What Hanukkah Means to Us

"Hanukkah Candles" from 4to40.com

This post talks about why Hanukkah is so great, why Jewish people like me who are strongly connected with the Church love the Festival of Lights, and how anybody interested in the connections shared between Christianity and Judaism detailed in the New Testament can be enriched by observing this holiday. In fact, I would go so far as to say that it is one of the easiest, most biblically rooted ways to recover more of that spiritual, community-located “reason for the season” goodness that can be overwhelmed by the rampant, consumerist commercialism surrounding Christmas in the West. (Yikes! Where did that come from?) But first, a personal admission:

I was raised in a household with a Jewish father and a non-Jewish mother. In the past, this arrangement would have been rare and suspect among American Jewry, but times have changed. According to the landmark National Jewish Population Survey of 2001 helpfully summarized by Liza Katz in her About.com article on Jewish intermarriage, the incidence of interfaith households in the Jewish community has risen nearly 400% over the last thirty years in the States. Whereas roughly one out of every ten Jews got married and raised a family with a non-Jewish spouse when my father was growing up, about half of all Jews make this decision today in America.

A substantial reason for this growth in interfaith marriage among Jewish people is the trend towards secularization and cultural assimilation prevalent amidst the religious and ethnic community in the States. That was certainly true of my father’s side of the family, such that I probably would not have grown up with much exposure to Hanukkah at all if it had not been for the deep interest in the holiday that my non-Jewish mother possessed and wanted to impart to her children. (So, for any of you pure-as-the-driven-snow Jewish types smirking at the mention of my “shiksa” mom, back your farkocktah attitude down or I will love and tolerate the shtik out of you.)

See, Hanukkah is actually a pretty minor holiday by rabbinical standards. In fact, it is the proximity of Hanukkah to Christmas that has yielded a greater degree of attention in contemporary society to the festival than has been the case in the past. Nowadays, you can actually purchase books like Daniel Novack’s My Two Holidays: A Hanukkah and Christmas Story, pick up a “Hanukkah tree topper” for your…er…Hanukkah bush, and satisfy your sweet tooth with blue and white, Hanukkah-themed candy canes from the comfort of your web browser today. That’s how much cultural amalgamation has occurred due to the secularization of the Jewish community when it comes to this holiday.

Yes, you can purchase "Hanukkah candy canes" online...

Consequently, my family did not do the greatest job celebrating Hanukkah when I was growing up. We put forth a valiant effort, but we basically grabbed a bunch of different sources and mushed them altogether to form our own celebration that bore only a vague resemblance to the real thing. But, man, am I ever grateful for this. Even this halting, not exactly kosher way of celebrating the holiday helped to keep that little Hanukkah flame lit in my heart, and when I approached adulthood, I decided to take an honest crack at observing the holiday in closer harmony with what scripture and Jewish tradition have to say about it as a result.

I’ll never forget the first time I celebrated all eight nights of Hanukkah. I was dirt poor, living in Uptown, Chicago. My experience lacked virtually every single trapping typically associated with the holiday–no siddur, no menorah, no dreidel, no supportive community of fellow Jews, no gelt or latkes or anything. I looked all the prayers up online and printed them off so I could recite them without distraction. I fashioned my own menorah from cardboard and tea lights, and I celebrated the entire holiday in quiet solitude with God.

It was the single most spiritually moving thing I did that year. I wept every time I lit those candles and stumbled through those prayers. When you’re doing Hanukkah right, night falls partway through the process. So, the only thing illuminating my flat were tiny flames dancing above a couple globs of liquid paraffin, reminding me of how precious God’s provision had been for the Jewish people as they struggled with a return from exile and a perpetual threat of annihilation, when the Lord worked a miracle between the silence of the prophets and the birth of my Messiah. It was as if the bits and pieces of my identity as a fractionally Jewish follower of Jesus were being knit together again every evening that I prayed those prayers, as if the Jewishness and the Jesus-ness of my spirit that my family had neglected until my father’s generation were finally beginning to grow again after decades of atrophy.

Julius Schnorr von Carolsfeld's engraving of Judah Maccabee in "Die Bibel in Bildern" (1860)

Although I knew the gist of the story of Hanukkah before then, I had never read the passages in the apocrypha like 1 Maccabees 4 that described the events upon which the holiday is based. I knew that about 150 years before Jesus was born, the Jewish people lead by Judah Maccabee had ousted a powerful group of invaders lead by Antiochus IV, a Seleucid ruler who sacked Jerusalem, erected an altar to Zeus right smack in the middle of the temple, banned circumcision, and ordered ritually unclean animals like pigs to be sacrificed in the temple on the altar he built according to the Jewish historian, Josephus. But I did not realize that it was the Talmud–a collection of rabbinic discussions about Jewish law, ethics, philosophy, customs, and history forming the doctrinal foundation of mainstream Judaism–that described the specific miracle most Jews associate with Hanukkah today, i.e. God’s enabling the temple’s lamp stand to burn for longer than it should have given the shortage of oil in those days after the Jews purified and rededicated the temple to the Lord following the expulsion of the Seleucid invaders. Now, I got to learn about all that stuff on the very days in the Jewish calendar when they occurred, recovering and reinforcing their memory while praying the same prayers Jews all over the world recite to remind themselves of God’s protection and provision in times of trouble.

I already knew that Jesus celebrated various biblical festivals mentioned in the Old Testament, but Hanukkah occurred after the codification of the first covenant’s canon. Consequently, I did not know that John 10 specifically records Christ’s celebration of Hanukkah, calling it “the Feast of Dedication” in most English translations of the Bible. As a result, I had completely missed the significance of many of the specific claims of scripture in their historical and cultural context orbiting this holiday. For example, Jesus shares a debate with some other Jewish teachers during the festival at a particular area of the temple called Solomon’s Porch or Solomon’s Colonnade. This was not built by Solomon during the days of the first temple roughly 950 years before Jesus walked the earth. Instead, this structure was most likely developed as an expansion of the second temple built by the Jews after they returned from exile, i.e. a part of the temple whose dedication back in the days of Judah Maccabee was the basis of the celebration of the Festival of Lights in the first place.

Tetradrachm of Antiochus IV. Reverse side pictured on the right includes the Greek inscription, "ΒΑΣΙΛΕΩΣ ΑΝΤΙΟΧΟΥ ΘΕΟΥ ΕΠΙΦΑΝΟΥ ΝΙΚΗΦΟΡΟΥ," which translates to "Basileus Antiochus, God Manifest, Bearer of Victory." Retrieved from wikipedia.

