Accessing the power available

I mentioned in my last blog entry that we had purchased a new, powered lawn mower, owing to the fact that I was no longer physically able to shove a push mower around our verdant (and uneven) yards.  I looked upon it as an unfortunate capitulation to middle age, the giving up of an ideal (however small and unimportant) of taking care of things semi-naturally and getting valuable exercise.  But I was prepared to move on and deal with my new-found limitations with dignity and fortitude.

So Thursday afternoon, I parked Sean and his wheelchair in a nice semi-shady spot, hauled the new electric mower out of the basement and went to it …

… and an hour later, I had one question in my mind: “Why didn’t someone TELL me how much easier it would be?!?”

Understand that the previous week, it had taken me an hour of pushing, yanking, and clearing twigs out of the blades of the push mower just to get maybe a third of the back lawn cut.  Once I started up the new electric mower … 25 minutes to do the other two-thirds.  And then I emptied the grass catcher into the yard waste bin, brought the whole circus (the mower, two extension cords, Sean and his chair, not necessarily in that order) around to the front of the house, and in another 25 minutes had done all of the front lawn too!

Whatever disadvantages I expected never showed up.  It wasn’t perfect – I did need two extension cords, a combined 70 feet (21m) to reach all the distant corners of the lot.  Said cords were a constant tripping hazard.  And the mower had a disconcerting habit of cutting all the way down to the dirt if I left it running in one place for more than a couple of seconds.

But the advantages … oh boy.  No more having to go over the same patch five or twelve times to cut a particularly cagey weed – two shots was the most it ever needed.  It not only laughs at twigs, it chips them into splinters.  Since it has a circular-moving blade, it cuts when moving backward as well as forward, so I eventually realized I didn’t have to turn the thing around if I didn’t want to (good thing too, as it weighs even more than Sean does).  It mulches the cuttings finely enough that future loads will probably be distributed around the edges of the back lawn (an ongoing soil-restoration project) or in a particular patch in the front yard where we had to remove a tree stump years back (and the remaining roots are rotting away, leaving sinkholes just big enough to cost me my balance).  And since it isn’t self-propelled, I still got my exercise pushing it around – but without getting stood on my head every time the blades encountered something thicker than a toothpick.  Any stick it couldn’t chop, it just knocked aside.

I went outside at 1:30 p.m., figuring it to be the start of a three-day lawn care project.  By 2:45 I had done everything I’d set out to accomplish.  And I was left to ponder how foolish I’d been cranking that old push mower around all this time, when something so much better was just a trip to Lowe’s away.

But then, we do that sometimes, don’t we?  How many times have you been stressed out taking increasingly complicated, draining steps to solve a problem, only to find that there was a solution available that wouldn’t require one-third the sweat?  (I’m sure it’s not just me.)  How about that relationship where you went off the deep end trying to impress someone, and then discovered they just liked you for who you are?  Or any time you’ve worked hard on a physical task (say, mowing a lawn …) when spending a little money on better equipment would pay for itself in time saved within weeks?

I’m not much of a fan of American football – too violent, too micromanaged – but I used to be, and I remember lots of stories.  One concerns the long rivalry between the San Diego Chargers and Oakland Raiders.  Sid Gillman, San Diego’s coach in the 1960s, loved to use trick plays, and he especially loved to use them against the Raiders (owned by Al Davis, a former Gillman assistant).  One game, Gillman ran a play against Oakland where he lined up Lance Alworth, his all-pro wide receiver, at tight end.  (Tight end is a position used for blocking as well as pass-catching, and Alworth was 170 pounds and nicknamed “Bambi,” so this was a bit unusual.)  The Raiders’ middle linebacker decided he’d move over to cover Alworth himself … whereupon the Chargers’ real tight end caught a pass in the same spot the linebacker had vacated.

Well, John Madden was the Raiders coach then, and he knew his team was going to face San Diego again later in the season, so he figured he’d better come up with a way to beat this play.  His solution was to slide Dan Birdwell, a slow-moving 280-pound defensive end, over to at least slow down the fleet-footed “Bambi.”  This raised some eyebrows among the Raider players, with one even coming to Madden during practice and expressing his doubts.  But it was the best solution Madden could come up with, so he decided to cross his fingers and see how it played out.

Sure enough, the next time the Chargers and Raiders met, Gillman tries the same ploy, moving Alworth to tight end for a play.  Birdwell moves over to cover him.  The ball is snapped, Alworth takes a step, and …

Oh, one detail I forgot to mention.  At the time, there was a move used by NFL defensive linemen called a “head slap.”  The name says it all, really – a defensive player would slap the helmet of the man opposite him, in hope of distracting him just enough to get past and tackle the ball carrier or sack the quarterback.  It was outlawed a few years after this took place, but at the time it was a popular, and effective, tactic.

