An oldie but goodie in the repertoire of Ella Fitzgerald:
First you say you do
And then you don’t
And then you say you will
And then you won’t
You’re undecided now
So what are you gonna do?
Now you want to play
And then it’s no
And when you say you’ll stay
That’s when you go
You’re undecided now
So what are you gonna do?
I’ve been sitting on a fence
And it doesn’t make much sense
‘Cause you keep me in suspense
Being undecided is a pain for the person who can’t decide as well as for all of those affected by her or his indecision.
Sometimes there’s a humorous twist to wishy-washyness, as in this excerpt from an Ellen Degeneres standup routine:
Start thinking positively. You will notice a difference. Instead of, “I think I’m a loser,” try, “I definitely am a loser.” Stop being wishy-washy about things! How much more of a loser can you be if you don’t even know you are one?
If anything much is at stake, though, it’s not so funny. And in some instances indecisiveness can be dangerous or destructive. It can contribute to auto accidents, permanently broken relationships, and at the very least energy-draining frustration.
Why are we some of us unable to say with consistency who we are, what we need, and what we want to accomplish? Ekhart Tolle has an opinion on the subject that I believe Oprah published in her magazine:
When we can’t make up our minds, it’s because of our minds, or what I call “the voice in your head.” Many people don’t even know they have this voice. But it’s talking away, creating a never-ending inner monologue….During tough choices, this voice isn’t very helpful. Often it criticizes, keeping a running commentary about you and all the things you did wrong or you just didn’t do. It criticizes others as well. It’s like living with somebody who can’t stand you, much less anybody else. You wouldn’t want to live with a person like that. You would walk out of the relationship. But since you can’t get free of your mind, you’re stuck. The result? You get discouraged. You can’t see the positive side to what might come from your decisions.
It isn’t possible to get through much of life without making decisions unless there are those in our lives who make decisions for us. That leaves us living someone else’s life, not our own–which sounds to me like an incalculable loss.
The maximum, “Not to decide is to decide,” is traced back to Harvard theologian and American Baptist minister, Harvey Cox. One of Dr. Cox’s niches in the theological world is the convergence of religion, culture, and politics. “Not to decide is to decide.” That is a very powerful insight, though disconcerting for those who hem and haw. If I do not decide to take a stand against environmental abuses, I’ve decided that environmental abuses are A.O.K. If I can’t decide when and how to confront instances of racism I witness, then I’ve decided that racism perhaps unfortunate but acceptable.
If not us, who? If not now, when?
On the topic of racism, the Food Network is apparently not wishy-washy. Poor Paula Deen. Back in May, she was deposed as part of a $1.2 million dollar lawsuit alleging that she used foul and inappropriate language at making it impossible for one of her employees to have any level of comfort at work. In the the deposition, Chef Deen admitted she had used the n word probably several times, but the only one she could pinpoint was when an African American male had put a gun to her head during a 1986 bank robbery. Unfortunately, she also chatted up about the time she tried to hire African American waiters to pose as slaves for a wedding. A couple of days ago, Food Network announced that it would not be renewing its contract with Paula Deen when her current agreement ends, which happens to be on June 30. She’s fired! Decisively!
The book of Revelation, as a handful of you know, is my favorite book in the Christian scripture collection; it has early on in its mysterious contents letters presumably written by Jesus, now alive and dwelling in heaven, to each of seven churches in Asia Minor. The churches probably were actual churches, but because everything in the book of Revelation is symbolic, the number 7 could very well be an indication that the author meant to signal a glimpse at the whole of Christendom. In other words, all seven churches taken as a group have experiences, strengths, and weaknesses that reflect what’s going on in the whole of Christendom at the time.
Most of the words in the 7 letters are nurturing. Sometimes there’s a mild reprimand, but since the book of Revelation, or actually the drama of Revelation, was written for people under great threat of punishment or execution for having owned their faith, generally it is encouraging. A summary of the book as a whole could be: evil is surely powerful and destructive, but is evil will not have the last word in human history. Good will finally overtake evil first in the context of Roman abuse of Christians by evil Emperor Domitian and ultimately in the whole of human experience.
