Where is the effort directed? Where does the energy go?

By Gregory

This is a blog post about priorities and values. It’s about asking questions concerning our religious focus and the primary focus of our spiritual communities.

I’ll start out with this observation – if you want to know what a person’s or institution’s true values and priorities are – look at their actions, not so much their words and statements. (You can perform the same review on yourself.)

If a man tells me that his wife and children are the most important things to him in the entire world, that his family is his #1 priority, yet he spends most of his time working (even when it’s not necessary) and the rest of his free time golfing, then I’d say we might have a conflict between stated values and actual values.

If a person tells me that their religious commitments (God, faith, love, community, service, truthfulness, etc.) are central to their life, the most important thing to them, the source of their strongest allegiances, and yet they cheat on their spouse, lie at work, berate their children, give nothing to the needy or poor, and take advantage of their friends, then I’m left second guessing concerning the validity of their claims concerning the importance of their faith.

Now, it’s vital that we add this caveat – no one is perfect (myself included.) We all miss the mark. No one perfectly embodies their ideals. Everyone sins. Everyone we look at will not always live up to their proclaimed values. That’s life. And mercy and understanding are the proper response.

But there’s a difference between trying and missing the mark and simply paying lip service. There’s a difference between giving one’s religious convictions attention and effort versus living a typical life of comfort, selfishness, and self-absorption.

If you claim to be a Christian or Jew or whatever, who takes their faith seriously, then try this experiment with yourself. No one need know the results except you.

Sit quietly and still your mind for a few moments. Then commit to be fully honest with yourself. When you’re ready, ask yourself the following sorts of questions – how often do you pray? Do you set aside time to study and learn your faith? When was the last time you served the needy in your community? Do you do it on a regular basis? How much money have you given to the poor lately? Do you give to worthy causes on a regular basis?

Are you kind? Patient? Do you treat those around well? Do you place others needs before your own? What have you done lately to make the world a better place?

Only you will know the honest answers to these questions. And only you will know what your answers tell you about your religious and faith commitments.

There is another way to get at the same insights – ask yourself where your time and effort and energy go. During any given week who or what gets your best efforts? Your boss? Your kids? Your friends? Your hobbies? Your computer or Television? The poor in your neighborhood? The lonely, elderly woman two houses over? The hurting gay teen who is friends with your child? Your friend who just divorced and is feeling the void?

Again, the issue isn’t perfection or success – the issue is honest answers to the questions concerning your top priorities.

The exact same set of exercises should be asked of our religious communities and religious institutions.

Where is most of the energy and time spent at your congregation? What does your community spend its money on? Who gets most of the attention at church? What issues? What animates and motivates most of the members of your parish or synagogue?

Does the vast majority of your church’s budget go toward the building and the clergy? What percentage goes toward outreach, charity, and service to others?

What does your community teach? What are most of the sermons, homilies, or d’vrei Torah’s about? Are people being encouraged to love, to give, to serve, to help others? Or is everyone engaged in esoteric, arcane, peripheral topics?

Where does the energy of your community members go? Into the liturgy? Into gossip? Into reinforcing your denominational identity? How much energy is spent on working directly with the marginalized, the poor, the uneducated, the lonely, and the hurting? Does your community limit contact with such folks or merely assign someone to look after these groups so you don’t have to get your hands dirty?

If your child is going through bar or bat mitzvah preparation or confirmation classes or getting ready to be baptized – what are they learning? What kind of people is the process going to make them? What will be the end result? (A nice party?)

Such questions motivate us to take a step back, and ask even more foundational questions, such as, what’s the purpose of my religion? What’s the goal of my spirituality? Is my participation in my religious community making me a better person?

I’d say that the purpose of religion is to offer us meaning and context in our lives, moral training to make us better, more loving people, ritual engagement for transformation, and the support of a community to help us grow, learn, and help others. Regardless of how your tradition defines redemption or salvation, the above elements are still a vital part of that overall equation.

For a Christian, it seems logical that the primary focus of their faith should be following Jesus. How is that accomplished? By learning about Jesus, studying his teachings, being transformed by the teachings, by prayer, by worship, by ritual, and by the love of God and others.

What should a Christian’s values be in light of the above? I’d argue we’d be talking about service, love, generosity, wisdom, insight, compassion, and transforming the world into the kingdom of God.