And since that festival specifically commemorated the ousting of Antiochus IV, it was not until I learned a bit more about the guy that I understood how brazen Jesus’s words in John 10 must have seemed. Not only was Antiochus IV a pretty bad dude in general, he was so self-absorbed that he broke with his own culture’s traditions to apply the term “Epiphanes” (Gk. “God made manifest”) to himself. The guy was so crazy that some of his contemporaries lampooned his assertions of divinity with their own play-on-words nickname, “Epimanes” (Gk. “the mad one”). So, when Jesus says that he and the Father “are one” in John 10:22-33 while accepting the title of Messiah, a Hebrew term meaning “the anointed one” of God, he was doing that at the exact time of the year when Jews celebrate the ousting of Antiochus IV–a murderous invader who made the same sorts of claims to divinity. That’s why the other Jews accuse Jesus of blasphemy, of which he would have absolutely been guilty unless he was actually telling the truth. That’s why everybody got so upset that they tried to literally stone Jesus to death. Similarly, when Jesus claims in John 10:34-36 that God the Father had sanctified (i.e. dedicated and made holy and set apart) him and sent him into the world, Christ was drawing a parallel between himself and the very temple upon which he was standing during the specific holiday commemorating that temple’s purification and rededication by the Jewish people.

It was like Jesus was saying, “I am the true, Divine Sovereign this Antiochus IV charlatan falsely claimed to be. In my own body, I am making God known to you because the Father and I are One, and he has set me apart and dedicated me just as our ancestors did to this temple, whose glory will inevitably fade now that the real thing is standing right here before you.” No wonder everybody tripped out at Jesus’s words; my own mind is still blown by all of this. I can no longer read passages about Jesus being the light of the world all over the rest of the gospel according to John–such as John 1:1-18, John 3:16-21, John 8:12, and John 9:5without  thinking of Hanukkah. It finally clicked for me a few years ago how all this stuff was not just a useful metaphor about Jesus’s activity or being in general but a hint towards a specific, mystical union of concrete reality and symbol running through Israel’s history and scripture right up to Jesus’s birth, life, ministry, death, resurrection, and ascension to heaven. All this was just one more example of how God’s method of protection and love for the Jewish people was a shadow and a sign of the full reality demonstrated in Messiah as Hebrews 10:1-18 puts it, of how Jesus is the telos–i.e. the consummation or the appointed fulfillment–of the Mosaic Law as Romans 10:4 describes the matter.

How NOT to celebrate Christ's birth according to some witty jokester at someecards.com

Jesus was not just celebrating Hanukkah in John 10, he was illustrating his fulfillment of it. And one of the best ways to let these truths structure my life, to let them truly sink in and form the basis of the way I live in the day to day, is to continue to celebrate them each year during the Festival of Lights, just as Christ and his disciples did but also with the knowledge of Jesus’s fulfillment of the holiday in his person. Thankfully, American culture hasn’t found a way to really leverage Hanukkah for much commercial gain at present. And this means that we don’t have to put up with wave upon wave of Hanukkah-based advertisements, initially endearing but utterly irritating songs on Lite FM, snarky allegations of the pagan underpinnings of the holiday, or kvetching by people distraught about how God has been stripped out of Hanukkah by all those secularists whom we few and faithful must combat for Judah Maccabee’s sake or something.

Even if you don’t posses a Jewish background, there is this awesome, ninja-like move you can make by celebrating Hanukkah if you want to transcend and in a sense redeem the cultural baggage surrounding the Christmas season thanks to the ways the dates usually work out each year. Do you have any idea how freaking cool it is to be able to celebrate Advent throughout the whole month of December, then drop some Hanukkah action right in the middle of it for a whole week? And when things really line up like they will this year, you might even get to celebrate Christmas Eve and Christmas Day right in the middle of Hanukkah. It’s like circles within circles, man… And nothing eclipses concerns about the commercialization of or pagan elements running through Christmas quite like throwing down some Judaica, with traditions and prayers and ways of thanking and worshiping God that predate Jesus’s birth by over a century comprising a holiday that he himself celebrated–during the specific part of the year and in many of the particular ways that he and his followers celebrated it. (You know, unlike Christmas, which I also love.) And if you do possess a Jewish background, I probably don’t have to explain to you how great it is to dig deeper into the roots of this holiday rather than let goofy tchotchke on Amazon.com or Stephen Colbert vs. John Stewart’s “Can I Interest You in Hanukkah?” define your experience.

Yours truly at the Christkindlemarkt with gigantic menorah, compliments of the Lubavitcher's of Chicago

This is what Hanukkah means to Jewish followers of Jesus like me. We are people whom God has miraculously preserved despite our lack of merit and mutt-like pedigree by calling us to himself through the light of Jesus and making us whole again–not just with a growth of integrity in our identity as followers of our Jewish Messiah but as a categorically new people unified with our non-Jewish brothers and sisters through our Savior’s body, as Ephesians 2 puts it. Hanukkah is one of the reasons why I continue to work for that unification to this day, one of the ways I try to follow Jesus’s example by presenting my own body as a “living sacrifice” to God as Romans 12:1-2 puts it rather than go my own way as did generations of my father’s side of the family in their bit-by-bit abandonment of their traditions and relationship with the Living Lord of All. There are few things that are so simultaneously humbling and yet motivating, so challenging and yet rewarding.

If any of this resonates with you, here are some practical tips about exploring Hanukkah this year. We’ll be celebrating the holiday this time around from sundown of Tuesday, December 20 to nightfall of Wednesday, December 28th, which corresponds to the 25th of Kislev to the 3rd of Tevet of the Jewish calendar:

  • Read up on your Hanukkah basics – I mentioned most of this already, but a good place to start is  1 Maccabees 4section 34 of the first chapter of Josephus’ Jewish Wars, and the story of Hanukkah summarized by wikipedia or Judaism 101.
  • Explore Jesus’s celebration of the holiday – Just check out John 10:22-42 and scope out this article by Gordon Franz on the topic.
  • Join some other folks celebrating the festival – If you’re in the Chicago area, feel free to connect with the posse meeting at my place by checking out the open facebook event. If that’s not possible, consider visiting one of the Messianic Jewish congregations or ministries all over the world, such as those listed on the UMJC’s database or the IAMCS’s database.
  • Hook yourself up with some Hanukkah gear and prayer resources – Maybe you want to take a crack at this Hanukkah stuff on your own, much as I did several years ago. The key prayers before you light the candles are listed here, and the prayer after you light the candles is here. If you don’t want to slap together your own hick accouterments like I did back in the day, you can pick up a legit menorah and some candles with expedited shipping from Amazon.com just in time for Tuesday night. Plus, that Judaism 101 link mentioned above includes a number of songs and recipes and games traditionally associated with Hanukkah.
  • Take your time – Hanukkah provides a great opportunity to put the breaks on busyness and re-calibrate your focus on God. Don’t rush your observance of the holiday; carve out the time to let the Lord work in and through your heart as you explore this way of celebrating God’s protection and provision in this place and time, just as God did in days of old at this season.

