(c) Doug Slagle, Pastor at the Gathering UCC, All Rights Reserved
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We all know what the date is today. It’s April 14th. And so we know the deadline that tomorrow represents. Like many Americans, I have put off to almost the deadline my civic responsibility to file my tax return. I comfort myself with several excuses. Because Pastors are considered self-employed, I pay 100% of Social Security and Medicare taxes instead of only half like most employees. That means I almost always have a tax bill instead of a refund. So, I wait until the last minute to file and pay. But that’s silly. The cost to me to file early would be minimal – a few cents of lost interest. The cost to my psychological well-being for my delay, however, is significant.
It’s said that 20% of humans are chronic procrastinators – always putting off until a deadline – or even after one – to do what needs to be done – to pay bills, file taxes, finish a work project, or do needed repairs and chores around the house. But such delay has personal and societal costs. Chronic procrastinators often have greater health challenges – they tend to suffer from insomnia, drink more alcohol and have weakened immune systems. They don’t delay due to time management issues but because of inner lies they tell themselves – they work better under pressure, they will fail, they are more spontaneous and creative at the last minute, the deadline is not that important, etc, etc. Generally, chronic procrastinators spend more energy delaying an action than they do in its actual performance. Ultimately, according to the magazine Psychology Today, changing procrastination habits are a matter of sustained cognitive therapy – working on and changing one’s underlying thought patterns.
But procrastination is only one issue in why many people don’t act. Fear is one reason. We fear failure, we fear risk, we fear the responsibility if we do act. Simple laziness is another factor. And, many people are comforted by the illusion of acting by talking and thinking about an issue more than actually doing something. Such an attitude offers the subconscious satisfaction of feeling like they have acted when all they really have done is think and talk. Nothing has really been achieved.
During my April message series on the “Power of…”, we looked at the power of universal and timeless ideas to create lasting change. Such ideas offer one the ability to figuratively live forever as ideas can impact the world far into the future. And, I looked at the power of character to influence the way we see ourselves and others. Powerful character understands the limits of human virtue. It’s empathetic of weakness, flaws and moral compromise. Such character seeks change in the self and in others through positive reinforcement instead of judgment and punishment.
But if good ideas have lasting value and our character influences whether or not we act, how do we cross the third frontier by actually doing? Indeed, it is said that successful people in life don’t necessarily have greater intelligence or ability. They have simply mastered the ability to act in timely and decisive ways. Will Rogers once commented that, “Chaotic action is better than orderly inaction.” And Benjamin Franklin concluded that, “Well done is better than well said.”
Once again, this topic is a very important one to us as a faith community. Churches are supposed to be dynamic places. They should be alive and supercharged with lots of action! As spiritual people, our primary goals should be to both change ourselves for the better and then change the world. If we’re not actively doing that, on an individual and collective level, we might as well be dead.
I will offer the challenging statement that if any one of us – and I include myself – are not seeing significant changes in ourselves as a result of attending here for a time, and if we are not actively participating in serving our community, than perhaps we should not be here. You should find another church that can better encourage you so that you DO act and I should be fired – for failing to act myself and for failing to help facilitate your action. The Gathering will wither away and wind up on the proverbial dust heap of history unless we are, each one of us, acting to change our own attitudes, thoughts, and actions while also acting to serve a hurting world. Sunday morning talk along with our expressions of compassion, love and tolerance are worthless (WORTHLESS!) unless you and I are people of action.
Just as our society is beginning to understand the dimensions of demographic change in our nation that will influence our politics and way of life far into the future, recent polling by the Pew Research company shows that there has occurred in the last ten years a 70% decline in active church involvement by those between the ages of 18 and 29 – today’s so-called millennial generation. What the polling discovered is that millennials are fed up with the hypocrisy they see in contemporary churches. They see organizations and people who talk a lot about so called morality but who do very little to correct social justice issues.
As they see it, Christianity and other religions began as social justice movements – ones that advocated for and actively served the poor, the sick, the sinner, women and all other possible outcasts. Instead, today’s churches are seen as political or theological advocacy groups – one’s that involve themselves in debate, theory and talk. There is too little emphasis, many young people believe, in actually doing the work of Jesus, Gandhi or Martin Luther King. It’s far easier to talk about political, theological and moral issues, or write a check, than it is to serve a smelly homeless person, help an addict high on drugs, befriend one who is mentally ill or hold and soothe an AIDS patient.
As one twenty-something recently put it, “I don’t want to attend any more churches or be around any more church folks who are all talk and no action. I don’t want one more person telling me they are a Christian when their actions scream that they are no more concerned with my plight thanAttila the Hun. Fake “Christianity” is everywhere in America, and it’s because it is centered on “self” and what we can get from it. And plenty of pastors preach to that end, too – how we can get more from God while never addressing the issue of what we should be giving back.”
Millennials want to get their hands dirty. Disillusioned by the failures of politics and our financial system, many young people aspire to careers in social service. They have little time or tolerance for the same old chatter, same old meaningless platitudes and same old posturing by many churches. They want action.
