Wednesday, September 28, 2011

A Fool Load

FROM THE ARCHIVES of Every Thought Captive magazine.

Tell you a little story and it won’t take long
About a lazy farmer who wouldn’t hoe his corn.
The reason why I never could tell
For that young man was always well.

He planted his corn in the month of June
By July it was up to his eyes
Come September came a big frost
All that young man’s corn was lost.

Everybody’s busy. Or so everybody would have us believe. We parade our crowded daytimers as evidence of our own significance. We not only schedule every moment of our day, but, in case someone interrupts our plans, we have phones that take more than one call at a time. Even when we relax we have picture-in-picture, so we can watch two shows at once. I don’t know whether it was Locke or Berkeley, but one of them suggested, esse est percipi, to be is to be perceived. In our day we begin with esse est esse on TV, to be is to be on TV. But for those who can’t reach such Olympian heights, to be perceived as busy is to be perceived as being important.

Busy, like wealth, however, is a relative term. My old friend Eddy used to marvel that I took a full load at seminary, while working a full time job. What he didn’t realize was that I had studied rather much of what was covered in seminary when I wasn’t busy, before seminary, as a teenager. Nor did he understand that once I took, “Lounge around the pool reading People magazine” out of my schedule, I had plenty of time. We feel poor because we fail to be grateful for what we have. And we feel busy because we fail to be grateful for what we’re able to do. We lounge in our hot showers feeling cheated because we can’t eat at the nicer restaurants in town, and we lounge in that same hot shower thinking about how busy we are.

Our longing for wealth and busy-ness shares a common root. We long to feel important. As one wise man put it, we hunger for significance. The problem is, we measure such things with the wrong tools. If I spend the rest of my life writing best-selling books, and speaking to tens of thousands of people at conferences, such an impact, though perhaps real, will not equal the impact I have now in raising my children. The impact will not match the impact you have in raising your children. (And again, remember that such is true not because if you raise your children right then they will go forth and write best-sellers or pastor mega-churches, or take back the Ivy League schools. but because they in turn will raise godly seed.) The trouble is, while Americans have Oscar parties, while they gather together to watch the Super Bowl, while they chart the progress to the Final Four, no one pays much attention when we raise our children well. There are no award shows complete with red carpets for raising godly seed. Nope, all we get is a throne in heaven and gold paved streets.

We suffer from the folly of Lot. He had received God’s richest blessing, and then got confused over what that blessing was. By living in close proximity to Abraham, Lot drank deeply from the collateral benefits that came his way. His flocks prospered. He had an increasing number of servants to tend those flocks. But those servants found themselves at odds with Abram’s servants, and Lot chose the lot next to the heathen. He thought the wealth came from him. He thought the combination of his shrewd business sense, his eye for fine grazing land, and his hard work was the source of his prosperity. He, no doubt, mentally shook his head at his uncle’s failure to negotiate wisely when Abraham offered Lot the pick of the land. Proudly then he surveyed all that was before him, and chose the green place, conveniently overlooking the rainbow triangle flag flying over the adjacent town. He noticed, no doubt, the lovely window treatments on the homes, but apparently didn’t notice that Sodom’s birthrate was 0%.

I’m not denying, especially in this issue on laziness and diligence, that God works through means. Rather I want to affirm that while God was the source of Lot’s prosperity, the means He worked through wasn’t Lot’s hard work. Instead it was the character of his uncle. But more important still, it was the very wisdom of his uncle that was the wealth. What made Lot a rich man wasn’t flocks and herds, nor South Beach property, but that his uncle was a man of wisdom and character. What made Lot a poor fool wasn’t that he failed to tend his flocks, but that he failed to tend his soul.

Here too we have to see the connection between first and second causes, between means and ends. What we call laziness, and aversion to working, a reluctance to hoe corn, is not the root of the problem but the fruit of the problem. It’s a noxious weed that grows in the garden of those who will not cultivate the fruit of the spirit. In short, let me say it in both gnostic and agrarian terms- the measure of the man is found not in the size of his silos, but in the yield of his heart. And the fruit of that fruit isn’t barns filled to overflowing, but barns filled to overflowing. That is, a godly man manifests his godliness in raising godly seed.

Here is a great paradox- Jesus taught in paradox, He twisted words that we might see reality, not because we are twisted, but because reality is. Lose your life to gain, be last to be first, die that you might live isn’t a literary technique, but the substance of reality. Which is why we here argue that we conquer by retreat, that we save the watching world by turning our attention, paradoxically, on ourselves.