Baruch HaShem…

How Rick Perry Miraculously United America

Jackie Chan meme, you are so helpful!

This past Wednesday, an acquaintance of mine pursuing a Manhattan-based career in choreography posted a facebook status update link to Rick Perry’s now infamous clunker of a YouTube campaign clip, “Strong.” The link was preceded by my friend’s expression of total exasperation, a couple disjointed words trailing off in an ellipses indicating that unique variety of dumbstruck, cognitive dissonance that the Jackie Chan meme adjacent to this paragraph can alone properly express. And while I had not been very interested in Perry’s candidacy up to that point, I valued the opinion of my pal in New York enough to view that clip.

I should mention that I had just concluded a modestly pointed yet vastly rewarding discussion with about a half a dozen folks from the church I am privileged to serve on the topic of Jesus’s prophetic role as depicted in biblical texts like Hebrews 1:1-4. Perhaps I felt inspired by that investigation to speak some truth to power myself, to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable, as that saying by Finley Peter Dunne goes. Perhaps I was motivated to provide a counterexample to what looked like a bizarre amalgamation of something quietly hateful and deceitfully Christian in Perry’s message for the benefit of my friend and whoever else might click through that link he posted. Perhaps I was just really ticked off from the whiplash I suffered by plummeting from the heights of mutually edifying, respectful conversation with friends to the depths of Perry’s tortured campaign dreck. In any case, I just had to respond.

Now, if you’re one of the few people who has not yet viewed this clip in question, please do so now and then read onward; it pains me to even summarize its content any more than I do in passing below. And in case some of the things Perry said in that clip positively resonate with you, in case you sometimes feel that society is waging war against your faith or your ideals for our culture as a whole, please bear with me until the end. (The same thing goes for those of you who are sick of Perry and his video clip.) Aside from a few clarifications accommodating for the shift in context from a more personal facebook comment thread to a more general blog post, here is what I wrote three days ago and stand by this morning:

As a pastor actively serving the men and women of Chicago in some way, shape, or form for years on end, I most assuredly do not approve of Rick Perry’s message. Pitting the repeal of “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” (henceforth, DADT) against the prohibition of kids openly celebrating Christmas or praying in public schools merely plays to the base Perry hopes to strengthen at the cost of polarizing that base with respect to everyone else. The tired trope of a “liberal attack on our religious heritage” engenders not just an “us vs. them” mentality, it also seeks to increase the incidence of reactionary behavior among whoever qualifies as an “us.” And it seeks to do both of these things for the sake of gaining political power.

Lorenzo Lotto, "Christ and the Woman Taken in Adultery" (ca. 1529)

This strikes a deep chord within my soul, because I am not that far from the group of people to whom Perry’s message was most directly focused given my faith in Jesus as Messiah. And on the basis of that message Perry promoted, I am supposed to believe with all the other huddled masses of “us” that there is some group of nameless antagonists, a “them” epitomized in Obama against whom Perry will heroically provide defense. But I see absolutely nothing of Jesus in what Perry has said in this clip, and I wonder how long he will continue to obfuscate the fact that it was the outcast, the marginalized, and the sinners with whom Christ chose to dwell yet the religiously established colluding with the politically powerful who sought most fervently to put him to death.

Moreover, why should anybody care about some archaic religious heritage constructed out of the pastiche of America’s history in the first place? Why is that revision of our past that Perry selects–a revision that all-too-conveniently neglects the litany of genocide and injustice interwoven with the more commendable aspects of our story–the one we should arbitrarily claim to “matter” today? Isn’t all of it important since, well, all of it actually happened? Moreover, the end result of that pseudo-homogeneous religious heritage would be our present context, right? So, if we don’t like the fruit of our past decisions, what sense is there in an attempted return to its more nascent form? To repeat the whole process all over again because we cannot think of any better way to move towards a categorically new and more promising future?

The congregation I serve in Chicago was challenged several years ago to develop a statement of its view of sexuality, its understanding of God’s desires and designs for our lives in their sexual dimensions. Although this occurred before my time ministering with the women and men of First Free Church, I love the way that the document resulting from this endeavor emphasizes a few key facts that are central to an orthodox, Christian worldview elevating the conversation of sexuality above a mere list of do’s and dont’s. And while there is much to discuss about sexuality, suffice it to say here that I share the conviction expressed by the statement my fellow church leaders drafted regarding the fact that human sexuality is a good and purposeful thing, that God’s very self came up with the idea of sexual intimacy in the first place. As Creator and Lord of all, God possesses the right to make claims on our sexuality, and following God’s ways is what is best for us even when it is difficult or unpopular. With the majority of the Church through time, the rest of my current congregation’s leadership and I believe that God’s intent for the active expression of sexual intimacy is within the context of heterosexual marriage or else singleness in chastity. As an unmarried man with a relentless hunger to experience the joy and, yes, also the challenges that come with married life, those claims I just mentioned are hard. For me personally. (Jesus, help me!) But they are sound; they are good.

Photo taken by Mark Wilson / Getty Images of Iraq War Army Veteran, Lt. Dan Choi, cleaning the grave of Vietnam War Veteran, Sgt. Leonard Matlovich. Both were discharged from the military for being gay under the "Don't Ask, Don't Tell" policy.

Hence, one might not expect to find that I am supportive of the repeal of DADT. Why would I come to that conclusion despite all of the above? Because losing DADT means that both the heteronormative and the LGBT military community can be honest and open about the facts rather than advised to live a lie by omission of detail. Similarly, I appreciate the removal of prayers from public schools in the sense where this actually has occurred, viz. where students are no longer forced to actively pray or sit through prayers conducted by their teachers and school administration, because it enables our society to be more open and honest about our actual, pluralistic composition. We are people with enough similarity to have a shot at coping with our differences rather than pretending they don’t exist or leveraging those of us in one group to toe the line of another group without sufficient warrant. In other words, there is a profound benefit to this sort of pluralism, one that does not seek to blur all our distinctions or overcome them by fiat but to realistically deal with them in their pointedness and messiness, eschewing scripted, sitcom-like plot lines where voiced disagreement with another’s way of life is tantamount to bigotry on the one hand and the ideological equivalent of tyranny on the other hand.

