Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket. You show up the next day – there’s another drop. Eventually, you have a spoonful. Then enough to fill up a shot glass. you keep at it – day after day. It’s enough to fill up a cup. Then the cup starts running over. Slowly and surely, that bucket starts to get fuller and fuller – a quarter of the way, a third, half-way, two-thirds, three quarters. Eventually you find that you filled up that bucket, a drop at a time. Hard work and persistence won’t always earn an award, you won’t always get a trophy or ribbon. But you do get a sense of personal satisfaction that you did your best. You didn’t quit when others would have thrown in the towel. You made a difference for the better. Maybe it’ll also inspire others to match your effort and contribute to filling up that bucket faster. The problem gets smaller and things get easier on everyone. Some days it doesn’t feel like all the effort you do amounts to anything more than a single drop in an empty bucket – and that’s a challenge worth tackling head-on.
“You know how it is, when nobody else is giving it a hundred percent, you realize that it’s not worth it and start letting things slide.”
I blinked. I couldn’t fathom not giving it my all, my best, all the time. How you work says a lot about your character.
Perhaps the theology of work still rolls around in the back of my mind. The story of the workers in the vineyard, the parable of the talents, the verse about working as if you’re working for the Lord, and the lengthy Bible Study I did on the subject while I was in the midst of unemployment, but something in me told me that it was wrong to not work to the best of your ability.
For me, I like to be satisfied in knowing that I did the best that I could and I didn’t hold back or do half-measures. I challenge myself to do well, to do better, to work more quickly, to work accurately so that when my head hits my pillow at night, I know that I worked well.
It’s more than that. I remember watching this comedy, the story isn’t all that important, but one refrain was “Be excellent to each other.” This idea – well, it caught on and paved the way for the world to clean up it’s act and finally be at peace – plus they got good music. In a way, that’s what I believe.
It means to do your best and to treat others exceedingly well. It means to dare others to rise to the challenge of meeting their potential. It means … well, to borrow a quote from another movie:
Akeelah: [quoting Marianne Williamson] Our deepest fear is not that we are inadequate. Our deepest fear is that we are powerful beyond measure. We ask ourselves, Who am I to be brilliant, gorgeous, talented, fabulous? Actually, who are you not to be? We were born to make manifest the glory of God that is within us. And as we let our own light shine, we unconsciously give other people permission to do the same.
Dr. Larabee: Does that mean anything to you?
Akeelah: I don’t know.
Dr. Larabee: It’s written in plain English. What does it mean?
Akeelah: That I’m not supposed to be afraid?
Dr. Larabee: Afraid of what?
Akeelah: Afraid of… me?
I think that for so long, we end up aiming for somewhere in the middle. Sure, we could do more or better if we applied ourselves, but it nobody else is, why bother? Anyone who stands out in any way seems to get too much attention, either good or bad. We don’t want that. We want to be good, but not too good. We want to do well, but not too well.
Let’s face it, people who are excellent, who choose to be the best at what they do – their effort is often rewarded. It’s not that they’ll get a plaque or trophy or bonus, as nice as that would be, but they get personal satisfaction and pride. I don’t know why you wouldn’t want that.
“Hey, I could have gotten everything done, but I choose to do only 2/3 of my work instead.”
“Hey, I could have gotten an A, but I settled for a B.”
“Hey, I could have gotten first, but I didn’t feel like it and took second.”
Pretty soon, that becomes:
“Hey, I could have gotten 2/3 of my work done, but I chose to do only half.”
“Hey, I could have gotten a B, but a C was so much less taxing.”
“Hey, I could have gotten second, but forth was easier.”
“I could have opened that door, but I didn’t feel like it.”
“I could have said something kinder, but I changed my mind.”
“I could have reached that for her, but it was funnier watching her jump for it.”
Excellence isn’t the worst thing ever. We should strive to leave mediocrity behind us.
It’s been awhile since I could remember dreaming – perhaps that’s why I felt this one was disturbing because I wasn’t sure whether or not it was a dream. I think I was going about my every-day sort of tasks – I don’t really remember them very well, which is why I think it really was a dream. But at some point I thought to myself. “I no longer believe in God.” And I caught that thought and was really overwhelmed by it. I felt guilty and wanted to take it back – but a lot like popping a balloon – I was afraid that there wasn’t an undo option. That heaven would be off-limits to me.
