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Gravitas and joy

This post was originally the script of an episode of my short-lived podcast called
Not Your Ordinary Joe

Post-election advice

I read a story this week by the Rev. Mark Feldmeir, a colleague in Colorado who is trying to help us move on after the election. He offers some advice about how to restore our relationships that may have been damaged during this seemingly never-ending season of campaigning. We want to be able to visit one another for the holidays and be comfortable. Right? 

His first piece of advice is, and I quote, “Resist turning penultimate matters into ultimate concerns” (I’ve put a link to the article on the notes page at 

What I hear him saying is that we may need to take a step back and regain a better perspective. To remind ourselves about that which is most important and to keep other items, even that which is almost as important, in a lesser status in our minds. 

As for advice following election day and heading into the holidays with family and friends, Feldmeir encourages us to remember how precious our relationships are, and not to sacrifice them at the altar of national politics. 

Some things, like family members and friends with whom we share our lives, are a gift, and we should recognize them as such. Sure, we may disagree about very, very important things, but people are more than who they voted for. 

Again, it’s not that the politics are unimportant, they are extremely important. They are just of lesser importance than the people in our lives whom we love and who love us. We should be able to disagree deeply, and remain in relationship.

The Boss 

Doing that, however, takes a level of maturity. Take it from the Boss. 

As many of you probably know, Bruce Springsteen has a new album and companion movie out called Letter to You. Both are amazing by the way—which is the opinion you would expect from one who once preached a sermon called “My Hometown” as part of a sermon series called, “Growin’ Up.” In support of the album and Apple TV+ movie, the Boss has been making the rounds. 

What’s clear in these interviews is that Bruce enjoys his role as an elder statesman of rock & roll. His music fandom is on display in the song, “The Power of Prayer,” and in interviews like the one he did on Conan OBrien Needs a Friend where he waxed nostalgic about his first band The Castilles and talked about how he once bought a Cadillac and had it custom painted because of a lyric in a Chuck Berry song. In “Nadine” Berry sings about “walkin’ toward a coffee-colored Cadillac.” So Bruce painted his Caddy brown. 

Early in the movie that accompanies Letter to You, the Boss says, “The E Street Band is not a job. It is a vocation, a calling. It is both one of the most important things in your life and, of course, it’s only rock and roll.”

Conan asked Bruce about these seemingly contradictory thoughts, and I love his answer. 

“What is essential as you become an adult, is you have to refine the ability to hold two contradictory ideas in your mind at the same time without it driving you crazy. That is the mark of adulthood.”

Let’s pause and take a look at that for a second. 

Somehow Bruce holds this craft he loves and works so hard to be great at — he’s dedicated his life to it for decades, and yet he holds onto with with a lightness, joy, and even humor. That is simply remarkable. He can pour his life out on stage for nearly 4 hours, holding what he calls this “conversation” with his audience, and understand that on some level it’s just entertainment.

Later in the movie, as he’s introducing a song called “The Power of Prayer,” Springsteen expresses the implicit value he feels in a song. He says, “We all have our own ways of praying. I restricted my prayers to 3 minutes and a 45 rpm record. The power of pure pop, the beautiful simplicity of melody, a complete character study in a matter of minutes. Life in 180 seconds or less. If you get it right it has the power of prayer.” 

Life in 180 seconds or less, with the weight and power of prayer. And yet, as the Rolling Stones taught us, “It’s only rock and roll.” 

I want that. I want to take life, my role, my calling with absolute seriousness, yet move through the world with lightness. I want to reserve my best efforts, my hardest work for that which is of ultimate importance, and yet have a balance in my life that will not allow the seriousness to drag myself and everyone around me down.

Dalai Lama and Bishop Tutu

Rob Bell tells this amazing story of the time he met the Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu for the first time. He’d been invited to participate in a panel with these two — would you say ‘heroes’ — two men whose spirituality he admired. They think about the deepest parts of our lives and have faced enormous difficulties — the Dalai Lama living in exile and Bishop Tutu through apartheid and has been a leader in the healing of South Africa. 

These two men have a gravitas, a weight of seriousness, a depth of spirituality in their lives. 

Off to the side stood Rob Bell, simply observing as the two men greeted one another. It was no surprise when they embraced, but what happened next was unexpected. They began tickling one another. The Dalai Lama and Bishop Desmond Tutu engaged in a brief tickle fight. There was a playfulness between them, a lightness with which they lived their lives. 

