News from the Pews, Episode 3

Willpower Wanes by Wednesday

Science tells us that willpower wanes by the end of the workday. If not workday’s end, for sure by Wednesday, and if one happens to be an outlier, their willpower lasts until the weekend when they sleep until eleven and slog through a fog the rest of Saturday and Sunday, trying to recover, unless they have children, in which case, they get no break. Workday, Wednesday, weekend, waning willpower leads to whining when someone tells us ‘y’all oughtta…’ (do just about anything more than what’s already on our overbooked schedules).

Those of you who have retired: remember when you thought life would be easier after you stopped working a have-to-devote-ten-hours-a-day-to-being-somewhere job? Aha, you retired and pretty soon, were just as busy as before you retired, just as late, just as rushed, just as wishing you’d done something else, just as annoyed when someone says, ‘Y’all oughtta….’

And if you’re still working and raising kids? Oh, Lord, help me, Jesus. In that case, Monday through Friday disappear in a blur. Out before sunup, home after sundown, feeding and bathing and reading and hugs and arguing–the happy elixir suspended in frustration that is the only constant in parenting, and it’s followed up with a dose of not enough sleep, too many emails, and useless meetings; no wonder they call it the grind. By Wednesday, willpower is gone as are plans for wholesome meals, diets, exercise, reading, prayerful reflection, and peace. Friday arrived with Thank God all around (even atheists TGIF), but then…traffic. Saturday’s a Gumball Rally of sports, dancing and Tae Kwon Do lessons, groceries, and a gobstopper of errands.

By the time we drag ourselves up Sunday morning it’s as though we were loosed from a malnourished dungeon—a prison of constant activity to which we feel tardy. Heaven help the poor preacher who tells us, ‘Y’all oughtta…’ (There, I’ve written the metaphor three times and can dispense with the scare quotes.)

They’ll hear from bored congregants: “Prophetic,” “moving,” “provocative,” “Bravo/a,” and then the people leave and promptly forget whatever was exhorted. The poor preacher is left wondering why nobody does much as a result of their carefully worded y’all oughttas.

I’m not purposely negative, though that rant sure sounds like it. No, I’ve just been at this a very long time, and I’ve found that the United States of American Christianity nods along at whatever is proclaimed on Sunday, but then nods out by midweek. Not much gets done because the world is so successfully beating us up Monday through Saturday that whatever spiritual muscle we might have grown back when Christianity was new and interesting has long since fatigued and atrophied. Let’s face it, we, the Church, are spiritually weak.

We, the people of God, and more specifically, the gathering of Christ-followers at The University Baptist Church appear exhausted: watch what we do and what we avoid. We have expelled energy on things other than those Jesus prescribed–shoot, many of us do not even know what Jesus prescribed. We fail to take advantage of the things that would build spiritual muscle because when you’re tired, everything sounds like y’all oughtta do this or that, and we just cannot find the time. We have the results to prove it. I am not condemning, I am realizing that in my own rush to do justice, I failed to walk humbly with my God, and subsequently allowed my mouth to say things that sound like y’all oughtta, which is almost never the answer. I find myself tired, and a little annoyed when I think someone is telling me what I oughtta when I am quite sure I have oughttaed all I can. I am very sensitive to the guilt trip, having taken many of those in my time trying to find Jesus’ peace.

Really, I think y’all oughtta rest. Rest does not mean go take a nap, though that might be what you need, and if so, please do, but then wake up and read some more.

Rest, in the Bible involves that “wait on God” thing that theologians gloss over, and USA Christian teachers and preachers avoid like a skunk. Waiting on God simply means doing what God last told one to do, which includes loving others, while waiting for further instructions. Waiting means building muscle for the next great thing God offers.

I’ve found that academic titles titles like “spiritual formation” and “spiritual maturity” put off most people in part because they sound like something someone else needs. They come across as yet another y’all oughtta that most of us simply cannot fit onto a clogged calendar.

Besides, who among us doesn’t think of themselves as “mature” or “developed”? Such terms demand value judgments that almost everyone misdiagnoses in themselves. Humans are terrible at self-reflection, uniquely designed to need a community to hold us accountable, our brains simply cannot physically self-evaluate with any more accuracy than one trying to cut his own hair. Our brains employ a system that blocks things with which we disagree while letting in things with which we agree. The system can be defeated by desire to learn something new, which clearly is not happening much in adults these days. This is why people who cannot sing thing they can, preachers and teachers who cannot also think they can, and children given a participation trophy are so surprised when not picked for a team that keeps score unless they’re actually skilled players. According to recent research, we have developed a culture where reality based accountability (realistic expectations) has given way to the universally human preference to employ something akin to the “halo effect” and the result is that nobody thinks their good enough to do much of anything.

