Effort Matters

“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.”

Or,

“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.

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The Strange Fire of Unauthorized Worship

I’ve been trying to move into a bit of a better place – not physically, but spiritually and emotionally with where I’m at on the Church issue. For the most part, my hectic schedule is set up so that I end up working on Sundays. Miraculously, I’ve gotten the last two Sunday mornings off. While I wasn’t quite feeling up to the hassle of actually going to a church, I did opt to listen in to some churches in my area with radio programs.

Last week, one radio program talked about “authorized worship”. He started off with a question: “Does the worship of God have divine regulations or can we worship Him as we please?”

He pointed to the story of Nadab and Abihu in Leviticus 10 – it’s the story of two of Aaron’s sons who offered up an incense mix other than the one God specifically outlined. They were burned to death by the Lord right on the spot.

He went on to outline the regulations of authorized worship as mentioned in John 4:

  1. God is to be the object of our worship.
  2. Our worship of God is to be in spirit; genuine and sincere – from our hearts.
  3. Our worship of God is to be in truth – which is the Word of God, the Bible.

He said that human traditions had a way of making void proper worship to God (Isaiah 29:13 or Matthew 15:8-9):

“These people come near to me with their mouth
    and honor me with their lips,
    but their hearts are far from me.
Their worship of me
    is based on merely human rules they have been taught.”

This week, he identified “contemporary worship” as “unauthorized worship.”

“We like to use modern instruments and sing new songs.” A church member might say, to which he responded: “Well, did God authorize it?”

“I’m just not getting anything out of worship.” A frustrated believer might say, to which he responded: “Are you even supposed to get anything out of it?”

“We’re just not attracting new people, we need to make some changes to make the church more seeker-friendly.” Another might observe, to which he responded: “When did we get the idea that worship was about attracting the sinner?”

“We’ve lost a lot of young people, if we want to keep them around, we need to make some new changes and do things differently to keep from losing them.” Someone else points out, to which he responded: “What will you do when new and different wears off and becomes old and stale? Keep on changing things? Where will it end?”


*Frustrated sigh* it’s church leaders with this mindset that basically banished me from the church in the first place. What Contemporary worship does is align my truth and my spirit to worship God in a way that Traditional worship never did and never could. Let’s also keep in mind that in the whole history of worshiping God; the Christian expression of it is as unauthorized as you can get – being a departure from all of the Temple regulations. Do we even know whether the Protestant Reformation was authorized or not?

Even so, how most churches worship today is a departure from how churches worshiped in the Bible. For us, the Lord’s supper is a thimble of juice and an oyster cracker – for the Corinthians – it was a first-come-first-serve feast complete with drunkenness where it wasn’t uncommon for the food to run out before everybody could get something to eat.

For us, worship is what it is. For the Corinthians – they had the occasional inquirer or unbeliever come to church to see what all the fuss was. Think of them as regulars who really desire to join the church. They got to show up and participate in some aspects of worship – but as unbelievers, things like the Lord Supper wasn’t allowed for them. They would spend serious time learning the teachings of the church and if their desire to be baptized proved strong enough they would be formally admitted into the church, baptized, and given permission to take part in all aspects of worshiping God. So to a certain extent, the worship of God meant having room for unbelievers to see what they’re signing up for if they decide to seek membership.

We don’t worship like the Corinthians worshiped. Or the Galatians. Or the Ephesians – or any of the churches listed in the Bible. We don’t worship like the Early Church that formed as the members of The Way spread the teachings of their Rabbi/Messiah to all corners of the Roman Empire. And we don’t even worship in the same way that the Holy Roman Empire worshiped God. And yet you want me to believe that all those people had “unauthorized worship” just because they never had hymnals and pianos and we just happen to be the lucky souls who have “authorized worship” after millennia of everyone else getting it wrong?

So you fear change? Let me grant you your wish and show you a church where change does not happen:

Woodward_Avenue_Presbyterian_Church_view_from_balcony_detail_on_seating

This is a church that does not change. Nothing threatens what is: an unending quietness – the absence of singing, and no echoes of people taking or screaming infants. No prayers are uttered here. The Bibles and hymnals that remain are closed. There are no power grabs from upstart youth, no wielding of power from the old guard. Could you worship here? Could you be the last soul this church serves? Where there is life – there is change. The young change into the old, the new changes into the familiar, the different becomes the same. The process continues with a whole new generation taking root and thriving, creating an even newer generation that will, in time, take their place. Change is not – and never has been – the enemy. So yes, we will keep changing and keep living – and God willing, keep inhabiting our worship spaces in new and different ways that honor Him.

