger,49 Jesus and the cross, and even Pilate’s jesting billboard hung over the head of Christ on the cross was a sign.50 The same sign can be different things to different people. The Passover was freedom to the Israelites and death to the Egyptians. The sign Pilate hung over Christ’s head was irony to Pilate, blasphemous to the Jewish religious leaders, and truth to all followers of Christ. The same sign, different meanings. In fact, when Jesus turned water into wine, or fed the five thousand, or raised Lazarus from the dead, Jesus didn’t think of what he was doing as a “miracle.” He thought of what he was doing as a sign.
God is still signing us. God’s finger is still writing. We may not be able to read the divine finger because we’ve got our fingers in our ears or are so fixated at the finger pointing to the moon that we can’t see beyond the fingertips. But God’s finger is busy writing in strange and sundry signs, designs, cosigns, and signals.
Everything that surrounds you can give you something.51
—Hungarian photographer André Kertész
I begin every day with what I call my “Bugs Bunny” ritual. Where Bugs Bunny chews his carrot and asks “What’s up, Doc?” I drink my coffee and ask, “What’s up, God?”
In fact, some sign readers are arguing that our very survival as a species depends on our ability to “read the signs.” Jared Diamond, in his book Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed (2004), argues that the only common denominator behind all cases of collapse is not the destruction of the environment, as serious as that is. It is not economic collapse, as universal as that is. The one elementary but elemental factor in all civilizations that collapsed into extinction is the failure to read the handwriting on the wall, the failure to respond to warning signs. Every extinct culture hurled signs high into the heavens for all to see. But every collapsing culture failed to read and heed these flares.52
The Problem Is Not with Life
Sometimes my kids come to me and complain: “Daddy, I’m bored.” I tell them, “Sorry. You aren’t bored. You’re having a semiotic breakdown.” They then run to their mother, who rolls her eyes and comforts them with “Don’t worry. Your father is just having one of his semiotic spells. He’ll get over it.”
But I’m right.53 And I’m not going to get over it. When my kids are bored, the problem is not with life. Life is full of wonderful, exciting, and adventurous things. My kids don’t have life fatigue. The problem is not with life. The problem is with them. In a state of semiotic awareness, all of life is bathed in beauty and sacredness. When they get bored, they have entered a state of semiotic breakdown. The fact that many people live boring lives, the fact that many people make so little of their lives is not life’s fault. People are in a state of semiotic breakdown.
Semiotic breakdown is the disconnect from all that is and can be from perceived possibility. Semiotic breakdown has degrees. The lightest of these is simply missing the message and doing nothing in most cases. The most serious is seeing the signs, believing they mean something, but having the wrong interpretation and setting off in a destructive path. The advice of park rangers applies here: If you’re lost, stop. Call for help. Reorient yourself. Find true north. Suicide is the ultimate state of semiotic breakdown.
The world is so full of a number of things
I am sure we should all be as happy as kings.54
—Robert Louis Stevenson
Much of the problem with the church is precisely this. The “ole ship,” as Methodist cofounder Charles Wesley liked to call it, is in a state of semiotic breakdown. The church sees mysterious hieroglyphics all around, but because it cannot read the sign language, it fails to see that these are really Hieroglyphic of holiness.
Without doing our semiotic homework, Christians can only follow trends. We can’t create them. Faith widens the imagination and lengthens the horizons. So why is church so narrow in its imagination, so short in its scope of thinking? Why is the body of Christ not bursting with creativity, but a bastion of boredom?
It is in a state of semiotic breakdown. We are as clueless as to what the Spirit is up to as the critic who dismissed the Beatles when he first heard them as “strictly routine rhythm-and-blues.”55 One of the greatest examples of semiotics in the Scriptures is the story of the wise men, who were probably not “wise men” but Eastern magicians, sorcerers, or diviners (magoi).56 In the Greek New Testament magos means most often “interpreters of dreams” or “experts in astrology.” In other words, sign readers. These “magi” had the imagination to read the signals, register the early intelligence, and risk a long journey so that they got there first. Pagan semioticians got to Jesus before the holy and righteous.