You’ve probably read about the halo effect in surveys that asked people about church attendance and found that around 40 percent said yes they go every week. We who can recognize an empty pew when we see one know that those folks saying they attend church weekly must be regulars at St. Mattress; or perhaps they believe that watching Joel Osteen on TV is the same as being part of a church body (it’s not). We see another example in research where almost everyone considers themselves above average, but the math (and evidence) just confirm their belief, does it?

Malformed and immature adults, like teenagers, ALWAYS see themselves more mature than the evidence confirms. And since declining churches ALWAYS lack the necessary biblical systems for accurate spiritual accountability, well, they cannot help but decline. The lack of accountability breaks down spiritual muscle, which speeds up the decline.

I’ve found two simple tests to know if a church’s spiritual muscle mass is weak or strong. First, spiritually weak people send out a ton of y’all oughtta directions. Whenever you hear a litany of things to do to revive a church, it indicates that people are searching to reverse the decline, which is good. But the methodology comes across to busy, tired people as a guilt trip–another y’all oughtta piled on top of things they’re already not doing.

Our calls to action reveal a belief that the kingdom is ushered in by our works–many people, even in our baptist church, argue that God’s grace comes from our work, which is close to what the prosperity gospel claims, and we heard a little about that last Sunday. The entire New Testament except one sentence, says everything good in the Church comes by God’s grace.

Grace often means waiting. Since we do not know what waiting on God looks like, we punt over to working harder and trying to make people feel guilty when they do not work as hard as we’d like them to, which sounds like a corporation bent on quarterly profit, doesn’t it?

Working hard is wonderful as long as we work on the right things. We do not know the right thing until God tells us–sooooo, wait on God. And chill on the y’all oughttas.

Second, The amount of tribalism immediately reveals weak spirituality. That is, how much us versus them do we hear? (Read last week’s post about tribalism. Rob Bell is the master teacher on how God revealed a plan to reduce human tribalism and bring peace and how the President is dragging us back into a tribal society [oh, that’s candy for some of y’all isn’t it?])

Jesus’ teaching may be summarized as a plan to bring peace by reducing the human predilection toward choosing sides in an us versus them contest of wills. I’ve found this to be the root cause of war, including the debilitating, bloodless war that wrecks families, keeps lawyers busy, and splits churches. We, church family, are to the point that rather than listen to the wisdom within our church body, we must hire outside consultant.  Our spiritual muscle is weak when we have to hire outside help to lift the burden.

Let’s face it, we all know what happens when muscle mass gets weak. Other things start breaking down. The body’s immune response system weakens and we can’t fight off attacks and infections. I’m not telling you something you don’t know.

Now it looks to me like we’re hiring a trainer of sorts to help us build muscle–a spiritual healing consultant and, if we’re honest with her about our perspective and what brought on our personal intolerance to do the work required to build spiritual muscle, she might show us what we can do to restore health. But ONLY if all of us are completely candid, and especially those who stopped coming in the last three or four years. If you have contact with a member who stopped coming, please, please, please encourage them to talk honestly and candidly to the consultant. Do not hold back.

So we have a thing God is doing, and a next thing God wants to do. The next thing: hire a consultant to help us heal from the last three or four years of whatever it was. (Should we just call it “The Troubles”?)

We voted, Sunday, to follow the deacons’ and Church Council’s recommendation and hire a consultant to help us with The Troubles. That’s a nice way of admitting that we have misbehaved (not you, it was someone else, probably, wasn’t it?)…anyway…misbehaved and taken sides and created tribalism to a point that we now have to get an outsider to come tell us how to behave. We’re not the first church to do this; the epistles deal with specific conflicts in real churches, and Paul, Peter, or John are usually the ones writing as consultants.

Oh well, churches are pretty much always getting into conflicts. Especially baptists (or as I like to call us baptistas). You put three of us in a room and you’ll get nine opinions. Wait half an hour and you’ll have eight arguments. Congregational rule is wonderful except: people.