But let’s not underestimate how important it is to get something out of worship. Humanity has a vast difference in the expression of it’s spirituality. Everything from monotheism to polytheism, religions seeking truth, others enlightenment, others an understanding of suffering, religions with profound teachers who are revered for their teachings – we all devote a serious amount of time, energy, effort, and wealth in our search for spirituality. The something that we get out of it is what keeps us in the faith that we are in – rather than trying them all on for size. This is true of our denominations as well – the something we get out of them is why we’re apart of them and why we feel no need to go elsewhere to get it – until that something is gone. Then we must seek it out and go to where it is now. You might not even know how to articulate the something that you get out of worship – but odds are you would recognize what it’s absence would be were you in any other setting, right? That’s how it is with me and contemporary worship. I can’t tell what it is about it that works for me, but in it’s absence, traditional worship just doesn’t do the same thing. And that’s why it’s so very easy for me to continue my vacation from church because there’s nothing but traditional worship churches in my area and I know they hurt more than they help.

As to the question of authorization – it’s a false obsession in the church. Imagine a young child drawing a picture of their mommy or daddy. Will their parent be so heartless as to tear up an “unauthorized” masterpiece because they used markers instead of crayons? If God has such a need to be worshiped that he created humans with free will and boundless creativity – would it make sense for him to prohibit every single which way He could be worshiped save for one way? What about the lack of punishment for supposed violations of worship? Why aren’t contemporary churches filled with various plagues? Why aren’t bad traditional churches bursting into flames spontaneously? What if we all have authority to worship God in any and every way we can think of – even in new ways that haven’t yet been created?

What really tears me up is knowing that I’d never belong in a church where he or others like him are in charge. I’d never be able to reveal the depth of my knowledge or talk about how I feel because these things are supposedly non-essentials in the worship of God. I’d never be able to worship God according what my spirit says is the truth. I’d have to play my part and act on cue – sing this, smile warmly, silently listen – but I’d never belong or be accepted or worship in spirit and in truth. It just doesn’t seem to matter though, because as far as he and others like him are concerned – his worship is the only right worship because it satisfies his spirit and his truth and as a powerful leader in the church, he makes all the decisions for everyone else.

What if God doesn’t judge us by the 10 Commandments?

So the other day I was watching some video supposedly about suicide and it ended up turning into a recruitment video complete with the “Are you a good person?” Test.

You can take it here if you’re ever sufficiently bored: http://www.goodpersontest.com/

At some point, it’ll say: “You may not realize this…

…but those are just five of the Ten Commandments.
By your own admission and the standard of God’s law, the Ten Commandments, you are a lying, thieving, blasphemous, murderous, adulterer at heart.

This masterful approach – isn’t the master’s approach. Jesus was never like: “Are you a good person?

Paul likened the law to a woman whose husband dies; so long as she is married, the law applies to her … but when he dies, she is released. He also says that obeying the law is never sufficient justification for one to enter heaven. So the good person test is in itself a cheat.

The truth of salvation isn’t in obeying the ten commandments, rather it is this:
“God “will repay each person according to what they have done.” To those who by persistence in doing good seek glory, honor and immortality, he will give eternal life. But for those who are self-seeking and who reject the truth and follow evil, there will be wrath and anger. There will be trouble and distress for every human being who does evil: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile; but glory, honor and peace for everyone who does good: first for the Jew, then for the Gentile. For God does not show favoritism.” – Romans 2:6-11

So the questions we should expect on the final test won’t be our ability to understand the finer points of the tend commandments, it’ll be more like:
“Have you done good?”
“Have you been selfish?”

I’m afraid too many Christians have all the right answers for the wrong quiz.
Galatians has this really interesting way of putting it – he reminds the Israelites of Hagar and Sarah. He says that Hagar represents Jerusalem under the law that enslaved them as sinners and Sarah represents Jerusalem that’s yet-to-come, free from the law. He says that Sarah’s descendants are the children of the promise who are to live free from sin and free from the Law that defines sin.

I’m not sure who thought it was a good idea to create the good person test – but it’s not really designed in a culturally and historically appropriate context.

The master’s approach was to say: “The kingdom of God is at hand!
He gave us the golden rule: “Do unto others as you would have them do unto you.”
He told us that “Whatever a man reaps, he sows.
He told us to do good to those who do evil to us.

If we really want to pass the test into heaven, then this is the way of the master – no other way is the true gospel, the true way, or the true life.

A Biblical Justification of Racism and Slavery Exists – let us tear it down.