If the inability to read signs is a surefire recipe for failure and extinction, the ability to read signs is now being defined as the key ingredient to success and leadership. Harvard Business School’s Leadership Initiative has spent years developing a “Great American Business Leaders” database. The project identified and analyzed the accomplishments of some 860 top executives in the twentieth century, and the results are being made known through the writings of two leadership professors: Anthony J. Mayo, the director of the Initiative, and Nitin Nohria, the new dean of Harvard Business School. In the work titled In Their Time: The Greatest Business Leaders of the 20th Century (2005),57 the coauthors distilled tons of data into three leadership archetypes: Mold-Makers, Mold-Breakers, and Mold-Takers (i.e., the entrepreneur, the charismatic, the manager). Whatever their style or “type,” however, there was one ingredient that all shared in common: an outsized “ability to read the forces that shaped the times in which they lived … and to seize on the resulting opportunities.”58
The coauthors call this key leadership trait “contextual intelligence.” In words that appear lifted from the biblical description of the tribe of Issachar (Israel’s resident semioticians, who “knew the times” and “knew what best to do”),59 Mayo and Nohria portray the century’s best leaders as people who understood the forces that defined their eras, and as people who “adapted their enterprises to best respond to those forces.” Both “knowing the times” and “knowing what to do” are what made them leaders: “Contextual intelligence is an underappreciated but all-encompassing differentiator between
success and failure.”60
The inability to read signs helps explain a great deal about the past, the present, and the future. For example, take the rise of Nazism. How did one of the most cultured and Christianized countries in the West succumb to the appeal of Hitler? How did the very culture that brought Christian arts and philosophy to their highest and most luminous levels become responsible for some of the most heinous atrocities in history? Its lack of attentiveness.
A few read the signs: Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Alfred Delp, Martin Niemoller, Joseph Ratzinger Sr., the policeman father of Pope Benedict XVI. But by and large the Christian church in Germany was as sign blind as the cousin of Winston Churchill, Charles Stewart Henry Vane-Tempest- Stewart, 7th Marquess of Londonderry (1878–1949), who after he met Hitler called him “a kindly man with a receding chin and an impressive face.”61
Or to take one more example: The problem with the Iraq war was not so much bad military intelligence, but deficient cultural intelligence. There was very little contextual intelligence of the political, religious, and social culture of Iraq and its diverse peoples (Kurds, Sunnis). A decades-old reliance on relational intelligence was abandoned for satellites that could read license plates from space. Unfortunately, they failed to read the nuances of the population. There is also very little contextual intelligence of the mediated world in which we live. War has a very healthy future, but the future of war is inescapably global and fought not in physical space but in informational space. This is what Osama bin Laden and al Qaeda, and even the middle-class Iraqi citizen Salam Pax and his “Baghdad Blog,”62 seemed to understand better than the United States.
Whether we know it or not, we all read signs. God is also a sign reader: The bow in the clouds is God’s sign, not to us but to God to remind God that there is a promise in place never again to destroy the earth with a flood.
You do semiotics all the time. In fact, every one of you is a master semiotician. You may not know it, but you are. And I’ll prove it to you one more time.
You can’t get a driver’s license until you learn your semiotics: You learn to read the signs of the road. In fact, you are given a test on your semiotic skills at reading road signs.
You can’t balance a checkbook until you learn your semiotics: You learn to read the signs of mathematics. You learn the sign language of math.
You can’t get a job until you learn your semiotics: You learn to read the signs of a language. You learn English or Spanish or Mandarin or Japanese. You can’t read anything until you learn your semiotics.