Back to our story.  Ball’s snapped, Alworth moves, and WHAMMM! Birdwell head-slaps him.  According to Madden (writing about it years later), he might as well have hit “Bambi” with a table.  Alworth staggered for a moment, then dropped to the ground so fast that some of his teammates were worried he’d been killed.  He did get up under his own power – eventually.  But he was a little rattled for the rest of the game.

And apparently Gillman never used that formation again.

Birdwell knew he couldn’t possibly keep up with Alworth in a footrace, the conventional move when playing football.  So he used the power he did have, and it was very, very effective.  (As Alworth’s ringing ears no doubt attested.)  But so often we try to do things the way we think (or are told) they should be done, using the methods we or others think is right, instead of the way we can do them best, using the power we have or have access to.  And like that poor Raider middle linebacker, we end up blowing the play.  Or, like me, you end up using a push mower on tough grass instead of plugging in a tool that will allow me to do twice as good a job in one-third the time.

Nowhere is this more screamingly obvious (to me, anyway) than in the area of religion.  How much of the effort and resources in American Christianity is spent on:

  • Buildings – renting, buying, constructing, maintaining, lighting and heating them
  • Liturgies – orders of events, used week after week regardless of what else might be happening
  • Elaborate “outreaches” and conferences
  • Mail and phone campaigns
  • Mission and vision statements
  • Budgets
  • Dedicated staff – hiring them, paying them, conforming to their desires, replacing them
  • Denominational expectations/requirements

Now, what did Jesus, whom American Christians claim to be following, say was important?  Loving God with all your heart.  Loving your neighbor as yourself.  He said that if we did those things, we’d be fulfilling all of God’s commands.

But most of our effort isn’t spent on loving God or other people, but on all the trappings of religious requirements I listed above, and many more.  And in the process, we give short shrift to the things God really wants.  Rules replace justice, an invitation to set an appointment replaces mercy, attendance records replace faithfulness, a distracted handshake replaces loving our neighbor, and singing along to a rock band replaces loving God.

And yet we still claim to be doing God’s will in the world … but in reality we are as powerless to affect the world as an unplugged appliance.  Because we are not only unplugged (no real relationship with God) but dismantled (no real relationship with each other, the “parts” we’re supposed to be working with).  We cut ourselves off from the power God would give us by our refusal to drop all the fripperies and rigmarole of religion and just seek God and people.

I could cite a hundred examples I’ve seen of this disconnect between what the American church claims to believe and how it actually behaves – some of them I already have, in previous entries in this space.  But I’ll limit myself to one: a girl I knew in college.  (I’ll keep her name to myself.  She was always a fairly private sort, and I want to respect that.)  She grew up in a very legalistic Pentecostal denomination.  She was raised in church; pretty much every time the doors opened, her family was there.  I doubt she ever missed a service unless she had the flu or something.  So she probably heard hundreds of “salvation messages” before she finished high school.

You know when she gave her life to Jesus?  Her freshman year at a secular college.  As she explained it to me, it was because she had finally gotten away from the congregation of her youth and found that there were other Christians out there who didn’t think you had to jump through so many hoops to please God.  I don’t remember her exact words, but they were something like, “I was so busy doing all the things they required of us, I never had time to know God for myself.”

Think about that, fellow believers – that a soul was actually kept away from salvation by the requirements put up by the Christians around her.  And then think about all the things we spend time doing – in Sunday meetings and elsewhere – that we’re told are required for our particular corner of the body of Christ, but have no Scriptural support, do not cause us to hear from God, do not bring us any closer to those around us, and do not have any impact on the human race that Jesus came to seek and save.  It should be a scandal on par with the sale of indulgences in the 16th century.  And maybe it will be.

What could the church be like if we stopped pretending to be a religion and just were God’s people?  I think we can see the answer by looking into the Bible, in Acts and Paul’s letters.  Those congregations didn’t own buildings, didn’t host big events or conferences, didn’t have mission statements or budgets, didn’t have paid staff (even Paul himself worked full-time when starting a congregation unless someone sent a donation to free him up), didn’t do any “campaigns,” didn’t have worship bands.  If they had liturgies, they didn’t bother to write them down (at least, none have survived to the present day).  They had God and each other.  And yet God was adding daily to their number, and their enemies accused them of “turn[ing] the world upside down.”  When was the last time you saw a local congregation adding large numbers of people who weren’t just traipsing over from other congregations?  And the world sure isn’t accusing us of turning things upside down; in fact they’re increasingly comfortable with ignoring us.  Because it’s easy to ignore what has no impact.

When we are not focused on relationship – with God, with each other – we are refusing to access the power available to us, insisting on using our own power to try (and fail) to accomplish our goals.  And we end up looking as foolish – and aching as much – as I probably did trying to shove that push mower through the Bermuda grass all these years.  I didn’t know any better.  But now I do.

As people who belong to Jesus, we should know better.  Let’s stop pushing, and let’s start plugging in.

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