Going Through the Motions

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The phrase “going through the motions” usually implies a half-hearted or insincere effort.

It is most often used for circumstances when we want people to be engaged and enthusiastic, but instead we see vacant expressions, a sea of zombies. And, like an old high school football coach screaming in the locker room at his sleepwalking athletes, we plea to the listless bodies: “Let’s show some life out there!”

There also seems to be an expectation, at least in the contemporary Western church, that a worship service should be a sort pep rally event, where anything short of people jumping over pews and shouting “hallelujah” is a disappointment.

Many, in defense of their preference for a lively experience, cite David’s dance (2 Samuel 6:14-15) as a proof-text and prescription. They treat this fist-pumping, near-naked and completely undignified affair as a sort of standard. However, this perspective neglects something very important and that something being context of this over-the-top expression.

That context?

Literally a once in a lifetime event.

The most sacred object of Jewish worship, the “ark of the Lord,” the physical manifestation of God in their midst, was being returned to Jerusalem. Recall the ark had been lost for a generation, captured by the Philistines (1 Samuel 4:11) and, though back in Israel, had never returned to Jerusalem. Of course this was a joyous occasion, a reason for great exuberance, the glory of God was being restored!

Revive Us…Again?

Those raised in a revivalistic setting often seek after an emotional experience. Unfortunately this is often the spiritual equivalent empty calories, something that feels good but lacks real substance of change, a momentary high often followed by a corresponding crash—a crash of equal (or greater) proportion to the energy boost that leaves many feeling more defeated in the end.

I made the mistake, in one of the most vulerable times of my life, of attending an Evangelical “tent meeting” outside of a nearby town. By chance, coincidence or divine appointment, the ‘impossibility’ (that person who became the physical representation of my inability to find a place in the Mennonite culture and not someone I had wanted to see in that particular place) had decided to attend. Not only that, but the ushers of this event, obviously not knowing of my personal struggle, seated her right in front of me.

Her presence there, combined with a sermon about faith and Peter’s walking on water before slipping under the waves of doubt, was the perfect storm for upheal. The manipulative tactics worked. My body began to shake and, after a few choruses of those familiar “altar call” hymns, I got to my feet and walked to the front of the congregation. Soon I would be wisked away by an earnest young gentleman, who offered to listen, prayed with me, and even checked in a couple times in the weeks after.

But the revival effect was very short lived. A day or two later, after that fleeting moment of assurance, I plunged back into my living hell. That exhausting emotional rollercoaster, the fleeting hopes of resolution followed by soul-crushing deep despair and longing for death, day in and day out, did not end. What happened that night was nothing but a false hope, it left me only more confused, more disappointed and desperate.

What finally did work to bring back some stability of mood was an Adderall prescription. That drug, an amphetamine, is prescribed for attention-deficit disorder and yet did wonders for my anxieties as well and was wonderful while it lasted. The morning after starting this, I woke up with music in my ears and the thought, “wow, this must be what it feels like to be Betty Miller!” It felt like a miracle. My mind stopped spinning in circles. I had confidence because I didn’t think, I simply engaged.

Ultimately, even after going off the drug for various reasons (including my inability to sleep) the effect of that experience was long-term. It is actually what gave me the reprieve needed to launch this blog, Irregular Ideation, and showed me some of the potential that I always knew I had and somehow could never realize. The revival meeting, on the other hand, was simply another episode that convinced me that the religious system I was a part of lacked a critical component and was only useful in that it led me to look elsewhere for answers.

The Cure For Chaos…

There is a big push in our time for spontaneity and casualness. Those trying to bring emotional energy back into worship attempt to accomplish that end by changing up the program. The assumption being that this change of window dressing (or rearranging of the deck chairs) is the key to spiritual renewal and confuse the commotion of the change with something of real spiritual value.

Unfortunately, the ‘pump’ is nearly always followed by the dump. More and more young people are losing interest in the shallow, ever-changing, consumer Christianity of their parents. For some this chaotic environment, supposed to keep them interested, provides them with no escape, no means to be in awe of God, and only feeds their confusion. Not everyone can jump and shout on cue—especially not when there are better adrenaline rushes to be had elsewhere.

What if I were to tell you that worship is about orienting ourselves towards heaven, not our personal preferences?

What if I were to tell you that church is a sanctuary, not a stadium?