Semiotics is the art and science of paying attention. Since evangelism is also the art and science of paying attention, I will argue that evangelism is semiotics. There is another book to be written on the prophetic role of reading the signs or semiotics.63 Nudge argues that a semiotics evangelism is more pay attention than attract attention. The best evangelists are not the attention getters, but attention givers. Yet the most attentive semiotician is hopeless if the sign is read yet misinterpreted. Our quest is to be so filled with the Spirit of God, and to be wearing interpretive Jesus goggles, that we not only notice, but are able to interpret and respond.
One of the earliest admonitions in life is this: “Pay attention.” One of the hardest things in the world to do is this: “Pay attention.” Nobody attends to attention. People teach us how to think, but not how to pay attention. But paying attention changes your brain, your being, your future. According to some scholars, the root lig in the word religion means “to pay attention.” If so, from its very definition, religion helps us learn to pay attention to people and to life.
Our poets and our artists have understood this better than our theologians. Poet John Ciardi defined human identity in precisely these terms: “We are what we do with our attention.”64 I call Mary Oliver the twentieth century Thoreau. Oliver says, “This is the first, wildest, and wisest thing I know, that the so l exists, and that it is built entirely out of attentiveness.” 65 In a poem Oliver says, “I don’t know exactly what a prayer is. / I do know how to pay attention.”66 When poet Annie Dillard was asked by Life magazine “What is the meaning of life?” her response was very simple: “Pay attention so that creation need not play to an empty house.”67 “[God] asks nothing but attention,” wrote poet William Butler Yeats.68 Mexican novelist Carlos Fuentes calls “extreme attention” the number-one “creative faculty.”69 In fact, Fuentes defines love as “attention. Paying attention to the other person. Opening oneself to attention.”70 “To understand something,” Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti has written, “you have to pay attention, you have to love, and when you love something, the very nature of love is discipline.”71
Prayer is properly not petition,
but simply an attention to God which is a form of love.72
Prayer is where the Christian tradition attends most often to paying attention. Sixteenth-century Spanish mystic/poet St. John of the Cross said that the heart of prayer is giving “loving attention to God” so that even “when the spiritual person cannot meditate, let him learn to be still in God, fixing his loving attention upon Him.”73 Iris Murdoch, an Irish novelist and philosopher, argued in a quote so rich it needs to be cited twice, “Prayer is properly not petition, but simply an attention to God which is a form of love.”74 In her argument that prayer needs to become less a matter of what we say and more a matter of what we hear, the French mystic and philosopher Simone Weil liked to say that “prayer is paying attention.”75 Prayer is not getting God to pay attention, but learning to pay attention ourselves to what God is doing. Semiotic praying is listening, listening to God speaking to us now.
I would want to argue with Murdoch and Weil somewhat and say that prayer is what happens when you pay attention fully, when you are at full attention, and your attention always gets God’s attention. Paying attention is a form of surrender. We are always surrendered and surrendering to something, but most of us live in the delusion we are in control. Surrender is a willingness to be open to possibilities we cannot imagine. Control suggests that if we can’t imagine it, it cannot be, and we set about to ensure it.
British novelist and Christian essayist Dorothy L. Sayers in a letter written during World War II expressed her conviction that “we have rather lost sight of the idea that Christianity is supposed to be an interpretation of the universe.”76 The church has done itself a disservice, she argued, by presenting Christianity not as a way of seeing all things but as one competing ideology among many. “Instead of leading us to see God in new and surprising places, it too often has led us to confine God inside our place.”77
There are a few in the theological world who have understood the importance of paying attention. “If I gave my attention to your handiwork, I should become your handiwork,” wrote the English theologian and biblical scholar Austin Farrer, echoing the prophetic vision of William Blake, who believed you become what you behold.78 Of anyone alive, however, British sociologist and theologian David Martin has cried the loudest and made the strongest case for the spiritual life being one of sign language. In words that led directly to the writing of this book, “I suggest we look at Christian faith as a code book for picking up signals of transcendence, and the question is how we are to pick up those signals and interpret the code?”79
But examples like these from the Christian world are exceptions that prove the rule. By and large, the Christian community has taken little notice of what it means to “take notice” and “pay heed.”
