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Very Good Advice

I love advice columns. I can’t tell you exactly why, but I think it has something to do with living vicariously through other people’s messy drama. I don’t want any drama of my own, and I don’t want anyone I know and love to be struggling, but it sure is interesting to hear the pickles other people get into.

Here are a few recent questions from Slate’s “Dear Prudence” column: a future stepmother who doesn’t love her future stepchildren like she loves other children in her family, a spouse who can’t manage putting dirty dishes and food trash away, dealing with a difficult parent at a brother’s wedding, a woman who refuses to be the chauffer for her sister-in-law who won’t get her driver’s license, and how to handle catching a teenager sneaking beer. Very rarely does the actual advice in advice columns apply to my own life, but I still love to read it. It’s refreshing to read someone advising a person to set a healthy boundary, to act professionally, to forgive, to let go, to have a hard conversation, to do the hard thing.

My favorite advice columnist has been Cheryl Strayed who wrote “Dear Sugar” for the online magazine “The Rumpus.” Dear Sugar was famous for being tough but deeply empathetic towards those who sent questions. Here’s a snippet of one of my favorites. Dear Sugar is writing to a man who is reluctant to tell the woman he is dating that he loves her because he is afraid of the responsibilities that love implies. Sugar writes,

Dear Johnny,

The last word my mother ever said to me was love. She was so sick and weak and out of her head she couldn’t muster the “I” or the “you,” but it didn’t matter. That puny word has the power to stand on its own…My mother’s last word to me clanks inside me like an iron bell that someone beats at dinnertime: love, love, love, love, love.

You aren’t afraid of love, sweet pea. You’re afraid of all the junk you’ve yoked to love. And you’ve convinced yourself that withholding one tiny word from the woman you think you love will shield you from that junk. But it won’t. We are obligated to the people we care about and who we allow to care about us, whether we say we love them or not. Our main obligation is to be forthright—to elucidate the nature of our affection when such elucidation would be meaningful or clarifying.

Do it. Doing so will free your relationship from the tense tangle that withholding weaves. Do you realize that your refusal to utter the word love to your lover has created a force field all its own? Withholding distorts reality. It makes the people who do the withholding ugly and small-hearted. It makes the people from whom things are withheld crazy and desperate and incapable of knowing what they actually feel.

So release yourself from that. Don’t be strategic or coy. Strategic and coy are for [jerks]. Be brave. Be authentic. Practice saying the word love to the people you love so when it matters the most to say it, you will. We’re all going to die, Johnny. Hit the iron bell like it’s dinnertime. Yours, Sugar (Read the full, wonderful letter here.)

It’s excellent advice. And it’s what I was reminded of this week as I studied Paul’s words to the Roman church. It might come across a bit like Paul’s advice column to Christians who are really attempting to live what they purport to believe. And even now, I think this passage offers to each of us an answer to whatever kinds of questions we may seek answers to.

This passage is bookended with comments on good and evil. It opens with “Let love be genuine.” Perhaps a better translation would be “Let love be unpretentious.” The Greek word has to do with not wearing a mask, not being an actor. Love for real, not to put forth a certain image or public persona. Paul continues, “hate what is evil, hold fast to what is good.” The closing verses of this section read “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” The implication is that the advice that falls between those brackets will help us know how to hold fast to what is good, and how to use that good to overcome evil. There are 29 imperatives in this section- 29 directions, 29 pieces of advice. In other words, do this to love genuinely, unpretentiously. Here is how we love well and love good.

To our knowledge, Paul’s letter to the Roman church was not sent in response to questions seeking advice, but we can pretend for just a moment. Imagine someone wrote this: “Dear Paul, It is so great to me that our little church is growing, but there are some parts of having these new people in our community that get on my nerves. Some of these people are really nice, but I’m not sure what the rules are here. There are a few people who have some really hard situations going on in their lives, and one guy is really needy. Am I supposed to like all of these people? Am I supposed to care about all of these people? I’d really prefer to just keep to myself, you know? I try to be a nice guy, but this is really asking a lot of me. Thanks.”

