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Friday, March 22, 2019

Lemmings

    Going through my collection of books. Reading some that I haven’t read before. (Or don’t remember reading before.) Getting rid of the ones I’ll never read. Signs of a growing awareness of my own aging.

    For some reason, being drawn to biographies. Notable Christians and famous Americans accomplishing great things. No one would write or read about ordinary people living within their ordinary limitations. But I sense a theme and it hurts. Every one of these people is on the go for fifteen to twenty hours a day, seven days a week. Forget sleep. Forget relaxation. Forget vacations.

    How do their biographers deal with this? They generally start out with a sense of concern. She’s overdoing. He’s overstressing. She can’t go on like this. He’ll bring on a heart attack. They’re succumbing to the pressures from those around them to go, go, go, without regard for their own well-being. Following the rest of the lemmings and heading for a cliff.

    But the initial concern invariably turns to respect, admiration, adoration. Look what this person is accomplishing! For humanity, for God. What a great guy he is. What an amazing woman she’s become. The unspoken message: We should all follow the example of these fantastic role models.

    Why does it hurt so much to read these stories? Because of my own limitations. My need for rest. My inability to keep up with this fast-paced world that I inhabit. If I can’t live up to these expectations no one will understand me, no one will like me, no one will approve of me.

    Why can’t I just be happy for those who’ve done so much? If I was really a good Christian, wouldn’t I rejoice in the accomplishments of others?

    I like to think that I’m mainly concerned about the harmful example that they’re setting. About the welfare of those who hear these stories, internalize the message, and miss God’s best because they’ve succumbed to the idea that what’s most important is to follow the American way and fill their hours with busyness.

    But I know I’m being envious and covetous and self-pitying. Envying their energy, coveting their accomplishments. Lord, help me to overcome these sins, to minister to others by building them up. Not tearing down, even in my thoughts, those You’ve blessed with great achievements.

    At the same time, Christian authors have been warning us for decades that being too busy is often a sign of being out of God’s will, not in it. Books in my home library: Little House on the Freeway: Help for the Hurried Home, Tim Kimmel, 1987; The Overload Syndrome: Learning to Live Within Your Limits, Richard A. Swenson, 1998. I feel better reading these, nodding my head and saying, “Yes! Yes! It’s bad to do too much. It’s okay that I take so much time to relax each day. God is on my side.”

    And yet we (I) get such satisfaction and fulfillment from doing something worthwhile, especially if it ministers to someone else. God made us this way. We’re designed to be doing and going and exploring and building. Adam was put to work in the Garden of Eden even before the Fall (Genesis 2:15). There can be good in this busyness that we all engage in.

    But I don’t think anyone would deny that we Americans take it too far. Reporters reveal how much unused vacation time we amass each year. One of the saddest reports that I’ve read (thought I’d saved the article, but can’t find it to give the reference here), says that many millennial Christians feel like worthless failures if they haven’t changed the world by the time they’re 21.

    What are we doing to our young people, that their self-expectations are so impossibly high? What kind of message are we sending them? And what kind of suffering are we causing them?

    The message: You’re not good enough if you’re not triumphing, succeeding, moving mountains. People won’t notice you, love you, appreciate you if you’re not on the go 24/7, achieving the impossible, sacrificing your all. The most dangerous message: God won’t either. The common thread behind all the biographies seems to be a fear that no one can earn other people’s love, or God’s love, unless they drive themselves relentlessly. No room for grace. They’re not just doing all this for the fun of it. But works-based Christianity is not Christianity at all.

    The suffering: Physical and emotional symptoms of stress, burnout, exhaustion. Guilt, self-criticism, even self-hatred if they’re not measuring up to the high level of activity admired and applauded by the traditional media and aggravated even more by social media. Depression. Anxiety. Turning to drugs (both legal and illegal) and alcohol in order to cope with the pressure.

    How much is too much? I don’t know. This week’s lesson in my Bible study group stresses the fact that, other than moral laws and general principles that cover everyone, God’s will for me isn’t God’s will for each person. I need to remember this. I am not your Holy Spirit, responsible for telling you how to spend your time.

