The Shortest Way is the Hardest One

long stone walkway
Photo credit: <a href="">Patrik Jones</a>

Galatians 1:13-24

Certainly, you’ve heard about my past, how in Judaism I hunted down the church and tried to annihilate it. I was so dedicated to my ancestral religion that I excelled way beyond my peers. But, God had marked me before birth. So, when God deigned to grant me a vision of God’s son and called me to tell the heathen about him, I didn’t consult with anyone. I didn’t go ask the Apostles in Jerusalem, even though they were Apostles before I was. Instead, I went immediately to Arabia, and then to Damascus.

After three years I went to Jerusalem to see Cephas. I stayed with him 15 days, but aside from James, Jesus’s brother, I didn’t see any of the others. I swear to God, I’m not lying about any of this!

After that I went to Syria and Cilicia. I’d never met any of the Christians in Judea personally. All they knew was what they heard about the guy who’d been hunting us is now promoting the movement he once tried to wipe out. So on my account they thanked God.

While the book of Acts reports in great detail the famous “three missionary journeys of Paul,” we only find out here that between that “Damascus Road” vision and his actual arrival in Damascus (Acts 9:1-9) there was a three-year missionary journey to Arabia. Then, after that first meeting with Peter in Jerusalem (unreported in Acts) another 14 year tour of Syria and Cilicia (Modern Turkey, around the northeast coast of the Mediterranean Sea).

On these two missionary journeys, Paul has very little to say, other than that this was the segue from his “former life” and the rest of the New Testament, nothing at all. Probably because these first two unreported missionary journeys were complete failures. There is, for those 17 years in all, nothing to report, except that everyone else is thankful Paul is no longer trying to hunt them down.

That Paul spent 17 years as a failure may at first come to many as a shock. It may be disappointing to realize that someone so greatly remembered had so many years of nothing to show for his efforts. But success always looks inevitable when it finally happens. The vast majority of the time, the real story is that people who are great successes spent years of not being successful. Some die as failures before the world realizes posthumously the significance of their work. It doesn’t take much to find a pretty long list of superstars and millionaires who spent time in homeless shelters.

There’s no guarantee, of course, that even long years of hard work are going to pay off in the end. Not everybody lives happily ever after. Sometimes, as in Paul’s case, it requires finally changing some things about what you’re doing. What is certain is that overnight successes seldom are really overnight. You have to put in the time, push through the resistance. Like the virtuoso who was asked how to get to Carnegie Hall said, “Practice, practice, practice.” There are no shortcuts.

The rock-bottom truth is that if you believe in something as much as Paul did, you’re not really looking for short and easy. If you believe in something the way Paul does, you’re working hard trying to get it right. That’s the only way it will ever really be great.

Why You Should Always Run to Win

Racing to Win
"Even though the shoe was lost in the halfway, the blue 16 kept running, and win the race." Photo credit: Shenghung Lin

1 Corinthians 9:24-27

You know that in a race, the winner takes it all. So run to win! Serious athletes go to huge lengths just to win a cheap trophy, but we’re out to change the world! So don’t just meander down the track! Don’t just play the air guitar! And, unless you want to be a fraud, get serious about doing the work yourself before you try to tell others what to do.

Seth Godin wrote a little book a few years ago called The Dip. His point: to be truly outstanding at something, anything, you have to get through a time of slogging through a lot of hard work. You’d think it goes without saying, when you put it that way. But another way of saying it is that there are no shortcuts to excellence. And the difference between those who are truly great at something and the rest of the crowd that is, well, average, is that those who are truly great, who make us say “wow!” have done a lot of hard work to get there.

Seth’s corollary point here is that the worst place to quit is in the middle of that time when things get hard. You’ve invested a lot of time and energy already, and you never see anything come of it. So, either determine to do the work to push through the hard part, or don’t bother starting.

Paul’s point was pretty much the same. The Corinthian church wanted all the glory without doing any of the work. They were just playing at church, really. They were like the garage band that never gets out of the garage telling everyone else what they should do to make it big time. Churches are supposed to be changing the world, not just keeping old buildings open once a week.

But, whatever profession you’re in, and no matter what religion (or non-religion) you ascribe to, if you want to stand out (and you should want to stand out!) you’ve got to run like you mean it. Half-ass never amounts to anything.

