February 10, 2019

The Double-minded Dilemma

Passage: James 1:1–7

Click here to listen to this sermon.

But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; —James 1:6

Please pray with me…

God of grace, you have given us minds to know you, hearts to love you, and voices to sing your praise. Silence in us any voice but your voice that we may be startled with your truth revealed in hearing your word.  May we come to follow your son as faithful disciples.  Amen.

The Letter of James, with salutation and a message to a particular community, is considered within the genre of a letter. Yet the content of the letter is considered in the tradition of wisdom literature of Proverbs or Job. Wisdom literature communicates how to live a good life. James professes being wholly committed to God and relying upon God’s wisdom leads to the good life.

James moves quickly to make his point.

James, a servant of God and of the Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes in the dispersion: greetings.

 My brothers and sisters, whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing. If any of you is lacking in wisdom, ask God, who gives to all generously and ungrudgingly, and it will be given you.

 But ask in faith, never doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind; for the doubter, being double-minded and unstable in every way, must not expect to receive anything from the Lord.

T he recent article “How to Handle the Dreaded Reply-all Moment” describes the sinking feeling you get when you realize you have suddenly broadcast to a group of recipients an email containing a message that was to be private and personal.

I’ve known firsthand how it feels when my fingers were not connected with my brain, resulting in embarrassing situations, and prompting mea culpas.

The author identified the sinking feeling as so unique as needing a new name: “maybe we should call it e-barrassment. Or forwardboding. Or Sents insensibility.”  Surely these silly words cannot capture the deep and lingering regret.[1]
The reply-all dilemma is part of a larger challenge we slip into by thinking multi-tasking is a boost to productivity. Can I really be engaged in the care and feeding of my email inbox while on a conference call or listening to a podcast? No. Am I able to peruse the newspaper, start dinner, carry on a conversation with my husband, and listen to the news at the same time? That is a recipe for rudeness.

Multi-tasking is just a euphemism for not paying attention, causing calamities that drain rather than boost productivity.

The solution proposed to email’s “reply-all” trap was to disable the feature. This article failed its readers. Shouldn’t we start focusing on what we are doing? When we divide our attention, we are not able to be fully present to the realities immediately in front of us.

You don’t need to look very far to find study upon study by clinicians or academics of all stripes of the dangers of trying to compartmentalize our lives into distinct and competing roles.

Whenever we try to serve many masters, we fragment our lives.  Fragmented lives cannot withstand the trials that will surely befall us.  Fragmented lives miss the wonder that God reveals to us and for us.

Last month, financial titan John Bogle died, the founder of the Vanguard Funds. He revolutionized mutual fund investing with a belief that investors could not outsmart the market over the long term nor would their investment advisors care exclusively about their interest when the advisor was paid on commissions and the firm’s shareholders sought profit growth.

To focus exclusively on the customer, Bogle created the first index funds. These mutual funds invested broadly in the market, diversified the investment risks, eliminated expensive analysis, and reduced trade volumes, resulting in a lower cost model. In addition, Vanguard itself was conceived as a mutual firm with customer benefiting from the profits. There was nothing glamorous about the idea: it was just transparent and valuable for the customer.

Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Samuelson praised Bogle’s creation of the retail index fund as equal in importance to “the invention of the wheel, wine and cheese, the alphabet, and Gutenberg printing.”

When the index fund was first introduced, Wall Street critics did not shower it with such fanfare. Quite the opposite, Bogle was ridiculed with derision of “who would want only average returns?”

Time and profits proved the individual investor would benefit. Warren Buffet told the Wall Street Journal, “If all investors had heeded his ideas, they would be hundreds of billions of dollars better off than they are now.”[2]

Several years ago, at his alma mater, Princeton University, Bogle spoke candidly of the origin of his business philosophy. Shortly after he finished college, both of his parents died in quick succession.  With so much thrust upon him, he recalls how sorely his faith was tested. Yet, in these trials, he felt more deeply convicted of the promise from God that this life is not the end and how we live has infinite consequences. With humility, he claims he survived only by having faith in something far greater than himself.

This faith influenced all aspects of his life—including his work—and credits it with holding him through the storms of life. He cited scriptures’ warning, “you may not serve two masters” as cautioning against duplicitous loyalties that would pit customer against shareholder. He relied upon the inner wisdom of all religions—the golden rule. “The golden rule is its own reward—not making yourself wealthy.”[3]

For all the wealth Bogle built through the Vanguard Fund, his riches paled with his peers. If we were to keep score on financial terms, by the most ubiquitous lens used on Wall Street, he lost. Edward C. Johnson III, the chairman of Fidelity Investments, has a net worth of $7.4 billion where as Bogle’s net worth was generally estimated at $80 million.[4]

His devotion to faith was even more costly in that he gave away half his income each year. But money was not the measure Bogle cared about. When he rose in the morning, he embraced his life as given by God. He weathered the storms of life by an inherent faith of God as creator and redeemer: God was the only master he would serve.

“Attention is the beginning of devotion” is an oft-quoted phrase composed by the poet Mary Oliver. Her sparse writing lends itself well to bumper stickers or inspirational Pinterest posts.