It was only after attending a liturgical service that I realized the things missing from the form of worship that was familiar to me. Shockingly, it is in going through the motions, by worshipping in the manner similar to heavenly worship, that I’ve been most profoundly moved. Ironically, despite the order, despite the mundane moments of going through the same old routine, there is also a peace that comes by participating in worship passed down from ancient times.

But, more than that, it is trotting this well-worn path that the practice leads something wonderful beyond words. A cousin of mine, Michael Logen, a professional musician and song-writer out of Nashville, once told me that the key to good art is consistency of practice. In other words, instead of only writing when feeling inspired, he encouraged me to set aside time to write every day and it was in this “going through the motions” that our moments of inspiration could be most fully realized.

“I fear not the man who has practiced 10,000 kicks once, but I fear the man who had practiced one kick 10,000 times.” (Bruce Lee)

In this age of instant gratification and ‘worship’ that amounts to emotional pornography, many run from one ‘spiritual’ experience to the next, and miss out totally on the real need of their heart. Tragically, in their constant running from one temporary fix to the next, they miss out on the opportunity to practice a worship that is not centered on them, their whims, and eventually no amount of gimmick will fill that void. No, repeating the same routine, in worship and prayer, will not transform a heart. That said, neither will constantly changing things up.

Sure, there is a time for the emotional display and recklessness of king David. However, there’s probably a good reason why worship at the temple in Jerusalem was orderly and patterned. Like an athlete who goes through the motions, repeating the same routines of exercise and practice to be ready for game time, we too benefit from a worship that doesn’t conform to our own expectations—rather preparers us for a life that requires less spontaneity and more stamina.

Sometimes just showing up, regardless of how we feel, is enough.

Love: Feeling or Choice?

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This blog is about ideas and the idea that ideas matter.  I believe the ideas people have can dramatically influence the direction of their lives.  Our choices, based in our ideas, could actually help shape reality in a ways not previously understood.

The view that seems popular today makes people simply products of the universe.  We emphasize the role of genetics and the influence of environmental factors in shaping what a person is, which is an idea that is certainly not without merit.  We bear a close resemblance to our parents for a reason and had no choice in determining that.  There’s also a good explanation of why I am writing this in English rather than Chinese. 

Obviously we have a given nature and are influenced by the nurture we received, which could lead to a ‘it is what it is’ fatalistic view that we have no choice or free will and ability to determine the future.  But could there be more than that?  Is it possible that the universe is only an influence and not a dictator of our consciousness?  Could it be that our own consciousness acts as a co-creator of the future universe?

Advances in physics have opened a whole new realm of possibilities.  The wave-particle duality of quantum mechanics is a paradox that suggests there is a bigger picture of the universe and one that could put our own consciousness in a far more important role than previously understood.  If our observation actually shapes reality at a quantum level (collapsing the wave function) then the future may not actually be determined outside of our own mind and will as is a common assumption.

If the future is not a destiny and is in fact something we co-create, then that could change many things including our ideas on love, which leads to the question…

Is love an existent feeling or a willful choice?

Both religious and secular people have seemed to have embraced a fatalistic view of love.  We could be scientific and point to natural explanations like pheromones, cultural expectations, chance opportunity, etc.  It is basically to conclude that love is something pressed out of a myriad of factors that all combine at the right time—which is a view that makes love seem sort of like sausage.  The religious, on the other hand, may turn to a meant-to-be (or God-did-it) rational to explain love and downplay choice.

Our culture, religious or otherwise, tends to emphasize the feelings of attraction above all else.  Love is something we are told we should ‘fall’ into and that there is a ‘right’ person out there for everyone. The idea is that attraction produces a feeling that produces a choice that produces commitment and ends with happily ever after. 

Unfortunately, I believe this is a view of love that has produced a great deal of disappointment and disillusionment in our day. It doesn’t work for many people. For some the problem is that they never find someone who produces that feeling of attraction enough to make them commit and they remain single or go from one relationship to the next in search of it.  The problem for others is that they marry based in superficial feelings, eventually those feelings fade away and they want out of the commitment. 

In both cases (above) the idea of love centers around feelings of attraction and presents love as a product of circumstances outside of our own control.

But what if there is an alternative view? What if we flip the order of things and put commitment first? Or, rather than love being a fate produced by an initial attraction that eventually ends in commitment and happily ever after, could love be a commitment to love that lead to a continual choice that produces a deepening relationship that produces a feeling of love and marital bliss? 