This last year has been a big change for me. Compared to the previous ten years – it’s the most successful one I had. But with my schedule being pretty much just working, I’ve found it nearly impossible to to fit church in. Some weeks ago I was invited to attend a church – and the first three weeks after that it was nothing but working on Sunday mornings. This was the first chance i had had to not work on Sunday Morning, but the whole church thing has just fallen out of the routine. I had meant to listen to churches on the radio – but totally lost track of the time and missed them all.
But there’s also the issue of the churches themselves. The ones that there are to belong to are the ones we’re pretty sure we can’t belong to. We don’t see things eye to eye – they’re Calvinist, we’re Arminians (sort-of), They’re complementarians, we’re egalitarians, they’re into hymns, we’re into contemporary music. We’ve tried attending Calvinist churches, complimentarian churches, and hymn singing-churches and they never seem to work out for us.
So without a formal connection to God through the church, my spiritual disciplines have been on the decline. It feels like the’re a lot of pressure that’s just gone. And that’s really great. No more having to tear through Bible Studies that really aren’t about the Bible. No more having to try to remember the difference between the Sacrifice on the Mount and the Sermon on the Mount. And no more food allergy issues with pot-lucks.
I’d still like to believe that what I was taught as a little girl still applies: “once saved, always saved (no matter what).” I’d also like to believe that everybody has been elected to be saved. I hate to see how some Christians spit the words “sinner” out of their mouths as if they’re gleefully anticipating the horrors of Hell for the unsaved and lost souls out there. Jesus never seemed to be like that.
In speaking of the big guy, I find myself more and more wandering around and hoping I’m following in his footsteps than I am walking in the shadow of the established faith. I don’t know if the Bible ever really said that Jesus read the Holy Scriptures into all hours of the night – though it did say that he went to synagogue and prayed a lot. He seemed to advocate for a simple kind of everyday faith – not flashy or showy, not isolated into a sub-culture with it’s own language or media. Maybe I don’t believe the God of the Church that has been transmogrified by Christian culture, but I do believe in Jesus’ God and that’s all that I truly need.
I’ve been thinking of everything I’ve ever learned about God’s holiness. It can be this wonderful source of power – that is, when it’s not threatening to do serious harm. When I first heard the story of Uzzah’s death; how he reached out to steady the ark because the oxen pulling the cart had stumbled and that was something that God viewed as irreverent and so he smote him then and there. I would have thought God could have weighed his motives and intentions to see that all Uzzah wanted was to keep the ark from falling off the cart and smashing into pieces – that even though Uzzah wasn’t holy and pure, his intentions were and therefore he was worthy of not dying.
It’s like the time that Aaron’s sons Nadab and Abihu offered unauthorized fire to the Lord who felt incensed that his instructions were not obeyed to the letter so he burned them. One guy told me this story as a warning not to go beyond what was prescribed because God never changes and one day he might decide that anyone who worships him in an unauthorized manner is guilty and deserving of the same punishment.
Or when Korah dared to speak up and ask why only Aaron and his sons were allowed to have the priesthood to the Lord when the whole Israelite people were also holy. “Isn’t it enough for you that as a Levite you’re more special than everyone else?” Moses asked him. The Lord gave them his answer to the question – in causing the ground to open up and swallow Korah and the families of the 250 men who were on his side – as for the men themselves – they were burned.
This is where I just don’t get God. He could choose to be consistent and our history could be littered with every single movement or denomination that angered God that he ended up smiting – with only one exception – the authorized form of worship that pleases Him. But the New Testament version of him only makes a few short corrections – as Ananias and Sapphira and Simon the Sorcerer discovered.
I wonder, how would Jesus have answered the questions, “Is it okay for just anyone to read the Holy Bible?” “Is it okay for just anyone to worship God however they please?” “Is it okay for just anyone who step into a leadership role in the worship of God?”
It’s true that Christianity doesn’t have a lot of holy relics – the kind that you’re not supposed to touch. My denomination was never one to believe in such things anyway.
