Sometimes Less Really is More

penny( Originally written for Whosoever Magazine, this recaps and updates my continuing journey into “Radical Acceptance” )

There’s something so appealing about the story in the Gospels of the poor widow throwing her two copper coins into the temple treasury, in contrast to the larger sums donated by wealthy patrons. It’s such a simple concept, anyone can understand it. Who can’t see the powerful message about how sacrifice — personal and real, not quantitative — is so meaningful to God? And Jesus, in his usual pithy style, summarizes it neatly for us: “Truly, this poor widow put in more than all of them” (Luke 21:3). Sometimes less really is more.

Most of us have probably put this into practice at some point in our spiritual journeys: giving some portion of our paycheck already stretched too tightly, knowing (or at least hoping) that God notices how much of a sacrifice our pittance really is to us. And of course this principle applies in other areas of life as well; like, staying on the phone when we’re really pressed for time, trying to listen compassionately while the person on the other end explains in endless, tedious detail the latest drama they’re going through. Or interrupting our too-busy schedule to help a friend in need, or giving up the last portion of our reserve energy at the end of a long day to chip in with some worthy project. Sometimes the degree of sacrifice is greater than at other times. But I’m learning another side of this “giving a little” principle.

Recently I’ve discovered that contributing less of myself, of my highly (self-)esteemed talents and skills and intellect, can actually lead me to be of greater value and service to God’s Kingdom. Sometimes putting ourselves on hold for a while, and just being available and cooperative gives God an opportunity to use us in greater ways than our own abilities ever would have allowed — when giving our “all” actually interferes with our effectiveness, and our efforts get in the way of real results. Typical of many Kingdom dynamics, the application of this spiritual principle is the exact reverse of how things work in the natural realm.

A few months ago, in an effort to be of greater use to God, and (to be perfectly honest) to find a more personally fulfilling function in life, I stepped outside my immediate comfort zone and deliberately began attending a different church, one I was confident I’d have difficulty adapting to. I knew I was becoming complacent — practically, even if not deliberately. Like those rich temple donors of Jesus’ time, I was giving (participating) at a level that was not much of a sacrifice. I was comfortable, but I was also minimally productive for the Kingdom. And during prayer one day, I realized that I’d need stretching a bit if I was ever going to move beyond my current position of mediocrity. In my case, the area God showed me was the personal limits and barriers I’d erected around myself. I’d been bench-warming in a predominantly white, middle-class, evangelical, straight congregation for a number of years. Not much challenging going on there. And there was a young church I’d seen advertised in the “Pride” issue of the local metro magazine a month or so earlier that stuck in my mind: “go there; check them out.” I was reluctant. It was obviously a progressive church with a gay-affirming theology, and while “gay” and “Christian” were by no means antithetical in my mind, I was a little intimidated by the prospect of people dressing and behaving in ways entirely different than I was used to. Admittedly, this was a bias based on sweeping stereotypes, but I’d visited a few “gay churches” in years past and never felt like they were places I’d want to hang my hat.

After visiting a few times, I quickly came to the end of my own efforts at tolerance. I was exhausted. Oh, not that there was anything traumatizing or even very taxing to me going on at the church. It really wasn’t all that different from what I was used to. I was just trying too hard to be accepting, to not cringe when someone said or did something that wouldn’t have fit comfortably in my previous church. I was analyzing the sermons for signs of unorthodoxy. I was looking twice at church events to see if they would pass the “conformity” test. I inspected and challenged my reactions to certain individuals. And, although it was hard to admit to myself, I worried a little about what colleagues would think if they discovered I was associated with this church. All a part of my personality — for better and for worse. I was drawn to this place, I knew the Spirit was working inside me, but the stress of change was wearing me out. Driving to morning service on my fourth Sunday, I could feel the walls beginning to go up again. I was bracing myself for the experience. And suddenly, almost instinctively, I just checked myself:  No, I’m leaving the walls down. “Lord, let me love people as YOU love people; let me accept them as you accept them. Let my words and actions be your words, your actions.” I just let all the effort go. Less of me; more of God.