And, as quick as I am and many of you might be to say, “Wait, we’re not like that!”, I challenge us to examine how much we also love the talk, the debate and the intellectual theorizing about our attitudes, politics, religion and social justice. Yes, we can point to ways that we do help improve our world but is there a lot more we could do? Is there more we could do to take our Sunday morning talk and then go out and actually live it – to work on actively changing ourselves so that we are the change we want to see? We should ask ourselves, “Am I more empathetic, more humble, more giving, more peaceful, more forgiving, more gentle, more serving, more accepting, more understanding – than I was six months ago, a year ago, five years ago?” And if we say we are, are we using our personal change to then change the world? No matter our age, income or ability, are we continually seeking ways to serve our community? Are we examining our effectiveness in serving others while searching for new and better ways to be the hands and feet of compassion? Or are we, and am I, too much like the churches and Pastors that twenty-somethings scorn and avoid – too much talk and too little action, too focused on the self and not enough on serving the other?
Jesus deeply understood the power of action. He spoke eloquently about the need to serve and the need to change. But he did not simply engage in endless talk. He touched. He healed. He sat down with and befriended sinners. He lived a life true to his ideals of simplicity and humility when he could have leveraged his fame to gain wealth and power. He challenged the talkers of his day – those who piously postured about their own morality and generosity while they ignored the real problems all around them. Such people loved to talk. They loved to pray aloud for all to hear. They loved to flourish their seemingly large donations when they weren’t sacrificing much at all. They loved to scurry off to the Temple and worship a loving God while passing by and ignoring the hungry, the blind, the leper, and the poor. How much are any of us like them? We love our Sunday mornings, our community, our friends, our discussions, our beautiful music, our comfortable church experiences. But how much are we using the words, the music, and the nice experiences to actually do as much as we can to change ourselves and change our world?
We do not deny the power of ideas, words and knowledge. They are essential to our purpose. But it takes words AND action to get anything accomplished. Talk plus action equals results. That was an essential teaching of Jesus – tell me your good words of love and empathy. More importantly, show me your deeds to prove you are sincere. And the rest of the Bible echoes him. His disciple John wrote that those who say they love their brother and sister humans but do nothing to show it through their service, their gentleness, and their willingness to forgive – they are liars. They are frauds. Or, as many young people say, they are posers, punks and “b.s.’ers.”
Paul, the founder of many early churches, demanded that the first Christians work out their salvation with fear and trembling. Too many, he asserted, proclaimed a belief in Christ and assumed that was it. I’m safe! I have my free ticket into heaven. But he deplored that thinking as all talk and no action. Salvation is a matter of doing. One must prove its reality. One must offer evidence to the world that one’s inner heart has indeed changed. One doesn’t do that with a simple profession of belief or with pious words, but with acts that literally show one is more loving, caring, giving, serving, humble, gentle, peaceful and kind. One may not ever be perfect but one had better fearfully examine whether internal changes continue to occur.
While some of us do not claim a salvation through belief in Christ, most of us claim to be spiritual people who love, serve and give. We should have tangible evidence in our lives, therefore, that we have worked out our understanding of salvation with much fear and trembling so that we are not found to be hypocrites – people who love to talk but fail to act.
So, how do we engage the power of action? How do we stop procrastination, laziness and indifference in ourselves? Most experts say that like all forms of change, we should take incremental steps. Faced with large tasks, we too often fear their size or time commitment. Instead, we can and should undertake one small step at a time – accomplishing one piece of a task instead of an entire project. Should we be serving more here at the Gathering or in our community? We can start with simple tasks, gain confidence and move on to more. Soon, experts say, we will have accomplished our goal not in one sudden burst of activity but in a way that promotes enduring change.
Second, we should challenge our thinking. Why don’t we act as we should? Are we afraid of new responsibilities or failure? We should intentionally tell ourselves that our fears are not valid as we think of times when we have acted and succeeded. We can remind ourselves the emotional toll inaction takes on us and others. Doing something – even if we spectacularly fail – usually brings more peace of mind than the self-doubt, worry and guilt we feel by doing nothing. Most of all, we must be gentle with ourselves using Jesus, once again, as a model. He did not judge, condemn or heap guilt upon people. Instead, he tenderly and lovingly encouraged positive change. We must do the same for ourselves. Change is never easy but we can start small and build from there.
Let’s be real my friends. Just talking about the need for action perpetuates what we are speaking against. Each of us can first act by honestly examining himself or herself. What areas within me still need to be changed for the better? What things have I discussed or heard about here at the Gathering that I believe are valid and should be acted upon? Have I actually put into practice the things I’ve heard here? What more could I be doing to serve our congregation, our community and our world? What small acts can I incorporate in my life so that I begin the journey toward being a person of action – not just to serve my needs but the needs of others? What ideas, thoughts and beliefs have I not proven are genuinely within me because I have not acted on them? Let’s not just think and ponder these questions. Let’s resolve. Let’s decide. And then, LET’S DO!
Personally, I resolve to add one more hour a week, outside of my work with Gathering, to serve those who hunger, suffer or are in need. And, I resolve to not just say I love family and friends but to show more tangible acts of love to them. When you next see me in two weeks, I hope you will ask if I have acted, and if such changes are sticking. Fill out the resolution lines in your program or online with small, baby steps of action you can take. Keep the program with you. Share your resolutions with a friend who will hold you accountable. And then, DO them. Afterwards, make even MORE small resolutions to act. And do them too. Adopt an attitude of growth, change and action. As the Bible asks of all people, let us not love in word and talk, but in deed and truth. Let us engage the power of action!
I wish you much peace and joy on your journey…
Click below to find a form on which to make your resolution. Download, print, resolve and act! Many blessings to you…