I like being able to speak openly about my faith in Jesus in this context, about the merits of the claims that my Messiah makes upon my life and the lives of others without getting pat, hollow, responses of pseudo-agreement from people following some utterly sickening twist of civic virtue neutered of all reference to truth. I would much rather share a difficult relationship with someone who completely disagreed with me–in truth–rather than a vacuous relationship with somebody who had jettisoned any robust sense of their own convictions for whatever it is they are “supposed” to think or do. If Perry means to protect America’s religious heritage by shutting up the sorts of people who sharply disagree with me, then he is not just attempting to abuse them, he is also attempted to rob me of one of the most precious opportunities I have to share my faith. And if the substance upon which my faith is itself founded is not sufficiently strong to survive those turbulent waters of dialog and disagreement (especially without Perry’s protection), then there is no possible way that the foundation of my faith came from the Almighty God who spoke the universe into existence and in whom all things live and move and have their being.

Sweet print I found online depicting some of the founding fathers of America, not all of whom were Christians like Rick Perry.

Sure, I know just as well as anybody with a modest command of history that many of the founders of American society were religious, but several of them were not all that exemplary by that day’s standards. And even those who were religious certainly were not all cut from the same cloth: Penn was Quaker, Washington was Anglican, Jefferson was a humanist deist, and Franklin was a Christian one of Puritan heritage. But Perry’s political gerrymandering not only obscures this fact and the others I mentioned above, it neglects the far more impactful point on which I’ll conclude this diatribe.

There is nothing–absolutely nothing–meritorious about leveraging a spirit of division, exclusion, reactionism, and false antagonism on Perry’s premises (even if they weren’t so thoroughgoingly specious) when the precious opportunity to dignify, embrace, and redemptively engage one another while we labor to create a categorically better future lies in wait. That latter project will be difficult and undoubtedly marked by turns of dispute and misunderstanding as much as agreement and co-laboring. But at least it is truthful. At least it is possible. At least it is more like the Christ that Perry purports to worship than the politically charged religiosity that crucified Jesus over the very sorts of ideas Perry so mistakenly aggrandizes to everyone’s hurt. Not just the hurt of “them” gays and lesbians and Obama-lovers so callously treated as foils in this God forsaken clip but the hurt of whoever the “us” was supposed to be. And my own hurt, too.

Well, I wasn’t too sure how anybody would respond to my unsolicited, theo-political tirade, but the first comment it received was “BRAVO SIR!” Then somebody posted a different clip of Hilary Clinton speaking at Palais des Nations in Geneva, Switzerland to the end that “gay rights are human rights” on the very same day that the Perry clip was uploaded to YouTube. Then somebody else asked me if I was planning to run for office since, evidently, they were inclined to vote for me. And then another person posted a link to an image that had swiftly flown up the ranks of websites like reddit.com showing that Perry wore a jacket in his campaign clip that looked a whole lot like that of the late Heath Ledger’s character in Brokeback Mountain–working title “can’t make this $#!% up.”

Rick Perry is wearing Heath Ledger's jacket from Brokeback Mountain. You can't explain that!

Then somebody else argued that Rick Perry “is bigot”–not a bigot but is bigot. Amber Macarthur argued a similar point the following day in her article with The Globe and Mail, saying that Perry’s clip could be considered “hate speech” leading to a take down from YouTube given a sufficient number of users flagging it as such. Since I personally believe that just about everybody probably holds some bigoted views about something, this aspect of the clip was not the most frustrating part of the matter. Rather, it was Perry’s decision to leverage the polarizing nature of his views to gain support, i.e. at the expeense of driving more deeply the fractures that already exist in our society. I will admit that I found Perry’s views offensive and not just illogical. On a personal level, I bristled at the sheer velocity with which he swept a declaration about not being ashamed to admit that he is a Christian right into trying to fortify a claim that “there is something wrong in this country when gays can serve openly in the military but our kids can’t openly celebrate Christmas or pray in school.” It would be too much of a sidetrack to articulate how frustrating it is to watch people like Perry reinforce again and again that stereotype that Christians are a bunch of moronic, homophobic haters–and especially to know that Perry is probably acting this way because he really believes it is for the best. But on the level of evaluating his aspirations for statesmanship, it is his calculated use of everything comprising that wild package of campaign ad to gain political strength specifically through polarizing activity that I found most disturbing of all.

And that is why I was pleasantly surprised at what happened next, for, lo and behold, Rick Perry has miraculously unified America. Namely, through prompting a virtually unanimous, negative response to Rick Perry’s “Strong.” Within roughly one full day after the clip was posted by Perry’s camp, Chicagoan film critic extraordinaire, Roger Ebert, tweeted, “Answer to Rick Perry’s confusion: We live in a democracy, not a theocracy. Epic YouTube fail,” including a link to Garance Franke-Ruta’s article in The Atlantic analyzing the overwhelmingly negative, high-volume response the campaign commercial was receiving from virtually every front. All sorts of people began uploading parody videos satirizing the matter, including nationally established groups like Chicago’s Second City Network,  rising “YouTube famous” acts like The Comedy Couple, maybe-not-so-famous-but-quite-prolific atheists like James Kotecki, and the one I personally found most hilarious, Conservative Jewish rabbi, Jason Miller.

Garance Franke-Ruta, politics editor of The Atlantic online who was one of the first to catch the meteoric fall of Perry's "Strong."

Will Ferrel’s “Funny or Die” website put together a more surprisingly tasteful response than expected, depicting a buddy-buddy version of Jesus Christ correcting Perry’s gaffes. Memes began to fly all over the place, including a Harry Potter homage to the 2012 campaign of “Lord Perrymort,” alleging that you “do not need to be a Pureblood to know there is something wrong with the Wizarding World when Mudbloods can live among the worthy as equals, but our own children cannot openly practise the Dark Arts.” Roughly 72 hours after Perry’s “Strong” was posted to YouTube, it has garnered over 3 million views with a 98% disapproval rating, a feat so momentous that apparently everybody from The Huffington Post to Salon.com to local television affiliates like Wilmington, NC’s channel 6 News all felt compelled to report on the matter.

I don’t want to treat the extremely problematic aspects of what Perry said in those fateful, thirty seconds with too much levity. His perspective is dangerous. It bears a family resemblance to the specific mechanism that crucified Jesus, and it smacks of the very sort of thing that is driving so many people away from Christ’s Church of which I am a part and continue to serve. This lousy ad has upset a lot of people I love, not just ones who feel personally targeted but others who feel misrepresented, not to mention still others who are sincerely concerned about some of the fears upon which Perry played to his own political ends.

