Be Honest (or Sincere), Be Brief…

Acts 4:32-35 – the 2nd Sunday of Easter – for April 15, 2012

“There was not a needy person among them…” (Acts 4:34)

When facing an audience, I’ve often begun with a reliable Franklin Delano Roosevelt quip on the speaker’s role: Be honest, be brief, be seated.

Though unable to recall the first time I used FDR’s blunt commentary, it served two purposes. It usually produced laughter, helping audiences relax. His quote also underscored my goals as a speaker. While brevity had little to do my typical Sunday sermon (sad, but true), if I introduced another speaker or prepared listeners for a workshop, I’d happily reference and follow FDR’s advice.

FDR, standing "tall," with a little help...(photo from Roosevelt library at

Not long ago, I learned I’d been misquoting the 32nd President of the United States for years. The more accurate version is: “be sincere, be brief and be seated.”


There’s also this—which I didn’t know as a kid studying U.S. history when John F. Kennedy wasn’t history, but the current president, and we admired his famous ”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country,’”—but FDR couldn’t stand on his own. To be honest or sincere, the polio-stricken Roosevelt often remained in his chair. If he stood, metal braces and/or aides literally propped him up. As an adult, I learned FDR spoke, if not a lie, at least a personal irony. Be sincere, be brief . . . and always be seated? But until the final decades of the 20th century, the media perpetuated the American myth of invulnerability by rarely depicting FDR (or other Presidents) as mere mortals. If FDR couldn’t stand tall on his own, most pictures or articles made it appear he could.

There’s also this . . . it’s likely President Kennedy or his speech writers weren’t original with, ”Ask not what your country can do for you, ask what you can do for your country.” Some have suggested he cribbed from a prep school teacher. Or perhaps not. Perhaps JFK’s statement is uniquely and singularly his and we should simply be grateful for it. On the other hand, and there’s always another hand, I mention our 35th president for ulterior reasons. For me—a Baby Boomer—Kennedy was the “knight in shining armor,” along with being a young husband and doting father. But oh, the passage of years and scrutiny, from scholars to hack journalists, exposed the prurient truth of the one-time commander of PT 109: JFK likely was a drug addict (battling debilitating pain) and womanizer (joining the likes of FDR and millions of other husbands in high places who strayed).

If I’m muddled about sincerity vs. honesty, I’m probably also not doing such a bang-up job on brevity with this wandering essay. But, as J.R.R. Tolkien said, “Not all who wander are lost.” How I love that sentiment! Alas, I’ve often misquoted the venerable Tolkien. Once, when using the “wander” words to help explain why I’d left the stability of church ministry to foolishly try to become a published writer, a more knowledgeable (and snarkier) acquaintance pointed out that Tolkien wrote . . . “Not all those who wander are lost.”

I sincerely didn’t mean to leave out “those!” Honestly!

Ah . . . back to my abandoned brevity. Digression has cleverly waylaid me with fractured history lessons and the improper substitution or absence of words in famous quotations.

All of my muttering has actually been inspired by a brief—that word again—section in the Acts of the Apostles. Here I do not misquote the NRSV translation: “Now the whole group of those who believed were of one heart and soul, and no one claimed private ownership of any possessions, but everything they owned was held in common.” If you wish, read the entire, and yes brief, passage (Acts 4:32-35) on your own. For the early Christians, according to Acts, everything was wonderful, everyone was content and everywhere there was equitable sharing. How, well, perfect.

And yet, whenever I read a word like “all” or a phrase like “there was not a needy person among them,” my cynicism alarm goes bonkers. Does Act’s author really expect us to believe no one was greedy and that all believers were altruistic?

I’m a 21st Century guy. I know we bungle quotes. I know that even when quotes aren’t bungled, the people behind those quotes have bungled lives. Our excellent words disguise our imperfect beliefs; our well-spoken declarations are frosting over the moldy cake of our daily lives. The Acts of the Apostles’ cheerleading must surely be an effort to divert future readers from seeing an early Christian community populated with leaders who have feet of clay and followers with hands in others’ back pockets. First or twenty-first century, humans have flaws, foibles and fractures.

But there’s also this . . . how often did I misquote FDR? Probably a hundred times . . . or more! But it was only the use of “honest” instead of “sincere.” I had good intentions!

And that’s what I imagine with the earliest Christian believers. In the best sense of what it means, those flawed (like me) individuals and fractured (like most times when two or more people gather) communities longed for their good intentions to guide them. We seek to be Christ-like, to openly and freely share all we have. We dream, and work toward that dream, for all to be without need.

I don’t read this brief section of Acts and think: those folks long ago were good and look how rotten we’ve become. Instead, I believe their dream was also ours: how can we live remembering “great grace” is upon all of us?

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