It’s also no great surprise that modern Christianity has a variety of styles of worship, bluegrass, gospel, hymns, contemporary – some are rather toned-down and others are full of energy.
Now the God of the Old Testament was rather specific about who could and who couldn’t be a priest, priests had to be men who were descendants of Aaron, they had to be without any defects whatsoever (blind, lame, disfigured, deformed, crippled hand or crippled foot, hunchback, dwarf, eye defect, sores) – even their wives had to be virgins – any woman who had been a prostitute or divorced was considered disqualifying. God demanded nothing less than perfection itself. But today we would consider it an awesome testimony of our leaders to have struggled with disabilities and found faith in God. Some of our denominations have no problem with letting women be leaders.
Surely, if God hasn’t changed – then he’s waiting for the full measure of sin to be built up in the church before smiting them like he did with the Egyptians and Canaanites of old. Or perhaps, we’ve misread the playbook. God might not have changed, but his plans might have changed. I don’t know why people are so scared of the idea that God might not operate in the same way in the Old Testament than he does in the New Testament and that he might operate differently now than he did way back then. All of us are who we are regardless of what we do when, right?
Why is it we think that when it comes to God, his holiness and sovereignty are his most important attributes through which all of his other attributes (love, compassion, meekness) must be filtered through? “God is love” but love alone isn’t enough to keep him from acting in wrath in order to protect his holiness from us sinful, dirty, human beings. “God is love” but this love bows to God’s sovereignty by which his power can be used to harden people’s hearts and prevents them from loving him. Really? If anything, it seems that our New Testament version of God is all about love and compassion and tends to let matters of holiness and sovereignty slide. Perhaps that’s why the circumcision party wasn’t more harshly punished for their interference and various false teachers were left to their own devices. Perhaps God wanted to give them every chance to come to the right way of thinking – rather than outright punish them for having wrong beliefs.
I wish we’d do that – give everybody every possible chance to do their own homework and come to believe as they should in whatever ways that work for them than to take matters into our own hands and punish and shun people for not believing as we would want them to or in ways just like us. The thing is – we’re not God, I don’t know if we have the capacity to restore love and compassion as the highest attributes of how we worship God and how we view the world.
I couldn’t help but enjoy the delicious irony of the situation. There I was a student of at least two languages other than English … who could barely manage a conversation in just her native tongue. But considering how long I’d been one of the game, it’s really a wonder why my social skills aren’t worse.
When most people engage in small talk – they have something to talk about. With my co-workers, it’s usually something – or nothing at all. But they’re pretty much on the same page and they swiftly shift subjects with smooth transition. That’s not really the case with me, I have to process what’s been said and evaluate my options – anything I say can be taken in any number of directions and I never want to divulge too much information.
I always remember that episode of Star Trek the Next Generation, the one where a genial host has invited the crew of the Enterprise down to the planet where he’s the Federation Ambassador while they have some down-time, completely unaware that the aliens who are hosting them have some plans of their own about what to do with their own spaceship. It’s made abundantly clear that everyone hates the host and finds him really annoying. So Data is told that if he wants to master small talk, he would do well to keep an eye on him. He does and copies him perfectly – learning how to talk about nothing at all. Later on, when the ruse is revealed, the aliens kill the annoying ambassador. Lesson: small talk gets you killed.
Half of the time, I wondered what I was going to say – eventually I realized I had silently rehearsed an entire conversation – the only thing I knew about the guy was that he was into music. I thought about asking: “What kind of music do you like most?” “Which genre is underappreciated?” “Can you think of a song that would be epic if it were written for a different genre?” Things like that – but … I didn’t say a word.
Most of the time when I work, I have little to say. I dread it when somebody asks me a direct question about myself because I hardly know what to answer. I think that’s partially because I’ve been so successful at being a whole other person sometimes. There’s the me that people meet, kind and friendly, they just like me – kind of a surface level reflection. But there’s the deeper me that’s harder to draw out, one that likes to keep something up my sleeve. This is the me that I don’t let people get to know easily and the me that has more interesting answers but might prove a bit intimidating in a sense.