C.S. Lewis got at this point (actually, I think, in one place or another, he alluded to virtually every point there is to make) in The Screwtape Letters. There Screwtape encouraged Wormwood to encourage his charge to think in grand categories, and to fail to think in the small. A man who can taste the heady draught of a “love for humanity” but can’t force himself to love his neighbor in the pew has already lost the battle. Cultivating a love for humanity, however, is like growing plastic fruit. One need not worry about root rot or bugs, and one can display the “fruit” of one’s labors, but the real deal isn’t there. But Lewis missed an even bigger point. It isn’t enough for the wise man to move his gaze from the amorphous humanity to the neighbor in the pew. If he would do better still, he must turn his gaze inward. What he should be looking to, if he would love both his pew neighbor, and the body of Christ around the globe, is his own soul. The only way to be outward looking, in other words, is to look inward.

Of course there is a deadly and deadening navel gazing. Analysis paralysis is not what I’m calling for. It wouldn’t have done the lazy farmer any good had he, instead of frequenting the parties in the surrounding culture, instead stood in the midst of his growing corn just to look at it. No, we look to ourselves that we might be at work in ourselves. We look inward because what the world needs now isn’t simply one less sinner, but one less sin. The kingdom grows not through, but as we put to death the old man, as we put on Christ.

But there is still another layer of paradox, because, paradoxically, not only does Jesus work through paradox, but so must the devil. We lose our lives when we seek to save them; we become last when we seek to be first. In like manner, the devil is about the business of lulling us to sleep, or encouraging our spiritual sloth. A little sleep, a little slumber, a little folding of the hands, and we are as unconscious as the foolish virgins. The rest he seduces us with, however, is nothing but slave labor. When we are not diligent about the business of bearing much fruit, we are instead busy either making excuses, or pushing rocks up Sisyphusian hills. Changing the world is chasing after the wind. Changing ourselves, in and through the means of grace appointed, is running the race. The devil, who is more crafty than any of the beasts of the field, seduces us into waiting for that beast in the jungle, that one glorious moment of opportunity, where we will usher in the kingdom with our devastating argument, our best-selling book, our cinematic triumph, our Christian president. Meanwhile, the beast is at work in our hearts, where the real battle is, where he turns our gardens into jungles.

You see it in the earnest youth who asks, “What is God’s will for my life?” I’ve been asked this question as if I’m the recruiter down at the Lord’s army. My questioner wants to know will he have the Ranger style glamour of overseas missions in a hostile land? Will he be drafted to be a culture maker, through music, or through growing a para-church ministry for deep pocketed businessmen, I mean, people of influence? Will he be called to be a prestigious professor at the war college, training up future pastors? The answer is surprisingly simple. What is God’s will for your life? To love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind, soul and strength, and your neighbor as yourself. You don’t have to go to seminary to do that. You don’t have, strangely enough, get to wail on a guitar in front of thousands of adoring fans. You don’t have to wear a power tie and listen to increasing your vocabulary tapes to reach the powerful. All you have to do is…work.

The battle for the kingdom is not some grand version of capture the flag. Jesus doesn’t call us to some colossal game of king of the hill wherein we join the hordes out there trying to climb the mountain to wield the levers of culture. What separates us from the world isn’t simply that we are better at operating the levers, but that we understand that the only way to get the levers is to stop clamoring for them, that the only way to change the world is to change ourselves. That culture making power comes through private prayer, and the foolishness of preaching. We are separate in that the weapons of our warfare aren’t rocket launchers and WMD’s, but one simple stumbling block, the cross of Jesus Christ. What will tear down the gates of hell will not be a frontal assault with a battering ram, but the slow and steady work of fruit producing branches from the one true vine. We don’t, after all, separate because we don’t care about the world, but because we do.

Here is something simple, something separate that we can all do- let us be deliberate in seeking the fruit of the Spirit. Should we not, each morning when we wake, recognize that our calling for that day is to grow in grace, to, to use an inorganic idiom, become more sanctified? There is no program. There is no study guide. There is none of these things, on purpose, deliberately. All there is is “Abide in Me.” Before we dicker over what this means for the objectivity of the covenant, before we wrestle with or against the angels over perseverance of the saints, let’s remember what we know- we are to bear fruit. The answer to “Abide” is found in “Me.”

For therein is His glory. A certain farmer when out to sow. But this farmer scattered no seed on the rocky ground. This farmer, the one whom Mary “mistook” for the gardener, has promised that having begun a good work in us, He will complete it until the end. The great thing about the call to cultivate fruit is that we are the fruit that He is cultivating. The great thing about the call to working out our own salvation in fear and in trembling is that it is He that is working in us both to will and to do His good pleasure. As we work in all diligence, we rest in the arms of Jesus. And one day, all His bundles will bow, in joy, before Him.

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