“Let’s Call the Whole Thing Off” is a song written by George and Ira Gershwin for the 1937 film Shall We Dance. It was introduced by Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers as part of a celebrated dance duet on roller skates. If it’s been 81 years since you’ve seen the film or a while since you’ve heard a remake of that famous song, a little refresher might bring back to your mind the most famous part of the tune that debates the pronunciation of particular words: “You like po-tay-toes and I like po-tah-toes, you like to-may-toes and I like to-mah-toes. Po-tay-toes, po-tah-toes, to-may-toes, to-mah-toes, let’s call the whole thing off.” It is funny to hear the different ways we pronounce certain words, isn’t it? We’re mesmerized by accents and dialects and southern drawls and the way we say certain words as shaped by the places we were raised. There is also the possibility that we just never quite grasped the proper pronunciation I suppose. I’ve always tried to refrain from correcting my children’s pronunciation of words if I can at all help myself. When my six-year-old said last week, “Very urnsternsting!” instead of “Very interesting” after discovering a new idea, I thought “Very Urnsternsting indeed.” I still enjoy a good plate of puhsketti every now and then don’t you? To-may-toe/To-mah-toe. Po-tay-toe/Po-tah-toe. And… if you are a Jeopardy fan, you might add to that song this week, “You say, “Gangster” and I say, “Gangsta.”
Is a gangsta the same as a gangster? For Nick Spicher, a museum educator from Everett, Washington, it’s no minor matter of dialect. His pronunciation cost him a hefty sum on his Jeopardy appearance that aired on New Year’s Day. The category was “Music and literature before and after,” requiring contestants to link two separate titles by a common word. The clue read: “A song by Coolio from ‘Dangerous Minds’ goes back in time to become a 1667 John Milton classic.” “What is Gangster’s Paradise Lost,” Spicher answered. “Yes,” Alex Trebek responded. It wasn’t long, however, before the host delivered the bad news.
“Our judges have re-evaluated one of your responses a few moments ago, Nick. You said ‘gangster’s’ instead of ‘gangsta’s’ on that song by Coolio, so we take $3,200 away from you.” Indeed, the chart-topping 1995 song is titled “Gangsta’s Paradise,” not “Gangster’s Paradise.” Nick Spicher dropped from first place with $12,000 to second place with $8,800 after the gangster/gangsta debacle. While the response was initially accepted, Nick’s hard ‘r’ sound caught the ear of a member of the onstage team who immediately followed up with a quick accuracy check. He discovered that the Oxford English Dictionary defines gangster as “a member of a criminal gang, especially one involved in organized crime,” while it defines gangsta as “a member of an urban territorial gang.” This not only meant the title was wrong but the alternative meaning left Spicher’s response unacceptable. The song’s artist, Coolio, was contacted for comment of course to which the rapper said, “I probably would have given it to him.” Coolio did offer a linguistic lesson saying, “The E-R will always get you in trouble.”
The dispute had a major impact on the game in the moment but didn’t keep Nick Spicher from rallying back to victory. On Twitter, Spicher appeared to have a sense of humor about it. He said producers stopped taping “for what felt like an eternity” before an executive producer came on stage to explain the ruling to him. “That’s partly why I didn’t have much of a reaction on camera,” he said. “They had every right to call me out on it and I will be forever proud of the moment that Alex Trebek taught me how to say ‘gangsta.’” To-may-toe/To-mah-toe, Gangster/Gangsta – let’s call the whole thing off, shall we? Probably not the way Nick Spicher thought he would ring in the New Year though Coolio and the Dangerous Minds Soundtrack is grateful for the way it did. How about you? Did the New Year ring you into 2018 as you hoped? Some of you were at the Rose Bowl for a little football game on New Year’s Day which didn’t slide in Oklahoma’s favor. I spent the first few days of 2018 sick in bed – “let’s call the whole thing off” crossed my mind a few times. I was telling Carrie my final wishes: “Split my coaster collection between the kids. Give Kevin my 1997 “Love Always” album by K-Ci & JoJo.” Of course a few days later I realize I’m going to live and I say, “You didn’t give Kevin my CD did you?” (But Kev – now you know what’s coming your way some day. Take care of it). All jokes aside, this is the sort of thing we do this time of year. Some are grateful to see 2017 go while others hold on to the preciousness of the year fading fast, not quite ready to release it to the history books for fear of what might be left behind or forgotten in the process. Whatever the case, the New Year has come and we have some choices to make. How do we want our lives to be shaped in 2018?
