March 9, 2014
Rev. John Watts
Nampa First UMC
UNDER CONSTRUCTION: GETTING STARTED
One of the presenters at the Northwest Leadership Institute this week will be our bishop, Grant Hagiya. Bishop Hagiya is an author, and a very good one. I’ve read his book, Spiritual Kaizen: How to Become a Better Church Leader.
The book added to my vocabulary. I had never heard of the word “kaizen.” It’s a Japanese word. “Kai” means “change” and “zen” means “good” or “better”. So “kaizen” means “change that is good”. Or “change for the better.”
Kaizen was a big part of Japan’s economic recovery after World War II. Some of us remember when “made in Japan” meant you were buying junk. That changed a long time ago. Now Japanese products are noted for their exceptionally high quality.
Back when IBM was the big name in computers, they decided to experiment with manufacturing some of their parts in Japan. But they were concerned that this might mean a compromise in quality. So they specified that they would accept only 3 defective parts per 10,000. The delivery was shipped with the following letter: “We Japanese people have a hard time understanding North American business practices, but for your convenience, the 3 defective parts per 10,000 are enclosed and have been packaged separately.”
Today we begin the season of Lent. This is the six weeks (actually 40 days, not counting the Sundays) leading up to Easter. It is a time to prepare ourselves spiritually for Easter. It is a time for some spiritual kaizen.
Many of us who have the highest standards in others areas of our lives, are very casual and very sloppy when it comes to our spiritual lives. At school, at work, in the business world, with our finances, with our homes, with our appearance, in raising our children, in our recreational pursuits, in our hobbies, we are very attentive to detail. We won’t settle for less than our best. But when it comes to our relationship with God, way too many of us are content to not advance beyond what we learned back in Sunday school. Maybe we’ll listen to a sermon once a week. Maybe we’ll even say a prayer now and then. But then we’ll hurry back to the things that really interest us.
I’m going to challenge you in this series of sermons to do some serious self-examination. How is it with your soul? How are you doing in the one and only area of your life that is going to survive after your body has died? Is there some change for the better going on? Is construction underway? Or has that construction been stalled? Is it time to bring in the heavy equipment and start getting serious about the building of the person God made you to be?
That was kind of a serious intro, I know. This is a serious subject. But one thing you won’t hear me saying in this series is that we just need to work harder at being better Christians. We’ve tried that. We’ve been trying that for a long time. For five-hundred years at least. That’s how long the Protestant work ethic has been our guide. If you’re not getting the results you want, you’re not working hard enough. Work harder. Work longer. Suffer more. The season of Lent gets a bad name because that’s what many think Lent is all about. Give up something you really enjoy. Don’t smile. Don’t enjoy life. Get serious.
Leonard Sweet has said that all these years of the Protestant work ethic have not made us better disciples, just weary and cranky human beings. Dr. Phil would ask us a question regarding the Protestant work ethic: “How’s that working out for you?” And we’d have to answer, “Not very well.” Just trying harder is not the way forward. It’s time to try something new. So if work isn’t working, how about play?
We think of play as something children do. When we play we just do whatever we want to do and we don’t really care how well we do it. That’s a misunderstanding of the word “play”! And if you don’t believe me, look at this piano. What do musical masters do to get beautiful music to come out of this instrument? They play it. You don’t work a piano. You play a piano.
Once again Helen and I are deeply engrossed in “American Idol”. One of the finalists is a young man named Alex Preston. He has a great voice. But he has a broader musical background than just singing. He plays eleven musical instruments. Eleven! Note, he doesn’t work those instruments. He plays them. And he plays them very well.
Or switching metaphors from music to marriage, we often hear people say you need to work at your marriage. Marriage is hard work. I would submit that the best thing a couple can do when their marriage starts feeling like hard work, is to stop working so hard and start playing more! Laughter and fun and spontaneity are at the heart of a good marriage. Playing at your marriage doesn’t mean you don’t care about your marriage. Just the opposite. It means you care enough to keep the spark alive. You care enough to not let your marriage degenerate into just another job you have to do.
A sermon series with a serious title like “Under Construction” no doubt gives the impression that we’re going to be talking about work. After all, we call them construction workers, not construction players. A construction project is going nowhere without a lot of hard work. And it’s true that if we just play around at something in the sense that we don’t really care about what we’re doing, we’re not going to get much done. We’re wasting our time, not making the most of our time. But, again, I’m not using the word “play” in that sense at all. Play does not have to mean sloppy and casual. Play can mean excellence. Play can mean letting God create in your life a masterpiece.
There is a key word here that we haven’t mentioned yet but that we cannot leave out. That word is “practice”. You play the piano. You don’t work the piano. But if you don’t practice, practice, practice, you will never play the piano very well.