Without fully realizing it, I began cooperating with the change instead of resisting it, and part of that cooperation was learning to just relax and enjoy the ride. More than an active effort of trying to rise to the occasion and practice unconditional acceptance, I did the opposite. I didn’t “try” anything. I just let the walls down, and allowed whatever would happen to happen. And that Sunday turned out great. There was no pressure to “be good” or “not be judgmental”; there was just a relaxed attitude of taking things and people “as is”. And it’s amazing how much easier things are when you’re not the one trying to make everything right. I was more at ease with my new acquaintances; I readily hugged them, I was more conversant and caring. It was as if the love of God was flowing through me without being impeded by my own personality. And I thoroughly enjoyed the service.

That Sunday was the turning point for me. It was the day I finally fully connected with the church, the pastor, and the people. I knew that’s where I belonged — and where I’d be the most useful. I’m more plugged-in now, more involved, more giving, and more bold to seize the initiative and pray with those who need it. And I have a deeper love for the people. When I pray with them, I can feel God’s heart reaching out to them — to His people, his flock — and I’m so happy to be a part of that. Not only that, but in contrast to what I’d originally expected, I’ve met some incredible people, saints with a genuine desire to serve God, whose hearts are hungry for him and whose vision is not narrowed by years sequestered in traditional circles. More than that, God’s seal of approval is so evident by the strong presence of his Holy Spirit each Sunday. The place has become my home, and I am discovering what the Apostle Paul meant when he prayed that we might know “the riches of God’s glorious inheritance in the saints” (Eph 1:18). The people I was at first concerned about have become sources of blessing to me.  My life is richer now because I brought less of me.

This experience began by simply making myself available to God. I put myself “out there.” And I gradually reached the stage of bringing less of myself into the picture — less of my fears, my biases, my preconceptions, my inhibitions and insecurities, even my gifts — and allowed more of God to operate in me and through me.

And that is another facet to our tiny offering actually being more meaningful — and more productive — to God. When we stretch beyond our limits, we increase our possibilities. By simply placing ourselves outside our comfort zones, when we force ourselves out of our areas of complacency, and let our guards down, that’s where the real power of God can begin to flow. That’s what unleashes the greater blessing — to ourselves as well as those around us. By bringing less of ourselves into the picture, more of God can shine through us. And when that happens, less really is more.

Faith, Anticipation and Expectation

anticipationWe are the “Faith” generation. Many of us who surfed the wave of “Word-Faith” teaching that swept explosively through the Church in the 1980s and ’90s have since found our balance point in life. As with any fresh movement of the Spirit, there were excesses, misunderstandings, and actions out of spiritual immaturity unchecked by the wisdom and experience of older saints. But millions of believers around the world found a new vitality with God that had been absent so long in their traditional church upbringing. I was one of them.

Life teaches you — if you let it. If you have “eyes to see and ears to hear”. We grow; we learn. Part of my journey was learning a comfortable “fit” for faith in my life. I discovered over time that I couldn’t simply express a desire to God, flip the switch of faith on in my heart, speak the word, claim the promise, and watch the results roll in. It didn’t always work for me. And for someone who takes the Bible very seriously, that was a problem. What do you do when you stand on a verse that reads “if you ask anything in my name, I will do it”, or “whatever you desire when you pray, believe that you have received it and you will have it” — and then it doesn’t occur? Any wise saint will tell you that you can’t pull verses out of context at will and make them work for you. Every verse has its place in the entirety of Scripture, and unless you’re reading it in that whole spectrum of light, you’re bound to go astray. Jesus said “if you abide in me and my words abide in you, ask what you will …” (John 15:7). And that about sums it up. Your prayers, your wishes, have to come from a position of being one with Jesus. They have to line up with his will. Isn’t that what “in Jesus’ name” really means? You can’t ask for something in his name if it’s not something he wants or approves of. Like when Peter healed the paralytic who had been bedridden for 8 years: “Jesus Christ heals you. Now, get up and make your bed” (Act 9:34). As a believer, you are entitled to use his name, but it’s Jesus’ power, his authority, so you gotta have his permission first.

With that nugget of truth in hand, it is difficult for me to ask for a specific thing in faith unless I know specifically that it is God’s will for me at that moment. Even with things I know in general are his will. I know, for example, that it is God’s will that we be well, healed, strong and healthy. I can cite you a handful of Scripture passages to back up that assertion. But how many times on his way into the temple had Jesus passed by and not healed the same crippled man later healed by Peter and John in his name (Acts 3)? How many times have I prayed for healing (for myself and for others) and the healing did not manifest? There is a right time and place, a right state of heart and position in life, even for those things that line up with God’s general will. So, in my experience, I learned that simply “claiming a promise” was not always sufficient. I needed a direct word from God on the matter before that claim carried any weight.

