“Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just…..if there is any excellence….think about these things.”
-The Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:8)
Excellence isn’t a dominant concept in scriptural text – at least explicitly.
Earlier this week I was talking about excellence with a group of clergy. Together we wondered about excellence and its place in congregational life. The conversation set me thinking. My instinct is to be dogmatic about excellence – that it should characterize every aspect of the congregation’s life. But could that attitude become idolatrous?
Just like beauty is in the eye of the beholder – so is excellence, I suspect. What one person perceives as excellent might well be assessed by another as average. More problematic is the scenario where that which one person imagines as excellence is perceived by another as elitist. Ouch!
Let’s grant for a moment that to some extent excellence is contextually defined. An “excellent” dramatic portrayal on the stage of my local high school would probably be perceived significantly otherwise on a commercial stage in New York.
In the text above, the Apostle isn’t commending excellence in ministry or in worship – he’s commending exemplars of excellence as objects for contemplation. This isn’t a very protestant notion. We don’t much contemplate – we act. From the beginning of this movement almost 500 years ago, our protestant instincts have mostly been active tense. We are doers.
I wonder if that leaves us malnourished? Not starving, mind you, but nourished in unbalanced sorts of ways. Are we neglecting an important category of spiritual discipline to our individual and collective harm?
Lately I’ve been trying to make contemplation more a habitual part of my life. I’ve got a small icon sitting on my bedside table. To be honest, I don’t contemplate it – but it serves to remind me that contemplation needn’t be something foreign to my spiritual life. It causes me to wonder….to suspect…that there’s something impoverishing about failing to intentionally order and structure the content of my thinking.
This is a scary notion. I’m easily given to a wide variety of thoughts and a goodly set of them are hardly edifying…hardly characterized by “excellence.”
It’s not that we’re wrong to focus on action (in the very next sentence Paul enjoins the Philippians to “keep on doing” certain kinds of things). But maybe knowing how to act is harder when we don’t first discipline our thinking.
One set of our denominational forebears were given to “piety.” I think we’ve let that part of our heritage slip a little too far from our embrace. No…I’m not suggesting we become sanctimonious or holier-than-thou killjoys. But attention to our thinking strikes me as important. I hope you’ll give it some…..”thought.” :-)
With great hope….for the transforming of our individual and collective minds!
Iowa Conference Minister