Perhaps it’s all those years that Christianity drilled into me humility and dying to self that’s also a factor. You see, being able to talk about your accomplishments, how you can speak Spanish and read Portuguese can be understood to be prideful. You see, everything about you is supposed to point everyone you meet toward God – the less you can say about yourself, the more you can say about God. Or it was some idea that if we had to say anything, it should be important things that are necessary. Idle chatter just wasn’t becoming.
But small talk isn’t idle chatter, it’s creating an opening to turn an acquaintance into a friend, to make guests more comfortable in a strange environment, and it’s how you build relationships and trust. The church should put a particular emphasis on encouraging conversation rather than quashing it – and even though certain Bible verses say that some shouldn’t speak, we should question just how much that applies in a world where words have more impact now than ever before.
It’s not that I don’t have anything to say – it’s just that I don’t always know how to say it quite right.
I remember when the church loved me a lot more. I was perfectly obedient and known to be sweet and gentle. I knew the Bible exactly as much as I was supposed to – which was everything they taught me or everything from previously approved materials, trusted authors, and competent ministries. Most of all, I believed exactly what I was taught from the pastors and deacons and elders and teachers as they taught it without question. Everyone would point to me as an example of someone who “does it right” and “has it together.” Christianity loved me most when I was it’s ideal, when I fit completely in it’s narrative.
But something changed. I remained myself, consistent and true – but the church seemed to like me less and less. Perhaps it was because I was still single and they couldn’t figure out why. After all, I was supposed to have met him by now they taught, gotten married by now they taught, and have had kids by now if I was doing everything right they taught. They probably thought there was some rebellion in my heart, some sin that God alone knew of that was the reason why I wasn’t ready to meet him, or something or other to explain it. Their attitude toward me started to cool as I had fallen out of favor. It was puzzling to know that those younger girls who had been told to follow my example were now being pointed to as an example for me to follow, “Don’t be so picky, you’ll marry and be happy like they are soon enough if you lower your standards. But seriously, don’t settle for anything less than the guy God has selected just for you or there will be terrible consequences.” (Thanks for that confusing message, just one of many.)
To be honest, it felt an awful lot like moving the goalposts. Or perhaps, having lost something important you used to have and you miss a lot. A sense of belonging that had been there for the longest time seems to up and vanish. For all the talk that love is unconditional, it’s just human to love those who are on the same page you are. It’s human to love those who follow the same team you do and to dislike those who follow your team’s rival. And this is a day and age where ideals divide more sharply than ever before. We end friendships and relationships due to similar disagreements all the time. Perhaps we have never truly learned to accept people we disagree with. In a Christianity famous for dividing itself into denominations over anything and everything – we never really got into the practice of being okay with different opinions and beliefs among us because there’s this tiny fear that we could wind up on a wrong turn and miss the way to Heaven.
I don’t think it was really on purpose either, but when everything you do is geared around doing it just one way, the same way, each and every time, then it results in a religious environment that has not bothered to create spaces for doing different things in different ways and naturally excludes everyone who is into doing things in different ways. Then, of course, you fall victim to expectation. When you do the same things the same way for long enough, it becomes the traditional thing. Doing something different would be turning your back on the way it is supposed to be done and has been and should be done … though you know not why. Well, anyone who turns their back on that is turning their back on God or how God would have things done in the biblically prescribed manner. Anyway, you can’t love someone as well if they don’t believe the same things you do. You can like them, you can think well of them (except for those particular faults), but because the two of you don’t see eye to eye, they will always be unlovable in some regard or another.
It is really hard to make space for people who don’t agree with you in your church. Your church is your church because it’s just the way you like it … changing it up to offer something for people who like other things means having to have less of the things that you like about it in the first place and it ceases to be your church; it becomes theirs – I guess “ours” was never truly an option. It’s not something we’d like to admit – that it really does come down to taste because it’s not supposed to – so we cloak it in terms of “proper” and “biblical” and “gospel” – it’s merely a coincidence that our tastes just so happen to align with the proper biblical expression of the gospel and how other people do church in other ways is never proper, not biblical, and it certainly isn’t the way the gospel should be.
In the process, we lose sight of what love was originally meant to be. We do believe in a sort of unconditional love, we love everyone who is just like us unconditionally, but we love others who are not like us conditionally. That’s the only explanation I can come up for to describe the difference in my own church experience. I guess I can’t help how other people can’t love me because we believe different things, but I can understand this failing and do my best to ensure I don’t fall victim to the same tendency myself and as a result treat others who are not like my as if they’re inferior in any way. Who knows, they might be right, after all.
