More Out of Life than What?

As an English teacher, one of the phrases that I have known for a very long time is “unclear pronoun reference.” That’s when a pronoun in a sentence could refer to more than one antecedent. For example: “When I put the pizza in the oven, it was hot.” What was hot? It was! But was that the pizza, already hot before it went into the oven, or the oven, preheated and ready to go?

But besides unclear pronoun references, there are words that, while not pronouns, still do not mean quite as much as they are supposed to mean. Often they don’t mean as much as their speakers think they mean.

Case in point. I recently heard a song, “San Marcos,” by those masters of autotune, Brockhampton. At the end of the song, we hear a gospel choir singing “I want more out of life than this. I want more. I want more.” This lyric is repeating six times, meaning that choir expresses their desire for more a full eighteen times. Clearly they want more, and I would like to assist them in acquiring it.

But that’s where those imprecise words come in. First, there’s an unclear pronoun reference. I want more out of life than this. This. What, exactly, is “this”? Is it the singer’s relationships, community, job situation, philosophical underpinnings, cold ramen, or what? I have no idea of what “this” represents, and I rather guess that neither the London Community Gospel Choir (who sang on the recording) or the eight people who have writing credit for the song know.

Then there’s “more.” What does it mean to want “more” out of life? Since we can’t be at all sure of what “this” is, there’s not much hope of being able to identify “more.” Even if we could make that measurement, how much more is wanted? If what I have today is X, does the desire for more find itself satisfied with X+1 or does it require X+100? I’d really like to help, but when you use such fuzzy lyrics, I can’t know.

On the other hand, I think that the writers might be intentionally vague. They’re hoping to tap into an ill-defined sense of dissatisfaction and desire that inhabits their restless, adolescent audience. How many teen girls will hear “I want more from my life than this” and feel as if the song was written for them? “It’s like they know me!” those listeners will say.

Of course it isn’t just teen girls who “want more out of life than this.” We all have longings and restless feelings. Don’t we all want more, at least part of the time, for as long as we live? Jesus promised more to us in John 10:10. When we hear him promise life “in abundance,” we probably think something different than those who sing along to Brockhampton, but we also think something different from what God offers us.

Do you want more out of life than this? More than what you now enjoy? Perhaps you should, but perhaps what you really need is not what you really want.

Hi, My Name is Mark and I’m a Blog Abandoner

Thanks be to God, I’m not an alcoholic or any other sort of addict that would lead me to a twelve-step program. I certainly don’t want to mock their patterns of speech or diminish their challenge, but in some ways, my behavior in maintaining this blog is like the addict with good intentions, the person who desires to remain on the path of constancy but all of a sudden looks up to find himself off the wagon and with a week’s worth of unwritten days.

As I consider my on-again-off again blogging fidelity, as I look at all those non-highlighted days on the WordPress calendar, I’m reminded of the letter to the church at Ephesus from Revelation 2.

I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.  But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

Jesus knew that this church had done some good things, that they had many positive qualities, but he also knew that the passion had faded away. This group of believers was not in danger of losing their salvation and being cast aside with the goats, but their lampstand was threatened. If they didn’t get back on track, Jesus promised in the next verse (Revelation 2:5), their position in his work would be taken away, perhaps relocated.

The church in which I grew up is defunct. It had been a growing, thriving place over several decades, but a couple of years back, whatever remnant of the congregation that still rattled around in that big building turned over the keys to a body less than ten years old. Their lampstand was removed and given to another.

In my own church, I see people who were, in the past, on fire for Christ. They knew their calling and they pursued it with a passion. Now some of those people limp along, half-heartedly, in Bible studies, in the choir, or among the ranks of the deacons. They’ve lost their first love. Still believers, still basically good people, they’re not achieving the good works they formerly knew. They risk watching their lampstand plucked out and handed to someone else.

God called me to write, among other things. Many of those other things are somewhat in the control of others, but my writing is something that is mostly within my control. I could be writing something, here or elsewhere, every day of the week.