But all this has quite thankfully resulted in something I never expected when I first viewed that clip after my buddy posted it. It has brought some of us–in fact, quite a lot of us–closer together now than we were before. And in so doing, it has shown us that this is possible not just in spite of but specifically by the agency of what was selfishly intended to drive us apart. Are you ready to help build that future?

Working Hard Is Not Enough – 33rd Birthday Reflection no.2

“Sisyphus” by Interesni Kazki, painted on a building in Ekaterinburg, Russia

I usually update this blog around once a week, but I’ve been preoccupied with some exciting new ministry efforts coupled with increased preaching duties orbiting Thanksgiving over the past month or so. Incidentally, this year’s holiday reminded me yet again of the vast quantity of things for which I have to be grateful, especially my family, whose affection I do not remotely deserve. Not only did my sister take a break from her recording project in Nashville to visit with everyone else, not only did my mother single-handedly prepare the most scrumptious meal I’ve tasted all year, not only did my dad randomly install a new hard drive on my computer twice the size of my old one, they did all this purely because they love me without any pressure to reciprocate. And even though I did express my love back to them (and they probably figured that I would), the whole scene reminded me once again of how amazing freely given love is and how thankfulness prepares a place for its flourishing.

I may write more about the subject of gratitude in the near future, but the topic of this post is a bit different. In the middle of all those cool ministry pursuits and family loving this past month, I also got the chance to coach several folks slogging through some extremely frustrating struggles in their lives–job prospects gone south, precious relationships decaying beyond ostensible repair, and a lot of confusion about how to even begin to sensibly chart a course for the future. I cannot share these people’s stories here in detail without breaching confidentiality, but the experience reinforced my conviction about the main point I want to share here, a lesson I learned the hard way over the past year about what lies at heart of much of our failure to achieve the sorts of things we really want for the endeavors that matter to us the most.

Now, if you are a total slacker reading this because you think it will validate your laziness, this post will disappoint you. On the other hand, if you are someone who has ever felt frustrated when your erstwhile, conscientious efforts have gone unrewarded–someone who has put their nose to the grindstone time and again with little to show for it save a face full of sparks–this article is for you. And if you are frequently tempted to slack off because working hard all the time with mediocre results exhausts you, the following could be one of the most important things you read all week. Sectional links for ease of navigation, just like last time:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward
§ 2. The principle formally expressed
§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson
§ 4. The Divine connection
§ 5. Concluding, personal notes

This must be the world's most endearing image of camel online (:

§ 1. The threshold of sufficient reward – In my last post in this series, I tried to illustrate how a fine line separates the utterly depressing from the categorically awesome, and I argued that we should relentlessly pursue the latter as if our lives depended on it (because they actually do). The focus of this article is intimately connected with the actualization of that principle on a pragmatic level. If we don’t know what constitutes a categorically awesome object of pursuit, we will miss valuable opportunities time and again–often winding up, well, utterly depressed. But anybody who has ever successfully identified such a truly worthwhile endeavor knows that victory in that skirmish is only one part of the much greater battle. There’s the challenge of the actual pursuit itself, which is is where most of us really struggle. And while a camel can outlast a horse in the desert, the former still needs water to keep going at some point. Similarly, even the most tenacious and discerning among us need concrete, positive reinforcement that the things and people and projects to which we have committed our time and effort really are worth the cost of investment, even when we are pretty sure that this is the case in theory.

Garnering such positive reinforcement is easy by definition when the course of action we select is immediately, satisfyingly rewarding. But not much of life is like that. Indeed, a number of the most important, good decisions we make do not yield immediately satisfying results. And complications can arise in the middle of a given endeavor just as much as they may at the beginning. How many promising opportunities have you watched people decline because risking experimentation seemed to cost too much to them? We will stick with a given state of affairs, even one where we are dissatisfied and uncomfortable, if the alternatives do not seem like they will yield a substantially better outcome balancing out the potential cost. And even if we do embark on some experiment because the probable results seem worthwhile enough to warrant the risk, we will not remain robustly committed to the matter for very long if our efforts become too disconnected from a palpably experienced reward.

It is normal not to try something novel unless it promises a better outcome than the way we have already chosen. It is difficult to delay gratification when a newly selected path forward does not deliver on its promises as swiftly as we hope. But it is pitiful when we repeatedly do the same, inadvisable things over and over again that yield the same, lousy results–especially when we don’t have a clue about how to achieve anything better. Nevertheless, we make these sorts of decisions often, and we do so in a multitude of extremely costly ways.

Silent film artist, Buster Keaton, illustrating the ignominy of life behind bars

For example, the United States Department of Justice conducted a study across fifteen different states finding that 67.5% of prisoners released after being convicted of felonies were rearrested within three years. That is not just an indictment of our criminal justice system’s inability to achieve restoration, as I’ve previously alluded in my analysis of Troy Davis’s plight. That ridiculously high rate of recidivism is also a painfully accurate illustration of humanity’s difficulty breaking cycles of poor behavior with obviously severe ramifications. In fact, the 2003 Sourcebook of Criminal Justice Statistics reports that the rate of repeat felony climbed as high as 75% and above for those convicted of stealing personal property or possessing / selling stolen goods, with nearly 80% rate of repeat offense for those arrested for auto theft. Evidently, we’ll take a flying leap after carrots that we already know are forbidden and demonstrably out of reach provided they look juicy enough.

You might chalk that sort of behavior up to a symptom of delinquency, but law abiding citizens do the same sorts of things in their relationships, their jobs, and in setting the courses for their respective futures. We far too often wind up in the same sorts of vacuous friendships and romances, pouring our hearts into what is not built to last or else cutting our loses and screwing whomever we can to get a mere taste of what we really want despite the lack of substance. Similarly, many of us habitually sabotage our own careers. If we stay employed, we tend to do so in jobs that we do not enjoy working for people who do not understand us. A 2004 study conducted by Harris Interactive, Inc. found that roughly 55% of employees across America are unsatisfied with their jobs, and they are working for bosses who think that twice as many of them are “extremely satisfied” with their situation than is actually the case according to a 2009 study conducted by salary.com.

Instead of taking an honest look at why we keep winding up in these situations, we tend to blame others. And if we do accept responsibility for our circumstances, most of us apparently do not know how to qualitatively change matters in the final analysis. Why?

§ 2. The principle formally expressed – For those of us who are not chronic slackers, the source of this problem is not an obvious character flaw or a socially reinforced vice. In fact, many of us suffer from a virtue gone awry, and that is the pervasive misbelief that hard work is enough.

This quote by Einstein pretty much speaks for itself...