Otherwise, expectation can get you in trouble sometimes. That was the problem with my faith. I could define what I wanted — you know, go to God with a specific request for a specific outcome. Like going through that period of my life when I switched career paths and had to reinvent myself. I’d apply for jobs I wanted, and because I was confident of God’s blessing, I expected to get them. But many of them fell through, and I was left to deal with the bitter disappointment and the shaking of my faith. Too specific an expectation without a direct leading can really mess you up. But when I stopped trying to force specific outcomes, when I did the leg work but left the results in God’s hands, that allowed God to move me in directions he wanted me to go, and I would be excited and surprised by the unexpected places he took me. That slight difference in perspective made all the difference. When I did not have a definite word from Heaven, I switched from expectation to anticipation.

We used to sing this little ditty in church years ago, and I love it to this day. “I anticipate the inevitable, supernatural intervention of God, I expect a miracle. I expect a miracle. I expect a mir-a-cle.” (Yeah, it comes across better with music. 🙂 ) It always summons up images for me of the Israelites as they’re leaving Egypt, chased by the Egyptian army, and blocked by the Red Sea. They didn’t know what God was going to do; they didn’t know how he was going to save them. In fact, most of them were sure they were going to die. But a handful of brave souls had faith in the promises of God. They did not have faith for a specific result, but they waited eagerly (sweating profusely, I’m sure), anticipating SOMETHING supernatural. And that’s the key. Without a definite leading from God, we shouldn’t “expect” definite things — but we SHOULD “anticipate” his inevitable intervention. We may not know what it is, but we know he’ll do something. “Holy Anticipation” is putting your faith in GOD, trusting in his love and faithfulness — not trying to dictate a desired outcome.

A “Facebook friend” of mine who pastors a large church in Washington, DC wrote today that the theaters they’ve been holding services in for 13 years now are being closed down. He wrote of his mixed emotions as one chapter of the church’s life closes and another is about to begin, not knowing yet what God is up to. He says, “Despite the sadness and craziness, I have a holy anticipation about what’s next. I’m [only] sure of two things. I’ll grow as a leader through this — and I embrace that challenge. And we’ll grow as a congregation. It’s not the way I would have written the script, but it’s good for us. We’re gonna follow the cloud and the cloud is moving!” As much as my limited spiritual experience tells me, he’s on the right track. He isn’t projecting the next step. He isn’t claiming a specific new site for his church — at least not yet. All he knows right now is that God is doing something — the cloud is moving — and he is anticipating a miracle.

Our faith can be expressed in both these ways. Expectation is appropriate when God has instructed us what his intentions are for us in a situation. But when we don’t know, when we are in a bind and just looking to God for a solution — like the Israelites, trapped between the Egyptian army and the Red Sea — that’s the time for faithful anticipation.

For most of us, those are the moments we most often live in: uncertainty about the specifics yet. But those are perhaps the moments of our greatest faith, and we need to just hang in there, waiting with excitement and open eyes, so we can see the amazing thing God is about to do!

Some Prizes Just Aren’t Worth Pursuing …

nobel_prizeEverybody likes getting an award.  We all like a little recognition now and then, holding the spotlight for our “15 minutes of fame.”  President Obama got another taste of that yesterday when he was unexpectedly awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.  Instantly, Democrats and Republicans, conservatives and liberals, pundits and the man on the street all began lining up, debating whether the president deserved it, taking pot shots at him and at each other.  And there’s the president, in the center of the fire pit, dancing on the hot coals, trying to figure out how to handle this inconvenient honor.  With all the uproar, it really makes you think: maybe there are some honors not worth having.

As I sat in front of the TV watching the talking-heads on the various news channels argue endlessly about this latest sensation, a few observations became evident.