And Paul’s response is right there in verses 10-12, where he talks about how to live in community with those around you. Paul’s response- “love one another with mutual affection; outdo one another in showing honor. Do not lag in zeal, be ardent in spirit, serve the Lord. Rejoice in hope, be patient in suffering, persevere in prayer.” We live in a world that encourages us to “play it cool,” take care of yourself, don’t show your hand too much, don’t go out of your way. But Paul’s advice is to be earnest in our love and affection for one another. Show up in your relationships, treat one another with the utmost respect. Risk being uncool. Serve God by serving others. And when the people in your circle are struggling- be hopeful on their behalf, be patient, pray for one another.

Or maybe Paul got a letter like this- "Paul, there are a lot of churches now, and some of them are quite different from ours. I’m not sure how we’re supposed to interact with other churches. Are we automatically friends just because we believe Jesus is the Messiah? I know you’ve collected money to be sent to the church in Jerusalem, but why do we need to be concerned with them? When another Christian comes through Rome, what is our responsibility? I think we should just be able to do our own thing, you know? Take care of our own people? Any advice you have here would be much appreciated."

And Paul’s reply- "Contribute to the needs of the saints; extend hospitality to strangers. Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. Yes, you should help others when you can. You should care about the work and ministry of other churches and the wellbeing of other believers. Do what you can to help, simply because it is the right thing to do. But even beyond sharing money or offering hospitality, practice empathy. Joy grows when it is shared; burdens become lighter when they are shared. It is right and good to extend yourselves to care for the “Big C” Church."

Perhaps someone wrote a letter like this one: “Dear Paul, I am so angry and frustrated. I have been wronged by someone, and all I can think about is how to get the justice I deserve. I think about it all the time. I play out arguments in my head. I sometimes even make plans to humiliate this person. But… this is the wrong attitude, right?”

Paul’s reply: "Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.’ No, ‘if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.’ You do not need to do anything to balance the scales; they will get balanced on their own. You are not responsible for anything other than living with integrity, honor, and nobility. When I say “burning coals” I don’t mean that you are somehow punishing them. I mean that your kindnesses will reveal their wrongdoing. Their faces may burn with shame when they realize how you have been loving anyway. Be loving anyway. And by the way, your love is not genuine if you are waiting for the hammer to fall on someone else. So maybe start there. But your thirst for revenge is only hurting you."

And one last request for advice- “Dear Paul, why are people so annoying? So mean? So hateful? So selfish? I just can’t anymore. It’s the small things like people stealing parking places and complaining about dumb things and the big things like the wealth gap and genocide. I don’t know how to be in a world like this. I’m exhausted and scared and frustrated. Can you give me a pep talk maybe?”

Paul writes back, “A pep talk? Probably not. I wish I could. But here’s what I’ve got instead. Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Those sound like naïve, fluffy, happy little words, but they really aren’t. Really what I am telling you is that it’s up to you to create peace and harmony in the world. By all means, lament what is broken, and also get to work fixing it. When was the last time you had an actual conversation with one of these people? When was the last time you tried to understand someone who isn’t like you?

Let humility lead you. Don’t make the mistake of believing you’re always right. The haughty cannot be peacemakers. Listen to the voices of those who are on the outside, those who are left out and rejected, They’ll help you see the path forward to peace. It won’t be easy or perfect, but God will guide you. You can decide to make peace in the world.

I wonder, if you had a question for an advice columnist, what might it be? Perhaps you are struggling with getting along with someone. Maybe you’re stressed out and anxious about all of the pain, violence, and suffering in the world. Maybe you don’t know if you have the capacity to care about all of the things that are demanding your attention. Maybe you’re trying to figure out what God is calling you to in this season. I don’t know your situation, but I know where you can find some good advice!

Friends, Paul’s words to us here are inviting us to live into what we believe in real and meaningful ways- ways that make the world better, ways that honor one another, ways that will transform us into “Little Christs” as Martin Luther called it. This chapter begins with these words, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds, so that you may discern what is the will of God—what is good and acceptable and perfect.” May we be transformed and may our love be genuine. Amen.

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