I read an article this week called “30 highly successful people share their New Year’s resolutions for 2018.” These were famous CEO’s and entrepreneurs. The usual stuff made the list – more time with kids and family; healthier lifestyle; giving back to the community; cutting screen time in half. Some were more trendy like “Fail harder and faster” which of course is the idea that they are risking more to try new things. Deloitte US CEO Cathy Engelbert wants to schedule more time for SMORes – which sounds delicious but is simply an acronym she created to stand for ‘small moments of recovery’ in attempt to avoid burnout. We always seem to take this time of year to cut out some bad habits or add in some new ones. I’m all for the practice of goal-setting and prioritizing what really matters to us. I also know we feel great pressure to achieve and this can stress us out. I had a friend who posted some Facebook wisdom this week saying, “In a season of resolutions and self-imposed pressure to perform, don’t get so caught up in adding more to your plate that you neglect the person sitting across the table waiting to eat with you.” He then added, “Maybe your resolution shouldn’t be to do more things, but to do less things with more intentionality.” Perhaps.
Whatever your take on New Year’s Resolutions, it does seem prudent to be intentional about the ways in which our lives take shape. It is why we are launching our first series of the New Year today entitled, “The Shape of Our Lives.” For some reason, whenever I say it, I feel inclined to preface it with, “Like sand through an hour glass… this is the shape of our lives.” I’m really excited, not only about this series, but the grander direction of our year together as a people on a collective faith journey at HACC. This idea was birthed out of a fall retreat where our ministers took your prayer requests and opened them before God and asked the Holy Spirit to guide us to live into those prayers, those joys and concerns, together in faith. From that retreat came a constant sense of the word, “Identity.” And so we are going to take this year and consider our identity from a variety of angles – “Who am I in this skin?” (Who is this soul that is driving this body around)? “Who am I in Christ?” “Who am I in relation to my neighbor?” “Who am I in the world?” And so we’ll be hitting those themes in a variety of ways – starting with this series, “The Shape of our Lives.” Now – there are several groups of folks that will be studying a book with this same title starting even as early as this morning. I’d love for you to join one of those groups if you’re interested in diving deeper into this six-week series considering how our lives are being shaped all the time. If it is true that ‘formation happens’ then what might happen if we took a more active role in the ways our lives are being shaped instead of blindly being shaped by the whims of the culture around us?
My wife is always quick to remind me in seasons like this: “Make a plan!” She’s a great example of discipline to me in this way. As I printed out her training plan for the Boston Marathon this week I couldn’t help but think my plan to health seems much less ambitious. Marriage is good in this way, however, to keep us balanced and pushing one another to be our best. Coincidentally, someone recently told me that 90% of being married is just shouting “What?!!” from other rooms of the house. Anyway – making a plan for shaping our lives seems like an important thing for us to consider. Perhaps this begins by seeing how malleable we actually are.
The prophet Isaiah could have gotten in on this resolution business. His impressive art of poetic prophecy involves taking the stuff of our ordinary and often disappointing human experience and showing us how such is the very stuff that God uses to create and save and give hope. The book of Isaiah is a symphony of sorts – a fusion of simplicity and complexity that is, above all, thrusting us upward to see clearly God’s work of salvation. Eugene Peterson calls his work “The Salvation Symphony” as the name Isaiah literally means, “God Saves.” There are three major parts of the book of Isaiah. This is supported enough that scholars often refer to the three portions as “First, Second, and Third Isaiah” as way of delineation. The prominent themes repeated and developed follow this tri-fold pattern: first is judgment; second is comfort; third is hope. Our text for today falls into that third movement though each of the three themes can be felt and experienced.
That opening verse from the 64th Chapter says it all – “Tear open the heavens and come down here, O God.” Don’t you just want to cut through all of the process and the niceties sometimes? “God?!?! We need you. Have you seen what we’re doing to each other lately? Can you just cut the nonsense and rip open the heavens and set things straight?” Though this would simplify many a thing, this is not the way God typically engages the world. Isaiah goes on to confess – “Hey, God, I get it. I know why you’d be frustrated with us. Our sin is full. Our priorities are a mess. And we’re selfish.” BUT… And the but is always the place of grace. BUT… “You are our Father; we are the clay. You are our potter and we are the work of your hand.”
That’s it right there. That’s the battle of this morning. Are you willing to put your life on the potter’s wheel? Are you malleable enough to be transformed on purpose, with purpose, for purpose? I know we want it but we generally want it on our own terms. There was a pastor who was called to serve a church who had really been struggling. A parishioner so relieved and excited about new leadership said, “Pastor, we’re so glad you’re here. We’re losing members and don’t have any kids in the nursery and our building is dilapidated and church softball team stinks and our Bible studies are boring. We’re so glad you’re here to help us but whatever you do, don’t change anything!” This sounds ludicrous but is too often not far from the truth. Much of it may have to do with our mindset.