Christians, now more than ever before, have a duty to really examine the Scriptures and find the truth for themselves. Sometimes that’s easier said than done. I’d like to show you a list of what people said they believed that people said the Bible said:

Teaching: “Mark of Cain”
Story: Cain killed Abel, God cursed Cain and marked him so that he could live a long, cursed life and people would know to steer clear.
Application: When the Northern and Southern Baptists split over the issue of slavery, the Southern Baptists claimed that slavery was justified as the dark skin color of the slaves was the “mark” that they were meant to live as slaves. The idea that dark skin color was the mark comes from Joseph Smith, the founder of Mormonism.

Teaching: “Curse of Ham”
Story: The flood has ended, the family has left the ark and Noah ended up getting drunk on wine. Ham walks into the tent and realizes his father is naked. He goes and tells his two brothers, who drape a blanket across their shoulders and walk backwards into the tent – they did not see him naked. When Noah recovers, he curses Ham – saying he should live in servitude to his brothers.
Application: This teaching was popularly used to justify slavery when America was involved in the slave trade. They said that Ham’s descendants married Cain’s descendants – so they had dark skin and were therefore meant to be slaves.

Teaching: “The Tenth Commandment”
Story: Moses is revealing to the Israelites the ten commandments by which they will honor God.
Application: Since the commandment goes: ” “You shall not covet your neighbor’s house. You shall not covet your neighbor’s wife, or his male or female servant (that is “slave”), his ox or donkey, or anything that belongs to your neighbor.”” Christians are instructed not to covet another man’s slave, Christians are not forbidden from owning slaves.

Teaching: “You May Take Slaves”
Story: Moses is giving the Israelites further instructions.
Application: God permitted the Israelites to take slaves of their neighboring nations, but forbid the practice of making fellow Israelites slaves.

Teaching: “Mixed Marriages are Wrong”
Story: Ezra has just helped to rebuild the temple – now it’s time to rebuild the respect for the Law of God.
Application: The Israelites have gathered and admitted that they’re guilty of marrying foreign wives. In order to please God, they decide to send away (abandon) their wives and children.
Story: Nehemiah has just helped to rebuild the wall – now it’s time to rebuild the respect for the law of God. The book of the law is read aloud and everyone commits to obey it.
Application: The Israelites pledge, ““We promise not to give our daughters in marriage to the peoples around us or take their daughters for our sons.”
In both stories, part of the reason for the destruction of Jerusalem’s Walls and Temple is blamed on having had foreign wives – marrying the wrong race.

Teaching: “Paul Returns Onesimus”
Story: Onesimus is a slave who fled from Philemon’s household. Paul sends Onesimus back to Philemon.
Application: Paul couldn’t have thought slavery was wrong if he would return a runaway slave to his master.

Teaching: “Biblical Households have Masters and Servants”
Story: Paul writes to new Testament believers to tell them how to live as Christians, Children are to obey their parents, parents aren’t to exasperate their children, wives are to submit to and obey their husbands, husband are to to love their wives, slaves are to submit to and obey their masters, masters are supposed to love their slaves like a brother/sister.
Application: Since Paul establishes a believer’s household to have masters and slaves, then slavery must not be wrong.

These are probably some of the more famous historical justifications for slavery and racism in Christian teaching. You’ll find that deeply racist ideology is also deeply religious ideology as well. Christians who want to turn the tide against racism must first confront the Biblical justifications for it – even the ones that persist today. Churches must do better than being silent against this misinterpretation of Scripture; because God’s word is being used in this way to justify evil. Let’s get it right this time – or prepare ourselves to repeat history.

English As She Is Spoke

One day, a Portuguese-speaking man who understood very little English decided to make a phrasebook of spoken English. He had two language dictionaries at his disposal; Portuguese to French, and French to English. The result speaks for itself; translating idioms (idiotisms) like: “Strike while the iron is hot.” To “It want to beat the iron during it is hot.” And “Don’t look a gift horse in the mouth.” To “A horse baared don’t look him in the tooth.” This very serious book – meant to help Portuguese speakers master English, is remembered as a comedic feat and a celebration of ‘earnest jest’. Because we’re so familiar with the English, we can see just how garbled the translation ended up being.
Sometimes I can’t help but wonder if the messages we have about Jesus are just as confused. There are a lot of considerations – our different cultures, our different languages, our different beliefs about the world around us and how we fit into it. It’s a small comfort to read that even Jesus’ own people misunderstood his reasons for being there. It’s so very clear to us that Jesus is the suffering servant, but they were looking for a coming king who would rally the Jews to overthrow their Roman occupiers. Lucky us.
We also have the benefit of thousands of years of this message to be distilled at our level – filtered through countless individuals from different cultures who helped form our theology. Some additions are so highly regarded we tend to believe that they were meant to be there – like the chapter and verse notations we use to help us argue back and forth. When Jesus gave his teachings and Paul wrote his letters, neither of them felt it important to begin a new section: “And now, moving on to chapter four, verse one …”
I don’t know – I guess the expectation weighs heavily. Waiting as long as it takes for Jesus to return again – in full glory and power, to bring our world to a close and our chapter in it to an ending. We will see God in all his majesty and wrath, destroying wholesale human populations who have angered him. It’s a different message than Jesus’ “The Kingdom of God is at hand.” Jesus message was simple, it was for anyone and everyone – it was offering hope and community. That is something I wouldn’t mind – but I just don’t see how the Bible can be interpreted to teach it as a timeless truth when we’re dealing with a bit of a Dr. Jekyll / Mr. Hyde God. Or as English as she is Spoke would put it: “Tell me whom thou frequent, I will tell you which you are.”

