Tuesday, June 9, 2015

Lost in the Details

The following is my Minister's Corner column for the Shawnee News Star, June 6, 2015

“You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’”
Matthew 22:37b-39, New Revised Standard Version

The itsy bitsy spider went up the water spout. Down came the rain and washed the spider out. Out came the sun and dried up all the rain, then the itsy bitsy spider went up the spout again.

            The other day I was talking to my colleague and best buddy, Alice Sanders, about potential ideas for this column. The subject of the terrible flooding and storms we’ve endured this past month arose. So did the children’s song I quoted above. I won’t try to explain the connection between the two. Suffice it to say, you had to be there. But here’s the thing, instead of using the words “itsy bitsy,” Alice said, “eensy weensy.” I asked her about this because I grew up singing, “itsy bitsy.” Gone was our discussion of the flooding and the toll it has taken on our state and our neighbors in Texas. Instead we spent more time trying to figure out why some of us grew up hearing “eensy weensy,” while others learned “itsy bitsy.”  Was it regional bias or a Texas versus Tennessee difference? An answer was never found, but Alice and I did realize that instead of talking about what was really important, we had gotten caught up in minutiae.

Getting lost in minutiae is nothing new. I experience this in meetings, in conversations at home, and often – quite often – in the church. Whether we are considering a proposal for a new idea in worship or taking on a mission project, an insignificant minutia rears its itsy bitsy, eensy weensy head and sidetracks us. That gives new meaning to the cliché, “The devil is in the details.” The difficulty for me is that I am a detail person. I think that paying attention to details can make a world of difference to a project or undertaking. But let me make a distinction between minutiae and details. Yes, technically, the words could be synonyms. However minutia is defined as a minor detail, while details in general are the smaller pieces and parts that add up to a whole. Details are important, and the world needs good detail people and big idea people working in harmony. Yet it seems that minutiae, those minor details, detract from the whole. Minutiae sideswipe the bigger picture.

            These minor details that derail the larger whole are not limited to individual congregations. Minutiae are a source of tension and discord between churches, between denominations, between people of faith in general. Minutiae in our theology, minutiae in our styles of worship, the way we pray, the kinds of music we prefer, keep us from seeing what is really important – being disciples and ministering to a world that is hurting and hungry for good news.

Are we more concerned with the differences in our worship than in feeding those who are hungry and binding up those who are broken-hearted? Then persistent focus on minutiae is probably to blame. Are we distrustful of the motives of our sisters and brothers at the church of a different denomination down the street? Are we threatened by the number of cars in their parking lot versus the number we have in ours? My bet is that minutiae have become more important than practicing faithfulness. A dear friend of mine once commented that if people would just take the words of Jesus from Matthew’s gospel to heart, we would all be a lot better off. If we stayed busy loving God and loving our neighbor as ourselves, we wouldn’t have time to get stuck in that sneaky minutiae quagmire.

I suspect that our worship in the Presbyterian Church on Sunday mornings looks different from worship in a Baptist church or a Methodist, or Lutheran, etc. But if those differences are all we can see, then I think minor details have led us into temptation. Whether we sing “itsy bitsy” or “eensy weensy,” a traditional hymn or a contemporary praise chorus, dress up or dress down, our bigger picture is the same. We are trying to be faithful, to follow Jesus, love God, our neighbor and ourselves. The rest are just details.


  1. Love this - thanks! And, BTW, it's "eency weency".

    1. You can spell it anyway you like, it's still "itsy bitsy." :-)