It was just before midnight and after a busy shift at work. I was tired and more than ready to go home. After passing by the Christmas lights display in town, I realized that the car behind me was acting erratically. I continued to drive the speed limit, following the laws. The car behind me opted to illegally pass me on the bridge (without a passing zone). Just on the other side of the bridge, it slowed down in front of me, signaled to turn right, but didn’t. It pulled into the gas station up ahead on the left, so I was glad to turn right thinking that it wouldn’t be my problem. I then heard it’s tires squealing as it turned around – out of the gas station and onto the road I had just turned onto. It began flashing it’s lights furiously. Again, the car sped up, passed me illegally, slowed down to a stop, forcing me to slow down and drive around him as he was hanging out of his window yelling something. Up ahead, I turned left – he followed, and again, flashed his lights, he sped up, passed me illegally (there aren’t any passing zones on this particular street), slowed down to a stop, and forced me to go around slowly. I began to wonder: “Is this guy trying to cause a collision?” “Is he on something?” It wasn’t long before he did it again – once or twice more (same street, still no passing zones). Once he got wise to the fact that I’d just go around – he angled his car in such a way that nobody could go around in the other lane. By this time, I could feel how afraid I was – my pulse was racing and my breathing had quickened. A maniac in a car had followed me out into the middle of nowhere section of the countryside, miles and miles away from anyone, anywhere. I could see him getting out of his car and walking my way and all I could think was that this was like something out of a movie that didn’t have a happy ending. My passenger helped me keep my cool, “Throw on the brights.” He suggested, knowing that it would daze the guy. My passenger used the distraction to great effect, throwing open the door and surprising the crazy driver – confronting him. The crazy driver claimed that our tire was about to fall off. Something about him seemed off – it’s a thing that you know it when you see it, but you can’t really describe why; a gut instinct, perhaps. It wasn’t a believable story – after all, our car was driving normally, there wasn’t any wobble or any indication of tire trouble. Not only that, my passenger is a car guy and wouldn’t let an unsafe car on the road. Whenever there’s the slightest indication of trouble, he has me take one of the other vehicles and checks it out. The crazy driver gets back into his car and drives forward on down the road. When he’s out of sight, my passenger checks our tires and sees that they’re perfectly normal. A few minutes later, a SUV pulls up behind us – it’s a co-worker who lives in the same area I do. We told her what was up and let her know that we were just fine. My passenger opts to take over driving, I didn’t object – I had had enough for one night. So we headed down the road, and my co-worker followed along behind. Up ahead, the crazy guy was stopped on the road. He let us pass and we went up ahead. When we lost sight of my co-worker’s lights, we turned around and went back. She had parked a safe distance away from the crazy driver right where it turns off to another road. We parked alongside her and asked her what was going on. She said that he had flagged her down with some story about being broken down and he had asked her to help him push his car off to the side of the road. She declined and said that she would pull off the road up ahead and call the police to come and give him some help. Given his erratic behavior, we opted to stay with her. At some point, the crazy driver turned off his lights, he coaxed his supposedly broken-down car back to life and started to turn around. And that point, we agreed with my co-worker that it was the opportune moment to drive away in the other direction. The rest of the drive was understandably tense – but we finally made it home safe and sound. Perhaps the scariest thing about what happened are the unknowns: “Is this guy trying to be a good Samaritan or does he have a nefarious plan?” “Is he on meth or something that makes him a dangerous person?” “If we really did have a bad tire, how would have continually forcing me to avoid hitting him have helped the tire?” “Wouldn’t it have just made things worse?” “Did he think I was alone and therefore an easy target?” “Why the different story with my co-worker?” Perhaps we’ll never know all the reasons, but if anything, my story shows that making all the right decisions can make the biggest difference in whether or not everything has a moderately happy ending. So this holiday season, beware of really bad good Samaritans who supposedly break down after following you into the middle of nowhere and happen to pose a significant danger. Being safe is more important than putting yourself in danger to do what might seem like a good deed.