As a prolific author, with more than 20 volumes of verse and a Pulitzer Prize as well as National Book award, this humble author was a phenomenon in her own life—often rare for poets.

Although she was typically averse to interviews Oliver wanted her work to speak for itself, on one occasion she spoke glancingly of sexual abuse in her childhood. She recalled, “it was a very bad childhood for everybody, every member of the household not just myself, I think. And I escaped it, barely, with years of trouble. I got saved by the beauty of the world.”

As a child, she stopped going to Sunday School when she was unable to accept the claim of Christ’s resurrection. By comparison she believes she continued to ponder the resurrection more than other children—and for the rest of her life.

Oliver found life by paying attention to creation’s mysteries. She looked with the patient eye at the graceful movements of the grasshopper and wild goose, wrote soul-stirring verses of what the canine-human relationship reveals about the meaning of our own lives, and pursued a life full of purpose and presence.

From wisdom gained through years of endurance, Oliver believed it is always insufficient to try to put words around God, what God is or who God is. But her wonder and quest to try to describe the divine she encountered created a life that was endlessly fascinating and satisfying.[5]

In a collection of essays, Upstream, she writes of the journey to finding wisdom:

Knowledge has entertained me and it has shaped me and it has failed me. Something in me still starves. In what is probably the most serious inquiry of my life, I have begun to look past reason, past the provable, in other directions. Now I think there is only one subject worth my attention and that is the precognition of the spiritual side of the world and, with this recognition, the condition of my own spiritual state. I am not talking about having faith necessarily, although one hopes to.  What I mean by spirituality is not theology, but attitude. Such interest nourishes me beyond the finest compendium of facts.  In my mind now, in any comparison of demonstrated truths and unproved but vivid intuitions the truths lose. [6]

Mary Oliver held a lens of faith to the world, seeing creation without the distortion of secular arrogance, instilled with a reverence for God’s capacity to create and recreate. With such wisdom etched into her soul, she was also able to imagine the grace that would cover her at the end of life.

The financial titan John Bogle and woman of words, Mary Oliver, appear to have lived lives of polar opposites. Armed with sophisticated economic theory Bogle fought obtuse financial products while Oliver spent her life wandering through the woods with a spiral notebook and a pencil in hand. But, they had so much in common.

Both faced devastating losses early. Both were tested by heartbreak.

Both lived as though they had embraced the wisdom from James’ letter.

James counseled, “You will face trials in life…let the testing of faith bring you endurance…and if you lack, turn to God.” Resilience is promised and God will give generously to those who ask in faith.

Both remained faithful to their moral compass and looked with a lens of faith, which revealed new pathways for Bogle and truths Oliver could see and trust.

As we began the class this past week on Miracles, we asked those present to define a miracle.

“Miracles are not what we expect”
“Miracles are contrary to the natural course of events.”
“A miracle is in the eye of the beholder.”

There was not much agreement—nor does there need to be—about what constitutes a miracle. But a recurring thought among the various groups affirmed, “it takes a willingness to believe miracles may exist in order to see them.”

Our mindset determines what we will see as we look at the world. Are we open to seeing creation as a wonder given to us by God? As the wind throws us off balance, what will we cling to for stability? When the world tells us we are not worthy, will we turn to God, who always assures us of our inherent lovableness? God who gives generously to any who ask?

Oliver lived with a single devotion to reverence for nature, looking with a critical eye and seeing the miraculous as not outside of nature, but the result of God’s creative power that brought everything into being. I will close with one of her poems:

The World I Live In         Mary Oliver

“I have refused to live
locked in the orderly house of
reasons and proofs;

The world I live in and believe in
is wider than that. And anyway,
what’s wrong with Maybe?

You wouldn’t believe what once or
twice I have seen. I’ll just
tell you this:

only if there are angels in your head will you
ever, possibly, see one."


[1] David Pogue, “How to Handle the Dreaded ‘Reply All Moment,’” The New York Times, accessed January 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/17/smarter-living/crowdwise-reply-all-embarrassment-email-etiquette.html

[2] Jason Zweig and Sarah Krouse, “John C. Bogle, Founder of Vanguard Group, Dies at 89,” The Wall Street Journal, accessed January 20, 2019,

[3] John Bogle and David Miller, “Faith and Ethics in the Executive Suite: A Protestant Perspective.” Faith and Work Initiative, Princeton University, accessed January 27, 2019, https://faithandwork.princeton.edu/node/246

[4] Edward Wyatt, “John C. Bogle, Founder of Financial Giant Vanguard, Is Dead at 89,” The New York Times, accessed January 20, 2019, https://www.nytimes.com/2019/01/16/obituaries/john-bogle-vanguard-dead.html

[5] Krista Tippet and Mary Oliver, “Mary Oliver:  Listening to the World,” transcript, On Being with Krista Tippet, accessed January 20, 2019, https://onbeing.org/programs/mary-oliver-listening-to-the-world-jan2019/ and Ben Faber, “Observing the Everywhere,” Convivum, accessed Jan 30, 2019, https://www.convivium.ca/articles/observing-the-everywhere

[6] Mary Oliver, Upstream:  Selected Essays, (New York, Penguin Press, 2016), p. 153.