Not so for the advertising world, which has made paying attention a science. What is public relations but the business of getting noticed. Umberto Eco defines semiotics in this way: “Semiotics is in principle the
discipline studying everything that can be used in order to lie.”80
Tell someone that they can read the signs of the stock market and in that way become rich, and people will do it in a New York minute. Tell someone that they can read the signs of the Spirit and become spiritually rich, and they yawn and walk away. We are more prone to read signs of someone’s economic and social status than to read signs of the divine at play in people’s lives. We have become experts at reading surface appearances and wonder why the number of what appear to be divine disappearances increases. You cannot serve two Semeia.
But now ask the beasts, and let them teach you;
And the birds of the heavens, and let them tell you.
Or speak to the earth, and let it teach you;
And let the fish of the sea declare to you.
Who among all these does not know
That the hand of the Lord has done this,
In whose hand is the life of every living thing,
And the breath of all mankind?
—Job 12:7–10 NASB
We live in an attention-deficit culture more adept at gaining attention than at paying attention, furiously beating bushes that advance our interests while not paying attention to burning bushes that showcase God’s activities.
Joseph Nye Jr. of Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government names the “paradox of plenty” as one of the characteristic features of postmodern culture. In his words, “A plenitude of information leads to a poverty of attention.… Those who can distinguish valuable signals from white noise gain power. Editors, filters, and cue givers become more in demand, and this is a source of power for those who can tell us where to focus our attention.” 81 If the future lies with those who can help people “focus attention” and “decode secrets,”82 then the greatest days for evangelism lie in the future. In a world where everyone suffers from attention-deficit disorder, evangelists are people with “Attention Surplus Disorder.”83
Whether attention is the highest goal of education, as some have argued,84 is another conversation. But paying attention is the highest form of opening to life and to God. Unarguably the greatest gift you can give another is your attention, partly because it gets us away from our attentiongetting “myness”85 and places us in a larger attention-giving “youness” and “thereness.” To pay attention means you are no longer the center of attention. Attention givers treat signs as subjects of multisensory study. Attention getters objectify themselves as the ultimate sign.
The greatest gift we can give God is our passionate attention, which as we have seen, is but another name for prayer. God pervades the world through the Spirit, but for most of us we live in a world without regard. The writer of Hebrews even goes so far as to suggest that the key to staying faithful and on track with the Spirit is our attentiveness. “Pay more careful attention … to what we have heard, so that we do not drift away.”86 “Drift away” is a nautical phrase that beautifully conveys how easy it is for us to stray and go adrift without the focusing of attentiveness.
Our inattentiveness to the world contrasts so sharply to Jesus’ attentiveness to all of creation. Jesus was a “dawn collector”87 who found God’s Spirit in all things, in all aspects of the natural world, both animate
(birds, animals, flowers, seeds) and inanimate (pots, coins), yet showed how we can experience God’s Spirit in ways that are beyond and “beneath language.”88
The moment one gives close attention to anything, even
a blade of grass, it becomes a mysterious, awesome,
indescribably magnificent world in itself.89
Psalm 19 may very well be the greatest song in the Psalter and one of the most magnificent poems in all of literature. We have no evidence of Jesus ever citing it, but both the apostle Paul and John use it to reference Jesus and his mission.90 We shall return to this profound passage and its early elaboration of the connection between voice and vision, or what I call a “sound theology.” But for now let’s pay attention to its declaration of God’s universal disclosure:
The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day to day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.91
The world is not God, of course, but the incarnation goes all the way down, and the Spirit indwells all that exists. Nothing is without a witness to the divine; everything that exists praises the Creator. If
Christians are not the best at giving voice through art, poetry, and music to these unspoken voices, then something is wrong. We are living ADD lives.
Poet/critic Paul Mariani says it is our lack of imagination that has closed us to an awareness of God in the world.