But I don’t. I have abandoned the love I had at first. That Greek verb, aphiemi, is defined and translated various ways, but the preferred meaning, according to most scholars, here is to “give up or keep no longer.” It’s not a conscious sending away. It’s not resolutely quitting,  but more of, like the CSB translation, an abandonment.

I didn’t consciously decide to stop playing the guitar a few years ago, but I let it go and now rarely play. Frankly, I think God is fine with that. But this letting go of my first love for writing is more problematic. God’s not pleased.

What have you abandoned or let go?

Are You a Good Egg?

I’ve been thinking about eggs recently. Back when we lived in the hinterlands, we produced our own eggs. More accurately, our chickens produced the eggs that we snatched from them.  Since we’ve move back to the suburban wasteland, we can no longer keep chickens and have to buy eggs from the store.

What eggs should we buy? The options are, if not limitless, certainly broad. Do you buy the cheapest eggs at the cheapest store? Or do you go for something more exalted.

We can opt for brown eggs over white eggs. Brown eggs look like the ones that our flock on the farm laid, so they at least seem better. But of course, brown eggs raised in the same condition as the white eggs are exactly the same aside from their shell color. They may well have been fed a diet of drugs while residing in tiny cages with several of their closest friends, who may or may not be alive today.

Pay a little more and you can control for what you egg layers were fed: non-GMO feed, organic feed, vegetarian feed. You can also pay a premium for how the birds are raised: cage-free, free-range, or pasture raised.

What should the Christian buy? Should we be shamed into spending $50 a dozen for certified Kobe eggs, laid by hens who are paid a living wage and guaranteed to live out their natural lives in a national park? Should I feel bad if my eggs come from chickens that are not GMO-free? In mulling that, I’m reminded of something from Paul’s writing:

Therefore, don’t let anyone judge you in regard to food and drink or in the matter of a festival or a new moon or a Sabbath day. These are a shadow of what was to come; the substance is Christ. (Colossians  2:16-17)

Don’t let anyone judge you, but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t judge for ourselves. I’d suggest judging on two criteria:

First, are you buying the best eggs you can buy? Eggs laid by chickens that go outside, that eat bugs, that clip blades of grass, and that live lives fairly close to how God designed them to live, are, not surprisingly, better tasting and more nutritious than the anemic, cage-produced eggs you can pick up for $.69 at Wal-Mart. The yolks are darker, and the taste is richer. Why would I eat substandard food?

Second, can you feel good about yourself knowing how the chickens who lay your eggs live? If a hen has to live in a tiny cage, given about ninety square inches in which to “range” so that I can buy cheaper eggs, I’d say that price is too high. For comparison, imagine spending your productive life in an airplane bathroom. Maybe you think that’s okay for the source of your omelet. I’m not supposed to judge you, but I can judge me.

In the end, I’d argue that way too much judging of others goes on while far too little self-reflection occurs. People will cluck at those who eat non-organic eggs, while others crow about the folly of spending money for something as nebulous as free-range. PETA types line up on one side while pro-business conservatives populate the other. Enough!

Notice that Paul doesn’t say that food and drink and days are not important. He just says that we shouldn’t let others judge us over them. That doesn’t release us to live in blissful ignorance.

What’s Your Song?

This morning, Alexa was kind enough to play some music for me. One of the songs in my get-ready-for-worship playlist is “The Stand” from Joel Houston of Hillsong. You’ll remember it:

I’ll stand with arms high and heart abandoned
In awe of the one who gave it all.
I’ll stand, my soul, Lord, to you surrendered.
All I have is yours.

The recording on my playlist is in a concert/worship setting, and toward the end, the singer/leader dropped out but encouraged the audience/worshippers to sing that chorus one more time. You could hear hundreds–maybe thousands–of voices singing as one, praying as one, worshipping as one. Cool stuff.

It occurred to me that it would be amazing to have a song that you’ve written or popularized that you could begin and then allow those listening to carry it for you. But then I realized that many artists can do that sort of thing. The Rolling Stones could do that with “Wild Horses.” It would be an intoxicating feeling, but perhaps hollow.