Many of us are convinced despite strong evidence to the contrary that if we just keep plugging away at this lackluster gig or that disappointing relationship, things will get better by sheer force of effort. And so we do just that, we keep committing our time and energy until we accrue a sufficiently large quantity of poor results such that the thing occupying our attention falls apart of its own accord or frustrates us to the point that we bail to a different field of endeavor. Where we usually repeat the same, ineffective behavior predicated on the truism that working and working and working will get us what is good all by itself.

And those of us who luck out, who achieve a better state of affairs despite living according to this mistaken approach gild that freaking carrot for the rest of us such that we keep trying in vain. In contrast, here is the tough but ultimately liberating truth I learned this year:

33rd Birthday Lesson No.2 – Working hard is not enough. In the long run, you will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for your effort alone.

§ 3. Why we constantly miss this lesson – If this principle sounds counter-intuitive, let it sink in for just moment. Most of the time, you will not get what you want simply by working hard. Now, the capacity to work hard is itself immensely important. And since it is difficult to build the endurance necessary to work hard along with the the diligence to apply ourselves time and again, a lot of us are distracted from the truth that fortifying these character traits in no way guarantees success all by itself.

Thus, we tend to attribute an inability to achieve a certain goal to an insufficient quantity of effort, or else we conclude that the desired outcome just was not in the cards for us this time around. Unfortunately, many of us layer these interpretations of our lives with a sort of creeping, statistical fallacy, one where we believe that continuing to work hard somehow makes us progressively more worthy to encounter success. And while this may be true in one sense, we take things a step further to presume that we not only deserve success in our endeavors but that we will actually be rewarded with it by some external guarantor–the universe, a boss, God, our colleagues or clientele–some day in the future.

As a result, we possess a dangerously crude understanding of what our work is in the first place. Far wiser minds than mine have reflected on this matter for centuries, but I am going to define work here as “any effort or activity directed toward the production or accomplishment of something.” Now, that’s a pretty general definition, but it immediately illustrates why efficiency is so great: Achieving more productivity for less effort is the bottom line of what everybody means when they say it is better to work smarter than harder.

Framed this way, work is a somewhat different concept than employment, which I could define as “the self-determined state of exchanging work for some form of compensation.” That compound word “self-determined” helps us draw a line between employment and slavery, in that people who are enslaved may very well be compensated for their labor, but they have this arrangement thrust upon them rather than enjoying the opportunity to chose or reject it with some measure of autonomy.

Hilarious scene from Mike Judge's "Office Space"

Our distinction between work and employment is helpful because it emphasizes that third term, compensation, which provides a means for us to grasp what we so often miss when it comes to working hard. Namely, we are compensated over the long run for the productivity of our work and not for the effort required to yield this productivity. Furthermore, there is a perspectival quality to compensation for productivity; in other words, we are not compensated for our actual productivity but for the value that others ascribe to the things or the ideas or whatever it is we happen to produce for which they are willing to exchange some other thing of value.

So, there are actually three different methods to optimize the rewards for one’s labor: 1) find ways to produce things of greater value, i.e. work more innovatively or with greater skill, 2) squeeze more productivity out of the same quantity of work, i.e. work more efficiently, or 3) find ways to amplify the perception of the value of one’s productivity for the sake of those with whom we are trying to exchange the product of our work for something else of value.

The above might seem ridiculously technical, but this is what makes it possible for a twenty-four year old football player or a seventeen year old pop star to achieve literally hundreds upon thousands of times the compensation for their work when compared to a veritable army of school teachers, social workers, and the like. The world’s working poor and scores of starving artists may curse a system that impoverishes thousands of us while awarding Justin Beiber $53 million in a single year for stuff like “Baby” and “Eenie Meenie,” but there is actually a really good reason for this. Our society as  a whole simply attributes greater value to the products of Justin Beiber’s work, and so we will collectively exchange more stuff of value for it.

Tim Tebow sporting "John 3:16" on his eye black

Notice also that I am using the term, “compensation,” pretty generally here, too. When Tim Tebow inscribed “John 3:16” on his eye black for the 2009 BCS national football championship game as a student at the University of Florida, he received no direct, financial compensation for his labor; however, his activity yielded a disproportionately greater social effect than would have been the case if hundreds of pastors or lawyers or dishwashers had done something similar in their lines of work. Tebow’s singular action rocketed Google searches for “John 3:16” above every other term the night of that game, prompted multiple forms of commentary across traditional media outlets as well as the blogosphere, and landed Tebow numerous speaking engagements where he has been invited to discuss his perspective and share his message about God’s love, as this fan-made, April 2010 clip from the Don Meyer Evening of Excellence at Lipscomb University illustrates.

Listen, social workers and school teachers most assuredly perform a more categorically important function for our society in general than sports stars and pop idols; their work is not only more taxing, it more substantially impacts more people’s lives for the better. Nevertheless, our society ascribes a disproportionately greater value to the productivity of a teenage heartthrob or an NFL-bound Heisman trophy winner than the productivity of the other sorts of people I mentioned. And as frustrating as that may be for many of us, there is a logic behind this seeming irrationality.

But we can do better than simply suffer though this situation, like so many heartbroken hipsters overwhelmed by legions of “beliebers” (as Justin’s fans like to call themselves for some crazy reason). We can use use these facts to jolt ourselves beyond the web of misbelief threatening to hold our futures captive the minute we deal with the matter squarely. Instead of getting frustrated when our efforts fail to pan out in the ways we hope, we should ask three absolutely critical questions and respond accordingly:

  1. Are my efforts actually producing anything of value in this situation, or am I basically killing time and energy?
  2. Am I getting hung up about squeezing more effort out of myself, or are there ways that I can succeed in extracting more productivity from my labor–either by working more efficiently or else by gaining or tapping into more skill so that the things I produce are more valuable?
  3. Is there some person or entity who needs to recognize the value of the things I am producing in order for me to obtain the sort of compensation for which I am hoping in exchange for my work? If people do not seem to care about all the great stuff I produce, how I can I go about raising the perception of its value so they take notice?

Jack Whittacker won nearly $114 million after taxes through the lottery, all of which he lost. He is now struggling financially and claims that he wished he never won in the first place.

Unfortunately, most of us do not pose these sorts of questions to ourselves; perhaps we have difficulty dealing with the weight of freedom and responsibility they remind us we possess. If we take those three questions seriously, then we almost never have anybody to blame for a state of affairs that displeases us over the long haul but ourselves. We cannot blame poor parenting, misunderstanding teachers, cheapskate bosses, no-good lovers, loser friends, or bad hands dealt by life for absolutely ruining everything. Accidents do happen and fortunes are found. Some people suffer low blows, and others reap windfalls. Yet, with rare exception, none of those more negative outcomes can completely inhibit us from increasing our ability to produce things, ideas, or states of affairs of value over time as well as achieve greater recognition for the value of our productivity day by day. Again, an unanticipated stroke of luck can actually numb us to learning these critical lessons, which is probably one reason why so many people who win the lottery actually wind up in worse financial shape in the long run.