If the incarnation has indeed occurred, as I believe it has, then the evidence of that central act in human history—when the creator took on our limitations with our bones and flesh—should have consequences that are reverberating down to our own moment—evidence of God’s immanent presence ought to be capable of breaking in on us each day the way air and light and sound do if only we know of what to look and listen for.92
This is part of our humanness: Homo sapiens are literally human knowers. And what are we to “know”? Know God, know each other, and know life. Since the days of cave dwellers, people have buried their
dead with what they would need in the afterlife. We have always known instinctively that there is more. Enter into a relationship with a poem, a painting, a musical composition, a sunrise, a snowflake, a flower—know skunk cabbages in January, crocuses in February, cymbidiums in March, harebells in April, poppies in May, irises in June, cowslips in July, pansies in August, marigolds in September, toadlilies in October, mums in November, dahlias in December. God’s creation is a revelation of divine presence. This is the genius of Christian theology: It radically reconfigures the human conception of the sacred. Nothing is inherently “profane.” It may be profaned by sin; but it is inherently an arena of divine activity and spiritual insight. The locus and focus of biblical theology is the world, not the heavens.
What is the grass?
I guess it is the handkerchief of the Lord,
A scented gift and remembrance designedly dropt,
Bearing the owner’s name someway in the corners,
that we may see and remark, and say Whose?93
—Walt Whitman (1855)
Jesus expressed an earthy, semiotic theology by materializing his message through various media, including images, stories, actions (stilled storms, healed limbs), and objects like spit, fig trees, bursting baskets, etc. He was a master semiotician. You might even say that Jesus’ ministry was more a semiotics ministry than a preaching, teaching, or healing ministry. Instead of taking stands, Jesus took hikes during which he performed signs: like the coin with Caesar’s image stamped on it, or the overturned money
changers’ tables, or the water-into-wine at small-town Cana of Galilee. Significantly, Jesus’ “first sign” interceded not to sober up the party, but to make it more festive with 600 to 900 bonus bottles of vintage wine. Jesus’ public entry into Jerusalem was a masterful use of signs: a donkey, not a dressed-up horse, as you would expect of a king. The ultimate sign that reveals Jesus as the life-giving Sign? The raising of Lazarus.94
Jesus’ first postresurrection sermon is a sign. Jews raised their right hand to greet one another. The left hand was the dirty hand, the right the clean hand. When raised as a gesture of greeting, it showed that one was not carrying a weapon. Jesus greets his disciples with his right hand. To be sure, he has to walk through walls to get to them. But when he does, he raises his hands and reveals his real weapons: his wounds.
Jesus warns not to become dependent on these signs and rebukes those who get addicted to the signs.95 If you followed Jesus because of the signs he performed, that wasn’t all bad. But you had to move to something deeper. The ultimate sign was not a performing Messiah, but a participating people in the Messiah’s death and resurrection.96 The only sign that matters is a participation in the cross and resurrection. And those who follow Jesus without signs are more “blessed” than those who need the signs.97 Fix our eyes on God, the starter and finisher of our faith.98
“What do you mean?” they asked composer Robert Schumann. “I mean this,” he answered and played the piece again. “What do you mean?” they asked Jesus. “I mean this,” he replied; and he took the bread, gave thanks, broke it into fragments, and shared those broken pieces with his disciples. And that piece, and those broken pieces, have been shared in every conceivable setting and played in every known language ever since.
Faith is the gift of reading the signs of the presence of God. The point of reading signs is not the signs themselves, but the Signifier, Jesus the Christ. Jesus is not some floating signifier at the whim of our advertising campaigns or some magnetic personality. Jesus is the ultimate Sign (Semeion—note the
singular)99 of God. The church is a sign of the revelation that Christ is and was. Or as Karl Barth puts it, “The church exists … to set up in the world a new sign which is radically dissimilar to the world’s own manner and which contradicts it in a way that is full of promise.”100 That is why the church will always be a sign that will be opposed.101 But as with all good signs, the church points away from itself and toward the triune God. Its message is not “Come to church” but “Come to Christ.”102
Nudge evangelism, or spreading the evangelion (“good news”), is announcing the good sign. I like how Bill Hull puts it: “If I am driving from Seattle to Los Angeles and see a sign that reads, ‘Los Angeles, 400 miles,’ I don’t pull over and sit under the sign. The sign points me to my goal. Signs of God’s manifest presence point me to Christ.”103
Walk with thy fellow-creatures: note the hush
And whispers amongst them. There’s not a spring,
Or leafe but hath his morning hymn. Each bush
And oak knows I am. Canst thou not sing?
