Jump, Fools, Jump!

Our preacher Peter gave a very interesting sermon this morning. The text from was St. Paul's First Letter to the Corinthians 1:18-25, where Paul cites Isaiah 29:14: "I will destroy the wisdom of the wise, and the cleverness of the clever I will thwart." "I hate being the fool," Peter opened. "I never want to be overdressed. I try never to sound pompous. I would rather be too little than 'too much.' To accomplish that, I have adopted something that I call the 'White Man Can't Jump' fool avoidance strategy."

You remember the story, right? I'm not sure I do (it's been awhile), but from what Peter said, I recall this much. Woody Harrelson's character would come to the basketball court pretending to know nothing about basketball and to do so, he dressed the fool: "random shoes, backwards baseball hat, ratty clothes. He [as Peter put it] made a calculated decision to lower expectations." This, Peter went on, is what I do. I never dress so as to give anybody the sense that I am actually particularly good at anything (e.g. basketball), such that when I am actually okay at whatever it is I am doing, people are pleasantly surprised: "The White Men Can't Jump Fool Avoidance Strategy." I may not be the best at whatever it is, but here's the pay-off: I avoid looking the fool.

The point that Peter was trying to make is a good one: how often do we, as Christians, do everything we can to avoid looking the fool? Not offend anybody, not appear too unlearned or (conversely) too smart. And so we dress ourselves just conservatively enough to still appear fair-minded and judicious; just liberally enough to still appear cosmopolitan and urbane. We are, Peter wanted us to realize, very careful in our Christianity to be relevant and accepted by the world, when what the cross demands of us to risk looking like fools. A very good point. The problem is, this is not why Woody Harrelson's character was dressing the way that he was: he did so in order to fool people into thinking he was the fool, only to prove them wrong. He was, after all, a hustler.

The paradox here is worth thinking about. (To be fair to Peter, he did say he was more interested in how Harrelson's character dressed than the plot, but there is also a why to Harrelson's clothing that was very much Peter's point.) We want to appear wise to the world when we shouldn't, not as Christians at least; but to do so we dress (or act or talk) as if we have very little invested in our belief. Now, if we were really like (okay, I'll look it up) Billy Hoyle (the Harrelson character), then our apparent foolishness would be easily revealed as a facade once we were put to the test. But this isn't what Paul means, is it? That we should show up to the basketball court (or fencing strip) of life appearing not to know what we're doing and then stump our opponents with our brilliant skills.

Sometimes, one wonders. It's a good teaching (or preaching) strategy, for one. Begin with something that sounds ridiculously simple and then, once you've got your audience, show how complicated the problem actually is. But the truth of the cross is very simple: Christ, the Son of God, became incarnate so as to redeem us from our sins and did so not by coming in glory, but by dying ignominiously on a cross (it's hard to find a sufficiently shameful analog since modern executions are in comparison so discrete; nor did the Romans tend to spend much time worrying about the rights and wrongs of capital punishment). Utter foolishness, right? And in so many ways.

Peter again: "Paul says that God is known in something foolish and weak: the cross. A guy hanging limply from the cross, apparently forsaken by God, is the divine messenger. That is foolish. God really has exploded common sense. If that could be true--if we worship a crucified God--what else could be true?! Crucifixion was supposed to be a gruesome punishment used by the Romans to ‘make an example' out of disturbers of the peace. It was supposed to be a particularly horrible form of public torture and execution. The guy hanging on it is the revelation of God? Ya, any bridges for sale?" So it is in fact God who has shown up on the basketball court (or fencing strip) pretending not to know how to play and suddenly is bouncing all over the court (or strip) making goals (scoring touches) nobody expected Him to be able to make. Now, that's the kind of fool I'd like to be.