Additionally, many of us who aren’t winning the lottery cope with a sense of inadequate compensation for our labor by adjusting our expectations rather than our activity, by seeking refuge from the weight of our freedom and responsibility in pseudo gratitude predicated on the possibility that things could be even worse. In other words, we are often not truly thankful for the blessings we receive; instead, we use fear of an unrealized, potentially more negative future that could befall us to resist the impulse to take a shot at changing our situation for the better in tough but trustworthy ways.

It is easier to reconcile oneself to disappointment than it is to go through the hassle of altering such a fundamental part of one’s worldview, something affecting essentially any sort of relationship we might share with others, from romantic partners to friends to business associates. Philosophically, these are some of the reasons why we tend to miss the lesson that we will only be substantially rewarded for bringing something of clearly discernible value to a given state of affairs and not for sheer force of effort alone.

§ 4. The Divine Connection – I have consciously tried to develop this essay using general terms, without limiting discussion of things like work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility to a strictly financial context because I am convinced of its broad applicability. In fact, the experience that really drove this point home for me this year personally had virtually no financial component to it whatsoever.

Back in March of 2010, the father of my senior ministerial colleague, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos, passed away. I had worked beside Bill for about two years serving the people of First Free Church and the greater Chicago area, and I watched him overcome immense obstacles during this time. But the death of Bill’s father hit him hard, and as a result, I offered to preach the sermon on a particular Sunday to give him more time to mourn with his family without having to be concerned about the affairs of the church quite so much.

There was just one catch: Bill had already developed a topic for this particular sermon that linked with several other messages scheduled to precede and follow it on adjacent Sundays that month. Moreover, two different volunteer teams at First Free had put in a lot of effort to shape the rest of the parts of the worship service around the topic Bill selected, including a bunch of songs that had been carefully rehearsed and other creative elements on the agenda. Finally, since all this happened rather unexpectedly, it meant that I had relatively little time to whip together a solid sermon on a topic that I could not really change all that much. And since I was doing all this to try to give Bill a bit of a break, I obviously could not ask him for help without undercutting the very way I was trying be helpful myself!

My awesome, senior pastor, the Rev. Dr. Bill Shereos. Come visit us at First Free Church in Chicago!

So, I totally altered my usually approach for developing a sermon. Instead of reading a bunch of scriptural texts on the topic, cross-referencing various scholarly essays and commentaries, looking for some key illustration or metaphor to unpack, and collecting a handful of application points, I began by simply listening in earnest to the passage of scripture Bill had chosen weeks in advance. During my other duties leading up to my delivery of this sermon, I had an audio clip of the context for that passage running on my computer constantly, which helped me lock on to the part of the text that harmonized strongest with my own heart as well as the topic with which I had to work. I even listened to this clip right before I went to sleep and when I woke up! I crafted my sermon with a heavy bias in its delivery towards simplicity rather than sheer volume of material to cover, and I listened to sermons other solid preachers had developed on the specific parts of my message where I kept getting hung up in preparation.

Now, I do not suggest this approach for every pastor out there, and I do not utilize it myself much today. But when the time came to preach that sermon, it turned out to be one of the best I ever had the honor of delivering at First Free Church. It was uncomplicated, both simple and rich; it was poignant, both hard-hitting and comforting. That sermon was firmly rooted in the Biblical text, addressed the topic I had been given, but was also spoken forth in my own voice. It was comprised primarily of “original thought,” but it effectively drew from the wisdom of pastors and theologians many years beyond my level of experience and homiletic acumen. I readily admit that God may just have decided to cut me a break given the circumstances and plopped a great sermon in my lap, but the bottom line was that I wound up producing something of categorically greater value and with substantially less effort (due to the fact that I simply had little time to devote to preparation) than was usually the case for my preaching up to that point in time.

Now, this sermon may not seem like that big of a deal to you, but it sure was for me. While I do not preach many sermons under the circumstances I encountered back in March, I have also been able to prepare and deliver several other messages even more effectively ever since. Better yet, this experience caused me to reflect on all the other ways I may have been burning away my efforts fruitlessly because I had become numb to the perception of a surplus of resource and a certain way I basically figured I had to work hard–factors that made it easy for me to forget my opportunity to be more efficient and more creative in preparation.

Best of all, I have found that the modus operandi of this approach is absolutely transferable. The people I have coached and counseled since then, men and women facing immensely more difficult circumstances than what I related above, have been able to powerfully apply this same lesson to difficulties with romantic relationships, stalled job enterprises, acquiring adequate financial aid in college, plotting out a course for their lives, embarking on a new career path, and multiple other circumstances fraught with danger and opportunity. The key in all those real life examples for growth and forward movement was identifying how to increase the clearly discernible value each individual brought to a given state of affairs, not just how to redouble their efforts, snooker some other party, or plead for mere handouts.

To radicalize while also generalizing this point, notice that Christ Jesus himself emphasizes a similar approach in the gospel according to Matthew–my emphasis added:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:19-21 NIV)

Notice that Jesus does not say that accruing material wealth is flatly worthless or that the pursuit of riches is categorically wrong but that we should direct our efforts towards that which is of even greater value still, towards “treasures in heaven.” He makes a similar point earlier in the chapter when it comes to reframing people’s understanding of even more spiritual or altruistic pursuits when he teaches his followers how they should pray and give charitable donations. In this case, Jesus emphasized that these things should be done in secret such that they are acceptable to the only Person for whom it really matters, God our Father; he was directing them to not just focus on greater quantities of prayer or more voluminous donations but on a way of prayer and giving that really count towards what is lasting by virtue of whose opinion really matters (i.e. not our friends or colleagues who might notice our prayers or see us give). Again, my emphasis added:

“Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven. So when you give to the needy, do not announce it with trumpets, as the hypocrites do in the synagogues and on the streets, to be honored by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing, so that your giving may be in secret. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you…” (Matthew 6:1-4 NIV)

“And when you pray, do not be like the hypocrites, for they love to pray standing in the synagogues and on the street corners to be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward in full. But when you pray, go into your room, close the door and pray to your Father, who is unseen. Then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you.” (Matthew 6:6-7 NIV)

Yeah, that's Justin Bieber alright...