Getting By (With a Little Help)

Walking together
Photo credit: <a href="">Ed Yourdon</a>

1 John 4:1-6

Friends, don’t believe just anyone. Check to see if they follow God. There are lots of imposters. You’ll know the ones who follow God because those who follow God know that Jesus was human. Anyone who denies Jesus was human isn’t from God. In fact, that’s the indication that they’re totally against God. You’ve heard about these people. Now here they are.

Kids, you are God’s, so you’ve already won. They’ve lost. Jesus in you is greater than their worldly machinations. While what they say appeals to unenlightened folk, and they get lots of people listening to them, people who know God will listen to us. We’re God’s. We can’t expect people with no interest in God to care what we say. It’s the difference between being bent toward truth or falsehood.

It can be immensely frustrating to be working hard at something you really believe in, only to have it seem to go nowhere. That frustration is even more intense, when you see someone else, a competitor, enjoying what looks like tremendous success.

  • An “Old First” church struggles along downtown barely keeping its doors open week by week looks enviously at the booming success of the newly built suburban church with hundreds of people.
  • A little human service agency with two people sitting in secondhand office chairs in their closet-sized office on the third floor looks enviously on the international non-profit conglomerate with it’s own 3-acre retreat center, complete with a duck pond.
  • A start-up businesswoman on a mission who finds herself suddenly in a head-to-head competition with WalMart.
  • A divorced woman with three kids wondering where the next rent payment is going to come from while her ex-husband is on a cruise to the Bahamas with his new girlfriend.

In each of these cases – and in your case, too – the stakes are high. The frustration and pain is real. John says that, contrary to appearances, the underdogs win.

In the meanwhile, though, until the real results of your life’s work are announced, two things:

  1. “People who know God will listen to us.” Find those people. Get with those people. They are your lifelines. And,
  2. Remember that your mission is your mission. What “they” are following (if they’re following anything) doesn’t add or take away anything from what you’re called to do. You’re “from God.” They’re doing something else. You’re not competing with that other church, that other organization, that other company, or even that other person. Your primary competitor is you. If you can do better today than you did yesterday, you win. Every day you can hang on is a day that you win.

Don’t believe just anyone. Believe in you.

Row Your Boat

storm clouds off shore
Photo credit: <a href="">joiseushowaa</a>

Mark 6:45-52

Right away, he made his students get back onto the boat and across to Fishermans Wharf, on the other side, while he remained there to send the crowds back home. After saying good-bye to the people, he went up to pray on the mountain.

Meanwhile, as evening came, and Jesus was still on land, the boat was out at sea. Jesus could see his students rowing hard against the wind. In the early morning he came walking across the sea to them, and was intending to go on ahead of them. When they saw him walking on the sea, they thought it was a ghost, and scared out of their wits, they screamed.

Jesus said to them, “Calm down. It’s me. Don’t worry.” Then, he got into the boat with them, the wind died down. They were incredulous. Their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand the bread and the fish.

[See also, previous comments on the parallel passage in Matthew 14:22-33, and on the first sea-crossing in Mark 4:35-41.]

This is Mark’s second story of a dangerous sea crossing. This time, though, Jesus is not in the boat. The disciples are on their own. The reason for their failure to make headway against the wind: their hearts remained unmoved, and they didn’t understand about the bread and the fish.

What Jesus had done with the disciples, Jesus now wants the disciples to do on their own. From the beginning of this passage, it’s something they don’t want to do. Jesus has to make them get into the boat and go. Again, the winds against them are symbolic of the disciples own Resistance to going where they know they must go and doing what they know they must do. It’s the same Resistance that Jesus had to deal with as he began his work.

We encounter the same resistance every day. It’s much easier click around on Facebook than to do whatever work you know you really should be doing. Check your email again. Take another break to check on what’s happening at the water cooler. Channel surf. Before you know it, the time is gone, and you’re not any closer to where you know you really want to be. The winds are against you. Moreover, the more important the work, the stronger the winds.

If you understand about the bread and the fish, you know that there are people – lots of people – who are depending on you. The command of Jesus is still ringing through this passage, “You give them something to eat.” If it were just a matter of finding your own self-fulfillment, that would be serious enough. Jesus wants you to open your heart to the reality that it’s not just about you. It’s about them. It’s about us all. We need you to go and do what Jesus is asking you to do. You’re needed on the other side. We need you on the other side of your fear.

Please, get in the boat, and row.