Birds, beasts, all things
Adore him in their kinds.
Thus all is hurl’d
In sacred hymnes and order, the great chime
And symphony of nature.104
God posts all sorts of billboards and signposts on life’s highway. Human circumstances have divine meaning. This book is designed to help you pay attention to the variety of signs and signals God gives us about what God’s up to and what’s up ahead.
The concept of paying attention is related to the ancient notion of respect, which comes from the Latin respicere, meaning “take account” or “pay attention.” Key to this understanding of respect, however, is a form of observing that implies honoring. In the Latin meaning of respect, by paying attention, you value and honor what you are observing. When we don’t pay attention to what God is doing, we dishonor and devalue him. In everything we do, whether it be reading the Word, hiking in the woods, watching a movie, viewing a painting, we respect God when we ask ourselves this question: “What is God’s invitation here?” By not paying attention to life, we pay God no respect.
When we see all things in God, and refer all things to Him, we
read in common matters superior expressions of meaning.105
—Philosopher William James
That makes Christian semiotics more than awareness or attentiveness, however. That’s Zen semiotics. Christian semiotics enters into the connections between signs and people and God. In other words,
Christian semiotics is attention that leads to intention, attention that leads to transformation and remembrance. An attention that leads to remembrance is called a sacrament. The most sacred signs are called sacraments, and sacraments work through what they say; they impact what they symbolize. Sacraments are celebrations of our attentiveness and sign reading.106 The more attentive you are, the more you will recover as well as discover. The more attentive you are, the more you see Christ in every person and the sacramental nature of all of life.
The practice of evangelism is, in many ways, life itself—being a true human being. It is to pay attention to life and to God. Evangelism is sensational: helping people hear, see, taste, smell, and touch the creativity of God in their lives and the necessity of their response to God’s initiatives. Nudge evangelism is the decipherment of the workings of the Spirit in people’s lives and nudging them in those directions. Evangelism is bringing people into contact with Jesus, who is already there.
In Grandfather’s mind, there could be no separation between
awareness and tracking for they were one in the same thing.107
—Tom Brown Jr., Grandfather (1993)
One of the best-loved stories about Emily Dickinson, perhaps everyone’s favorite nineteenth-century poet, is the time her father rushed to ring the fire bell during dinnertime. The people of the village came running out of their homes, hugging napkins and silverware. “Where’s the fire?” everyone wanted to know.
Emily Dickinson’s father announced there was no fire. Just a beautiful sunset he didn’t want anyone to miss. Hence he rang the bell before it was too late and the sun went down.
The villagers returned to their dining tables, shaking their heads at “that crazy Dickinson man.”108 But should we all not be ringing bells at the beauty of creation? When’s the last time you rang the bell for burning bushes?
The church used to ring bells to call the community together and to announce the beauty of worship about to take place. Now we’re in the bells and whistles business. I shall never forget the first time I attended a Roman Catholic Mass and heard the sanctus bell ring during the “Holy, Holy, Holy” and the sacring bell rung three times at the elevation of the host. I came home and asked my mother what all that bell ringing was about.
She said, “It’s to tell you ‘Christ is alive,’ alive in the bread and wine.”
“But why a bell?” I persisted. Her reason for the bell scared me at the same time it sparked my imagination. As a liturgical explanation it turned out not to be accurate, but it turned me into a lifelong bell ringer. In olden times, she explained, they used to bury people with strings attached to bells above ground, so that if perchance they buried you alive, you could ring the bell when you woke up. When people above ground heard the bell ringing, they would know “He’s alive!” and immediately dig you out. My mother claimed that her grandmother knew someone who had been “saved by the bell.”