    Maybe it’s right and best for people like Mother Teresa to sacrifice for long hours every day. Maybe it’s right and best for others (like me) to be content to live within our limitations. It’s definitely right and best for each of us to seek God’s will, to sacrifice as He calls us to, to slow down when that is His clear leading.

    Maybe I shouldn’t be reading these biographies.

Friday, March 1, 2019

Good Soil

    Thought I understood the parable Jesus tells in Matthew chapter 13 about a farmer planting his crops. Maybe not. Or at least not as well as I’d imagined.

    Verse 3: “A farmer went out to sow his seed.” Jesus describes the various types of dirt that it falls on, along with the results, culminating with, “Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown” (verse 8). The seed fails to produce any fruit in the other locations.

    What does this good soil look like? I’ve always pictured it as being something like me when I became a Christian: eager to learn, ready to commit my life to God, promising to follow wherever He might lead. Putting my talents at His disposal. A pretty good person who nevertheless recognizes that she’s not quite good enough to earn her salvation. She accepts her need for the sacrificial atonement that Jesus provides, but somewhere deep inside she kinda feels like God’s getting a special deal having her on His side. She’s good soil. Isn’t that what He’s looking for?

    Maybe not.

    I can’t believe it’s taken me more than forty years to realize this. How many times have I read Jesus’ words as He says things like, “Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened” (Matthew 11:28)? Would good soil feel weary and burdened? Or “It is not the healthy who need a doctor, but the sick. I have not come to call the righteous, but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Is He really saying that the sick and the sinners are the good soil that He’s looking for? How do you grow fruit in that kind of dirt?
    I’ve known for many years that God has a heart for the broken, the lost, the suffering (Psalm 51:17, Deuteronomy 10:18, Matthew 25:31-46, to give just a few examples). That’s one of the characteristics that drew me to Him in the first place. But I never really applied that to this parable about the farmer. Doesn’t Jesus also say, “If anyone would come after me, he must deny himself and take up his cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24)? Aren’t we supposed to delay that decision to follow Him until we know we can do it well? Until we’ve at least partially earned a place in heaven by being good soil?

    Maybe the question is: Which comes first, sowing the seed on that which is already good soil, or denying ourselves and taking up our crosses? I guess I’ve always assumed that the good soil was that which was ready and eager to take up its cross even before the seed was sown. The soil that deserved to be saved. But maybe I’ve got it backward. Maybe the richest dirt is broken, hurting, damaged sinners. Maybe it’s not until after we receive new life from God through Jesus that we’re able to deny ourselves. Maybe it’s the Holy Spirit, who has now come to live within us, that makes it possible for us to support the crosses that we carry.

    Was I really so eager and willing to give my all for Him at the moment of my conviction that He is “the way and the truth and the life” (John 14:6)? No. I came to Him solely for what He would do for me. I just wanted to go to heaven. No altruism, no passionate commitment, no denouncing the stuff of the world to follow Him alone. Those kinds of things came later. After the Holy Spirit entered my heart. My “good soil” wasn’t good as I would define goodness.

    Maybe the unfruitful soils are actually those who don’t realize just how broken and unworthy they are. The encounter Jesus had with Simon, a Pharisee who invited Him into his home, helps me understand it better. Jesus started the conversation:

    “Two men owed money to a certain moneylender. One owed him five hundred denarii, and the other fifty. Neither of them had the money to pay him back, so he canceled the debts of both. Now which of them will love him more?”

    Simon replied, “I suppose the one who had the bigger debt canceled.”

    “You have judged correctly,” Jesus said (Luke 7:41-43).

    Maybe the best soil is the one with the greatest debt canceled at the cross. The dirtiest, meanest sinners. The ones I hesitate to even approach.

    I’ve sometimes wondered how believers could do a better job of reaching the lost. I’ve tried to imagine what would happen if we focused more on the good soil, rather than scattering the seed somewhat randomly. Wouldn’t we get better results? Wouldn’t we be more likely to develop dedicated disciples, rather than just winning lukewarm converts?

    But I don’t think I would be very good at identifying that dirt. I’d want to go to the people who seem to have their act together and are just waiting for someone to invite them into the club. I’d walk right by the ones who owe the biggest debt. The ones who would love their forgiver the most. The good soil that would produce an abundant crop.