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.

Taking on Matthew 23 and the Uncomfortable Topic of Hypocrisy

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Several years ago, my church designated the fifth Sunday of the month as an opportunity for laymen to preach.  I passed on the invitation when my name came up.  I did not feel qualified to speak and therefore decided not to embarrass myself or bore an audience with my scattered thoughts.

Much has changed since then.  A couple years ago (upon realizing that I could no longer use the excuse of being younger than Jesus when he started his ministry) I decided to start saying “yes” when called upon.  And, surprisingly enough, I did survive my attempts at teaching and giving devotions.  In fact, I did well-enough that I started to think about what I would preach, given the chance.

What sermon would I preach?

I’ve heard dozens of sermons parsing 1 Corinthians 11.  Modesty (the word “modest” only found once in Scripture) has been a frequently preached on topic as well.  Biblical proof-texts pertaining to our doctrinal hobbyhorses make their regular appearances—I’m pretty sure my Mennonite readership is quite familiar with the “Sermon on the Mount” in Matthew.

I’ve heard many “fire and brimstone” messages about the danger of television, rock music, sports and “worldly” entertainment.  Where I come from there is no shortage of sensational stories and titillating tales included in the message.  Even the occasional myths about wells to hell and erroneous silver dollar arguments get mixed in to spice things up a bit when the pulpit-pounding theatrics aren’t good enough.

However, amongst those numerous messages I’ve heard from across many pulpits, there is one particular Biblical text that I cannot recall a sermon being preached on.

That text being Matthew 23, the chapter where Jesus levels seven accusations against the religious elites of that time, a sermon full of unpleasant words and bitter reproach that culminates into prophecy about Jerusalem’s destruction and the ending of that age.

I have long pondered why this significant portion of Scripture (mirrored in the six woes of Luke 11:37-54) is so often neglected.

It could be confirmation bias.  It is very easy to only see evidence that confirms our existing worldview (or “cherry picking“) and ignore evidence to the contrary.  Perhaps it is preoccupation with defending the current tradition that distracts us from a sermon about the hypocrisy of other religious people?  We’d rather dismiss that as irrelevant to our own time and unimportant.

Or…does it hit too close to home?

In a denomination known to split over religious minutia a discussion of personal hypocrisy might be a sore subject.  When I read it, the parallels between the attitudes of those Jesus called out and some I’ve witnessed in our circles today are clearly recognizable.  So the passage might simply be avoided as an uncomfortable topic.

Anyhow, as one not striving to follow the path of least resistance, and as one who believes that faithfulness includes challenging the complacent, I would choose Matthew 23 for a sermon text and explain how the message Jesus gave then still applies to us today.

Blogging—today’s medium for delivering a message to a broader audience.

I felt called to be a minister of the gospel at a young age.  Back then, I had thought that meant being ordained or or serving as a missionary overseas.  Both of those things have become more and more unlikely as I’ve aged.  I do not tow the denominational line, so to speak, therefore my chances of ordaination or being sent to represent a Mennonite organization are about nil.

I may never have the opportunity to preach in a Mennonite church given my current trajectory.  But life is strange.  This thing called blogging did not exist until the mid 90s nor did social media and now it does.  My writing here reaches a larger audience than ordained Mennonite men do on Sunday mornings and that’s something I could not have imagined as a child.

So, I’ve decided to do a series of blogs on Matthew 23.  I want to be faithful with the platform I’ve been given, and I believe that you are here reading because the message is relevant to you.  My hope is that this encouragement to go beyond our own religious comfort zones is received as intended.

Part 1: Jesus Assails Unhelpful Religious Elites (Matthew 23:1-4)

Part 2: What Is True Distinction? (Matthew 23:6-12)

Part 3: Missionaries From Hell? (Matthew 23:13-15)

Part 4: Too Focused To Be Faithful (Matthew 23:16-24)

Part 5: Would Our Non-conformity Impress Jesus? (Matthew 23:25-28)

Part 6: Are You Better Than A Pharisee? (Matthew 23:29-32)

Part 7: Jesus Longs for His People (Matthew 23:37-39)