But, then, again, this is not what Paul means. Or is it? Do we, as Christians, secretly plan thus to thwart the world with our apparent foolishness? Note, here, how Peter's "Fool Avoidance Strategy" has been inverted: we ourselves act the fools, knowing (as Christians) that we, in fact, have the true faith, that we are saved (okay, not personally if we're Calvinist or at all Augustinian, but even then, we know what the answer is supposed to be). We are just like Billy Hoyle, lowering expectations in order to catch our opponent (The Enemy) off-guard. Which, of course, makes us not foolish, but wise.

I would love to be able to hustle my opponents this way. Show up on the strip not knowing how to plug in my body cord or where to stand, looking flustered and not entirely clued in on what is going on, nervous about how to salute and when to come on guard and then, in the course of the bout, start making touches that nobody could see coming, leaving my opponent herself flustered and frustrated, having been convinced by my earlier behavior that I was going to be an easy match. Come to think of it, I wonder now how many times I've been hustled by just such an appearance of naivete. The problem is, it's usually not my opponent that I'm trying to hustle, but myself.

I fenced really, really well in practice yesterday against my long-time sparring partner Neal (hi, Neal!). I can say this because Neal and I have been practicing against each other for almost five years, and in all that time (until just these past six months) I had only ever beaten him in a practice bout maybe once or twice, call it three times. I know (thank goodness!) I am finally improving a bit because I can now usually (not always) keep up with him and sometimes even get the last touch, but yesterday, he could barely hit me whereas I was all over him. The hustle? My foot still hurts from the stress that I put on it in the tournament two weeks ago and so in my mind I was only thinking about how not to reinjure myself. There was no way, I thought as we got on the strip, that I was going to be able to fence my best; and yet, having given myself this permission to risk looking the fool, I didn't. Suddenly, I was able to fence better than I almost ever do. How's that for a Fool Avoidance Strategy?

But, wait, what will happen on Tuesday when I get back on the strip? Will I have deceived (hustled) myself into thinking that I can now beat him easily? You know exactly where thoughts like that lead one. Over-confidence. Pride. Disaster. Looking the fool. Can, as Christians, we ever know that we have grasped the wisdom of God? Would it not be foolishness to show up at the cross over-confident, thinking, "This is a sure thing. I know I am going to win"? Can we have Easter without Gethsemane? I don't mind looking the fool if I know what the outcome is going to be. But as long as I am convinced that I am only playing at being the fool, I am, actually, a fool. Sure I could try to hustle my opponents by pretending that I don't know what's going on (oh, yes, I've smiled at them to create the false impression that I'm not going to do everything in my power to win), but unless I come to the strip willing to accept the outcome of looking the fool, the likelihood is that I will.

How's that for a hustle? "For the word of the cross is folly to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved, it is the power of God."


  1. Your penultimate paragraph reminds me of the story of the young preacher who ascended the stairs of his pulpit (in a time and place when pulpits had stairs) beaming with confidence b/c he was safe in the knowledge that he was about to demonstrate particular prowess with the handling of an especially difficult text that morning.

    Grinning from ear to ear at the thought of his own insight and staggering intellect he, of course, failed miserably. Unable to deliver the masterpiece he believed he had in hand, he stumbled badly as he preached, visibly withered in the pulpit, and meekly retreated down the staircase looking quite forlorn and unsure of himself.

    An old saint who had witnessed the episode closely said 'Young man, if you'd have gone up the way you came down, you would have come down the way you went up.'

  2. All my life I have not looked to other people anything like what I am. Not by design, mind you. I look ten years younger than I am and far sweeter and more naive. I don't "look like a lesbian" as I've been told many times by lesbians and non-lesbians alike.

    I have found it useful to just embrace this and consider it a handy strategy for putting people at ease, then throwing them off balance when that becomes helpful. They never see me coming. This is probably most especially true when it comes to faith and politics. Well, okay, and teaching, I guess.

    Not really what Paul had in mind, and not an intentional hustle either, but your post got me thinking about it and whether I manage to use this fact of who I am versus who others assume me to be to serve my faith well.


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