Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer

For a writer, reading Marilynne Robinson’s Gilead can be a bit deflating.

Not because it’s bad, but because her countless perfect sentences—so simple yet so penetrating—are enough to make almost anyone despair of what they’ve written.

In Gilead, we read the letters of a dying pastor (Rev. John Ames) to the young son that he will leave behind.  In one of them, Ames tells of preaching during the carnage of World War 1.

In his attic, there are boxes of old sermons.  Yet:

One sermon is not up there, one I actually burned the night before I had meant to preach it.


At the time, the Spanish flu had broken out in the midst of the Great War, killing millions. Hence many young men were dying before they even made it to the trenches.

As Ames writes:

It was a strange sickness—I saw it over at Fort Riley. […] They drafted all the boys at the college, and influenza swept through there so bad the place had to be closed down and the buildings filled with cots like hospital wards, and there was terrible death, right there in Iowa.

Now if these things were not signs, I don’t know what a sign would look like. So I wrote a sermon about it.

I said, or meant to say, that these deaths were rescuing foolish young men from the consequences of their own ignorance and courage, that the Lord was gathering them in before they could go off and commit murder against their brothers.

And I said that their deaths were a sign and a warning to the rest of us that the desire for war would bring the consequences of war, because there is no ocean big enough to protect us from the Lord’s judgment when we decide to hammer our plowshares into swords and our pruning hooks into spears, in contempt of the will and the grace of God

Now the part that I care about:

It was quite a sermon, I believe. I thought as I wrote it how pleased my father would have been. But my courage failed, because I knew the only people at church would be a few old women who were already about as sad and apprehensive as they could stand to be and no more approving of the war than I was.

So he burned the sermon, despite the fact that it seemed like the most honest thing that he had ever written.

As Ames puts it:

It might have been the only sermon I wouldn’t mind answering for in the next world. And I burned it.  But Mirabelle Mercer was not Pontius Pilate, and she was not Woodrow Wilson either.


My point here is not whether Ames was right about God’s hand within in the Spanish flu. In fact, I tend to detest such claims to omniscience when it comes to God’s judgement via natural disasters (see here).

My concern is with a more common problem amongst preachers, myself included.

That is:

The temptation to preach to those who aren’t present, rather than the ones who are.

After all, it’s easy to condemn the Woodrow Wilsons and the Pontius Pilates when they do not sit in front of you.

It’s easy to decry those “soft” and “lazy” millennials to a room of aging baby-boomers–or to a room of “superior” millennials (see here). It’s easy to bemoan liberal rot to a room of midwestern conservatives; or conservative fundamentalists to an educated group of East Coast mainliners.

It’s easy.

But what good is it?

It’s like railing to poor Mirabelle Mercer about the Kaiser’s war policy.

To preach to those who are present is more difficult, not least because you might step on the toes that sit beneath the pews. It forces us to ask about our besetting sins, which are always the ones we’d rather ignore.

The well-known Dallas Baptist, Matt Chandler, notes this tendency within his own context:

If I preach the sermon out of the book of Isaiah on justice, my inbox would fill with their glee that I would broach the subject. But if I applied it to the subject of race, then all of a sudden I was a Marxist or I’ve been watching too much of the liberal media.

If I spoke on abortion, I was applauded as courageous, as a ferocious man of God, and yet when I would tackle race I was being too political …

If I quoted the great reformer Martin Luther … never did I get an email about his blatant anti-Semitism. But let me quote the great reformer Martin Luther King Jr., and watch my inbox fill with people asking me if I’m aware of his moral brokenness.

His point is that it’s not just preachers who prefer the sermon to convict the absent, it’s often the parishioners too.  “Lord thank you that we are not like those people.”


In the end, if there is a lesson here from Gilead, it’s that sermons must connect, convict, and encourage the audience that will actually hear them—not the one that won’t.

In short: Preach to those present.

Preach to Mirabelle Mercer.

Signup here to receive info on a soon-to-be announced book release(!); and to receive bonus content through my email Newsletter (“Serpents and Doves”).

I will not clog your inbox, and I will not share your email address.

Burn your silo; find a home

As Walter Lippmann said:

“When everybody thinks the same, nobody thinks very much.”

I love that statement, but it’s also convicting.

The gist is simple: There is profound danger in surrounding yourself with voices that sound strangely like your own. It’s called the “echo chamber,” and the result is the assisted suicide of critical thinking.

As I heard a wise man say:

“If you only read the books you write, your ‘truth’ will always be slanted.”

These days, the slant goes by many names:

  • confirmation bias,
  • the herd mentality,
  • tribalism, and
  • a silo culture.


In a silo culture, homogenous items are kept safely together, and safely separate from all else. There is little meaningful communication between silos, and few doors or windows. And as the Cold War taught us, “silos” now have a further purpose. They are for launching missiles in the direction of opposing silos.

Photo by Patrick Feller

Both meanings are fitting. Silos are symbols of separation, and of mutually assured destruction.

And whatever your position on particular social or political issues, you have to admit one thing: Our culture has embraced its silos.

Take, for instance, the way we get our “news”:

In prior eras, there were a few respected voices: Cronkite, Murrow, Brokaw. They were biased, of course (for everyone is biased), but we mostly drank from the same wells.

Not today. Now, we have our “silo-sources.” They have been carefully designed by market research to suit our preferences and our prejudices. Not too hot. Not too cold. They’re “just right”—with a steaming side of confirmation bias.

Are you a raging liberal who thinks George W. Bush would have been a Bond villain if only his IQ was higher than a Texas hunting dog? Enjoy the echo chamber of MSNBC.

Or maybe you think Obama is a secret Muslim who simultaneously loves gays and beer and Sharia law (think about that…). Good news. You too have Cable News corroboration. It’s fair and balanced. No tribalism here.

Unfortunately, we are now discovering where silo-sources leave us (see the current presidential frontrunners).

My point, however, is not about our news or politics.

It’s about community, friendship, and the kind of relationships that actually help us think.

Here’s my big idea:

While tribalism can be deadly, there is great value in belonging to a tribe.

While silos separate us, we still need homes.

Humans need community, and some of that community should be like-minded. That’s not a bad thing. To accomplish anything, we need shared vision. We need spouses and friends who see the same truth we do, just as we need voices to challenge our assumptions. To deny the value of all like-minded groupings is to cast oneself adrift on a sea of loneliness and isolation. That way lies cynical inaction.

There is value in belonging to a tribe, and I certainly have mine.

As a follower of Jesus from a particular segment of the Christian family, I am part of an admittedly peculiar (and imperfect) people. It is a bounded set, which means that it has fences, unique problems, and beliefs that we hold in common. That is as it should be.

In one sense, to have a tribe is to have a home, and homes are good.

Homes have doors and windows, and perhaps a welcome mat. In good homes, outsiders are welcomed with hospitality, and family members are bound together by more than shared opinions. In homes, there are lines of communication with the outside world, and not just the “Red Phone” for launching missile strikes! In a home, insiders leave and return, preferably on a daily basis, in order to embrace the outside world.

Because while we should have homes, we were never meant to hole-up there. Agoraphobia is a disorder—and a fear-based way of living.

Here’s my point: When tribes become tribal, homes become silos, and fences become unwelcoming walls (“y-uge beautiful walls”…perhaps paid for by Mexico). And that is bad for everyone.

It is killing civil discourse, and it is the assisted suicide of critical thought.

“When everybody thinks alike, nobody thinks very much.”

It’s time to burn our silos, while also finding homes.