“Beyond…Whatever Else Is Expected”
Capital Campaign Series “Beyond”
What do you think of when you hear the word “average?”
I think of a conversation I had years ago with a seminary friend and classmate. It was a stressful semester for me at that time. I was taking a heavy load and trying to balance my studies with my responsibilities at the small church I was serving. Like most of my friends, I was struggling, as were they, with the high expectations each of us had placed upon ourselves, but this one friend seemed to be remarkably at ease. Nothing seemed to bother him one bit, at least not anything related to our studies. When I asked him how he balanced everything that was going on in his life, his answer took me aback. He told me, “While the rest of you are grinding to get an ‘A’ in everything, I’m content with making a ‘C.’ I don’t expect to be anything other than an average student, and I’m OK with that.”
Would you be OK with that? Would you be OK with being “average?”
I’m not sure I would, or could. As I heard someone once say, “Average is merely the poorest of the good and the best of the bad.” And who among us would be content with living at that level? For me that would be in no way be a “happy” medium.
I think it’s safe to say that in a place like Mountain Brook, we have higher expectations for ourselves when it comes to pretty much every aspect of life. So, why wouldn’t we have the same sort of expectations when it comes to our faith experience?
That’s the question that is raised by this level of dedication we see sprinkled throughout Scripture called “the Nazirite vow.” The word “Nazirite” comes from a Hebrew word that means “separated one.” It refers to a class of persons who, under the impulse of extraordinary piety and with a desire to distance themselves from common practice, voluntarily gave up the pleasures of this world in order to dedicate themselves wholeheartedly to God’s service.
The term occurs rather infrequently in the Bible. Samson was a Nazirite. Samuel, the last of the judges and God’s prophet, was a Nazirite. John the Baptist was a Nazirite and for a season so was the Apostle Paul. Each of these persons took upon himself three vows: abstinence from wine and strong drink; not cutting one’s hair for the duration of the vow; and avoiding contact with the dead, which would have rendered one ritually impure. At the end of the period of time for which one had made the vow, the person would approach the door of the sanctuary with three offerings: a burnt offering; a sin offering; and a peace offering. Then the person would be able to resume his or her place in the community in the same way as the rest of God’s people. Again, the entire vow and each of the offerings seem have represented a person’s desire to go “above and beyond the call of duty.”
In that light I am taken by what this passage from the book of Numbers tells us about the Nazirite vow: “This is the law of the Nazirite who vows offerings to the LORD (the three I just mentioned) in addition to whatever else they can afford.” In other words, beyond the expected burnt offering and sin offering and peace offering there was to be a free will offering that symbolized the desire of the person making the vow to go beyond what was expected as a way of bearing witness to his or her willingness to excel in their faith commitment.
I read this passage of Scripture and I ask myself the question, “When have there been seasons of my life when I have felt the need to show an extra measure of devotion to God?” Yes, I know that devotion to God is not something that is supposed to fluctuate like the stock market or the temperature. I know there most certainly ought to be a measure of consistency when it comes to our spiritual zeal. Yet, when we look throughout Scripture, there are those times when people are confronted with special opportunities to do God’s bidding when an extra measure of devotion is called for.
I am convinced that this current capital campaign is such a season in the life of Mountain Brook Baptist Church. Unfortunately, I’m not certain that everyone else in our church approaches this season in that way and in that spirit, and I am quick to shoulder the blame for that lack of awareness. For example, we’ve just finished our pledge drive, which we called the “Because” campaign. You’ll remember that drive. It focused on supporting our church’s ministry plan, which is an emphasis we observe year after year after year after year. But this “Beyond” campaign is different. It’s a campaign designed to position our church for life-changing ministry for years to come, which is why we do something like it only every twenty years or so.
Think about that for a moment. Our last capital campaign, which resulted in the construction of Hudson Hall and the new office suite and the new receptionist area, all of which were needed additions at the time, took place in 2001. When is the last time you tweaked something in your house? My guess is that you’ve likely done a couple of things over that period of time. This campaign is our attempt to recognize that over time things change in the way of ministry, because while Jesus never changes and the Gospel never changes, people and communities do change, and there emerge new needs and new programs, which require some tweaks and alterations in God’s house.
I’ll be honest. There are times when I ask myself the question, “Why did I agree to go down this path?” “Why didn’t I just leave well enough alone?” After all, I know where to park, and I know which door to come into the church. And after eight years, I think I can get from the music suite to the CLC by way of the second floor without having to leave bread crumbs along the way, and as long as I have my fob.
And then I remember. This wasn’t my idea. This is what the church said God was calling us to do as we came together to envision a future that only God could make possible – a future that extends beyond this generation, a vision whose realization is clearly beyond our ability, a hope that requires us to go beyond our expectations.
Are you willing to do that, or are you content with things as they are, as if the way things are now will always be enough?
Have you ever had a Mrs. Fields Cookie? The company was founded by Debbi Fields in the late 1970’s when her husband and she opened their first store in Palo Alto, California. Since that time the company has opened more than 300 retail locations around the world. In other words, it’s a global enterprise.
In her book, One Smart Cookie, she tells about the time she walked into one of her stores unannounced and noticed what she called “a very unhappy looking batch of cookies laid out for her customers.” The cookies were flat and overbaked. A perfect Mrs. Fields cookie is precisely one half-inch in thickness and these cookies appeared to measure only one quarter inch in thickness. Moreover, a perfect cookie is three inches in diameter and these cookies were three and a quarter inches, and a little more brown than they should have been. These cookies, mind you, were only off by a quarter inch in each direction!
So, what did Debbi Fields do? There were a number of options she could have decided on. She could have fired the store manager, but she didn’t do that. She could have sent out a corporate email reemphasizing proper cookie size and color, but she didn’t do that either. She did something much more powerful and symbolic; something she hoped would set a corporate tone for years to come.
She turned to the young man who was next to her and asked him the question: “What do you think of these cookies?” To which the young man replied, “Aw, they’re good enough.” Debbi had her answer. One tray at a time, she took the cookies – five or six hundred dollars’ worth of cookies – and she slid them gently into the garbage can. Then she turned to the young man and said to him. “Please understand; good enough never is.”
I wonder what Jesus would say if he showed up here one Sunday unannounced. You know, in one sense of the word he does so every Sunday. Jesus shows up in the guise of a guest who comes our way for the very first time. So, what happens when he doesn’t know where to park or when she doesn’t know which door to come in through, or when it’s not clear where you drop off the children or send the youth?
If better is possible, good is not enough; and only the mediocre are at their best at all times. This is a season that calls us to go beyond expectations. So, let us be careful to give all that we have vowed to give to the Lord, because He is deserving of it, and in addition, let us give beyond what is expected that we might show ourselves to be what God deserves us to be – an extraordinary people who serve an extraordinary God.