When I was an undergraduate student at the University of Southern California, still living in honor dorms there, my roommate at the time turned me on to an obscure Bee Gees album that was largely neglected in the United States called “Size Isn’t Everything.” The first song he shared with me from that album was called “Above And Beyond,” and at first glance it is a catchy song that hews close to the album’s themes of the ups and downs of romantic love. Being a romanticist myself, albeit a rather unsuccessful one, this theme certainly appealed to me. If you go above and beyond the surface level of the lyrics, though, it becomes increasingly obvious that the Brothers Gibb have a highly idolatrous attitude towards romantic love, something that can be readily understood from reading the lyrics, which show the narrator unable to distinguish between virtues and vices, and have the narrator speaking of swearing by the stars and praying at night to himself that he and his partner have everything they need. The message that one gets from the song is one that is far more troubling than first meets the ear, and it leads one to look at the rest of the album, and indeed much of the material of the Bee Gees, with a far more critical perspective.
Yesterday after services a gentleman who is busy in serving our congregation gave his first sermonette, and it was a fantastic one. He was quick to give his wife credit, well-deserved credit, for having helped him with the message, but he delivered it with skill, and there is no shame at all in having one’s messages honed or suggested by women–quite a few of my messages have been the result of female friends and relatives of mine speaking with me about a given subject that they feel deserves more attention. The sermonette dealt with the shortest verse in the Bible, John 11:35: “Jesus wept,” a verse profound enough to have inspired an album of gnostic music by 90’s R&B group PM Dawn, and a verse with a context that provided a very insightful discussion from the gentleman about the way in which Jesus Christ often spoke at a different level from that which his audience was able to grasp. In John 6, for example, he spoke of his bread and his blood in ways that would only make sense when he shared the unleavened bread and wine of the Passover ceremony. It can be frustrating for a speaker or a writer when one’s audience is unable to go above and beyond their initial understanding of a message to acknowledge and wrestle with the various layers of a message and get hung up on a single layer of the message that they are fixated on. Often one can have a great deal of depth and insight that one wishes to provide and that one wants to provoke the audience to reflect on and the message goes right over the heads of those who hear or read it.
For yesterday’s sermon, one of the deacons in our congregation gave what for him is not an untypical sort of message or approach. The message spoke about our hope of salvation and the reasonable expectations that God has of us going above and beyond mere obedience to His laws and commands. He noted that the servant who merely did what was commanded of him was an unprofitable sermon, and tied this to very unpleasant implications of the fate of the unprofitable servant in the parable of the talents, and gave a few examples of how someone might go above and beyond mere obedience to God’s commands. I was reminded of a recent Northwest Weekend Bible Study that I had mixed feelings about because of the approach of the message. Speaking personally, there is a strong asymmetry in my tolerance of burdens and struggles. I tend to view with a great deal of displeasure, and even anger, those who try to heap burdens on me above and beyond that which I am already dealing with. On the other hand, as someone who cares very much about personal growth, I tend to place a lot of burdens on myself as challenges for doing more or doing better in various aspects of my life. I will place on myself burdens and challenges that I would highly resent others putting on me. The difference between a patient and even glad dealing with a challenge and a high degree of resentment and hostility is the matter of choice. To the extent that I have chosen to adopt a certain way of life, I will deal with the repercussions that result in generally good spirits. To the extent that others seek to coerce or manipulate me, I will view it and them very negatively. Consent and personal choice means a great deal to me, and there are no doubt very intense personal reasons why this is so.
What concerns combine these three different sorts of reflections about people going above and beyond together? For the Bee Gees, their efforts to go above and beyond were pitched at too low a level, dealing with romantic love and not other aspects of love including friendship and self-sacrifice, and involved praying to oneself and not to the Eternal. For the sermonette debutante, Jesus’ audience was consistently unable to go above and beyond their own surface-level understanding of what He said, unable to put the pieces together or even to question the sufficiency of their level of understanding. They were quick to lose sight of the power and purpose of Jesus’ actions and unable to question their limited grasp of what He was about, which would have served them well even if they did not fully understand Him. To know that there are deeper layers beyond one’s understanding is at least to put oneself on the path of coming to deeper understanding. To be complacent in superficial understanding is to confirm oneself as ignorant. Finally, when it comes to going above and beyond what are already difficult tasks, it is far better if people take on challenges for themselves rather than having burdens placed on them by others, no matter how well-meaning. It is much easier to find motivation for that which one has chosen for oneself than it is to deal with those who wish to make our lives harder than they already are. How to avoid the temptation to attempt to use one’s power or the bully pulpit to coerce others but rather to encourage others to take upon themselves the responsibility to do what is right is a difficult challenge, and one many people do not succeed at.