Evangelists are bell ringers. We spend our lives digging people out of self-dug graves and ringing bells that say, “Christ is alive; Jesus is real; God’s Spirit is active in your life.” To people buried alive, trapped in tombs and wrapped in grave cloths, we speak Jesus’ words to Lazarus: “Come out.” Even those who are walking zombies can learn to pay attention to God’s presence and movement. An old Methodist hymn says, “I can hear my Savior calling,” and our response is, “Where He leads me I will follow, I’ll go with Him, with Him all the way.”
I have freed a thousand slaves, but I could have freed a
thousand more if they knew they were slaves.109
—Underground railroader Harriet Tubman
At our home on Orcas Island, we like to feed the birds and hummers. This also attracts other less desirable wildlife like squirrels, ferrets, otters, and mice. But you can’t have one without the other. We also like to leave our doors to the deck open, which means that more than a couple of times a summer a bird or hummer will get trapped inside the house.
When this happens, the whole family mobilizes into action, for we know that if we don’t “help” it escape, it will die inside the house, and everyone knows this from personal discoveries of shriveled-up corpses found months later in the most unlikely of places. As soon as the bird or hummer sees one of us approach it, it will fly as fast as it can in the opposite direction, often smashing against a window or upending one of the colorful tumblers that attracted it inside in the first place. So another family member darts in that direction, nudging it from its place of hiding, only to have it fly even harder and faster to another part of the room, refusing to believe that it can’t escape on its own. But wherever it flees, one of us will be there to nudge it toward the open door.
It is not usually until the poor little bird is so exhausted from trying to escape and its body is so crushed and beaten from its fear of our nudges that it can be guided to freedom or cupped in our hands and released. For some birds liberation takes only a few nudges. For other birds more self-reliant or stubborn, it may take an hour and dozens of nudges.
Never once has one of these freed creatures U-turned in flight and bounded back to say thanks. But the Sweet family always feels pride and joy when we work together to nudge a trapped and doomed bird finally toward life and food. Without our lifting that creature in our arms through prodding and nudging and poking and holding, it would have remained trapped and helpless, its fears sentencing itself to death.
Jesus said that our hearts follow whatever we “treasure” or pay attention to.110 In fact, “Pay attention” may have been Jesus’ signature phrase. Every speaker has pet phrases that they use over and over again. Sometimes these phrases are fillers, giving the speaker time to organize what comes next; sometimes these phrases are feeders, pumping new energy and punctuation into the speech; sometimes they become verbal tics … you know? … you know what I mean?
Paul’s signature phrase was “Now!” Jesus’ signature phrase was something that no one really knows how to translate. The King James Version renders it “Verily, verily, I say unto thee!” The NIV translates it “I tell you the truth.” I really like that, because wherever Jesus went, there was truth. We cannot always give “the whole truth,” and sometimes “nothing but the truth” is unkind, but we can always tell “the truth.” Some contend that the most authentic twenty-first-century equivalent would be “Listen up!” I argue that today’s version would be this: “Pay attention.”
I have circled in my Bible every time Jesus says this phrase in the Gospels, and virtually every page is strewn with circles, sometimes five or six. It’s almost as if Jesus couldn’t tell a story or start a saying without reminding his hearers: “Pay attention.”
You are what you pay attention to. No attention, no life. Everything comes to life when you pay attention to it. In a world of inattentiveness, a world that goes largely unregarded, it is the special mission given to humans to bring the world to life. How do we save the world? How do we keep the
world alive? Through loving attention … by “tending and tilling,” naming and cherishing the tiniest part of what God has created.
I know that nothing has ever been real
Without my beholding it.
All becoming has needed me.
My looking ripens things
And they come toward me, to meet and be met.111
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