It is my view that love is less of an ‘it is what it is’ fate and more an ‘it is what we make it’ choice.  I believe the idea of love as a choice would produce healthier more sustainable relationships than the current popular view.  We believe we would see a reversal in trends towards non-commitment if we stopped waiting for the ‘right’ feeling to come and started to be more actively loving to others even when the feelings do not exist.

What is the (proper) Christian view of love?

In the American church there is a heavy emphasis on experience and emotion in worship.  We want music, we want excitement and entertainment, because the more feeling we have in the moment the more we love God, right? 

Wrong.

Christian faith is not supposed to be primarily about feelings or ‘spiritual’ experience.  Christian faith should be about obedience to the Spirit of love and that is the true evidence of faith according to Jesus:

“A new command I give you: Love one another.  As I have loved you, so you must love one another.  By this everyone will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.”  (John 13:34-35)

Many Christians have confused positive emotions for spiritual depth.  A person who proclaims the loudest how great God is and puts on the biggest public display of praise is not necessarily the one who loves God the most.  The Gospel presents a different view of love that doesn’t resonate as well with our feelings based culture.  Jesus says, “if you love me, keep my commandments,” (John 14:15) and equates love with obedience.  

To obey Jesus means to love others as we wish to be loved (Luke 6:31) and to love perfectly like God does:

“You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’  But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven.  He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.  If you love those who love you, what reward will you get?  Are not even the tax collectors doing that?  And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others?  Do not even pagans do that?  Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  (Matthew 5:43-48)

If Christian love were a feeling and emotion how would it be possible to love our enemies?  Enemies are, by common definition, the people we do not love because they have in some way offended us or they are out to destroy us.  But, perfect love is not a feeling.  Perfect love is a choice to obey and love in action even when the feelings aren’t there.  Perfect love is a choice rather than a feeling, perfect love is the kind that sacrifices our own selfish ambitions for the good of others, and without that kind of love we are not actually true disciples of Jesus:

“Dear friends, let us love one another, for love comes from God. Everyone who loves has been born of God and knows God.  Whoever does not love does not know God, because God is love.  This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins.  Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.  No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us. 

This is how we know that we live in him and he in us: He has given us of his Spirit.  And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world.  If anyone acknowledges that Jesus is the Son of God, God lives in them and they in God.  And so we know and rely on the love God has for us.  God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them.  This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.  There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

We love because he first loved us.  Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.  And he has given us this command: Anyone who loves God must also love their brother and sister.”  (1 John 4:7-21)

Christian love is preemptive.  Christian love follows the example of Jesus who loved us BEFORE we loved him.  True love is not based in initial attraction nor does it wait in fear of not being reciprocated.  True love steps out in faith.  Perfect love is not a pursuit of an immediate feeling or instant gratification. 

Love is a choice to invest in the good of another person even when we do not feel like they are worth our investment.  Love means a choice to obey and the choice to obey is a choice to follow the example of Jesus.

So, if love is a choice, then feelings do not matter?

No, not exactly.  I do believe feelings do matter.  But, a love based primarily in initial superficial attraction is a shallow love and deep love is only possible with deep (and self-sacrificial) commitment.  Deeper love is a continual choice to love more than a fleeting feeling of love.  For that reason we should be emphasizing the choice to love over the feeling of love and not the other way around.

This is not to say that those who started with a feeling of superficial attraction never develop depth of relationship—some do and some do not.  But I will say that love that is a choice and a commitment in faith is starting at a deeper level.  The better love is not a feeling.  The better love is a choice to put aside fear (or hate) and invest in the betterment of another person.  It is a love that is based in faith rather than feeling.

If love is a matter of will rather than a determined or predestined fate, then when a person says that they cannot love a person what they are really saying is that they unwilling to love that person.  The feelings can never develop in a person who is not willing to step out in faith.  Therefore, if you want to find love, be willing to bring love into the world and give it away in faith.

Love first.  Plant seeds of love in the world.  Do not wait on feelings to arrive before investing in the good of others.  Do not expect the Spirit of God to come to you (or the world) unless you live in obedience to the command to follow Jesus and love self-sacrificially by his example.  Love before you expect love to arrive.  Yes, this is absolutely a paradox, a causality dilemma, but that is the nature of our reality in a quantum universe.

Do not be resigned to an idea that we are haplessly tossed about without a will of our own.  Instead, consider the last lines of Invictus, “I am the master of my fate: I am the captain of my soul.”  Choose to love supernaturally.  Be a co-creator of a higher and deeper love rather than a mere consumer of the feelings produced by base human nature.