My guess is that in the midst of all of the seriousness in their lives, in the midst of the gravity of the conference they were preparing for, in the midst of all of the issues in the world that they could treat with ultimate importance, they instead chose to focus in that moment on the gift they were to one another, the gift of being in the same room, the gift of the present moment… and they each chose to be fully present for that.  

That. I want that. 

Michelle Obama

One more story. 

Toward the end of the election season, I was slowly reading Michelle Obama’s Becoming — a wonderful book I enjoyed from cover to cover. It was a wonderful escape when it all seemed too much. A respite, a counter-narrative to what I was seeing on the news each day. Remember the first debate — the one with all the yelling and interruptions? I missed most of it because I decided to spend that 90 minutes reading Becoming, and I continue to stand by that decision. 

Anyway, in the book, she tells of the early days of her dating relationship with Barack Obama. There were on one of those dates that I remember early on when my wife and I were dating, where you spend most of the day together. On that day, Barack had agreed to lead a training as a favor of an old community organizer colleague. In the basement of a church, as Barack Obama was trying to help a group of people in the neighborhood advocate for themselves, Michelle Robinson caught her future husband and our future president’s vision for the world. She says she was beginning to understand what drove and motivated him (114-118). 

Much later in the book — nearly 300 pages later — she returns to that story as the moment things began to change for her. 

This young detail-oriented woman who had a plan for her life that included a stable, good-paying job as a lawyer, a nice car, and a warm, welcoming comfortable home, caught a glimpse of something else she might be able to with her life. She points back to that moment as the beginning of seeing what it might mean to dedicate her life to making the world a better place, to participate in the building of a better reality. “Or as Barack had put it that night,” she writes, “you may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be” (395).

You may live in the world as it is, but you can still work to create the world as it should be. 


I read those words and because of the lenses through which I view the world, I heard echoes of all kinds of biblical imagery. 

Jesus prayed, in the King James words with which we are most familiar, “Thy kingdom come, Thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.” We cal that the Lord’s prayer. 

When the religious leaders asked Jesus when the Kingdom of God would come, he replied, “God’s kingdom isn’t coming with signs that are easily noticed. Nor will people say, ‘Look, here it is!’ or ‘There it is!’ Don’t you see? God’s kingdom is already among you” — Luke 17:20b-21.

It’s here and it’s coming? 

It made me think of all the stories in the gospels where Jesus is at a table, attending a celebration, telling stories about banquets. Jesus carried this lightness with him. 

I know you might not see that. We often see and portray Jesus as this always serious character who sort of floated just a bit off the ground through the streets of Galilee, but he also told a story about having a plank in your eye, drew in the dirt when asked whether a woman “caught in adultery” should be stoned, and was accused of not being “serious” enough by the serious, religious people. 

Apparently, his demeanor was such an issue that he has to respond to accusations of eating with sinners and being a glutton and one of my favorite King James Bible words, a winebibber — a heavy drinker. 

I don’t think there are many of us listening to this who would argue with the fact that what Jesus was doing with his life was of the utmost importance. 

And yet, he told stories about wedding banquets and throwing a party after finding a lost coin. He taught crowds and took the time to touch a leper who asked for his help. He publicly argued with the religious leaders and sat at tables with them for a meal.

There is a gravitas to what he’s doing, and yet he holds it with a lightness, a joy, a peace. 

I want that. 

The challenge

So here’s the challenge I’m taking up, and I invite you to join me. 

Let’s work to find that balance. 

To not allow penultimate concerns to replace ultimate concerns in our lives. 

To work our butts off to our work, our calling with all the seriousness it deserves, yet remember, as the Boss tells us, “It’s only rock & roll.” 

To be fully present with others — maybe you don’t have to break into a tickle fight — but can you look at that person in your life as a great gift that you choose to be fully present to in that moment. 

To live in the world as it is — with all of its messiness, wrongheadedness, and evil — and choose to partner with God in Jesus Christ to participate in creating, transforming the world into what it should be. 

May we know that what we are doing matters, and yet be able to go to dinner with the one with whom we disagree. 

That. That’s what I want. 

And I believe it’s what Jesus wants for me, and for you. 

In John 15, Jesus says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy will be in you and your joy will be complete.”

That is the mark of spiritual adulthood. 

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