A lot of nice people have left UBC because of The Troubles, and the consultant might help them return or at least help stop more from leaving. The great danger is that people will not speak up and the consultant will get partial info, or worse, false info. That’s like a person going to the emergency room and telling the physicians part of what’s wrong but leaving out a few of the drugs they’re high on. My son works in an ER and he says such foolishness is common and can lead to death. I’ve consulted with 73 churches and I assure you that getting a complete picture of the truth is not the norm; you really have to show people that it’s safe to say what’s on their mind, then give them space to say it.

The good news is it’s not totally up to us to build a spiritually muscular church that is effective in the community. God does the heavy lifting. The moment we believe the truth our body will automatically take action in the direction of building spiritual muscle. That’s how God designed human bodies and a church body is just the collection of human bodies so that whatever beliefs are commonly held will yield action in the direction of that common belief. The really good news is that God is supernatural and that means any church who first seeks God will be supernaturally empowered by the Holy Spirit to build spiritual muscle and (remember the result), find more peace! This, by the way, is the whole point of Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount found in Matthew 5-7. Note well Matt 6:33 Seek first the Kingdom of God and his righteousness and all things (the stuff you want) will be given to you as well.

Spiritual muscle begins with believing God is the source. God is the power and love is the spark that ignites the power. Less tribalism is a sign of weakness. More love signals strength. The strongest saints (most muscular, most mature) don’t let politics or offenses get in the way of them loving others (John 13:34-35). Politics, by its nature is an us versus them, zero sum game—someone is trying to defeat someone else, not love them, and they tell tales to gain allies.

About that thing God told UBC to do: it is good, maximizes humility, advances justice, and loves people unconditionally. If anything, the results we’re getting would seem to unite us!

We feed the neighbors! That they happen to be the neighbors without homes is irrelevant. That they’re poor does not matter–I’ve never asked for a financial statement before handing someone a plate. They could be rich as Scrooge McDuck and scamming me for all I know, and who cares? What matters is that they’re loved. So they smell bad–how do you really think you smell next to a holy God? How do you think Jesus smelled? How do your children smell at the end of a sweaty day–you still hug them don’t you? (Please nod.) Truth is, I’ve never had to sniff-test anyone before handing them a plate along and my smile. We just feed people. And we do it well–there is no us versus them.

I read last week that a lot of college students do not get enough to eat. That doesn’t surprise me. Forty years ago, I was of that tribe. I lived on expired Campbell’s soup and the meat that had turned gray that Kash-Karry on 24th St sold for ten cents a can and thirty cents a pound. After rent, books, tuition, beer, cigarettes, and stomach medicine, that food ate up all my money. I’d eat like a liberated POW whenever Janet’s parents let me crash their family suppers, or my grandfather took me for a burger. It was an unpleasant time. I was unaware of any churches offering help or I’d have accepted it, but God provided in ways beyond the walls of the church.

UBC’s primary, God ordained ministry is literally standing outside our doors. Not necessarily limited to hungry people, they’re lonely too. Just ask them. And here we are with God’s cure for loneliness—a few people with ears in a church family that bickers.

I wonder, do any students need a meal and a grandma or grandpa? I can see the marketing pitch:

Wishing someone would love you? We have a bumper crop of sweet surrogate grandparents. You’ll have your pick. Need a grumpy old man to make sure you study for that exam—we got you covered. Need a sharp grandma to tell you that the person you’re dating isn’t good enough for you? No problem. Need a hug? Acceptance? Listening ear? Shoulder to cry on? We can do that. 

Our experts have a combined 8,000 years of experience. Singing? Pish posh. We got people who taught Moses to sing. Financial management? Ha! Some of our members been managing coin since people actually paid for stuff with coins. History confusing you? Our grandmas and grandpas eye witnessed all of it. We got skills, y’all. We even have a couple bona fide genius professors (Van “Bevo” Herd and David Gavinda), and one old has been prof with the spiritual gift of sarcasm. They’ll answer anything with ancient tips on how to improve that GPA!

When it comes to old sages, Wisdom R Us! 

Amelia did us a service by telling the story of the dead Lutheran church resurrected by remodeling houses, and no one is suggesting we remodel West Campus rental properties. Ugh—too old for that! She was trying to inspire people not handing out another y’all oughtta remodel houses, don’t you agree? Either way, remodeling houses? Not feel in’ it. Feeding neighbors? On it.

Here’s some truth: when we get closer to God; close enough to hear what God is whispering, we will hear the next thing to do. Meanwhile, rest in the thing that God is in now. Anything else requires willpower that wanes by Wednesday.

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