Pursuing Excellence

1 Corinthians 3:1-9

How do we pursue excellence – in our lives, in our world, in our churches?

I was thinking of that question this week when I read this story of well-known pastor and author Nadia Bolz Weber.  Nadia tells the story of a time, after she published her spiritual autobiography, when she began to receive massive amounts of email and Facebook messages.  Concerned what others thought of her, Nadia diligently returned every email and Facebook message she received from strangers, seminary students and desperate pastors alike.  Every single one.  She wanted to be accessible and well-liked, but the thing is that because she was answering all these emails from the public she wasn’t answering any emails from those she cared about – friends, family and congregants.  Caught in a dilemma, Nadia was afraid if she stopped answering emails, strangers would say, “Oh Nadia? Yeah, I emailed her once but apparently she thinks she’s too good to return my email.”

She was afraid that she didn’t continue to respond to the massive amount of emails that people wouldn’t think that she was excellent.

So she worked harder. Eventually, Nadia came to terms with the fact that she could not control what everyone thought of her, so she put out a generic reply to that said she was not able to respond because she had attend to her family, friends and church.  She said to “no” to one area in her life so she could say “yes” in another.[i]

Then something surprising happened: people began to thank Nadia, people began to thank her for teaching them the spiritual practice of saying no, because it is something taught so rarely in our world.  What Nadia learned that day is that there is a relationship between the spiritual practice of saying no and pursuing excellence.  Excellence requires a narrowing down, a closing off of options, and a sharp and precise focus.  What Nadia learned that day is that sometimes we conflate our desire to achieve with the pursuit of excellence.

This is true not just for us but also for the Corinthians.

Like Nadia, they too were concerned about how society viewed them.

They wanted to be impressive, which to them meant having speaking skills, wisdom, power and status, so they like Nadia worked and worked so that they could be better and wiser than the other.  They would say, “I studied with Apollos” or “I studied with Paul” as if it is was a notch on their belt that defined their self-worth.

They were afraid that if they didn’t study hard enough people wouldn’t think that they were excellent.

The Corinthians said yes and yes to more things to outdo each other, until they had said yes to so many things, they had forgotten their yes to God.  They had forgotten their experience of spiritual awakening, of Divine love, of “spine-tingling transcendence”.[ii]   These initial memories were shoved into the back corner of their minds to collect dust as the Corinthians competed with each other to be wise and impressive.

I imagine that kind of ongoing competition was exhausting, which is why Paul reminds them in this letter that Gospel excellence is centered not on constant action but on God’s grace.

After all, Jesus came to earth to speak to our competing, jockeying, overworking culture to say, you don’t need to have your stuff together to be loved, you don’t need to reach moral perfection to be valued and you don’t need to outperform your neighbor to be excellent.

You don’t need to outperform your neighbor to be excellent.

The Corinthians had forgotten that God calls the wisdom of this world “foolish”.

In his letter to the Corinthians, Paul reminds them of the foolishness of the cross, the cross that shows God values vulnerability over “acting tough”, compassion over winning, forgiveness over violence.  In God’s foolishness, even the criminal dying beside Jesus on the cross gets into heaven.

God’s foolishness is the kind that leaves no one out.

Do you remember when you first felt God’s foolishness in your life?

Do you remember when you first felt God’s overwhelming love?

Spiritual excellence starts with remembering these moments of spine tingling transcendence that brought us to God in the first place.  In the book Saying No to Say Yes, the Revs. David Olsen and Nancy Devor point out that so often in our busy lives we end up saying a hundred tepid yeses that prevent us from putting our full force behind any one cause.  We become so focused on the everyday that we forget the vision that originally inspired us.  As one writer put it: “only the masters of renunciation leave an imprint, only those who can say a hundred nos for the sake of an overwhelming yes.”[iii]

In the book, Olson and Devor point out that scientific studies show that you have to do something 10,000 times to master it.  In studies, no one has every mastered something in less time.  We cannot become an expert at anything if we are trying to do everything.

What noes do we need to say in our lives in order to say an overwhelming yes?

I imagine that we, like the Corinthians, find the “spine-tingling” moments that initially inspired us shoved into the back corner of our minds as we try to just get through everyday life.

What do we need to change internally and externally to have the yes we are longing to practice?

In his book Deep Work: Rules for Success in a Distracted World, Cal Newport points out that the state of fragmented attention cannot accommodate deep work.  Just like the Corinthians were busy following different people, so are we.  We are busy following people on Facebook, on Twitter, on TV.  In an increasingly digital world, Newport reports that people take frequent breaks with quick hits of distraction.   Newport says that this hinders our ability to pursue excellence because of something called attention residue.  When we go from one task to another, a residue of our attention gets stuck on the original task. As a result, studies have shown that when we frequently switch from one task to another, particularly if the first task is uncompleted, the quality of our work goes down.

The same is true about our faith life.  When we find ourselves multi-tasking before God, busy being anywhere else but here, unable to make eye contact, we miss out on the foolish gift that God is trying to give us.

Be still, God says, and remember you are loved.  Remember that sense of spiritual awakening you first felt.  Remember what set your heart ablaze.

This is true excellence.

I was reminded of that recently by a story from my two friends, Shane Phelan and Elizabeth Broyle, who started a new monastic community for people of all genders in the Hudson Valley.  When they started the monastic community a couple years ago, they had no idea what would happen.  Would anyone join them?  Would they find a place to live?  Would they be able to fund raise for the good work they wanted to do?

They have been looking for a residence for a while now and Shane shares that they recently found this big worn-out house.  It has the potential to welcome people in a lot of ways but it also needs a lot of work.  The first time Shane and Elizabeth visited – they weren’t impressed.  Shane recounts how daunted, even terrified, she feels at the thought of finding the money to pay off the house and fix it up.  Saying yes to this house buying and fixing process requires Shane and Elizabeth to risk a lot for something big.

Yet, years ago Shane says that she realized her greatest fear in life was not that she would “fail” or be poor but that she would die without ever really following Jesus.  She would die without ever putting her full force behind her yes, so Shane decided to take a leap both for the monastic community and for their promising house because she believes that this dream she has is a dream worth being afraid for. She says that under the ego layer of fear is deep peace and gratitude.

Shane remembers what set her heart ablaze.

As Mother Superior sang in The Sound of Music, our dreams “will need all the love you can give, every day of your life for as long as you live.” Shane says to us, “I pray that you may have a dream as big as this, and the courage to live it out.”[iv]

Remember what set your heart on fire, what captured your mind and imagination.

Remember how you experienced the foolishness of God firsthand.

Remember that exuberant yes you are longing to practice with your whole life.

Engage in the spiritual practice of saying no to some things so you can fully say yes to others.

Remember the dream God has put on your heart and pursue it full-force.

This is true excellence.

This is true spiritual power.


[i] This story comes from Nadia Bolz Weber’s blog post called “The Spiritual Practice of Saying ‘No’” found here: http://www.patheos.com/blogs/nadiabolzweber/2012/03/the-spiritual-practice-of-saying-no-sisters-take-note/

[ii] The term “spine-tingling transcendence” comes from a New York Times article called “A Leadership Revival” by David Brooks found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/opinion/brooks-the-leadership-revival.html

[iii] This quote comes from David Brooks in his article “A Leadership Revival” found here: https://www.nytimes.com/2014/01/14/opinion/brooks-the-leadership-revival.html

[iv] Read the full story from Shane Phelan and Elizabeth Broyle, co-founders of the Companions of Mary the Apostle, here: https://www.facebook.com/CompanionsMA/posts/665261833660816

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