We all know that there are people who blow a lot of time and effort on pursuits for which they are highly rewarded in one sense, but not with things of truly, lasting value. (Yup, I’m thinking again of the Beibster here…) The only way I know to be certain that we select the sorts of relationships and jobs and courses of action that are truly valuable–to “hedge” for the limitations in our own power of discernment when it comes to assessing the worth of this or that thing–is to commit ourselves to a progressively deepening relationship with the One who created and knows all things best of all. And when we do that, we enjoy the added benefit not just of laying our hands to work that will yield products of actually greater value but also being able to draw the strength, the encouragement, the positive reinforcement we need in order to keep going due to the omnipotent power of the Almighty Living God who can not only guide but sustain us beyond our best wisdom and efforts alone could accomplish.

As Jesus says to his followers in John 15:16 shortly before sacrificing his life on the cross for our redemption, “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit–fruit that will last.” And when Christ was about to ascend to heaven after he rose from the dead, he added, “You will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” Not only did Jesus promise his disciples that they would be guided towards work of true value, producing “fruit that will last,” he promised they would receive the strength they needed to accomplish this despite all the hardships they would face, receiving “power when the Holy Spirit comes on you” to complete their specific mission, to be Jesus’s “witnesses in Jerusalem, and in Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

Remember, these were regular people, just like you and me. And while you may not have had the opportunity to literally walk beside Jesus in the flesh like his disciples did at that time, God still offers you the chance to receive strength from his hand when you pursue the relationship with him that he so desires. As Psalm 29:11 puts it, “The LORD gives strength to his people; the LORD blesses his people with peace.” Or as the psalmist puts it even more personally in the previous chapter, in Psalm 28:7, “The LORD is my strength and my shield; my heart trusts in him, and I am helped. My heart leaps for joy and I will give thanks to him in song.”

Consequently, the single most effective way to ensure that we will acquire solid rewards for work exercised by truly adding value to a given state of affairs is by making our relationship with God the absolute, top priority. That’s it–that’s what enables us to both identify the pursuits that are most worth the risk of pursuing as well as receive a sufficient level of positive reinforcement we pragmatically need to keep on going when we face hardship and confusion. That’s why scripture repeatedly directs us to put our focus on God in general and Jesus in particular, the “author and perfector of our faith” (cf. Hebrews 12:1), because it is ultimately God “who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose” (cf. Philippians 2:13). That is why Romans 9:16 strongly emphasizes that, in the final analysis, even our spiritual salvation itself “depends not on human will or exertion, but on God, who has mercy.”

"Entropy" by Chuck Mountain

Merely working hard is not enough; we are meant to work alongside our loving and awesome Creator. That’s why Jesus implores us in Matthew 11:28ff to come to him when we are weary and burdened rather than just keep toiling away. That’s why he invites us to take his “yoke” upon him while learning from him, saying that we will therein find rest for our souls since his yoke is “easy” and his burden is “light,” i.e. because he is the one standing beside us doing the lifting and the pulling with the Holy Spirit working within us rather than our having to go it alone. There is no more liberating, rewarding way of life than this. And that’s why Matthew 6 ends on the following promise–my emphasis added:

“Do not worry, saying, ‘What shall we eat?’ or ‘What shall we drink?’ or ‘What shall we wear?’ For the pagans run after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them. But seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well. Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:31-34 NIV)

§ 5. Concluding, personal notes – This post is a bit more theoretically toned than the previous one, and that is because understanding the principle I’m trying to unpack requires some nuance when it comes to those aforementioned concepts of work, employment, compensation, value, reward, efficiency, freedom, and responsibility. Fortunately, it is not that difficult to begin to apply this lesson on the personal level. After asking those three, critical questions I mentioned back in section 3 to assess your state of affairs, after getting honest with yourself about the state of your relationship with God and doing everything possible to put that first in your life, the following responses are almost always effective at increasing the clearly discernible value of whatever you are attempting to bring to a given situation:

  • Jettison whatever is wasting your time or holding you back – I’ll start with a more spiritual example here, just to underscore once more that we’re not just talking about finances alone. As Hebrews 12:1 puts it, we should “throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles” and “run with perseverance the race marked out for us. ” This post is not written for the merely lazy, but all of us could stand to take a cold, hard look in the mirror to assess the ways we may be choosing paths predicated on false entitlement, fear, inhibition, irresponsibility, frustration, selfishness, and other malignant ways of life. A similar thing is true for endeavors that are not necessarily bad in and of themselves but that function to distract you from more worthwhile pursuits, simply drain your energy, or ultimately waste your time.
  • Embrace and find inspiration amidst limitation – Don’t just sit around waiting for windfalls before getting productive; find ways to bring clearly discernible value to what you are going to do right now. The New Living Translation’s treatment of Ecclesiastes 11:4 is instructive here, “Farmers who wait for perfect weather never plant. If they watch every cloud, they never harvest.” For an amazing, positive example of the utility of finding inspiration amidst limitation, check out this TED talk delivered by Amy Purdy, a double-amputee world champion snowboarder, who emphasizes that truly successful innovation is “not about breaking down borders but about pushing off of them.”
  •  Get honest and creative by doing the inner work – Even if you know that merely working harder is not enough, it can be difficult to gain any traction in working smarter. The first step to doing so is to try to get some perspective about whatever endeavor is under consideration, honestly asking, “Do I really believe this is worth the expenditure of my time and energy to begin with? Will it either deliver a product of lasting value that I care about directly or else help serve as a means to such an end?” In the short term, this may ride on whether a given endeavor is sufficiently enjoyable for us, but in the long term, this will require that what we are presently considering contributes to those things that are of greatest value, the things that matter the most of all. (Remember that point about laying up treasures in heaven from Matthew 6…)
  • Close the gap between your view and others’ when it comes to perceived value – Presuming you’ve identified something of true value that you can increase in some way, the next step is to determine two, subsequent matters, 1) “Is this project valuable to the people whose opinion matters, or am I running a wild goose chase?” as well as 2) “How can I help those particular people whose opinion does matter in this case to be more likely to recognize the worth of my contribution?”

Until next time, may you learn to bring greater, discernible value to the jobs and relationships and endeavors to which you have been blessed with the opportunity to apply yourself. May God deliver you from fruitless toil and develop in you greater discernment, teaching you how to most effectively pursue the things that really matter while you put his kingdom and righteousness first in your life. May you overcome frustration, fear, selfishness, inhibition, and irresponsibility as you continue your journey through life, eschewing toilsome and fruitless pursuits for God’s ways by virtue of a growing, saving relationship with Jesus. Most of all, may your work be poured out from an overflowing heart, blessing those with whom you come in contact even while laying up for yourself “treasure in heaven, where moth and vermin do not destroy and thieves do not break in and steal.”