And to the angel of the church in Laodicea write: “The words of the Amen, the faithful and true witness, the origin of God’s creation: ‘I know your works; you are neither cold nor hot. I wish that you were either cold or hot. So, because you are lukewarm, and neither cold nor hot, I am about to spit you out of my mouth. For you say, “I am rich, I have prospered, and I need nothing.” You do not realize that you are wretched, pitiable, poor, blind, and naked. Therefore I counsel you to buy from me gold refined by fire so that you may be rich; and white robes to clothe you and to keep the shame of your nakedness from being seen; and salve to anoint your eyes so that you may see. I reprove and discipline those whom I love. Be earnest, therefore, and repent. Listen! I am standing at the door, knocking; if you hear my voice and open the door, I will come in to you and eat with you, and you with me. To the one who conquers I will give a place with me on my throne, just as I myself conquered and sat down beside God sitting on his throne. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches.’”
Tepidity. Lukewarmness. Not cool. Not real. Not honest. Lemuel Washington said, “Honesty is never seen sitting astride the fence.” We have to fish or cut bait, folks.
On Saturday April 13, 1861, the day after Fort Sumter was attacked, Dickerson decided he could not preach, the next morning, the sermon he had planned to preach. He went to his study at the church that Saturday afternoon and wrote out a full manuscript for a new sermon to be preached in its place. He went with “a heart fired with loyal zeal and fully alive to the character and magnitude of the struggle that had commenced between freedom and slavery, loyalty and treason, government and anarchy” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 104). The sermon, entitled “The Duties of the Hour,” went down in history. In a long and colorful preaching career, that sermon would be remembered more than all the others Dickerson had or would preach.
On Saturday evening, Pastor Dickerson met with several of his congregants whom he knew shared his perspectives on the slavery issue. Not all members did, and certainly not all of the political leaders of Wilmington supported his antislavery stance. Dickerson asked his supporters to see that the pulpit, the next morning, would be draped with an American flag. Even his most ardent supporters were unsure of the wisdom of taking that step, but before the sermon was preached on Sunday April 14, 1861, some brave parishioner or parishioners saw that it was done. “A few, and but a few, rallied nobly to his support. Some of his members, knowing the excitement that prevailed in the community, asked him if he would like to have an armed guard by him in the church. He declined the proposal, preferring to trust God and the right for his protection. Some of the brethren, however, without his knowledge, arranged that an armed force should be present, both to shield him from attack, and the church from threatened injury” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 106).
A large crowd gathered the following morning to hear J. S. Dickerson’s sermon; plenty of those in attendance were enemies to Dickerson and his cause, some, his “violent opposers” (p. 106). Dickerson prayed fervently for his country and sang with high energy the patriotic hymns of the day. He preached his sermon eloquently. A few of the listeners walked out on him as he preached against slavery. He paused as each one exited “in recognition of their withdrawal” (James Stokes Dickerson: Memories of His Life, p. 107). There was no violence.
We have no transcript of the sermon itself, nor any other reference to the content of the sermon beyond what Mrs. Dickerson mentioned in the biography she wrote of her husband’s life. We know that the duty of the hour in his mind when he preached the sermon was to call people to take up the dual causes of standing against slavery and implementing the freeing of the slaves. Though the controversial stand taken by Rev. J. S. Dickerson bought him the antagonism of several church members, many of whom were lost to the membership of the church, Dickerson did not mince words, and he did not back down.
James Russell Lowell:
Once to every [person,] nation,
comes the moment to decide,
In the strife of truth with falsehood,
for the good or evil side;
Some great cause, some great decision,
offering each the bloom or blight,
And the choice goes by forever,
’twixt that darkness and that light.
Then to side with truth is noble,
when we share her wretched crust,
Ere her cause bring fame and profit,
and ’tis prosperous to be just;
Then it is the brave [one] chooses
while the coward stands aside,
Till the multitude make virtue
of the faith they had denied.
Some of those decisions we do have the grit to make can cost us–rejection, humiliation, attack even despite what Adlai Stevenson once said, I think, with compelling insight, “My definition of a free society is a society where it is safe to be unpopular.”
Sadly, there are those individuals and institutions who decide to deny who they really are and what they truly want for fear of losing out on popularity. If that were the only consequence of decision-making based on truth-telling we could call them vain, but a person who claims to be someone too unpopular to this group or that runs the risk of being terrorized while the organization that decides to admit to an unpopular identity may be torched.
That is tragic, but it is also tragic to be lodged in a perpetual cycle of indecisiveness causing us to deny truth thereby crippling us. We render ourselves rather useless to ourselves and others when we keep life lukewarm.