1. Praise and recognition from others is ultimately empty and worthless.  Yeah, we all like the spotlight once in a while, the pat on the back; it can be good for our egos.  But the most frequent argument heard after the Nobel Committee’s announcement was that President Obama hadn’t done anything to deserve the Prize — at least not yet.  And for many conservatives, it made the Committee look ridiculous, and the Prize itself meaningless.  As one-sided as that perspective may be, it does accurately represent a core truth: praise from other people is essentially valueless.  People are fickle. They can withdraw their respect just as quickly as they gave it. Depending on how we effect them at any given moment, people can love us or hate us, and they can move from one extreme to the other with remarkable agility.  I think of holy week in the New Testament as a perfect case in point.  Jesus enters Jerusalem on a donkey, the streets lined with people shouting “Hosanna” and throwing down their coats and palm branches before him in adoration and expectation.  Five days later, they’re screaming “Crucify him!” at the tops of their voices, and lining the streets once again to watch him — this time on his way to Golgotha, carrying a cross on his back.  All those palm fronds were pretty meaningless at that moment.  As an old seminary friend used to say all too often, “They’ll praise you on Palm Sunday and crucify you on Good Friday.”  Striving for short-lived esteem and honor in other people’s eyes is just not worth the effort.  Those “15 minutes” end all too quickly, and when they’re over we’re usually no better off than before — and sometimes we’re worse.

2. Prizes can put you in the uncomfortable position of having to live up to other people’s expectations.  President Obama, for better or for worse, now has the burden of having to live up to this high honor bestowed on him.  He’s got to perform.  He’s got to achieve great things or risk future condemnation for being a great disappointment and failure.  And this can have the unanticipated effect of causing him to adjust his coarse or change his existing agenda to accommodate those expectations.  This could be true for any of us.  Suddenly we’ll find our priorities shifting, our objectives being modified ever so slightly to fall in line with our new honored status.  Unconsciously, we can begin acting in ways we think would justify the prize, to prove that we deserved it.  Worse, it can throw us into self-doubt, causing us to question our own motives.  Are we doing something because we want to, because it’s in line with our goals and purpose, or are we now doing it to garner further attention?  And Lord help us if the award was given out of manipulation in a deliberate effort to cause us to act differently.  As the president already recognized, the Nobel Peace Prize has sometimes been given “as a means to give momentum to a set of causes … as a call to action,” as encouragement and incentive to behave in a certain way.  Images of puppeteers and marionettes come to mind.

3. Prizes can incite jealousy and active competitiveness in others who may try to sabotage us.  Unfortunately, we’ve already seen this in our political arenas.  Some Republicans are doing anything they can to make Obama fail — in every area, at any cost.  While some may be driven by ideological differences, much of the resistance is motivated by sheer spite and animosity.  They’ve become obstructionists, going to extreme efforts to hinder any progress or success.  As Florida Congressman Alan Grayson recently complained, if Obama cured world hunger, Republicans would blame him for over-population; if Obama were able to bring about world peace, Republicans would blame him for destroying the defense industry. Nothing brings out competitiveness and resistance in petty people like a little recognition. And although it may be true that if they’re shooting at you, you must be doing the right thing, no one needs any extra unnecessary obstacles to achieving their goals.

All this tells me that winning prizes can be a dangerous thing, and doing anything for the sake of — or as the result of — public recognition and award can be very destructive. Does this mean we should shun honors at any cost?  Of course not. But it highlights the necessity of not letting those honors go to your head or influence you in any way.  It’s the old “you cannot serve two masters” situation. You cannot follow your higher calling or fulfill your life’s real purpose and pursue fame and glory at the same time.  Public recognition may come as a result of your great work, but it is a trap, and we need to carry that trophy with caution.

Instead of temporary glory, we ought to pursue a life of true significance, to make a positive difference in the world around us. We should focus on what’s really important, not what’s popular. And that’s as simple as loving God and helping others.  Then our reward will be a deep sense of personal fulfillment and satisfaction, a feeling of purpose, contentment and well-being that lasts well beyond a measly 15 minutes. Those kinds of pursuits genuinely benefit us and those around us — and carry forward into the life to come.  And I’ll take that over a Nobel any day.
“No servant can serve two masters; for either he will hate the one and love the other, or else he will be devoted to one and despise the other. You cannot serve God and wealth.” Now the Pharisees, who were lovers of money, were listening to all these things and were scoffing at Him.  And He said to them, “You are those who justify yourselves in the sight of men, but God knows your hearts; for what is highly esteemed among men is detestable in the sight of God.” (Luke 16:13-15)