Do you have a fixed mindset or a growth mindset? A fixed mindset is impenetrable. “I’ve got it all figured out. I know all the answers. There is nothing left for me to learn – so don’t challenge my understanding in any way – whatsoever.” We can be this way out of fear or comfort or privilege or even personality. This mentality crucified our Savior. Whether the masses were aware or not, their lives were shaped by the culture, which included their religion, to a degree that they couldn’t even imagine (and found it unfaithful) to engage someone like Jesus who said, “There’s a more perfect way.” It is why Paul – who had to allow his fixed mindset to be cracked open enough to say, “Do not be conformed, do not let your lives be shaped by the things of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds.” Be open. If we can admit that formation happens – whether we are intentional about it or not – then let’s give intentionality a try. Let’s let our own hardness of mind, of heart, of soul be cracked open like Paul so that we might offer ourselves as clay on the Potter’s wheel. A growth mindset claims proudly “I’m a Disciple of Jesus.” The word disciple means what? Learner. We don’t learn when our soul becomes like a old, dried out clay pot. We’ve got to be malleable. That’s the only way Jesus was able to alter the direction of the world – it was with people who were not perfect by any means – but they were ultimately learners, willing to listen, learn, trust, and follow.
Now, I don’t offer this as a simple matter. We are all creatures of habit, inclined to the comfortable and known. It’s why my whole day is out of whack if I brush my teeth before I shave my face. Reverse that order and I might as well crawl back into bed and start over. And the truth is, we’ll not shape our lives perfectly each step of the way. I think of my compadres on our trip to Nicaragua last summer (talk to Kevin if you’re interested in going this year – dates are set and it will change your life). We had a chance to visit a local potter who gave everyone a shot at working the potter’s wheel. We made some funky pots because we weren’t experienced with the wheel. But the master stepped up there and in his hands – the pieces were shaped in amazing and marvelous ways. We’ve got a whole year ahead of us – could this be the year that we look back on next Christmas saying, “Wow. It really happened this year! I trusted Christ like never before and look what shape has come of my life.” That is our goal, after all, as Christians – which C.S. Lewis points out means simply “Little Christ’s.” Our goal is to be shaped into the likeness of Jesus. We are not to be Saviors ourselves nor can we earn favor with God by anything we do but if our character came close to matching that of Jesus this year, I have no doubt that your life, your workplace, our church, our community, would be an inspiring example of transformation.
It starts in this moment with a prayer. “God, give me a growth mindset. You are our Father; we are the clay, and you are our potter; we are all the work of your hand.” And what if we could be re-shaped into the likeness of Christ? What do you need to open within you to realize that possibility? What do you need to release? What do you need to soften? Who do you need to open yourself to that you’ve previously rejected as someone who couldn’t teach you anything? What if you cleaned the wheel – if the pottery collection of your soul could be set aside with a fresh piece of your soul put on the Potter’s wheel to be shaped anew? Where would you start? Might I suggest the words of Jesus? Get into the Gospels and listen most closely to the words of Jesus. We so often approach the Bible with our doctrines (engrained from our childhood or by the culture) already set in stone instead of allowing the Holy Spirit to mold us and make us as we grow to understand the very character and nature of Jesus our Christ. Fresh start. What do you say?
“You say po-tay-toe, I say po-tah-toe, you say to-may-toe, I say po-tah-toe. Po-tay-toe, po-tah-toe, to-may-toe, to-mah-toe, let’s call the whole thing off.” And I suppose we could, right? We could call it off, give it up, resume life as usual. But what do Fred and Ginger sing next? “If we call the whole thing off, then we must part. And Oh, if we ever part then that might break my heart.” So let’s not. Let’s get into this thing together with God. Let’s see how the Potter might shape our willing lives this year. If nothing more, in the most simplest of ways, we can share together in a HACC tradition of the first Sunday of the New Year. For five years now, we have shared Star Words with any willing heart who was up for the challenge. Star Words, we call them, as we draw them on Epiphany Sunday – the day we celebrate the Magi making that long trek following the star to meet Jesus themselves. There is nothing magic about these words – 489 unique words prayed over and placed in an offering plate that you might draw one of your very own. Why? Because the Spirit of God can shape us in incredible ways whenever we pay attention. You draw a word and commit to pray over and under and through that word this year. “Lord, speak to me through this word – mold me, make me in some way that pleases you and grows my spirit.” Study its meaning. Put it in a place you’ll touch and see every day. Search for it in Scripture. God is not done with us, with the world, just yet. It’s not over, some wise colleague of mine said eloquently last Sunday.
So – I invite our deacons to come forward now and pass the plates. Draw one word only and pass the plate to the next person in your row. You can say it out loud or simply treasure it in your heart. And I’ll add this: Alex Trebeck is not here to correct the pronunciation of your word. So say it with your heart and soul. Own it. Claim it. May it, and the very nature of the character of Christ, shape your life in 2018. Amen.
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 The Shape of our Lives. Kenneson, Murphy, Williams, Fowl, and Lewis. WIPF & STOCK 2008. This sermon series is shaped by this study. Its influence is evident in the selection of scripture passages and other support for the message.
 As shared in the Introduction to Isaiah in Peterson’s The Message. NavPress 2002.