Realization

Once a monk made a request of Joshu.
“I have just entered the monastery,” he said. “Please give me instructions, Master.”
Joshu said, “Have you had your breakfast?”
“Yes, I have,” replied the monk.
“Then,” said Joshu, “wash your bowls.”
The monk had an insight.

Mumon’s Poem
Because it is so very clear,
It takes longer to come to the realization.
If you know at once candlelight is fire,
The meal has long been cooked.
— The Gateless Gate

candlelight

Christians have parables, Buddhists have zen koans. This one is the most famous – used from time to time in Stargate SG-1.

I’ve been feeling like I’ve walked into an empty room where the candle-light is out and the partially-eaten meal has long gone cold. There is a thick book on the table and I eye it suspiciously. I try to imagine what might have happened. Could they have started the meal, only to be interrupted and called away to an emergency? Could they have waited and waited – only to grow impatient and decided to eat anyway? Should I relight the fire and prepare myself a plate?

I think – no matter who we are and what we believe, we all seek something more. Different parts of the world have different teachings about what that more is. It’s not wrong to seek – because so very often those who seek eventually find what it is they are looking for – even if they don’t realize it at the time.

The Notebook

We were a bunch of unruly high school students – he was a high school teacher when he wasn’t our youth group leader. Having worked with us the last few years, he’d won our respect and we’d come to a reasonable understanding and generally got along well enough.

One day, he gave each of us a notebook. He told us how keeping a spiritual journal had really changed how he understood the Bible and he challenged us to keep one, too.

He taught us how to use this journal – it was simple:

  1. Write down the reference – the whole verse or series of verses as the case may be.
  2. List everything that stands out – explain to yourself why it sticks out to you.
  3. Summarize it and think about it’s application.

On the first page, he had one reference written out – it was the same in all the journals and it happened to be his favorite verse:

“… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles, and let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us. Let us fix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before Him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” – Hebrews 12:1-2

From there – we could take it in any direction. We could start with that verse, or choose another. I guess because I was already a blogger, I never really bothered to use that particular notebook as a journal. Not that I didn’t put it to good use from time to time. There’s a handful of verses from the Bible copied from The Message, several of Murphy’s Laws, notes from The Truth Project, sermons, and other Bible Studies, as well as the lyrics to “All You Need Is Love” translated into Spanish, and the quote about our deepest fear from Akeelah and the Bee among other things.

I never really thought myself as much of a writer to be able to keep a journal or a diary anyway. But as I was reading that verse – the part about Jesus being the author and perfecter of our faith stood out to me. Faith – well, it always seemed to be to be something I had because of something I do – like when I pray or when I read the Bible, then I strengthen my faith just as much as anyone who walks or lifts weights strengthens their body by exercising. It always seemed to take some effort on my part. I’d never really though of faith as something that Jesus writes and perfects without any input from me whatsoever.

Coming from a “doing” church – it’s always been important to be “engaged” or “plugged-in”. There’s always the nursery asking for help or something to cook or clean a soundboard or computer to run – it’s never really been about “being” in the faith. Since I’ve been out of the church and not “doing” for a while, it feels like my faith is running on an all time low. I wouldn’t even know how to learn how to “be” if it doesn’t involve some “doing” to get there.

And honestly – I’m more than a little uneasy about actually journaling the Bible, I tend to deconstruct the text and look for meaning in the shades and hues of cultural context and not just take it for face value – which generally is the idea; to just accept God’s word, inerrant, infallible, and profound wisdom, and go from there. A question like: “What kind of racing was Paul using as an example to the Ephesians?” can send me off on a tangent trying to understand the things that went unsaid and unwritten in a culture that understood each other that didn’t translate into English.

I did pick me up a brand new notebook – it’s a blank slate … but I don’t even know where to begin.