A tourist was lost on ManhattanIsland and asked a stranger, “How do I get to Carnegie Hall?” The stranger had a one word answer. “Practice.”
The play I’m talking about today requires practice. Lots of it. But we practice to play, we don’t practice to work.
Malcolm Gladwell keeps turning out one fascinating book after another. He said in Outliers that to get really good at anything it takes 10,000 hours of practice. That’s a lot of practice. That’s sitting on the piano bench 24/7 for 13 months and 20 days. It will take longer than that if you eat, sleep, and take bathroom breaks.
But of course we’re not really talking about playing the piano today. We’re talking about building our spiritual selves. That takes practice, too. Lots of it. If we are serious about getting better at our faith, we are going to have to practice. Practice makes perfect. But the practice at first is far from perfect. We’re going to make a lot of mistakes. We’re going to hit a lot of wrong notes. That’s OK. That’s how we learn. The important thing is we keep at it. And we don’t just repeat those same bad notes. We get better. We don’t make the same mistakes. We make different ones. That’s part of the process. And eventually we amaze ourselves at how far we have come.
Practice makes perfect. Practice also makes permanent. That’s why it’s helpful to have a guide or a coach or a teacher. Or a small group like our “40 Days of Community” groups. We need to be corrected before the mistake becomes too deeply ingrained. It’s harder to unlearn the wrong way than it is to learn the right way. Cal Ripken, Jr. (who played baseball, he didn’t work baseball, he played baseball, and he played it very well) said “practice makes perfect” is misleading. The saying should be “perfect practice makes perfect”.
You keep learning as you go. Learning the right way. Unlearning the wrong way. And about 10,000 hours later, you can really play well! Either that or by then you know that if you’re going to ever get really good at something, it’s not going to be baseball.
We think of God working to create everything there is. Six days he worked. And then he was so tired from working so hard, even God needed a full day to rest. But every so often in scripture, we get a delightful glimpse of God at play.
There are two creation stories in the Bible. The first one starts with the first verse in the Bible. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It ends with Genesis 2:3 which tells us how God rested from all his work on the seventh day. Then, the second creation story begins where we started reading today, Genesis 2:4. “These are the generations of the heavens and the earth when they were created.”
This second creation story begins with dirt. That’s all there was at first. Just dirt. Then we have a mist rising from the ground and the first rain. So we start with dirt. Then we have water. Add these two together and what do you get? Mud.
The first creation story has God hard at work, working so hard he can hardly wait to get some rest. The second creation story has God playing in the mud!
Can you remember playing in the mud? It is a lot of fun! The grownups hate it. They have to clean up the mess. But any child who was never allowed to play with wild abandon in the mud has been deprived.
God created us while having a great time playing in the mud! God is the potter. We are the clay. God breathed into our nostrils the breath of life, and we became living beings (Genesis 2:7).
Living beings created to work? Well, yes. Work is an important part of life. But this scripture about God playing in the mud surely must mean that play is an important part of life, too. We were created to enjoy life, to enjoy God, to play, and to practice until we can play better and better and better.
We are under construction. We are works in progress. God is not finished with us yet. The scripture about the creation of the first human being is not about the creation of something that is finished and final and static. God is still playing in the mud with you, forming the dirt and the water that you are into something ever more beautiful.
And that is what the Church is here for. The Church is here to help in this construction process. The Church is here to facilitate spiritual kaizen — change for the better. The Church is here to help people learn to play their instrument. And their instrument is their life.
With a lot of practice, with a lot of bad notes, with a lot of patience, with a lot of perseverance, eventually we are going to be playing something that is really quite beautiful.
I heard some beautiful music Monday night. I was at the MorrisonCenter. It was a concert that unfortunately was not well publicized and the attendance was poor. But those of us there were in for a treat. It was the Boise Symphonic Master Chorale, in which my wife Helen sings, and the Treasure Valley Concert Band.
One of the pieces performed was written by one of the great composers of our day. His name is Frank Ticheli. It can be heard on “Youtube”. Believe me, it sounded much better live. But the piece was introduced by quoting one of the “Youtube” comments: “WOW, Frank Ticheli totally plagiarized this piece because I’m pretty sure GOD wrote it.”
That’s the object. To play the instrument God gave us so well that the music that comes out sounds suspiciously like something first written by God.
Dear God, you who formed us while playing in the mud, help us to recapture the playful side of our personalities. We know life is serious, filled with serious problems, and serious challenges, and we are serious about growing closer to you in this season of Lent and being used of you to make a difference in the world. But God, when we are dealing with matters that are heavy, we often make more progress with a lighter touch. So remind us how to play. And keep after us to keep practicing until we can play better and better. For when work can feel like play, we might at last start making some progress in the building of our spiritual lives. This we pray in Jesus’ name, Amen.