Such an enterprise is holistic and comprehensive – it would certainly involve politics, charity, churches, health, local outreach, changing the culture, and even include how we dress, what we eat, how we raise our families, and so on.

Yet I’d dare say that not all issues or concerns are of equal importance to the overall sense of the faith.

When Rabbi Hillel was asked to explain Torah while standing on one leg, he didn’t respond with teachings on kosher eating, yarmulkes, a great recipe for kugel, concerns of intermarriage, Israeli politics, or litmus tests for who is a Jew.

When Jesus was asked about what is most important, what the vital commandments were, he didn’t respond with an explication on women needing veils during mass, the importance of Latin in Liturgy, artificial contraception, or papal infallibility, or the dangers of feminized liturgy, or same sex marriage.

Both taught that love of God and love of neighbor were the central concerns of faith. This doesn’t mean the other issues are unimportant. Nor does it mean that these other issues are not part of the concerns of love – they are, or might be – but, its acknowledging priorities and the fundamental importance of attitudes of the heart – compassion, mercy, understanding, freedom, hospitality, welcoming the stranger, and caring for the needy.

I’ll end by asking the questions I began with – where does your energy go? What gets your best efforts? What does how you spend your time and money say about your values and priorities?

These questions, and one’s like them, are really another way of asking if your religious practice is transforming you or if you’re simply going through the motions.

Thoughts? Comments? Disagreements? Just care to vent? Use the comment function and engage!

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2 thoughts on “Where is the effort directed? Where does the energy go?

  1. This is a good reflection, absolutely. I was thinking about it, and Christianity in particular teaches directly to service to the community. In the pillars of Islam, this is also true. Judaism, yes. Therefore, it’s safe to say that if anyone has wandered from the real point of the religion, it will be noticeable. When Jesus said “by their fruits you will know them,” I don’t think he necessarily meant that we will know people by whether they’re a bunch of liberal commies who believe in gay marriage and sleep around and keep talking about people’s rights. Darn them and their freedom loving!! I think Jesus was asking what the actual fruits of their work is. And *is* there any work? Is there any fruit at all? I would argue that holing up in a congregation of people just like ourselves is bound to bear zero fruit to speak of, or stagnant, unhelpful fruit. I got side tracked though. When I was beginning my comment, my purpose was to point out that though I absolutely agree with you on the purpose of religion, how it helps us grow, gives us moral foundation and guides us in service to our fellow man- not every religion emphasizes this. This is what you believe, and I completely agree with you. But not every spiritual tradition teaches this. Or, there are different types of expressions of faith. How many people went into the desert in the early years to seek God? I would argue that their religious expression was still worthy. Some people have a faith that is inward looking. Some esoteric practices may teach that by ascending as a human, they raise the consciousness of the world around them, and in a manner of speaking, this is their service. Some people believe that praying ceaselessly for the delivery of mankind is the way to serve, and that is also worthy, I think, if that’s how they are called. I have my times of solitude too, when I can get them. Those times are rare and so they are precious to me. I need the stillness to recharge. Some people need the stillness permanently. What would the world be without a nun who I know for certain will say rosaries for me for a week if I asked her? What would the world be like without a contemplative druid who walks among the wild things of the forest and keeps our relationship with the green world from being forgotten? Some people look inward and some look straight up to heaven. They don’t look around at the hurting people around them. that’s not necessarily wrong. I accept that they get to be who they are, as long as they are being honest about it. I would rather have an honest person from a spiritual expression that doesn’t emphasize service to their fellow man, than a person who says they’re from a faith that emphasizes loving ones neighbor, but who don’t actually do it.

    • Gregory says:

      Yes, you point out some valid and important points. The spiritual life is not merely social justice activism and good deeds. The “work” of interiority, prayer, contemplation, meditation, and solitude is important to all human beings as a way of healing, a way of peace, and a way of love.

      The contemplative Druid who walks the fields does all of us a service in keeping alive a positive relationship between creatures. The nun who prayers for others provides a service of comfort, support, and mystical uplifting. No argument there.

      I guess I don’t see a divide or conflict between those who love their neighbor by engaging in the work of solitude and prayer and those who staff soup kitchens, teach, heal, and counsel.

      The mystical body is diverse with many parts all working for the benefit of the whole.

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