We know that for that experience to be more than just a good feeling, the song needs to be worthwhile. It needs to take people into the presence of God. That’s what I think I heard on that recording. And it’s something that I’m pretty sure I’ll never experience as the songwriters/singer/worship leader. (Sigh.)

In mulling over that bittersweet thought, I realized that every one of us is gifted by God to write such a song. More precisely, we’re called to do something that will powerfully bless others and help them draw closer to Jesus and to God the Father. My song isn’t a literal song with lyrics and melody. Yours probably isn’t either.

I’ve written some songs, and I’d love to be able to stand on a stage and lead people in singing them. That sounds great, but that’s not my calling, not my song. I could preach a good sermon, but that doesn’t seem to be my song either–at least not as a vocation.

What if I–or what if you–sat around lamenting that my songs don’t resonate with people in the way that, say, Michael W. Smith’s songs do? What if I couldn’t listen to sermons without wondering why I don’t get the chance to preach? If I allowed myself to get stuck in that way, I’d never create whatever alternate form of song that God has gifted me to fashion.

Paul addresses this thinking in 1 Corinthians 12:12-16

For just as the body is one and has many parts, and all the parts of that body, though many, are one body—so also is Christ…Indeed, the body is not one part but many.  If the foot should say, “Because I’m not a hand, I don’t belong to the body,” it is not for that reason any less a part of the body. 

What is your “song”? There’s something that you were created to do for the people (or the future people) of God that will be every bit as life-changing and amazing as having thousands of people singing your song by memory. It probably won’t be as dramatic, and it probably won’t engage thousands of people at the same moment, but it can be just as powerful.

But if I sit around listening to “The Stand” and pitying myself that my songwriting won’t rise to that level, then I’ll never write the “song” that only I can write.

Grasshopper or Locust, Part II

I can’t get past Numbers 13, so bear with me. Last time, I focused on the end of the chapter when the bulk of the scouts sent to check out the Promised Land declared themselves grasshoppers in comparison to the scary people they would be facing. Today, I’d like to slide back to the opening of the chapter, Numbers 13:1-3:

The Lord spoke to Moses:  “Send men to scout out the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites. Send one man who is a leader among them from each of their ancestral tribes.”  Moses sent them from the Wilderness of Paran at the Lord’s command. All the men were leaders in Israel.

The twelve men sent out, men who are named in the ensuing verses, were leaders among their respective tribes. Lest we miss that fact, it’s repeated in these verses. They were leaders.

Leaders? This is what leaders do? These guys came back from their little tour. From everything I can discern they all stayed together and saw the same things. After seeing those things, some of them–we don’t know how many–said, “Yeah, the land’s really great but there’s no way we can conquer it.”

Were these guys really leaders? Weren’t they the same leaders who had seen all the mighty works of the Lord in the preceding year? Honestly, they behaved more like Muppets than men.

After this Muppetry, Caleb stands up and presents the minority report:

Let’s go up now and take possession of the land because we can certainly conquer it!

That’s a leader! But the others became more determined in their cowardice. They compared themselves, as we saw before, to grasshoppers. Are you a grasshopper or a locust? These guys were content to be grasshoppers.

Before you jump to their defense and say things about the better part of valor and leaders exercising prudence, let’s look back to Numbers 13:17-20. Did Moses ask them to determine whether or not they advised an attack? No. Back in Numbers 13:2, God declared this to be “the land of Canaan I am giving to the Israelites.” He was giving it to them. These twelve were just to figure out the details.

The last two instructions Moses gave are intriguing to me:

Be courageous. Bring back some fruit from the land.

Be courageous and bring me some fruit. What a combo! The twelve men did the second of these but failed in the first. Why, if the people were so formidable, did the scouts slow themselves down with a two-person bunch of grapes? Could it be that they had more of a stomach for grapes than for any hint of danger?

Of course, the ten weak-willed spies received their punishment fairly quickly. But how often are we just as faithless? We’re pleased to accept the fruits of God’s provision but we back away when there’s a whisper of risk. Am I man or am I muppet? A grasshopper or a locust?