Priorities

I like tea. Hot tea. Which puts me in the minority as an American. My friends like to tease me about it, because I’m picky. I don’t hardly drink it unless I make it myself, because it’s not good tea. It’s usually a brand I don’t like, and it’s not brewed correctly. You could assume that I like fancy tea, tea that’s named after the estate it was grown on, or it has rare herbs in it, and that I use bone china and a silver tea basket at home.

And yeah, I like my quality loose-leaf tea, and I know the names of the different varieties, and actually, my tea basket has gold-plated mesh (or used to, anyway), but when it comes down to it, the most important thing about tea is the water temperature. It has to be boiling. It’s the only way to get the tea strong enough without it going bitter. The rest is secondary.

If I had a choice between Lipton in a styrofoam cup brewed with boiling water, and Black Dragon Pearls in a bone china cup with “hot” water, I’d pick the first one every time. But you know what I’d rather do? Brew the black pearl tea with boiling water. (Well, obviously.)

We do this with a lot of things. We create an either/or situation, decide which side is better, and then forget about the rest. There are people who want to lose weight, so they diet, but don’t exercise. Or exercise without dieting. That’s not going to work. There are writers who spend all their time hunting for the exact right words and the most beautiful sentences, but don’t actually say much, while others write brilliant ideas in unreadable prose. We talk about “priorities” but don’t get the point: something doesn’t have to be a top priority to be important. And top priorities are rarely so important that we can forget everything else.

A little bit ago, a Lutheran friend of mine was complaining to me about how fluffy and content-less her pastor’s sermons were. She was dreading the coming Sunday, ’cause if he told the same pointless anecdote again, she was going to explode. Her husband, who’d heard this one before, told her, “Go for the liturgy.” And I started laughing. Because with Evangelicals, there are a lot of people who think the music at their church is fluffy and content-less, and are pretty much just going to the service for the sermon.

Who has it right? The churches where the congregational worship is shallow and the preaching is deep, or the ones where the congregational worship is rich and the sermons are blah? With my background, having heard all my life how important it is for a church to have good teaching, I’m thinking “Sermon! Sermon!” like a good little Evangelical, because what is more important that Expository Teaching Based On A Solid, Biblical Exegesis?

Except if you know a thing or two about the kind of liturgy that goes on in a traditional Lutheran church, you know that it’s chock full of scripture and beautiful theology. Kind of like a good sermon. I think it’s possible that one could be “less wrong” than the other, but when it comes down to it? Neither’s right.

How we sing together is important. It matters what the words mean, whether they say anything important, and whether our music is sincere. It matters that the sermon has roots, that it’s meaty and good, and that it’s given clearly.

Thing is, we’re never going to get the top priority completely right. We really aren’t. We’re not perfect. Whatever we’ve pegged as “most important” is always going to be incomplete, and it’s never going to reach the ideal. There’s always room for improvement. Sacrificing everything else isn’t just wrong, it’s futile. I could sit here and hone my words until they were gems and there’d still be flaws. I could dig into a piece of theology for years and never figure out all of it. A band can practice for weeks and months and the music won’t be perfect. And there will be this long list of things we’ve neglected, things which weren’t as important, but important all the same. The water will be boiling every time, and I’ll have the brewing timed down to the second, but why am I wasting it on this no-name stuff?

Beware the false dichotomy. I believe there’s black and white in this world, that some things are an absolute yes and others an absolute no. Trouble is, once we’ve figured out what’s what, and what our priorities are, it’s easy to stake our claim to the point where we’re sacrificing far bigger priorities for the sake of our pet philosophy. “The lesser evil” is a real thing, if it means dropping something otherwise good and right because we’ve turned it into a god. We’re creative, us humans, and capable of turning any blessing into a curse.

Beware the false dichotomy. We cheat ourselves out of a lot of good things, because they’re “less important”. We settle for lame lyrics and limp writing, cheap tricksĀ  and bad meals in the name of something that’s no excuse. Why not hear the gospel in eight-part harmony, and truth in words sharp as knives? Balance the priorities a little better, and the whole ends up better than the sum of its parts. Real food is worth a smaller serving. Real peace is worth a humbler life. One of the greatest works of fiction of the 20th Century is a rich, engrossing fantasy written by a guy devoted both to the Gospel and good storytelling.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence, if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. (Philippians 4:8, ESV)

All good things are worth our attention. All good things may be enjoyed. We won’t get to all of them, and some are worth more than others, but that doesn’t mean we must ignore all-but-one. God has filled this world with good things. Each one’s valuable to him, and to us. Even when, priority-wise, it’s halfway down the list.

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1 comment to Priorities

  • You have a good way of digging into some of the intense situations of various approaches to church service and heart/soul/spirit needs. Personally, my largest need at a church service is spirit-touching worship. At EBC the sermons are very good. BUT even if they weren’t, I could probably let my head roam about, since the singing had touched my heart and poured Spirit strength into me.

    Nice to run into you at the Mall Friday. It was a nice “God-stop” event.

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